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art by Billy Sagulo

Sabi, Wabi, Aware, Yugen

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, Icarus, The Minnesota Review, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writer’s Workshop and the co-editor of Horror After 9/11, an anthology published by the University of Texas Press. Visit him at samjmiller.com.

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?"
The look comes back unbidden, against my will: the hard knife-stare that warns a man he is going too far. But I blink it away and bow again.
"Relax, captain," he says, and laughs. "I'm not trying to turn you in. Unlike American corporations, the zaibatsus still believe in honor. If Sumitomo Group saw fit to hide you here, the details are none of my business. I'll do nothing to jeopardize it."
"Thank you," I say, and relief makes the words come faster than they should. "They are still looking for me. My people. My soldiers. My second-in-command--Sprall." Saying the name makes me fight back a smile, remembering the gleeful freckled savage orphan boy I spent so long training, who would now sooner skin me than look at me. "If they found me, they'd murder everyone in here. I know because I trained them."
"You must have been a really bad dude," he says, eyes probing. "What would it take, I wonder, to make such a powerful and important nanomancer walk away from the fight? What did you do, Gutierrez?"
"Please," I said, still an amateur in matters of humility, dependence, begging, fear. "I can't. Talk about it."
Mizoguchi nods and smiles, a smile that say he does not believe me. "With that kind of firepower, you could really help us out a lot. Native resistance continues to grow in this part of the United--"
"I can't," I say, cursing him for even this tiny bit of information, the glimmer of hope it carries. Native resistance continues to grow. "It was a condition of my acceptance here."
"Then why didn't you get wiped?"--but then he bows, as Abbess Ozu arrives to free me.
I spend the rest of the day at the pond, trying to lose myself in the mysteries of sabi, trying to shake loose the longing that had bloomed so swiftly in my heart. Imported red-crowned cranes eye me suspiciously.
Isolation. A feeling of utter separateness.
Native resistance.
So we still fight. I've learned that much, at least. People still try to punish the business conglomerates who bribed and threatened governments into handing over giant swaths of territory and made corporate fiefdoms. Corporations who seeded the planet with untellable trillions of wireless self-replicating nanomachines, until they filled the air we breathe and the earth we walk on.
Corporations who made men capable of controlling those nanomachines.
Shaking with anger, I hold my hand out over the pond.
Water rises in a quivering pagoda, my field control shaky from long disuse. I shut my eyes for one breath. When I open them, the water shifts from whirling cylinder to cone to pyramid, all smooth as plastic. I push a tiny bit harder and the whirling speeds up, the water-shape becoming a blur of dagger-blades sharper and stronger than the real thing.
I break the field. Water spins out and splashes down. I am me and the water is the water--I could not truly touch it, could not control it. Nanomancy is no different from damming a river. The water will keep running long after the dam and its builders are dust. Man's hubris made him think he was master of the world, made him build ever-increasingly-complex tools in an attempt to make the world his own--but all of it for nothing.
We are separate. To be separate means to be utterly alone.
I am alone. I am tiny and separate and my rage means nothing to the universe.
And so I achieve my first awakening.
Abbess Ozu has assigned me to the tea ceremony.
"It is truly a marvel," she said, a month ago, when she saw how utterly I had grasped the concept of sabi. "I did not believe that your efforts were sincere. I did not believe that you would ever progress."
Wabi is the spirit of poverty, the poignant appreciation of what most people consider commonplace, and is associated in Zen with one of the principal characteristics of the sect, an antirelativism: what's good? What's bad? What's valuable? Valueless? --The Crane's Bill
"The tea ceremony is a celebration of wabi," she says, and squats to stoke the flames. "The celebration of poverty, of humble plain things."
"Then it should be easy," I say. "My whole life was about celebrating poverty. Empowering the poor, tearing down the rich and powerful."
Mid-November. Cold air has my teeth chattering, my mind racing. I've never discussed my past with Abbess Ozu. The chill sparks muscle memory, a thousand other freezing mornings. Huddled in the lobby of a Lower East Side tenement at the start of the Real Estate Wars, training tenants in how to pop the lock off the boiler room when the landlord was trying to freeze them out. A Harlem rooftop, rigging an explosive bound for the home of a mayor planning to cede Staten Island to Wal-Mart. Sunlight coming in to a smoky kitchen, burning newspapers to boil water for tea, the kind arthritic hands of my mother--
I flinch, hearing myself think the word.
You must have been a really bad dude.
What did you do, Gutierrez?
"Be still," Ozu says, gently, seeing, perhaps, that my shaking comes from more than cold. "We cannot stop the past from coming to us. But we can take away its power over us. Focus on your breathing. On the here and now. Focus on this moment. Nothing else is real."
We breathe. It doesn't help.
The songs are still alive in me. The speeches, the street-corner chants, the endless patient arguments with neighbors I was trying to convert to the cause. I lived and breathed the revolution, let it drive out everything else, til there was no more blood in my veins--only anger--and no more love in my heart--only hate. I botched that bomb, the one meant for the mayor. The boy who was set to deliver it died long before reaching his target. And that one ranks low on the long list of my sins.
For so many months, at Hoichi-Ji, I fought my training. I was furious to find myself in the monastery. I was sick with shame over what I had done, and at fleeing from the fight because of it. I, the Scourge of the East, the greatest nanomancer anyone had ever seen, with so much field control that I once murdered fifty mercs in a single fight, all alone. I hacked the nanofields of half of them and stopped their hearts. With the ones whose fields I could not hack, I used the blood of their murdered brothers to build micro-daggers that tore them to shreds.
And now: here I am. Shivering in the deadlands of western New York State, in a falling-down monastery owned by one of the mega-multinationals I had dedicated my life to destroying. No mighty warrior. Merely one more cowardly monk making tea.
"This path is not for everyone," Ozu says.
"I am dedicated to it," I say. Because I am. Because my old path had poisoned me. Because I love her, for taking in a bloodstained killer and believing he could ever find peace.
"The story of every man's life is the struggle to truly be master of what he is. Before you came here, were you in control of what you were?"
"I thought I was." I remember the euphoria of training new freedom fighters, the glee of a successful assault. But now, the Me of Then seems like a helpless puppet, his rage and his politics mere products of the bigger unafraid boys on the block who he so admired, and his drive to get away from his meek obedient mother, and then the nanomancy testing camp, where he was subjected to unimaginable horror, which he in turn inflicted on others. "But who really gets a choice in what they become?"
"Not many people," Ozu says. "True enlightenment is the ability to choose, in any given moment, exactly who and what you are."
We breathe. The chilly air fills me up with something as vital as food. What more could I want, beyond this? The blood and savagery of war had only brought me misery. I had not understood wabi. I had not celebrated poverty: I had hated it, and tried to eradicate it by making poor people rich and grandiose. I had killed so many people to liberate other people, ignorant of the fact that every breath we breathe contains liberation within it.
And so my second awakening comes, so close behind the first that I almost don't recognize it.
Abbess Ozu is dying. All winter long we have watched her waste away. She schedules her goodbye meetings, where a departing spiritual guide gives each student one last teaching. Some monks say she will not live long enough to meet with all of us. I live in terror that the brass bell will toll before my appointed time.
But mine comes. Early March; bright sunshine that gives no warmth, dead grass peeking through in the spots where the snow has melted. I enter her room and she raises one arm to greet me, the gesture obviously difficult but her smile all joy and strength.
I bow, deeply, sincerely, sadly. I have never noticed how huge her ears are, long things that go halfway down her head like the ears on a statue of Buddha.
Aware is the sadness that comes with the sense of the impermanence of things, the realization that they are lost to us even as they are found. --The Crane's Bill
Bloodstained cloth napkins are in a heap beside her bed.
"My son," she says, clasping her raised hand at the back of my neck.
Her other hand rests above the covers, frozen in an arthritic fist. I touch it with both of my hands, surprised at the depth of sadness I feel. So much wisdom is contained in this little body. So much love. How many books had she read, how many scholars had she studied under, how many saints and sinners did she learn from in the eighty-plus years it took her to reach this pinnacle of enlightenment? And now all that wisdom will vanish forever.
I want to weep, scream, shake my fists at heaven.
"The other monks don't like me very much," I say, feeling stupid for saying it. "None of them can help me like you have."
"No," she says. "Not like I have. But they will help you in their own ways. Even if they do not like you."
We laugh.
"Enlightenment is not a destination," she says. "It is only a path. You think it is a war to be won, but it is a battle with no end. Buddha achieved enlightenment only so he could share it with us--for us there is only the long hard slog."
Her hand is cool on mine.
Muscle memory: my mother can barely lift the kettle, to pour our morning tea. She brings me my mug, on that final morning, and when I take it from her work-ruined hand I rise to kiss her forehead, hug her tight, and I understand aware in that moment, in the love I feel for her, in my knowledge that every second I spend with her is precious, but I leave anyway, and in an hour I am training freedom fighters in fire control, the most difficult discipline of nanomancy, and I have to be hard and brutal and focused on the glorious victory that will be ours some impossible day.
I will have forgotten about aware, eight hours later, when we learn of six high executives from the anti-sovereignty division of Chase Manhattan Bank being treated at Harlem Hospital--a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cripple our enemy and turn the tide of the war.
When I choose to blow up the building where my mother works.
When I wake up the next morning in horror at what I have done, and when I run away, abandoning the network to my second-in-command, Sprall, that good and loyal boy who learned his ruthlessness directly from me. When I hide in a monastery.
So much time will pass, before I understand aware again, before an enlightenment sucker-punch strikes me in the throat, when I am once again about to lose something I love.
I kneel at Abbess Ozu's bedside and clasp her clenched fist. "When I first came, you offered me a wipe."
"Yes," she says.
"I refused. You never mentioned it again. Why not?"
"You don't know?"
"At first I thought you didn't understand nanomancy. Because if you did, you wouldn't let me continue my studies while still carrying so much of the weight of my past. But now I think you did understand. And you knew this was a decision I had to make on my own, with no pressure from you. Is that right?"
She smiles. When she speaks I must lean forward to hear her say: "Have you decided?"
"Yes. I'm ready."
She raises her clenched hand, and then opens it. Inside are six metallic-sheen pills.
"Stop crying," she says. "I'm not dead yet. I'll see one more sunrise, I think. Maybe more."
Twilight, when I leave her room. Her smell, like cedar incense and lavender soap, haunts me. I wrap the pills in rice paper and pocket them.
By midnight, my field detects someone drawing nearer. Someone with a terrifying nanoload.
Someone coming for me.
I leave the monastery before dawn. As I make my way through these bare rooms in blackness, I am startled by the old bloodlust that sparks inside me.
Sunken Meadow is a mile outside the monastery gates. Three hills; bare ragged trees; cattails fringing a pond. The water will come in handy if I choose to fight. By the time I get there, and sit down beside the water and shut my eyes to meditate, the Someone is very close.
The closer they get, the faster they move. They will arrive before the sun. They are close enough to ping my nanosignature. If they're looking for me specifically, they'll know now that they've found me. I try to focus on the moment, on my breathing and the chill in the air, but I can't keep from imagining my assassin. Bio-engineered by the best science money can buy, a clone or chimera or humanoid drone operated from afar.
The Someone comes by truck. I can hear it now, coming too fast on the dew-wet gravel. My eyes stay shut. A distant bird cries out to its child. The truck door slams. Footsteps approach. The air buzzes with the heavy crackle of nanofire being summoned.
Yugen, most difficult of the dominant moods to describe, is the sense of a mysterious depth in all that makes up nature. It is knowledge of a mystic calm in all things: always there, below the surface, revealing itself only to the ready. --The Crane's Bill
"Hello, Malcolm."
My eyes open against my will.
Time has made him more severe. His hair is shorter, his smile buried deeper. A chain of orange sparks stalks through the air, consuming the nanites around us. A flick of his fingers and it will launch at something, blossom into full-fledged flames.
"I knew it would be you," he says. "When that fool Mizoguchi started sounding off about an AWOL with an impossible nanoload, I knew."
Of course it is him. Of course he would never have stopped looking for me, after the betrayal of my abandoning him. Of course he would mirror my bloodthirstiness, my inability to pull back from the most violent course of action. I'm not afraid, and I'm not angry. Is it because I have come so close to enlightenment? Or have I truly become the cowardly monk I despised, no longer seeing the war as my own?
He smiles. "What the hell, buddy? Ain't you happy to see me?"
His hand slices outward. The fire swells and surges toward me, and I snuff it out with a messy wave from the pond. Our standard nanomancy horseplay, the comradely dueling of teacher and student, fraught now with menace.
"Out of practice," he says. "Relax, Malcolm. I'm just messing with you. Wanted to see if you really gave it all up. I guess you did."
"How did your nanoload grow so high?" I ask.
"Moles at Chase. They got us some next-gen nanites that are pretty breathtaking."
I stand up. My knees hurt, either because I'm getting older or because the nanopathways are impacting my nervous system. Life is suffering--that much I agreed with the Buddhists about, long before arriving in their care. I use both hands to pull a column of water into the air. Killing him means more blood staining my karma. If I let him kill me, he'll train more killers, furthering the endless cycle of violence and retribution. Would that karma also be on me?
"I'm not afraid to die," I say.
"Die?" And now his face is familiar, in its boyish confusion.
"Yes. I came out to offer myself to you, willingly, and beg you to spare the monastery."
"Spare the--Malc, did you think I came all this way to murder you? And all those people in there?" He laughs, then shakes his head sadly. "Why would you think that?"
"Because it's what I would do," I say.
He nods. "Then you're a pretty sick dude, man."
I laugh. "You're right about that."
He snuffs his fire, steps forward to embrace me. His body's heat brings tears to my eyes.
"I've spent so long looking for you, Malc. I knew you'd want to know... I knew you needed to know, because it would be tearing you up inside."
"Know what?"
"Your mother, Malcolm. She didn't die in Harlem Hospital. She wasn't even there--one in a million chance, went out for her lunch break, you know she never ever did that. But that day, she did. Lung rot took her just eight weeks ago. She died thinking you were her good boy."
The sun is coming up. Its light fills the Sunken Meadow, gilds his hair. Wind startles me, tugs at the sleeve of my robe, sets me shivering with a deep sense of briefness in the face of nature's neverendingness. Because the world is stronger than we are. Because even as it is, devastated by nanotech and atom bombs and fossil fuels, thrown so out of balance that the very seas are rising, life keeps going. Exterminate every species; blanket the earth with ice and ash, and watch life spring back from nothingness. It has happened before. The world cannot end.
A mystic calm in all things. This wet grass, this frigid earth beneath my bare feet is as much me as the dying animal I inhabit. My toes clench. Yugen.
"Thank you, Sprall. For coming. For telling me."
Sprall shrugs, looks sad. His freckles are so tiny. "So... I can't talk you into coming back with me?"
I clasp my hand at the back of his neck. "I didn't know it was possible to fight the war without becoming a machine. Or a monster. I'm so happy to see that it's possible, for you. It makes me believe that we can win. But it's not possible for me."
"We can win. We will win."
"I know," I say. He wants more, wants to fill me in on movies and dirty jokes and what's up with our friends, but if I let him I'll never win the war with myself to stay here. So I smile, until he leaves. Still I'm successful at holding back the emotions that threaten to unmake me.
Far away, a bell rings. Morning meditation, I think, shutting my eyes and sitting, but it's too early, and the ringing goes on for too long.
Abbess Ozu. Dead.
And here I do feel something, a black cloud of anguish flooding like jacked nanites through my body. The memory of her calming voice only makes me angrier.
Focus on the here and now. On this moment. Nothing else is real.
"No," I say. Sprall turns, his face quizzical, but then keeps going, like maybe what he heard was the wind. "People are real."
Love is real. Suffering is real.
His truck door slams. I unwrap my pills, swallow each with a cupped handful of pond water. I wave at his vanishing vehicle.
Sabi, wabi, aware, yugen. I have grasped them all, and I am still a long way from enlightenment. I am still ruled by my emotions. But I am on the right path. I am still the sum of my shame at abandoning my mother, my hate for my enemies, my gratitude to Sprall, my animal rage at Abbess Ozu's death, and my love for the world so sharp that it breaks my heart to think of leaving it.
My nanites die in waves. I've heard of wipes taking weeks, and wipes that ran their course in an hour. I summon one last waterspout. I let it splash back to become pond again. Ripples spread out in a ring, shrinking into nothingness.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 6th, 2013

Author Comments

For ten years now, I've been a community organizer. As anyone who's ever wrestled with online trolls knows, trying to change things--especially people's minds--can be really depressing. It can also feel so urgent and important that you cannot walk away. Some of the best organizers I've ever met have been people who threw themselves into the work so completely that they sacrificed family, free time, a social life, their health, and more. In that respect, fighting for social change is the same as any job, especially one that fulfills a need other than money--it's easy to let it crowd out everything else in life. "Sabi, Wabi, Aware, Yugen" is a story about a person who allowed his passion for his work to consume him, until he lost the thing he loved most, and how he still struggles in the aftermath of those events to find balance.

Also? I like dressing up my own existential angst and dissatisfaction in grim bad-ass mid-apocalyptic warrior garb. And throwing in some murderous nanomancy doesn't hurt.

- Sam J Miller
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