art by Billy Sagulo
Sabi, Wabi, Aware, Yugen
by Sam J Miller
As a young man, I tried not to hate the monks. I tried to share my mother's reverence, tried not to see them as cowards hiding from the world and the war. Now that I am one, I don't even try.
Sunrise at Hoichi-ji Monastery. An old monk spills water from the buckets for the morning tea. Metal clangs in the kitchen below. A smell of smoke is in the air, so faint it could either be neighbors burning leaves five miles away or fighting flaring up again in the ruins of Rochester. Thirty of us sit on threadbare pillows, the grueling zazen meditation session that starts each day. I am an exceptionally bad monk. I can't tune out the noises around me, or calm my frantic-monkey mind. My shut eyes hide a blur of bombs and burned-down buildings and botched protests, a silent movie with the soundtrack of a monastery coming awake.
A buzz separates itself from the noise. A truck, coming closer. Coming here. This hardly ever happens. Food and even new monks are brought on foot or donkey-driven cart. My fingers close on a gun that is not there.
Sabi may be defined as the feeling of isolation, or rather a mid-point of the emotion when it is both welcome and unwelcome, source of both ease and unease. --The Crane's Bill: Zen Poems of China and Japan. Grove Press, 1973
Sabi, wabi, aware, yugen. Abbess Ozu says I must pass through each of these epiphanies in order, like doors that will lead me to full enlightenment. For someone like me, who carries the weight of so much bad karma, a lifetime may not be enough for even the very first of these.
The truck stops. Doors slam; greetings are exchanged. I want so badly to open my eyes, jump up, run to pester this messenger for news of the world. But I will not.
Hours later, at lunch, when I've forgotten all about him in my unproductive efforts to meditate on sabi, he is presented to me.
"Mr. Gutierrez, may I introduce Mr. Mizoguchi," says Abbess Ozu, presenting a young and well-fed man.
"Honored to make your acquaintance," Mizoguchi says, bowing. We all bow. I don't think I do it right. The rhythm and the order of it still escape me, the deference and the assertion.
"Mr. Mizoguchi works for the interests that own this land," the abbess tells me. Her Buddha-smile is without warmth; her spindly hands pressed together with more-than-normal tension. "He visits us, from time to time."
"Nice," I say, uncertainly, out of practice. The introduction confuses me. Is this a test? Is Abbess Ozu trying to see whether I'll ask about the war or the city or any specific people? If I'm truly committed to leaving behind my past, and the worldly concerns that stand between me and enlightenment?
"He asked to speak with you," Ozu says, and I see doubt pass like a ripple on the lake of her face. No test: the abbess does not approve of this man, or this request. She bows, and leaves, and terror unfurls in my stomach.
A few yards away, the old monk-woman is seized by a fit of coughing that goes on for long enough to worry me. I know that women monks are nuns in the Japanese Zen tradition, even when they are in charge of an entire monastery, but the word is too tied up in my head with mean and ugly Catholic women to apply to this slight gentle figure of warmth and wisdom.
"I didn't believe it," says Mizoguchi--native-born American, of Japanese ancestry. "I didn't think the old woman would let us use her sacred monastery to hide a war criminal."
I bow. "I am sorry. I don't know what you're talking about."
"What's your real name, Gutierrez?"
I bow, apologetically, but say nothing. My body still has a soldier's heft and muscle; hopefully he'll assume I'm another AWOL mercenary grunt.
He waves a small device. "Your nanoload is off the charts. I clocked it from fifty miles away. Never seen anything like it. Who the hell were you, to be carrying that kind of hardware?"