Apr 2, 2023
Michael Haggiag

8. Jizo’s Own Story


Jizo faces life and death in his first real test as a Zen monk



Jizo doesn’t like answering questions about his personal life, but I’m the same. I hate it when my mother’s friends start firing questions at me about school and what I want to be when I grow up and all that rubbish. I just clam up. Jizo loves to talk about the Buddha though. We meet mostly at Wagamama. He’s always there at lunchtime with his bowl of noodles. He knows all the kids who work there and they all gather round when he talks about the Buddha’s life. Here’s the latest instalment:

As soon as Channa rides off with Kanthaka, Siddhartha is alone in in the forest.  It’s not all that far away from the family palace, but already it’s another world: dark and scary like a horror movie. The trees are full of snakes that look like climbing vines and vines that look just like big snakes in the shadows. There are huge spiders and other creepy-crawly things as well as dangerous animals. This forest is a wild place. For the next six years before he becomes enlightened, Siddhartha will live as a forest monk. Tonight, the clear moon shines through the branches and he feels alive in a way he’s never felt before. 

At this point Jizo’s voice, which usually skips along in a sing-song sort of way from one chuckle to the next, drops to a hoarse whisper. I press PLAY on my handy recorder. It’s automatic, I can’t help it.

“I will never forget my first night after leaving the monastery. It has stayed with me in every detail. The moon is shining through the trees just as it shone for the Buddha, but in Japan it gets very cold at the start of the new year. There is snow on the ground and every step I take crackles loudly in the still mountain air. Suddenly there’s a howling noise that sends a chill up my spine. The wolves are calling to each other from the hilltops. They sound like they’re right behind me.

My body is overcome by fear and I realize that this is my first test. All those years in the monastery have brought me to this moment. Am I ready to die? Is the strength there or have I been fooling myself? It’s time to find out.

I drop my backpack in the middle of a circle of birch trees. Then I proceed to piss on the trunks, just as I have been told to do. Wolves  mark out their territory in this way and they respect each other’s boundaries. After this I sit down in the centre of the circle to meditate. Before long, my body relaxes into the traditional lotus posture that has become familiar to me. The cold no longer bothers me and I sink into a state of deep meditation. The river of thoughts streaming through my mind slow down to a trickle and suddenly stop. It is as if I had become a stone or a tree in the forest. Yet I am also at one with the other stones and trees around me, and also with the wind rustling through the leaves and the sounds of wolves howling at the stars.

Then I sense the unmistakeable presence of a wolf pack. They are skulking around the trees, sniffing my piss. Perhaps they are wondering what to do next. I don’t know. I don’t think about it. Where am I? The wolves are circling closer. They are there in all their glory, but somehow Jizo the frightened monk is not.

Suddenly, there’s a weight on my lap. It feels like the muzzle of a large dog. Through my half-closed eyes I see the hot mist rising from a wolf’s nostrils. Nothing more happens for what may have been a long time or a brief one. The sense of time too seems to have gone. There is only the big expansive present and the certainty that this is the happiest moment of my life.

I spent many more nights in the forests of northern Japan over the next few years, but I didn’t meet any more wolves, even though I would have liked to see them again and have them camp beside me. Now it seems more like a dream.”

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