Tosui Scrubs a Floor (archive)
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Copyright 2001 Edward Lipsett

"You have been with us for four years now, Tosui," said the abbot. "Tell me, what have you learned?" Abbot Nyogen sat in the lotus, his back ramrod straight, his faced turned toward the boy but his eyes focused on nothingness.

"Learned, master? I…"

The boy stopped for moment, thinking, as he maintained his own standing position in front of the abbot. "I have learned to scrub stone floors very well."

Silence gradually swelled, faded again.

"That is good, Tosui. Perhaps you would be kind enough to clean my room for me tomorrow? It is in need of a good scrubbing…"

"Yes, master," replied Tosui, bowing from the waist, his feet as solid as the rock they stood on.

The abbot's room was simple… built into the wall of the mountain, half was floored in clean but old tatami mats, and half was cut rock. There was a braided rope, green and gold cords twisted together, lying along the boundary.

As he swept, he noticed that the cord didn't move, and knelt to look at it more closely. It was half-buried in the stone, and when he touched it he discovered it could only be moved vertically, or in the direction of the cord - no matter how he pulled, he couldn't move it horizontally away from the groove it lay in. In fact, as he lifted it and peered at the groove, it looked almost as if it had worn the groove into the rock itself…

After hanging the futon outside to air, he straightened the abbot's writing desk, then turned to the simple bookshelf. A number of scrolls, rolled and tied shut, were returned to their wine-rack for storage, and the bound books were easy enough to stand neatly… a diverse collection, and a few caught his eye: a scholarly work on ancient Sanskrit, a book on local legend by Yanagida Kunio, two Agatha Christie mysteries (both in English), and an art book, large - the Collected Works of Eyvind Earle. As he straightened it, he glanced at the pictures, appreciating their rich colors and dreamlike landscapes.

He picked up his broom and began to sweep from the stone floor, toward the door, and as he lifted his eyes for a moment he caught a flash, the merest glimpse, of a towering range of mountains in front of him. And froze for a fraction of a second, not believing what he had seen in place of the abbot's room and door. It was gone, of course, as if it had never existed.

That night, after the monks shared their simple meal together, Abbot Nyogen thanked Tosui.

"It is much nicer now, Tosui," he said, slowly chewing on a toothpick. "You spoke truly - you have indeed become an accomplished scrubber."

The distant crickets chirped faintly on the wind.

"I see you swept out the rock portion as well… I don't use it very often. Thank you."

Tosui bowed his head, silently, then stopped, his eyes on the abbot as he stepped over the green and gold rope, and sat down on the stone floor, facing the mountain and seeming to become part of it.

The abbot, now deep in shadow from the single lamp on the writing desk, continued quietly.

"What is it, Tosui? You are troubled."

"I… saw things, master."

"Saw things?"

"Mountains… sky… it was not here, master."

The abbot's breathing echoed slightly in the dimness.

"Tell me, Tosui. What is maya?"

"Maya? Illusion? It means that all we see and experience is in fact not reality; that our eyes and minds conceal the truth as much as they reveal it to us."

"You have memorized your text very well, Tosui." He could almost hear the abbot's dry smile.

"But what does it mean, really?"

Tosui was silent, kneeling, hands on lap.

"I don't know, master."

Minutes passed.

"Ingan has considerable faith in your abilities, Tosui."

"Ingan? But Ingan is just the caretaker for the dormitory!?" Tosui's voice revealed his confusion.

"And have you never wondered about his name? Kakureta me, the hidden eye… he watches your dreams, Tosui, and your dreams are quite important."

"My dreams…?"

"Come, Tosui, sit with me here for a moment."

Tosui rose easily, stepping across the room the join the master, and started to sit on the stone floor facing him. Nyogen halted him with a hand, motioning him to come sit next to him.

They sat together in the dark, the lamp burning quietly behind them, their breathing echoing faintly off the mountain.

Tosui controlled his breathing, his pulse, soothing his body and mind into meditation. As he had been trained, he brought his body to stability, feeling the solidity of the earth under him.

Behind him, he could feel the lamp sending its warm rays of light, warming his back in spite of the winter chill, feeling almost like… like the summer sun… !

His eyes snapped open: the room was bright with light.

Nyogen was sitting, eyes still closed, a smile on his lips.

"Welcome to Dreamlands, Tosui."

And as Tosui turned, he saw the jagged peak reaching into the sky, seemingly only a hand's breadth away from the stone balcony in front of him, looking out over plunge to depths that confused the eye. Lying at the foot of the balcony, snug in a groove where the floor met the stone railings, was a familiar gold-and-green cord.

"This is what I saw! Today, when cleaning! And in my dreams! I know this place!"

Tosui spun around and faced Nyogen, who still sat facing the wall, although it somehow had a door in it now.

"This is just a dream! An illusion!" cried Tosui, rubbing his eyes in disbelief.

And when he opened them again, he was standing in the abbot's room, his head almost touching the low stone ceiling, the green-and-gold cord next to his feet.

Nyogen murmured, almost to himself: "Yes, Tosui. It is a dream, an illusion. As much a dream and an illusion as this room, this monastery, this Japan: two of the infinite aspects of reality."

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