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Annie Mirror Heart

A lightly fictionalized story by the late Maura O'Halloran about the first months she spent at a Zen monastery in Japan.

In 1982, when she was 27 years old, a young Irish-American woman from Boston named Maura O'Halloran received dharma transmission at the Kannonji Temple in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. This ceremony recognized her realization and gave her authorization to teach Zen. Only six months later, on her way back home to the States, O'Halloran was killed in a bus accident.

In her letters and journal—published posthumously in the book, Pure Heart Enlightened Mind—the young monk-in-training comments at length on her early efforts to write a novel that would be based on her travels in Japan and elsewhere. She wrote one chapter before her death, published for the first time in the Shambhala Sun.

It was dusk when she arrived. She walked from the station through the village to the outskirts where the temple lay. She didn't know anyone where she was headed, and not a word of the language. With each step closer, the urge to turn and run became greater.

The temple steps were steep and she had to stoop to pass through the entrance. This humbling posture robbed her of her remaining confidence. The temple was silent, self-contained, awesome. She stood just inside the gate and clutched her small bundle of possessions, her one familiar token in an unknown world. She began to shiver in the evening chill. A dim light flickered on, and she marched quickly toward it. She stumbled and her bundle rolled from her arms. She tried not to cry.

She reached the light and entered a dim room where a little monk was flinging papers about, shuffling and muttering in excited Japanese.

"I'm Annie Shaw," she said. "I'm expected."

The monk's black, pajama-like robes flapped around him as he searched under the desk and on top of shelves. "Ah!" he shouted, and banged a paper on the desk before her. On it, penned in a childish scrawl, was, "Please come this way." He peered at it, straining to pronounce it: "Pleezu kumu deesu waiyu."

Then he was off, waving the paper before her nose like a carrot before a donkey, and making gestures that to a Westerner looked like "go away," but obviously meant "follow me." Stumbling through the narrow, dark maze she felt like Alice chasing the Mad Hatter. The little monk, whose name was Hogen, was still shuffling and mumbling, "Pleezu kumu deesu waiyu." After pulling and straining at a door swollen in its tracks, he slid it open to reveal her room.

Hogen looked proud. He had cleaned the room himself, Annie learned later, in anticipation of the lady foreigner. He had scoured the temple to find a spare desk with legs aligned and had chosen the prettiest cushion cover he could find. It was floral, with huge magenta roses.

With a majestic sweep of his arm, he ushered her into her new abode. "Oh my God," she thought. "It hasn't got a window and I won't be able to stretch my legs out across it." She wanted to collapse into an armchair or on a bed, but there was only a hideous magenta cushion and a Spartan plywood desk. The dinner bell sounded, and before the full horror of the room engulfed her, Hogen whisked her back into the black of the temple labyrinth.

He led her to a large, bare room, furnished only with eight identical benches. Two monks were watching her shyly. "How are yoo?" "You berry welcome," they said, and tittered. With the sound of clappers, they grabbed their oryoki sets. Hogen gave her a similar parcel and indicated that she should imitate him.

The monks sat and unwrapped their sets in inhuman quiet. Two bowls, a tiny side plate, a pair of chopsticks and a cloth square were all wrapped in another square like an Oriental version of the mess kit she used in Girl Guides. Hogen demonstrated how to place the bowls so that contact with the bare wood of the bench made no noise. The formalities involved in just passing one's bowls for rice and soup seemed insurmountable—the order fixed, the bowls specified: three fingers, the right hand, wipe before passing, on to the palm, gassho, soup on the right, rice on the left, chopsticks point towards you, make an offering, seven grains of rice. Wait for the clackers. And they were off.

She was incredulous. They were guzzling their food with the frenzy of savages, yet making not a sound except for a stray chopstick accidentally grazing a tooth. She had expected them to eat as if seeking to become one with each grain, to chew the universe and swallow the cosmos.

She chewed her rice thoroughly, even meditatively, she told herself. Looking to Hogen for reassurance she picked up her side plate with a little mound of brown slime on it. Greasy, oozy, it tasted lethal. She had been faring reasonably well with her chopsticks up to that point, but the viscous mess slid round her plate, resisting every attempt to be scooped or speared.

Now from the corner of her eye she could see them passing hot water, pouring, filling their bowls. Hogen was urging her to finish, yet still the slime escaped her, dripping and plopping through the sticks. Try the rice. That was gluier and by holding the bowl near her chin, she could shovel it in efficiently. Now they were wrapping the bowls. At least her rice was nearly gone. She tried to stand when they sprang to their feet, holding their neatly wrapped bowls, but Hogen pushed her back down. She felt like a dunce in the corner. They were wiping the benches.

"Good evening," said a voice in a recognizable tongue. "Why don't you just pick it up and knock it back?" And now she really could have cried. "I'm Shonen, Go Roshi's son. You must be Annie."

Patiently, he showed her how to eat every grain of rice, how to wash the oryoki set by pouring the water from bowl to bowl, how she should drink the water in order to waste nothing. Finally came the elaborate bowing and the folding involved in re-wrapping the wretched things.

Shonen invited her to his room for green tea and dried rice cakes, and she was grateful for the gesture. His room was tiny, scarcely bigger than her own hole, but bursting with books, manuscripts and reams of practice calligraphy strewn in an arc around the desk. From the corners of the bookcases iron nails protruded at unexpected angles, displaying wrinkled robes drooping in baggy folds.

He struck a match, then lit a stick of incense and a cigarette. Casually he stuck the incense in a brass bowl in front of a plastic Buddha, and drew on his cigarette. From outside came a voice. He bolted upright and quenched the cigarette. But it was only Hogen, who gently slid the door open, peeped inside and grinned. Shonen threw the cigarette at him. With a loud laugh Hogen thanked him and lit it himself.

They began to chatter animatedly in Japanese. She heard her name mentioned often but was content just to lean against the bookshelf and observe. They looked comical. Two round bald heads nodding, living a fourteenth-century existence, enveloped in clouds of smoke from king-sized tobacco sticks. The monks reminded her of schoolboys puffing in the bathroom. They became giggly as they discussed her. This blue-eyed woman was to become a monk in a mountain temple of remote northern Japan. Unbelievable!

It was only seven o'clock, but to Annie it felt like midnight. She groped her way back to her cell, where she dragged out the damp-smelling futons and piled on a heavy wad of assorted bedding. Already fully dressed, she added a woolly hat and scarf and hauled the bulky spreads over her body. She wondered if she could even turn over under the weight. She stared at the void where the ceiling must be, and in her stomach she felt a hole as black as the void above her.

Did she have any idea what she was undertaking here? Yet gazing into that void, she felt that somehow her whole life had been leading up to this moment. It was no accident that she had stumbled upon a reference to this remote monastery. It was something that sooner or later she had to do. She must try. She must really throw herself into this. Still, she thought, what wouldn't she give right at this moment to be seated in front of an open fire with a whiskey in her hand?

Morning came quickly, insistent and cold. Bells were ringing. Sleepy, she tried to dismiss them, but Hogen was at the door, reading from a scrap of paper that said, "I show you get dressed." He was making squealing noises and was obviously in a hurry. When she still couldn't understand, he started dragging her clothes off. Her first reflex was to belt him but she reasoned that he'd hardly threaten her virtue at five o'clock in the morning in a bustling monastery. She was further reassured by the sounds of washing and toothbrushing just outside.

Hogen pulled a parcel in from the corridor and shook out a kimono, gesturing that she should put it on. He showed her how the right side slipped under the left, then how to loop it up with various strings, seal it with a majiku bando, and make sure not to let the lapels bag. This, he emphasized, was most important, but it seemed to her just another ridiculous triviality. Still, she chuckled at the idea of a man dressing her so platonically, even maternally. As he patted the lapels flat on her chest it was apparently without consciousness that this was a woman's chest. Could there really be some corner on the earth where she might be free of her sex?

The first few days seemed eternal and she doubted each day whether she could survive until the next. The year she had promised herself seemed unthinkable. While everything was new, there was still a depressing absence of stimulation. Nothing really happened. She was cold and bored and ravenously hungry. There were no heaters and it was December. She could never finish her meals on time so she took only minute portions.

Today she was up at five to splash her face in the icy water of an outdoor basin, then wash by the light of the moon. Next came the frenetic morning exercises, everyone roaring the count together. By half past six she found herself outdoors, sweeping the grounds. She stared at the raw red of her toes, like so many frozen sausages around the thongs of her sandals. Perched on those wooden platforms and in dawn's grey light, she could have been a geisha stepping down from her carriage after a night's work, not a gaijin with a bamboo twig stabbing listlessly at fallen leaves. She wanted out.

"That's all wrong." She was startled to hear a curt Japanese accent. "Sweep like this." The monk demonstrated jerky little side whips with all the motion in the twig, the handle almost rigid.

"There is a Zen way to sweep?" she muttered to herself. "I wonder if there is a Zen way to knock your arrogant block off."

A Zen way to sweep—this was truly humiliating. Upstairs she had tried to dust the meditation hall, and the first swipe of the duster had ripped a hole in the shoji screen. Then she had swept against the grain of the tatami, instead of up and down. She seemed to do everything wrong.

On her fifth day they told her she would have her ceremony soon. Up to that time she had only seen Go Roshi at meals. He looked at his food; he ate his food. He bowed to them; they bowed to him. He went to his room, where she could hear a television blaring.

What kind of man was he? She knew something of his story. He and his twin brother had been the oldest of a large farming family. His brother was destined to take over the farm and Roshi to become a priest. When he was about eleven years old, his twin was accidentally shot. It was no one's fault, but Roshi was then expected to inherit the farm and fulfill his filial duties. He protested that he still wanted to be a priest. They refused to let him go. He chopped off his finger to show his earnestness. They still refused. So he ran away from home, a terrible disgrace. He took to the roads, not yet a teenager, wandering and chanting all the while, Namu myo ho renge kyo. He roamed around the country questioning various Zen masters on the meaning of life and death. Finally he went to Daiko Roshi, who said, "When apples are ripe and falling from their branches, what will you do?" "Gather them," he said. Daiko gave him a basket and showed him to the orchard. He remained for thirty-five years.

The clock struck eight as he walked in. The monks sat in two rows. The lights were off and the shoji was open, allowing harsh winter sunshine to stream across the passage and onto the benches. It lit Go Roshi's face. He was speaking animatedly, and as he laughed his heavily repaired teeth glinted golden. She thought of him at twelve years old, alone, on pilgrimage. It made this venture into Zen seem all the less probable for an ordinary person like herself. The little finger of his left hand was a stub.

He mentioned her name several times during his talk. No one translated. He stopped speaking, stared at her, laughed and addressed her in English. She was flabbergasted. She thought he knew no English. "Your ceremony will be in a few days. Are you ready?"

"What ceremony?" she said.

"You become priest ceremony," he said.

She knew this would come sooner or later but she had thought it would be later. "Well, I mean, don't I have to know something? Believe things?"

"No, the less you know and believe the better."

"But does it mean I can never leave?"

"No, leave when you please."

"But, I mean, what do I promise?"

"I only ask that you request permission for outings."

This was mystifying. A priest with no beliefs or commitments? What was a priest, anyway?

"Well," she said, "I suppose I'm ready then."

Go Roshi clapped his hands in childish glee and dragged a huge cardboard box from behind the shoji. He unwrapped it slowly, with the precision of someone dismantling a bomb. He wound up the string and tucked it in his sleeve. Then he presented her with her robes and told her to go out and try them on. 

To her it felt like Christmas and playing dress-up all rolled into one. Barefoot, swathed in the long, silk kimono, she floated back and forth the length of the corridor. Hogen transformed himself into a photographer, focusing and clicking his imaginary camera to record the latest in temple fashions. The silent, empty corridors echoed with their laughter.

Then Go Roshi went away for a few days and she felt miserable again. The lack of communication felt like a darkness around her, as if her entire world had sunk in on her. The monks tried to talk to her, consulting their dictionaries. They said they felt comfortable with her, then conferred for the right words to tell her they were glad she had come to Shodoji. She felt a real affection for them, yet they seemed so totally foreign and unreachable. They treated her kindly, but could they possibly conceive of who she was and the world from which she came?

On the day scheduled for the ceremony, Shonen came to her room and told her to wear the white kimono. "But your hair . . .” he said. “No one has shaved your head yet." 

Her thick, dark hair had always been a source of pride for her.

“Shave your head, O.K.?” Shonen said. “Hurry up, O.K.?”

"Yes, fine,” she said. “It's a nuisance anyway." 

"Ah so,” Shonen said. “You not usual woman." 

That made her laugh and she found that she felt quite cheerful about it. 

Shonen began with the clippers. Her long locks looked so forlorn, strewn on the wood. Now her head felt light. She touched it, naked and bristling. Shonen gathered the locks up, still in a hurry. She could only stare at herself in the mirror. So much for bravado. Shonen paused for a long stare. "It suits you,” he said. “But you are not usual woman." 

He doesn't know that she doesn't even feel like a woman anymore. 

"Please, fast, fast,” he said. “You now become a priest. In ceremony, repeat after me Japanese words." 

"But Shonen-san,” she said, “What do they mean? I must know what I'm saying. This is so important." 

"No, Miss Annie, words are not important. You cannot really make promise, for you are not free. Do ceremony now and you begin life, where promise will naturally become itself. Come. Come. Never mind. Words are only words."

“Well, why the hell do the ceremony?” she thought. She could feel herself beginning to get angry. The Buddha is not a god but the place teems with statues and altars to him. Why all the formalities and petty regulations, if one is supposed to become free? So much foolish ritual and bowing. She was getting cross. She rubbed her bald head. A small voice inside advised that she'd get nowhere by endless questioning and rejecting. The way to understand this thing is not by analysis but by immersion. But she knew that immersion sometimes results in drowning. 

The meditation hall smelled of straw mats and incense. She breathed it deeply and felt calmed. She decided to avert her eyes from the gaudy altar and the huge vases of fake flowers. She could see no beauty in the statues. They were looming, grotesque, with their rows of candles and offerings. It felt like a pagan mockery of the Catholic churches of her childhood. She felt she had stumbled once again into the religious world she had left behind.

Shonen was signaling her to prostrate herself before the images. Somehow she managed. The ceremony seemed a blur. She remembered repeating in a whisper Shonen's cues. Roshi was waving something that looked like a horse's tail in her face and chanting. Everyone joined in, voices loud, the drum pounding, primitive. Their huge voices were booming with wild energy and it unnerved her. Roshi gave her a paper with elaborate kanji and intricate folding. The horsetail was waving again. 

The shouting finally ended. She felt faint. Now she was a Buddhist priest, although no one would tell her what that meant. They went downstairs for tea. Her new priestly name meant "Mirror Heart.” Everyone said this was a good name, but they continued to call her Annie. 

A monk named Mochian was smiling. "One moment pleez." He rooted through the sleeves of his robes and thrust a bar of chocolate into her hands. "Omedeto gozaimasu." He bowed his head to the floor. Shonen translated this as "Congratulations," then continued, "You will make excellent priest. I very happy you do us the favor become this temple priest. We grateful. Thank you. You give pure energy." 

This was embarrassing. She felt like a hypocrite. 

The ceremony over, it was time for work again. She went up to the third floor and climbed over the huge Buddha, dusting and polishing him. She wore five layers of undershirts and sweaters but still felt chilled to her bones. The Buddha was not smiling, only enormous and awesome. She shuddered at the prospect of wringing the rag in icy water to wash the altars and floors.

Cleaning before breakfast was even worse. For this she began at one end of the corridor with a wet rag, hands on the cloth, hips high in the air, and ran down the passage with her weight on the wet cloth. It was effective but she was running in the smear of the water, which instantly began to ice. Her feet froze and stuck as she ran. Each step felt like the sensation of ripping a Band-Aid from a raw cut. She asked herself if she could possibly put up with any more of this. Still, the thought kept throbbing in her mind: “I'm now a Buddhist priest.”

In her meditations during zazen she counted her breaths from one to ten. When she lost count because her mind became distracted she returned to one. She had yet to get as far as ten. Her record was six breaths. “It's my own mind,” she thought, “yet I can't even quiet it to count as far as ten.” She recalled the complex calculus problems her mind had fathomed at university, the theories it had probed. The mind held facts from when she was young, from hundreds of years ago, from events she’d never experienced and places she hadn't been. It could hold them more vividly than the present, apply them, relate them, sift them and arrive at new conclusions. This wonderful mind. But she couldn't count ten breaths. For one mere minute she could not still her mind. It flew off on a thousand fantasies. Why did the mind abandon its task to replay tired conversations, or wonder if the black stuff at breakfast was seaweed, or if her mother's favorite tulips were white or yellow? Her mind seemed to be mocking her. 

She sat straight and stared at the sliding screen before her. One breath, two. Was that a cat she heard? She remembered that she liked cats. 

"This most intimate possession,” she thought, “belonging only to me, is not mine at all. Which is the mind—this incessant prattler, or the one struggling to shut it up, to drown it with numbers? But that's not right either. Shonen said it can't be forced. But if it won't stop spontaneously and it can't be forced, it seems to be a deadlock. Yet I think that's too rational an approach. Well damn it, I am a rational being."

The next morning Annie went to her first dokusan. She stood at the door to Go Roshi’s room, Shonen behind her to translate. The Roshi wasn't looking at her, but into space, or perhaps, she should say, through space. His gaze did not seem to have an object but rather to slice. It was at once penetrating and vacant. His robes were patched purple silk, and across his knees he held a stick. She'd heard of masters beating their students and even a story of one getting his leg broken in dokusan. Here before her was the same dear man who had laughed with her and made her feel at home, but now he was frightening. He might do anything.

But her first dokusan was an anticlimax. He made the same innocent small talk anyone might make. When she went again the next day, she expected to be calm. Yet standing at the door, she felt sick. Behind Roshi loomed the immense statue of his teacher. The lighting was from the base of the statue, giving it sinister shadows. Behind her stood his son, ready to translate for them. 

This time he did not smile. A small hoarse voice, hers, spoke her koan. Why did she feel dwarfed by these presences? He's only human and a very kindly one. Her temples were throbbing. Having said her koan, she waited. He paused an uncomfortably long time and cleared his throat. "You must work now on muji koan. Become one with muji. Never let go of muji. Throw away your head. Stop reading. Don't concern yourself with the meaning of muji. Become muji. Let it fill you like a great piston pounding up and down in your belly until you feel that you'll explode." She wanted to ask what muji was but had no voice.

"But if I don't know what it is, how can I lose myself in it?" she asked.

"Never leave it,” Go Roshi said. “Practice this koan when you clean, when you eat, when you go to the toilet. You never know when or where satori may strike you." He rang the little brass bell to dismiss her.

Outside the door she pounced on Shonen. "What is muji?"

"Nothing," he said.


"I'll explain later. Now it's time for sutra service." 

With gongs and drums pounding, the monks' voices chanted the sutras. Her mind pounded. Did he mean that she should become muji? Become nothing? Her body was quite solid and material. It was a contradiction in terms.

After breakfast Shonen called her into his room. Now it seemed to her to have a cozy homeliness about it. The altar needed dusting and fresh flowers. A Bank of Tokyo calendar was peeling off the walls. His long robes still hung at odd angles about the room. He was smiling and peeling an apple. "It's puzzling, isn't it?” he said. “Here, take this Nagano-ken apple. Most delicious. I must tell you first that your koan originated with a famous monk named Joshu. One day a young monk asked Joshu, 'Does a dog have buddhanature?' Joshu answered, 'Mu.' Mu is a negative answer. It means ‘no, nothing, nothingness.’ But in Buddhism everything has buddhanature, so how can Joshu say 'mu'? You live in world of things—the phenomenal world, where everything appears separate. I am here, you are there, apple is there. There is no connection. At the same time, there is essential world. There is no thing. No separate thing." 

"I don't understand,” she said. 

"Everything is atoms, yes? Atoms are particles. Now scientists discover these act both like wave and particle." 

This rang a vague bell for Annie. 

"Think particle has decided place, size, time. How can it be both? How infinite and finite? This is impossible. Impossible to our minds because our minds can only think in our concepts. Our concepts come through our language from our experience. Our senses say apple and Shonen and Annie are separate. This is practical. This is functional. This works, so we say it is truth. Science of Newton worked, so everyone said it was true. But it is not whole truth. In everyday world we not experience whole reality. So no understanding and we become very attached to finite things. For twenty-five hundred years Buddhism has taught this world what modern science now realizes. How? No special tools, computer, science buildings. Through zazen many people experience for themselves this reality.

“You can understand, Miss Annie. You need no scientific training, only patience to sit and sit. Many people have kensho early, sometimes after only a few weeks, but then must train a long time so understanding goes into cells." 

She asked Shonen to explain what kensho was. "Kensho is first time you see essential world. First time you see yourself. For some people this is very deep and at once understanding everything. Most people this is shallow, the beginning. You work on muji koan until kensho, then train with other koans." 

"Shonen, when did you have kensho?" 

"Not yet, Miss Annie. I try very hard but still muji is my koan. Many young priests come and have kensho quickly, but I am patient. Last month my father give sesshin and a man, fifty-one years doing muji koan, have kensho. My father crying. This man, so pure heart, so beautiful kensho."

She felt discouraged. She munched her apple. "But you understand so well, Shonen." 

"That my problem. I'm like scientists. My father say 'You understand with head. Now with your belly.’” 

The monthly Zenkai began. For this event, people from the area assembled for one day and two nights of extra meditation, dokusan and talks by Roshi. Hogen instructed her in the appropriate clothing to wear. He liked to fuss over her, a real mother hen. Now he made sure her collars all overlapped properly, straightened and tugged everything into place, then stepped back a moment to admire.

She went to dokusan again. Go Roshi said she was to come alone. They struggled in his primitive English. He asked, "What do you make of muji?" 

"Your son explained to me many things about muji and Buddhism and enlightenment, but frankly I can't make anything of it. I repeat ‘nothingness’ whenever I can remember to, but don't see what it's all about." 

She wondered, but didn't add, how such monotonous reiteration could lead to any enlightenment at all.

"My son doesn't know a thing about Buddhism," Roshi said. 

She was astonished. 

"Your approach is incorrect,” he said. “You must use the Japanese syllable 'mu.' Never mind the meaning, only concentrate, pour your entire being into it. When you scrub the floors—” he startled her by jumping up and pretending to wash the floor, "—that is muji. When you wash your face—” miming again he splashed water, then jumped back in mock horror, “—it’s freezing, brr, brr. That’s muji. ‘Oh, today I'm exhausted—’" he flipped on his cushion and snored outrageously, "—that's muji. Do you understand?" 

"I don't know," she said. 

"Good,” he said. “That's best. Don't-know mind is best. Hold on to don't-know mind and fight with all your might." He shook the little hand bell. She was dismissed.

"Hold on to don't-know mind,” he had said. Yet apparently that's not the same “don't know” as Shonen's. He said his son didn't know a thing about Buddhism. That was puzzling, too. Shonen was obviously very learned in Buddhist matters. The whole business baffled her. Why can't it all be straightforward and logical?

She went back into the meditation hall. She loved its smell. Tonight for zenkai they were using little oil burners. The tatami felt warm, almost alive beneath her feet. The hall was filled to capacity. She was pleased with the sight. It was more encouraging than the usual handful of monks huddled half-freezing in the semi-gloom. The people gave her energy, and Roshi's words were fuel. 

She stared at the shoji screen before her. "Mu, mu, mu." The patterns of the shoji began to dance in an odd way. Her eyes were unfocused though concentrated. The effort made the shoji seem to shine. Her breath came slower and slower. Mu, mu. She felt as if she were at the bottom of a clear pool. Sounds were muffled, words and sentences floating on the surface. She was at the very bottom, looking up a great, slow distance at the light. Mu, mu, mu. It came from the pit of her belly. A tangible peace was settling through her body, a vast stillness, a hollow, booming mu.

After zazen they had chanting. Usually she found it loud, even unpleasant, but this time she was very moved. She watched Hogen's pudgy little face. He was chanting with his whole heart. Although the incense, the words and the costumes were still completely foreign to her, her eyes slid fondly across each ardent face. She felt she might cry.

Afterwards they had tea. Forty-five people knelt in lines behind their benches and one by one stood up to give a short self-introduction. Shonen translated for her. Someone asked if it was true that the foreign lady would really do takuhatsu. Shonen asked her. 

"Tell me again what takuhatsu is,” she whispered. “I've forgotten." 

"Miss Annie," he whispered back, "you must learn this word. Takuhatsu is begging." 

She was indignant. "Of course I'll go." Did he think because she was a woman or a foreigner that she wouldn't? But she began to wonder just what this begging could involve that her decision to do it produced such obvious awe in the assembly.

A handsome, elderly man signaled her to follow him, and they went with Shonen and two other men—a plumber and a skinny, awkward computer programmer—to a small bare room she hadn't seen before. Inevitably, they started smoking. They smiled and said their names, which she immediately forgot.

The elderly man made pleasant, inconsequential conversation about her family and her journey. She warmed to him at once. He spoke softly but firmly. When he flicked his ash, he'd rest a moment, watch it and resume what he was saying. It gave an unhurried flow, almost melodic, to his manner. He exhaled a long, steady stream of smoke. "Miss Annie,” he said, “do you know you are Buddha?" 

"I beg your pardon?" she said.

"You are Buddha," he said.

"Do you mean some kind of reincarnation?" she said.

"No, I do not," he said.

"Well, Buddha died some 2,500 years ago, didn't he?" She recalled Shonen mentioning that figure. 

"No,” he said, “the Buddha is alive and before my very eyes. Miss Annie, you are Buddha." 

She was flattered but a bit embarrassed. "No, really,” she said. “I can't even sit cross-legged properly." 

"Plain Miss Annie even with weak legs is Buddha,” he said. “You must know that. You must realize that in your every moment and every movement, you and Buddha are not different. You have nothing to seek. You are living Buddha. You have no need to search but you do not know that. You must take my word for it, but you will search in vain, search frustrated until you realize beyond any doubts or questions that you are Buddha completely and that you have never been anything but that."

Then he and the plumber told how they had reached enlightenment. The computer kid had not yet experienced kensho. They told other enlightenment stories, remembering this or that character, laughing. They spoke of the monk who was carrying a basin of hot water with great concentration. He bumped into a pole and came to an awakening. There was the one who was drinking his soup, saw a potato and his world fell apart. He cried out in the silence of the meal. Another one stared at the sky all night, but believing it was only half an hour, met the dawn with tears. When Roshi came out of his room to wash, the monk was prostrating himself outside the door. He'd been there for an hour, weeping in gratitude. Many stories were not so dramatic. Most people were doing sesshin and got kensho in Roshi's room. 

She went to her room extremely excited. Becoming enlightened needn't be a matter of decades in a mountain cave. It could be hers soon. He’d said that she'd never been anything but Buddha. The idea was intoxicating. The elderly man’s voice was so authoritative, his manner compelling. That night when she fell asleep her dreams were full of mu.

Next day Roshi suggested that she should buy thicker underwear before takuhatsu. He gave a monk named Bodhin money and asked him to accompany her to the village. She didn't particularly like Bodhin; he was the one who had corrected her leaf-sweeping. He was constantly picking on the new young monks, harshly pointing out their mistakes, making fools of them before the others. It seemed cruel when there were so many minute details to remember, none of which were taught systematically. Anyway, she and Bodhin were to go to the village together. 

This was the first time she had left the monastery since she arrived. It crossed her mind to make a dash for it and escape now while she had the opportunity. She knew other monks had “leaped over the wall.” Could she just disappear too?

It was a country village but bustling with life. The shops displayed their wares out front in colorful stalls. Everyone seemed to know everyone and in spite of the bitter weather chatted comfortably. Occasionally they bowed to Bodhin and Annie. Bodhin reverently returned the greetings. From the lampposts on every street hung bright, plastic and tin decorations in the shape of colored snowflakes. In the afternoon sunlight they looked festive. Bodhin said that decorations always hung there, different ones depending on the season. She liked them. They were garish but gave every day an air of holiday. Some people stared at her curiously. One shopkeeper asked Bodhin if she was a boy or a girl. 

Then they went into a shop where "Jingle Bells" was playing, and her heart missed a beat. The air had the crisp tingle of Christmas, but this was Japan, far from her father's hot punch and her mother's plum pudding. The next day would be Christmas Eve. She knew she must be strong. Mu, mu. The word had no appeal, couldn't distract her. 

With twilight came the first snowflakes and gradually lights flickered on throughout the village. They walked back to the monastery slowly, silently.

They returned just in time for dinner. After the final clapper sounded, Annie was startled to see Mochian—the monk who had given her the bar of chocolate the day she became a priest—enter the room carrying a tray of soft drinks and a single bottle of champagne. The champagne was meant to be her Christmas celebration. Together the monks began singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." They all huddled around low benches, looking excited and blowing puffs of icy breath. Mochian opened the bottle. It was only the size of a beer bottle—just a sweet and swift sip for everyone. The tiny taste was merely tantalizing. She would have loved more.

Then the entertainment began. Mochian stood up slowly, breathed deeply, and from the pit of his belly, poured forth his song. There was deep melancholy in it, as if the mountains were mourning beside a churning sea. It became wild, tempestuous. He seemed to sing with an emotion that was hardly human. When he had heaved the last strains from deep in his gut, the other monks all clapped uproariously, almost relieved that his suffering was over. Mochian smiled, knelt down at his place and poured the last drop of his champagne into Annie's empty cup. Her eyes were watering and she could scarcely tear them away from him long enough to ask Shonen, "What on earth was that about?"

"Frogs in a rice paddy at dawn," he said. 

“What?! It can’t be! Are they all committing mass suicide or something?”

He looked at her, puzzled. “No, Miss Annie, no mass, no suicide, just frogs. I think Mochian-san likes frogs."

Hogen was next. He gently crooned "Silent Night." His face was cherubic. "Pleez, Miss Annie, not homeshikuness." But to her surprise she felt at home—a strange home certainly, but with the peace of a real home. When it was her turn, she sang "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." She guessed they might be familiar with it, and, sure enough, they beamed in recognition. In this little Buddhist temple in the snowy mountains of Japan, the Christmas spirit was more genuine than any she had experienced in a long time.

First published in the September 2003 Shambhala Sun magazine.

See also:

Remembering “Irish Zen Saint” Maura O’Halloran

Click here for more articles on Zen Buddhism

Click here for more articles on Women and Buddhism


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