Friday, 24 May 2013

"What is a gardener, Sensei?"


In this episode from the 'Shigoto Chronicle' by Robert Ketchell, the aspiring garden apprentice Shigoto Okugi has been invited by his teacher Maguro Sensei to tour the gardens of Hirame Palace where they work. Becoming a garden apprentice in Japan has never been a simple matter in any era. For one thing it is for the student to prove to his teacher that his is worthy to be taught ..... 


August 1587

When he joined Maguro Sensei, he exchanged his ritual greetings with his teacher. Maguro Sensei said little but gave his young apprentice a quizzical look that once again made Shigoto feel that he was being observed from the inside out. “Come on then Shigoto, we cannot be standing about all day,” said Sensei, then he strode off with his long strides, Shigoto almost had to run to keep up with him. The pair of them had reached to top of a small hill that gave a view out across the Great Dragon Pond, here Sensei paused, and a distant look came into his eyes. Shigoto was gradually becoming more sensitive and observant as to his teacher’s moods, he knew not to intervene, and he buried his chin deeper into the collar of his kimono and waited patiently for the instruction to move on. Having taken in the scenery for a few moments, Maguro Sensei turned to Shigoto.

“Well, Shigoto, what do you make of that then?’

“That, Sensei? Umm, I’m sorry, what exactly is that, Sensei?”

There was no reply from the tall man with a shaven head that gleamed in the light,, he seemed as far away as ever, as if he was travelling in some distant place known only in his own thoughts. Maybe even lost in there someplace trying to find a route back for all Shigoto knew. Stillness hung between the two contrasting figures, as if a drape of thin gauze had been lowered between them.

“Do you have any questions, Shigoto?” Sensei eventually asked, his voice seeming to come from a long way away.

Shigoto had been caught ill prepared, and he blurted out the first thought that came into his mind that appeared reasonable to share with his teacher. “What is a gardener, Sensei?”

“That, Shigoto, is what you will find out in good time.” Then he turned about on his heels and left Shigoto hurrying to catch up with his quickly retreating steps. Once more Shigoto felt the anger born of frustration with his teacher coursing through him, he had asked he felt, a perfectly reasonable question, and received by way of reply an answer that answered nothing. He felt his patience slipping. Having once again run to catch up with Sensei, he appeared right at his teacher’s side, and for the first time spoke directly to him.

“But Sensei, excuse me Sensei, but what is a gardener supposed to do?”

Maguro Sensei stopped where he was, having been caught by surprise, for there was real urgency, even passion now to Shigoto’s voice. The tall figure carefully observed the upturned face of his student for several minutes before carefully replying.

“A garden creator, Shigoto, is an artist, an artist and a magician dealing with energies and spirits. A gardener is someone striving to become a garden creator, somebody searching out those tools to be able to create with Nature. Looking everywhere, all about him, in the rocks, in the earth, in water, in mountains and valleys, trees, and in flowers. Searching above, searching below, searching inside, turning everything over, to find what it is he is looking for. A true artist, Shigoto, will pay any price for that which he searches for, any price at all. A garden creator is someone who builds whole worlds through which people pass, yet the likelihood is that they will only see but a small part of what is actually there. Knowing nothing but a fraction of what exists. There are three parts to our art, the past, the present and the future. The garden creator sees them as one, as a continuous flowing, like a stream running past his feet, which is as it should be. To the outsider, they are separate parts that may or may not connect in time.”

He paused to gather his thoughts, Shigoto stood before him entranced by the flow of words.

 “When we walk under the tree, do we take it all in and know every twisting branch, every leaf? Of course not, we see the only tree and we recognise it for what we know it is. That type of tree there, Shigoto,” Sensei pointed a long bony finger in the direction of a tree growing nearby where they stood. “It has a name people have given to it. That plant growing close beyond it, the small one with yellow flowers, its roots when mashed together and mixed with water will produce a dye people have learned to fix the colour of silks with. These are the useful things many people know about them, beyond that…” he paused as if to re-gather his thoughts. To give Shigoto a chance to catch up with him.

“…Beyond that, beyond that there is another world of the garden all together, Shigoto. For example an incorrectly placed or badly balanced arrangement of stones can bring disorder and illness to the master of a house, can condemn him and his family to suffering, ill fortune and death even! You think I exaggerate? The ancients knew all too well of these matters. If the gardener does not learn what is the difference between right and wrong, between the right way and the wrong way, he can bring misery and destruction, not beauty and life to the household.”

Maguro Sensei paused once more, as if to draw breath and let the import of his words sink in. When he resumed expressing his thoughts his words came raining down on Shigoto, and he did not pause this time to consider if his young charge was following the meaning of what he had to say. He made no concession to Shigoto’s age and inexperience, the words seemed to bubble up from someplace deep within him, coming up from a wellspring of unfathomable reserves. He spoke from a place beyond words. It was as if he spoke for himself.

“A garden creator is searching for a truth Shigoto, that is all. It is as simple as that. Trying to work with that which may not always be manifest to our eyes, but that which is always there. The true nature of our work is that we are working with energy, the ebb and flow of energy. I call this force energy, there are some who have called it love. It matters not one bit what label we attach to these things, for labels are changeable, perishable, and even liable to be lost and forgotten over time. But what the garden creator seeks to do is to see beyond the surface of things, to know their true heart, to understand them as well as he recognises his own hands.  The true gardener, Shigoto, is always searching for the tools he needs to be a garden creator. Anyone can work in a garden, be a gardener, Shigoto, and that does not take any particular skill or even strength of body or mind. Not everyone can be a garden creator though, for that you are chosen by the garden, by the place itself, you do not choose that, it chooses you. Never forget that, it is the first lesson, the first step on a very long path.”

Maguro Sensei fell silent again, and Shigoto felt himself spinning about by the force of what he had just been told. He went and sat down on a rock that lay nearby where they were standing and rested his chin in his hands. No one had ever spoken to him in such a way before, it opened up a flood of images, and thoughts and feelings that threatened to engulf him. Then, he could see in his own mind an image of a wave falling back to the ocean from a stony beach. He was walking, walking alone; to his right side a lively sea was pounding with relentless energy against the shore, to his left the trees were crowding thickly together, jostling one another for space and light. A wind was blowing hard from behind him, pushing him onward, its impatient blasts filled his hearing. Though he could see the canopies of the trees surging, first one way then another in a maelstrom of motion, all he could hear was the wind. Pushing him onward.

“When will I become a proper apprentice, Sensei?”  His voice quavered with an excitement that bubbled up from a profound place within him. He felt a desire to be accepted, a wish to be taken in to the fold, as he wanted to go deeper, much deeper into this world that Maguro Sensei had sketched out before him.

“Is that what you have chosen for your own self, Shigoto? Is that the path you choose to follow, or are you choosing that route because you have been told to do so, by your clan lord and master Lord Saeko, or by your parents, perhaps out of filial respect to them?”

A dense silence fell between the two of them. There was only the rustling of leaves in the trees and the excited chatter of birds, but Shigoto heard none of this, he had arrived at another place all together.

Now Shigoto was walking along that same shore, but the wind had gone, stillness had replaced the wild motion of the wind, the sea softly lapped against the shore. There was no sound in his ears, no thoughts in his mind, no effort in his legs as he walked along a narrow path with the sea reaching to infinity on one side, and land stretching away on the other. Shigoto looked over toward Maguro Sensei who was standing but a pace or two away and he looked up towards his face. With the light above and behind him Sensei’s face was in deep shadow and his features all but indistinguishable from Shigoto’s position below. The gulf between them, as pupil and teacher, as man and boy, was enormous, yet the rising, filling pressure in his chest pushed him on, he was prepared now to take the risk of speaking directly. He knew then that he had the complete attention of Maguro Sensei, who was prepared to set aside any distinction between them, to listen without prejudice to what Shigoto may have to say.

“When will I become a proper apprentice, Sensei?” Shigoto repeated. “I want to be a gardener.”

“You know, and I am saying this because I happen to like you, if you are going to survive in this life, then you are going to need to be strong. I am warming to who you are, Shigoto, and I am not just saying this to annoy, or put you down in some way, but … to be an apprentice is a hard choice, you will have to commit yourself completely to me as your teacher. Whatever you may think you know now, it is nothing, nothing but smoke in the wind. You will be called to loosen all attachments.  Do you understand what I mean by that? There is something called fate, which all human beings have to accept. What I mean is that there are circumstances in life, which we have to come to accept, because that is what we have been given to do. This we have to accept without question.”

“You mean that now you are my father, and the person who I thought was my father is no longer my father.” Shigoto had no prior warning of the words, they just seemed to form in his mouth and emerge of their own accord.

“That is correct, Shigoto. Your father and mother are no longer here just to be your father and mother. Your mother and father will still exist, but you who were their son no longer will be there before them as before. The reasons for this are complicated and will pass beyond your understanding for now. It is better that you simply accept the workings of fate and not to question this matter further for now. Our master Lord Saeko has asked me in his infinite wisdom to be your teacher. That is a duty in fate given to me, and one that I have had to accept. In time you will be trained as a gardener, and it is your fate is to accept that your life and work is to be at the service of the Lord Saeko, just as it is mine. Shigoto, we are simply two leaves at the mercy of being tossed and turned by the wind.”

“You mean fate,” a concept with which Shigoto was not at all familiar, but was beginning to appreciate implied something in which he had little or no choice, “it is something that I have to agree to?”

“Yes, Shigoto, in a way, you have a choice to make, yet there is really no choice to be made. You just have to come to accept life as it is, for what it is. There is something called fate, which all human beings have to accept. What I mean is that there are circumstances in life, which we have to come to submit to. Your fate I suspect is to be a gardener. My fate is to be your teacher. You can just take it all as a light-hearted matter, just see it as spending time in a pleasant place, but, there is more to it than that. I suppose what I am saying is that you will need to be tough to cope with it all. Build strength from the inside out, then you will stand firmer on the ground. Remember Shigoto, things are not always what they appear to be, that is always very important to bear in mind. Perhaps it is the most important thing of all. When you really understand that, then things will become easier for you. We all have had to face that, it’s part of learning to be an apprentice, as well as learning how to be a human being, you know. I do not know you too well right now, maybe you have had an easy life so far, and you are young after all. In this world, Shigoto, one thing is for sure, you are going to need to be tough on the inside, as well as becoming strong in the arms, back and legs.” Having spoken Sensei took a step back as if to give his young charge the time and space to consider his words.

It seemed like more than one thing to Shigoto, but he was beginning to get a grasp on of that what he was being told, even if at that moment he could not really appreciate the full implications of it all. Shigoto knew Sensei was warning him of the difficulties of what lay ahead, and yet was seemingly also holding the door of change open in invitation for him to step through, should he so wish to do. It dawned on Shigoto that the path along the shore he had seen in his mind, that he had been blindly following at first, and then had been driven along by the wind, must have been made by others passing that way before him. Yet he had noticed no one else, and was only aware of being quite alone, yet he had felt unthreatened and unafraid.

 He was back on that path once more and now a side path, narrower than the one he had been walking on, branched off to his left, and began winding its way through the trees. He took it and was soon swallowed by the woodland crowding down towards the shore. The light changed as he entered the woods, from a sharp contrast out in the open to a soft focus, the air was cooler and lighter here than before, rich scents rose up from the damp ground. The path wound first one way, then another, though slender it remained clear enough for Shigoto to follow, he felt he was walking without walking, and so he could give all his attention to what he was seeing and experiencing. The path reached the top of a rise, where the canopy retreated sufficiently above his head and was now open to the sky again, Shigoto realised he was in the Hirame Palace gardens, but he could not quite place where. It felt comfortable to be back on what felt like familiar territory again, when he turned around he could neither see nor hear the sea any more. He pressed on expecting to catch a glimpse of the Great Dragon Pond, as he wound around a group of evergreen shrubs clustering together, he looked up and saw the figure of Sensei in the distance. He waved towards Sensei, who returned his gesture, Shigoto forged on toward the unmistakable shape ahead on the path. As he came up to the spot where he had seen his teacher, he found himself alone again, there was no one there. He shook his head to clear his mind.

“That will be all for today then Shigoto.” Sensei’s voice brought him back to the rock he was sitting on. “You can make your own way home from here I am sure. When the time comes, Shigoto, you will become an apprentice gardener, according to the wishes of Lord Saeko. Whether you become a garden builder of repute, who can say for sure. The mountains and water knows but does not speak of that, at this point. Live your life as it comes, one day at a time. Your fate is laid out before you Shigoto, those choices have already been made and cannot be undone. Hurry along now your mother waits for you.


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