The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Deep Sweet Ineffable

6:15 PM PST, November 22, 2008

Peace happens in the most impossible places. This past summer, at a crowded downtown Kyoto shopping arcade between a reggae-themed clothes stall and a hyper-hip music store blaring a conjoined brain-shred of Burning Spear and Infected Mushroom, I discovered a Buddhist temple tucked away down a little path, its presence indicated by a marble pedestal supporting a sutra-incised granite prayer wheel that spun effortlessly beneath my reverent fingers, summoning the Unseen. At the temple fountain I performed the ritual hand-washing, then slipped off my shoes and ascended the smooth wooden steps to the sanctuary. As was often the case at the dozens of shrines and temples I visited in my two weeks in Japan, I had the place to myself. The tatami matting comforted my weary tourist feet, grounding me to serenity. Only a few yards away music still thudded from the teeming mall, but I no longer heard it. I was far elsewhere, in a place I cannot describe, but which was far more immediate to me than the world I returned to, refreshed and at rest, a little while later.

I put together a butsudan once I got back to the States, to commemorate and re-live that rescuing tranquility. Japanese butsudan are exquisite objects, but they can seem too much like dollhouses for gods--a profusion of gilded lacquer and ornamentation as costly as the owner can afford, with expensive ritual food offerings and rare flowers and images meant to be worshipped. I'm not sure the Buddha would have approved, prince though he was. So I took a little yard-sale table and spray-painted it black, and placed it in the southwest corner of my reading room--that direction is special to me, since it evokes the Four Corners--and above the table I hung a batik picture of Kwannon, the goddess of mercy. On the table I arranged the following objects:

A dish full of mostly blue-and-white porcelain shards collected during my trip. It's very common to find bits of broken offering bowls and cups around shrines and Shinto graves; earthquake tremors or misadventure are most likely to blame for the breakage, since vandalism seems virtually nonexistent in Japan (with the exception of Western-style graffiti around Tokyo's Shinjuku ward, where Lost in Translation was filmed--why is it that the rest of the world seems to choose the worst things about America to emulate?). I grouped the shards around a simple holder enclosing a stick of the kind of incense sold only at shrines, thick, slow-burning and divinely fragrant.

A wooden statuette of the type called the Weeping Buddha, face buried in and hidden by agonized hands, knees bent in fetal angst instead of the customary crosslegged attitude.

A little brass handbell from India, thrillingly sweet and clear at even the slightest ring, that my grandmother borrowed from me for my great-grandmother's use during her final illness; one of the very few things I possess from my past.

Pebbles collected over many years from many countries, and a 27-bead mala of rose quartz and jade that I made myself.

A vase to contain fresh sprigs of the evergreen cherry laurel that grows around the house, reminding me that winter can't kill everything.

Every morning I stand at my butsudan and ring the bell, and drape my mala over my hands and make the sign of the wai, and bow my head in reflection. I don't pray because I can't, but my hopes tend to take the following shape:

May I be grateful for this day, and live it as well as I can.
May I perform some action that makes a good difference.
May my creative energies be focused to their sharpest, and find their best expression.
May I always cherish others for their kindness, and remember that harboring ill will weakens the soul.
May I be mindful that of all qualities, arrogance is the most injurious, and the ability to forgive the noblest.
May I always recognize delusion and avoid it, and may those now in error do the same.
May I never forget that only the end of the world is the end of the world.

I then think of people and situations I'm especially concerned about, hoping the best for them; and then I bow twice and proceed with the rest of my day, wishing it might be tinged by the ritual. To my grateful surprise, it very often is.



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