So there we were in our business suits, drinking green tea around a conference table in an office building in Tokyo. We had presented our business cards, which we gave and received ceremoniously, with two hands and a little bow. We had placed them neatly next to our papers so that we could continue to admire them. Our colleagues were very kind to speak to us in English, but when I happened to mention that I was going to study at Eiheiji, the founding Soto Zen monastery in Japan, they burst into Japanese, clucked in concerned voices and with grave nods in my direction, concluded with, “Ohhhhh, Eiheiji.”
Eiheiji, I learned, had a reputation for being difficult. I had already been studying Zen for about five years, so I knew about the practice, but other than that and my friends’ concern, I really didn’t know what to expect. So with some trepidation, I boarded a train in Tokyo. It carried me across Japan to Kyoto. After a few side trips, I intended to head north from there on a less travelled route to Fukui City and then on an even less travelled route to the monastery.
I could watch out the window and see mountains with startling steep sides, and all the buildings crammed into the valleys. I could see modern buildings and older buildings that had been cobbled together after the war. I could see beautiful, tall, old cedars, and fog rolling in from the Sea of Japan, and cranes flying, following the course of the rivers. I could see children in their uniforms playing organized games after school. Everything was neat, so carefully tended. Despite the fact that I was looking at the underbellies of towns as we passed, as often happens on trains, I did not see one scrap of paper or a beer can or any other example of anyone’s careless disregard for the entire length of the journey, which was about 400 miles.
There were ladies who boarded the trains at every stop. They competed to see who could make the nicest meals in wonderful bamboo boxes, lined with banana leaves and filled with rice and seaweed and pickles and seafood. I bought one of the boxes, and when I attempted to open the soy sauce, which was in a plastic container that looked like a little fish, and I twisted the top, it squirted all over my section of the train compartment. The Japanese folks around me courteously pretended not to notice as I got down on my hands and knees on that spotless train to clean up the mess I had made.
Other than that, things went well until I got off the main line running from Tokyo to Kyoto. From that point on, there was no “Romanji”, the Roman-style writing that we use in the west. All the signs were in Kanji or Hiragana, the customary forms of calligraphic writing in Japan. I had no idea where to go. Not a single clue. I was as helpless and lost as a toddler.
Inada-san, the president of the company with whom I was working, had told me that all children in Japan studied English. He had advised me to find a young girl, about 12 years old, and ask her to help me. I went from one child to another, saying, “Do you speak English?” Many were too shy to answer, but one said, “arrito” (a little). She gave directions, and I would go as far as I could, which in some cases was only a few hundred feet, and then I would find another young friend.
That is how I made my way, by degrees, to Eiheiji. I walked through the town, which was full of shops that sold Buddhist tourist items. I walked up the hill, pulling my suitcase. And the first thing I saw was the roof of a temple poking up from behind some cedars. There was a wooden lotus blossom at the peak of the roof. It had been painted gold, and was precisely positioned so that it caught the morning rays of the sun. I thought, “Somebody really considered that building, exactly where to put that flower.” I walked through the gate and what opened before me was a landscape full of many buildings, some centuries old, built into the side of a mountain. Streams of water were coming down, guided through channels that ran along the equally old stone steps and pathways that connected the buildings. The buildings themselves had been built out of cedar, and they had been finished, not with any kind of varnish, but with a special technique of scraping and pressing that sealed the grain of the wood. As a result, some of the buildings were still red, like new cedar, having not yet gone silver with age.
There was a river running along the edge of the monastery. It is called the “Half Dipper River”, and this what I want to tell you. Eihei Dogen, came from China to Japan in the 1300’s, and founded Eiheiji. The story was, he used to go to the river to drink the water, but he’d only drink half of what was in his dipper. He always put half of it back.
I like that very much. I like everything about it. I like it that he went to the river and took what he needed. And I like that he didn’t keep all that was in his dipper. Perhaps it was his way of saying how he wanted to live his life, knowing that the river would always be there, that he didn’t have to hold on to anything, didn’t have to be afraid.
Dogen had come from another country. He was breaking ground, settling in, getting organized, schmoozing dignitaries, sourcing heat and money and food, building buildings, writing, teaching students. I have a book of translations of some of his lectures. It’s eight hundred pages long. So I don’t think that he just sat there, being wise. So I hope that the story is true, that he actually did have time to get to the river, to get what he needed, to build his life and his place from the nourishment from the river. I think he did, because I think that’s how many beautiful and enduring things can happen. And Eiheiji is beautiful. And it’s lasted 600 years.
Here’s what I know. Everything that means anything to me - my sight, my mind, my hands, my cameras, the time I have, the beauty, the light, the breath I take while I’m taking my pictures, my friends, each of you, my husband, our family - every single one of these things is given, given every second, given like a river.
So this is what I remember when I think of this story. I can care for my life. I can have what I need. I can do my work. I can make things. I can give. I have a river. I stand alone in nothing.
I play this little game in my head, sometimes. I think of the rain, and the dark earth absorbing what it needs and sending the rest of it onward. I think of all the streams and rivers, of the oceans and all of the waves tumbling on every shore. I think of all that energy, all of that motion, never ending - the moisture and the blood flow and the heartbeat of the world. And then I think of a little spot at the fish hatchery, just one little spot, where a little stream bends around and in that bend is a log and the water comes up from under that log and it boils the surface. I remember the water was boiling at that spot in the early spring when I took its picture and also boiling in the summer when I took its picture again. Something in that stream gets through to me. I can feel it running right now.
When I need to know what I can rely on, what runs through and nourishes our lives, Bill’s and mine, I think of that little stream running. I like to know and feel it in my body, to feel that it’s always there, because that’s what I can use, and that’s how often I need it.