Last year at the October Crosby retreat we had a surprise attender on her first retreat. Taka Rothenberg is a delightful Japanese lady in her eighties who made her way to us by train from London. Not only did she know no one, she had never done zazen before and she had booked for the whole week. We found out that she was an artist who had lived in the USA most of her life, had exhibited at MOMA in New York and had written several books. Having retired to Surrey to live with her daughter, she remains active and creative; she is making her own coffin out of papier-mâché in the garage and decorating this with the help of her grandchildren. Sensei asked Taka to write something:
I grew up in a land where almost everybody’s neighbours were Buddhist. The first thing they did was to get out of bed and wash their face, ears and mouth. They would offer the first scoop of rice, soup and freshly brewed tea to their ancestors in a little temple they have in the main room, before they have breakfast. They would report to them before going to school, work, or coming home, it was a habit.
After breakfast a small crowd of preschool children flocked together in the temple yard, fed pigeons with soaked soy beans from a tin. Girls would pick star anise under the tree which smelled heavenly. Boys spread out in different directions for fun. They intended no harm but it got out of control. They were chased by monks, but never got in serious trouble, but were rewarded with sweets. A wonderful place to hang out and safe haven for us children.
Then I hear the sound of morning service. I move to the main chapel and sit on a veranda and look in. There is a big dark room with the scent of incense and hundreds of monks in black robes chanting sutra, but some of them have a golden sash over them that reflects candle lights. I don’t understand a word they were chanting, but the chorus of the hundreds are like an ocean wave, and I float and let them carry me away. That is my memory of Buddhism, the atmosphere that warm and so comfortable like a home to go back to.
Many years later, after the war, my life changed. The times were hard and I had to restart from scratch. In America, my family and child demanded my attention, and I squeezed my art in as well. I kept working diligently until my spouse passed away. That was when I realised that I needed a new direction. I started to pay attention to a group of my artist friends’ ‘spiritualism’, which I used to regard hocus pocus. I took reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, which I already had years ago, but this time with a renewed interest, Gilead, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, gave me ideas somewhat above the practical level, which I’ve been missing for a long time.
I took some classes, but nothing I saw was what I wanted or needed, I don’t have a problem that I can’t solve on my own. I’m a reasonably happy and contented person with a curious mind, I’m still healthy except losing eye sight and hearing, which inconveniences me sometimes, and might struggle for a while, but if one faculty fails, you have to make do with another. There will be a way, and I am still painting and trying on writing. It still works for me. The same thing happens with people. When someone dies, new friendships are made. I’m pretty much that way.
One day, an unexpected thing happened to me at a temple I was visiting with a friend. I want to believe that God exists, but don’t belong to any religious group, because I’m not a follower and never have been. I just want to find out, or understand something on my own. What did happen to me? It never happened to me before, but I was told it’s called the Moment of Grace.
I loved the feeling of absolute peace and calmness, and I want to find it again and keep it within me for the rest of my life, but it never returned. So I’m on my pilgrimage to find it.