The incense hangs thick in the air and stings my eyes as I enter the dark room. I hardly finish my prostrations before the priest begins,
“You perceive the world through the six senses. Each perception you treat favorably, unfavorably or don’t care about. Each are perceived as past, present or future. Each you believe brings happiness or unhappiness. Multiply these combinations, 6 x 3 x 3 x 2, and you have 108 ways to perceive the world.”
I nod. Math is my home ground, and I feel clever. Then he cuts me down.
“All of them are false. Count them, your false perceptions, one to one hundred and eight. This is the alphabet of zen.”
He rings the bell at his side. I must leave.
It’s been raining for weeks. Lightning has kissed the city almost every day, an unprecedented number of storms. The percussion wave hits the building a few seconds after each flash, and I can almost imagine a mighty war raging at the fringes of the metropolis.
The mountains are out of bounds. Each weekend carries reports of more deaths of the unwary, be it by lightning, flash floods or landslides. Friends send messages, “How is it where you are?”, “Is there anywhere safe to climb?”, “I’m going to go crazy if I can’t get to the mountains!”, and I cannot give them advice of any use.
I count my breaths, one to one hundred of eight, and try to enumerate all those false perceptions. But I’m going crazy too. I need to move. I pile 20kg into my pack, and try to find a vertical world where my quads can pound and my lungs can bellow for air. The metal door to the emergency stairs of the building opens and I perceive a pale immitation of the world I seek.
I plunge into the bowels of the building, then start the climb to the top. Boots clang on the metal stairs, but otherwise this world is silent apart from the occasional swoop of the elevators that rush past outside. There are two sets of stairs per floor; I push, and make the top in twenty minutes. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I make out the sign on the top door of the building: Floor 54.
Two sets of stairs per floor. Fifty four floors. One hundred and eight sets of stairs. So I perceived them.
The mountains are calling. It won’t be long. As the 108th Psalm of the New Testament has it, “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready”.
*from a Japanese nursery rhyme:
Ame, ame, fure, fure kasan ga
Janome de omukae
Pichi, pichi, chapu, chapu, ran, ran, ran
Rain rain, pour pour!
I’m glad Mother’s coming for me with her umbrella.
Drip drip, drop drop, pour pour pour!