It was the monk’s first day at the temple. His head was clean shaven. It shone white and stark. His clothes hung with awkward creases. The ring of a bell told the monk it was time to meet the abbot. Gravel crunched underfoot as the monk hurried across the yard to the hall. The abbot sat heavily on the floor in robes that rippled down. Eager to impress, the monk bowed deeply, then told his best joke.
The abbot roared with a laughter that bounced off the walls. Fat tears rolled over round cheeks. The monk beamed with delight. But the tears were wiped and the echo grew faint until the abbot sat breathing and serene. The laughter had ended.
The candle burned thick as before on the altar. The prayer flags continued to flap in the breeze. And here they were still just the two of them. But the abbot had now heard the joke.
It was winter at the temple, and snow had fallen thick and silent. A stealthy wind blew under doors to chill the rooms. Dense clouds cast down a bleak light. But school was cancelled, and the cheer spread to the temple as children staggered through drifts to tumble in the garden’s snow.
Peals of laughter rang the hours. The cook brought out courses of sweet tea and cinnamon bread. The clouds thinned to wisps in front of a crisp moon, and windows lit up a dappled town. Parents appeared at the gate, calling names and pulling sleeves. The children struggled, crying in vain for their games. And so a day of happiness ended in tears.
Meal times at the temple were predictable. But they were welcome. A black lacquer tray carried three bowls. The first bowl swirled with steaming miso soup. The second bowl offered a dome of sticky rice. The third bowl revealed a colour of pickled vegetables. In season, there was also a piece of fruit. But today was the monk’s birthday, and the cook had made him a cake.
The sponge was soft and melting. It glistened with sugary sweetness. There was a warm smell of coconut. But what the monk noticed most was how quickly it was eaten.
The fruit seller in town slumped on a chair behind his stall and read hunched over his newspaper. Every day he read hunched over his newspaper. He became such an expert, he stayed hunched over.
A bony woman on a street corner gave out wild flowers. In return, change was dropped into a dog-chewed hat. She snatched at the first coins she received. That practice made it easier to snatch at the second coins. She became such a specialist, she snatched at everything.
The monk decided to learn the bamboo flute. It was light and could be tucked into the folds of his robe.
‘Patience is the virtue which makes all else possible,’ said the abbot.
So the monk practised. By the end of six months, his days were filled with music and patience.
The monk had cold toes. No doubt it was the consequence of shuffling around in bare feet on wooden floor boards. There were occasional pools of sunlight which allowed a moment of warmth. But any balm was usually lost by the dark end of the corridor. Overcast days offered no respite. The cold would sting. A hot bath was often the only cure, and even then the first burning moments only proved the chill.
But today he had socks. He wore them all day. They were soft and snug and warming. He wiggled his toes and skipped along gently. ‘What great joy,’ thought the monk.
He wore the socks all week. They kept his feet warm and comfortable. ‘How pleasant,’ thought the monk.
He wore the socks all month. And his feet were fine – but of course they were, they wore socks, and he paid them no mind for there was nothing to notice.
Until he lost the socks. That day his feet were cold and brittle, and his steps were sharp, and the hot bath in the evening was a glorious relief.
There was a visitor to the temple who joined them for supper. The miso soup went down a treat, and he was grateful for the rice as well. But he didn’t bother the pickles.
‘I have never liked pickles,’ he said. ‘It seems wrong to be crunchy when they’re also cold and wet. And the taste is too sharp.’ His lips puckered at the thought. ‘But mostly it’s the smell. It’s almost clinical.’ He pushed his tray a little further from his nose. ‘I don’t like them. Pickles are a bad use of food.’
‘Pickles are good,’ said the monk. ‘The vegetables are healthy, and pickling keeps them through the winter. They bring colour to the meal. And they bring a welcome variety of flavour. I like them.’ And he patted his stomach for proof.
‘Pickles aren’t good or bad,’ said the abbot. ‘They’re just pickles.’
The temple garden in spring was a reassuring sight. The monk decided to draw it. He sat upon the wooden walkway that ran under the eaves around the outside of the hall. His right leg crossed over his left to serve as an easel. A pad of paper sat on his lap. He took up a pencil and pushed back his sleeve. The branch of a tree bounced under the gentle weight of a robin as he landed.
‘I shall draw that robin first,’ thought the monk. A soft breeze rippled through the pink blossoms.
‘Perhaps he winters abroad,’ thought the monk. The cooling shadow of a passing cloud swept sedate over the lawn.
‘I should put out a few seeds,’ thought the monk. A single drop from last night’s rain fell from the corner of the roof to scatter upon the flagstone below.
When the monk looked up again, the robin had also flown.
When the monk went to town it was usually to attend the library. His feet knew the way on their own. But today they needed directing to the carpenter.
Yet he set off with concerns for his shoes. There was a hole in his left shoe. And in his right shoe there was also a hole. So he would visit the shoemaker too – if the shop was open. Last week it was closed due to an unexpected bout of the shoemaker wanting to stay in bed. But then the shoemaker did work hard to support three daughters. The youngest worked in the shop on what transpired to be the most popular day in the week for shoe repair. Her dark eyes twinkled and her smile warmed the soul. She wore her hair tied back, except for a few ruffled strands which teased over a face softened by kindness.
These were not thoughts for a monk! He stopped and looked up. Here was the library. But where was the carpenter’s shop? And what had become of the journey?
A pilgrim visited the temple. He was shown to the hall. He sat down upon a mat rubbed smooth from meditation. A burst of sunlight from behind a cloud threw a shadow from a tree onto the paper of the window screen. He heard from a street beyond the wall a distant clatter of falling tin boxes.
The monk came in carrying a cup of tea. He lifted the lid and drops of perspiration ran down into the rim. The pilgrim took the cup to his lips. He felt the steam soothe away the tension in his face. The leaves smelled sharp and bitter. He took a sip and the warmth ran like a stream down inside his body. The monk recited a verse and for a moment the pilgrim’s eyes grew wide in understanding.
‘This is wonderful,’ said the pilgrim. And that is all it became.
The monk stubbed his bare toe on the corner of the door frame. There was a moment’s pause while his body assessed the pain. Then it was all he could do not to holler in agony. His face tensed upwards in a grimace that was all gritted teeth and closed eyes. He hobbled down the corridor. He limped across the yard.
At lunch he told others of the pain he had suffered. At afternoon prayers he recounted the torment. At supper he held forth with a tale to end all misery. And so the day became an enduring disaster that his toe had forgotten by the end of the morning.
The monk faced interim exams to test his knowledge. He had heard of their difficulty. No doubt he would be a disaster. He bore his misery with gloom and a quick temper. His anticipated dismissal from the temple was evident in his sharp tongue. His feet dragged, and his knotted stomach permitted no food. All week he lived a failure. Then he passed.
The monk sat down on a bench in the courtyard. Soon the setting sun would spread deep orange across a low horizon. Soon a chorus of chaotic birdsong would decry the end of the day. Soon the mountains would reach with long shadows into the town.
But for now the monk reflected on a satisfying day of productive study. He would surely become wise. He would become respected. People would journey to seek out his opinion. Those in the street would nod their approval as he passed. They would point him out to their children and friends. He would become abbot. Queues would form outside the temple gate to hear him lecture.
A distant bell brought him back. It was dark, and the sunset had gone unnoticed. He trudged like a novice to his evening chores.
The abbot and the monk were returning from town. A few drops of summer rain fell fat on the abbot’s head. He wiped his brow with a sleeve and set off at a canter. The rain began to fall straight and heavy, so the monk took up the chase. The water in the street soon ran in streams. The monk sloshed his way through with sodden feet and gritted teeth. The rain came down in torrents. The world was formless and translucent grey. The monk scowled. The clothes clung to his chest with a wet chill. By the time he reached the porch at the temple gate, his jaw ached and his fists were clenched.
The abbot was waiting. He too was drenched from head to toe as if the gods themselves had dunked him in a tea cup.
‘I am wet,’ said the abbot. ‘But you are wet and angry.’
The rainstorm continued to batter the roof. In wet clothes, the monk teetered stiffly down the corridor. Water trickled off his nose and dripped down his sleeves. His feet were slippery on the wooden floorboards. He left a trail of puddles that shimmered in the twilight of darkened skies. The water would need mopping up or the varnish might peel.
He wrung out his clothes in the bathroom and pulled on some robes which were dry and comforting. He’d seen the clouds gathering on his way into town. Why hadn’t he borrowed an umbrella? What a fool! He returned to the corridor with a knotted brow and an old towel. It took an hour of self-criticism to clean up the mess. By the end of it, he still hadn’t borrowed the umbrella.
The monk had received a letter, and the news was terrible. Sat on his bed, an immense sadness washed over him. So he wept, just wept, from the bottom of his soul, damp hands held over his face in a dark and private misery.
A breath’s pause, quiet and still.
Then the next wave came crashing over, and the sorrow welled up from deep within. The tears streamed from red eyes swollen half-shut.
A brief moment of lucidity.
And again the grief poured down, gushing in torrents. His body sagged. A passing breeze chilled his wet cheeks.
Out it all came. That too was his life.
The monk was on the bus. He was travelling to the next town, charged by the abbot with taking a letter of blessing by hand to a benefactor.
The bus’s old engine rattled the seat. The cobbled road was no help. A tired child was crying, which showed in a frown on the monk’s face. So now there was crying and bother.
Of course the child’s mother noticed. Frayed to begin with, she hushed at the baby with terse pleas for quiet which failed to soothe. So now there was crying and bother and agitation. When the monk got off at the next stop, everyone felt better.
The monk arrived at the benefactor’s residence. The sliding gate was open, and behind the wall, a small courtyard of flagstone. Miniature fir trees were manicured and stately. The front door was wooden, mellowed by the weather. A knock on the door broke the silence. The door opened to the housemaid – her master was not home. The monk groaned with defeat, his eyes rolling wide. The housemaid stiffened.
But it was natural to feel frustrated. And after such a journey! No wonder the monk felt embattled. And it was not as though the benefactor had conspired to this. Probably he was out on tedious errands, wishing he too was home. The monk shook his head, acceptance dawning with a gentle smile. The housemaid softened. So now there was frustration and sympathy.
The monk was walking by the canal which ran beside the temple, when he saw a huddle of people. There, standing on the pebbles in the shallow water, was a heron of brilliant white. It was thin and elegant with a demeanour that spoke of patient wisdom. It stretched out its wings to full length, the wind blowing ruffles through its finger feathers. Some of the people grabbed for their cameras. Others hoped aloud that it would happen again. They all stared at the ready, keen not to miss out a second time.
The monk breathed it in. He breathed it out.
A curtain of checked red flapped at an upstairs window. A rumbling truck passed in clatters and shakes over the cobbles on the far bridge. A bakery was cooking sweet loaves of sugar and cinnamon. But for others the world was cluttered by a single heron.
The monk had been taught that every act was a meditation. Right now he was reading a book. And he knew that he was reading a book. He watched the thoughts which the book gave rise to. He felt the weight of his body upon the bench. From the garden he smelled the earthy scent of freshly wet soil. From the kitchen he heard the sound of chopping vegetables. He saw trees sway hazy in the periphery of his vision. An autumn wind blew dry across his cheek. And he was reading a book.
The monk had been at the temple for many months. His head was clean shaven with a mellow tan. His clothes hung with a familiar comfort. The ring of a bell told the monk it was time to meet the abbot.
‘Where is your life?’ said the abbot.
It was in the rustle of branches outside. It was in a ray of pale sun flashing through a flapping curtain. It was in the pungent smell of an incense coil as it smouldered. It was in the chill of a mat frozen stiffer by the cold. It was in the rise and fall of his belly with each breath. It was in the trill of a bird on the wing. It was in the eyes of the abbot, reflecting the monk, reflecting the abbot. All these were awe and wonder.
Nathan Tamblyn studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and is currently Associate Professor in the University of Exeter. He says: 'I am happy to call myself Buddhist, although that label covers a wide range of practices and beliefs, some of which are insightful, some of which I think are mistaken. My influences are various, but in particular I am indebted to the following: the writings of Krishnamurti; my study of Nāgārjuna, mediated through ancient Greek philosophy; the cognitive psychology of Professor Mark Williams; the writings of the Dalai Lama (although I reject aspects of Tantric Buddhism); and the oral teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.'