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"In Place: Daitoku-ji"

Kyoto, Japan

September 28, 2012
6:00–20:00


The fifth intervention of the "In Place" series. A recording of me reading the following text was released as a cassette by Winds Measure. The photo above shows a frontal view of the Butsuden (Buddha Hall), where I spent much of the day.

"As I enter the grounds of the Daitoku-ji temple complex I hear morning bells ring from two of the sub-temples. I walk over to the stately Hon-do and sit down on its front steps. The building is still closed from the night. Behind me now a priest starts to chant, accompanied by intermittent bells and the even cadence of a large drum. Roosters and ravens seem to welcome the drums and bells and voices, as they crow and sing along, their morning cries rising well above the din.

Outside the temple, Kyoto seeps in. Sirens and motorbikes compete with the temple sounds and birds. I hadn't anticipated this much going on so early in the morning, but it's truly noisy and rips me out of my half-slumber, one part of me still back home in bed, another part sitting here on the hard stone steps and shivering in the cool morning breeze. A bright light to the left of me illuminates the front of the Hon-do and pierces the darkness like the loud birds and sirens. Strange shadows from the venerable gnarled pine trees guarding the entrance to the Hon-do lunge out before me like prehistoric spiders crawling menacingly across the ground.

I close my eyes to listen. Slowly, Kyoto's sounds recede into the background and the temple fills its own space, screening the city out. When I open my eyes the temple grounds are now bathed in a dim, early morning light. The sirens are gone, the temple sounds and roosters and crows stopped. No other birds have woken up yet and Daitoku-ji is quiet. I close my eyes again, trying to hear all the small sounds in this apparent silence. A light breeze rakes through the many pine trees. The sound reminds me of fine sandpaper chafing the air and provides one more subtle layer to the low drone of Kyoto outside.

A jolting clank of metal and wood wrenches me out of my deliberation. I look over my shoulder and a man has come to open the main doors to the Hon-do. He doesn't seem to know I'm here. The doors fold out to reveal the dark hall within. I walk over to have a look inside. In the early morning light I can just barely make out the sublime golden Buddha sitting on a lotus leaf in the center of the hall. The room is absolutely still, like a vacuum sucking all invading sounds away. I wish that I could enter but one can only peer from outside, the entrance is barred.

I go back to the steps in front of the Hon-do. With the sun up and the temple lights gone I feel as though I've been transported to another place. All the trees, the surrounding temples, the walkway through the complex – all the details now fully in view. And with this the temple sounds grow. The birds are now awake and singing and morning walkers and joggers and people with dogs start to appear, the sound of their advance becoming louder as they walk towards the Hon-do.

Many of these morning people come over to the Hon-do, climb the steps and bow to the Buddha. Sometimes, they toss a coin in the wooden collection box. It takes me a good while to accustom myself to this unsettling collision of wood and metal. Sounding at first like something falling apart, as each coin ricochets back and forth to the bottom of the box. I feel a bit strange sitting there as these people pray, but no one seems to pay me any heed. Or perhaps they're just ignoring me, yet another bothersome tourist in this city of so many tourists.

I no longer hear the surrounding city at all now. Daitoku-ji is in full bloom, a world unto itself. If I really try, I can pick out details from Kyoto outside, but it's almost like I have to wrestle these sounds from Daitoku-ji's grip. It's not that the temple blocks these outside sounds out as much as it fills its own space with so much sound. Though now the birds have piped down and the drums and bells are gone, Daitoku-ji seems more full than ever.

A very shrunken old man slowly makes his way to the stairs leading up to the Hon-do. He's so hunched over that I can't believe he sees much more than the ground beneath his feet. A walker supports his two hands as he inches forward. At the base of the stairs he leaves the walker and now – unbelievably – walks up the stairs to the entrance of the Hon-do. I've stopped watching him now. I hear the clank of the coin thrown in the collection box, followed by a slow and deep, almost imperceptible chant. And then in an instant his chant turns into a song and he has the most beautiful voice. This goes on for quite some while and I'm thinking the whole time, "Oh, I wish I could record this...damn!" And then it occurs to me that I am recording this, sitting here and imprinting the sound of his voice in my memory, just as this whole day will also be permanently ingrained in my memory when I turn to go home. What's the point of a microphone?

Another old man arrives, tosses his coin in the box, genuflects to the Buddha and then goes to one of the wooden struts supporting the branches of the aged pine tree still flourishing in front of the Hon-do. He knocks several times on one of struts and then places his ear to the wood, as if he can hear its soundness or judge the health of the tree by listening for the pulse of its sap. The "chock chock chock" of his hand striking the wood sounds very satisfying and I can well believe that he's been doing this every morning for years now.

I close my eyes again. The odd car, motorbike or bicycle bumping across the stone walkways of Daitoku-ji appears, mixed with the sound of dogs growling or barking and the gait of morning joggers tap-tap-tapping across the stones or dragging through the gravel, which covers most of the temple grounds. A woman's voice calling "ohayo" jolts me out of my revery. I call back to her, "ohayo," and then, much to my chagrin, she is shortly joined by five other women. They start to do their morning gymnastics together, right in front of the Hon-do! It's such a ridiculous sight that I close my eyes again, but then they start to sing together, a kind of soft counting, very melodic and also entrancing in its own way – a stark contrast to how the women look, decked out in their garishly colored jogging suits! The singing stops and I hear their voices now, talking discreetly, laughing. They've finished and as I open my eyes again they're already gone.

I've been sitting at the Hon-do for several hours now and decide to get up and exercise my legs and have some tea over at the rest house. The crunch of the gravel under my feet as I walk away from the Hon-do sounds like a flurry of small bombs going off. I have to readjust to this new perspective, away from the whispering pine trees and the jarring coins of the Hon-do.

After having some tea and breakfast I move on to the Sentai-Jizo, one of the other places I'd chosen in the Daitoku-ju compound for this day. Resembling a kind of graveyard, though in fact not one, the Sentai-Jizo lies secluded behind some tall shrubs. Unlike the Hon-do, not many people pass by here. I take a seat on the cold stone bench in front of the row upon row of Jizo statues. I hear more of the city from this vantage point, the Sentai-Jizo being in line with the east entrance gate to Daitoku-ji. I can hear people walking by beyond the bushes hiding the Sentai-Jizo. Children are now on their way to school. Their whoops of joy fill the morning, along with a very bright sun already shining overhead.

A man enters the Sentai-Jizo and bows to me. "Konnichiwa," he calls. "Konnichiwa," I reply back. Again, I feel like an intruder here but the man seems very friendly. He is the caretaker of the Sentai-Jizo. He turns on a water tap and places a plastic bucket beneath. The sound of water filling the bucket could just as well be a plunging waterfall to my ears, so violently does the water wrench apart the serenity of the Sentai-Jizo. As the bucket slowly fills, the man collects all the porcelain tea cups placed in front of the Jizo statues and washes them out in the water. The cups click together, creating a nice contrast to the trickling water. I start to feel as though I'm audience to a private concert, as performed unbeknownst for me by this man. After washing all the tea cups the man takes a wooden ladle and throws water over the Jizo statues, rinsing away the previous day's dust and nurturing the many clumps of moss thriving there. Water slaps brightly across the many stone figures. I close my eyes again and listen to the intermittent gush of water from the tap into the bucket, followed by the dousing of the Jizo statues. This goes on for some time until I hear, "Arigato gozaimasu," whereby I open my eyes and the man is bowing to me from the entrance to the Sentai-Jizo. I reply in kind, "Otsukaresama deshita," and bow my head. The man leaves.

I drift away in the time passing, the coming and going of people beyond the Sentai-Jizo. The sun burns now from the west, flinging long shadows across the ground in front of me. Nobody has entered the Sentai-Jizo since the caretaker left. Occasionally I hear a piano playing, then some marching music, a voice on the radio, and when the wind is just right, class bells from a nearby school. I move back to the Hon-do and all these sounds disappear. Here birdsong fills the air, with the recurring herd of tourists passing through, my ears straining to hear if I can understand their language. Their cameras click off, the pages of their guide books turn, they "ooh and ah" at the big golden Buddha, the incredibly gnarled pine trees, the sheer immensity of the Hon-do, so old and solid and seemingly indestructible.

As the sun slowly flags in the west a strong wind kicks up, blowing fiercely through the trees. The branches full of pine needles amplify these shafts of wind, make them visible as the trees pitch and shiver in the warm currents of air. Each squall seems to erase all other sounds in the temple grounds. And when the wind stops the temple fills again with the din of the city outside, slowly regaining its ground as daylight fades.

A bell from the tower behind the Hon-do cloaks Daitokuji in its sound. It seems to take forever between each strike of the bell. Just when I think the sound has stopped the priest strikes the bell again. This goes on for some time and then, finally, it doesn't ring again, the last reverberations from the old bell dwindle in the gathering dusk and also mark for me the end of this long day at Daitoku-ji."

 

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