Instant Rice, Instant Buddha Part 2 of 2

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.
And fear.
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.

Instant Rice, Instant Buddha Part 1 of 2

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.