sometime earlier on and closer to the time at which it actually happened, i told you about finding a little buddhist shrine in the woods and thinking that i should get myself down to leverett for evening prayers.
i had called the temple to ask what i should do; when i am on unfamiliar ground i often call ahead to ask what will be appropriate dress and what i can expect. sister claire was very kind to me in the phone message i left so on that day i felt i had to go, i just quit my activities of the day and headed down into massachusetts.
(i hate spelling that blasted thing; i always have to look it up. is it two sets of double s's, or is it two s's and two t's?)
anyway, i got down there in the late afternoon; evening prayers are typically at five-thirty. i leave my car in the parking lot and walk up the hill and all along the way there are increasing amounts of little piles of stones. first they appear here and there, on the ground, and then in groups, in trees, or on any object that will hold them. nearer the top of the hill there is a wooden platform for the piles of rocks which are not, i guess, stupa in the strictest sense, and not mani in the strictest sense.
still, i have heard it said that when you come across stones piled just so and without any other apparent reason, you have come across somebody's prayer and should deal with it accordingly.
it doesn't matter how many times i come to the top of this hill or how many pictures i have seen; when the pagoda comes into view it is breathtaking.
when i get there, there's a man in blue jeans and a hoodie working in the cold afternoon to lay tile in the steps of the yet-unfinished new temple. i ask his pardon to interrupt him to ask when i can expect evening prayers and to whom should i speak about them. he tells me that they will begin to gather around five-thirty and that i should go down and knock on the door of the house.
things are still kind of unclear to me, so i'm still kind of apprehensive, but i go up into the garden to walk and take pictures and just breathe. you can find that slideshow here.
i have never been to any buddhist service, so i don't know what to expect. sometimes i don't know exactly what to expect when i go to christian services that depart from what is familiar to me. and doctrinal concerns? well, what i know about this order is that the whole of their work is to pray for peace. typically buddhists will pray for the enlightenment of mankind, but the work of this order is to pray for the disarmament of mankind; peace between people and among all peoples. regardless of the supervising deity or inspiring scripture, the one thing i know for sure is that there's not enough peace in the world.
so it's a prayer i can get wholeheartedly behind.
at five-thirty i leave the garden and walk kind of nervously to the house; there is no sign of anyone gathering, and no sign that anyone is there. i'm on the porch, skulking timidly when a car pulls up and i go down to meet it, but not knowing what to do exactly i stand a little at a distance.
at last a woman in what looks like a tan karate uniform gets out, carrying a bag or two of stuff, some maybe groceries. i introduce myself, and say that i had called last week about coming to join evening prayers.
"oh, yes.", she says, recognizing my name. "i'm sister claire."
she brings me to the house and i know without being asked to remove my shoes. i am tempted to tell her that i love her haircut; she's bald and i'm only nearly bald. i kind of feel like a piker.
the room is very much like any well-used communal living room such as your college buddies might have shared junior year, except at one end of the room is a giant stature of some man probably not the Buddha, but he has candles and incense and some other items in front of him anyway, and there are an assortment of banners on the wall around him.
sister claire goes into another room, and i perch on the sofa. she comes back and while talking to me she puts on her saffron robes and she takes me upstairs to the prayer room.
the whole house is kind of half-finished; i know that there was a fire that burned the order out of their original temple some years back and it appears that what's being stored is being stored here.
at the top of the stairs we run into the man from the garden; there is some bowing and shuffling to make room.
coming around the corner i am nearly overwhelmed with the density of the place. we are moving at a normal pace and there's too much to take in: a back wall mostly covered with a giant american flag made of origami cranes. there are banners and decorations, most of which are in shades of saffron or yellow. there are storage boxes around the walls, piles of cushions. chairs completely escape my notice, but i know there are some, since sister claire offers me a choice of a cushion or a chair.
i tell her that i will prefer to do as they do. she hands me a cushion, and places one on the floor for herself. "i'll teach you how we pray", she says, and she hands me a drum and a stick. the drum is a shallow frame drum with a handle, maybe fourteen inches in diameter. it has what i will later recognize as the daimoko written around the edge in japanese.
she begins by teaching me the drum pattern. it's a simple six beat pattern, but for one reason or another i have trouble grasping it entirely. i keep forgetting where i am in the sequence. there's a lot in that room for my mind to attach to and distract me from the pattern.
the front wall is dominated by a very large statue similar to the one in the livingroom. i guess (correctly) that since it does not appear to the the Buddha, it must be the likeness of the founder of this order. there are candles and incense burners and all manner of decorations and offerings all around him: flowers, banners, strings of beads or shells, stones, bags of beans and peas and rice. to one side of the room is a large taiko-style drum with a pile of cushions behind it, and at the center of the room a little desk like a priedieu, only shorter. it has some cushions behind it, and a book of scripture on it.
i am trying to place my attention on the moment, on the drum pattern, but i am in foreign territory with everything here except the drum pattern. i am nervous in unfamiliar surroundings. i am nervous when i do not know what to expect. i wish to be polite and reverent, but i do not know what the customs and courtesies are.
sister claire begins to teach me the chant. she provides me with it written out: na mu myo ho ren ge kyo. it seems simple enough, but i can't recognize the sound of it when i hear it. to complicate things, sister claire tell me not to worry about the pitch or the rhythm of the chant; they make it up as they go along.
after a while she tells me that she will begin the prayer. she goes to the front wall with its statue of the founder and lights the candles and some incense and bows deeply, saying a few words in japanese. then she sits on the cushions behind the taiko drum and begins to play the pattern. she chants, and i try to follow along.
i'm having trouble quieting my mind, but i expect it's all part of the process. what happens will happen. after a while, other people come in, but not all at once. each of them sets down a cushion on the floor, selects a drum and stick, and goes to light incense or a candle, bowing deeply and saying a few words. each person joins the drum pattern in unison, but chants on his or her own. it is sort of a call-and response, but sort of not. some of the chants sound to me like the printed text, and it's easier to follow. some chant on just one note; some to a tune of sorts. chords form and unform; my mind stills and startles.
if i concentrate on praying for peace or the idea of peace, it is difficult to take everything in. when i let everything fall out of my mind, i fall into the prayer naturally, as if i am an organic part of it.
...and then my mind comes up behind and says: pretty good. and i'm flailing again.
i lose track of time and do not know how long we chant, or how long an interval there is between the entrances of the various people; i only know that when the whole thing is over two and a half hours have elapsed.
each person who comes in takes a seat on a cushion around the outside of the room. each of them, except one, is bald and dressed in a saffron robe. the one woman in street clothes and with hair sits next to me and helps me find my way through parts of the service.
the brothers and sisters take turns at the taiko drum, keeping its pattern seamless and flowing, sliding in and out of that seat with precision. after a while a small man comes in, makes his greeting at the front of the room and takes his seat at the little desk.
there is a lot more uninterrupted chanting. my knees hurt, even when i shift weight. and then, suddenly and by some signal i can't perceive, the chanting stops. everyone reaches for a prayer book. they are written in what seems to me to be japanese, transliterated into english characters. we read from left to right, but turn the pages from right to left.
then there's more chanting. and then, again on some signal i cannot perceive or by a habit i do not know, suddenly we are standing, bowing, kneeling, bowing, standing, bowing, kneeling, bowing. i remember thinking: wow. these people are very limber. in between positional changes there is a recitation of something else. i don't understand it, but i think i recognize the words for "thank you".
then there's more seated chanting.
and then, suddenly, we stop chanting. the little man at the center desk turns to face me. sister claire makes the introduction: "sensei, this is (my proper name). this is her first time joining us. she came because she heard this is where we pray for peace."
he bows to me, palms touching. i return the bow. he makes a little chitchat with me about where i have come from and how far away it is, and then as suddenly as he turned toward me, he turns away.
we chant some more, and after a while, we stop. people get up to put away their drums and cushions. sister claire steps beside me to say that before we leave the prayer room, we greet the buddha. at the front of the room on the left wall there is a small shrine to the buddha, and we stop there to bow and the others recite a few words i do not understand. we chant the daimoko again a small number of times.
and then sister claire tells me that they do one last thing before they finish evening prayers: they go downstairs to greet the founder. so we all go down to the livingroom. one of the sisters is talking about the cat, or at least cat litter. there's some small talk and then all of a sudden a little more chanting and bowing and recitations.
and then suddenly we're done.
they make some chitchat with me and then sister claire asks if she can give me a lift down to the parking lot so i don't have to make my way in the dark. "come anytime", she says. "come often".
it's a long way for me to go to drop in on evening prayers, but when i keep reading even the small amount of news stories that i read these days, it makes me happy to think that somewhere there is a group of people praying for nothing more or less than peace.