Gautama sits in his golden cloister, mouth shut like a tight, complacent oyster, silent, his shiny pearls clamped in himself like a greedy man hoarding his vast wealth. But what does the Buddha know, anyway? He was nigh-thirty on that fateful day when he rode forth into his father’s realm on a grand chariot, a crown his helm. He saw suffering thitherto denied unto him while he long sheltered inside amidst the opulence of his palace, his life a draught from the golden chalice. The bitter dregs were apparent, at last, though he was still blinded by his high caste. He saw an old man, a sick man, the dead, and an ascetic, and though highborn-bred he still worried about himself, of course, (not others), and he wondered if the source for removing such pains was self-denial. So he sat under a tree for a while, forty-nine days, they claim, though I do doubt he sat that long, for he was bound to spout about how great he was, how he alone would discover Moksha, all on his own, and he had to expel his piss and poo so his bowels could be enlightened, too. Be that as it may, his lotus soon gaped and he saw Nirvana when he escaped from the world’s pains, yet returning to preach to any poor peasant within his reach, saying, “You, too, can escape rebirth’s wheel if you would only submit, bow, and kneel and deny yourself less than what you now own, which is already little, and on loan, but as a prince I can tell you the worth of such possessions on this fickle earth. Life is suffering! The world is a trap! Deny yourself—drink the bodhi tree’s sap!” Most people shrugged, or only rolled their eyes, and continued their work, already wise to the ways of the world, to the hard truths the prince could not learn from beneath the roofs of his palace, his birthright, his clam shell, that privileged heaven devoid of hell. And then he began to raise his temples, spreading his message like pox-born pimples, no doubt using his princely position to thwart other ascetics, his mission privileged by connections to the courts throughout the land, favors, toady cohorts, his franchise spreading like a fast-food chain or death-cult concerned with its earthly reign. But he let go of some earthly trifles, like his wife and child, that which oft stifles a cult leader when he wants a fresh start, free from the past—pure in his holy heart. But Gautama could not shake his wife loose, for earthly bonds are stronger than the noose and will follow a man into his grave, yet he was, if anything, a shrewd knave, and said that women could not be allowed, and, thus, his wife was lost among the crowd. But after many complaints from his aunt, Siddhartha did, eventually, recant, saying, “Women can be nuns, I suppose, but you are lesser than monks, because bros come before hoes, and so you must obey the lowliest monk, and do what they say.” Then Gautama’s cousin rose against him, saying Gaut was corrupt, given to whim, and partook of meat, despite Buddhist laws stating beasts could not be slain just because monks and nuns hankered for pork or for fowl, but only incidentally, somehow. (What a roundabout loophole to ensure you could eat sentient life and remain pure!) But this would be your undoing, buddha, not unlike Nagas and the Garuda as the bird stamps claws downward to pin them as fangs bite upward to sting with venom. For you, too, hankered for non-vegan food and though you forbid harm to beasts, your mood was for pork, which was brought to you forthwith— you ate it without so much as a sniff and thereafter fell quite ill, your belly sloshing and tossing, your bowels smelly, taken to the grave by a bit of pig, which is ironic for someone so big in the world’s pantheon of myths and gods, your shadow looming large, against the odds, since you were not meant to be a being at all, nor ego, nor soul, but fleeing matter, space, and time, freed from such rebirth that continues to populate the earth.
But speak, buddha, and let us hear the clink of the pearls, of what you happen to think is best for us peasants beneath your throne— tell us what you think, what you alone discovered after leaving your shelter and saw, at long last, the helter-skelter of Life, of the world at large, and its woes; tell us what it is, naif prince, you suppose is the source of our suffering, tell us what we already know, be not jealous of your unique viewpoint, your perspective on Life, the existential elective. I should like to hear the clink of your pearls when you speak and your lacquered tongue unfurls.
The heron in the cool morning mist huddles beneath the oak by the lake, like a monk with head bowed low betwixt his gray wings while the sleepy woods wake. He blends with the shadows on the shoals, as unmoving as dawn’s torpid air, while sunlight burns on the distant knolls; the hermit stands like a statue there. What does he read in that quiet lake that scholar of mist-spun solitude? What does he read in the mirrored make of water while in his pensive mood? Stoic, soundless, solitary soul, what is the bounty behind his eyes? He does not blink as the white mists roll like tumbling smoke into gilded skies. Perhaps he sees the leaves of the oak ablaze with the futile hues of Fall, painted gently with a master’s stroke: light on water, water holding all. Or maybe he sees himself therein, pondering his beak, his crest, his wing, like a Buddhist monk mesmerized when staring at his navel’s spiral ring. A soothing gray silhouette, he waits, an anchorite heron by the lake; silent and still, in between those states such as when we dream and when we wake.
The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life. The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees. The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones. The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes. Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things. And so he was contented. His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.
And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.
As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple. Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night. He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain. Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.
But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders. He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat. He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden. When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging. He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.
And his mind began to fail him. He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned. Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.
And then the shadows began to come to him.
They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer. They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue. The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue. The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth. The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.
The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements. He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes. He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination. He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.
But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling. They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.
And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form. They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.
Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.
Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself. He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow. Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself. That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead. It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.
“You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said. “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward? Aches and pains and old age. ”
The old monk responded with a level voice. “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”
The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity. “And yet you have not achieved Satori. So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”
Again the old monk replied with a level voice. “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said. “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”
The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple. “We shall see what answers you when given temptations. Yes! Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”
The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng. It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown. No, two women! They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them. They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight. They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands. Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy. The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.
“You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said. “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”
The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire. Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.
“No, ” he said, his voice quivering. “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”
Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont. The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.
There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly. Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple. Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.
“You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom! Buy two! You would live in comfort and . ”
The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly. Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.
Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over. He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been. But he felt shame.
“A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures. Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap. Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens. Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”
The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon. The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled. After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth. The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.
Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki. It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron. The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen. Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.
The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.
“You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”
The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know. His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple. The monk moaned silently, but did not move. At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.
“A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”
The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously. Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down. Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.
“So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked. “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”
He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind. When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.
“Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk. “Choose to indulge or abstain. It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care. No one cares, except yourself. ”
The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha. With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.
What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.
It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple. When he arrived he found it deserted. There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds. The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment. The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next. For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again. He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor. Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own. Whose it was, he did not know. When he glanced around, he saw no one. Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.
The Zen master and the student sat on the steps of the monastery, gazing down the mountainside upon which the monastery sat. The master’s face was serene, his forehead relaxed above his gray eyebrows. The student’s brow was wrinkled with frustration, his young face troubled after a long morning of lessons.
“I do not think I can contain so much knowledge,” the young student said. “It is too much.”
“You need only to broaden your mind,” the Zen master said, placidly. “Then all knowledge and understanding can be contained.”
The student shook his head doubtfully. “It is too difficult,” he said. “There is nothing more difficult.”
The Zen master smiled sadly. “Ah, but there is something much more difficult. To broaden one’s heart.”
The young student frowned, perplexed. “How so?”
“To broaden one’s heart, one must widen it to the edge of the horizon.”
The student shrugged, surveying the landscape that sprawled below the mountain, and stretched out to the forests and mountains beyond.
“That does not seem far,” the student remarked. “A few miles at most.”
The Zen master chuckled. “Then chase the horizon, young one, and broaden your heart.”
And, so, the young student did. He chased the horizon the whole day, and the whole night, and slept the following morning. Then he began again, following the horizon as it rolled ever closer and ever farther from him. When he came to the sea, he took a boat, and when he came to another shore he walked once again. To many places he came and went; many people he met and grew to know. For three decades he chased the horizon, sometimes in haste, sometimes in leisure, and eventually he found himself returned to the monastery, standing before his much-aged master.
“Master,” he said, “I have returned, but I have not reached the edge of the horizon. It eludes me even now.”
His master smiled proudly nonetheless. “But how did your travels go? Whom did you meet?”
“Many people, master,” the student said. “People of all colors and customs and beliefs.” There were tears in his eyes. “Many friends whom I love as I would any brother or sister.”
“Then you have caught the horizon,” the Zen master said. “For your heart now reaches from one horizon to the next, enveloping the world as a whole, and not just the small part where you are.”
The Zen master invited his student to sit down and drink tea with him, and to tell him of the people and the places he had come to know. The student spoke happily all morning, and into the evening. Other monks in the monastery sat down, too, and listened upon the steps that overlooked the world.
And as they listened to the student recount his travels—-student, now a master in his own right—-they felt their own hearts broadening from horizon to horizon also.
There was a monk who lived by himself, cloistered in the high mountains. Where the mountains existed does not matter; everywhere, nowhere, it does not matter. What matters is that every day the monk ventured down into the timberline and rummaged for his food— mushrooms, nuts, berries, and dandelions—and every day he fetched water from a limestone well in the cave where he slept. This was how he lived. This was all he knew. It was enough.
The monk was an ascetic in his isolation. The only belongings he possessed were his robe, his straw mat, and the bucket with which he drew water from the well. He lived for decades by himself, nor did anyone deign to visit him, for no one knew he lived in the mountains. His only conversations were with his echoes in the well. These conversations were very one-sided, but the truth was that he was unsure which side these conversations actually took place on. He listened as much as he talked, for the well echoed with his words. It was very much like a form of meditation, for through the echoes he could see how he was, himself, an extension of the world, and see how the world was indeed an extension of himself.
The monk was not a solipsist, but he was a philosopher, and a poet, and the theologian of his own religion. His philosophy was very wise, his poetry very beautiful, and his religion very true. In fact, the monk’s religion was the truest religion ever known upon the earth, besides the self-correcting religion known as Science. The monk could not abide falsities, and so his religion had to be irreproachably truthful. If it had not been, he would not have abided it. He would not have believed anything at all.
Sometimes the monk spoke for hours into the well, lecturing the well so the dark hole could in turn lecture the monk. It was as if the earth itself was revealing its heart to him, and all of its secrets. At other times the monk would be silent for weeks and listen to the winds talk amongst themselves, carrying word from around the world like a gadfly-gossip. He appreciated, too, the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks, the howling of wolves and even the growling of bears. Whether fierce or funny, all conversations were his to learn from. Therefore, there was much to listen to, even when isolated in the mountains.
But however much he learned and lectured, the monk was mortal and, in one especially cold winter, he passed away. No one knew what his religion was, or what he had heard in the wilderness, nor the heart of the earth and its unburdened secrets. Not even an echo remained of him, spiraling up from that deep silent well. Why, then, does this monk matter? Does he matter, or was his life simply another Koan— the deferral of meaning?
There was an oni that lived in the mountains. He did not like humans, but he had grown accustomed to hearing the monk talk. In fact, the oni lived in the well, and sometimes he played tricks on the monk, altering with his own voice the echoes that rose up in return to the monk. It was not that the oni was spiteful, nor that he really wished to deceive the monk. It was only a bit of mischief to pass the time, and the monk seemed contented with the echoes that rose up to meet him. The oni had lived for thousands of years. He knew about humans, and he knew about the material world. Long ago he had nearly become a Bodhisattva, but turned away from the Path after succumbing to baser impulses. He had also traveled the world, and had learned many religions and their various facets of Truth. Thus, he had imparted the monk’s words with real truths about the earth, and about mankind. He lied, yes, by falsifying the monk’s voice and throwing his voice with words not the monk’s own, but he spoke truths among those words. His echoes, thus, were true insomuch as they spoke to the Truth.
When the monk died, the oni wept for a year. His voice echoed out of the well and rumbled in the mountains. His voice became as thunder and his tears became as rain. The storm of his grief brewed over the mountains for a long time. Yet, no one visited the mountains, so no one heard him or his grief. When he had finished grieving, the oni left the well and took his echoes with him. No one knew the oni had existed in the well— not even the monk whom the oni mourned. Why, then, does the oni matter? Does he matter or was his life simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?
There were mountains that were somewhere, or perhaps nowhere at all. They may have been, or may never have been. A monk may have lived among them, and an oni may have also, or they may not have. There may have been echoes in the deep bosom of the earth. Or there may not have. Yet, of them this was written, and writing is but the echoes of things that may or may not have been. Why, then, does writing matter? Does writing matter, or is it all simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?
The torii gate was faded gray and green between the vines that grew from its poles and lintel. It was not maintained like those on Mount Haguro or Yudono with their fresh red paint and ritualistic upkeep. There were no shrines here for tourists to visit and crowd around, week to week, milling like ants on a hill, bustling about and chasing away whatever peace and sacred silence once inhabited there. Ayumu chose this Northern mountain because it was abandoned to the spirits.
It was dangerous, they said.
Haunted, they said.
Forsaken, they said.
Perfect, he thought.
He had taken a train from the overflow of Tokyo out to these isolated mountains to escape the too-treaded paths of a world overpopulated with people and thoughts and lights and sounds. He could disappear into these mountainside woods, inhabiting the silence and letting the silence inhabit him until his very self disappeared, fading within the foliage and the bushes and the shade where twilight dreamed on, even at midday.
A crow cawed from atop the torii gate as Ayumu walked through it. He glanced up to the lintel from the other side, but the crow had gone, and so he continued slowly up the overgrown trail of the leisurely-rolling incline, the buckets in hs hands not so heavy now that his spirit seemed so lightsome. He was Ascending.
Ayumu had shaved his head. He had abandoned the shelter of his apartment for the mountain, and forewent his salary suit for the robe of a Buddhist monk. It felt good. He felt alive for the first time in a long time. He felt like he had shrugged off the weight of the world and was soon to lighten his spirit even more. For the mountain would shoulder him, and weightless would be his earthly presence forever after.
It was to be a long hike, he knew. The mountain was tall and hard to navigate. That was why the temple crowning it had been abandoned for so long. No tourists came here, nor many holy men. Ayumu might have been the first person to venture its wooded slope in years. Who knew?
But he was not as alone in the woods as he had thought. He came to a clearing beneath tall, slender trees where stones were ringed in a circle. In the center of this circle sat an old man in red priestly robes. Atop his head was an eboshi, its black plume darker than any shadow in the forest.
“Hello,” the old man said.
It was too late for Ayumu to circle around the priest without giving offense. Reluctantly, he approached the old man.
“It is rare to see a pilgrim on this mountain,” the old man said. He sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. He appeared to be meditating, but there was a smirk on his thin-lipped face. His hooked nose overtopped a small cup from which he occasionally sipped.
“I am seeking Ascension,” Ayumu declared. His voice seemed very small in that vast forest, and he felt foolish. He set down his two buckets beyond the ring of stones. “I am to become a sokushinbutsu.”
The old man smirked more broadly, and sipped his drink quietly. He did not open his eyes.
“That is why you carry pine needles and resin,” the old man said. “Mokujikigyo. You will be a tree-eater.” He opened his eyes. They were dark black in the shade of the tall trees. “But there is more to becoming a holy man than shaving one’s head and putting on robes and making a meal of trees.”
“I am prepared to do what is necessary,” Ayumu said, testily.
The old man nodded. “We shall see.” He set aside his own cup and reached behind himself, another cup grasped in his knotted hands. His fingernails were long and sharp as he offered the small cup to Ayumu.
“Habushu,” the old man said. “To celebrate your Ascension.”
Ayumu stared at the cup, and its dark yellow liquid. He had never had habushu before. Drinking alcohol was never something he did. But he knew about habushu, or snake sake, and so he took the cup in hand and stared at it in the overlapping penumbrae of the forest. The small cup appeared bottomless with deep shadows.
“Come, come,” the old man said, impatiently. “Drink up! It is privilege, that wine. Not many will taste of its like.”
Ayumu sighed, then downed the cup in one gulp. The sake burned and he doubled over, coughing and gagging, his hands on his knees as he dropped the cup. The old man laughed loudly, his caws eaten with static like a crackling radio station.
“It burns,” Ayumu said, still coughing.
“Pungency is important,” the old man said. “It reminds us that we are alive.”
Ayumu was angry, and opened his mouth to retort. But through his tears Ayumu saw that he was alone. Still reeling from the drink, he straightened himself up and glanced around the forest. The old man was gone. Only the ring of stones remained.
No light penetrated the trees to dapple the forest floor. All was blue shadow and a ceaseless twilight dream. Night never came, nor morning. Ayumu may have been hiking only for a few hours, or for several weeks. Time held no dominion here in the stillness of this sacred land. There were no clocks, no schedules, no deadlines, no expectations.
He did not miss Tokyo. To the contrary, the thought of its loud, bustling heights and depths inspired anxieties in him anew. The silence of the forest assuaged these anxieties and he focused his mind on appreciating Nature as it sprawled around him.
He saw the monk at a distance. The monk wore an orange robe, like a Shaolin, and walked with graceful surety in every step, no matter how treacherous the dirt or the grass or the fallen leaves. Ayumu slowed, afraid he would intrude upon the monk’s solitude, and that the monk would intrude upon his own solitude. To his great disappointment, the monk suddenly stopped and waited. Ayumu slowed, too, and then stopped. The monk looked back at him, hands on hips, and Ayumu knew it was no good to linger longer. He approached the monk reluctantly.
“I am not following you,” Ayumu said. “And I did not wish to interrupt your walk.”
“Was it that you feared interrupting my walk, or that I might interrupt your walk?” the monk said.
To Ayumu’s surprise, the monk was a woman, her head bald and her eyes gleaming in the veiling shadows of the trees. Even bald, she was beautiful.
“I am seeking to Ascend,” he said stupidly.
She looked at the buckets in his hands, filled with pine needles and nuts and resin. “You are a follower of Buddha, then?”
“I aspire to be one of his greatest followers,” Ayumu said as modestly as he could.
The female monk gave him a small, knowing smile, then gestured farther up the trail. “Let us walk together,” she said. “And talk of Buddha and the Path and other such wonderful things.”
Ayumu accepted this offer, walking beside the monk up the lounging mountainside. The air was fresh and clean here, redolent only of earth and grass and wood. They walked in silence for a time, but he could not focus on the hike itself. He was distracted by the female monk. She reminded him of someone, though he could not recall who.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like a rice cake?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it must be the last earthly food I eat before I commit myself to the diet of the ascetics.”
“Of course,” she said.
Much to Ayumu’s dismay, the monk parted her robe and reached between her surprisingly large breasts, withdrawing a rice cake. Ayumu could see her translucent bra within her robe, and her nipples poking through that thin material, as she handed him the rice cake. She was slow in covering herself once again. The rice cake was warm with the heat of her bosom.
Distracted, Ayumu nibbled the rice cake absentmindedly. His lips and tongue caressed the rice cake as if it was the woman’s breast. Eventually he shook himself out of his sensual stupefaction and ate the cake in a succession of hasty bites.
“The Path is a hard one,” the monk said. She smiled at him sidelong, her dark eyes like black almonds in the shade of the forest. “You must have a vigorous spirit to dare such a destiny. It is not for the weak-willed and the…impotent.”
“I will not be deterred,” he said. “I will be the next Buddha. This I vow.”
Ayumu puffed his chest out, unconsciously, as he continued to walk, holding the buckets up higher than before.
“Yes,” the monk said, eying him steadfastly. “You are quite…virile in your faith. I can see the strength in your spirit…and your body.”
Ayumu’s pride swelled, alongside something else. The heavy robe he wore only partially concealed his manhood and he began to slow his stride, physically uncomfortable and greatly embarrassed by his body’s impudence. Amidst all of this discomfort, he suddenly remembered who the monk reminded him of. There was a young lady in Tokyo who was lovely and kind to him, and he visited her once a week, paying for her attention in the Soapland brothel where she worked. Ayumu had never had a relationship with a woman, but visiting her was quite enough for a salary man such as himself. The bathhouse brothel was quiet, refined, and discreet, but the young woman was the superior personage of that establishment. Within the steamy silence of the private room she would tease out all of the anxieties and stress that knotted into his core, slathering and slithering along his rigidity with her supple manners and motions and manipulations.
It was a marvelous place, mostly. The spa music had trickled on koto strings, and the crushing wall of Tokyo’s panorama was sealed away behind cool, tranquil lighting and lapping water and the mesmerizing feline eyes of the young lady in the kimono as she undressed, stepping out of her silken skin and burnished and laquered in oil and steam and foggy lights. Yet, heaven had no place in Tokyo. Ayumu often felt the presence of thousands of men crowding that soft-chiseled space between spaces; a thousand men riding every square inch of her naked body, crowding him out until he was an outcaste in his own session of massage and sexual release. He could not escape the multitude.
And as she dragged her petite body up and down his own— her swelling curves filling up the shallow flatness of his slight frame—he felt not joy or lust nor relief, but the weight of a million people pressing down upon him with their demands and anxieties and expectations. Moaning, he had shoved her off of him and floundered like a broken-backed demon on the slick, inflatable mattress, his hostess shrieking for help.
“Something wrong?” the monk asked.
“No,” Ayumu said. “I was only thinking.”
“About what?” She eyed him suspiciously, her eyelids hanging heavy over the slits of her eyes. She did not have a very pronounced nose. It was more like two slashes in the smooth snout above her wide lips.
“About Tokyo,” he said. “And my life there. It was not a life. It was a death. I hated it. That is why I am here.”
“What is wrong with Tokyo?” she asked.
He frowned pensively, then sighed. “Everything.”
They rested on two smooth rocks that stood side by side beneath a cherry blossom tree. The pink petals hung over them. Strangely, it was the only cherry blossom that Ayumu had seen upon the mountain. All the other trees were cedars and oaks and such. Framed by the pink foliage, the monk woman’s profile was beautifully picturesque. Such an image would enchant all of Japan were it captured in a photograph, and would be subsequently debased as a tourist greeting card sold in shops all over Tokyo. It was a depressing thought.
And yet Ayumu’s eyes were distracted by something in his periphery vision. Turning away from the monk, he saw white tattered bags from a distance. Garbage! All the way up here! Amidst so much sacred purity! It was sacrilegious! He was about to give word to his fury when the monk suddenly rose.
“Why do you carry those buckets?” she asked.
“For my Ascension,” he said.
“So you can become like those men in the temple,” she said. “Those dead men.”
“They have reached Nirvana,” Ayumu said. “That is the ultimate goal of the Path.”
She snorted. “Tell that to their husks,” she said. She began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To make water,” she said. She gave him a knowing smile. “You can make your own, I am sure.”
She said nothing else, but disappeared behind a copse of trees. Ayumu looked away, lest he be taken for a pervert, and returned his eyes to the garbage snagged on some bushes and roots. Standing, he went to pick them up.
But as he approached the crinkly white scraps he saw them more clearly in the perpetual twilight of the forest. Bending down to one knee, he discerned that the scraps were large tatters of snake skins shedded off along the forest floor. Not garbage at all! He picked it up and turned around. The monk woman stood there, looking aghast. Before he could say anything, she bolted through the woods and disappeared.
She was gone. Ayumu had not even inquired after her name. Strangely, her bra remained behind. He knelt and picked the thin, translucent material up from the forest floor. It was scaled like snake skin.
Ayumu hated Tokyo. Among the crowd his heart quickened, the anxieties running riot to the war drum rhythm in his chest. Sometimes he loosened his tie and forgot about its slovenliness until his supervisor reprimanded him halfway through the workday. Sometimes he wished to strip free of all clothing and spend the rest of his days meditating beneath an ice-cold waterfall, its downpouring roar drowning out the inane noise of the world.
Traveling through Tokyo was the worst necessity. He slept in his office every other day, returning to his small apartment only to take baths, and despising the jostling railway train where he was packed in among other people like grains of rice in an overstuffed bag. Solitude was nowhere to be found, yet loneliness was everywhere. It was a terrible paradox that defined the city. His cubicle was a place closed off to the world and open to the world. He was never alone, yet always seeking the peace of a recluse. Most days he just worked, from sunup to sundown, the time of day told by the small scrap of light that touched his cubicle wall through the windows on his office floor. He never had a break from the long spreadsheets that wallpapered the prison of his life.
And so he thought becoming a sokushinbutsu would be easy. The pine needles would not be much worse than the noodles he often ate while working through his lunch breaks. The sedentary meditation would not be worse than the endless glare of the computer monitor that stared back at him from his desk. The mountaintop solitude would be wonderful compared to the loneliness of his life in the city. Everything would be better in the end.
Or so he thought.
“There is a venom in you, and it brews deliciously.”
Ayumu was so startled that he nearly dropped his buckets with jumping.
The old man in the red robes was right beside him, grinning. Ayumu was too flabbergasted to speak.
“Like habushu,” the old man said. “But how will it be prepared? Will you drown alive in the wine or will they freeze you and gut you, day to day, slowly, keeping you half alive and half dead on ice, and then thaw you out in the future, when you will startle awake and strike, once, in desperation before you die? Either method is good for a tantalizing drink.”
He grinned mockingly, his teeth sharp beneath the hook of his long nose.
“You scared me,” was all Ayumu could say. The rest of what the old man had said made no sense to him.
“You are just like all of the others,” the old man said, grinning. “You think you are special, and that you deserve recognition and honor and a place in history, but what have you to merit such distinctions? You will climb halfway up this mountain, grow bored, and then return to your life, ungrateful for the world you live in.”
Though taken aback, Ayumu was slowly understanding that the old man was mocking him, and it angered him.
“I will Ascend,” Ayumu said, trembling in anger and fright. “I will follow the Path to its culmination. I have the faith and the discipline.”
“A faith and discipline built upon hatred,” the old man said. His eyes remained closed. His face was mottled with age spots, but also red with splotches. It was a long walk for an old man. “I know what kind of man you are. The venom brims in you. It will overflow.”
“What sort of petty priest dismisses a man seeking higher realms?” Ayumu demanded. “Leave me be, you crazy old man. I came to this mountain for solitude, not for company from doddering fools.”
“You seemed fond of that woman’s company,” the old man said. He opened his eyes, and they were blacker than night. “Anyone could see that.”
Ayumu flushed red, but whether with anger or embarrassment or both, he did not himself know. “You befoul this sacred silence here,” Ayumu said. “Go elsewhere and ramble. I am tired of listening to you.”
The old man had gone, as if vanished into thin air. Ayumu felt disconcerted and anxious. But he pushed away thoughts about the weird old man and continued walking, focusing his attention to the moss underfoot, and the trees overhead, and the fresh air in his lungs. He would not allow himself to be disturbed by an old coot lost in the wilderness.
His thoughts drifted, but now they drifted to Nature to Nature. He thought of the other mountains and forests around Japan where he had hoped to visit someday. Mt. Fuji. Mt. Asama. Mt. Aka. He had wanted to visit various natural goshintai, too: holy objects such as rocks, trees, waterfalls, and even mountains themselves. He had deeply contemplated, too, visiting Aokigahara and Ascending there, as thousands had before. Yet, their ghosts would not have let his rest. It, like most of Japan, was overcrowded with other people. He wanted a place of solitude and silence unto himself. But even here, in this abandoned wilderness, there were madmen to intrude upon his much-deserved tranquility.
How he hated Tokyo! His coworkers were nothing but red-faced Oni bullying him about, as were his neighbors and all of the people on the streets of Tokyo. Aggressive, loud, jostling and bustling and tiresome, snorting and frowning and judging. They were an Oni parade marching out of an endless nightmare. His neighbors in his apartment complex were the worst. He had been arrested once, for a crime he had not committed— the kidnaping of a little girl, no less— and though he was proven innocent and released after the real kidnapper had been caught, his neighbors nonetheless persisted in treating him as a guilty pervert. They would not speak to him— and shunned him in the hallways and on the stairwells like a plague. One of his neighbors was a coworker, so the rumors of what had happened had also spread to the office. He nearly lost his job and had to procure a statement from the police declaring his innocence. Even so, everyone looked at him askance, suspiciously, glaring like demons whenever he passed them in the halls. Soon afterward he shaved his head, gathered his bucket of pine needles and tree resin and prepared for his trip to Northern Japan.
Ayumu smelled delicious aromas upon the air. His mouth salivated and his stomach churned, growling plaintively about the emptiness aching within its pit. He was woefully hungry at the scents that wafted through the mist-skirted woods. Stepping through a cluster of dense trees, he found a clearing wherein a man sat, huddled next to a fire. The man wore a tengai and a straw cloak. Ayumu could not see his face, beneath the rice straw dome, and wondered how the large man could eat while wearing such a hindrance atop his head.
“Welcome, stranger,” said the man from within the dome. “Please, sit. There is enough food for the two of us.”
Without thinking, Ayumu set his buckets down and sat on the other side of the fire. A pot hung above the flames, and a stew bubbled redolently within it. The delicious smell of the stew was entrancing. Ayumu had difficulty focusing on the man on the other side of the fire.
“You are a pilgrim,” the man said.
“Yes,” Ayumu said, staring at the stew. “I shall become a buddha.”
“Ah,” the large man said. He stirred the stew with a ladle. “I once knew that old dream.”
“You are an adherent to the Buddha?”
“And aspired to become one, yes,” he said. He snorted. “Not worth the bother, to be honest.”
This bit of blasphemy focused Ayumu’s attention on the man once again. Staring past the stew, Ayumu saw that the man was large, chubby, his big gut hanging out of his robe with uncouth abandon. His face was still hidden behind the interlaced straw of his tengai, but Ayumu could sense the man’s hidden eyes watching him. His hands and gut were very hairy, as were his feet. He wore straw sandals that looked old and worn with walking.
“But Enlightenment…” Ayumu said.
“What of it?” the man countered. “I can find peace right here on this plane of existence.” He held up a bowl and ladled some stew into it. “Would you care for a meal? Rabbit stew with shiitake mushrooms. Fresh ingredients, too. Ginger. Wild onions…”
“No,” Ayumu said, his voice cracking almost unto a wail. “I am on the Path. I must…I must not partake of such delicious fare.”
The large man shrugged and lifted the bowl to his face. Tipping the tengai back, he poured the scalding-hot stew into his mouth; his mouth obscured now by the bowl. He slurped the stew down with a guttural gurgle in his swelling throat. When he had finished, the tengai concealed his face as before. He sighed long and loudly, making Ayumu peevish. The way he ate, and the tantalizing smells of the stew, reminded Ayumu of all of the foods he could never eat in Tokyo because the restaurants and vendors were always too crowded with other customers whenever he went out for his supper. More often than not he had settled for vending machine noodles while everyone else around him— not suffering from his social anxieties— ate very filling meals that he could only appreciate vicariously. Resentment bubbled up in his bilious throat.
Ayumu stood, taking up his buckets again.
“May the Buddha watch over you,” he said. “And lead you again upon the Path.”
“Going so soon?” the man said. “Good luck upon your Path, then.”
Ayumu turned away from the fat man— and his seductive stew—and plunged up the mountainside, through the towering trees and deeper into that eternal twilight.
The cataract hurled itself from the overhanging crags like a frothy, pearl tongue, splashing amidst the pool to settle into serene idleness. Ayumu saw a kindred spirit in that desperate act and hoped to become like that pool as he himself rushed headlong toward the tranquility of the Path.
Feeling so much kinship so keenly, Ayumu decided to take a dip in the calming pool. He set aside his buckets, stripped off his robe, and waded into the cool green waters of the pool. It was deeper than he had thought, the ground disappearing suddenly beneath his bare feet. He floated like a lotus upon the tranquil depths.
He drifted for hours, it seemed, surrendering himself to the weightlessness and the mist that breathed over his face from the waterfall. The gentle roar was purer than any white noise or music or insect chatter. It filled up his senses and he could have simply accepted the waters into himself, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the pool and never surfacing again. It was a peace of selflessness— of Zen negation.
And then something bumped against him in the water. Thinking he had drifted upon the embankment of the pool, he pushed himself off of it sluggishly with his languid muscles. It was not the bank. It was like a tree trunk, but flexible as rope. And it was moving Suddenly something grabbed him with a thick, corded coil, entwining him and dragging him under. His peace gave way to terror, but he had succumbed to darkness before his last gasp of bubbles had broken upon the pool’s surface.
He did not wake all at once, nor remember himself or acknowedge what was happening to him but in smattering glimpses of images and sensations. He had vague impressions of pleasure, and horror; of surrender and struggle. He longed for the climax of death, and was embraced by it— in a manner of speaking—at last emptied unto oblivion afterwards. He became like a dead root within firm soil; numb to all things and tied down to the earth.
After a time his eyes cracked open, reluctantly like clams clamped tightly shut, and he saw through the bleary twilight the forest floor, glistening wetly all around him. He himself felt hot and damp. Torpid, he moved his head only slightly and saw the monk woman slipping her naked, gleaming body into her orange robe, her long coils disappearing into the folds of her garments. Dressed now, and human, she approached him, kneeling beside him and putting a cold palm on his flushed cheek.
“Do not seek the Path,” she said, her voice a susurrous sibilance in his ear. Her long forked tongue in and out between her lips. “Stay here with me and let us seek pleasure until the end of all earthly days.”
He tried to speak, but his numb tongue rolled ineffectually in his mouth— parched, lax, half-dead with the expenditures of desire and dread. He managed only a mumble.
“You will rethink it all before it is too late,” she assured him. She then walked away, her body swaying left to right with a serpentine swagger that belied the simian subterfuge of her stride. She disappeared into the misty woods.