Asakusa and The Monk by Mark Boyter
Today, right now—here—I’m in Tokyo.
I’ve lived in Japan twice, I’ve been back for three visits, I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s and Ozu’s films, but apart from my arrival at Narita and 20 confused and jet-lagged minutes in Tokyo station on that naïve initial day, I’ve never been to Tokyo.
I’ve come back to Japan to do the eight day December Zen meditation rohatsu sesshin in Nagoya at Tokugen-ji temple. I studied Zen at Tokugen-ji; not for a long time, but enough time that it became a part of me. I miss the spirituality of Japan, the spirituality of sitting; the quality of Zen that I feel when I’m here, even when here is just sitting on the temple’s concrete steps. The quality of me. If homesickness brought me back before, it’s my memory of rohatsu sesshin that brought me back this time.
I see parallels to Hesse’s novel Journey to the East. Hesse too had lost his spiritual way, and as the book’s main character did for his redemption, I’ve made the decision to stop at every temple I encounter, no matter size or import. And because it’s Zen specifically, for every monk on the street standing with his alms bowl, I stop, I raise my hands towards my face in gasshō, I bow, and I offer money.
The day after the sesshin ended, I traveled north by shinkansen to Tokyo. It’s now mid-December; I’ve got my baseball cap to keep warm. Royal purple with large gold lettering that reads Granville Island Brewery. I won it at the pub with a friend just before I left. In Vancouver it’s advertising. Here, it’s home and that friendship. It’s funny how we carry home. Even when we are alone, we aren’t. There is more to Zen than sitting.
Today—right now—here in Tokyo, I’ve decided to go to the Kabuki-za theatre. I’m flying tomorrow and I feel like being a tourist. It’s close enough that I can walk. I like walking. I see more. Yesterday I walked into the foreigners’ cemetery in Aoyama. Often it is what I find through serendipity that in the aftermath resonates the strongest.
After 45 minutes, I arrive in front of the Kaminari-mon gate of Sensō-ji temple—Asakusa temple. The bright red “Thunder Gate” dwarfs its surroundings, a huge red chochin lantern hanging in its center. Once again in Japan, I am in awe. I am also further away from the Kabuki-za than when I started. I have been walking in the wrong direction.
Sensō-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple. It was built in 628; 70 generations of Japanese have walked to this exact place, if not this exact building, to pray. For the first 63 of those, Sensō-ji’s visitors would have lived almost exclusively within walking distance. For the monks at Tokugen-ji, Sensō-ji would have been legend.
The temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion; Kannon in Japanese, Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit. This building I see is only 60 years old. It was bombed in the war, and then rebuilt. You can’t bomb spirit. Spirit exists unseen; mere bombs can’t destroy it.
The temple is at the end of a long avenue of flag stones leading from the Thunder Gate, lined by small stalls. Many sell incense, the traditional offering at the temple. I stop at one. I am looking for something. At Tokugen-ji meditation periods are timed by incense. One stick is 25 minutes. The scent of Tokugen-ji is my anchor to Zen. If I can replicate it, I can take Zen home. The seller has incense that is close, but questioning the integrity of the incense because the stall is not a shop, I put it back, bow, and buy only a small, cheap bundle for my offering at the large brass incense burner ahead.
At my hotel that evening, sitting over a bottle of Kirin beer, my folly is clear; I should have bought the incense. If perfect is what I am searching for, I will go back to Vancouver empty handed. The lesson, I suspect, is greater than just shopping. I decide to return to Asakusa the next morning. I have time.
But this morning in Asakusa, I feel hurried. Where yesterday at Sensō-ji there was only this, only then, today there is a plane to catch, a deadline to meet. It is all illusion, I know; there is still only this, still only now. It just doesn’t feel like it.
I have no time. I never do. Except I always do.
I find the seller, confirm the incense, pay, and bow. ¥1700. Cheap.
I leave. Today there is a subway, a plan, direction. Today I know where I am going.
The sidewalk in front of the Thunder Gate is full of tourists and worshippers. It was the same yesterday; it will be the same tomorrow. It has been the same for 70 generations. But yesterday I didn’t notice and tomorrow I will be back in Vancouver. Today I do, and I feel stressed for the awareness. It is all in my mind. Different too than yesterday, today there is a solitary monk standing with his alms bowl, dressed in the grey robes of a Korean monk, not the deep indigo of a Japanese. My ego acknowledges my intellect; I really do know a lot. But there is no time to stop, no time to search for a coin, no time to bow and raise my hands. No time. I hesitate past him, pulling the bill of my ball cap lower, trying not to catch his eye, trying not to be seen. If I walk fast, I think, I will blur into the crowd.
As I pass in front of the monk, there comes a deep voice, resonant and questioning.
“Does that say Granville Island?”
The monk is Korean. He had lived in Vancouver. His temple was near Granville Island. He wants to talk. He misses Vancouver.
Do I have time?