This article was originally published in the Whitman Wire’s Circuit Magazine.
Takemoto Sensei recently told our Eccentric Monks in Japan class that his heart was dead. His thoughts had been characterized by Isogashii – ‘busy busy busy’ – and he let this somber fact settle for a moment before shuffling over to the blackboard, where a poem by eccentric monk Saigyō reminded us that the winds of autumn can slap even the most rigamortic of hearts into a vibrant, if fleeting sentience.
Takemoto says he admires Saigyō because “when [Saigyō] decides to walk the mountains he actually goes to walk the mountains. He makes the mountains his home.”
This is no simple thing. In class we have read Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (often translated to “ten foot square hut”), a Japanese classic which spends much of its ink detailing the natural disasters and misfortunes that plague the home-owning denizens of 13th century Kyoto.
Chōmei, disenchanted by the anxieties of wealth, the resentments of poverty, the futility of courtly extravagance in this transient world, seeks safe-shelter, peace-of mind, turns his back on society and constructs for himself a modest ten square foot hut in the mountains in which he will live out the remainder of his days (unless, of course, he decides to move).
Chōmei’s home features two musical instruments, a Biwa and a Koto, which Chōmei often plays, though he admits his skill is poor. It also has a veranda, and bracken bedding, and poetic anthologies. He sits and recites chants; he plucks wild parsley and scrambles up mountain peaks with a ten year old boy who sometimes comes to play. Here, it seems Chōmei has found something of a home.
Takemoto Sensei says that when Whitman students start thinking about home, “they’re not sure where it is anymore because they’re in transit.
“Whitman is not their home,” he says. And neither, for that matter, is Walla Walla: “Very few have gone outside. [Few] understand the different kinds of rivers where the waters that we drink come from.”
Because we seem to be at a transit point, Takemoto Sensei says that most of us are not truly here.
“What does it mean to make wherever you are at any time in your life a place that is here?” he says. “Can a room that you stay in for only a day be a home? Can you make it a home?”
In his office, we consider the dorm room poster-tacking ritual by which so many stake their ground.
“We think that there is a beginning and an end. We think that one day is not enough, but what if all you had was one day to live? Then that day, wherever you are, that is day is home.
“[We think], ‘yes, it’s my home because I lived there for 16 years.’ But is it?”
Our Eccentric Monks in Japan class is about impermanence. Mujō. Mono – all things – is frequently paired with the Japanese word Aware – disappearing – to express the gentle sadness one feels in the face of universal transience. Perhaps you return home to find that you and your friends are unable to rekindle the old flame; perhaps playground shenanigans feel like yesterday; perhaps a loved one died, and already their smile fades in the memory. Bubbles on the ever-flowing river. What is will never again be.
“It is very sad because that part of your life is gone. But every day of your life is gone,” says Takemoto. “But we don’t think about it that way. We think ‘oh no I’ve got four years,’ and when you have four years, when you think in terms of those big chunks of time, Mono no Aware doesn’t happen.”
We do not perceive in the long term, so how can we possibly make sense of it? An unfamiliar setting heightens awareness, forces you into stark momentary presence. The trick, says Takemoto, is to maintain such groundedness when you return to a place you think you know.
Here at Whitman, he says, “it’s almost as if you don’t have any ears, because you don’t listen to the birds, and your nose is just unconnected to anything, because you’re thinking ‘I got to do this, I got to do that.’”
Doubt is lost; the heart is dead. Isogashii. In such moments, Takemoto offers the humble wisdom of the eccentric monk Shinran: Take a new route to class – perhaps venture through the nice pathway that cuts through Sherwood. Slow your hurry. Breathe. “The moment you stop, that becomes home. Home is where you stop and check out your surroundings and,” better yet, “you allow the surroundings to check you out.”
”It’ll hit you in the face. It’ll be like that autumn wind… And you’ll go hey, Walla Walla is home too.”
Walla Walla has been home to Takemoto Sensei for over thirty years. After his son moved out, the vacated bedroom became his study. But his daughter’s room is still full of her old things. Recently he discovered a small pink house, with 2-D cartoonish figures peering from inside the plastic windows.
The house has a crank on it and a small dark hole on the upper level because, in addition to being a house it is also a pencil sharpener. His pencil sharpener had recently broken, and so he called his daughter to inform her that “I’m going to take over your pencil sharpener.”
As he recounts this tale, his voice cracks and giggles. He spins the crank round and round in illustration of its capabilities, and the sharpener rumbles and clacks, and for a moment that can’t have been the first, and certainly won’t be the last, the office of Takemoto Sensei swells with lively and curious delight.