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joe's bio


Wren Tit

The wren tit has a curious song. Hold a ping-pong ball about a foot above the table. Let it go, noting the series of hollow plunking sounds the ball makes as it bounces, each successive plunk coming harder on the heels of the last as the ball bounces itself out of energy and back to silence. Trade those plunks for chipper little peeps, and you have the wren tit's signature melody.

I hear it when I wake up this morning, and know I've overslept. The wren tit, a skeptical bird, won't bother to sing until the sun is well over the horizon. No false dawns for him. He wants to be sure the sun is comfortably seated in its yellow taxi, on its way through the sky, before he lets out a cheep. It was the English philosopher David Hume, I believe, who first suggested that even if your experiment produces the same results a million times, this doesn't guarantee the same results on try number one million and one. Though few wren tits have shown the curiosity or patience necessary to wade through Hume's entire Enquiry Into Human Understanding, all act as if they are at least familiar with its contents, perhaps in some avian abridgement unknown to us.

So it's eight o'clock in the morning here on the coast. It's about time for high tea in London, and midnight the day after tomorrow in Tokyo. Cosmically, of course, from the viewpoint of the stars, it's precisely the same moment for all of us, no matter what our wristwatch says or how much artificial light we may require to peruse Hume's works.

No wonder they need pricy platinum jeweler's widgets in the observatory at Greenwich, to keep track of mean time, this rasty tempus that fugits by so fast. Time definitely wins the palm as the most inexplicable phenomenon. Zen and marriage, distant runners-up in the race of the unfathomable, are child's play in comparison. We say time heals all wounds and waits, with its mate, tide, for no man. We suppose we can waste it, live on its borrowings, take a stitch in it. We make jokes about it--one happy frog squatting on a lily pad turns to another and says time's fun when you're having flies.

We're whistling past the graveyard. In Tokyo or Peking, where it's the day after tomorrow, the midnight hour, we may already be counted among the dead.

I said farewell to Japan over forty years ago, yet this morning the musty smell of country train stations comes back unbidden, the exhaust from the charcoal-burning cars in use during the lean years after the war. I suppose they're some form of steamer. The back seats are always warm, and the drivers switch off the ignition at the tops of hills, coasting down the slopes to save fuel. I see Mount Fuji with a dunce cap of snow off in the distance.

I'm six, strolling among the graceful shugi trees of Kamakura, over arched bridges, through red and black lacquered gateways. Along the path, old men at tables hawk toys and souvenirs. My favorites are peaches that split open to reveal a baby where the pit should be, though I no longer recall the fairy tale which is the prototype of this parthenogenesis.

In front of me, in lotus posture, sits a copper Buddha gone all streaky green with the centuries, kind of a Japanese version of the Statue of Liberty. Inside, a rickety spiral staircase leads up to the Buddha's head, to his third eye, where there's a portal from which the visitor can gaze out over all of Kamakura.

Or is there? I know there's a window, but I'm not exactly sure of the location. More than sixteen thousand sunrises have gilded the Buddha since I last looked out from him. Maybe the little window is actually in one of his regular eyes, or his nostrils, his mouth.

I think back, trying to solve the riddle. The answer dances on the tip of my tongue, like the name of an acquaintance you know you know but can't recall. I wait for the answer to say itself, but all I hear is surf beating up rocks in a nearby cove and the wren tit flitting from branch to branch of the bullpines, singing his annoyingly stupid ping-pong ball song. Frustrated, I fling back the covers and sidle out of bed.

Time must've tucked away the riddle's answer in the wallet he carries at his back, the folds in which he puts alms for oblivion. Time would just be a silly, harmless practical joker, if we weren't the ones getting the hot foot. The cosmos itself may be a vaudeville comedian.

This idea, as lamentable as it is ticklish, is brought home to me when I amble down to the closest beach and ensconce myself on a boulder to watch the blue waves curling in from the west commit hari-kiri on the shore. While I'm sitting there, minding my own business, a tour bus pulls up on the road by the breakwater. Out flashes a couple dozen glinting Nikons, their straps wound around the necks of just the right people to answer the riddle of the window in the Buddha's third eye.

Ohayo-gozaimasu, I say, to put our guests from across the Pacific at ease, adding a butchered but heartfelt dozo yoroshiku to let them know how pleased I am to meet them. Then, nearly exhausting the limits of my Japanese vocabulary with the polite domo sumimasen you're supposed to toss in before troubling someone with a request, I ask about the green Buddha in Kamakura.

Oh yes, most of them have been there. A man with a silver cowboy boot stickpin from a casino in Reno gleaming on his lapel even has a brother who's a monk in the monastery there. The spokesman for the group, he is so happy to inform me that the staircase has been long time many years closed.

He turns away, raising his photographic apparatus to snap a couple shots of the ragged sunbright bay, twisting the telephoto zoom lens to capture the bewhiskered sea lions sunbathing and barking on the reefs. Seconds later, he tugs up his shirt sleeve. Apparently alarmed by the angle of the pointers on his watch, he smiles me a quick sayonara and begins shooing his follow travelers back towards the bus.

Long time many years closed? That's no answer to my question about the window in the third eye.

Climbing back up my shortcut over the bluffs home, it strikes me that it really is an answer, a Zen answer to an impossible koan. I experience a moment of satori unlike any since I saw, among other graffiti scrawled above a urinal, the statement nothing remains the same, everything else changes. How true! I bask in my instant enlightenment.

Unfortunately, like fast food, such enlightenment is often greasy, slippery, and not particularly nourishing. As soon as my mind relaxes its grip, gravity pulls my satori back down to the earth, where it begins bouncing, faster and faster, in imitation of the trilling, skeptical wren tit's song.