When He Spoke

Author: Mark Yates

My father kept his ranger’s hat on the wall above his bed. It hung over his head while he slept, the same way crosses hang above the heads of many Catholics. The felt hat was brown and formal, with an extra wide brim and a black leather strap around the base, just like Smokey the Bear’s. My father kept four symmetrical dents in the top so he could hold it by the dome and put it square on his head with one hand.

He had earned the hat during a summer of service at Mesa Verde National Park in the early 1960s. He wore it as protection from the sun-washed heat of the mesa, where he lifted his thin legs over eroded ruins and fitted his calloused, boot-covered feet into centuries-old toeholds on sheer rock walls. He wore it to look official when patrolling trails and collecting fees at campgrounds.

As a child I used to sneak into my father’s book-lined bedroom to look at the hat or try it on. When Dad caught me, he’d tell me stories about his days at the park. And I listened, at first anyway. My father was 45 when I was born, and we lived in a university town filled with wide lawns and surrounded by cornfields. I knew nothing of the desert. It sounded like an alien landscape with a hammering sun and dangers everywhere. This of course made the hat that much more mysterious, and in elementary school, my sister and I took great pride in “our father the ranger” and eagerly showed friends and visitors the hat and the black-and-white photo of my father on duty.

As I grew older, the hat became familiar and ordinary, and my father’s stories something to quietly escape. When I hit my teens, both seemed dull and irrelevant, as dusty and washed out as the desert in which they were based. It never occurred to me that for Dad the stories might still be fresh with meaning.

“He always called me ‘Prof,’” my father once said, his hands on his hips and his eyes with that far-away look he got when remembering the mesa. He was telling me another story about the pistol-carrying officer who patrolled the recreation areas. “‘Prof, if you want to spot the poachers, you got to think like a poacher.’ Five minutes later I’ll be darned if we didn’t catch two fishermen red-handed. They made it easy for us to think like them.”

When Dad told a mesa story he squinted behind his horn-rimmed bifocals and his face grew as serene as a Buddha statue. He straightened his crooked back and held up a hand as though delivering a lecture (he was a professor of American literature). He took slow, meditative breaths. “The cliff dwellings were part of a massive web of trails that crisscrossed the desert,” he said, introducing a memory. “I’d hike up through the sagebrush and yucca trees to viewpoints where the desert stretches all the way to the horizon. It sure felt good to be alive up there. And at night, let me tell you, it wasn’t just the towns you could see. Even with my eyes I could pick out taillights in the Montezuma Valley. I bet I could see them from 50 miles, maybe even a hundred. So you can imagine how effective the Anasazi’s signal fires must’ve been.”

He capped every recollection by placing his knuckles on his hips, smiling with satisfaction and offering a one- or two-line adage that always sounded paradoxically clichéd and hard-earned: “It’s amazing how far you can walk, even when your feet are sore”; “A small trailer is better than a mansion for getting a good night’s sleep”; “Poachers are generally stupid.”

As a teen pumped up on hormones and sugar, I had no patience for my father’s past. I was focused on the future: getting into college, leveraging my popularity to get on student council, taking a date to the cinema on Friday, training for tae kwon do tournaments, and enlightenment. In fact, despite indulging excessively in three of the five big Buddhist attachments (food, fame, sex, sleep and wealth), nothing was more important to me than enlightenment. My pre-adolescent interest in stage magic had evolved into a desire to be a wizard and from that into a quest for nirvana. Of course I kept this from all but my artist friends.

At 16, I had already read Dogen, Lao Tzu, Shunryu Suzuki, D.T. Suzuki, Paul Reps, Krishna Murti, Thomas Merton and Carlos Castaneda; I had spent hours at the university library perusing photography collections and drawing connections between Bhutanese monks in ceremonial garb, Greek Orthodox monasteries perched on dramatic ridges and Tibetan tankas packed with grinning demons and orange Buddhas. Enlightenment drove me to believe in (if not practice) the virtue of stripping away habits, material goods and personal histories (which eventually made the personal essays on college applications tough).

By the time I was 17, my father’s reminiscences seemed weak and outmoded, something to be treated with patience and compassion, just as Buddha implored. So when my father slipped into one of his mesa-based trances, I smiled, politely listened, and did my best to show compassion for an old man stuck in the past.

In truth, I pitied him, which is qualitatively different from compassion. Compassion comes with an open heart and an ego-less center; it is egalitarian and accepting; it embraces without judgment, praise or condemnation. Pity is arrogant; it comes from the same assumptions that people use to forgive others. It requires judging someone as inferior. This is one reason Christians abdicate the power to judge and forgive to God and Jesus (and sometimes priests). They recognize that claiming the ability to judge, while sometimes necessary, more often than not has dire consequences that include stoning prostitutes, blowing up discos and bombing countries. On a personal level, judging prevents the spiritually ambitious from dispelling pride and vanity (and perhaps a couple other of the Seven Deadly Sins), major stumbling blocks on the razor-thin path to enlightenment.

In my case, I had the zealotry of the newly converted (even though I kept this from my non-artist friends), and after I had read endless passages on detachment and letting go, my father’s inability to move away from his past seemed plain wrong. Without realizing the contradictions in what I was doing, I judged him every time he mentioned his 90 days of rangering. How sad, I thought, to forget the world around you for some brief period so long ago. He reminded me of the story of the two Buddhist monks who help a woman across a muddy road. One of the monks becomes profoundly agitated because the other carried the woman over the bog (their vows forbid them from touching women, let alone lifting them), and he frets until his mind is boiling after the other monk has set the woman down, both literally and figuratively, and moved on. In my opinion, Dad was not setting down the woman, or in this case, his hat and the mesa from which he got it.

It took me more than 15 years to realize I was wrong. The reason is Mount Hiei.

Located northeast of Kyoto and home to Enryaku-ji, a 1,200-year-old Buddhist monastery, Mount Hiei stands postcard-perfect above Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Hiking the trails feels like participating in a Chinese watercolor. Ridges fold around sacred groves, rocks and streams. Morning mist billows up narrow valleys and dwarfs the monks and temple staff sweeping steps or greeting guests. The solemn drone of chanting percolates through walls and spills into the forests, sounding simultaneously near and far and providing a doleful counterpoint to cheerful birdsongs and insect clicks. And the buildings, bells, statues and endless kilometers of staircases blend so easily with the landscape that it’s easy to imagine they were born with the volcanic eruptions that created Japan.

Saicho, the young monk who established the Tendai Buddhist monastery, found the primordial atmosphere ideally suited to pursuing enlightenment. He also believed that novices needed to spend 12 years meditating, chanting, doing rituals, studying and working before they were ready to embrace the world as Buddhist priests or, even better, as bodhisattvas, beings capable of reaching enlightenment but who instead stay on earth and help the rest of us shed our karmic debts and join them in the light.

Today, a standard course of practice includes three years of nonstop work, interrupted by bouts of ascetic practice that can include 90-days in the Sweeping Hell (hours of chanting followed by hours of raking white pebbles into clean and flowing lines), 100 days in the Walking Hell (30 kilometers per day followed by hours of trail grooming), and 90 days in the Sitting or Chanting Hell (nonstop sitting or chanting meditation with no sleep). Practitioners don the white robes of the dead and carry a noose and a knife by which they vow to kill themselves if they can’t complete their ascetic tour.

While most then go on to become temple priests, a select few embark on another seven years that ultimately rewards them with the thankless job of being a “living saint,” a person bound by tradition and position to maintain a pure lifestyle that includes rising before dawn, thrice daily liturgies, no alcohol, no meat and, of course, no sex — a small price to pay for the salvation of not just humanity but of all sentient life, including blades of grass, beetles and dust mites.

And I wanted a piece of it. I wanted to hitch a ride with the monks in the express lane to enlightenment. If they were practicing to be bodhisattvas, they could practice on me, give me a map and lead me to the nirvana off-ramp. I wanted to sweat with exhaustion and brood over sutras with solemn clerics; I wanted to battle demons and celestial maidens trying to scare or tempt me from my goal; I wanted spiritual energy coursing through my muscles and mind. I also wanted to fight (nobly of course) against the desire to flee the arduous daily routine that would include muscles aches, headaches, backaches, joint aches, heartaches and an excruciating need for a solid night of sleep. (From my dabbling with meditation, I knew gaining enlightenment was like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen — extremely difficult and discouraging.) In short, I romanticized the struggle.

Years later, I learned that the same romanticism that partially drove me to Mount Hiei also drove my father to the heat and primitive living of Mesa Verde. During one long conversation over a wet-gray winter holiday in Oregon, my father told me that as a child he had loved adventure stories.

“Yeah, I read them all,” he said. His left arm was fully extended, his hand braced on his knee. His right elbow rested on the table. “I liked Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling, but in a lot of ways they were just too thoughtful.” My father looked at me and grinned. “I wanted the adventure, see. I wanted larger than life heroes like Tarzan or the Lone Ranger. I didn’t care about time machines and submarines, or the Indian caste system and all its mongooses and water-carriers.”

“What about pirates or half-apes?” I asked.

“What about them?” said my father. He gave an affirmative nod and furled his brow. He let a definitive silence fill the space between us. “I never cared for ships or the Seven Seas. Too much water.”

Unlike my father, who had to wait until he was 40 to act on his romanticism, I got to act on mine when I was 18. In 1987, a Buddhist priest I had befriended arranged for me to stay 31 days at Mudo-ji Dani, a temple complex of about 15 buildings on the slopes of Mount Hiei, and home to the Walking Hell. After my formal introduction to the abbott, a “living saint” with fierce yet gentle eyes and a quick smile, I shaved my head, slipped into the baggy blue “uniform” and, minus the demons and maidens, pretty much got what I had hoped for. Except for the people. Instead of brooding with solemn monks studying sutras, I cut vegetables and washed dishes with two plump middle-age women who told each other sad stories, although my Japanese wasn’t good enough to catch anything but the outlines. Every evening they boiled a kettle of water for my canteen and peeled me two enormous carrots to snack on during my daily 30-kilometer walks around the mountain. I would rise at 2:30 a.m. to get an early start.

During mid-afternoon breaks, I drank coffee and talked with a young priest (in a mixture of Japanese and English) who spent several days describing his two-day peyote trip in Paris and how that enhanced his desire to be a priest. I also listened to his cigarette-smoking colleague tell me that he wanted to have visions of Buddha during the 90-day Meditation Hell (with no sleep, I was sure he would succeed). And I almost came to blows with the troubled 15-year-old whose parents, at their wit’s end, had dropped him on the mountain for the structure and discipline of the monastic routine.

One evening early in my stay, I slipped into the bath before my turn — the rigid hierarchy determines bathing order, and as the newest resident I was supposed to go last. After the boy fleeced me with pejoratives, I told him to act civilized or stuff it. He picked up a knife from the kitchen table (the bath was right next to the kitchen) and started waving it at me. I gambled that he didn’t really want to kill me and grabbed his hand and yanked it and the knife blade to my throat, telling him dozo, please go ahead and kill me. That ended the conflict, but we never spoke afterward.

Fortunately, my unofficial mentor helped me keep the incident in perspective.

“You were wrong to go first,” Maruta-san said with a sly smile. A strong, wiry man with a shaved head and wide mouth that reminded me of a laughing Buddha, Maruta-san had been told to walk the mountain with me every morning. “Being upset has no meaning, except to your ego.” He spoke English slowly and deliberately. “That boy is like wild dog. He will not change. So no meaning to get mad at him.”

Maruta-san was a temple anomaly. He kept to himself and lived in a small alcove of the main temple where he collected money from pilgrims, filled out prayer sticks for the daily fire ceremony and did repairs to the building. He had learned English by reading Krishna Murti and Martin Luther and by leading a Beatles cover band. And mountain life clearly agreed with him. His eyes sparkled and his skin glowed. His self-possession in front of his superiors — which included all ordained priests, as Maruta-san was a layman, the abbot and the Tendai sect’s highest officials — would impress presidents and kings. In the strict hierarchy of temple life and Japan in general, it was nothing short of phenomenal. Laypersons and priests alike jumped to attention when he appeared with his rice bowl at the kitchen door. They also listened raptly when he spoke about Buddhist philosophy or temple policies, or when he was making a joke, which he did often, and which usually triggered uncontrollable belly laughs in the audience. When he saw I felt privileged by his attention he told me. “No meaning. As guest, you get extra.”

“No meaning” was Maruta-san’s favorite expression. With every recitation, Maruta-san wore his trademark smile, which suggested he knew a joke so powerful he couldn’t tell me for my own protection. When the abbot presented me a set of prayer beads, Maruta-san told me “No meaning, only wood.” When the calligraphy teacher said he was impressed by my natural skill, Maruta-san told me “No meaning, he is just polite.” When a film crew profiled me for a top-rated TV newsmagazine in the Kansai area, Maruta-san told me “No meaning. Only PR for temple and abbot. That also has no meaning.”

Maruta-san’s relaxed yet disciplined approach to Buddhism and insistence on crushing the ego (“no meaning”) demonstrated a practical approach to Buddhism and enlightenment that I had never before considered. Practice was everything. Ruminations, reflections, theology, philosophy, ritual and enlightenment stories had their place, but embracing discipline and humor with every action at every moment was more important than all of them combined. “Everything is practice,” he said one mist-filled morning. He pointed at his steps as we walked. “This is practice,” he said. “This is practice. This is practice. This is practice. This is practice.” Then he stopped, stifled a laugh and said: “Now I must practice.” He loosened the cloth belt of his pants and urinated off the side of the dirt road and into a ravine. (After that, “I must practice” became code for taking a bathroom break.)

Through example and humor, Maruta-san helped me use the discipline of the monastery to reach an intuitive understanding of Buddhism that later resulted in a full-blown mystical experience. He forced me to be practical, to blend the “good” and “bad” of Mount Hiei into a single gestalt that eventually affected me like the Jackson Pollack painting I used to gaze into at the University of Iowa. The painting’s phantasmagora of lines and splotches took me someplace new every time I stopped by the museum to see it.

The same is true for the memory of Mount Hiei, which is why more than 15 years later I still think of it almost every day. (In the first five or 10 years after my visit, the memories occurred spontaneously. Now they are mainly triggered by smells: wet leaves and mist, pine needles and incense, wood smoke and the right kind of cooking oil, barley tea and anything reminiscent of straw.) And as much as I would like to create additional experiences to match Hiei, it seems unlikely that I will be able to. I’ve grown too self-reflective, too self-conscious of what it “means” to go on a retreat. The combination of religious idealism, naiveté and romanticism that fueled my trip to the monastery Enryaku-ji has dissolved into a postmodern awareness of the posturing, identity games and hidden agendas often associated with such retreats. Though I still haven’t translated my experiences into useful aphorisms as my father did his, I can feel those experiences informing the decisions I make and the values I embrace.

The same must have been true for my father. It explains why my memory of him is inexorably linked to Mesa Verde, despite him having been there years before I was born. The mesa was as much a part of him as his thin lips and rounded shoulders. His recollections had nothing to do with carrying a woman or setting one down. In fact, I was in the wrong story. He wasn’t fretting or nostalgic for an experience he could never recapture, rather, he had incorporated the experience so deeply into his character that he was still gaining from Mesa Verde, still learning, still unraveling its meaning 30 years later.

He drew on his ranger days until he took his last unassisted breath at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, Oregon. If there is a Buddhist Western Paradise or Christian Heaven, my father is probably staring at its rocky valleys and desert shrubs from under the extra-wide brim of his brown ranger hat.

Mark Yates lives and works in the Czech Republic. He recently finished a novel.