Now – Zen Koan

Beauty with beauty
Sadao-san enjoyed the music season in Kyoto and he was keen on attending the performance at the foothills of the Hiei. To hear the throb of the mountains gather the tones of instruments and sprinkle them across skies filled with ears of birds and beasts – including the two-legged ones – was second only to that perfect cherry blossom of that decisive March outside the Kofukuji temple when with each light going out, the pink turned sullen and meditative and when they were lit only in the full moon, he had decided to become a monk – for what else could a man be upon witnessing such a Divine introspection? – along the banks of Kamo. He still smiled at the thought of that night. How wonderful it is for thought to become memory and from neither gain enlightenment? Isn’t enlightenment the flower of nothing calyxing empty seeds to grow into a vacant meditation? How much better when it blushes that of cherry blossoms?

Lost was he in such scented thoughts when Takayuki-san clumsily rolled to a halt near Sadao-san. Before the dust could settle, Takayuki-san unleashed a gale of woes.
“Good morrow, Sadao-san. I simply must talk to you. Please pardon my intrusion, but I am in a state where propriety would only leave me in shards. I cannot help but discuss this with you. You are considered to be a very wise man and a happy one to boot. You must help me find happiness. As you know, I am married and also take care of my parents while being one to my two sons and daughter. Perhaps another man would count these very things as giving him untold happiness, but not me. My parents are old and dying but while they slip into heavenly paths, they have brought forth the devil in them. They spite me with their chiding and barbed rebukes. They think that their misfortunes had gathered at their doorstep when I was conceived. They think I am their sins’ fruit giving them a miserable life when life should be kindest to a soul crossing the toll gates. But that is not true. I take care of them and hearken the doctor often for their betterment. There is no temple in Kyoto or a kamidana in a friend’s house which doesn’t have a senkoh burning with the prayer for their well-being. But they see me as being uncaring and miserly. They think if I had burned Jinko, they would be well and free of such a miserly son. They think I want them to die so that I can get their gold coins. Fie! May they take their gold coins with them!”
He paused with no intention of letting Sadao-san suggest a better time for such conversation.
“And what greater curse could a man have when he finds his wife to be a witch!? Here I come home battered from my work and tend to my parents. Having heard their wounding words, I go to my wife to give her the length of satin I bought for her and in the hope that she will rid me of all worry, but no! she wishes to complain about the colour of the cloth as well as how she finds it disrespectful to not have a servant trotting behind her when she goes to the market, though she has servants who actually go to the market. She wants more while finding no time to give as a wife should. She cannot be bothered by household chores or even taking care of the family. She has no interest in being a salve or the cheer of my life while demanding this trinket and that perfume to make hers more interesting.”
Sadao-san prayed that he didn’t miss the mellifluous tones of the koto for this man’s sad stories.
“And then my children walk in and ask this of me or that. They do not respect my parents or my wife or me. Izanami, true to her name, is only interested in inviting her giggly friends to parties in the house and every event needs a different dress. The boys are interested in gambling and spending money on the geisha from Kobe. They speak rude words and not one of the boys is interested in taking over the business. They walk into the store whenever they deem fit and ask the accountant to hand them money. Once, they beat him up for suggesting that they wait for me to return. I had to find another accountant, who makes my life hell with his innuendoes. Such is my business and such are my near ones that friends come over only to find reason to thank God for whatever they have. Friends are more interested in my woes as anecdotes to recite to their friends over sake. My life is hell. What should I do?”
Sadao-san knew that music is not of time while verily a vassal to time. The koto concert could wait if it had to. But he smiled as wise men often do when the breeze grows soft and a fallen leaf turns over revealing a different shade of veins.
“It is unfortunate that you are the keeper of such pain. Perhaps your health gives you some solace?”
“What is one to do with a fat stomach and strong legs when there is no heartsease?”
“True. Wiser words were rarely spoken. Shall we proceed to Miyako-san’s concert near Heie?”
“What!? A concert? Master, you surely have not understood the seriousness of my grief. Do not mistake its preciseness in recitation to indicate its lack of impact on my peace. Some lives can be summarised in few seconds but the weight therein is of a lifetime. I thought it would be rude to take more of your time to enumerate my misfortune. Isn’t it said that misfortune and fortune should fill no more than a leaf although they are the tree of your life?”
“Very true. Please rest assured that I do not treat your difficulties lightly. I do not think that your grief shall pass merely by distracting it with a musical recital. It has taken root deep and the song of birds can only make flowers more beautiful and not the tree stronger. Nevertheless, the solution to your problems is in that very concert. It is merely chance that we should meet while I was going there myself.”
“You too are plagued by such problems?”
Sadao-san smiled and said, “Music is not for the troubled mind.”
“But you say I will benefit by coming to a concert?”
“Who am I to speak of the unknown? Let us proceed in faith.”
Takayuki-san had hoped that he would find in Sadao-san a clever man who would give him a clear and quick solution to his problems. Someone who would have looked into his past and pointed out the choices which had made his life miasmic and held his finger out to days unseen where he could benefit and walk out of this hell that his life had become. Surely such wise men had the privilege of being disconnected from it all and hence, able to operate on life with sharp knives.
They walked in silence. Sadao-san thought to himself, “Isn’t it amusing? He perceives silence in wordlessness.” Then he spoke aloud, “Hold not what you cannot within.”
“Huh!? Oh! Nothing. I was merely hoping that we could find a distant spot in the assembly where we could discuss my issues without disturbing the audience.”
“Oh! certainly. We will be sitting with nothing between us and the koto.”
“What!? But then, how can we talk?”
“Well, how else could you listen to the koto and solve your problems?”
“The koto is going to solve my problems?”
“Who else can solve your problems?”
Takayuki-san receded to loud silence. He slowed his pace in the hope that Sadao-san would notice and allow him to re-enter his world of placatory talk. Sadao-san continued walking at the preset pace.
The path that leads to beauty is often playful in giving hints of the pleasures at the end of the track of mud. The sight of Heie in the distance and a flurry of kimonos leading along the one chosen path boded well. Sadao-san sighed and prayed to the mountains that they enjoy the music of the evening and add their voice to it, for no music is complete till the universe unites. 
They reached the venue and found Miyako Ishiguro-san tuning her koto. Sadao-san gestured towards the musician and asked Takayuki-san to proceed to the seats reserved for them in front of the koto. People made way for Sadao-san while Takayuki-san prayed that such belief in this man’s greatness wasn’t misplaced. When they sat down, Sadao-san said, “No one can solve your problem until you want to, so please do not doubt the koto’s intent while you verily doubt my solution and the capability of the koto.”
Takayuki-san watched the polished kiri spread across struts and wondered to himself – what is there to learn from this? Nevertheless, I shall seek earnestly. Can the koto hear my thoughts?
“The universe can hear you, Takayuki-san. It is best to be honest.”
Miyako-san busied herself in aligning the ji for her piece. The ivory bridges hardly moved under her fingers but she was pleased by their imperceptible yielding to rightness. She plucked some strings and nodded. She ran the pads of her fingers along the length of the strings, perhaps reassuring them that the music was their chance to speak their heart out tonight. She randomly plucked strings and re-adjusted the bridges. When she looked up, she saw Takayuki-san staring at the strings and Sadao-san, eyes closed, swaying to rhythms others could not hear. She plucked a string for them. While Takayuki-san’s brows knit in a hope to understand that, Sadao-san sighed and opened his eyes.
“Good evening, Sadao-san. I see you are enjoying yourself. Quite early aren’t you?”
“Good evening to you, Miyako-san. And to your koto. Can one be any different while in the presence of beauty? I came early because my friend wished to seek the advice of your koto.”
Takayuki-san blushed and leaned over to Sadao-san.
“Perhaps it is not best to share such matters with a geisha.”
Sadao-san smiled.
“Yes, advice. His problem is known only to him and the solution is known only to your koto.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me!”
Sadao-san and Miyako-san started to laugh and Takayuki-san half-decided to leave.
“Please don’t be offended, Takayuki-san. We do not laugh at you but at how less people expect of the koto. Why, it can actually give you beautiful music but all people want is an escape from their disdainful life. Like raising the shutters of the house a little to the morning while continuing to light candles in the house. Take it all, Takayuki-san. Ask for it all.”
Takayuki-san didn’t understand anything of what he was told but decided to stay while being reassured that he could ask whatever he wanted. He stretched his neck a little and moved his head from one side to the other. He cleared his throat but spoke nothing.
Oh great koto. They say you can solve my problems. Please help me.
I seek peace
I seek happiness
I seek a calm home
I seek a happy home
I seek days when my parents will be happy to see me return from work
I seek evenings when my wife would be waiting for me and rid me of all my mundane worries with her kindness.
I seek hours when my children would sit with me and share their stories and learn about my business.
I seek a chance to share with them my childhood.
I seek moments when I can take my wife out into the night and hold her hand under the pretext of showing her some distant star.
I seek days when I can recount joyous childhood days with my parents and laugh at my stupid youth.
I seek friends who let me love them and come to me for that love
I seek days when all of us can live together happily and peacefully and not have to be treated thus.
“Do let me know when you are done meditating, Takayuki-san.”
“I was just done.”
“Wonderful. Miyako-san, could you be kind to favour our friendship with a private piece?”
“What do you have in mind, Sadao-san?”
“Takayuki-san would love to hear a piece which is not one that is written or performed but that which is a private conversation between your tsume and the koto. Perhaps, you would like to treat that as an exercise for the evening?”
“Most certainly. Shall I begin?”
“Takayuki-san, Miyako-san is going to solve your problems by consulting the koto-oracle. As you are aware there are 13 strings on the koto and rarely will more than one string be plucked. Greed is not a characteristic of beauty. Miyako-san will play as the koto desires but you need to perform a task in order to understand the unspoken words of advice.”
“Anything, Master.”
“You need to predict the 3rd string that Miyako-san will pluck after she has plucked the current one. Hence, the first three notes are free but the rest must be predicted by you. If you get a note wrong, you are free to alter your prediction of any of the previous four predictions. Hence, the first four notes are untainted and can never be altered. Miyako-san’s piece will be fairly slow as is every well-intended advice. Are we ready?”
Takayuki-san was whipping his finger in the air trying to understand the flow of numbers and which ones he can predict and which ones he can alter. He managed to tally all of it with a nod of his head and signaled his readiness.
Miyako-san began her piece with an elaborate pluck of the short length and proceeded to let her fingers be chosen by the koto. She swayed with the music and her tsume bounced on the strings like a stone gliding across the still waters of a lake. Her eyes were closed for music was not of the senses but for the soul. Sadao-san smiled as the music revebrated within the confines of his soul’s inner chambers. He felt ever sinew pull itself taut and echo the notes struck in some far corner of his now lightless soul. Isn’t it amazing that what comes of darkness has a light of its own?
Takayuki-san was busy predicting string numbers and suddenly wondered whether the counting started from that side or this. Never mind. He kept picking a number and waited for it to be confirmed or not. When some other string was plucked he had to recall the earlier predictions and altered the one he could remember best as having failed. He had to keep track of seven string numbers and after a few minutes lost track. He started all over again in the hope that none but the koto would notice and squinted his eyes at the koto focusing hard on the strings being plucked. 
Shall I alter the 12?
Change 5
When Miyako-san was done, Sadao-san jumped to his feet and clapped his hands. 
“Wonderful! Beautiful! I have never heard something like this before. You are truly gifted and so are you Miyako-san.”
Takayuki-san was tallying the last of his predictions and wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Takayuki-san, I hope your problems have been adequately solved.”
Takayuki-san stared at Sadao-san and then at the koto. He rose slowly and bowed to the koto and then to Sadao-san.
“Thank you! Miyako-san I hope you haven’t been delayed for the concert.”
“The concert began a long while ago, Takayuki-san.”
They looked up to hear the Hiei hum softly.

[Hope you find time to listen to the koto piece below. The attempt is amateurish and the recording more so.]


2 thoughts on “Now – Zen Koan

  1. Welcome back, Zen Master! – at least with a zen koan in January itself, I can be assured of a proper December 2009 encapsulation of the year’s writings in this blog, unlike for 2008…# I shouldn’t miss out on the Music of life, with my preoccupation with the details and numbers of life is a good lesson here. A common teaching, but narrated in a unique way of the exercise given to the protagonist by a musician.# Another learning possible is that focussing on the ‘Now’ frees me from the ailments otherwise assailing me – but I doubt that this helps me when the Now itself is full of ills that never make me forget or focus on any good elsewhere.Enjoyed reading a zen koan in this blog after more than a year. Expecting many more soon.

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