Maki – short story

Maki stood casually in the doorway of her home, watching the distant crows peck and fight noisily at the garbage mound in the far field. In mid-flight, they seemed like black swirling gnats on the expansive azure sky. She enjoyed the otherwise quiet time before everyone else awoke, guarding it jealously and wrapping herself in a comforting cloak of stillness that would cling to her throughout the remainder of the day.

She knew Grandmother was awake, eyes staring up into the still darkened roof space above her. From the doorway where she stood, Maki could almost make out the shape of the old woman’s sparse form, lying in the cot on the raised sleeping platform. She knew too, that her bony hands would be clutching and grasping ceaselessly at the worn threadbare blanket that provided her a comforting link to her past. These days the old woman preferred lying down, it seemed it was less effort. Sometimes, though, she would crank her old frame out of the cot, and creak about wearily; cussing and swearing, harmlessly bumping into the world about her.

Turning her attention away from the inside of the house, she heard the sword smith at his fire. Creaking foot bellows pumped by his adoring acolytes and, eventually, she saw thin wisps of smoke break out of the smoke stack, uncurling like newborn dragons released into the morning sky. Soon the tap-tap-clang of metal against metal on anvil would fill the air, providing a background to the day at the base amongst other sounds. The master was a predictable man and a slave to a steady routine that, ironically, had made him the creative and productive powerhouse of the village. All accomplished with an unassuming and silent modesty. Watching him at work was like watching minimalist theatre. Each step controlled and calculated, deriving maximum results from minimum effort. A philosophy in motion. Letting the metal work and shape itself, he became the tool, the metal working him, forming the spirit within as much as the metal without.

Looking to the middle-distance beyond the smithy and, it seemed, in front of the bevy of clamorous crows, she saw another form bending over harvesting grain. It was still early and yet she knew that he had probably been up since before sunrise. It had been a good year, sun and rain aplenty. Seeing him reminded her of their brief tryst 3 years back. He had been strong and serious, yet gentle inside. Somehow though, it hadn’t worked out between them; maybe too much in common. Time had passed and these days he chose to keep himself apart. In a way it was better because his distance, self-imposed though it was, had had a simplifying effect. She had agreed at the separation at the time and hadn’t insisted, even for the child’s sake. But, still…

On the horizon, she noticed a plume of black acrid-looking smoke curling into the still morning air; possibly someone’s house. She could imagine the panic and the commotion, but she had no friends or relations over that way, so there was nothing really to worry about. There was no sense in complicating life. Turning her back and stepping into motion, she took the brush broom from its hook on the outside of the house, and started sweeping the packed earthen floor. Regular right to left, step back; right to left, step back; right to left, step back; turning, left to right, sweep, stoop and gather. The previous day’s straw had a slight dampness to it, but it still burnt well in the fire. Crackling, popping and spitting occasionally. She took fresh straw from the bale in the corner and scattered it generously on the floor. It was dry and smelled of the summer sun. Steam rose from the cast iron pot on the hearth in the centre of the room. The rice porridge was nearly ready and just needed seasoning with some dried seaweed, fish-flakes, salt and a dash of fresh curd.

She removed the pot from the fire and placed it on the wooden bench to cool and reminded herself to move it back slightly as either the old woman or the child, might bump it off the edge, and over themselves. The child was now two and a half-years old and would soon receive her name. Maki was looking forward to the rituals and the celebrations afterwards, not because it had any spiritual significance or meaning to her, nobody really cared about that any more, but simply because it would be a welcome break from the routine humdrum of daily life, and it was also a way to more closely knit family and friends together. Even though most children these days survived easily into their teens, it was a reminder of when it was common to lose one in three children to a disease of one sort or another. The first naming was an important milestone, and that the child was by that stage strong enough to meet the challenges that life offered.

She thought about possible names. Certainly the child was headstrong, stubborn and willful, but there were also softer qualities there that provided a balance. A name that reflected the child’s nature would be ideal. Nothing too unusual though. She’d have to give it more thought. In the meantime there was the more pressing problem of paying for the Naming ceremony. Maki didn’t like the priests and thought they were charlatans and leeches, living off traditions and the fears of the community. Was there a choice though? Could she just name the child herself and be done with it? Grandmother would never approve, and nor would the members of the village council. Still none of them had offered to help her pay for the ceremony. Maybe it was time to get the father involved after all. It could also lead to a drawing closer, but she didn’t hold her hopes that high.

There must be another way.

She looked around her small living room and scanned for things that she could sell. She used everything. The few ornaments she had were too valuable for her to get rid of. They probably weren’t of any significance to anyone else, they just helped her to remember times and people. That after all was the treasure of life. She looked at her gathering kit and decided that she’d try the forests for mushrooms. They’d be very scarce this time of year, but she may be in luck if she went early enough on a damp morning. Had it been the right season, she could have cut and gathered bamboo shoots to steam. She’d marinade them a little, steam them and then sell them at the market. But that was just an idle thought. She would think of something. All in all, she had about 5 months before she would have to pay for the ceremony. The priests were at least patient about payment; as long as it came before the actual day. Whatever happened, she’d look into inviting a few of the other women along and make a pleasant time of it. It was hard work in the forests, but friends always lightened the load. She was looking forward to it already and decided to ask Kimiko at the market later on that day.

There. The child was awake.

Her daughter tumbled out of her cot and came running to her. So full of energy and life, driven by a curiosity that often got her into trouble with her elders, but also endeared her to them. Maki remembered the time just recently when the child had found a sudden interest in making little pottery items from cow dung. She had been quietly absorbed in the artistic rendering of her dung pots behind the stables that housed the neighbor’s animals, totally unaware that her absence was causing some commotion and worry among the adults. She could have wondered off, again, and fallen into a well, or into the river, as children are prone to do. Grandmother had eventually found her behind the stables adding water to her dung mix. The child had succeeded in almost covering herself with excrement and needed a thorough wash before she was admitted to the company of adults. She was very proud of her creation though and gave it to her mum in a very serious manner that mimicked the adult gift giving ceremony. That had been priceless!

Maki looked at the child’s gift to her – a miniature dung pot – and held it in her hands before placing it carefully back on the window sill. It was one of those items that meant absolutely nothing to anyone else, and yet it managed to contain all those precious memories in itself. How were we to remember those golden moments in our lives without these prompts, she thought. Life was just too long to rely on the workings of memory alone, there had to be keys to unlock those experiences and bring them back to mind. Maki was keenly aware of that fact and often made a conscious effort in these quiet mornings, to review the histories of the objects contained in her growing collection.

Not now though.

She caught the child in her arms and breathed in her warmth and life. What joy this child brings! She never thought that it could be possible to feel such a connection, such a bond. At times she became anxious at a possible loss, but she soon drove those thoughts out of her mind. There was absolutely no use in becoming overprotective of children. They were here to learn to live after all. Keeping them from experience, whether that was good or bad, was not a role that Maki thought was hers. She involved as many people as possible in the child’s life and ensured that she lived as fully as possible.

“Mama, I’m hungry..”

“So, what’s new? Do you want to eat a horsie for breakfast?”

“A horsie?”

“Yes, a big fat juicy horsie!”

The child giggled and squirmed. Was it possible to hold still? She always seemed to be in motion. The energy was constant. Only when the child slept was there a possibility of peace for her body. Even then though, as she slept, she would dream. Maki had watched her. The child’s eyes would move behind her closed lids as if they were following phantoms. There was another world inside of the child to which she had no access, she could only imagine what her child dreamt of.

Maki and child walked giggling to the kitchen area. She put her down and rummaged around for a bowl, spoon and ladle. Then dipped the ladle into the cooling porridge and scooped two spoonfuls into the bowl. She loved the raw feeling of the earthenware in her hands. It had been made especially for her and she had sat watching its form appear on command from the potter’s fingertips as the wet clay turned on the wheel. She had seen the pot swirl into life before her disbelieving eyes. How could something so beautiful and practical rise out from within a ball of wet clay? She had marveled at her friend’s skill and rejoiced, when after the firing, the bowl came forth in its glory.

“There you are my child. Take the bowl in both hands and go and sit next to grandma.”

“I don’t wannoo..”

“I thought you said you were hungry?”

“I don’t wannoo sit by granma..”

“Oh, really…. mmmm? Well, then sit where you want”

She took the bowl in both hands, waited as Maki placed the spoon in the porridge, and then walked over and sat next to the smiling old lady.

Grandma had been watching intently all the while and gave the child a playful tickle under her chin as she came and sat next to her on her sleeping mat. The old lady was frail in frame, but her mind was usually sharp and alert. There were times though, Maki noticed, when she drifted off into what seemed another world. Her mother existed more and more in another space and time. Sadly, it made her think that the old lady’s death was drawing closer by the day. Perhaps the only thing that kept her going these days was the life of the young child in her care. Maki wished that her grandmother would live to see the child through the first naming ceremony in a few months time. She knew as a certainty that the old woman would not survive to see the seventh year of the child and that filled her heart with sadness.

“What were we to do though?” thought Maki. “Do we stop life because of the pain? Do we cease to love because we know that we lose those whom we love?”

She knew the answers already.


Joe didn’t make it. When I first saw the tall, pimple-faced teenager, I thought that he looked out of place. He had the long blond locks of a surfer, or more likely an urban skateboarder, and a distant hungry look in his eyes that made you think he wanted to be somewhere else. He was there as usual for breakfast and lunch on the fourth day into the course, but when the rest of us were having a tea break at 3 pm, I noticed that his bags had gone. He seemed to have left in a hurry as his futon was left unfolded with the bed linen strewn in a mess on top in seeming protest. Retreats are not for everyone.

When I first arrived in Japan many years ago, I had been expecting to find a plethora of Buddhist temples offering Zen meditation. Having been introduced to the practice of meditation through martial arts, I was looking forward to weekend retreats in the mountains under the watchful eye of an experienced and enlightened roshi, however, I quickly discovered that most temples around Tokyo were graveyards or tourist attractions that acted as cash cows for generationally rich Japanese families. I learned, for example, that the famous bronze statue of Buddha in Kamakura is owned by a family and that they have their residence on the grounds, but out of sight from tourists… as is their fleet of luxury vehicles.

In Kyoto there are some temples that advertise classes to give tourists a “taste of zen.” It usually means a quick tour of the temple, sitting down for 20 minutes of guided meditation, and then finishing up with a cup of bitter green tea. I met one monk who said that Zen was one of Japan’s best known exports, but that there wasn’t much interest in Japan; people in cities just did not seem to have the time to commit to regular practice. He himself had travelled to the United States for his training and when he returned to Japan he had hoped to start regular weekly Zen meetings, but on the night that I was there, there were only the two of us.

More recently, a weekly advertisement indicating Friday night zazen kept catching my eye in a local Tokyo newspaper. Finally, after months of dithering, I mustered enough energy after work to head out to Ueno on the Yamanote line. I found the temple in amongst office buildings about 10 minutes walk from the station and when I walked up the stairs to the fourth floor, I was surprised that the meditations were led and organised by a long-time Tokyo resident from the US. Again, the spacious hall was filled by the two of us.

So too, an annual weekend retreat in a temple in Shizuoka held over the Golden Week, is organised and run by a British monk living in Tokyo. When I attended, I found the temple staff were Japanese, and apparently ordained monks with the full robe outfits and shaven heads, but they seemed more interested in listening to enka, watching the horse races on the kitchen TV and drinking beer. Very little, if any, sitting in the dusty adjacent meditation hall. To them we were probably just a bunch of Japophile foreigners intent on an “authentic” Japanese experience. At one time we persuaded the head monk to chant a sutra for us and bang a gong, but then that really did have the effect of making me feel like a stupid tourist.

I had given up on the idea of finding a place to meditate in Japan, when one day a Facebook friend of mine announced that she had just been on a ten-day Vipassana course in Chiba, which was only two hours from my home. I looked online at the course web page and was surprised when I saw what people were going to do. Ten days of meditation, getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and going through to 9 o’clock at night. There were some breaks for lunch and rest, but it still meant ten hours of intensive meditation each day. I was shocked and wondered if I had the mental strength needed, but I decided to enrol in a course in the heat of summer and waited for the time to come.

I never have much need to get out beyond the city fringes. The large sprawl of Tokyo takes some time to get out of – whether that means going west towards the mountains or east towards the coast. I did have an idea of the rice fields and forests that lay beyond the city due to our numerous trips out to Narita airport, but the other parts of Chiba had remained a mystery until this time. Once beyond the city of Chiba itself, the land becomes an intense summer green that is not often associated with Japan. Extensive stands of bamboo, manicured rice fields in which white herons stepped through on stilted legs, small towns and one-hut train stations. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the train itself seemed to slow down and take on a more spaced out and casual approach to the earlier frenetic clickety-clacking within the city. Here there seemed an extra noise or two… clickety-clackety-click……. clickety-clackety-click. There was space to sit down on the seats. There was time to look out of the windows.

The Vipassana Centre in Chiba is out in the countryside, close to the town of Mobara. Established in 2006, the land on which the buildings sit is an old baseball diamond, complete with netting and run-down disused club houses. The centre members, renovated the buildings as much as possible, turned the largest building into a kitchen/dining room facility, and added temporary toilets and shower facilities. When the first residential courses were held, the participants slept in single pup tents raised off the ground on wooden platforms. All rather makeshift, but it worked. As word got out that there was an active Vipassana centre in Tokyo, more people became interested and the courses became increasingly popular. Eventually, with volunteer help and donations, a large meditation hall, two dormitories and bathroom facilities were added. When I arrived toward early evening, I surrendered my phone, tablet and any other distractions for safe-keeping, sat through the orientation and enjoyed a wholesome vegetarian dinner with my fellows. After this, we were taken to the separate male/female dormitories, and I was shown my space on the floor, given a futon, some sheets, a pillow and made myself ready for the early start the next morning.

To an outsider looking through the windows, meditation must seem like a very relaxed and peaceful thing to do. The reality is that it is very hard work. When sitting on a cushion with legs crossed and eyes closed, the body is held very still and stopped from moving. Over time the breath becomes slower, but the mind and our thoughts are the first things we have to fight with. Usually in our lives, we let our minds run free, jumping from one thought to the next and back again. It really is like a wild animal that needs to be tamed. In meditation, the attention is focused simply on the breath going in and then the breath going out. Every time a thought comes, it is ignored and the mind is re-focused on the spot between the nose and the upper lip and the attention returns to respiration. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Most beginners find that the mind will focus for about two or three breaths before going off on some tangential daydream. Slowly, and with practice, the thoughts begin to slow down and a mental peace begins to appear. There even seem to be moments when there is no thought at all; just a quiet awareness. It is very much like throwing out all the junk and furniture from your room and just living simply on a tatami mat floor. The mind gets cleared of all the clutter, and learns to rest.

Getting up every day at 4 am. wasn’t really a problem. In fact it was one of the best memories from the time I spent there. The cool, early morning air felt refreshing in contrast to the oppressive heat of the day and the full moon that hung on the morning horizon like a white pearl also provided natural light on the path to the meditation hall. Once everyone was seated, the hall filled with silence as minds turned to meditation. The early morning birdsong and the call of insects became louder as the sky lightened. It was the best part of the day.

The physical side of sitting absolutely still during the four intensive hour long sections of the day is an enormous challenge. Again, we are not used to sitting still for a long time and the body will tell you that it needs to move. Your nose will begin to itch, and you will want to scratch it, you will hear a mosquito whine around your ears and you will want to slap at it; you will feel that your shirt or pants are too tight and you will want to wriggle to make yourself more comfortable; but no, you can’t move. Most of all you cannot uncross your legs during intensive practice and this becomes very painful. Try sitting with your legs crossed and back straight and see how long it takes before the pain starts; usually about 20 minutes. Imagine what it feels like to sit for one hour and then to do that repeatedly every day, for ten days. Sometimes the pain is so bad that you want to give up, stand up and go home, like Joe did. It seems endless and it takes over the mind. There is no escaping the pain and it becomes central and foremost to your existence until a point is reached were there is a simple surrender. The body will not take any more pain and lets it go. In my case, I felt as if I had been immersed in a cold waterfall and the pain was washed out of me in a tingling current of released tension and energy. By day five of the course, there is still some pain from time to time, but you know that it is not the unsurmountable problem of before. At the end of the retreat, there is a strong sense of accomplishment, knowing that sitting motionless for an hour is possible.

Another interesting challenge during the ten days was the vow of Noble Silence. Before starting the retreat, a solemn promise is made not to talk or have any contact with another person. It meant that even though there were 60 people on the course, it would feel like you were there by yourself and in your own world. This is important because often people talk without thinking, and just chat because they feel uncomfortable with silence. Silence also helps the mind to become still and quiet. Noble Silence means that the whole day becomes a meditation, even going to the bathroom and eating because you have to control the wish to speak. In an emergency, it is possible to speak with course leaders, but mostly, people spend the ten days in a quiet way. No music, no television, no reading, no writing, no talking.

At the end of the ten-day course when Noble Silence was lifted, people had the chance to speak and relax. It was a rather strange experience because we had been closely together for the duration of the course and yet this was the first opportunity we had to speak with one another. I discovered that some people had come from as far north as Hokkaido and one or two from Shikoku. There was even a young man from Bhutan and a couple of foreigners like myself who had made Japan home. Mostly though, the participants were young Japanese students or new graduates in their mid-twenties. I was surprised at the total number of people on the course and once again thought back to what the young monk in Kyoto told me a couple of years before. He had said that there wasn’t much interest in the practice of meditation in Japan, but maybe this course was a sign that there still is.

Since the first course, I have attended a further four. I am aware that there is a small core of volunteers who give their time in the upkeep of the centre, prepare and cook the meals, act as administrators and maintain the buildings. There is none of the pomp and ceremony found at working temples, no monks in robes, no fancy raked pebble gardens to contemplate nor statues of Buddha to bow down to. The centre provides many with their first intensive retreat experience and those who return for more, develop an inner peace that stays and is carried within them between times.

I have booked myself in again for the summer.