It is the shape of things that moves me. The twists and contours; the scented valleys; the lost peaks; the runoff. It is the shape of the day, of time, that has brought me to this forest, and the shape of the hills and the path, and the understanding that there is always a path beneath my feet in Japan, that has brought me to this place. I am in a forest. I am fairly deep in the forest, at a point where four paths have suddenly sprung from one in the saddle of a valley. Two go up, two down, all four are marked with a kanji for “tree” or “two trees” or “three trees,” names that indicate how big the forest is in that direction, how full of foliage I do not know.
This is where I stop. This place, as good as any. There is no view here; no shrine; it is the exact opposite of arrival – not departure, but mid-journey. I am in a place that no one would seek, and therefore, I am nowhere. To describe it, I would have to speak only of relationships and connections, and not of the place itself.
Occasionally, the sun breaks through at the top of the hill in front of me; occasionally it seems to rain. I can hear the drops on the leaves but they never touch me. The trees here are thin, straight evergreens; near the stream that I walked up, they were different, those trunks twisted and covered in bright blankets of green moss. Occasionally, I hear bird calls, but not so many that they press on me.
The birds, the brook I left behind, my breath; the ache that is beginning in my Achilles tendons because I am squatting – no reason needed: these are what I have. This is what I know: you can squat if you are a foreigner in Japan. You can eat while walking down the streets. You can spend your days in the temples or in the forest. You can step out of the stream of time and society and rules, which is not just where I am now, but where I have been since I got to Japan.
There are no other people here, and no one knows where I am. Anything could harm me – a rock, a snake, a bad sense of direction – but I am not lonely, or frightened. I am not, I realize, even though I may appear to be, lost.
The shape of the path has brought me here. It is not a random path, but a mindless one. I read somewhere that the brain moves thought from A to B by choosing the deepest groove at any junction, and I am showing, late in life, a new distaste for the well-worn and an affinity for leaping. I set out this morning, on a whim, for the temple complex in the foothills below me. When I reached it, I followed the path instead, the one that curved away from the entrance with its great, painted treasures, past a woman settling down with her sketch pad, under a brick archway, and to, then past, the small shrine with the poem in front of it, in English, about the heart of the cedar and the poet carving noh masks. I followed it out the side of the courtyard, detouring next to the fruit tree laden with what looked like green limes and around the back – the drift, the runoff, diverting me from that sanctuary also.
Notes from Nazen-ji, Kyoto, 2001