Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Tokyo, 4

At Zojoji Temple you drop a handful of thin coins into the offering box, put a pinch of incense on the brazier, bow, and immediately wish you hadn’t. It is a performance, an American’s affected openness toward a faith you do not belong to and which does not much mind what you think of it.

Around the altar the floor is raised, polished wood, over which priests and worshippers slide to and fro in their socks. It is all gold, gold paint on the Buddha and the altar and the pillars, long gold chandeliers reaching halfway to the ground. You take a seat at the back, sit and rest.


            How the eyes water

                        through a blue haze of incense

                                    the glitter of gold


The problem, Buddhism teaches us, is attachment. We attach ourselves to our desires – for power, for possessions, for other people – to assert our selves, the illusion of our own permanence. The enlightened person understands that such attachments are ephemeral, lets them go.

But looked at another way, the enlightened person is entirely selfish, for among these attachments are responsibilities. To truly overcome the self would be to submit to these responsibilities – this, at least, is what Christ and Confucius seem to teach us.

Some responsibilities are given to you – parents, children, your own survival. Others are chosen. One may chose to have a child, or not. One may chose to have a partner, or not. Might it be better to choose not to take on such responsibilities? Or is that choice simply another form of selfishness?

Perhaps we do not make these choices; we make them without deliberation, or they are made for us, by our history and our circumstances. And perhaps to think this way is also selfish, avoiding the responsibility of making a choice.

You want to live honestly, and responsibly, and you do not want to be unhappy all the time, and you are trying to imagine a life in which all are possible. What you fear most is that you can or will not place anyone else before yourself, that you are simply not capable of love. This is the fear that more than anything brings you to despair.


            Zojoji Temple

                        the scritch-scratch of a twig broom

                                    on a dry flagstone

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