If you visit Kyoto, you may stumble into a small home next door to a shrine and, as you’re looking for the shrine entrance, a woman may ask you for 500 yen and assure you that there is English being spoken inside. You will go in, thinking it is a shrine, but it will not be a shrine, and the English being spoken will not be the English you paid 500 yen for.
The Sacred Carport
The inside of this elderly couples’ home was a ragtag assortment of Buddhist artifacts arranged like gas station memorabilia in a garage. The walls were splintered wood with some windows supported by a concrete floor.
The host was an old man with a calm old-man voice. He would move his hands gently up and down toward the statues and speak, out of necessity, with the barest of words.
“This,” he’d say, his right hand slowly descending through the air, “Cambodia.”
“This,” he’d say, his left hand an open palm gesturing toward a broken statue, “China.”
We nodded. He nodded. We walked to the next room.
“Statue.” It was a six-foot-tall blackened statue on the concrete floor. “Pray.”
He stood in front of the statue, his fingers pointed to his eyes, then pointed to the statue’s eyes. “First look, eyes.” He gestured again, for emphasis. “Kneel. Heart to heart.” He gestured to his heart and then to the statue’s heart. Then he kneeled. “Eyes to feet.” As he bowed he kept his eyes on the statue’s feet.
“For good dream,” he said, standing. He gestured to me with the same open hand, then to the statue. “Pray.”
So I did. My eyes matched the statue’s, then my hand went from my heart to its heart, then I kneeled and looked at the feet.
I have the most undisciplined mind of anyone on Earth, and so when I looked at the statue’s feet I wasn’t really looking at its feet. I had teleported to the sea-foam-green foot of the enormous reclining Buddha in Sasaguri, inscribed with golden Buddhist talismans, which visitors touch for good luck.
Then I was in the Soviet Union, contemplating the feet of Vladimir Lenin.
Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia
I had seen a plaster statue of Lenin in Prague at a show of communist artifacts held in contempt by sardonic Czechs. The exhibit was in the entirely ironic Museum of Communism and advertised in posters depicting a teddy bear holding a machine gun.
Lenin’s face was identical to every other portrayal of Lenin’s face. This is intentional. Only certain artists could draw or sculpt those beady eyes and that pointy facial hair, always derived from his death mask or a cast of his head, so that no image would never stray from the original.
So the face of Lenin on Soviet currency was the face of Lenin hanging over school blackboards; the bust of Lenin on the piano of a party hack was the same bust in museums.
The party wanted to keep Lenin’s head, like his legacy, perfect. So they went ahead and banned his deathbed warnings about Stalin, raised him to superhuman status, and controlled the way he looked in all future propaganda.
Some of Us are Looking at the Stars
I was looking at his head. It was perfect. But no one seemed to care about the rest of Lenin’s body until some dry-witted Czechs put the statue on the ground so we could all be taller than Lenin. There, exposed to the world, were Lenin’s feet.
Instead of shoes there were giant globs of plaster. It looked like Lenin had just stepped into a foot-high pile of cow shit.
I imagined the sculptor letting it go because hey, no one’s going to see the shoes anyway, this thing will be on a pedestal for a million years of Communist Brotherhood, so why waste time on the feet?
I imagine party officials letting it go because some day they might want to threaten the artist by exposing his neglect: “Do you even want the workers of the world to unite, comrade? I’m not so sure you do, not when your hands have sculpted feet that look… like these!”
That last thought marked the end of my meditation at the feet of a religious artifact in Kyoto.
I Don’t See Anybody Else
I stood and bowed, but the old man said I wasn’t finished. I had to walk around to the back of the statue, he said. So I did. He showed me what to do.
“Show respect. Clear sight,” he pointed to his eyes. “From front,” he said, “Come to back.” He pointed to his eyes again. He bowed a little. Then he said, “Takusi Duribaa desu.”
This means “Taxi Driver.”
“Takushi Duribaa desu ka?” I asked. (“It’s taxi driver?”)
“Takushi Duribaa desu,” he said. (“It’s taxi driver.”)
I bowed. No need to be rude. From that point on he spoke entirely in Japanese except for when he tried to sell us fortunes, divided by category, for 500 yen. We passed.
I’d been thinking about Lenin’s feet and Buddha as taxi driver; about the common man’s work and the right path. I assumed it was a translation error, but something about paying reverence to a taxi driver artifact struck home, in a very Socialist-Republic, let-us-praise-the-common-workers sort of way.
Only lately did I learn that the word he used probably wasn’t katakana for Taxi Driver. It was probably something about takushiki, or clear-sightedness, maybe even takushiki-dou, “the way of clearsightedness,” or Takushiki, the clear-sighted King of Sri Lankan Buddhism, who on his deathbed left us with a typically cheerful insight:
“Anyone who comes into being must decay and die. Whatever is built up, falls apart. Whatever becomes, decays. The only true happiness is in the moment when becoming and decaying are not.”
“Clear-sightedness” probably doesn’t involve day dreaming about Lenin stepping in dog shit when you are kneeling in a shrine. Likewise, it also probably means not pouring a bunch of plaster on Lenin’s feet in the hopes that no one will notice.
We bowed to the back of the statue. I like the idea of that, because it’s the same satisfaction I feel when I acknowledge the stuff hidden away in my own skull.
“Hey I’m in a new situation and I don’t know what to do. I know! I’ll check in with the constant stream of insecurity that has kept me company since I turned nine.”
- Everybody Ever
I can bow to the loud-and-clear noise of my consciousness all day. I can watch it tell me about how I’m doing entirely awesome stuff. But when I can get at the insecurities and fear and those petty whining noises running in the background, that’s when I feel like I’m really getting somewhere.
Taking this Zen thing seriously starts with making sure every side of my thoughts is worth bowing to. That’s authenticity.
I can’t pretend to be “OK” just because I’m getting better at hiding things from myself. I have to remember to be miserable or happy and watch myself be miserable or happy so I can get to the core of my own silly awfulness, say hello to it and then get back to being plain, pure me.
Otherwise, I’ll all be caught standing up to my knees in my own bullshit when that iron curtain finally falls.
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