Transformation at Dusk


Transformation at Dusk

It was not evening, but the quiet grayness of the afternoon drew to mind the calligraphy, written in large grassy strokes, that hung on Kazuo’s wall: “Dusk in the mountains, and the clouds are transformed into snow.”

And so too the clouds hung low over the green darkness of village Ohara, trapped alone by the mountains, yet secure in the palm of the slender valley road extending eastward, like an arm, from the busy worldliness of ancient Kyoto. Here the few farmers went without noise about their work, and the yellowing leaves of early fall were left to chase themselves as they fell among the flowers, like salmon-colored fireworks.

To this place, here in the abandoned silence of the mountains, many young men had retired to speak with themselves, and perhaps to those gods and powers beyond: most anciently to myriad Shinto spirits of the mountains; then to the saving Amida Buddha of temple Sanzen-in, who promised to carry the faithful to his Western Paradise; and now to seek a spirit new to the land, one not yet seen but whose presence was felt.

Kazuo was seeking more than this afternoon’s grayness, seeking a light that would make coherent the myriad of impressions that had left him less than whole; he was seeking a new wholeness, not of completion but of coherence.

The deep resonance of Sanzen-in’s bell broke the silence as it called the few remaining monks to their duties. The tone sent Kazuo’s mind sprawling through a kaleidoscope of memories. There were the first youthful visits to the small local temple, Sanzen-in, where years of dust covered everything, the monks’ droning chants of “Amida, Amida …” could be heard, and the light of candles was reflected from the worn golden images. Then he recalled the day he was sent to the Protestant primary school, the marvelous stories the missionary teachers mixed in with the arithmetic and the reading, of the bedlam of Noah’s animals, the magic of Moses crossing the Red Sea, and the mystery of Jesus walking directly on water. And now, Kyoto University, the brilliance of its professors, the games of assembling data into ever new, ingenious combinations; the omnipresent white chalk dust from blackboards covered with equations, like the dust in the temples of Kazuo’s youth; the laboratory lights, designed to illuminate clearly all the work spaces of the laboratory, but their sterile brilliance slowly destroying all hope for meaning.

Other students too had lost all hope of finding meaning within the traditions of Japan, or in the spiritual sweetness of foreign Christianity, or in the new but barren technical world. So they turned leftwards, called Marx their spiritual father, and preached the need for revolution and the vague new millennial order. And now with the coming of fall the students had clashed with the special riot police called to clear them from the campus.

The sounds of real revolution were different, however. As the gasoline-filled bottles and the tear gas canisters flew between the embattled groups, the violence of the street quickly destroyed whatever vague, romantic sentiment Kazuo might have had for the new order.

The streets had been chaotic, as crowds gathered before the old temple gate to watch the battles. The heavy tear gas had pricked at Kazuo’s eyes like needles and driven him through the gate into the oddly silent temple grounds. As he had turned to enter, a brochure of sorts was put into his hands by one of the two foreigners more interested in watching the disturbance than in talking. Kazuo had shoved it into his pocket and gone on without thinking more of it.

“Once in my youth,” he thought, “Amida spoke. Perhaps I might hear his voice again.” He had walked across the once-smooth sands of the courtyard, now marked by small rivulets made by successive rains. The years had not been kind and had begun to tear away at the white plaster walls of the temple.

In the courtyard there had been no life. But inside, Amida, the golden Amida, would shine brightly even from the light of a lone attending candle.

The night was clear and the moon bright so that the rice-paper screens that doubled as doors glowed slightly, illuminating Kazuo’s first few steps into the darkness. Further ahead was the glow of several small candles, watching through the darkness with Amida. Finally he had found himself within their patch of feeble light, knelt on the straw-matted floor, and tried to assemble his unruly thoughts. This night he had to speak first with himself and then with Amida, the Amida Buddha who had consoled and given hopeful meaning to generations before him.

Now Kazuo, the young generation, weak from the mechanical orderliness of the laboratory and driven from the tear-gassed anger of the street, sought consolation and meaning in the darkened temple. The light of the candles played on the golden lotus and on Amida, but dark shadows swallowed all else. And Amida, who had once spoken, was silent.

Here there was no consolation. Here there was no meaning. Here Kazuo was all alone.

It was on the last bus back to Ohara that Kazuo had finally noticed the brochure he had pocketed earlier at the temple gate. “What Do You Know of the Mormons?” it asked in bright red print. “All the subtlety of JESUS SAVES in psychedelic colors,” thought Kazuo. He had been about to throw it away; but the print was large, as though for the blind, and the brochure was short, so he had read on and had found himself intrigued that such supposedly sophisticated foreigners could believe such seeming superstitions. He had been curious enough to search them out.

The old house in a decaying garden, said to have once been the home of an imperial concubine, was slowly crumbling; but it still sheltered the two foreigners. Elder Berry was soon to be transferred home. Meanwhile the still unsettling Japanese strangeness was to be endured, stoically, just as the language was to be warped into ever stranger procrustean forms.

The younger companion, Elder Keller, had learned much in four months, yet a raw edge in his enthusiasm still outweighed a beginning wisdom of response and a halting fluency of words.

The first time they talked, Elder Keller had begun, almost chanting the story of a Joseph lost in the woods in prayer. It was the chant of one seeming to cling desperately to his memorized message; a lapse of memory and all would be lost. But his intensity was more than desperation, and it contrasted subtly with the lack of fervor of Elder Berry, who concluded the discussion with promises of an even more interesting discussion at a next meeting.

So Kazuo had played with thoughts of Joseph, intrigued by, identifying with, dissecting in a thousand different ways Joseph’s story and his own uneasiness. And he had come again to the old house in the decaying garden to talk and perhaps to learn more.

Again Elder Keller’s memorized recital of golden books and a more ancient people, not even Kazuo’s own, and again a quiet conviction of relevance, always just below the sound of his voice. Elder Berry had smoothly concluded with all the vigor of a tired fisherman rowing home after a night at sea, and his smoothness painlessly extracted from Kazuo the promise to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder upon its message, and to seek a witness of its truthfulness.

The strike of university students had barricaded the campus and robbed him of all excuses of busyness behind which he might hide, and so he had begun to read.

He had tasted for the first time in his twenty years a strange, delicious richness. A still voice deep within had urged him to read further of a tree whose fruit was white and sweet, desirable above all, to give the joy of coherence, of a seed that could enlarge the soul and give light to the understanding. Kazuo had begun to taste the goodness of one who had prepared a way for escape from the freezing grasp of death and from the emptiness of silent Amidas and sterile laboratories.

The abstract words had teetered on the brink of concreteness and then wrapped themselves into ever more complex patterns of love and purity and demands of justice and suffering pains and bowels of mercy and repentance and baptism, like patterns of paper ribbons tossed about by the winds, patterns being impressed upon his mind into the very fibers of consciousness, paper ribbons like the large grassy brush strokes of “Dusk in the mountains, and …”

The missionaries? Elder Keller was growing wiser, listening more and asserting less, but with far deeper conviction; he and Kazuo had begun to speak with rather than through each other. Elder Berry had been replaced by Elder Hamblin, youthful but grown-up in the Lord, one who would seek past the guarded borders of Kazuo’s alien strangeness to find more strength deep within the brotherly bonds of fellow citizens. Together they had taught each other until they returned again and again to Jesus, but he was a new Jesus.

Here for the first time Kazuo found a man of strength, enough to terrify even demons, but gentle enough to speak with a still voice of perfect mildness. He was a man, strong but still, and now he was mildly speaking peace to Kazuo’s soul as though Kazuo had awakened to sing a song of his redeeming love.

Slowly, from deep within, like a familiar sigh, beginning “How … ,” then falling away to rise again.

“How beautiful …”—with each word being caressed with slow gentleness, Kazuo’s voice rose—“upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth glad tidings …”

And then there was silence. His soul, suspended.

The gravel cracked under Kazuo’s feet, wet from the mist that still hung precariously from the elegant salmon-colored flower petals that dropped to the ground in scattered groups when touched by the breezes that announced the arrival of evening.

On the far side of the valley several loud and joking men were returning from the dreary glitter of city jobs. Their lively camaraderie contrasted with Kazuo’s loneliness, and yet he could not seek nor would he welcome the intrusion of other voices into his silent dialogue with himself, a dialogue of actual and potential voices, of listening to the voices of fathers, some not always in accord, but of one knowing all as the author of all, of one who had left the doors of the future open to his creatures, each free to act for himself and never to be held captive by the ink of his pen. When one is straining to hear this voice, there is no time for the distraction of other voices.

Only the crackling of the gravel underfoot, the winds whispering in the pines, the occasional lowing of the distant cow—only these sounds now hung in the air as Kazuo walked, lost in himself.

Perhaps in the artful simplicity of youth the voices had not been confusing. Instead they had succeeded one another, each in turn losing its appeal and joining the balanced ranks of the dethroned; dethroned voices they, with no visible means of support and appeal other than nostalgic roots in one’s identity-giving past. But now there was this new voice that called Kazuo to come forth and to strive in the midst of temptation for the restored coherence of repentance.

Kazuo continued into the patches of silent mists and streams that were sliding down the mountains onto Ohara. Sometimes the low clouds would open to reveal a light on the far side of the valley; perhaps a monk of Sanzen-in was seeking in the still coolness for the thread that might unravel the mystery of his own universe. And then the light would become a firefly, dancing and being tossed about in the drifting winds before being swallowed whole again by the mists. Kazuo too would sometimes then be swallowed by the sleepy mists, with only the ruts of daily experience to guide him along the paths that skirted the mountains.

The voice that had hidden in Kazuo’s own now began to speak again, rushing forth from within Kazuo to pierce the passive silence of the evening and to brush aside the subtle Japanese courtesies as it bluntly probed, like a surgeon’s cold, stainless steel knife, ever deeper into Kazuo’s being.

“Have you spiritually been born of God?” a voice of silent thunder whispered.

“Have you received his mark in your countenance?

“Have you experienced this mighty change in your heart?”

Slowly, as though eternities must wait, cracks began to appear in Kazuo’s “No,” and the voice whispered promises from over the stilled air of faceless future trials.

“Come unto me, ye blessed, for yours have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth. Come, ye shall partake of my fruit. Come, ye shall share in my richness.”

The sober green forest and the yellowing leaves of autumn had long been absorbed by the gray darkness of approaching evening. He had strayed far that afternoon, through forests where barely perceptible winds had made soft music in the pines of rich memories, along fields where the winds had painted moving patterns in the rice plants not yet white and heavy for the harvest. But now it was harvest time and the rice stalks were cut and bundled, waiting passively for the final judgment of the thrashing floor below Sanzen-in.

There was no sound in village Ohara; all was quiet now. Only now might Kazuo’s long journeys homeward begin, as the gray afternoon was giving way to the more somber shades of dusk in the mountains, a time of transformations, of clouds being transformed into the pure white of snow.

[illustrations] Art by Nina McNaughtan

Brother Christensen, a graduate of Yale University, is working on a doctorate in oriental art and archaeology in the Far East. He teaches English classes and is active in the elders quorum of the Taipei Branch, Taiwan.