or How To Kill The Buddha When You Are Him

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On November 2nd of 1904, in the small town of Kitago in the Yamagata prefecture, an uneducated fifty-seven year old craftsman had an epiphany. The following day he quit his job and gave away all of his possessions, donating his humble home to the local school district. Within a week, he had trekked half way across the prefecture and taken up residence in the abandoned Kozenji Temple, empty since a fire two decades earlier which had taken thirty-two lives.

A farmer from the nearby village of Aoshima, on his way to the market at Sakata City, discovered the man's presence in the deserted temple after noticing the existence of a well-tended garden where there hadn't been one for years. Before long, word had spread of the temple's new resident, and locals from Aoshima would often dally a little longer than normal on their route to Sakata City, looking for a sign of the mysterious stranger. Provoked by stories of sightings, children would travel out to the temple together and dare each other to see who would come closest to the great wall of the old stone building. Rumors spread that the man inside was a spirit, perhaps a revenant of one of those who died in the old fire. Others suggested a deformed person had moved in to live out his days alone, away from the cruel hate of his fellow human beings. Still others claimed that no one lived there at all, that the garden was a hoax by local hooligans. Yet no one from the village ever ventured inside the temple to find out the truth.

The following Spring a Buddhist monk happened to be traveling through the countryside of Yamagata, and he passed through Aoshima. Upon hearing rumors about the stranger in the temple, the monk decided to go and see the new tenant for himself. The next morning he set out for the temple and let himself in through the front gate. Three days later he emerged from the temple and returned to Aoshima. "The man inside that temple," said the Buddhist to the villagers, "has Buddha nature." And with that the Buddhist set off once again on his path across the countryside, a warm smile creeping onto his face.

Rumors of a spiritual teacher living inside the temple trickled through the village, but most of the people preferred to believe the more fantastical stories. "If he's a great teacher, why hasn't he come to town to spread the truth?" one shop owner was heard to remark. "I think he's a scoundrel, hiding out from the law." Yet still none of the villagers ventured inside the temple.

The next year, as Winter's harsh edge was fading away into the bright colors of Spring, an itinerate Hindu ascetic ended up passing through Aoshima. There the Hindu heard tell of the man in the temple and decided to go and see the inhabitant for himself. The following morning he set out for the temple and let himself in through the back gate. Three days later he emerged from the temple and returned to Aoshima. "The man inside that temple," said the Hindu to the villagers, "has attained Nirvana." And with that, the Hindu departed for the West with a profound brightness in his eyes.

Again some version or other of the Hindu's words passed around the village, and again they were written off as unlikely. "If there's a person in there who's gained such insight, why wouldn't they travel about sharing it?" a merchant asked upon hearing the story. "I say a witch lives there, and we ought to finish the job that fire started years ago." And yet, no villager ever ventured inside the temple.

A year later, during the planting season, a Christian priest was traveling through the countryside on a trip to Sendai, and he stopped to rest the night at the Aoshima Inn. There he caught rumor of the man in the temple and decided to go investigate the strange presence for himself. The following morning, the priest set out for the temple and let himself in through the side gate. Three days passed and the priest did not return to the village.

The people began to wonder aloud what might have happened. By the fourth day, rumors were flying of a mischievous demon in the temple that had captured the priest. On the fifth day, a large group of villagers formed a mob and set out for the temple to find out once and for all who or what was in that old building.

As they approached the temple, the priest came out the front gate, and his face beamed with a smile. He seemed lost in his own thoughts and didn't notice the villagers until they were nearly upon him. "What happened?" they demanded. "Who is inside this place?"

The priest pointed back through the still-open gate at a man of about sixty feeding seeds to a trio of chirping gold flycatchers. "That man," said the priest, "has opened my eyes."

"What do you mean," inquired the nearest villager, "what did he say to you?"

The priest smiled again, looked at the villager and spoke. "He told me that I was God." The villagers stared on skeptically. "He told me those birds there," again pointing back through the gate, "are God." A few villagers in the back grumbled something about strange Christian beliefs. "He told me that he himself, and you and I and all of us, are God. That God lives through us. That we have simply forgotten who we are.

"Something amazing has happened," continued the priest. "Here in this temple," he pointed behind him once more, pausing to take in the sight one last time, "God discovered himself."

And with that, the priest left the villagers and continued down the road toward Sendai, whistling a merry tune. The people of Aoshima dispersed, disappointed at discovering their mystery guest to be a mere man, and one with such foolishness in his head. The villagers went back to their daily lives, and before long everyone had heard about what had taken place. The rumors that had percolated in the village for years now ceased almost completely in a matter of days. The temple lost its appeal to the people of Aoshima, and children stopped sneaking out of town to approach the building.

A month later, a restless old woman from the village decided to seek out the man in the temple, hoping to gain enlightenment. After a long trek out to the building with the help of her daughter - who mumbled something about "foolish false leaders" all the way there - the old woman arrived at the temple and knocked upon the front gate. No one answered, so she knocked again. Once more no answer, and so she let herself in. Inside, birds sung their songs and flew in and out of the windows, but there was no sight of the strange man.

After a few minutes of searching the grounds, the old woman and her daughter came upon a small room with a simple bed against one wall. On the bed lay a man of about sixty, his frame utterly inert and his discolored body smelling of death. On his still face there was a hint of a smile. The woman turned to her daughter and said "Please take me home now, daughter." The old woman said nothing the entire way home, but much to her daughter's dismay, she wouldn't stop humming a merry tune.

Originally Written: 08-05-03
Last Updated: 08-14-02