By Tammy Stone Takahashi
I don’t know why, but one of my old journals just popped into my head, and miraculously, I found it in a pile-full of boxes (unpacked as we are still not settled in a more permanent home, and bearing in mind that nothing is permanent, I tell my wanderlust self!).
It’s tiny—as you can see, it fits in the palms of my hands. I haven’t seen it in a year, but before I took it out of the box, I remembered it distinctly: the bright lime green cover with a gold and green pattern; how easy it is to fray, and the multi-colored string tying it all together. I found this gem among many vividly-hued companions residing in a temple hall high up in the Himalayan mountain ranges of Ladakh, in India’s far north. It was 2012.
The temple, we soon discovered, was built by maverick and renegade Japanese monk Gyomyo Nakamura, who’s happily adapted several Buddhist lineages to create his own way. He was dressed in a chocolate brown and Theravada-golden robe when he welcomed us with a big smile and warm eyes. He must have seen us trekking up—it took at least half an hour, in my memory, of steep climbing up dusty steps to get there.
Once we arrived, we found ourselves in another world—and this is within the context of being in Ladakh, the rooftop of the world. We were breathing the sky in directly and you could almost hear the secrets of the universe singing in the wind. It was all brightness and promise. Nakamura invited us to chat with him, and we ensconced ourselves in a small, cave-type space with a maroon-carpeted floor. He told us about his years spent building the temple, inflecting his story with the kind of anecdotal flavour and detail that made for delightful storytelling and reminded me how many fascinating people and stories populate our incredible planet.
He invited us to the evening prayer and chanting that would be taking place in about an hour’s time, and asked us if we had any questions about anything at all. “I have trouble concentrating when I meditate,” I said after some thought. “My mind wanders all over the place. What should I do?” I asked. He looked deeply into me for a moment, and said with certainty: “Serve others.”
This was my version of a Zen master striking me on the shoulder with a stick in meditation to shock me out of my stupor.
The prayer hall was even further up, in a large, naturally lit space with light marble floors. For the next hour or so, we were swept into a spellbinding experience. With great precision and reverence, two monks thwacked huge gong-drum-type instruments to the rhythm of the most mesmerizing sounds. The effect was momentous—like an aural mandala, the sounds seemed to convey entire life cycles; it was a journey directly into the dark and light spaces of the heart. I closed my eyes the entire time, transported on the wings of these mystical sounds.
When it was over, our bodies still thrumming with the utter joy and spirit of the moment, we wandered over to a set of tables over to the side where the journals and other little treasures were being sold. I was thrilled to learn that the journals were handmade locally. I used that journal over the next weeks and months to jot down little poems that started coming to me. I hadn’t written poems in years, but now, maybe as a direct result from this almost gutturally grounded, yet ethereal chanting, the poems started coming through me—first in fits and starts, and then like a torrent.
Many of those poems formed the basis of my first poetry book.
I’ve come to realize over the years that I’m not a particularly materialistic person, and I’ve been trying to reduce what I have to a more comfortable minimum. But thinking about this journal, it struck me so deeply: things breathe and give life in the context of their physical environments. So do people, and intangible treasures like wisdom, teaching, and learning. When we come into physical contact with things—and with people—we are meeting their history, culture, and story, and this becomes part of the fabric of who we are.
I am saddened to see the whole world slowly but surely flattening into the two-dimensional, artificially lit parameters of device screens now, even as I acknowledge the benefits our online world brings to us.
Of course, we still need to do things like eat real food, and wear real clothes, but how we are procuring even these is changing. We are no longer discovering, as much as we are mindlessly collecting and amassing. What we purchase is removed from the context of its origins and displayed next to other similarly-displaced goods. They have been photographed and rendered all but immaterial. We have the whole world in our hands, but is this really the world? These things arrive at our doorstep from a soulless factory that has never known the spark of inventiveness or the love that coexists with creation.
How does the world carry on from here?
What is the logical conclusion of a life lived in isolation, from others and the natural world? What happens when there is no one left to tell the stories of things, no more love stories about their origins?
More important than the actual content of the stories behind things is that we’ve lived in a world where the stories are possible, stories that point us to a life in which the sky, mountains, earth, air and waters commingle with our own systems in so many wonderful and diverse ways, so as to cultivate a sense of being and creation in relation to nature and community. In this situation, our needs become simplified, pure and beautiful, and the art that emerges—a true art of living—is of immeasurable value.
It is impossible to overstate the benefits of staying connected to the world from which we arise. We must hold onto that which separates us from the artificial intelligence that is slowly taking over our experience of the world and will soon force us to ask ourselves some very big questions about our identity as humans. We must be in the world, where spirit lives. And what is spirit, at the end of the day, if not the human spirit expressing wonder at its own existence?
We must, at least when we can, take off the shoes that have severed our body’s connection to the earth’s medicine, step on the ground, look around, and keep our senses peeled for what fills our hearts with wonder, what makes us feel related to the world and to the marvel of our own existence. We must hold onto our grasp of reality and live inside our bodies, where our humanity, healing and possibility for transcendence lie.
Why must we do so? It’s as Gyomyo Nakamura so wisely said: so we can serve others. We cannot serve others when we have forgotten ourselves. We cannot build community and evolve our humanity if our hearts no longer beat to the rhythms of our holy ground. And if we cannot, who will hold precious loved ones when they forget what it’s like to be physically touched, when they have forgotten the warmth that comes from a nurturing and compassionate touch?
How will we teach our children what it’s like to recognize the food they are eating, to know the objects that form the culture that nourishes our yearning, evolving selves and propels us into our true evolution?
Let us remember. Let us serve our own nature and remember who we are (creatures of earth), and why we are here (to expand, to commune, and to serve others). Let’s remember what it is to discover and create instead of to erase and destroy. Let’s be thankful for the legacies and histories that fill us. Let’s hold the spirited world dear, and then let’s hold hands and tell each other stories. Let us speak, and listen, foot to earth and heart and hand to sky.
And then let us start creating the future we want and the one we need, one embodied breath and one curious, barefoot step at a time.
Photo: Author Provided
Editor: Dana Gornall