Friday, 7 June 2013

Of Emptiness And The Heart

One difference between the fellow gardeners began to emerge when Sensei guided them through the practical aspects of the ritual of preparing tea. Then a contrast would show between the intense concentration of Konnyaku, the slightly stiff movements, and the lack of fluidity of one action flowing into the next. Shigoto’s movements were lighter and easier, though he would often stumble over a detail in the order of which each aspect of the ceremony was carried. He would forget to fold the square of silk cloth in the prescribed manner, before brushing it over the tea caddy, or he would forget to rotate the bowl before presenting it, and so not position the front of the bowl facing towards the guest. Sensei watched them intently as they ran through the motions, leaning forward to touch an arm or shoulder, to remind the student of his posture, or issuing a quiet word here or there by way of brief, concise instruction, whenever a student lost his way. He would watch, correct, remind and encourage, but not once did he compare or contrast one student against another.

“Sensei, do you know my father well?” Shigoto and Maguro Sensei were sitting on the veranda of Kokiburi-an after an evening of lessons in Tea, and after the other students had left. There had been a lull in the conversation when Shigoto raised his question. It caught Sensei slightly off balance, he stiffened slightly before replying.

“Your father? No, no I do not know him well. I see him from time to time when I have to report to the Palace. I did ask him once about teaching you the Chinese Classics, as I do for all the children there, but he was adamant I was not to. It would be true to say Shigoto, your father and I are not close friends. Why do you ask?”

“No reason really,” said Shigoto distractedly. “Well, it’s just that we do not get on well. We never have really. I find my father… I find him a difficult person to understand, that’s all I suppose. He is so rarely at home, it’s difficult to remember the last time he was there. When I visit it’s always my mother I see. Well, and my grandmother, but she is different, she’s old and talks to the neighbours.”

“I’ll remember that, thank you for the warning,” said Sensei slowly, all the while looking at Shigoto, as if he was trying to divine the meaning and intention behind the words.

Another silence wrapped around the two figures sitting on the edge of the veranda, their legs dropping down into the tiny garden, which neither of them was really looking at.

“ Did you know your father well, Sensei?” immediately Shigoto checked himself. “I’m sorry that was a rude question. Forgive me. I should not have been so personal. Excuse me.” Shigoto stammered, realizing his mistake of over familiarity with his teacher.

“That’s alright. The answer to your question is, no. Since we are speaking openly to one another, I will tell you this, which may surprise you to hear. My father, I never knew, nor even my mother, I was left at a temple in Kyoto to be brought up by the monks. Though when I was older I did become curious as to who my parents were, and I wanted to find them. To know, at least who they were, to speak to them perhaps. Don’t get me wrong, by then I had learned to be content with my life. My ‘family’ was the temple where I lived. I had become content with that.”

The honesty of the reply emboldened Shigoto to ask another question.

“Did you find out who your parents were?”

Maguro Sensei paused before he replied. “No, not exactly. But it seems my father may have had some connection with Mikura. That’s partly the reason why I came here when Lord Saeko offered me the post of Head Gardener, I accepted, hoping to find some clearer answer perhaps.”

“So your father was from Mikura?” Shigoto was shocked at the intimacy and honesty of the confession.

“Not necessarily, but there seems to be a connection I have yet to make clear. May be I never will,” he said with a slight smile. “ Anyway, from what I know of your father, who we were talking about, he is a busy man these days with many duties attending to Lord Saeko. I do hear he advises the Lord in private. He seems to be an important man Shigoto. Never forget that. He chose a different way for you, that is something you have accepted, so now it is your duty to follow your father’s wishes to the best of your ability.”

“ I love my work. I love being a gardener. I will never do anything else. I want to learn Sensei, I want to learn what you know, to be able to do what you do.”  There was a fierce pride and determination in his tone when he spoke.

“I know that Shigoto. I have seen what you have to offer.” Sensei paused and smiled again. “You know when I was studying to be a gardener myself, our Sensei once said that not all those who studied could become gardeners. That many people could try, many people could learn how to do this job or that, but few had the ability to go beyond that. To be gardeners who can really create, really understand how to set stones, compose and create. Like the carver who can look up at a tree in the forest and see a statue of the Buddha, or the artist who can make the wind blow simply by drawing a pine branch with a few strokes on paper. There are those who can, and those who never will.”

“Is Konnyaku a real gardener, Sensei?” Shigoto interjected fiercely, letting out more emotion than he had intended to do.

“ Worry not about Konnyaku san, Shigoto. Measure yourself against those whose work has endured from the past that is the important thing to know. Understand their work, follow the paths where they point to. Konnyaku is Konnyaku, he is making his own way in this life.”

“Sometimes I hate him,” said Shigoto bluntly

“I thought you meant your father for a moment there,” and Sensei laughed lightly, trying to break through the mood of impenetrability and anger that Shigoto seemed to be clutching like a shield to his chest. "Cultivate No-Mind Shigoto. Cultivate no-Mind, leave that monkey mind of yours behind."

“What do you mean ‘no-mind’? It does not make any sense. How can you have no mind? There is always something in your mind. Except when you are asleep maybe, but then there are dreams sometimes,” Shigoto said, remembering the dream about the mouse and the sack of grain.

“Here let me explain.” Then Maguro Sensei stood up, and slipping into his sandals he walked over to a bamboo plant nearby. With a few short twists, he snapped off a thin can, and walked back to where Shigoto remained expectantly, then he resumed his seat on the veranda. With his foot he smoothed out the sand on the ground in front of him. He snapped off the very end of the cane. When he was ready he turned to Shigoto again.

“Do you know the Chinese characters ‘mu’ and ‘shin’?

“No, no not really, my mother has taught me to write and read a few characters, but I don’t know that many yet.”

Mu is like this,” said Sensei, and with the end of the stick he scratched out a Chinese character () in the fine gravel before them. “ Shin, is like this, , we also read that as kokoro, you know that word, do you not?” and again he wrote with a free flowing hand in the sand before them. The two characters were side by side on the ground in front of them.” Mu, we understand the meaning of as being ‘nothing’, literally ‘no-thing’. ‘Shin’ has the meaning of ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’. We can also read those characters together as one word, ‘mushin’.  It literally means ‘No Heart’ or ‘Empty Heart’. We can also write ‘Mu like this. “ Then Sensei drew a perfectly round circle around the two characters sketched in the sand. He paused, as they both gazed at the ground in front of them. Shigoto trying desperately to puzzle out something the meaning of what Sensei was trying to teach him here.

“In the practice of Zen, ‘mushin’ is the body and the heart together as one. That is why you have the circle. The circle is empty, it contains ‘no-thing’, and therefore it is empty. We can also understand that being empty, it is also empty of emptiness itself. Therefore the empty circle contains everything we need to know within it. If you look at the circle and see nothing, then you are still only seeing a part. Not the whole. Our task as students is to try and grasp the whole, and not be distracted by our monkey minds into thinking about this and that, high and low, big and small, nice and horrible, good and bad. Do you measure the depth of a pond by the height of the sky? Of course not. The pond is the pond, and the sky is the sky. So do not chase after demons, which are, after all, only in your mind. Do not be distracted by Konnyaku san, he is Konnyaku, not you. Konnyaku has to learn what he has to learn, and you will learn what you need to learn. It is only that which is important. Think, Shigoto, when next time you are looking at a rock arrangement, ask yourself the question; ‘what is the heart of the stone?” When you want to find the heart of the stone, then you must first acknowledge the heart of the stone. When a man of Zen strikes the rock with his stick, there is no sound coming from the rock, or entering into the rock. There, it’s simple is it not?”

Then Maguro Sensei leaned back and a deep laughter welled up from inside him, the laughter spilled out into the evening. Soon Shigoto could not stop himself laughing as well.

‘Hey, Shigoto, I have kept you here late. It was time you were heading back, is it not? That is more than enough for the moment.”

Shigoto slipped down from the veranda onto the ground, and pushed his feet into the rice straw sandals waiting there for him. He stood looking down at the characters written in the sand at his feet, before extending out a foot and rubbing them thoughtfully out.

“Do you wish to become my successor, Shigoto?” Sensei was looking directly at him now, those hawk like eyes boring into him, as if he were trying to read his soul, or maybe even write something there for the future, when Shigoto would be able to read the signs more clearly.

“Successor? Successor to what? You mean as Head Gardener?” Shigoto was taken aback.


“But Sensei that will never happen. You will have to… to… not be the Head of Gardens, how could that be? … It’s not possible.”

“Shigoto, even the last of the mountain flows into the sea one day as a grain of sand. If you do wish to be my successor, Shigoto, you will have to learn so much more. So much more, about so many things. But do not spend too much time thinking these things over. Our fates are already spoken for; the fine cords have already been spun. Here, take this with you.” Sensei pointed the bamboo cane toward Shigoto, only to pull it back swiftly as Shigoto’s fingers were about to grasp the cane. He laughed, great peals of laughter that were both as thunder and sunshine. “Hurry now, and do not be late in the morning.” Maguro Sensei carefully watched as Shigoto bowed politely to him, and with a final nod of the head dismissed him. His features were expressionless, unreadable, a mystery deeper than any other. 

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