Capturing the Tao
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Like most modern people, I figure that no matter what happens here in industrialized society, no matter what ugly freeways we build or late night TV we watch, there lives some saffron-robed monk on some Far East mountain who still has it all together, spiritually speaking; who grasps some eternal nameless truth we no longer grasp. Maybe he even calls it the "Tao."
We think, "Hey, if only I could stand in that guy's Zen garden for five minutes."
This week, at the end of a high-stress business trip to southern Japan, the Urban Man decides to spend two days looking for the Tao. Okay, sounds silly, but two days is all I have. I fold away my suit, hop a jet, and suddenly I'm in Kyoto, the ancient cultural capital ringed by temples and monasteries tucked into steep mountains of wintry cedar forest.
At my hotel, a young geisha dances for Westerners huddled uncertainly in the lounge. She's seen the hunger in our eyes before. It's not of course a "geisha-hunger," just an "authentic experience" hunger.
Come morning, I stroll in the manner of a pilgrim through the modern Kyoto of department stores and 7-11s to the foot of the Eastern Mountains. It's brisk out, but not brisk enough to make me suffer.
I begin with the Nanzen-ji monastery: low buildings with peaked tile roofs, mossy pathways, and twisty pines. And yes, soon I encounter a Zen garden, you know: carefully-raked gravel with a few strategic rocks. I'm aware that this garden has been here 600 years, but I'm reduced to thinking, "Can I absorb its essential truths in five minutes?"
I sit on the wooden porch, watching the gravel lap at the shore of tightly clipped grass, and sure enough, within two minutes, I get cold feet—not from fear of essential truths, but actual cold feet. You see, they make you take off your shoes here.
And so it goes from shrine to shrine, mossy path to mossy path. Everything is beautiful and inspires a kind of humble awe, but darkness overtakes me before I capture that ineffable purpose, that mote of wisdom, that intangible framework, that hidden note, that transcendent something the Urban Man is sure exists, and has long heard rumored, but which always apparently belongs to someone else.
I start to worry it would take more than two days to find the Tao, and it might not fit in my carry-on.
Still, being an Urban Man, I think, "There must be some efficient way of approaching this problem."
That night I Google a few sayings of the Buddha:
"As the bee collects nectar and fragrance, so let the sage dwell on earth."
"A good path is free from torture and groaning and suffering."
And sure enough, at 2am I awake with a recollected vision of a certain stone vessel along a certain path in a certain garden; and when I rise, I pack my digital camera and flag a taxi to take me rapidly back to one of the temples, called Honen-in, a gentle place you enter through an aging gate of mossy thatch. I make my way along the silent stone pathway...and there it is again: a large vessel shaped like a lotus flower, trickling water.
Someone has placed a rock on the very lip of this vessel. The rock holds down a small leaf, and the water has been carefully directed across this imperfect leaf so it falls in a tiny, but perfect stream to a small stone pool. No doubt some young monk rises every morning at five to position this leaf. No doubt he has a calm heart.
I think, "We each must do what we can. I can use a shot of this as background wallpaper on my laptop." And at that, the Urban Man raises his camera and captures the leaf up close.
Copyright © 2010 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Banner image: Gateway to Honen-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan
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