The vast flood
But yield yourself,
And it floats you upon it– Ikkyū Sōjun, tr. R. H. Blyth
The first drops were sweet against his hands. They tapped at him gently, first at his wrist, then his shoulder, then his face, as though to get his attention. He had expected them; the air earlier had been thick with rain yet to fall, a blanket of moisture over the hazy dawn. They had indeed taken their time in coming. The cracked dry earth and parched yellow grass had needed them weeks ago; this first summer shower had arrived too late. Still, good that it has come at all. No matter. He continued on his way. His was a road too long today to bear stopping. The drops made a soft patter in the dust of the road, akin to his own footsteps. As he walked, he glanced briefly at the sky, filling his lungs with the deep scent of earth and rain. The heavens were gray with clouds, and he feared a storm was coming. Would be a shame, now that you’re well on your way. Could’ve waited.
It was, in truth, against his custom, as it is against the custom of monks in general, to travel during the rainy season. Still, he hadn’t quite found a place where he could settle for the whole season. The rains should’ve delayed themselves long enough to journey unhindered to the village of his birth. Foolish. He should have stayed, but it was too late now to go back. He’d set out thinking he’d cheated the rains. Moreso the fool. The heavens turned darker and heavier, until any hope that their presence would only be brief was gone. He tried not to dwell too long on his folly. It seemed to him, he’d just keep on making false steps. No matter.
It had been a long time since he’d returned, but till now, he’d had little reason to. His travels had taken him far, from the northern mountains down as far out east as the coast a few years back. Cold snow and hot sand seemed equally distant now from warm, wet mud. It had all seemed very far away to him when he’d taken up his robes, so otherworldly. Back then he thought there were endless kinds of people, that perhaps having a few hundred miles of road between him and home might merit respect, or at least acknowledgement. The robes would’ve taken care of that, too—a badge of his difference, his distinction. The people there were just like back home. Might not have left, if you’d known.
Feeling the winds pick up, the monk adjusted his robe. He remembered his first rainy season, which he’d spent at a monastery just north of home. Can’t be far from here. Wonder if it’s changed as much as you have? He knew this corner of the world so little now. Paths twisted through landscapes he swore he’d seen before, but could not for the life of him remember. Maybe it was the smell—the mix of rain and pine and oak felt incredibly familiar. Still, he could not place himself, and now his view became as muddy as the road beneath him, veiled by thick rain, heavy clouds, and the fading light.
He had not gone long on his way before the sounds of the drops rent his contemplation, now more like horses hooves than his own feet. Where once the drops had tried to get his attention, now they battered him for ignoring them. He pulled his robe even tighter about his body. The cloth alone was thick, but not thick enough, he knew, to take on much water. The path beneath his feet began to churn with each footstep, the once dry earth giving way to soft mud. The drops began to bite now at his skin—their sweetness abandoned, they chilled him now to the bone. Pulling a fold of his robe over his head for a hood, he began to search the way ahead for shelter. Although it was only midday, the sky was dark and swirling with rain. He spoke under his breath a prayer for refuge, wading now through muck that reached up to his ankles. His gorge rose as he kept chanting, the words barely leaving his body before they were sucked up into the air by the wind and the crashing of water. He could no longer hear himself. Frustrated, he began to shout, dragging in cold and ragged breaths as he raised his head to heaven.
As if by answer, a bolt of lightning split the sky. By its light he saw, some ways off in the distance, the dim outline of a building. It wasn’t much; at first, he’d thought it to be just another tree, but could now clearly see a flicker of light in the distance. Summoning the last of his resolve, he made his way towards the light, not knowing what he might find.
The farmer had been looking forward to the rain. His land needed it. Now, however, the heavens answered the thirst of the earth by drowning it. His aging bones and the dark clouds both promised that something would come today. Had he been wrong to hope for just enough? “Ah, if it floods, would’ve been better if it hadn’t rained at all…” he said, making conversation with the storm. Trying to spend his day in the fields, as he’d planned, would be useless, so he sat on the floor of his home in the raised entryway, stitching closed the holes of his trousers, staring out the front door as the downpour outside grew wilder. The drops echoed through his home, first like a whisper, then like a song, then like a roar. There wasn’t anything else to make noise besides him, and he kept silent a while, letting the rain speak first. “Good thinking I patched you up this winter, huh?” he offered to his roof by way of support. “Now only one of us has to face the storm!” He chuckled softly as he passed the needle this way and then that, fixing a hole that had erupted on the left knee back in spring. Focused on his work, his mind became lost in the folds of the fabric and the gently reverberating pounding of the water. He was interrupted only by a bolt of lightning across the dark sky, and the thunder which followed seconds after.
As the sky flashed, he glanced up from his needle and gazed out at his fields. The earth, so long without relief, was now overwhelmed by all that had been withheld from it. He wondered whether it would flood. A flood might prove worse than the past year’s drought had been. Last year, he had prayed for rain. Now, as he thought to pray for respite, he chuckled and shook his head. The rain would fall as it would, and that was it. No matter.
His moment of reflection was shattered by the sounds of shouting, of a voice amid the downpour. He couldn’t discern words, and in the din he struggled to hear whether it was the voice of a human or the cry of an animal. He spied a dark shape thrashing against the lesser darkness of the earth and sky, tripping and stumbling as it made its way towards him. As the figure approached, he was able to see that it was a man, robed in brown cloth and caked in browner mud. He rushed to the man, helping him to stand and bringing him into the small house. He laid out the man’s body, shivering with cold and damp, onto the wooden floor nearest the hearth. Though it was not cold, the man’s robes were soaked through. “Ah, friend,” he said, “it was a foolish choice to be out on the road today! It is lucky you were able to find me!” The man on the ground said nothing, but coughed a little and tried to sit upright. He turned towards the hearth and began to make a fire. As he worked he watched the man, who had managed to sit up and was now trying to re-fasten his robes, which had come loose in his mad dash for the safety of the hut. “No, no friend, no need for that,” he said, motioning towards a large chest which occupied a corner of the room, “better find something warmer and dryer in there.” The man glared a bit at him upon hearing this, and moved as if to speak.
It was an older man who stood before the monk, perhaps a generation or so his senior. There was gray and white in his wispy beard, and little hair on his head. He wore plain, roughspun clothes and smelled of wood and hay. He bore himself well for an older man; he had helped him up into the house without any trouble, and he didn’t struggle as he had seen other old men do when he bent down to light the fire. When he spoke, his voice was sing-songy in tone, but deep and solid as earth. He asks you to ditch the robe? He must not, then, have met a monk. “I… I can’t accept,” he said, slowly, fighting the chattering of his jaw. The Old Man frowned: “Come now, you need to get that wet cloth off you.” He paused. “Come,” the Old Man invited, rising to his feet as the small fire he had lit began to take to the wood. “We’ll find you something else to wear, at least till your robes are dry.” This gave him pause. Something in the cadence of the man’s voice vibrated with authority. The monk rose slowly to his feet, stepping gingerly over to the chest. His robe dripped water onto the floor, and he made wet footprints in the wood as he walked. The Old Man opened the chest, revealing simple tunics and trousers of the same roughspun linen as the Old Man wore, but deeper beneath were also hints of silk and finery. It seemed that the bottom of the trunk contained a great many fine things. The monk’s inspection of the chest was interrupted by the Old Man; “Just grab some trousers there, you won’t need much more.” Can he really be so trusting? “Thank you,” he said, making a quick bow and taking hold of the topmost pair of linen breeches. As the chest shut, he wondered that a man might possess silk in such a remote and rural place as this, and what is more, not show it off or sell it, and what is even more, trust a stranger to see it. He could not tell whether he was at ease or not. “Ah… may I have some space to remove my robe?” he asked. “Of course! Pardon me, I’ll just turn around, sit down at the fire when you’re finished.”
Carefully, he unwound the robe. The Old Man was right, it was soaked completely through. He felt the great weight of it leave his body, although it still lay heavy on his conscience. He’d had to learn to love the feeling of it. He took it to the front door, the threshold of which was raised up to perhaps knee height above the ground, and wrung out the length of his sole garment, so that it would not drip further. He slid his legs into the trousers, and sat for a moment by the door, holding the robe in his hands. He was loath, he realized, to let it leave his hands. He felt in that moment his foolishness, and the accompanying shame. Should’ve waited. Should’ve been wiser. Now, you’ve taken off your robe. What a shame. Rising from the threshold, he made his way over to the fire. His host had laid a cloth out for him to dry on.
Seen clearly, this monk was much younger than he’d thought. He was also thin, almost frighteningly so. He bore the shaved head and face characteristic of a monk, although his hair had started to grow back in, and the beginnings of a mustache were clear on his face. He had dark eyes that drew in the world like a thirsty man draws water from a well. He tread lightly, although the Old Man did not know whether this was his habit, or that he was cold. He walked around the space with purpose, almost on the balls of his feet. The Young Monk reminded him of a sparrow that pecks here and there at the ground before flying off to another patch of ground. As he knelt by the fire, his body began to settle. He placed his robes, neatly folded, beside him by the fire. “I’ve brought so much water and mud into your house,” the Young Monk said, apologetically. What a strange one this one is! “Ah, so have I! So, there is water and mud on my floor. No matter!” The Monk looked pained. “Friend, I am a farmer. My life is water and mud, this is nothing new for me!” He chuckled to himself. “You are a monk, no? Well, a monk who travels during the rains must get accustomed to some water and mud himself, right?” His guest shrugged, clearly less than proud, as he wiped the muck of the day from his legs. He was uneasy, but very honestly uneasy, however hard he tried to hide it. He was still shivering gently, still grasping with his eyes at the room around him, and certainly still avoiding the Old Man’s eyes. “Ah, no matter,” said the Old Man, rising to his feet and fetching a pot from beside the hearth, “I’ll fetch some water for tea and for something to eat. You’re in more luck than you realize! I was just thinking I should make something to eat.”
Filling the pot with rainwater, he kept speaking: “Good that we’ve got the robe off you! It’s usually the water that soaks into your clothes that gets you sick. Takes much longer to dry.” A bit of common wisdom to be sure, but he felt uncomfortable leaving his guest in silence. Some tea will do him good, poor boy. You too, I suppose. Poor boys, haha! He chuckled again at nothing, this time so audibly that it prompted the Young Monk to turn in his seat, half annoyed, half curious. “Is something funny?”
“Ah no, you must forgive me. To live alone is not always easy, and to make jokes alone is even worse. Even so, I cannot help sometimes but to make little jokes for myself. Forgive me if I’ve caused offense.” The younger man paused, shook his head, and turned back to the fire. As he laid the pot on the hearth, the Old Man asked, “Have you been on the road long? And where, may I ask, are you headed, for there is nowhere of any great matter to most travelers around here?”
The answer bubbled up from the Young Monk like a mountain stream, “I’m going home, actually. Or, I was.” His face lit a bit as he spoke, “I was born near Deer Park, a little ways west of here. At least, a little ways west of where I left.” The Old Man smiled “I see. Has it been long since you have been back?” The man’s face fell. “Not since I took my vows…” and here trailed off. His voice faltered a little as he said this, and the stream of his words stopped. He started again to shiver, at which the Old Man said “The tea is about ready. Shall I get you a blanket as well? You seem cold.” The monk took a second to think, and another, and then nodded. Pulling a blanket from the chest, the Old Man poured two cups of tea. Then, with one swift motion, he unfolded the blanket, and with another, wrapped the Young Monk in it, holding him in both his arms.
It was warm, and it was soft, and dry. A little warm at first, but then warmer, and eventually so warm that he ceased to shiver. He felt for the first time since coming to this house a full, deep, warm breath that moved his stomach as well as his lungs. It smelled of camphor, and of old wood, and of being well-worn. As he exhaled, he relaxed back, his body relinquishing the effort of sitting in the rigid uprightness he had attempted. He felt the Old Man first inhale, then exhale behind him. A deep, solid breath, the kind taken after work is done and tea is made and you’ve just gotten to sit down. Now you’ve really gone and done it. “Ah… hush… “ he replied, in a voice barely above a whisper. His host didn’t seem to notice. The Young Monk slowly closed his eyes. He felt the heat and moisture of small tears escape them, rolling down into the blanket. He fell into the warmth, not knowing how he might do otherwise. The moment felt like eternity. With one great exhale, he let out a “Thank you,” that echoed from his diaphragm outwards. Then, he felt his host slowly, gently push his back until he sat once again upright. He did not want him to leave but, once the feeling of the arms around him had faded, he did not crave their return.
“But, no, I interrupted you,” the Old Man apologized, “you were saying that you haven’t been home since your ordination? You’ve certainly had a time journeying then!” “So I have,” he replied, in a voice which finally had enough earth in it to stand on. “In fact, I’d begun to worry I’d lost the path entirely.” The monk said this sheepishly, not having planned to say anything to that effect. He had not said this before, even to himself. “Nonsense! The path is always right under your feet!” The Old Man replied. The two shared a glance, and both chuckled at his response. “You’re not far from home anyways! I doubt you ever really went that far!” To this point, the Young Monk objected, and on this point they continued, drinking tea, as he described each place he had visited or trained in his travels, to which the Old Man replied, each time “But that is not so far from Deer Park!” When asked how far he had traveled, his host would only reply enigmatically with “Far enough to know how far is far.” They ate together (although it was not the custom of monks to take food after noon), a rich soup of vegetables which the Old Man prepared, and they went on talking about their travels, the peculiarities of the road, and life on a farm. It was not long after they had eaten that the Young Monk excused himself, saying that the day had exhausted him, and that he needed rest. As the pair lay down mats and bid each other pleasant sleep, the whole room echoed through the night with the lulling din of thick falling rain on the roof.