IN 2019 WE ARE INTRODUCING A NEW MONTHLY FEATURE; THE PLAYWRIGHT’S THINK PIECE. WE ARE INVITING INDIVIDUAL PLAYWRIGHTS FROM ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO WRITE A FEW WORDS ON WHAT IS CURRENTLY KEEPING THEM UP AT NIGHT AND COURSING THROUGH THEIR MIND. THEY CAN WRITE A ROUGH AND READY PIECE ON ANYTHING OTHER THAN THEATRE.
VERITY LAUGHTON ON GETTING LOST, SATORI AND ASSASSINS
I am a hotel room in Tokyo. I’ve been in the city for three days. I’ve found myself comprehensively lost on each and every one of them. This is nothing new. I’ve lived most of my life in Adelaide with its right-angled streets and small-town predictability. I still get lost even there, really quite frequently. But now, incompetent yet again, I have a tantrum that no one can see. I have a little weep. Then I decide now is as good a time as any and I go back out into the humid Tokyo morning. This small area from my hotel in Akasaka to Roppongi where the conference I’m attending is based can become my jungle. This time – now – I will conquer my spatial deficiencies. Alone in a strange city, where no one can see me, I will make forays out, following the map, losing myself, retracing my steps, finding myself, or, in the event that I don’t find myself, trusting to the perhaps-kindness of strangers.
It’s 10.30 a.m. There is a function at the Canadian Embassy the evening after next. The Embassy building is apparently within walking distance of the hotel. As a gesture to my new self, I will find the Canadian Embassy now, and get some exercise into the bargain. I pack a few things: a drink, some food and the current book, Peregrine Hodson’s A Circle Round the Sun: a Foreigner in Japan, which I’m reading, for the Japan-ness of it, given I am here.
And – miracle – I do find the said embassy, though not at my first attempt. It takes an hour or more of doubling around large and small streets, making physical notes of shops and signs, patiently circling and not getting either sad or angry at my own idiocy. The reward comes later. Next to the Embassy is a small Japanese garden. It’s shady and cool. Three men laboriously sweep the earthen paths with straw brooms; cool heavy stone statues brood benignly; a flock of large black-winged, black-bodied crows rasp the air with restless cawing; cicadas shrill. The sounds compete with, but do not disturb the sense of calm.
There is a large statue of a seated man towards the back of the garden. I can see no plaque with a name or explanation, but he seems to me like a scholar, not a samurai, a man of peace. A tiny white insect crawls down from his eye, like a slow tear falling. Then it reverses and flows back up his cheek and into the eye socket again. I sit to look at him. Then I pick up Hodson’s book. He is writing about the two separate times he lived in Japan. The first time he was a young man, in love with the place, living in the countryside, a seeker of sartori. He wanted to know the sound of one hand clapping. Japan gave him much, but not that. On his return to the country years later he experienced Japan’s shadow side or perhaps it was his own shadow that Japan blew in his eyes; his book plays with an underlying metaphor of subterfuge and secret slayings. I open the page and he is telling his reader – me – that during this second, darkened time he saw in the garden next to his house an old man passing rosary beads in a shuffle from one bead to the next in his one hand as he prayed. And suddenly Hodson was inside the gestalt of the one hand clapping. So, Japan did deliver the moment, even as assassins marched by his side.
Georg Fuerstein says (in Holy Madness) that all such koans are utterings of satori. Koans realize, he says, a condition in which being, thought and action coincide perfectly. There is no intellectual mediation, hence their uncouthness and incomprehensibility. The point about a koan is that it is created and solved out of spontaneity and in this respect, it symbolizes the spiritual process. Brain researchers, in their turn, suggest that revelatory insight may occur via the spike of gamma rhythms related to the anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) on the surface of the right hemisphere of the brain when a subject is both relaxed and highly focussed.
I look at my heavy scholar and the tiny burden in his eye. Is that also a koan – the tear that runs up to the eye? I leave to retrace my steps safely, I hope, back to the hotel; like a tear un-falling, this one new small competence achieved. If I am my own assassin, perhaps I can also be my own guide.