Bad Monk by Katherine Denison


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We bond in community by place and age, by race, size, education, skills, then into self-selected groups by passions.

Fish and Gun Clubbers. Skydivers.

When I’m lucky, I meet someone whose base group has burst into glittery bits of divine attention. Extreme pleasures. Beautiful time-benders. Finding secret selves is my life’s joy.

I hear rumors. The master cellist has a collection of two thousand Japanese clay bowls. That hairdresser free-solo climbed Half Dome. Obsessions. Savantism. Mastery of the astonishing.

I love these fiery flashes.

Years ago, my sister, her wee kid, and I wandered around Kyoto looking for lunch. We’d had easy feasts in Tokyo, but Kyoto was more insular. One restaurant owner saw our gaijin blue eyes, slammed the door, and slapped up a ‘closed’ sign. The kiddo was fussy and there weren’t many places where vegetarians could eat. The guidebook described a nearby restaurant as if it sat inside heaven’s door. We hailed a cab.

The trip was a tangle of wrong streets and apologies. The cabbie called his station for better directions. We inched through picturesque suburbs, winding up a hill and out of the city. Suddenly the driver declared in triumph, “We are HERE!” To our befuddlement, as we stood at the carved gate of a Buddhist temple, the driver waved and zoomed away. Before us were only groomed grounds and traditional buildings. The baby wailed.

Then the temple monk emerged. In Dallas Cowboy grey sweats. Rubbing his eyes.

Katherine Denison
Bad Monk

At the temple, in a wide-open room with a low table and floor cushions stood an elderly woman with as little English as we had Japanese. We showed her the guidebook. She looked shocked, and scurried away. In a moment, a second woman joined her, peering at the book in distress. They bolted.

Then the temple monk emerged. In Dallas Cowboy grey sweats. Rubbing his eyes. He asked to see the guidebook in good-enough English, and his eyes popped. He shook his shaggy head.

The temple was no restaurant. Once a month, they served a ceremonial meal, vegetarian, yes, but fourteen courses of delicate and ritual foods. Reservations must be made weeks ahead.

That very night they’d be serving a full table but there was no place for us.

Bowing. Apologies. No, there was no public transportation and he wasn’t sure where to find a taxi. Then the ladies reappeared, whispering.

Amazingly, we were invited to seat ourselves at the beautiful table. Our toddler was thrilled at seats on the floor. The tousled monk was sweetly forbearing. We were served dish after dish, each more stunning than the one before. A soup cup cut at an angle from fresh green bamboo. A chestnut sculpted of tiny sharp noodles embedded into a seasoned plum. Every entrancing detail was matched by succulence and wit.

I asked the kneeling monk: How is it you speak English and wear American clothes? He said:

I am a terrible monk. I am the eldest son, and though my brother is a devout man and would love to be the monk of this temple, it falls to me. I do not like the life here, even the Japanese food you so enjoy. I must stay and I only want to go.

We talked as we ate and I peeled away from the fantastic food to ask what sort of food he did enjoy. He replied:

Rare Dallas-Cut steak!

“Dallas! Steak! Have you been there?”

He leapt to his feet and ran from the room, returning breathless, with a photograph of himself.
Himself holding a leather-craft sculpted face.
Himself offering the leather face to a man standing before a roaring stadium crowd.
Himself handing over the face of Willie Nelson to this man.
Himself handing his strange, beautiful portrait of Willie Nelson to a grinning Willie Nelson!

Can this have happened? Was this beautiful man, trapped in an elegant, prayerful temple, really a guest for a bloody steak dinner with the west’s leading country singer? Have I really learned this as I eat the most mystical meal of my life?

We ended our miracle meal with bows and thanks, with effusive farewells. How did we summon that classic Japanese taxi, with pristine lace seats and a driver with the whitest gloves? We glided back to the heart of Kyoto on the mystery of it all.

Recent funerals for friends are full of rich unknowns, hidden obsessions and accomplishments. I come away with a new version of my friend for every person who spoke.

Friends reveal secrets. A Masaai warrior studies languages in his mud home. A poor Tanzanian boy applies to pilot school. In this time of virus and viciousness, these beautiful secret selves heal my hardest heart.


Photograph by Julie Gelfand, Gelfand-Piper Photography
All audio, text and images are under copyright © Neelum Films LLC


Comments (2)

  1. Amy

    i love this so much. I encounter both humanity and magic. I suspect–restored–I must have both, too.

    Reply