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Travelogue G25

February 5, 2016

The illustrations gave way to a Japanese teahouse, a reconstruction ordered and built on the model of the Urasenke school outside Kyoto. Inside, I could glimpse a tea caddy, complete with cloth bags, storage box, lidded jars and tea-brush. Impressive though its tatami and sliding, diaphanous doors were, the textual won my attention in that place.

For, in the rooms to follow, I could not entirely get out of my mind the accompanying legend’s description of Zen monk practices. As best I might understand, in order to hone their attention during seated meditation, particularly at night, the monks gave themselves over, with the help of tea, to the study of kōan, which one might render as “impossible riddles”. The example given read “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, the invention of an 18th century monk by the name of Hakuin.

Though my companions passed the riddle over, I stayed a short time before the teahouse to study its conditions more closely. If one ordinarily clapped with both hands, an individual gifted with sufficiently long and slack fingers might overcome the difficulty so posed. By extension, a person could simply clap a hand against an object similar in material and resistance to a human hand. Still, the perplexity which I experienced on the first reading did not diminish with my attempts to dispel the mystery.

Taken as I was with the challenge, I sought to devise a number of my own, which I then tried out when I had caught up to my companions. I asked what was a mind, its contents emptied out into the world, or what was a city of no structures and organization, or what Napoleon and Chateaubriand stood for in the mind of Hakuin, taking his leave of the world just as they began to enter. My efforts met with flat faces, singularly unimpressed by the thoughts with which only the alienated of farflung schools and wooded walks keep themselves awake at night.

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