Monday, August 31, 2009

The Road Home


There's a subtemple in the grounds of Kenninji whose kanji could be liberally translated as "The Temple of Both Feet." Miki taught the odd workshop here and I played a kirtan in the main hall last May. The temple was holding a special exhibition of the pottery of three generations, the oldest being a National Treasure, the youngest, Shiro, being a friend. We arrived at this zen temple and knelt in front of the main altar to pray. However before we had a chance, a woman began to explain the history of the artifacts up there. I frowned at how she seemed to hardly expect people of the younger generations to be interested in the spiritual wealth that such places represent, launching so quickly into her rap about the material. We moved over to an adjoining room overlooking the well-groomed garden. This being a fine summer afternoon, the garden presented a face far different than that I'd seen on that rainy morning of two months ago. There were a few of the temple's treasured scrolls hanging on display, brought out on only special occasions. I was surprised to find a map I'd seen up on the Chosenjin Kaido, of the route that the Korean contingent once took from Seoul to Edo. The temple's head priest was busy examining this, so I knelt beside him in order to ask questions. He was happy to see me, though everytime I tried to engage him about the map and the history, he'd bring the conversation around to the far more important topic of my language ability and my length of stay here. Sighing, I turned to stare out at the garden, the stones and hedges and carp fulfilling their predicted roles.

Miki and I went next to see the pottery, the prices escalating up the generations. Miki has been studying tea recently, so she spent some fair time in close examination. I stood out on the wooden boards overlooking the tsuboniwa they enclosed. The priest's wife, noting my stare, came to explain the symbolic religious significance of the rocks and the trees and design of sand. These past two months, I've been well esconsed in a difficult translation of a interview I did with a famous garden designer who happens top be my martial arts teacher. (To be published in the upcoming Kyoto Journal, #73.) In it he explains that gardens are meant to be observed in a non-intellectual way. I recognized now how deeply I'd entered my teacher's world. Though I appreciated the philosophy and religious lesson I was getting, what had mesmerized me was merely the movement of the leaves in the wind of an approaching storm.

We spent the second half of our visit in the tea house on the opposite side of the garden's pond. We partook of the tea ceremony, under the eyes of a high ranking teacher. Even after 15 years I am still incredibly hyper aware of performing the proper form and desperately afraid of sticking in both feet, finding no comfort in a eponymous connection with the temple. I relaxed some when joined by our friend the potter and we passed a pleasant afternoon. The tea sensei was the glamourous model of a Japanese beauty unmoving in her kimono. She possessed the perfect balance between strict teacher and gracious hostess. It was wonderful to see the facade begin to crack when she talked about her trip to see her daughter married away to London, and to watch it fall to pieces as she giggled about how much she loves McDonalds and Coca Cola.

I thought of my own transformation as we walked through the form fitted trees above the pond to the exit. I had once been enthralled by the subtle grace of Japanese beauty, and my own study of zen and various forms of traditional arts had been an attempt to place myself in that context, to make some of this exquisiteness my own. Yet how much more interested I've become in a different kind of dignity, that of the old and the weathered. The refined space of the zen temple and the dojo had once been controlling yet comfortable spaces for me; I knew how much I was allowed to fill. Now I find more peace in a mountain temple nearly abandoned to time and the weather. It represents a reflection of the wild spaces still within. I feel that leaving this land is a way of honoring that. Is this how I relate to what I've become, whatever that is? Do I see myself as the bonsai, pruned to where it can no longer express itself fully? Or is it in this pruning that full expression is revealed? Or do I see myself as those wild spaces, coming as I do from New Mexico, whose deserts are raw and unrefined and threatening?

All I do know is that the Japan that I carefully constructed in my brain changed after I moved to the museum that is Kyoto. The old roads through the villages and toward the mountains are leading me toward universal truths that will be fully revealed with time and distance. In seeking that authenticity, a return to my own roots is in order. I need that perspective. How bizarre that I feel I need to return to America in order to get past the American varnish of this place.

I came here looking for Basho and Ryokan and Gary Snyder, but found Santoka and Ikkyu and Yamao Sansei. And I can still feel the pull of Kerouac and Henry Miller, Dylan and Harry Smith. I want to roam the soiled urban landscape with Henry Chinaski, sing the open spaces with Edward Abbey. Explore the dusty backroads of America, and the dusty parts of me that are still American.


On the turntable: Badmarsh and Shri, "Dancing Drums"

1 comment:

J-F said...

Hi Ted,

I just wanted to thank you for this amazing post. Actually, it's about time I thanked you for your writing, which I have been following much more closely for the past 6 months. I hope people are like me in that feel privileged to be able to read you like this.

Au plaisir de se revoir un jour :)

J-F