As I arrived in Uithuizen a cold winter’s day greeted me as I stepped off the train. The wind’s sharp teeth bit into my bones. The flat farm fields that swept across my vision were an open playground for my troubled thoughts. The air around me was fresh and crisp.
On opening the solid wooden doors to the temple warm smiles came to greet me from residents who were preparing for the arrival of a Japanese Monk. They whipped around me with their brushes and dusters, excited children eager to please.
Zen Monasteries are cool places. The Dojo with its thick lacquered wooden floors. Bare feet that step lightly towards empty Zafus. Black kimonos are worn like solemn gowns and the sound of the wood that wakes you in the morning.
Gleefully I joined in the cleaning of the monastery in preparation for his arrival. We cleaned the Dojo from top to bottom; of dust, of leaves, of ourselves and the need to cling to things. Then waited for his arrival. We stood in the hallway chattering amongst ourselves like robin redbreasts lined up on a tree branch in mid-winter.
At first, I could not see him as he entered through the wooden doors. And then I caught a glimpse of him and he was oh so slightly built. Walking with purpose, walking with grace and humility. He placed one foot in front of the other as if each step mattered. His body was taut like an archer’s bow. He offered everyone a warm smile and a bow. He put his hands into Gassho with each person he met. One of his hands was slightly deformed making him appear more fragile.
We filed into the Dojo attempting to mimic his lightness. Shuffling like paper soldiers towards our Zafus. Waiting for Hojosan to sit first. He moved towards his Zafu his feet barely touching the floor. He offered a bow to the statue of Amithaba and lit an incense stick out of respect. He then went to his cushion and sat down and folded himself like a lotus flower into his meditation position. The abbot tapped the bowl indicating the beginning of Zazen.
After a few minutes of silence, Hojosan began to talk. His English was slightly broken so I leaned in further towards him.
‘When I was soldier during the war. I was Kamikaze pilot. Funny to think. Now that I am Japanese Monk. I was ready to die for Emperor of Japan. One day when I am in my cockpit message come through tannoy. Japan had surrendered and Japan was no longer at war. I sat in my cockpit and did not know what to do. I was ready to die for my country and now I was going to live. What to do? I got out of my cockpit and like the other pilots stood silent in disbelief. We were all stunned. I decided to walk into town. In town many people wandered around lost, unsure of themselves, aimlessly wandering around like hungry ghosts. When I looked around I remember seeing this chair. Untouched by the ravages of war. Standing amongst the rubble. It appeared fragile. It was empty. I went over to the chair and sat on it. Now the chair was full.’
I waited for the punch line. The rest of the story but he just returned to his meditation. A flower in full bloom. We continued to sit in silence. The only sounds were of the birds outside chirruping. And the occasional ruffle when someone folded their Kimono. My thoughts remained on the empty chair until the Abbott rang the bell. The bell’s sound washed over our minds as we started to stretch our legs and unfold ourselves. We broke for lunch and began preparing the food for our guest. Warm freshly baked bread was placed into baskets. Cheese, grapes, dates, and wine were placed on the table. Knives, forks and spoons arranged around cork mats. It was a frugal, earthy banquet that came from the heart. We sat down taking the bread and wine and waiting for Hojosan to join us. As he entered we all bowed and then recited a short prayer thanking the Buddha for our food.
All eyes were on Hojosan and most people remained quiet and peaceful. To break the silence, the head monk went around the table asking questions of various people to get the conversation flowing. Hojosan out of the blue turned to the girl beside him and said,
‘Why are you so beautiful?’
The girl was shocked and a rush of blood headed towards her cheeks. The redness in her face now matched the wine until she burst out,
‘It must be due to the Irish in me.’
Hojosan gave a childish laugh and everyone else gave an uncertain chuckle. The air around the table relaxed as our elder statesman did his best to reduce our stiff expectations of him. We fell into our personal conversations and the communal noise was as natural as nature’s rustles and breezes. Bread was chewed. Cheese nibbled. And the wine disappeared. After the food we stood and carried on talking while Hojosan introduced himself to the others with that same question.
‘Why are you so beautiful?’
‘Because I am,’ said one.
‘Am I?’ said another.
‘Oh. Thank you.’
Hojosan and the Abbott retired to the conservatory where a couple of talented volunteers had offered their musical abilities on the violin and the piano. After the food and wine, we fell into a slumber as our teacher and the Abbott relaxed on a dog-chewed sofa placed in the corner. The music from the violin strings and piano keys were an extra dessert to be nurtured by our senses as we all battled hard to stay awake. Sleep was calling. Hojosan went first. His head resting on the Abbott’s shoulder. His hands and arms curled up like a baby. It was hard to think that he was once ready to be a Kamikaze pilot. Ready to die for a cause. A handy experience for a Zen teacher.
It was to be a brief visit and the following day Hojosan was due to leave. We gathered around him. This time sweeping him into his car with the leaves. Friends not students. As the car drove off we all waved goodbye to him. He shouted out the window one last time.
‘Why are you all so beautiful?’ and disappeared into the distant road. The leaves flipping, twisting and twirling in the air.