The Contest

Check out Ellen Sandbeck's papercuts of the Buddha on the Facebook page "A Buddha A Day." Choose your favorite image, then send a wonderful piece of your writing, one page or less, on any topic, to You may win the original papercut of your choice!

Winning entries will be posted on this page.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Winning entry from James Noah

To the Green Sea

Author's note:
When I have written about my experiences as a Zen monk in Japan, I often receive feedback that my stories are not very Zen-like, or filled with soul-searching philosophy. I would agree, but I am not really sure what is meant by Zen-like.  So I gently tell them, “If you want reflective meditations on peace and harmony, don't go to Japan for Zen training.  If you want to know what one day was like?  Read below.” I'm not saying this is the only way, I'm just telling you how it was.
'nuff said?

It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters that anyone could remember. Even the old monks who came by on occasion remarked that it reminded them of the meager days after the war when the monasteries were one of the only places with food and young men became monks out of necessity. Those winters were cold they said. Blankets were scarce and discipline severe. I knew they were right. I counted seventy-five hand written names above the worn wooden shoe box in the entry hall.  Almost three times the number of training monks on hand now. It would have been hard to feed that crew on donated rice and roots pulled from under the snow.
It was my second winter at the training temple in the quiet port town of Onishi. January was the month of kangyo, the winter training. Regardless of weather we would march ten to fifteen kilometers through the nearby villages each day to collect alms in support of the temple. Normally we would take the same course in and around the town, but once each season we would walk through town, cross the river, and visit the remote fishing village of Nishimura. No one minded going out there in summer, but the winter trip was hard, and we would be exposed to a piercing, biting wind most of the way.
On the morning of the march into Nishimura, I woke to the coldest day so far that winter. I slept next to an old, ill-fitting window and the wind in the night had blown the snow in through the cracks to form small drifts on the top of my blankets and across the floor. Yet I'd learned that a few degrees below freezing were better than above for marching because the slush on the road would freeze hard keeping our feet dry a bit longer. Feet and hands suffered the worse.

Meditation started at five, chanting at six, and rice at seven. At seven forty-five the roll call began with a monk beating a steel plate which hung in the entrance to the temple. We rushed to get ready. The steel plate sounded out in a jagged, steadily rising clang as we assembled on the hardened dirt floor of the Entry Hall. The head monk shouted,
"Everyone going out today must stand at attention to receive the day's instruction and recite the chant." Our nickname for him was The Apache. He would not have looked out of place in a maximum security facility.
It was cold, yet it seemed that the tighter I bound my garments the warmer I felt. One man would pull the chin straps on his kasa so tightly there would be marks on his face for hours. We all had our little ways of keeping warm, but it wouldn't matter for an hour into the march warmth was something months away in a dream. In the Entry Hall we stood at sharp attention, heads up, looking strong. It was easy to look tough now, our feet were dry. The head monk spun towards us and barked,
We marched into Nishimura to a bitter cold wind rolling off the ocean like a giant wave, dashing against the corrugated metal houses and blowing the cold even deeper into our bones. At the moment I thought,
this is what it really is to be cold. Who cared if I couldn't feel anything from the knees down? Someone had to break a trail in the two-foot deep snow drifts. It was so cold I became euphoric. Without gloves in the cold we lost control of the muscles in our hands. It would start slowly with the little finger then move on to the next until the whole hand curled into a weak fist. It was a daily ritual watching men try to straighten out a frozen hand with the still good fingers from the other.
Each year important townsfolk in Nishimura held a formal meal for the monks at a local inn to commemorate our visit. After our morning march through the village we stopped at the appointed place-a spacious, seaside inn with very gracious people. But there would be a price to pay for indulgence in food and wine. The problem was that our frozen feet would swell from the indoor heat and when it came time for the return march, we could no longer get our now wet, stiff tabi socks on without great and painful effort. Some walked the 5 km back to the temple barefoot.
Dinner that night was instant Ramen-if anyone wanted it. Most recovered in their rooms huddled around small hibachi. Some of us sat quietly in the Meditation Hall. I would stuff a thin blanket under my robe to stay warm. Body heat would keep me reasonably comfortable in the still air-and my feet were dry. Not a bad day after all.

© James Noah 2008

1 comment:

  1. Jim, I always meant to ask how OLD you were when this occurred (and how long you lasted...) It always sounded like a life only for the young and supple, though I know many of the monks there must have been old, and perhaps made older by the cold.... Did the physical privations do anything for your spiritual growth? Or was that better accomplished in warm seasons?