Ayumu laid still awhile as the world reeled slowly around him. He wondered if emptying himself of the self for his Ascension would be similar to the feeling that overwhelmed him while in the monk’s serpentine embrace. No, he decided. Hers was a negation that brimmed with nerve-spindled exuberance, whereas what he knew of the Buddha told him that the negation was one of hollow gulfs opening unto expanded awareness. Or some such summation. He was not entirely certain on the particulars. No one really was, and that was the point of his Ascension, among other purposes.
Eventually Ayumu’s strength returned to him, though his head felt as if it hung upon the stalk of his neck like a sunflower overburdened with seeds. Standing, he went to the pool once again and bent down, cupping mouthfuls of water to cure his thirst. The ache, however, did not abate, nor the stickiness in his loins. He dressed himself and continued up the mountainside, limping slowly upon his march, encumbered now more than ever by the buckets he took with him.
Fatigue hung heavy upon Ayumu. It was like a weighted fishnet draped over his body, and it ached as if all of the fishhooks had snagged in him, obstinately digging into the soft spaces of his body. He slipped on a mossy stone, dropping both buckets and almost dumping them. Growling in frustration, he kicked the treacherous stone and, consequently, hurt his toe. Amidst his shouts of fury there echoed the tittering laughter of someone else in the woods. Disquieted now, Ayumu searched the tree-columned slopes for the interloper. He saw no one. The laughter echoed all around him, as if in utter dislocation, reverberating chaotically from his left and right and above and below him. Raising his fists to the heavens, Ayumu opened his mouth to utter a profane prayer that would see the whole mountainside an inferno of vengeful fire. But before he could utter a single word he saw the old man in the red robe again. The spiteful geriatric was squatting upon a branch some thirty feet up in the crown of a tree. How the old man had climbed so high, when there were no branches rising along the trunk to provide for him a ladder, Ayumu could not fathom. And the old man crouched with an easy agility rare in most men even half his age; a temerity unknown to nearly all.
“You are a strange one for an aspiring Buddha,” the old man said, grinning. “I was not aware that lovemaking was a crucial step upon the Path.”
Ayumu said nothing. Silent, Ayumu pressed upward along the mountain slope, leaving the old man behind.
“And how rude you are, too!” the old man said, perching now upon a different tree. “Most other Buddha aspirants had manners, at least, even if they utterly failed the Path.”
Ayumu glanced back at the great span of clearing from the first tree the old man had been perching in and this second one. It was impossible that the old man had descended, overtaken Ayumu, and climbed this other tree. A few leaves drifted down from above, twisting and swaying slowly. They fell in ease, twirling, whereas Ayumu felt nothing except unease in his twirling stomach.
He feared the old man.
“What are you?” Ayumu asked.
“A devout Buddhist,” the old man said, his arms hanging heavily at his sides as he crouched upon the narrow tree branch. He watched Ayumu like a buzzard. “More devout than even yourself.”
“You are a demon,” Ayumu whispered.
The old man cawed with laughter. “So much venom in you! It is no wonder she was so adamant to couple with you. Her new brood will be strong.” The old man suddenly tipped backwards, as if to fall freely from the branch. Instead of plummeting to his certain death, he caught himself with his calves, hanging upside-down from the branch, and still grinning as his red robe puffed out with gravity’s pull. “You should stay here with her rather than Ascending. I know your mettle, and you would make a better lover than a Buddha.”
Ayumu’s temper flared and he forgot to be afraid.
“You do not know me. I will become a sokushinbutsu! It has not been achieved in hundreds of years, but I will do it!”
The old man laughed more loudly than ever before, his arms dangling below him and his black eboshi falling off his gleaming red head. He reminded Ayumu of his supervisor at the Mezame Instant Rice office building. That supervisor— like this old man—was dismissive, conceited, and mocked Ayumu for his ideas. And much like his supervisor, the old man inspired rage and resentment with every condescending word he spoke.
The old man licked his thin lips obscenely. “It would be prudent, young man, that you cleanse yourself of your spilt seed before you defile the sacred temple. Why, the other sokushinbutsu would rouse from their arid dreams to reprimand you if you were to arrive with your loins bedewed with your lust.”
Ayumu started to walk again, with renewed vigor, trying to ignore the old man. He came to another copse of trees, and the old man awaited him there, grinning from atop his perch.
“Leave me in peace,” Ayumu said, “or I will invoke the Lotus Sutra against you.”
“Oh please do,” the old man said. “I should like to hear your recitation. It is bound to be amusing. Like a frog attempting a holy prayer.”
“I warned you,” Ayumu said. He slammed the two buckets down—sending red centipedes scattering from the leaves—and proceeded to make a flurry of impressive hand movements, as if prayer required such extravagances. Galvanized by his own gesticulations, he heatedly began to recite the Lotus Sutra, stumbling his way through it and misplacing the order of words, forgetting whole parts, and generally fumbling the proper gravitas as he became shamefully self-conscious while his flame of self-righteousness faded under his own scrutiny. By the time he fell to silence— beneath the uproarious laughter of the old man— Ayumu was wet with sweat from frustration and his cheeks were christened with tears of despair, his lips trembling at their own impotence.
The old man sat on the branch of the tree, kicking his feet in delight. One of his sandals fell, revealing a sharp-toed foot.
“It would be a shame for you to become like one of those old, shriveled fools in the temple,” the old man said. “You are much too entertaining to fall into their eternal silence.”
“Begone, demon!” Ayumu shouted.
The old man smiled at him, bemused. “You refer to me as a demon, but you seem more a demon than I. A kappa demon, I should think. Has someone turned you upside-down, spilling your brains from the top of your head?”
“I haven’t time for this,”Ayumu growled, lifting the buckets again. “If a demon is attempting to thwart me, then that must mean I am truly destined to be a great buddha.” He continued up the mountain, crushing centipedes beneath him as they stung his feet.
“If you say so!” the old man called after him. “But when next she returns to you, perhaps you might try hiding in a prayer bell! No man ever became a Buddha after becoming domesticated! Except for the Buddha, of course! And you are not him! Ha ha ha!”
Ayumu had worked at the Mezame Instant Rice Company for two years after graduating from his University. The office floor he worked on focused primarily on international shipments and logistics. It was Ayumu’s job— among a handful of others—to verify that the shipments around the world had been delivered on schedule, safely, and to the correct shipping yards, then to track them to their distribution points and verify the delivery through bills of lading. It was mind-deadening, thankless work. He input data fed to him by the computer, then fed it out and down the line. Spreadsheets, shipping routes, container summaries, and bills of lading were his life. It was bland, numbing work. It sustained him, financially, but it dispirited him, too. His life had become instant rice. It filled the belly, but had no love in its preparation or its consumption. And instant rice was an appalling thing to devote one’s life to, especially in Japan where tradition and mastery and mindfulness of one’s devotions were tantamount. But everything was “instant” nowadays, even in Japan. Instant rice. Instant noodles. Instant gratification.
And soon, hopefully, Ayumu would be an Instant Buddha.
He heard the soft susurration of rain upon the lofty canopy. Though it fell with musical insistence, not one drop dripped down to fall freely to the forest floor below. It was as if the rain struck some other sphere and remained there, on the other side of a veil. Ayumu could smell the scent of the rain in his nostrils, and he could hear its whispers in his ears, and he could even feel the coolness of it in the air, but the shower did not touch him.
She, however, did touch him.
“Hello,” she said, her hand slipping over his.
He refused to set the buckets down, and tried to continue his walk, but she stood in his way. He sneered at her nakedness, shaking his head ruefully.
“What is wrong?” she asked. The smirk in her eyes belied the wounded tone with which she spoke. “Do you not want my company?”
“You are a serpent demon,” he said.
“Am I?” she said. She took the bucket from his hand— with a powerful grip he could not deny— and then she placed his hand upon her bare breast. “Does not my heart beat warmly with love for you?”
Her chest was hot, actually; feverishly hot. Hot as desire itself. And yet her body was hairless from head to tail.
“Leave me be,” he said, his breath quickening with both fury and desire and despair. “I am set upon the Path.”
“The Path is a fool’s errand,” she hissed. “It is for those already dead inside. But you are not dead inside. I have felt you inside me, and I have sensed the warmth of you—the want within you that you hopelessly deny. You were never meant to walk the Path. That is a fool’s conclusion to the problems in your life. You wanted the wrong things in life, and that was why you were unhappy, whereas now I may guide you to want the right things in life. You will be happy with me. I promise.”
“You do not know what you want,” Ayumu said, pulling away from her, “except want itself. You are blinded by want, and so want is all you see.”
“And what is it you want?” she countered. “To want nothing? That is to be dead! Do you wish to be dead? To not have a heart pounding with life within you?” She struck her bare bosom with her fist. “Let the world testify that I am alive. With every breath and kiss and coital resonance, I am alive.”
“You are enthralled to the flesh,” Ayumu said, disgusted.
“And you are enchanted by the thought of your demise,” she snarled.
“You know nothing, you Naga witch!”
He lifted the bucket of pine needles and hurried past her. He did not know if it was the hiss of the rain he heard or the hiss of the monk woman behind him.
His heart had been pounding fast since he had lost sight of the monk woman. Now he could hear it echoing in the trees all around him. Or so he thought. As he rose higher up the mountain he caught glimpses of light within the distant trees. The pounding of his heart became louder, and shrill notes wailed in his ears. Was he having another panic attack? He used to have them all of the time when he first moved to Tokyo. Sometimes he did not go to class because the panic attacks were so relentless and debilitating. And even when he managed to force himself to attend classes he had to sedate himself with medication. During such instances his spirit seemed to float above him while his body lolled listlessly in his seat. His professors’ lectures washed over him like ocean waves, saturating him briefly before ebbing away, leaving nothing more than a damp spot at the back of his mind.
The drumbeat of his heart heightened, as did the shrill wail in his ears. The lights in the trees glowed brighter until they hurt his eyes to look at them. Dropping his eyes to the forest floor, he stumbled onward, not knowing if he would crumble to the ground at any moment, coiled in a fetal position.
Staggering into the ring of glowing trees, he found something strange. There were lanterns hanging from the boughs of the trees. They were big as pumpkins and glowed orange and red and yellow, lighting the sylvan hall as brightly as a Lantern Festival in Nagasaki. Ayumu winced from the radiance, the twilight now bright as midday. The drumbeat of his heart was deafening, as was the trilling in his ears.
Glancing up again, he saw a ring of mushrooms, and laying within that ring of mushrooms was the fat monk in the tengai. He was playing a hichiriki with one fluttering hand while slapping his fat, hairy belly with the other. Thus, Ayumu realized that the shrillness in his ears and the pounding of his heart was nothing more than the booming music of the monk.
Rather than speaking a greeting, Ayumu tried to hurry past the fat monk. But it was too late. The monk stopped beating his belly and took the flute away from his lips.
“Hello, friend,” the monk said. “Come to appreciate my festivities, have you?”
Ayumu sighed and, in resignation, set down the two buckets he was carrying.
“I was curious about the lanterns,” Ayumu said. He still could not look up at them, for they were too bright. The lanterns’ glow, and the music, reminded him of all of the festivals he had avoided when in Tokyo. They were too noisy, and not quiet enough, for him to listen to the music that they played live. The one time he went to a festival— to listen to an acclaimed koto player— he could not hear her over the sound of two ecstatic Americans talking loudly about how much they loved Japanese music while taking selfies and videos for their online fans. It ruined the one thing he had braved the overcrowded streets to appreciate.
“The lanterns glow with heavenly radiance,” the fat monk said. “Or near enough to it to not matter. Who needs Paradise when there is so much beauty here on earth?”
“The Buddha would disagree with you,” Ayumu said, though as friendly as possible. The fat monk was, if anything, friendly, and Ayumu did not wish to be rude.
“The Buddha was a spoiled brat,” the monk said, “who had everything and valued nothing.”
The audacity of the monk’s words provoked Ayumu beyond measure.
“How dare you say such blasphemies!” he shouted. “You are the spoiled brat! Lounging in the woods, playing music and eating stew and pretending as if you know what is beautiful in this world! This world is misery! It is sorrow! The only cure is liberation! Ascension! Moksha!”
The fat monk sat up with greater ease than Ayumu would have assumed. In one quick motion he was on his feet. For a moment Ayumu flinched, thinking the large beast of a man would resort to violence. Instead, the fat monk held the hichiriki in both of his hands, angling it under the rice straw dome of his tengai, and blew a sweet melody that was as gentle and calming as the a Summer wind at dusk. The world fell to silence and, much to Ayumu’s surprise, there were tears rolling down his cheeks.
When the fat monk had finished, he lowered the flute.
“That is the beauty I have found in this world,” he said. “Or a small scrap of it, anyway. Why would anyone need Paradise when a mere scrap of earthly beauty can transform the life into a more resplendent thing? There is a chrysalis in every corner of the world, waiting to rebirth the world anew in your awareness. You need only see it for what it is.”
Ayumu was quiet for a long time, overcome with awe and emotions that had been dormant, if not dead, within him. Yet, he shook his head in doubt.
“And who do I know you are not some demon sent to lead me astray?” he said quietly. “How do I know you are not trying to trick me from the Path?”
The large monk sighed from within the withe helmet he wore. “Because I told you sincerely that I do not believe in the Path, and so there is no trick to it. I am being forthright. The Eightfold Path is a sham. It is falser than tofu hamburgers.” He shook his head and growled like a beast. “Oh, but the glorious Shinto days! My friend, if only you could have seen them then! Many believe Buddhism abided and even complemented the Shinto Way, like the Tao did! But Buddhism subjugated it, and impoverished it. Eating meat is a sin? Preposterous! I knew Lao Tzu, and she loved to be filled with meat— in more ways than one.”
The fat monk laughed and adjusted his belly in an obscene manner. It was then that Ayumu realized that the hairy man’s gut was not, in fact, wholly a gut. The swollen droop between his legs was gratuitously overlarge.
“But then the beautiful prophetess ate the wrong mushrooms and fell asleep for eternity. Similar to Buddha, I suppose, with his mushroom dish. But that begs the question as to whether she was truly a prophetess or not. Doesn’t it? Either she willfully ate the Eternal-Sleep mushrooms or she was not such a prophetess after all. I believe she knew what she was doing, and knew that her glory days were soon to be over. Buddha had seen to that. She was not a dumb one. She was the arbiter of her own fate. Or at least one reconciled with fate. She leapt upon me readily enough, and with unbridled passion, I must confess. Mortals are often so conflicted, as you well know. What they desire they also dread. Desire and dread leap in your hearts. A strong dichotomy of spices, I suppose. Much as you are with your lover.”
The monk’s face remained unseen, and yet Ayumu could sense that the strange beast was looking upon him with empathy. The yokai felt sorry for Ayumu! That was not something Ayumu could abide. Lifting the buckets once more, he stomped up the slope, squinting as the lanterns burned brightly overhead.
The chubby monk called after him.
“That one in the trees wishes to taunt you! Be wary of him!”
“He fears that I will become a Buddha,” Ayumu said, pridefully. He stopped and turned about, as if to gloat. Yet, something in the monk’s demeanor deflated Ayumu’s pride.
The fat monk shook his head. “No, he taunts you toward the Path. He wishes you to succeed. Do not mistake his mockery for discouragement. It is a ruse. More Buddhas in the temple would please him.”
Ayumu gawked in disbelief. “That is not possible,” he said. “He is a demon. Demons do not want more Buddhas.”
The large man shrugged. “He delights in plucking out eyes as a delicacy. Third eyes, especially. He is misleading you with his insults and dissuasions. He speaks as a contrarian to his own intentions. It is a game to him. And he is winning when you believe you are winning.”
Ayumu shook his head furiously. “None of you make sense,” he growled. “You’re all wicked spirits seeking to thwart me.”
Turning away from the large man, he continued upward. In his periphery vision the large fat man lifted his tengai, and watched him with black-rimmed eyes within a furry face.
The forest fell away, the tall trees receding as small shrubs took their place. The mossy floor became patchwork and the soil thinned to rock, then to snow. The sky opened above him, and it was twilight yet, the sun winking in the West. Beyond the mountain the Sea of Japan rolled calmly. Farther above, he could see the silhouette of the temple with its back to the darkening sky.
Seeing the sea reminded him of the moment he nearly stepped off the roof of a skyscraper in Tokyo. It was New Year’s Eve and the city was awash with a sea of people that overflowed from one street to another. The jubilance of their cheers, and the radiance of the fireworks, overwhelmed him. He felt anger and despair, longing and resentment. They all seemed so happy— the whole city— and yet he felt nought but misery. Could they not see how depressing the world was? How tiring? How meaningless their lives were? Were they all willfully blind to the futility of their own existence?
Even there, atop that skyscraper’s roof, others were watching the fireworks; crowding him in his moment of loneliness. Shoulder to shoulder with strangers, he had to wait until they were distracted by the fireworks before he could climb over the railing and step off the edge. It was when a firework bloomed like a phosphorescent weeping willow that he attempted to kill himself. But he had not fallen. Instead, his salary suit jacket had gotten caught on the railing, holding him up while his feet dangled over one hundred meters of empty air. Before he could slip through his jacket and plummet, several bystanders rushed to grab him and haul him up from the railing. He did not fight them. He was too embarrassed. Dragging him away from the edge, they all gathered around him to chastise him. They told him he was foolish and dumb and that he should not throw his life away. They told him many generic things that would not have been good on a motivation poster, no matter how many kittens or Hello Kitty’s were plastered all around it. The police were called and he was taken to jail. After a brief evaluation, he was assigned to a psychiatrist and was scheduled for a mandatory evaluation on a weekly basis. The psychiatrist was overworked, often rushed Ayumu, had too many patients, and never seemed to really care about Ayumu’s problems. He told Ayumu that Ayumu had a good job, lived in good part of Tokyo, and just needed to get out more and meet friends. Possibly get a girlfriend. Ayumu stopped going to see the psychiatrist after the second appointment. The psychiatrist was always looking at the ticking clock on his wall.
He could see the temple now, its curved, reticulated roof outlined sharply against the twilight sky. It was old, he could tell, and did not boast many ornaments as the other shrines and temples did in other parts of Japan. His stride quickened up the snowy slopes.
And yet, though he was elated to see the temple, he knew his journey had only really begun. Now came the difficult part of his Ascension. What was required now was discipline and faith and devotion. Asceticism. His journey hitherto had been merely the tourist hike, and he did not intend to be a tourist. He was an aspirant. Moreover, he would succeed in becoming more.
He saw her beckoning from the black mouth of a cave. Her body was hairless and sinuous, the pit of her sex like the eye of a viper.
“Come be with me for eternity,” she pleaded. “There is nothing beyond here but dried old husks of skin in the imitation of holy men. Their worth is nothing. Come shed the waste of them with me, and live for lovemaking and pleasure.”
Ayumu merely shook his head and turned away. In his peripheries he could see her sleek, lustrous coils slipping away into the dark bowels of the cave. Sobs echoed deeply. He felt regret, but it deepened his resolve.
The old man perched atop the edge of the temple’s roof, grinning down at Ayumu. Black feathers crowded the interior of his voluminous sleeves.
“You are no sokushinbutsu,” he told him. “You are instant rice. You have the patience of a microwave, and the thoroughness of one, too!”
“I am Ayumu,” Ayumu said. “And I shall be the next Buddha of Japan.”
The old man caterwauled wildly. “You are no better than the foolish unwashed tourists from America, venturing all over to gawp stupidly at that which you cannot and will not ever comprehend. When this season is finished, so will you be, though much sooner. Perhaps by the weekend you will become disillusioned. And bored. And plaintive.”
“I am the next Buddha of Japan!” Ayumu shouted.
“Oh, you are a chittering monkey,” the old man said, grinning with unfaltering assurance. “Restless upon the branch and soon to fling your own poo.”
The sky above was near-dark. Entering the temple, Ayumu was plunged into full night. He walked on, and seemed to walk for a long time, hesitating here and there in the darkness. The temple seemed to go on forever, like the gulfs of space. Eventually, a light flickered in the dark, and to this light Ayumu was drawn as if a moth. It was a beacon flame, and sitting around it were five hooded monks, their legs crossed and their backs slightly bent forward. They did not move as Ayumu approached them; they did not speak or even breathe. Coming closer, he saw that they sat on simple straw mats. A mat awaited Ayumu, empty, and he set his buckets down beside it, then sat down in similar fashion to the monks. He stared into the flame. He knew it was time to become a sokushinbutsu.
He choked on the pine needles. He gagged on the resin. He could not even keep the nuts down. The dark, silent temple echoed with the discordant sounds of his failure. He waited until the echoes died, then refocused himself. Thinking he would need to be starving, first, before he could partake more fully of the Mokujikigyo diet, he turned his attention to meditation upon the flame. Its billowing light was mesmerizing…until it was not. Rather, the glow illuminated the faces of the monks seated around it. Seeing their faces, Ayumu gasped.
Dried and withered, their skin was morbidly stretched and their faces distorted with age and decay. Shriveled in darkness, their eyes but pitted shadows and their mouths twisted into sneers of morbidity. These were not ascetics of faith and devotion, but victims of self-torture and imprisonment within flesh. Mummified within themselves, they were frozen forever in taut-wrapped masochism; mannequins of bone and skin rigidly inert with calcified creeds. They were scarecrows on the threshold of oblivion, the all-consuming abyss in their unflinching gaze.
Ayumu fled from that place. Stumbling and slipping and falling and scrambling upward again, he fled. From the monks in the dark, and from the snow-capped mountain, from the bare rock summit and the forested slopes, he fled. He realized he would have plenty of time for death when he was dead. To welcome it so soon, and so willfully, was horror made utmost manifest. He did not stop for anyone; not the snake monk and her glistening flesh, nor the ring-eyed fat monk with his food and music and festivities, nor the angrily cawing tengu flapping above him, decrying him as a failure and an apostate and a meal too soon spoiled. Returning to civilization, he took whatever money he had left to him and he went South, journeying to the islands. He went home, to a small town in Nagasaki.
There he bought a modest boat and took up the life of a fisherman. He lived quietly alone, fishing for his meals and occasionally selling his haul for money to buy other necessities. It was a life of silence, and he enjoyed it. The sea lulled him at night to sleep, and the silence of the sea was different than the silence of the mountaintop temple. It was rhythmic and lively. The sun rose upon the waters, gilding the waves with a wondrous beauty wherein it seemed the day was made anew in molten light, his life blessed by Amaterasu. He was less a Buddhist now, and more a worshiper of life. He read from the Kojiki myths sometimes, after a long day of hard work. Death, it said, was the ultimate impurity, and he knew this to be true. Life was beautiful, if a person could only find the right life for them. He ignored the Yamamoto politics in the stories, for he knew politics were just a crude form of religion with life at its center rather than death. He read other books as well; the Tale of Genji and the Kwaidan and other classic tales. Sometimes he did not read at all, but stared at the shimmering water for hours, letting the empty solitude fill him up, subsume him, and inhabit the spaces where his sense of self receded.
It was during the Nagasaki Lantern Festival that he was visited by a beautiful woman who smelled of saltwater. Ayumu had contemplated coming ashore for the Festival, but then felt the stress of the milling people in the glowing lights. They reminded him of centipedes— long lines of centipedes undulating amongst the glowing lights. And so he stayed on his boat that night. The strange woman sat beside him on the deck of his boat, watching with him the moon rise into the night sky. She said she was the Dragon King’s daughter and that she wished to spend time with him, if he would allow her. He did not object. She was quiet and pretty, and when she did speak it was with the music of the waves on the shore. Sometimes he saw her out of the corner of his eye, and she looked like a scaled dragon, or she undulated like the sea itself, sparkling with the sun and the moon on her swells and vales. Sometimes she took his hands in hers and gazed deeply into his eyes as they enjoyed the sweet silence of the sea together. This was a meditation of Life. It was much better than a meditation of Death.