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Chapter 36

In the thicket of bamboo, light filters in, scattering blotches of shade on the slow running waters and soppy river banks.  There are warrens of old houses, narrow paths, dirt lanes.  Butcher shops are on every corner.  I sit in the dewy shadow of the old thicket, watching the river plants blossom.

The poor, the outcasts, all kinds find a home on the slippery mud shores.  The great central market sprawls close by.  Creatures are busily being separated into meat and guts.  Some men race about pulling big carts loaded with boxes of fish and hunks of meat.  Many more fly back and forth in their sleek green-blue "cat-trucks," picking up big boxes of fruit or anything else. 

At the edge of the market was once the huge public toilets.  A cesspool of steaming crud.  The children avoided this place as much as possible, perhaps because of the smell, perhaps because of the danger of falling in, or perhaps because of the men who frequented the place. 

Across the toilets stands the back entrance to the flower city.  From this perspective, surely the flower city is a dangerous and foul place, where women crawl about like spiders waiting for their pray to flutter in.  A raucous quarter of night-walkers, half lit noodle shops, and rusty fences.

Deep in the bamboo grove not too far to the East, men and women are drinking tea.  Their ancient practice at bending space speaks the language of plants and flowers; and it expands little corners in the thicket into drinking halls and philosophical clubs.  For many, their studies take them to the hut of the Arrow Maker, a small woman with black clothes and a sly smile.  She is of unknown age, she appears young, she is polite, and she pays for my education here.  She teaches how to communicate with color and shape, how to carry on the ancient meetings in the groves, and how to tell time by watching living beings.

Rising beyond the thicket of huts and bamboo is the great Western Truth in Hope Monastery.  The front gates open onto the ancient artery of the city, a canal lined with stone and crisscrossed with bridges.  Today, the canal is a formality, although big space cruisers and cargo vehicles still buzz by in a constant stream. There are many tall buildings and towers in this area of the city today, although the Western Truth in Hope Temple is still a giant among them.  Its pillars are massive tree trunks.  Its halls scrape the sky.  Huge gold prism lanterns line its balconies.  In the center of its courtyard is an ancient ginko tree, fat limbs the width of hogs hang down to the ground.  In fall, as pilgrims idle about, basking in the size and grandeur of the court, the broad branches of the great ginko shower gold leaves on the eager crowd.

The temple was built about a thousand years ago on the mausoleum of a fellow, Shinran, who started a new way of thinking about passing between worlds, a new way of thinking about human suffering.  This fellow was once a monk in a high mountain monastery, seeking to climb beyond human suffering by way of effort and airy  height.  But spending each day at such heights, climbing closer and closer to the triumph of the heavenly void, he felt it was just an egotistical game.   There were other teachers; Honen had descended the mountain and was teaching a different way for people to travel to the other world: not by triumph, but by trust.  Shinran joined him.   This new style was persecuted and the new teachers were exiled to far off places.  There, in a cold far off world on the "shadow side," Shinran considered himself neither monk or layman and began to raise a family.  He gave himself a new name: the Bare Headed Fool.  He traveled through the fields and swamps, along the riverbeds and roadsides, teaching his doctrines of trust to everyday folk, and translating the ancient glyphs into normal understandings.

So today, the pilgrims come visit the grand court of the Western Truth in Hope Temple.  They seek pure land.  Some say it's in the West somewhere.

Ironically, just to the west of the Truth in Hope monastery, lies Shimabara, the flower city.  A garden of pleasure for all fools, monk or layman.

In the flower city, trust allows the passions themselves to become a vessel, like an empty gourd floating in a stream.  Trust turned ukiyo- "the suffering world" into ukiyo- the "the floating world."  Here in the world of river beds and bamboo thickets, it makes no sense to crawl up a remote mountainside.  Asai Ryoi, a visitor to the city 400 years ago, wrote: "If you live in this world, some things heard and seen are called good or bad, everyone is interesting, and you don't know what will happen beyond the space of time one inch wide.  Your stomach sickens to think of something as firm as the thin flexible skin sliced from a fresh gourd.  At this moment, to view the moon, or snow, or flowers, or crimson leaves, to sing songs, drink, and float along, now, small personal worries and foibles are not troublesome.  Don't sink; be like a dry, empty gourd in flowing water.  This is what is called the floating world.  Listen to this, and truly, you can feel it."(Asai Ryoi Ukiyomonogatari trans. Waxman).

Here, within the willow guarded gate of Shimabara, many have found a home when they could find no other.  Among the thickets and overgrown berry bushes, mud and fallen leaves, here ghostly spiders spin invisible webs that once caught brilliant butterflies of all shapes and sizes.  Here, the women were once the greatest lords and they "brought castles of men crumbling down."  They were the "boats" floating along on platform shoes a foot high.  They floated through the "water trade," dancing in "fry houses" where men competed for a glimpse of their beauty.  They could pull their partner to the farthest reaches of the void, to bob and dance on the river like the empty gourd.

Here, today, in the old mansion, I drink green froth with the monks of the Truth in Hope, learn to listen to the changes of flowers, and "linger in the beautiful foolishness of things."