on the one ton temple bell
a moon-moth, folded into sleep,
I was twenty two when one of my best friends died.
I was fifteen when I became friends with Leland, in our Spanish class. He was the wittiest person I’d ever met, able to make me laugh when no one else could. It wasn’t only me; his comedic talents led him to direct shows for our school, and even put on an improv comedy act when the power shorted down during the show one night. Over the years we shared many classes together, and spent the time between them sitting on the steps outside the class talking. We occasionally skipped class to go to the mall and sit and talk, too. We sat out in the car at lunch listening to the Dave Matthews Band or the soundtrack from Rent. He wanted to travel the world, have a family, coach little league and Cub scouts. We talked about what we’d do when we went to college, and that we could hang out together a lot more then. Maybe more.
A few weeks after we graduated, he got a job at a restaurant. On his first day, he got a terrible headache and went into the bathroom, where he collapsed. He had an aneurysm. It was caused by a massive brain tumor, which had to be cut out. I spent a lot of time at the hospital. Eventually he went home, and seemed to be recovering, though he was wheelchair bound and had to be taught how to speak again. I visited him from college when I could, told him stories, brought him gifts from the plays and music I knew he loved. At one point, he managed to say, “Kat, where have you been?” I was so excited.
Months later, I visited again. He just stared blankly at me. He didn’t even try to smile. I asked his therapist what was happening. “He’s just really tired,” she said. “Come back another day. Sometimes he doesn’t know people lately.”
“Something’s wrong,” I replied. “He knows me.“
She kept reassuring me it was just medicine and exhaustion, and I should come back another day, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I never saw him again. That night, he had a massive seizure, and they detected yet another tumor, this one so deep it was inoperable. He went into a coma. Four years after his battle began, we lost him. I sat on the floor of my apartment, sobbing when I heard the news.
I was soon to be out of college, and had not been accepted to grad school, and wondered what to do with my life. I thought about Leland, all those dreams cut short. I thought about how he told me he wanted to sail around Europe on a boat. I had a minor in Japanese, no plans…if he couldn’t travel, I could. I got a job in Japan online, packed my suitcases, and off I went. Getting away for awhile was a welcome change.
When I got to Komaki, I was scared and terribly homesick. I was one of only five foreigners in my location, living in a tiny, dark apartment, with only one friend in reach. I missed my family and friends and desperately wanted to go home.
One day, I walked to Osu Kannon, a huge Buddhist temple in Nagoya, sat on the steps, and cried harder then I had in months. Eventually, an elderly Buddhist monk sat down beside me, wearing a simple robe and a sunhat. He said nothing, just watched the temple bell sway in the breeze. When I was calm, he said, “Why are you here?” He spoke English, thankfully, as my Japanese was still weak.
“I don’t know,” I said miserably. “I came here because I couldn’t get into school, and…” I was so thankful to have someone to talk to that everything came spilling out–especially about Leland and how much I missed him.
The monk listened silently, and then finally said, “You are very angry. You must let go of it.”
I didn’t know what to say. Homesick, sad, lonely, but angry?
“You lost someone you love,” he continued. “You can continue to be angry. You can be angry at the cancer that took him. You can rage and scream at it forever. But it will never care. It will never apologize. It will never bring him back. That’s karma; things we don’t understand happen, simply because they happen. It’s up to us to teach ourselves to deal with what comes. So tell me, was your friend’s dream for you to sit and cry on these steps?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. The monk patted me on the hand and added, “I think, perhaps, he would want you to let him go, so that you can be happy. We should always miss those we love, but we cannot be overcome with sorrow. Come with me.” He led me up into the temple, and showed me a glass case full of candles. He took a new white candle from the box, placed it in my hand, and lit it. “Put the candle in the case, out of the wind,” he said. “And when you do, you say goodbye. The candle will burn down. Look at the other candles. Look how other people have gone as well. When the flame goes out, let your anger go out with it.”
I watched the candle for awhile, feeling more peaceful than I had in a long time. The monk left briefly, then returned with a fabric charm imprinted with a karmic wheel (like a swastika in reverse–Hitler took beautiful symbol of peace and perverted it. In Japan, however, the karmic wheel retains its gentle meaning.) He pointed to the wheel, touching each of the spokes. “Birth, child, adult, death, birth again. We hurt the most when the wheel is broken, like your friend before his time. But we can always recover. There are so many beautiful things in this world. Find one every day, even if it’s the smallest flower, or a little flash of sunlight. Every night, think of those beautiful, small things.” He closed my hand over the charm. “Now. The candle is out. Go out and do what your friend dreamed for you. Go find happiness.”
I had studied Buddhism from books, but at that moment, I understood it for the first time. I took my charm and left the temple feeling lighter than I had in years. I stood down in the courtyard, watching the temple bell, looking at the carvings, and at the moth sitting in the crevices, like in a haiku I learned once. All the beautiful little things. I set off into the market, bought a snack, and went home smelling like incense, the charm in my hand. I still have it, and I look at it when I need to refocus.
I still miss Leland. I always will. But I’ve learned to let go of the things I can’t control, and to understand that karma just is. It wasn’t out to get him, or me, it’s just a thing that happened. I spent three years in Japan, and at every temple, I looked at the candles, and made a wish. I hope Leland is proud of me. I think he would be.