[DC notes to self and others in brackets]
May, 1988 - READING PALMS
Almost no man-made sounds from the valley make their way up to Hogoji. There is an occasional car on the road or a piece of farm machinery in the distance. I hear scratchy music from a delivery vehicle down below now and then. At seven in the morning, noon, and six in the evening from a loudspeaker somewhere down in Ryumon, a brief tune is broadcast in toy piano tones. But the greatest treat is when an amplified male voice makes announcements in the dark, booming like a giant come out of a cave. Those humorous smatterings of quirky racket poke out and are gone. Mainly we are blessed with the sounds of birds, crickets, frogs, creek, bells, drum, wind and rain.
The most glorious of manmade sounds at Hogoji is the bonsho in its antique hut. Its deep reverberations remind us to drop everything, slow down and prepare to awaken dragon mind. The han for zazen begins after the sunset bonsho, which, before the advent of clocks, was hit when you couldn't see the lines on your hand.
I told Koji that it seemed to me that there could be some fairly comical timing differences depending on people's eyesight and the depth of the lines in their hands. And what if the sky was darkly overcast? He assured me it worked out. But I retorted that the regularity with which the bell is hit could only be explained by the fact that the person hitting the bell, whether eagle-eyed or blind-as-a-mole, has a watch on.
One evening after the sun had sunk below the mountains and only a glow remained in the sky, Koji and I sat at our desks together in the light of the kerosene lamps. We read the Sunday funnies from the San Francisco Chronicle which my sister had kindly sent.
"What does 'kippu za feizu' mean?" he asked.
"What are you reading?" I said looking over. "Oh - Doonesbury. Um, keep the faith - it means goodbye - at least in this case."
"Goodbye?" he said perplexed.
"Shitsurei doesn't really mean 'I've been rude does it? It means goodbye or excuse me. Like that."
"What does it mean before that?"
"To believe in your Way - trust in God. To live without fear."
"Kipu za feizu. Kipu za feizu," he repeated as if trying to set it in memory.
Suddenly he jerked his head and looked at his watch, gasped and asked me if I would be so kind as to go hit the bonsho for him as he had to talk to Yoshiko for a few minutes in her house below us. He had planned to speak with her earlier but he'd been talking to me instead. I said I'd be only too happy to ring the bell. He thanked me, got on his robes so he could go to the zendo straight from Yoshiko's and departed. I left his cabin, blowing out the kerosene lamps, and went to get my robes on. I hurried out into the courtyard on my way to hit the bell and paused momentarily.
The sunset had been over for some minutes but there was a turquoise glow where the mountains met the clear spring sky. I went up the steps of the bell tower and onto the platform. The bronze bell is as big as me and hangs to my solar plexus. It's a dull black green through oxidation, an old bell with a deep, rich, low, steady tone that permeates the valley below, sharing the sound of our schedule with the local folk. There are to be nine hits and after the first stroke each begins when the reverberations of the prior ring have died down. There is a goza, a thin straw mat to bow down on after each hit and there are nine small stones placed on the railing so that one can keep track by moving a stone after each hit. I was just about ready for the first toll when I remembered tradition and looked at the palm of my hand.
Let me diverge for a moment to tell what happened once when I was waiting in a coastal Marin County, California clinic for my first wife to get through a prenatal examination. I snooped around the rooms checking things out and tried the ophthalmologist's chair where he later found me snoozing. We got to talking about the eye biz and before you could say glaucoma I was reading off one of the lower lines on his chart. He said, "That was good. What's the next one?" and I read it and then he said "Very good, what's the next?" and it was quite hard but I got them all. On the last line the letters looked like dots. I stared at them until they flashed. I got them all right but one, saying an "s" was an "h." He said that my eyes were one in a thousand. Must be the Indian blood. I looked at my hands. Fifteen years had passed since that day. My eyes had grown older but they weren't bad.
Since I could still see the lines on my hand, I went out onto the road just beyond the backside of the bell tower to admire the last subtle colors of the evening sky unobstructed by the treetops in the compound. After a few minutes of soaking it up I checked my hands again. The glow of the sun was almost entirely gone but I could see some lines on my palms which I held facing the direction of the sunset. In a few minutes it got down to where I could just barely see the deepest and last line disappearing. Just then a slight glow appeared on the crest of the opposing hills. I looked in that direction. A half moon popped over the top and rather quickly rose white and bright in the clean mountain air. The lines on my hands danced before me. I realized I would be able to see them till long past when I would wish to retire to sleep. Maybe this isn't fair, I thought. It was getting cold. Maybe if I turn my back on the moon and hold my hand next to my body with my shoulders hunched and the other hand shading the top and yikes! Koji was standing right behind me.
"Koji, you scared me!"
"David, are you going to hit the bell? You're late."
"I can still see the lines on my hand," I showed him.
He looked at me with his mouth open. "I can't," he said, and went running to the bell tower. On the way he turned to me. "Kipu za feizu!" he called and ran on.