monks-Zen-Art-by-Qiao-Seng-TN

Bell Tones Fading Underground

Here’s my rather grisly contribution to the Race to 200 Blog Contest.  (Author’s note– no disrespect or irreverence is intended towards any spiritual beliefs or culture. This story is based on a real practice that was isolated to a certain group of monastic practitioners in the Japan of the 1800s…)

You cannot meditate when your master is buried alive beside his rival. During my vigil with two other novices, I shivered but not because of the mountain wind.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

Three years ago outside the dojo, my master Bhasho, and Soseki would posture like a pair of ronin. Wielding no swords in their daily duel but we all knew the power of words to cut and stab.

“One must be like tea.” proclaimed Soseki, “Adaptable and fluid. If tea is poured into a cup, it becomes the cup. When poured into the ladle, it becomes the ladle-”

“If tea is poured into the latrine, what does it become?” interjected Bhasho to much laughter.

Our abbot Horioka, did not encourage their rivalry, neither did he dissuade it. He was too busy receiving officials and magistrates or gifts from officials of the Yamagata prefecture. Behind closed screens and the rustle of robed weight settling on tatami mats,they talked of the gaijin spreading their religion. The abbott announced that we needed to strengthen ours.

“Many have tried, but few succeeded in the Shokushinbutsu method.” said Horioka in the courtyard,after we had breakfasted on miso and potato broth. A wave of awe . The method entails slow suicide and self-mummification to attain nirvana.

“I’ll do it!” yelled Bhasho. Miso and potato chunks threatened to burst up through my throat.

Not to be outdone, Soseki echoed Bhasho, “I’ll do it too!”

I stood by Bhasho during the first thousand days. While he ate pine cones and drank foul bitter tea made from the sap of urushi, the lacquer tree. I held his head as he vomited, stomach fluids dangling from his lips. Two thousand days later and near his end, Bhasho lay on his mat, gazing up at the rafters and scrawled his words on rice paper.

“I could come back. The gajin say the son of their god died and returned in three days.”

I ignore him. He sounds like Ikkuyu, the renegade monk from two hundred years ago.

“You’ll leave this world.” I said, ” In peace.”

His laugh set off a cough. More phelgm as if his emaciated body wants to turn itself inside out.

“What is ‘leaving’? I’ve hardly arrived!”

“Master Soseki says he will die and reach nirvana first. They’re preparing his tomb, next to yours.”

“He is most welcome, the old fool. It’s not a race but a test of endurance. He who lasts longest, attains nirvana!”

Did Bhasho hear me? I try not to raise my voice. ” You and Master Soseki will ring a bell in your respective tombs once a day to tell us that you’re still alive. After that stage passes, we’ll process your bodies and place them in the great hall.”

He nodded three times to show he had heard me.

My vigil outside their tombs was tortuous and arduous but we are monks – we thrive on routine. One novice keeps a tally of each Masters’ bell rings while the other acts as a witness. We took turns sleeping but when I slept I only heard the bell: Ding. Ding. Ding.

After ten days, the novices woke me up. “It is done.”

“Who died first?”

Both looked at me and then at each other. “Both of their bells stopped during the hour of the Stork today.”

Abbot Horioka smiled and clapped when I whispered the result into his ear over breakfast. “In Zen, there’s no winning or losing. But retrieve Master Bhasho first and put him in the hall. He has served us longer here. I want the pilgrims to see him.”

Bhasho, donning a topi and decked in his robes, sat stooped on an altar in the great hall. His eye sockets were empty and his hands  folded in his lap. But he seemed at peace. It was evening when I finally swept the hall and polished the prayer bell on the main altar.

“So,” I said to Master Bhasho’s corpse, “You and Soseki agreed on a draw?”

I bowed once and turned to exit the great hall.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

13 thoughts on “Bell Tones Fading Underground”

  1. That is one particular race that I would not want to enter. I am more of the mind of Victor Standish, die doing not stewing. Yours is a great sardonic and wry piece of introspection on the road to death we all walk … or run. Roland

  2. Wow! I liked this! It reminded me of how competitive my 4th graders are and I could see it going this far with some of them! I loved the end!

  3. Uhm; wow. The perspective and voice carried this excerpt.
    Zen obsession, and the race to death by compulsion. This was intense, progressive, emotive. Even the narators flat affect was emotive.

    Well done.

    ……dhole

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