Mornings that are orange begin with the sounds that monks make. They walk in robes below my window by the bathhouse. Their begging bowls are empty when the coins can’t be heard. The Monks’ chant is a low groan “ommmm” with spontaneous whoops thrown in the way some people shout “Amen” during a Sunday Sermon. It sounds like Leonard Cohen on a headset with bad batteries.
I met a monk whose name had originally been David. He has the distinction of being the longest standing pupil under his particular master. Remarkable, because he is a foreigner and most masters don’t take disciples. If they do, it’s only for brief periods. “I did the hippie thing”, he said. “I am trying to find enlightenment.” It has taken him longer than expected. This is because he says, “You can’t have an expectation of enlightenment. It comes when it may. You stumble on it or not and then you move on.”
In Japan, there is a way of all things; the way of the sword, the middle way, the way of paper, the way of tea with its mysterious idiosyncrasies. “When the guest becomes the perfect guest and when the host becomes the perfect host the moment between them is divine.” But before there can be perfection the conditions must be right. The grass outside must be freshly cut. The tatami mats on the tearoom floor must be swept a certain way. The blocks in the fireplace must be in pyramid formation for maximum efficiency. There must be fresh flowers, new water, fluffed pillows, fine china, clean utensils and, of course, good tea: green tea.
A good host has only one topic of conversation, tea. This conversation can’t possibly go sour. Deviations are allowed for topics that touch on tea such as pottery. Every teacup is different. Some are more like bowls. Intricate decorations adorn the vessels. All of them contain meanings: stories that pertain to the season, dragons, phoenixes, and a bunch of other chimera that dance around your hands while you drink the tea. Those stories alone could fill hours of conversation. Never mind where the tea came from.
The whole ordeal is a series of precise measures. As in science, tools must be properly used in order to yield the right chemical effect. In this case it’s the taste of the tea. I think of the Way of Tea as procedure for an experiment. There’s a control, the host; and a variable, the guest. And a hypothesis, “If you take away the daily layers of social mishap, then you have a chance at real human contact.” The intended result is more than you can afford and yet, it’s yours. It’s divinity in motion.
Situations outside the tearoom are a lot more demanding than sitting on your knees for an hour. We can’t always be a simple host, or only a guest. We have to be both. We’re hosts to the people in our lives while being guests in theirs. We cannot concentrate on the setting in one moment and the people therein in the next. Both are constantly changing. Teatime is a way to heighten people’s awareness of these things.
I asked my friend the monk, “What’s that funny placard on your cart?” I had seen a lot of monks with those and wondered if they said some mystical equivalent of “eat at Joes”. “These are travel rolls” he said and stooped his bald head over them. “This is a reminder from my master. It says, in Japanese, the blue mountains always move”. Whatever that means? I had had more than my share of his mental Olympics so I said, “I know all about blue mountains.” And that was the end of our conversation.
Japanese people believe that every mountain is a kind of God, as is every tree. The rivers and most other natural phenomena are also endowed with spiritual importance. These beliefs may help explain my strong introduction to another man, my neighbor the timber farmer. His salutation to me loses some of its potency in translation but he said, “I am God” and that was that. He wouldn’t tell me why he was God but I suspect it had something to do with Alcohol.
It comes in vending machines, alcohol does. In Japan, everything dispenses from vending machines; cameras, photographs, compact discs, batteries, cigarettes, magazines, books, movies, coffee and tea. You can get anything from a machine. They’re everywhere between every train station and bus stop.
I got lost in the wrong train station the other day. Kyoto Station is the largest one in town. It’s also so new that even the natives have trouble finding their way around. I wandered, for what felt like hours, through the bowels of that place, past beer ads, vending machines and temple festival banners. I was in that place longer than the executives with briefcases and well past the hour when storekeepers put the sushi away. I thought of a Paul Simon lyric, “He doesn’t speak language, he holds no currency, he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity. He says Hey! I don’t want to be here anymore!”
I only had enough money for a streetcar to take me home, not a train nor a taxi. I thought I had nothing. But then the box people came down into the underground station. A few of them at first, and then more and more of them. By the time I lapped the building twice, they had assembled a small cardboard city. No, nothing is relative.
A man in rags came to my aid. He was crawling on the floor. He never spoke, which was fine. I couldn’t. We spent a few minutes assembling an animal language. “I want to go north” “Street car”, he said by imitating one. Outside he pointed toward a greasy window. “Watch for traffic”, a comic gesture. “Number four”, he said, with the only four fingers on his hand. I bowed to him and left for home. I arrived an hour later and quickly wished I hadn’t.
My host family had taken company in several of the neighbor men, all of them drunk and a friend of my host sister’s, Amy. Amy is a bright girl, cheerful, sixteen years old, and Chinese. She handed me a can of cola and said, “Thank you very much.” But, the way she said it, it meant, “Here you go, drink this.” Words are only means to an end anyway.
My host father brought me a big bowl of noodles. He knew I was hungry. But, did I tell him? No. I thought about father then, not necessarily about this one or my real dad but about the whole idea of “father”. It has my respect. Mine means everything to me. I’ve gotten along well with all my host fathers so far. Better, I think then with the mothers. It’s a pity the fathers are hardly ever around, and drunk when they are. They work hard.
Presently, Amy introduced her own father, the timber farmer. “My father”, she began in English and trailed off. Her Japanese is bad, her English is worse. Her father is not Chinese. He called his daughter, “my little alien”. It was almost a joke.
I went to wash the dishes, unable to understand the conversation anyway. I sat back down with my host father, who put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Ogenki desu” which means things are well. Clearly, they were not well. Amy had begun to cry. Conversation continued. All the men were drunk. Amy’s father called to her from across the room. She stayed seated. More conversation. He called out again. Amy cried. It went on like this until finally here father stood demanding that she cross the room in front of everyone. She did, crying. He told her to apologize. She did but there were still tears in her eyes so he hit her twice on the back of the head. Hard blows while she rose from a bow. Some of the men escorted Amy’s father outside, the women floated around the girl. And I just sat there.