Hot sun and still air of summer in Western Japan - Mom and I walk on a stone path through old temples mostly closed to the public. Not looking at her, but looking ahead at the broad, flat, pale stones as is my want these days, I wonder, "Perhaps I need a new teacher."
I have undertaken specific educations before; working at Gamers.com in 1999 was an effort to learn about contemporary electronic entertainment. As Howard tells it, I told him straight off that I had joined HotWired in 1994 to meet him. He's tested me since on being a deep thinker and lively writer.
All of our friends, and even (often especially) strangers have things to teach us. Their suggestions, questions, assignments are quite freely given. But some people give particularly poignant assignments (Itoi: "come to rural Japan and live with me and study the culture where I live"). And some assignments you seek out.
Not all teachers need to be alive. Ikkyu has been my teacher for years, more lately. His honest writing balancing spiritual seeking with enjoying desire inspires me to test myself, to appreciate the lessons of discipline and release.
Mom and I were having our conversation in Daitoku-ji, a temple compound in Kyoto, the site of a few Rinzai sect monasteries and offices, where much of the Zen buddhist inflected culture in Japan was developed, studied, and nurtured for the world. Rock gardens, tea-ceremony, Japanese brush painting, architecture. Like much of Kyoto, this temple was razed during the Onin war. Ikkyu had remained above the local politics, unlike many of his priestly contemporaries who saught more power and wealth in this life. So he was called upon in his seventies to rebuild this temple complex at Daitoku-ji. Reluctantly he left his brothels and mountain retreats to don the purple robes and re-established this great school. Ikkyu inspired the first Japanese tea master, by telling a student to treat tea preparation as meditation.
I still have some outstanding assignments. Howard has told me to sit in meditation every day, and to take up Aikido. Kevin Kelly suggested I walk across Japan. Simon has asked if I would read his words and mentor him.
Some assignments are so compelling in the moment that they take over and you find that inner student, who stays up late researching and writing because the material matters, the student who gets an A as an afterthought, after miles of fascinated crawling through various materials. That is the most rewarding path, hewn and stumbled over independent. It does not always appear; usually the path is too well marked and perhaps even paved.
I was excited to be in Daitoku-ji since Ikkyu had actually, physically been here. I approached one of the older monks. "I like Ikkyu's poems very much. Where is Ikkyu?" I asked. He isn't here. He's got a temple on the other side of town. I nodded and sat staring at him. He stared back at me. He reached for a nearby book. "There is a temple he helped rebuild on these grounds. Call this number, and maybe they will let you in."
Mom and I were granted a 1.30 appointment after I explained again that Ikkyu was my teacher. An older lady met us at an old gate. She walked us through a temple much like the other temples we had seen that day, except it was empty and quiet. And slightly older. The wood was dark from age. The temple was immaculately clean, but empty, without many signs of use. All the furniture had been put away, permanently, it seemed. One highly-placed monk lives here alone, she reported. Does he make tea in this tea house? No, she smiled.
She was proud to show us a rock and moss garden as old as the temple - 500 years old. Conceivably a formation upon which Ikkyu at one time meditated.
We walked around the broad wood genkan, welcome decks protruding from the building. She slid open rice-paper covered doors to reveal small dark rooms with four and five hundred year old painted wall screens. Up close you could see the small flicks of wrist and brush that have made small men march up towards distant misty Chinese hills.
Now we could see the statue more close up. He had a confused expression on his face, like someone who has just stepped in something wet and squishy and hasn't yet decided whether to laugh or swear. His pale peach skin was flaking in some parts. He held a dark squared-off zen stick. He was buried deep in an alcove, it was hard to feel too intimate with him. Five hundred years old, she said the statue was.
After some time alternating between reverence and laughter, I rose to my feet. She pointed above my head. On either side of the alcove, sentiments Ikkyu painted in black ink. Two separate phrases on two separate scrolls: Do not evil things, do good things. A quote from one of his masters Ikkyu transcribed, and Sonja Arntzen used to open her excellent Ikkyu book. His script was lively, energetic; broad strokes.
Some teachers are so compelling in a particular moment that they take over your life. You might find your teacher through a particular subject or institution, but your relationship could evolve such that you come to study their manner of living. Some teachers expressly keep their subjects at a distance, while some teachers might bring you in quite close. These teachers might express some care for your soul; if they are invested in your fate these relationships can be quite intense indeed. They can encourage us to take up what we may gladly see as our natural, best calling.
Recently I found such a teacher. Daily I am compelled to assignment, I write furiously and make pictures and songs and work words into poems that are cut up and recompiled into a pretty Frankenstein love and feeling - it's a great thing to see so much vitality before me as my love jerks to life clomping surely if unsteadily through my affairs, weilding my tools.
So I think I want someone senior in my career whom I respect and might emulate? What is my career? What more could I ask for than this? I love my teacher and she loves me.