Copyright © 2013 by Richard
All rights reserved
Every night, Blind Mori accompanies me in song.
Under the covers, two mandarin ducks whisper to each other.
We promise to be together forever,
But right now this old fellow enjoys an eternal spring.
Ikkyu (1394-1481) translated by John Stevens
I awaken to the tinkling of a bell as it is carried through
the dimly-lit zendo. Without hesitation I arise, fold my mat
and my blanket and stow them in the cabinet before me, set out
my zafu, and remove my toothbrush, toothpaste, and threadbare
towel. All about me I hear the rustling of other monks doing
In the lavatory I await my turn for a sink and a toilet stall.
There are no mirrors above the sinks. Harsh light glares from
the bare fluorescent bulb in the center of the ceiling. The
morning is cold. No one speaks. Aimless chit-chat is discouraged,
and that suits me just fine, particularly on a morning when
the divide between dream and wakefulness is so fragile. As I
finish blotting the cold water from my face, I feel a tug on
I turn to find Roshi Koshin hovering beside me, his shaven
head hidden by the hood of his cloak and his thin lips tinted
blue from the cold. Half my stature, slender and slight, he
bows in gassho and whispers in his Irish brogue, "Can ye
help bring in firewood?"
"Of course," I reply. We bow to each other.
As I step outside, a cold breeze gusting from the north cuts
through my robe. The brightening sky illuminates the looming
western face of Mt. Shasta, all draped in snow down to timberline.
For a moment, my eyes linger there. I love the mountain. In
its lee to the south, haloed by the seminal pink glow where
the sun will rise, floats one of those odd lenticular clouds,
just beginning to form like a tiny seed that will mushroom into
a saucer of swirling vapors as the day warms. The mountain
makes it own weather, I think.
I find the roshi bending over one of the neat stacks of fragrant
incense cedar that line the cloistered walkway and help him
fill his arms with sticks split as fine as kindling. I fill
my arms too, and silently we carry our burdens inside the warm
kitchen, where breakfast preparation has already begun. The
aroma of fresh-baked bread makes my stomach churn. After two
more loads, he bows to me. I bow and return silently to the
Beside my cabinet, barely visible in the dim light of the
altar lanterns, I plump up my zafu, lift the skirts of my robe,
and carefully settle cross-legged onto the cushion facing the
wall, letting my robe drape over my legs and feet. Slowly I
sway from side to side, back and forth, in a spiral of decreasing
circles until I feel squarely grounded. I fold my hands in my
lap to form the mudra of meditation, draw a slow, deep breath,
and allow my eyes to half-close, unfocused on the thin baseboard
of the wall before me. Around me I hear the purr of trainees
reciting their kesa verse. As a layman, I have no kesa. I wait.
I breathe. It always begins with waiting. Breathing. In time,
a bell rings, a chime struck purely, clearly, once, twice, a
third time, and all is silence. I breathe. I allow my mind to
The most difficult part is the thoughts. They come unbidden.
Unceasingly. The images. The thoughts. And I try to let them
go as they come. Let them pass on without attachment. Each demands
my attention. But I let it go. And another takes its place.
Like the tide. Like the internal rhythm of an eternal surf.
A surf that swirls around the ribs of a wrecked ship . . . .
I have been at the abbey for months, a refuge from a shipwrecked
life. In my memory and in my mind's eye, the bare-boned ribs
of a broken vessel emerge from the pounding surf while the jetsam
and flotsam of a broken life and wasted years wash endlessly
back and forth in the shallows. At the whim of the waves and
the tide. The abbey is my island, my refuge, my shelter in the
I return to the present. Begin again, breathing deeply, counting
the breaths. One . . . Two . . . Three . . . .
I have been at the abbey for many months as a layman, between
worlds, and I fear that they are beginning to wonder if I will
ever make the commitment. Make the commitment that they have
all made. The commitment to receive the ten precepts in the
Jukai ceremony, shave my head, vow celibacy, and become a priest-trainee
on the road to ordination. How does one decide such a thing?
Again my mind has wandered. I draw another deep breath. Straighten
my spine. Settle my shoulders. Relax my diaphragm. Breathe through
my belly. Breathe again. Begin again to count my breaths. One
. . . Two . . . Three . . . Four . . . .
Like a dog chasing its tail. I picture the dog, circling
one way and then the other. My thoughts are like a dog chasing
its tail. I suppress a smile
And I began again. Breathing. Counting . . . .
Yesterday a young laymen named Chris told me he had felt
the presence of the Ancestors in the darkened zendo the night
before. It had moved him deeply. He was ready to receive the
precepts. Commit himself to following the Buddha's Way. Fifteen-years
younger than I, he valued my opinion. I did not know what to
say to him. I have never felt the presence of the Ancestors
I draw myself back. Settle myself. Begin again. Breathe. Begin
Suddenly I become aware of thoughts that are not my own. They
scurry like inhuman things, like rodents through an alley, searching
for something. They have always scurried, of course, my thoughts,
but these don't belong here. There is something strange in them.
In these alien thoughts. Things I never learned. Things I never
experienced. Things not of this earth. Not voices. Mad men hear
voices, and I am not mad. No, these are someone else's thoughts
that have strayed into my mind. Thoughts I should not be seeing
. . . .
The sky at night. A chart of unknown stars. But the unfamiliar
chart seems familiar somehow. And I feel a longing to return
to a place too alien to grasp or describe. Sand swirls across
lifeless dunes. A sun blazes too yellow against a magenta sky.
In the distance rises a crimson tower. It is a place I do not
understand. A place that makes no sense to me. But I feel it
anyway. I am drawn to it. And I long for it. I feel it and I
perceive it and I long for it. But I do not understand it. My
purpose here is
A bell rings sharply, a single pure tone of release and loss,
signaling the end of zazen. Monks shuffle about me, bowing to
their cushions. Bowing to the fellowship. Bowing to the Buddha.
They form ranks facing the altar in the open center of the zendo.
Each has his place for the morning service. Shaken by the images
I have seen, I am slow to join them. Slow to take my place.
The disciplinarian waits for me, then intones, "The Scripture
of Kanzeon Bosatsu." A gong sounds, and the monks begin
a mindful chant of the scripture amid the scent of incense and
the soft glow of candle light.
But my mind is elsewhere. As I mouth the familiar verses,
I wonder at the visions I have seen and the loneliness and longing
I just felt. They seemed so real. They are real, I am
The abbey has plans to expand the dining hall so that all the
priests and trainees can eat together. But for now, lay trainees
and neophyte monks must wait for the second breakfast sitting.
While we wait, temple cleanup follows the morning service for
us. Chris and I have been assigned to clean the common room
of the large stone building, where the senior monks stay. The
abbey was once a motel, before the interstate rerouted traffic,
and its dozen beautiful stone structures were the first to be
inhabited for the monastery.
Chris sweeps the floor while I dust and tidy up the tables
and chairs. A television set, rarely used, has been turned toward
the wall and covered by a blanket. On top a local newspaper
lies folded, and my eye catches a partial headline. I unfold
the paper. "Lenticular Clouds Caused By Global Warming,"
it reads. I scan snippets through the article. "Climate
change is causing more frequent extreme weather phenomena .
. . intensifying natural variances . . . not clear what is cause
and effect . . . trend expected to continue . . . ."
Chris is standing beside me, reading too. Though in his early
twenties, his pale cheeks still show the scars of acne. His
short reddish-brown hair is tightly curled. He looks away to
blow his nose into a Kleenex, but I have already seen something
in his eyes that wasn't there yesterday.
"What is it, Chris?" I ask softly.
But Chris is unsure of himself. Perhaps a little unsettled.
Unsettled just like me, I guess, and like me afraid to say anything
that would sound too crazy. "Nothing," he mutters,
and resumes sweeping beneath the table.
I move the chairs for him and gaze out the window. The morning
sun casts its orange-red glow on the bottom of the saucer-shaped
cloud hovering beside Mt. Shasta. The lenticular phantasm. Crepuscular.
Like a roused cat. On the sidewalk outside Roshi Koshin and
another monk are staring up at the cloud's pink glow.
"Something's on your mind," I press.
Chris snorts. Perhaps it was my choice of words. But he has
nothing to say. He just watches my eyes. To see what might be
"You saw it, too," I whisper. It was not a question.
"The sand. The tower. The chart."
Chris glances around to see if anybody is listening. No one
is there. He turns back and nods. Just a slight dip of the head.
"What was it?" I ask.
He shakes his head.
I ponder for a moment, then assure him, "This is not
the Ancestors, Chris."
He nods, perhaps a little relieved, then resumes sweeping.
I watch in silence for a long while before he says, "Those
During breakfast I feel a hand touch my shoulder and a voice
whispers my name. I turn and am startled to find the dark eyes
of Suzanne, a striking young woman whom I have watched from
across the room at classes morning and afternoon for the past
few weeks. I feel like I know her, though we have never spoken.
She bows in gassho, her face inches from my own. In a glance
I take in her face. The beauty of her pale, delicate features.
Turned up nose. Black lashes. Straight black hair in a short
pixie cut. As a layman trainee, she has not yet shaved her head.
Two small birthmarks above her right cheekbone remind me of
a snakebite. Her neck is a smooth white arc emerging from her
dark robe. I breathe in the faint scent of soap. Her serious
lips are pressed together in concentration on her task.
I swivel clumsily, scraping my chair, and return her bow.
She raises those piercing eyes and hands me a note. I take it,
and we bow to each other again. Then she rises and glides out
of the dining hall.
My heart is thudding as I return to my oatmeal. With my knife
I cut the seal and unfold the sheet of paper. It is a handwritten
note from Roshi Koshin bidding me to come see him at his room
as soon as breakfast is over. Odd, I think. I'm not
scheduled for a personal audience with him for another day.
Something must have changed. But I see it as an excellent
chance to discuss with him the strange visions that Chris and
I experienced this morning during zazen.
I follow the flagstone pathway and find his room in one of
the old motel buildings. His door is closed. I knock once.
"Enter," he says.
Roshi Koshin is seated on his cushion on a raised mat at the
far end of the small chamber, facing the door, waiting for me.
I step inside, close the door behind me, and kneel before him
on the carpet. I bow in gassho. He returns the bow, then gestures
to a zafu. I pull the cushion over and settle myself facing
him. Seated formally above me, he appears larger and more imposing
than he did when I loaded his arms with firewood earlier that
morning. His shaved head and sashed temple robe convey an austere
gravity, but his face is soft and peaceful, his eyes gentle
as they study me. I drop my gaze, and we are both silent for
a long time.
"How is yer practice a'coming?" he asks at last.
I never know how to answer such a question. I shift a bit.
"I keep trying," I grin as lightheartedly as I can
But this is not a lighthearted moment. He does not smile back.
"Have ye given any more thought to receivin' the precepts?
Takin' Jukai? Becomin' a priest?"
"I've thought about it," I mumble, lowering my eyes
again. "It's just that . . . " I gaze up at him, "I
don't think I'm ready . . . yet."
He nods. Considers what he is going to say for a moment, then
asks, "Why are ye here?" There is no irony intended.
It is not an accusation. He honestly wants to know.
The question touches something deep inside me. It is a question
I myself would like an answer to. But I have none. I shake my
head. "I don't know," I manage. We are both silent
for a time, and then I add, "Maybe because I have no place
else to be."
He smiles at last. Nods. "Tis not a proper reason
for ye t'be here," he says. "And ye know it."
It is my turn to nod. We are both silent for a long time,
wondering what the consequences will be. What to do about the
"I appreciate yer honesty," he says at last. "I
think ye would make a foyne priest." Then he draws a sharp
breath and says, "The Abbess spoke t'me this mornin'."
I wait for more.
"She asked me about ye."
"About me? I didn't think she knew I existed."
"She said we're going to have to ask ye to leave the
I am shocked. The foundations of my world are shaken. "Leave?"
I manage. "Why?"
"T'make room. Room for those who seriously desire t'follow
the path to priesthood."
I cannot speak.
"Her own words were, Tis not a country club.'"
I shake my head to clear it. It is of no use. "When?"
"Tomorrow. When ye can get yer things together. I'll
have Suzanne give ye a lift into town after mornin' service."
He falls silent.
I nod dumbly. My head spins.
"And when ye're ready t'take the vows, ye may return."
"I can come back?"
"Aye. Of course. When ye're ready. I would like that.
We've become friends, don't ye think? And I believe with all
my heart that ye would make a foyne priest."
I fight back tears.
"When ye're ready," he repeats reassuringly. "Ye
can come back."
Everything has lost meaning. The morning dharma class drags
past like an empty pantomime. I hear nothing. Where will
I go? What will I do? How will I pass the time? I plod on
through the day, seeing it all with different eyes. I split
firewood. Eat a meal. Pound on a buried rock with an iron bar.
Sit through another class. Chant sutras. Eat another meal. But
the gestures have become hollow. The hall, the rock walls, the
cloister are all cardboard stage flats. The monks are actors
in a theater production without a plot. My mind is elsewhere.
Empty. I do not understand.
At the evening meditation I settle myself woodenly on my cushion,
expecting nothing. I wonder how I will endure these final vespers.
I cross my legs. Straighten my back. Lower my abdomen. Relax
my shoulders. I breathe . . . and I breathe . . . and suddenly,
unexpectedly, peace comes upon me. It saturates my breathing.
It is in my heartbeat. Calm infuses me. Without breathing, I
breathe. There is no need to count. A joy springs up. Inwardly
I smile. I am free. As a man condemned to die is finally free.
My mind is empty. There are no visions of star travelers. No
thought for what tomorrow will bring. I breathe on my cushion
and there is nothing more than this.
Too soon the bell rings. We stand and bow three times and
form lines with our hands in gassho. The disciplinarian intones,
"The Litany of the Great Compassionate One," and a
gong sounds. I am fully awake, riding the crest of the black-robed
wave as it begins to chant for the first and final time:
Adoration to the Triple Treasure!
Adoration to Kanzeon Who is the Great Compassionate One!
Om, to the One who leaps beyond all fear!
Having adored Him, may I enter into the heart of the Noble,
His life is the completion of meaning;
it is pure; it is that which makes all beings victorious
and cleanses the path of all existence . . . .
Something clicks inside my head. I stop chanting and repeat
the phrase, "and cleanses the path of all existence."
The trainees on each side glance at me, but they go on chanting.
It is like I have awakened. But not to enlightenment. No, not
to satori. But to something far more sanguinary. A blood
red tower. And suddenly the star charts and the blowing
dunes and the red tower make a sort of crazy sense.
The moment passes, as all moments do. And then service is
over. I am empty and alone. I store away my zafu. Spread out
my sleeping mat. My feet find their way into the lavatory, where
I speak to no one. I have not spoken since my meeting with the
roshi. I am afraid. Ashamed. I dwell on what will happen tomorrow.
When the service is well underway the following morning, the
visions are back . . . .
Home. A longing to return. A desert world of billowing
sand. A red tower. A star map. A route. An emptiness
The great hall grows restless. A chair squeaks. Someone coughs.
Another blows her nose softly. Monks shift their positions.
I abandon trying to meditate. Withdraw from the visions. Give
up trying to understand them. Where will I go? I wonder
After morning service I find my way into the storage room
and pull down the cardboard box with my name printed on one
end. I unfold the interlaced flaps and remove my flattened duffle
bag. Carefully I remove my khaki trousers. My red-checked flannel
shirt. My worn engineer's boots. My wool jacket. A plastic freezer
bag holds my wallet with twenty-two dollars in cash, my checkbook,
small change, a chapstick, the keys to an automobile I no longer
own, and the front door key to an apartment where I am no longer
welcome. I pull out extra underwear, two T-shirts, a pair of
wool socks, and a handkerchief. At the bottom lies a thin manila
I remove my robe and pull on my civilian clothing. The robe
I fold. It is not mine. It belongs to the abbey. But I like
it and will take it. I lay the robe in the bottom of my duffle.
By automatic funds transfer I have established a small monthly
endowment designed to cover my board and lodging at the abbey.
The fund will pay for dozens of new robes. I examine the rest
of my possessions as if they belong to someone else. They don't
amount to much. None of it interests me. I stuff it all into
Tossed back into the river of life, I think as I wind
my way toward the front gate. To see if I will sink or swim.
To see if I will find my way. I smile inwardly. It's
all a part of the training. The front office is locked.
There is no one to say goodbye to. I close the chain-link gate
Outside a white pickup idles, all dinged and battered and
scraped, water vapor puffing from its tailpipe. I can see Suzanne's
dark outline behind the wheel. I dump my duffle bag and zafu
into the bed and wrench open the creaking door. I begin to bow,
think better of it, and climb onto the worn passenger seat.
It is warm inside. I rub my hands together over the heater vent.
"Thanks for the ride," I say.
"Where can I take you?" she asks brusquely, grinding
the floor shift into first and easing off the clutch. Like me,
she is dressed in civilian clothes, a bulky orange down sweater
over her denim dungarees.
"Is there a Denny's nearby?"
"I'll take you to the Black Bear Diner."
"That would be fine," I tell her. "Have you
She shakes her head.
"Well, how about if I buy you breakfast?"
In low gear we wind down the access road in silence. Trying
not to stare at her, I gaze through my fogging side window.
The forest slips past. A farm field opens, green and damp. Beyond
it a sign reads, "Cascade Growers Co-Op. Fertilizer. Hydroponic
Supplies. Cover Crops." It gives an address. "Cover
Crops" sticks in my mind as the forest curtain closes and
the sign disappears.
The rattling truck accelerates up the freeway ramp heading
south. Over the roar of the engine she says, "So you're
leaving the monastery."
I turn to her. Think about how to put it. Then reply, "They
asked me to leave."
Again I consider. "I told them I'm not ready to make
the commitment," I say. "To receive the precepts."
I consider how much to tell her. "The Abbess wants to make
room for those who are."
She glances over, considers me silently. "I think I know
where you're coming from."
That surprises me. "So you're having trouble making a
commitment, too?" I ask.
She bobs her head. "I'm still testing the waters. How
long have you been there?"
"Seems like forever."
In Mt. Shasta City she pulls into the half-filled lot of the
Black Bear Diner. Our breaths steam in the gusts of cold, damp
air. I hold the front door for her. The waitress leads us to
a booth in the big front window. Suzanne tugs off her bright
sweater before sliding in. Beneath it a formless gray fleece
shirt covers her slim shoulders. I try not to stare. Neither
of us look at the menu. She orders a fruit bowl, toast, and
a cup of coffee. I order scrambled egg-whites, toast, and decaf.
We sit there silently facing each other across the damp table.
"Excuse me," she says and bounces out to the women's
Outside the window Mt. Shasta floats like an imposing white
ghost. In its lee hovers the saucer shape of a new cloud, its
puffy bottom glowing golden in the rising sunlight. Lenticular.
I gaze around the restaurant. It's been a long time since I've
been in the outside world. Everything is artificial. The orange
naugahyde seats. The vinyl table tops. Plastic picture menus.
It all seems so strange. The clatter of dishes and ceaseless
chatter of the patrons are a corrosive surf pounding my ears.
Unwelcome. Eroding my inner calm. Everyone is animated, talking
and gesticulating, like tendrils of vetch dancing in the breeze.
"Cover crop" pops into my head again. For some odd
reason I see all of the patrons as a waving cover crop. I am
not sure what that means.
My hands settle in my lap and form themselves into a circle.
The mudra of meditation. I take a deep breath. Press the air
deep into my belly. Let it out. Half close my eyes. Breathe
. . . .
Lenticular clouds. A cover crop. Cleansing the path. A
Suzanne slides back into the booth just as the coffee and
breakfast arrive. We eat in silence. My eyes are downcast, on
my food, but I sense her gazing at me.
"You were watching me," she says causally. "During
I stir sweetener into my coffee. Take a sip. "Yes."
"Why?" Her dark eyes peer into my soul.
What can I say? "I thought you were pretty."
Her stern expression relaxes. She smiles. She leans back against
the naugahyde. "You never said much in class."
"No," I reply. "I was there to listen."
I take a bite of toast. Chew. "Neither did you."
She considers me, then says out of the blue, "You've
seen them, haven't you?"
I look up into her eyes.
"During morning meditation," she adds.
I know what she means. "Yes," I say. "The tower."
She nods again.
"The . . . longing."
"To go home," she confirms. Sips her coffee. "What
do you think it means?"
I shake my head. Take a bite of eggs. A bite of toast. Chew.
Sip my decaf. "I think they're something . . . something
we're not supposed to be seeing."
"A communication," she ponders. "A message.
Maybe. But from whom?"
I sigh. She is drawing out a crazy notion that I have been
keeping buried. "The Farmers."
She considers. "The Farmers?" She swallows
a spoonful of fruit. "What is that supposed to mean?"
I smile at her directness. "Maybe farmers' is the
wrong word. How about caretakers'? Or just observers'?
I haven't really thought this through yet. I'm sorry. It's just
a crazy notion."
Her eyes bore into me. "But it feels right, doesn't
it? Go on. I'll tell you how crazy it sounds."
I shake my head. "I can't. I'm not ready yet."
She finishes her fruit bowl. Her toast. Drains her coffee
cup and nests the dishes on the table. Dabs up a coffee spill
with her napkin. "Where will you go?" she asks.
I take a breath. "I don't know." I think about it.
"I guess I'll buy a bus ticket for Redding. After that
. . . I don't know."
We gaze at our hands as the waitress gathers the plates and
leaves the check.
"I have to tell you something," she says.
"I was watching you, too."
I am pleasantly surprised. My grin feels a little lopsided.
"Are you gay?" she asks suddenly.
"No!" I snort. "I've been married. Twice, as
a matter of fact. It just didn't work out for me. Either time.
Wrong person. Wrong time. Wrong place. But not because I was
gay. Why do you ask?"
She considers. "I've got an extra bed at my place. A
small apartment right here in Mt. Shasta. You're welcome to
stay there for a few days while you sort things out."
"Are you . . . lesbian?"
"No. Heavens, no. Well, I mean, I have . . . you
know " She breaks off, flustered as a young girl.
Redness creeps into the pale flesh around the bridge of her
nose. Spreads into her cheeks. "I mean, no. I don't think
I am, really. I mean, isn't that why I asked you . . . about
"How old are you?" I interrupt mercifully.
"Twenty-nine. I'll be thirty next month." She is
glad the subject has changed.
"Old enough to know better," I grin. I lean back
to consider my options. Think them through. There really aren't
any. I examine her intently. Her pretty face. Her short-cropped
hair. The birthmark on her cheek. The curve of her pale neck.
She is a lovely woman. She can do better than me. I take a deep
breath. Let it out.
"What?" she demands.
"Did Roshi Koshin put you up to this?"
"No!" She protests, then reconsiders. "Well
. . . he did ask me to do what I could for you. He thinks
the world of you, you know. But, no, he . . . he didn't suggest
that I do anything in particular."
"Then why are you inviting me into your home?" I
She drops her eyes. Breathes. Recovers her poise. Looks up
and smiles. "Why don't we just say . . . let's just say
that maybe I want to hear what you think is going on with all
those crazy visions we've been having."
Her apartment is a small walkup at the top of a rickety set
of outside wooden stairs. It is the converted top floor of an
ancient, dilapidated Victorian a few blocks from the main drag.
She leaves her shoes by the front door, and I do the same. The
inside is clean and neat and exudes the musty odor of old books
and spice tea. The small front room is carpeted and furnished
with a worn sofa, a chair, and a floor lamp. No television.
An old Navajo blanket is draped over the sofa. Suzanne doesn't
own much stuff. She shows me through the kitchen to a tiny back
bedroom, not much bigger than a closet. An open futon covers
most of a worn beige carpet. There is just enough room for a
table lamp, an orange crate, and a couple of cardboard boxes
stacked in a corner. A small, high window opens toward the west.
There is no view of the mountain. It suits me fine. I set down
my duffle bag and center my zafu on the futon.
In the hall she clicks a thermostat, and a gas heater whooshes
to life and begins to crackle and creak. She pokes her head
in and asks, "Will this do?"
"Perfectly." I bow in gratitude.
"Listen, I have to get to work," she tells me. "I'm
a little late already."
"What do you do?" I follow her into the hall.
"Oh, I'm a phlebotomist. On-call part time at the hospital.
The regular tech is out on family leave today ." She turns
to see whether further explanation is needed.
"You draw blood from people," I say.
She smiles. "I do. For lab work, mostly. I have to change
now." She ducks into her bedroom and shuts the door. When
she emerges, she is wearing green scrubs with a name tag and
photo ID clipped above her breast.
"When will you be back?" I ask.
"Not until after six." She pulls on a navy windbreaker
and drags open the front door.
"I can make soup for dinner," I offer. "If
you trust me in your kitchen."
"That would be nice," she smiles. "And I do."
The door closes behind her.
I stare at the closed door for a long time. Little squares
of glass behind the sheer mesh curtain let in a diffuse, dreamy
light. I draw a deep breath. Let it out. Drawn another. Let
it out. Now what?
I decide to try meditating. In my room I settle myself on
the zafu. I stay in my civies. No sense changing if I have to
go out to the market later. I sit. I breathe. I try to count
my breaths, but they are slippery this morning. They wriggle
away and I lose count, again and again. This is not the abbey.
Not a proper zendo. It shouldn't make any difference, but it
does. No bells. No incense. No chanting. No sangha. No fellow
monks sweating white beads beside me. My thoughts wander over
my new surroundings. I am not used to this strange bright room.
My situation. I try again. I breathe . . . .
A loop of dark hair curls forward under Suzanne's ear.
The twin pricks of the serpent's fangs mark her cheek. The curve
of her neck. I want to touch the curve
I draw myself back into the present. Shift my posture. Bear
down harder. Begin again. Breathe. Breathe again. Begin to count
my breaths . . . .
Say the wrong thing, and a gap opens up between heaven
and earth. Do the wrong thing and a gap opens. A gap of years.
Thirty years old. Forty-one. A gap of eleven years opens. A
gap opens up between
I try to bring myself back into the present. Again and again.
It is no use. I give up and wander about the apartment, looking
over Suzanne's possessions to see who she might be. In the kitchen
I think about dinner and pull a large pot out of a lower cupboard.
As I look through the drawers for cooking implements, I practice
breathing. Practice bringing myself back to the present.
I step into her bedroom. Her fresh scent lingers on top of
the dry, spicy ambiance of the old Victorian. A poster of a
mandala is mounted on the wall above her low bed. The bed is
neatly made and covered with a striped wool blanket. A quilt
is folded over the foot. A big double-hung window faces east.
A faded paisley curtain is drawn aside. From her pillow she
can see Mt. Shasta through the wavy Victorian glass. The mountain
looms white over the roof of an outbuilding and the bare branches
of an ancient apple tree. Against the wall stands a chest of
drawers. Beside it is a coffee table with a small wooden Buddha
and her incense burner, a rice bowl half-filled with sand and
bristling with spent sticks. In one corner a straight-back chair
holds her folded clothes. Beneath it is her zafu. Clothes hang
in an open closet. A short bookshelf is half-filled with books.
I do not read the titles. That would feel like intruding. On
a little round nightstand is a short lamp, a digital clock,
and a small volume she is reading. There is no computer. No
television. No knickknacks. No photos. Her private life appears
to be as transient as my own.
I pick up the book beside her bed. It is thin and narrow.
Entitled "Wild Ways," it is a book of Zen verses by
Ikkyu translated by John Stevens. I think I might have heard
the name Ikkyu, but I am not sure. Not at the abbey. I read
the translator's introduction. Ikkyu was a Rinzai Zen monk,
an iconoclast, and a reluctant abbot. Sometimes a wastrel. Sometimes
a saint. He would cast off his robes and leave the monastery
for long periods to practice his Zen in the taverns and brothels
of the wide world, drinking, whoring, eating animal flesh, and
breaking every precept. In a straw hat, raincoat, and sandals
he would live among the fish mongers and farmers, sometimes
under a bridge, and sometimes as a hermit in the deep forest.
He called himself "Crazy Cloud" and scribed his beautiful
poems as he wandered his own Zen path. Many verses described
his joyous lovemaking with the blind courtesan, Lady Mori, who
came to him when he was already an old man. Yet he had followers
who recognized him as a great Zen master. When he was eighty
years old, they called him back to become the abbot at Diatoku-ji
Monastery. Of that he wrote, "I hate the smell of incense."
I sit down on the carpet and lean my back against the doorway.
I begin to read the poems. They speak to me. I read them all,
from start to finish, then move onto the sofa in the front room
and read them all again. Only then can I return the slim volume
to Suzanne's bedside table.
I stroll down to the business district. It is only a few blocks
from the apartment. The warm sun feels good on my face. Mt.
Shasta Boulevard is busy with traffic. Everyone seems to be
in a hurry. Waves of roaring vehicles wash past ceaselessly
from either direction. The air is hazy with fumes. Only a few
people move along the sidewalk. Out of their vehicles, walking,
they look soft and vulnerable, like grubs. We nod to each other
as we pass. I suppress an urge to bow.
I find the bank. I have been here before, but it seems like
such a long time ago. In another life. It is an attractive structure.
A monument with tall, exposed-aggregate walls topped with narrow
strips of glass that leaves the impression the roof is floating.
It is a temple of its own kind. No one else seems to notice.
I go inside to the marble counter and write a check for cash.
I breathe deeply as I wait in line for the window. The teller
is too cheerful. Too friendly. She needs to see my ID and seems
to recognize me in the photo. I do not. I ask to check my account
balance and am comfortable with it. Money flowed in. Now it
flows out. Like the air we breathe. It will flow in again. I
cash the check, the teller counts out twenties, and I fold them
into my wallet without counting again.
After the bank I stop at the library and look something up
about dinosaurs in the reference encyclopedia. When I finally
arrive at the market, it becomes almost too much for me. The
bright yellow and red boxes crowding the shelves. The harsh
fluorescent lighting. The gleaming floors and chrome-edge cold
cases. The mindless chattering and bustle of shoppers. A sea
of samsara. I shop as efficiently as I can, letting my breathing
buoy me like a life vest, then flee with paper bags clutched
in both arms.
When I get back to the apartment, I sit and breathe at the
kitchen table before eating a chunk of tofu and a slice of bread.
I boil some water for tea as I set out the groceries, trying
to remain in the present. Aware. My fingers trace the grain
of the oiled wood as I place the cutting board carefully on
the counter. I breathe. I feel the knife handle. There is nowhere
else I would rather be. One by one I wash the carrots in cool
water. Breathe as I cut each one. Wash the celery. Slice each
stalk. Dice each slice. Breathe. Chop up a slice of onion. Cut
some broccoli and cauliflower. Toss it all into the pot and
add vegetable broth and water. Pause. Breathe. I open a can
of white beans, dump it into the pot, put it on low to simmer,
and stir in barley and lentils. I turn down the heat.
While the soup cooks, I strip off my clothing in the bathroom.
In the mirror I do not recognize my face. I dig my shaving kit
out of my duffle bag and find a towel neatly folded in the hall
cupboard. Mindfully I shower and shave. When I gaze again into
the fog-streaked mirror, I appear both younger and older than
I remember. I blot my hair with the towel and pull on my drawstring
meditation pants and the purloined black robe.
I stir the soup, taste it, and add seasoning. I try meditating
again, but it is no good. I need to sort things out. I need
to figure out what I am going to tell Suzanne when the time
comes, as it surely will. About the visions. My crazy notion.
I stir the soup again and turn the heat up a bit. Find a yellow
pad and a pen. Wait for inspiration. Stir the soup. Lenticular
clouds. The red tower. A cover crop. Cleansing the path.
Those are all a part of it, but I try to remember what I saw
behind those images. What I saw in the mind of . . .
of whoever was doing the dreaming. A longing for home. A
purpose for being here. It seems crazier than ever when
I try to write it down.
Suzanne is weary when she gets home. She washes up and changes
into her own meditation robe. Her white skin is lovely against
the black cloth. I serve the soup in shallow bowls at the kitchen
table. Through the window the sun sinks behind the Klamath Mountains.
The room darkens, but we do not turn on the light. Like at the
abbey, we eat in silence.
"Tell me about the visions," she says after the dishes
are done. She settles onto the sofa and drapes her meditation
robe over her curled legs. "You called them Farmers'."
I pace back and forth uncomfortably. This is all speculation,
what I have to say. A fantasy. Madness. But in the end I sigh
and face her squarely. "Sixty-three million years ago,"
I begin, "these . . . Farmers . . . or whatever you want
to call them . . . chanced upon the earth. It was just one planet
among billions . . . circling one star among trillions. But
it had potential. It was located precisely in the right place.
Except the atmosphere was poisonous. At least for them it was
poisonous. But that was something that could be adjusted. They
were resourceful. They were armed with unimaginable technology
and almost infinite time. They could fix it." I pause.
"Is this crazy enough yet?"
"Pretty crazy. Why sixty-three million years?"
"I'll get to that. But first . . . what does a homesteader
do with new land? The very first thing?"
She shrugs. "Plant it?"
"No, before that he clears it. He removes the rocks and
cuts the trees. He plows it. Then, if he can, he plants a cover
crop to improve the soil. To make it more productive. Okay?"
"So, first off, these . . . Farmers . . . they crash
a massive asteroid into the planet. That kills off all the dinosaurs
and opens up the land for a new species. For a new crop, if
"And that was what happened sixty-three million years
"Yes. If what I'm suggesting is true. Should I go on?
This gets even weirder."
"Please," she says, settling back into the cushions.
"Well, the asteroid creates volcanos and clouds of ash
that block out the sunlight, but it doesn't really fix the atmosphere
problem. They needed more carbon. More heat. So they planted
a cover crop. Not plants, but animals. Animals genetically engineered
to increase in number and evolve and cover the earth. To do
the work for them. To eventually extract all the oil and the
coal and the natural gas and all of the other fossil fuels buried
in the planet's crust and burn them in the atmosphere to increase
the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. The temperature
would rise to suit the Farmers. Carbon dioxide would become
adequately abundant. I don't know, maybe they photosynthesize.
I have no idea what the Farmers are."
"And in the process," Suzanne speculates, "the
cover crop would self-destruct. Would annihilate itself. By
changing the climate and poisoning the atmosphere."
"Exactly. Like clearing a field with Roundup. Cleansing
the path. So when the Farmers come back, the planet would be
unoccupied. The climate would be adjusted to suit them. The
ground would be ready for the cash crop. Those lovers of dry
dunes and blowing sand and carbon-rich air would move in."
"Millions of years later," she muses. "The
time scale is . . . is impossible to imagine."
"Yes," I say. "Living eternally must offer
a different perspective of time."
"But what if the species . . . the cover crop . . . what
if someone in the cover crop figures it all out? What if they
decide to stop generating the lethal greenhouse gasses?"
"They can't," I respond.
"Remember, they are genetically engineered for a single
purpose. They are programmed to indulge only their own short
term gain. They are programmed so they cannot do a single
thing about it. That would go against their nature."
"That's crazy," she says.
"And the visions? What about them? The tower?"
I shake my head. "I don't know. Maybe messages home.
I don't know."
"And the clouds?" she asks.
"I don't know."
"Communication structures? Monitoring stations maybe?"
"I don't know. Maybe the clouds are the Farmers themselves.
I just don't know. Or maybe they have nothing at all to do with
She sits quietly. Silently I watch her, waiting for a verdict.
"What if this is all true?" she asks at last, her
dark eyes troubled. "Now that you've figured it out, what
do you plan to do?"
I shrug. "Nothing, I guess."
"But . . . but that would be horrible, wouldn't it? The
whole idea kind of shoots the hell out of trying to plan your
Slowly I shake my head. "Not really. Not so horrible.
Nothing has changed. It's not so different from what they teach
at the abbey. The Zen universe is a cold place. In our short
lives, it won't make much difference. After we are dead, it
will matter even less. Besides, there is nothing we can
do about it. Don't you see, it doesn't make one scintilla of
difference whether we were designed by an alien race of Farmers
or by a blind process of natural selection. They produce the
same result: a species incapable of giving up short-term gain
for long term sanity. Think about it."
"But . . . ."
"Let me read you something from that little book of yours,"
I say. "The one beside your bed"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I hope you don't mind that I was reading
it . . ."
"Not at all," she says. "I love Ikkyu."
I pad into her room to fetch the book. "Things are no
different now than when Ikkyu wrote these verses," I say
as I return. Thumbing through the passages, I settle onto the
sofa beside her. "I never read him before. These verses
seem so . . . for me anyway . . . they seem so . . . so poignant.
One passage in particular struck me." I find my place.
"Let me read it to you."
I read, "Delusion makes it appear that though the
body dies, the soul enduresthis is a grave error. The
enlightened declare that both body and soul perish together.
Buddha' is emptiness, and heaven and earth return to the
original ground of being."
"I know those lines," she says. "From Skeletons.'
I've read them a hundred times."
I glance up, then continue, "I've set aside the eighty
thousand books of scripture and given you the essence in this
slim volume." I close the book and set it beside me.
"In the end," I say, "after we are gone, what
does it matter why we have poisoned the planet?"
A shiver passes through her. "I'm cold," she says.
"Will you hold me?"
I slide over to her. Circle my arm gently around her slender
shoulders. Cradle her. Suzanne is trembling. I draw her closer.
Rub her neck. Stroke her hair. I comfort her. Both of us are
wearing our priestly robes. This irony would have pleased Ikkyu
She snuggles her head against my chest. It feels wonderful.
"You are ten years younger than I am," I whisper
with a last vestige of propriety. "I'm too old for you."
She lifts her face. Her dark eyes are soft and moist. "Ikkyu
had his Lady Mori," she whispers. "He was in his seventies
while she was still a young woman."
"She was blind," I remind her.
"We are all blind," she replies. "They loved
"Yes," I say. "They loved each other."
"And he wrote such beautiful verses about their lovemaking."
"That's what we remember, isn't it?" I whisper.
"That's what lasts." I am still for a long time, holding
her, rocking her. "Ikkyu and Lady Mori. We remember them
even though they have been dead for a long, long time."
"Ah," Suzanne smiles, snuggling closer and slipping
her small hand onto my chest beneath my robe, "but while
they were alive . . . ."