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Full Circle

Day 38: Fukuyama to Hiroshima

Michael Palin - Full Circle3.45 a.m. A monk with a wake-up bell comes softly along the passage outside the communal room in which we've slept. At half-past four I accompany him and his colleagues back into the meditation hall. After half an hour's contemplation, they get up, without warning, and flit very silently and swiftly out of the room. By the time I've got my sandals on, they've all gone. Fortunately I'm out in time to catch a flash of habit disappearing round a corner, and I hitch up my skirts and make after them. It has rained in the night and some of the stones are so slippery that I very nearly lose balance. Skidding round the temple buildings after them, grabbing at maple branches like a Keystone Monk, and trying to do all this soundlessly gives rise to a most un-Zen-like fit of hysterics.

Breakfast, like the accommodation, is frugal. The warm, wet tasteless rice is fortified with a bracing combination of pickled plum and radish and green tea. Not a bad start if you want to avoid using the squat lavatories. Afterwards, I want to ask Almon lots of mundane questions about his life here. He is patient up to a point, telling me that the monks shave their heads once every five days and that once a year the great temple bell is struck a hundred and eight times, a hundred and eight being what Buddhists believe is the number of man's delusions.

I think Almon would like to talk more but feels constrained. Zen tradition, he reminds me softly, insists that wisdom comes only when men are reduced to silence.

These words come to mind an hour or so later when I am interviewing the abbot and my question about the importance of peace and seclusion is drowned out by an aeroplane passing overhead. The abbot is an impressive man; wise, composed and gently mischievous. He looks young, but as Fraser, our sound man, says rather gloomily, he could be sixty-eight and a wonderful advert for clean living.

'If I am only here for one night,' I ask him, 'what can I learn?'

He smiles. 'That,' he says with obvious amusement, 'is a question you should ask yourself.' I have to conclude that Zen Buddhism and television interviewing are just not compatible.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 38
  • Country/sea: Japan
  • Place: Hiroshima
  • Book page no: 63

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