Loving the Mountains
"Gesshin," I hear Dojo Roshi say my name in the front seat, no honorific "san" needed for me, as usual. I lean forward so I can hear him better. "Ohisashiburi obosan shinai, neh." he murmurs. It's been a long time since you've acted like a monk, hasn't it.
"Actually, I'm a monk for my whole life," I retort, annoyed. He's commenting on how now I'm in school, living a student lifestyle. In his mind this makes me no longer a monk; I'm only a monk in a temple with my head shaved. His comment stings. We drive in silence through the town, past the low, brown shops with their tiled roofs and wooden fronts. We keep driving up through the mountains until there are no more stores but only rice paddies, fruit trees, bamboo, and the occasional tiny farm house.
In the silence, I seethe. The expectation is unrealistic. Maybe everyone is right when they say all this Japanese stuff is useless, patriarchal, backwards, dead. Maybe I should go back to America, get married and grow my hair. These three things always go together in my brain: America, marriage, hair. Because if the only way to be a true monk means being celibate in a monastery, if the only role models I have are elderly Japanese monks and nuns who were themselves raised in temples, if the model of what's acceptable is so, so narrow, how am I supposed to exist in that environment and not suffocate? And not sacrifice all of myself? How is this actually possible? And if it's actually impossible, if Japanese Buddhism is just empty cultural forms, what else is there to do but ditch it all, throw away the costumes, the language, the ceremony, all of it?
We stop at a convenience store and he gives us three thousand yen. We buy bread, eggs, cheese, butter, and I buy chocolate croissants for everyone to snack on. We keep going and drive up the road I've driven so many times, into the thick of the mountain forest.
We get to his temple and it's just like I remember it, just like it's been for fifty, one hundred, two hundred years-- the dragon gate shining in the sun, the courtyard filled with pebbles raked into neat rows, the walls made of charred, black wood strips to protect from fire. I still think it's the most beautiful place on earth.
It's O-Higan, or the Spring Equinox, the time in Japan where families traditionally return to their homes to venerate ancestors. Buddhist monks like us go from house to house, lighting incense at family altars and chanting. It's time consuming and the houses are spread out all across the mountain. During festivals like this, abbots usually call in help from their sons, but because there are no children or wives in this particular Buddhist temple, we are the help.
We barge into the temple with bags, groceries, robes wrapped up in fukusa. Yuko-san is in the kitchen, preparing a food offering for the main altar. She's arranged the food beautifully into four laquer bowls on a red tray. I put the groceries down triumphantly on the counter.
"We brought bread!"
"So it's decided?" She irritated about the bread because she's already prepared Japanese food for the altars, and enough left over for all of us.
The men gather around the kotatsu- the low, wooden table covered with a blanket- next to the kitchen, and Shugetsu-san and I make coffee. Not because we're women or because it's expected that we make coffee; we want to avoid the men and their maps, their battle plans. It's like this every year, the male monks drawing elaborate maps of the countryside, assigning who will go to each house with a robust, military zeal. Eventually we bring them coffee which no one touches anyway. We relent and sit down beside them, listening to the plans.
"Gesshin, you can go here?" I'm assigned four houses, all in a cluster.
"I have no idea where these are," I say, grumpy from the car ride, and the fact that no one is drinking the coffee I made.
"Don't worry, I'll point them out to you."
We change into white kimono, black koromo, and rakusus, and we're back in the van again. Someone points out to me the roof of the first house where I'm supposed to go to. I get out of the car, watch it pull away, and head up the hill. I'm wearing traditional wooden geta sandals and the hill is steep, so walking is difficult. I pass a garage with half a dozen old, Japanese men sitting around a table. They stare at me as I walk past.
For some reason, when we go for chanting we always enter through the side door, not the front. I knock on the sliding glass door and call out, "Shitsurei-shimasu?" A guy from the group of men in the garage runs up the hill to let me in; it's his house. I take off my shoes on the big stepping stone and go inside. The family altar is made of wood, about three feet wide, and takes up the entire space between the floor and the ceiling. It holds an incense bowl, two candles, photographs of deceased relatives, and wooden memorial tablets with their Buddhist names written out in ink. There are flowers in a jar and offerings of rice and cakes.
Kneeling in front of the family altar, I light candles and three sticks of incense. Then I chant two sutras and read a dedication of merit for his family. I feel good in front of the family altars, chanting. There was a time when this made me nervous as hell, barging into strange Japanese houses by myself to chant sutras in Sino-sanskrit, but not anymore. It feels satisfying to light incense and chant, to perform this small, prescribed act for someone else.
When I'm finished, the man offers me a tray of tea and cake. "You probably have a lot of houses to go to and a lot of tea to drink," he says. I nod, but I eat it anyway. We chat about the weather and I ask about the guys in the garage.
"What are you doing in there?"
"We're planning a big cleanup of the street for Higan," he says. "And also, today we're making udon."
"Yes, everyone on this street, we're getting together to make udon."
"You mean with your feet?" I ask. Hand-made udon is actually made by stomping on the dough with your feet.
"Of course," he says.
"Yes. The men are making the udon, and the woman are making the broth and tempura."
I say thank you for the tea, bow, and I'm back outside with the map in my hands. The man shows me where the next house is and I'm off, like a scavenger hunt or some kind of perverse- tricker treating.
At the next house, an old woman greets me. Her face lights up when she sees me for some reason, and she sits beside me chanting along with me the whole time. When I'm done she brings out more cake and tea. By the time I get to the third cake I feel a little nauseated, but I muster all my Zen endurance and eat it. She tells me she's visited the monastery before, and remarks on how big it is.
She tells me when she visited she donated umeboshi, the sour, pickled plum we eat every morning with our rice porridge. "I'm not sure I made them very well," she says with typical Japanese deference. "They're very salty." It turns out this morning I ate the plums she donated.
"Do you have a plum tree?" I ask.
Back out in the countryside, I walk down the hill to the last house. I'm surrounded on all sides by farms, flower gardens and green, rolling, mountains. I wish I knew the names of the flowers growing up between the rocks, and the fields of tall, yellow grass that look like wheat but aren't wheat. It's hot, the sky is bright blue and the sun is straight above me. I realize that if no one comes to pick me up I'm completely lost, no cell phone, nothing, in the Japanese mountains.
As I walk I can hear the sound of a nearby stream. Other than the sound of the mountain stream and my feet on the dirt road, it's completely silent. I feel the same way I did four, five years ago: unhinged by the beauty of the countryside and the mountains. I remember years ago in the monastery, before I ordained, after everything was cleaned up from lunch I would go walking through town. The valley was so quiet it felt like it belonged to me. The roads were empty, and I would look around at the mountains encircling me, and watch the bamboo lining the hills bend in unison in the wind. I would walk pass irrigation ponds, rice paddies, yellow grass and shining, tile roofs. There were tiny flower gardens, gigantic, terrifying insects, and one, white heron who would always come to the irrigation pond and sit beside it. The green mountains seemed to melt into the valley and also hold everything in silence.
When I'm finished, I wait and wait by the side of the road. Finally Shugetsu-san picks me up in the car and we drive back to the temple. When we arrive there's sandwiches after all: melted cheese on bread, egg salad and brocolli sandwiches, potato salad, orange and apple juice. We eat and eat and eat, and we're still hungry so we eat the leftovers from the altar offerings: thick tofu stewed in soy sauce broth, carrots, and beans. Then the Japanese guys and Yuko-san roll homemade mochi into balls, coat it in sweet bean paste and there's-- unbelievably-- more tea and sweets. At two-thirty we pile in the vans again, and head home.