monastery nights :: chase twichell
I like to think about the monastery
as I’m falling asleep, so that it comes
and goes in my mind like a screen saver.
I conjure the lake of the zendo,
rows of dark boats still unless
someone coughs or otherwise
ripples the calm.
I can hear the four AM slipperiness
of sleeping bags as people turn over
in their bunks. The ancient bells.
When I was first falling in love with Zen,
I burned incense called Kyonishiki,
“Kyoto Autumn Leaves,”
made by the Shoyeido Incense Company,
Kyoto, Japan. To me it smelled like
earnestness and ether, and I tried to imagine
a consciousness ignorant of me.
I just now lit a stick of it. I had to run downstairs
for some rice to hold it upright in its bowl,
which had been empty for a while,
a raku bowl with two fingerprints
in the clay. It calls up the monastery gate,
the massive door demanding I recommit myself
in the moments of both its opening
and its closing, its weight now mine,
I wanted to know what I was,
and thought I could find the truth
where the floor hurts the knee.
I understand no one I consider to be religious.
I have no idea what’s meant when someone says
they’ve been intimate with a higher power.
I seem to have been born without a god receptor.
I have fervor but seem to lack
even the basic instincts of the many seekers,
mostly men, I knew in the monastery,
sitting zazen all night,
wearing their robes to near-rags
boy-stitched back together with unmatched thread,
smoothed over their laps and tucked under,
unmoving in the long silence,
the field of grain ripening, heavy tasseled,
field of sentient beings turned toward candles,
flowers, the Buddha gleaming
like a vivid little sports car from his niche.
What is the mind that precedes
any sense we could possibly have
of ourselves, the mind of self-ignorance?
I thought that the divestiture of self
could be likened to the divestiture
of words, but I was wrong.
It’s not the same work.
One’s a transparency
and one’s an emptiness.
Kyonishiki…. Today I’m painting what Mom
calls no-colors, grays and browns,
evergreens: what’s left of the woods
when autumn’s come and gone.
And though he died, Dad’s here,
still forgetting he’s no longer
married to Annie,
that his own mother is dead,
that he no longer owns a car.
I told them not to make any trouble
or I’d send them both home.
Surprise half inch of snow.
What good are words?
And what about birches in moonlight,
Russell handing me the year’s
Shouldn’t God feel like that?
I aspire to “a self-forgetful,
perfectly useless concentration,”
as Elizabeth Bishop put it.
So who shall I say I am?
I’m a prism, an expressive temporary
sentience, a pinecone falling.
I can hear my teacher saying, No.
That misses it.
Buddha goes on sitting through the century,
leaving me alone in the front hall,
which has just been cleaned and smells of pine.