Lotus Unfolding

Prince Shotoku Taishi (572–622) was the legendary hero who, at the beginning of literacy in Japan, made Buddhism and Confucian governmental principals two of the foundation stones of Japanese culture. He wrote the earliest commentaries on Buddhist Sutras and commissioned the first histories in Japanese. He is also credited with beginning the traditions of Noh theater, archery, tea ceremony, sculpture, and architecture, among other cultural forms.

In its sensuous immediacy, the world, its fields, hills, mountains, streams, seas and many skies, heat and cold, wet and dry, its secret past unfolds. This world, this mind holds our secrets, secrets of origin, of unfolding and of end.

Unprompted, there is desolation, terror, kissing sounds, laughter. There is the scent of an underarm, the smell of saliva, of long black hair, of flowers, of things that have not been named.

There are shouts in the sky and whispers in the woods; there are calls from the sea, moans from the soil underfoot. The mountains wreathed in clouds are waiting. They have a long story. You can see it.  Wait and it will come.

The world lives in your dreams and speaks in the night. It tells of uncharted histories that may also be yours. They are the ancient histories, myths and prophecies. These are the vast borderlands of the knowable.

The summer is hot and the grasses gleam like emeralds in the sun. The seas are sparkling and calm as two Buddhist priests, Eji from Koryo, Eso from Paekche arrive in Japan.

The two are brought to court. Their skin has been darkened by weeks on the sea, and they wear gray robes. They speak Japanese with difficulty. Eso, the taller, is appointed to serve in Lord Soga’s temple. There he teaches monks and nuns the simple path of monastic practice.

Prince Shōtoku Taishi feels a unique kinship with the Priest Eji. He requests teachings from him. He requests that Eji give him the refuge and the bodhisattva vows.

In the months that follow, Eji moves into the Prince’s palace.  Shōtoku Taishi studies the Vimalakirti Nirsdesa Sutra and the Sutra on the Lotus of the True law with him. The Prince writes original commentaries that later are called The Upper Palace Commentaries. These are the first classical writings in Japanese literature.

At the Prince’s request, the Priest Eji also gives lectures to a group of courtiers on Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, the Spring and Autumn Chronicles and Confucius’ four books. These are the foundations of social order in China. He has brought the texts from Korea. He begins by simply reading them aloud. Shōtoku Taishi orders that copies be made and his courtiers all learn to read Chinese characters.

And there within oneself,
An inwardness like sitting by a pond,
As ripples unfold and light shifts slowly
Yellow gold and red,
The sounds of a distant wagon creaking
An ox exhaling,
A saw cutting through a board.
Then nothing,
Then mosquito
Then restlessness,
Drawing a sudden and deep sigh
A wave of sorrow,
A chill
And fear, a fear of space and coming night
An expanding and impenetrable solitude
Caught in a labyrinth of thought and yearning
Where there is no meeting place

And so, unmet,
Careens through space

There is the solitude of one self.
One self is sitting in a room in shadow.
There is the life that is pulsing from within and pushing
Pushing out
Out into uncertain night,
Where a loving consort waits,
Where there may be an assassin,
Where the crickets are singing under the floor,
Where a child is dying alone,
Where a famer is turning home exhausted
Where there is no rice
Where there is a wonderful book
Where another man nearby has a great deal of rice
Where a woman is giving birth
Where a fox is biting the hen’s neck
Where the god of thunder wakes
Where the goddess in an apple tree spreads her legs
Where a frog dives into the depths of a pond
Where an old man drinks rice wine and waits,
Wondering if waiting to write corrupts the night,
Returning to sit in the shadows.

Turning his eyes to the strokes and characters, at first a slight effort to assemble them as words, then pushing, the words coming together, phrases open to something alive, draw him into a world living now but in altered space.

He submits, abandons his own world and enters.
Now he is through the portal.
His life pulses in a different realm. He is carried along with little rushes and stops and slowing and pauses; these determined by the need to keep pace with the words and worlds emerging.

So he is moving through an alien world, finding himself new, a foreigner in this world, moving according to new cadences and music, finding a new life where the words take him, which the words offer up to him. A gate opens and he is walking along an ancient stone causeway, skirting a river where women are washing their laundry. It is a hot day. A crowd is gathering in the shade, and he is moving to join them.

The golden image of a naked child stepping forward, one hand raised, finger pointing to the sky, he points to something new, a new beginning, something that begins anew each second.

The small gold image steps into the world of Shōtoku Taishi. A door opens; a breeze enters the room. The world is slightly changed. Smells are more intense, shadows darker, light is more bright. There is a feeling of new meanings emerging.

Reading, he follows the small child into a different world. The child assumes innumerable forms in innumerable worlds.

Reading, Sotoku Taishi’s mind-stream follows a channel outside the circumstances of this momentary fate.

There is the discomfort of solitude
The waiting for a guest who does not arrive
The visitor who one hears outside on the path,
Who refuses to answer.

One evening, Prince Shōtoku Taishi and the priest Eji pass several hour side by side.  They share a world in its beginning. They sense constellations of worlds beginning.

Silently, they share
Somewhere being born in its own direction
With a kind of movement unlike any other.
The movement of a goddess.
The invisible movement of a mountain.
This world, a speck among oceans of galaxies of worlds
Of world/sounds roaring, whispering.

The priest does not know what to say.

That night, emerging from a speck of light, a small golden child appears to Shōtoku Taishi in dreams. The child gazes ahead:

Words are producing shapes and bodies of worlds.
Appearing in sounds, they become visible
You smell it, hear it, taste it.

Appearing out of a screen of word-sounds
Are sound shaping worlds.
You know a world emerging.

You begin to imagine, to remember.
Time is beginning.

Flashes of light.

You are beginning

Prince Shōtoku tells the Priest of a recent dream. Eji comes to believe that the Prince is the incarnation of Hui-ssu, teacher of Chih-I, founder of the Tien-t’ai school, even then living at Mt. Heng Monastery China.

He dreams he is sitting at the cave’s opening. He looks out over a narrow valley. The pine trees look black, and he gazes at the trunks and branches of trees whose leaves have fallen lower in the ravine. Huge slabs of granite, gray and cracked rise from the floor far below. He knows there is a creek far below but cannot see it. A light snow with large puffy flakes, the first of the winter, emerge from the gray air with a faint hiss, float and fall, disappear below.

He dreams he is wearing a rough wool robe and sitting on an antelope skin.  He has set up a small shrine against the dry rock wall to his left. A table in front holds the two texts he will practice, his bell and dorje, kapala, phurba. Deeper in the cave is an old trunk with sacks of grain. A small fire   flutters with air moving out from somewhere deep in the earth.

As you listen beneath the surface, what does the world say?
What can our understanding encompass in the not-human.
In that mirror, we see a being that neither confirms nor denies what we think, what we believe, the things to which we aspire.
Three sparrows flitter by the cave, see him sitting motionless, veers away.

In sleep, he hears the purling of the stream fading in the air from far below.  Outside, the cold breeze carries a hint of incense. He is perhaps imagining it. All who practiced here before him have left some momentum, a slender and enduring stream which now is carrying him. He feels overwhelmed. His teachers, his predecessors, have drawn this stream into the world. It is carrying him.

He looks out into the evening sky. He imagines himself hurtling through the air, the earth and sky spinning around him. Air rushing tearing at his arms and legs, pulling his hair ripping at his clothes. Exhilaration and terror. The swirling looming earth and the inescapable violent pain, unimaginable. Some transformation, end and intensity beyond any mind.

Ono no Imoko, Sotoku Taishi’s ambassador to China visits the Monastery at Mount Heng. He brings the Prince a copy of the text of an unknown Sutra.  The Prince unrolls the jeweled scroll and, without reading, knows that a line in the text is missing. When the copy was made, it was omitted. He is sure.

The Prince summons Ono no Imoko, and sends him back to Mt. Heng for a second copy.

In the next month, Shōtoku Taishi retreats into his private chapel and stays there for three days. He closes his doors, tells his wife, courtiers and servants not to disturb him.

On the dawn of the fourth day, Prince Shōtoku Taishi emerges from his chapel smiling and radiant. He is carrying a scroll of the sutra in a jeweled case. He explains that in the last night of his retreat a gilded chariot drawn by a green dragon came and took him to Mount Heng in central China. He was greeted by the monks and their abbot, Hui-ssu. He and the abbot conversed four hours. Then Hui Ssu abbot took the Prince into his private study and gave him the sutra.

Prince Shōtoku shows his wife and courtiers the text which begins:

“In Rajagriva on Vulture Peak Mountain, the Awakened One appears, seated amid an inconceivable assembly of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, Arhats, Sravakas, monks and lay people, men and women, as well as innumerable deities and myriad beings sentient and insentient.

“From the brow of the Awakened One, innumerable rays of brilliant white light emerge.

“Light pervades the whole of space. It radiates through all the trillions of thousand of worlds in all the ten thousand directions of space. Light manifests in infinite ways: as sun as moon as stars, as a mind, as love, as earth, air, fire, water, as every form of perception and consciousness, as terror, as truth, as infinity as speech as beyond speech, as past, present, future, as every mode of embodiment, as longing, as certainty, as uncertainty, as creation and dissolution, as form and formless, as every quality, as limit, as limitless as ignorance and wisdom. It manifests unceasingly in more ways than there are worlds, beings or concepts.

“For the vast assembly of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, Sravakas and all the rest, the air is filled with the intoxicating fragrance of unending life.

“Awake without reference point or purpose, the Buddha looks out. Everywhere, in all directions through the whole of space, lotus flowers of every hue and color float, dazzling and in full bloom.”

Three years later, Ono no Imoko returns from Mt. Heng. Hui Ssu had died, but four old monks who knew the late Zen Master had greeted him. He asked if he might make a copy of the sutra once again, the monks told him that they no longer had it. They said: “Just as out Abbot was dying, Lord Shōtoku came in a chariot drawn by a green dragon. Returned. Our Abbot gave him the text in a jeweled box. Lord Shōtoku then took the text with him.”

Alone in the forest: a branch snaps, something falls through the leaves and hits the ground with a thump. He is suddenly uneasy. Thoughts dissolve in imagining men in stealthy pursuit. He halts and listens. Thoughts dissolve into the woods. There are no words.

I am the Lotus of Innumerable Petals,
Infinite tonalities and shades,
All-encompassing Expanse,
All- pervasive Perfumes.

Rising without Purpose from the Mud
Rising without Thought in the murky Tides
Opening in the Heat of a motionless Sun,
Opening in unsought Union with the turquoise Sky.

This does Not result from Effort.
There is No Accomplishment.

About Douglas Penick

Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale,Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star),and about spiritual searches amid social collapse (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation.. Shorter works appeared in Agni, Danse Macabre,Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Levekunst, Tricycle, etc. Wakefield Press just published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.

Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale,Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star),and about spiritual searches amid social collapse (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation.. Shorter works appeared in Agni, Danse Macabre,Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Levekunst, Tricycle, etc. Wakefield Press just published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.

Leave a Comment