I am Fukudo! Pelting through the halls at 4:50 am like a zen town crier, clanging a brass bell on a glossy red stick.
I begin in the basement zendo, flipping on the lights and gently ringing to bring the corners of the room to wakefulness, finishing up with three big cascading peals to rouse Manjushri from slumber. Picking sleep grit from my eyes I jog out from the zendo up the back kitchen stairs, ringing as I go. The sleepy cook bends in gassho as I rouse the little kitchen Buddha on the altar behind the samovar, then trot briskly up the stairs to the residents’ rooms. RANG-A-DANG-A-DANG-A-DANG! I jog around the second and third floor corridors laying waste to monkish dreams. At the end of the hall I ring and run on the spot, gazing over the fire escape at the faint ribbon of orange dawn rising over the San Francisco skyline. I turn and trot back down to the zendo, pausing outside Abbott Ed’s apartment to bellow at his door: good morning, hojo-san! A cheerful good morning! issues from within. Back downstairs to the zendo at full tilt, I execute three peals at the han to prime the wooden gong for its daily work. One good thwack! on the han. I place the brass bell to rest in its corner.
It is 5am. Break time. I have exactly ten minutes to catch my breath and start a pot of coffee to brew in the kitchen, then I head back downstairs where I resume my place before at the han, mallet clasped loosely at my solar plexus.
WHACK!… 50 seconds…WHACK!… 50 seconds…WHACK… Sleepy priests and residents file past on the zazen morning commute. Big John shows up to ring the massive densho bell. We are both wearing orange rubber ear plugs. Whack, whack, WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK … WHACK! Three piercing wooden rolldowns. Three small bells from the zendo and it’s…zazen time! Awakened, we drop into silence and I settle on my zafu.
After an hour I rise from my cushion and cat-walk past the backs of the silent sitters. Here we go people, wakey-wakey-eggs-and-bakey! WHACK! I give em three good rolldowns, then John chimes in on the big bell for the Chant of the Robe asI place my folded rakusu on my head and intone at the top of my lungs. Suitably berobed, everyone files out of the zendo and up the stairs.
I trail up the stairs to the Buddha Hall where I kneel at the mukugyo: a hollow beachball-sized red drum adorned with golden dragons. There is chanting and bowing and bowing and chanting and then, BOP! I hit the drum with a heavy two-foot-long, padded wooden striker. Game on. Like gentle knocks on the head, BOP, BOP, BOP I go, merrily bopping through the Heart Sutra with one eye on the Ino who is giving me covert hand-signals to keep up the pace. No disasters happen. The morning sun streams through the courtyard bamboo. The smell of frying french toast fills the temple. At the final double-bell we tromp out to soji – temple cleaning. I go back down to the zendo to prep the altar, plump the pillows, and ready myself for the ultimate percussive duty.
At last, at long last, the moment arrives. I stand before The Big Drum in the basement—a taiko drum on tall thin legs, double-skinned and seven feet high. I pick up the long heavy sticks and stand in gassho, drumsticks horizontal between thumbs and pressed palms, eyes forward, heart beating time. The work leader chimes a small gong to signal that work time is over and everyone files up to the kitchen. I visualize them gathered in a circle around the steaming platters, all hands in gassho. Waiting. The cook does a clangy rolldown on the umpan bell in the courtyard, which means, chowtime! The rolldown ends with one strike, and that’s my cue.
Swoosh! I inscribe an enzo on the drum head with one stick, then three opening hits: medium-soft-BOOM! Beginning at the rim of the drum I tap tap tap rolling out with the two sticks, starting quietly at the taut edge of the skin then gradually speeding up and moving to the boomy center, louder and louder until I am WAILING at that drum with both arms, givin’ er with all I’ve got, BANG BANG BANG BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! reaching way above my 5′ height to nail the sweet spot BOOM BOOM BOOM to climax then back down again, diminishing to the edge, a full 30-second crescendo-decrescendo rolling back into silence… BOOM. I work up another roll, this time only 15 seconds, boom BOOM. And now. The third and final thundrous thirty-second crescendo/decrescendo, I am ten years old and lighning flashes over the lake the storm shaking the cottage my brother and mom and dad and I huddled together on the bed counting the flashes screaming and laughing and BOOM! BOOM! the drum reverberates through the temple the glassware rattles in the kitchen boom boom! BOOM BOOM BOOM boom … boom … pause … pause …. BOOM boom BOOM!!
The last strike echoes away as the kitchen monks break into the meal chant: Now as I take food and drink, I vow with all beings to share in the pleasure of zen, and fully enjoy the dharma! Delivered, with gusto.
My triceps ache pleasantly as I climb the stairs to the kitchen, where there is sunshine and coffee and french toast with maple syrup and walnuts. There is dharma. And blackberries, heaped in a bowl.