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.



Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Scribbling Itch

12:21 PM PST, November 15, 2008

November is, and has been since 1998, National Novel Writing Month. According to recent studies, many more Americans are writing instead of reading, and no wonder.

One of Paul Simon's songs begins with the feeling observation "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It's a wonder I can think at all." By the same token, when I consider the fiction I was forced to read far too soon in that ill-remembered milieu, I can't blame anyone for not cracking a book after graduation. Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter I especially recall as sheer torment, inflicted by the overworked bored on the restless apathetic, taught in a total vacuum with no attention paid to the utterly foreign worlds in which they were set, or the life and times of the authors who created them. What astounds me most is that these books and others of their dour ilk are still being forced upon luckless high schoolers in the same sullen, context-free manner decades later, in a milieu that has changed so much that the name Miranda no longer evokes a brave new world or even Huxley (another author I read far too soon), but instead a cop-uttered formula. Incredibly, it's still a self-perpetuating given that no one voluntarily reads a novel after high school, and since this sole brush with literature will be the last, it needs must be forcibly administered like bitter medicine. For all too many the loathing engendered lasts a lifetime...a stunted, light-deprived lifetime. Some disturbing information can be found at this site, beginning with "1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives." I won't go into the 1/3 of the population that doesn't graduate at all.

Still, there's hope. Lots of people survive high school with their love of reading intact, as I did. Like many others, I look forward to at least a minor renaissance with the upcoming presidency. A holistic approach to literature might come into fashion, thanks to the Internet's invaluable ease of access and wealth of resources that make learning an at least physically effortless pleasure, and galvanize independent spirit of inquiry. Miranda just might rediscover that dream she believed in -- I re-read Brave New World recently online, and it was terrific. I only hope that a Google search someday finds her Shakespeare version in less than the few hundred entries it currently entails.

A wealth of sites offer the entire world's best reading at no cost, and here are three of my favorites:
The Digital Book Index