Gareth Naylor

Atmospheric paintings of Japan

Watercolor painting of the wall of a Japanese temple

Painting a Japanese temple and annoying a monk

Watercolor painting of the wall of a Japanese temple
Japanese temple wall

This temple is near my house.

At one time I often went there because I loved the old wooden buildings with their beautiful architectural details and the peaceful atmosphere.

And the picture here shows one of my favorite views of this place.

I believe this is the wall of the main temple building.

It leads into a dark room which I once saw and where I think the monks do meditation together.

The very thick wooden block hanging from the wall has been substantially hollowed out in the middle by repeated hitting with a hammer.

The monks hit this block slowly at first and then gradually increase their strikes until eventually it becomes a crescendo.

In my view, it’s one of those ludicrous customs that characterizes all religions. 

In other words, deep significance is given to something that means absolutely nothing. 

Although I suppose it can alleviate the monotony of life.

And I think people do all manner of crazy things in order to alleviate such monotony, myself included.

Anyway, I was once painting the scene above when one of the monks came up to me and pointed out that I had spilt a drop of blue paint onto the pristine white concrete below me.

It was a tiny drop.

He had to point it out to me otherwise I wouldn’t have seen it.

This man, who gave me the impression of having more authority than a normal monk, was not big on pleasantries. 

There was no: Hello. It’s a nice day, isn’t it? Are you well? Or even, God forbid: That’s a lovely painting. 

For some reason, secular people seem to have more ability at social niceties.

Well, I wanted to explain that it was just watercolor and would soon fade away and that it would also just dissolve in the rain.

But I felt that I would be wasting my time and besides my Japanese was probably not good enough to explain this correctly. 

In fact, if I had used Japanese there is a good chance I would have offended him because my Japanese was – and still is – so bad that I would probably have said something offensive by mistake such as “You are a problem” when I intended to say “What is the problem?” – to give an example.

And I think this monk just wanted to attack me. 

Perhaps he didn’t like my presence, which he saw as intrusive or impertinent. 

Or perhaps he wanted to exercise his authority. 

Whatever the reason, it is a puzzle that will never be solved.

But it made me think what baloney Buddhism is. 

Basically it is supposed to be a religion based on non-attachment to things but here was obvious attachment. 

He cared. 

Well, at least about the building.

I think we all have the image in our minds of the quintessential Buddhist monk in deep meditation who is not bothered by the mosquito flying around his head because he is completely detached from the world and all its affairs. 

I used to be the naive kind of person who believed such stuff but life has a way of defecating over such delusions and showing the less savory truth.

I’ll admit, I think there are a tiny few spiritual beings who get close to such non-attachment or exceptional humanism but their efforts, at least for me, are eclipsed by the many who fall, and not just simply fall but create such a scandal that it beats any kind of drama on TV, such as with Eido Shimano in New York.

Sadly, it is common rather than rare to find out that spiritual types are all too attached to the world, to things, to money, sex and power.

Anyway, I dutifully cleaned up that speck of blue.

And I have to mention that I have met many friendly monks at this temple.

It is often the case that there is always going to be one bad apple in any group.

And perhaps I should look at this from a completely opposite viewpoint. 

Instead of complaining perhaps I should praise this monk because for me the best thing about spirituality is the buildings: it is the churches and the cathedrals and the shrines and the temples.

In other words, and what an irony, the physical manifestation.

And possibly it is men like the one who told me off that keep some of that architectural beauty of old Japan alive and for that I should be grateful.

And I am.

Perhaps then a little attachment is good.

So I will leave you with the following Koan: Is a little attachment a good thing for a spiritual person?

But don’t think about that too much.

It will just give you a headache.

There are no answers.

That’s all.