I’ve published my short story “The Abbot’s Garden,” about a Zen abbot in post-war Japan, interdimensional travel, and rock gardens (among other things), to Amazon Kindle Direct. You can purchase a copy on your regional Amazon or read on below for a free preview. (Warning: cliffhanger!)
The Abbot’s Garden (preview)
by Stewart C Baker
Showa 26 (1951), Sunday February 11th
Ryouji believes he can contact beings from another reality by careful realignment of the monastery’s rock garden. Some of the blame for this is mine, and I have started this journal to track my efforts as abbot to cure him of his delusion.
He sits reading most nights in his rented room, the soft hum of the electric light just audible in my study across the courtyard. He never seems to mind the evening chill; he simply reads, trying to forget his wife’s death with immersion in the unreal. This obsession worries me—I am forever trying to change him, to show him a better way.
Occasionally I join him and he tells me fantastical stories from other lands, translating in bursts of Japanese as his thoughts overflow. I insert futile koan into the gaps between his words, hoping to awaken him to the true nature of things with strangely adapted Zen riddles:
“Has a fictional character Buddha-nature?”
Or: “Whenever he was asked about literature, Master Gutei simply tore a page out of a book.”
Or: “Ummon said, ‘Literature and ignorance correspond to one another. The whole earth is literature. What is your true self?'”
None of them ever work. He simply pauses a moment longer and continues speaking—no doubt he does not even properly hear my interjections, so busy as he is inside his head.
Tonight I had finally decided to try a different track. If Ryouji so loved books, I thought, I would supply books which instructed, books which could direct his powerful mind to better purposes. When I went to his rented room near the monastery’s southern gate, I took with me an armful of treatises on gardening.
If Ryouji saw them when I entered, he made no comment. He just looked up from the volume spread open on his desk, blinked a few times, and started to read aloud as though I had been there all along.
The story he told was of an apparently infinite library, and it was stranger even than his usual fare. Many of the books in this library did not even have words, holding simply the same three letters over and over for hundreds of pages. People lived there, spent their entire lives walking through it and reading and reading and reading. Some thought the books revealed some truth about the universe; others believed they were meaningless.
The story was blessedly short, and when he finished I cleared my throat. “Ryouji,” I said, “this tale perfectly describes your own situation.”
“Abbot Ichiou, am I to understand you actually listen to my readings? All this time I thought you came only to convert me.” A slight smile worked its way across his face to show he meant no disrespect by the comment, but I waved my hand in dismissal.
“It is my calling to listen,” I reminded him, “as well as instruct. It is you who do not attend. These stories you immerse yourself in—they are like the library you describe. They are illusions, Ryouji, endless illusions without meaning.
“But their endlessness, too, is illusory—the library only appears infinite. All illusion can be broken if you step outside it. You need only realise this to enter into the garden of life, the path to truth, and see clearly the attachments which threaten you.”
He looked at the closed book on his lap, but did not speak. I brushed off the front of my robe and stood, placing the books I had brought with me on his desk.
“I have brought you some books on gardening,” I said. “It is my fervent hope they will teach you to work with the real in a way these endless strings of words cannot. Good evening.”
But as I opened the door to his room, he spoke. “Gardening . . . of course! Your insight is amazing, Abbot.”
I stopped, one hand on the door-frame.
“The books are illusion,” Ryouji said. “I know that. It is what they tell us of reality that makes them useful. But the garden . . . “
I sat, cautiously optimistic. I had never expected him to even understand my gesture, let alone agree with it.
“In this same book,” he continued, “is the story of a garden, an infinite labyrinth. The narrator of the story believes the garden’s existence proves reality to be . . . “
He flipped through the pages in his lap.
“To be ‘an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.’ Each of these ‘times’—each newly split-off reality—is caused by the decisions we make in our daily life. More importantly, these different realities can interact.”
“Ryouji,” I said, my head spinning.
“The garden in the story is actually just a book,” he continued, “although its long-dead author has misled generations of scholars by writing of an endless labyrinth he wished to produce. The labyrinth and the book—the garden—are one and the same, but so are the book and reality, the labyrinth and reality.”
He waved me to silence. “The details of the story are not important. What is important, Abbot, is the connection with gardens. Gardens are essentially natural landscapes, which means they must exist in many realities. But they are also man-made, and like our actions must be different in each.
“It is like Elfland, a magical kingdom from an old book indeed. There are places where its boundaries overlap with our own, and sometimes the boundaries weaken, and . . . “
I put a hand to my forehead. More stories? More insane, impossible realities?
“Sorry, Abbot. Anyway, what matters is that we can create just such a weakened boundary between our reality and others by carefully manipulating our garden.”
He thumped the gardening treatises I had brought him to emphasize his point. “We can make contact with versions of ourselves who live in other ‘dimensions of time’!”
I had not seen him so animated in all his six years at the monastery since his wife passed away, but my heart grew heavy. My attempt to help had done little more than cloud his vision further. His own private tragedy still ruled his emotions, still held his spirit in check.
I could not speak. Without another word, I stood and returned to my room and this diary.
Showa 26 (1951), Monday February 12th
Ryouji has spent the day in the garden, bothering the monks with surprisingly deft questions about the books I loaned him. I believe the only reason they have not thrown him out is that he has made no secret of his strange belief about communicating with other realities, and they do not know what to make of it.
Some take it as a sort of practical koan, wondering if Ryouji has finally given up his scholar’s trappings. They ask if he has come to me, if he has read something in some sutra that rang true, and when I admit to giving him the gardening books, they ask if he has become enlightened. If he is going to join our brotherhood instead of merely living in our midst.
I dare not tell them he is sincere.
Others are not as well-intentioned. Brother Haku, who adheres to folk superstitions with the same fervour Ryouji feels for his books, approached me in the dining hall this evening.
“Abbot Ichiou,” he said. “There is something that troubles me, and I have come to you for guidance. I have heard that you gave Ryouji some treatises on gardening, despite the fact that they are meant to be secret.”
Inwardly, I groaned. Haku had never liked Ryouji, and my association with the man he saw as an outsider had turned him from a good monk into a bitter, jealous soul. Another of my failings, is poor brother Haku.
“It is true,” I said. “I hope they—”
“Is it true, then, Abbot, that he using them to summon demon spirits in the rock garden?”
I allowed myself to laugh. “There you are mistaken, Brother Haku. Ryouji will surely do no such thing.”
“No? And yet I am sure I have heard—”
“As to what you have heard, Brother Haku, I cannot say.”
He flushed, but pressed on: “And yet, does Ryouji not read strange books in place of the sutras? Does he not spend his hours jotting furious notes, learning foreign tongues, or doing other empty things?
“His condition has worsened since he arrived at the monastery all those years ago. His soul has only become more inured in the fatal chain of samsara. If not even righteous words can change his spirit . . . “
I sighed. “It is true that Ryouji is troubled. His path to truth will be much longer than yours or mine. That is why I gave him the books.”
Haku’s eyes narrowed. “There is some sense to that, I suppose.”
“Indeed. And no matter how strange he is, the idea that he has taken up gardening to summon demons is ridiculous.”
“All the same, Abbot, I am worried.”
“I will talk to Ryouji,” I said. “I am sure there is some misunderstanding.”
Haku looked sideways at me as though he wanted to say more, then shook his head, bowed and left the hall.
Showa 26, Sunday February 18th
Ryouji has spent the entire week constructing a new garden in the empty yard behind the bath-house. His designs are shockingly unorthodox, as expected of one who lacks adequate training. Indeed, at times he seems to go out of his way to flaunt the books I gave him. He places boulders in abhorrent arrangements which have strange effects on the eye, making the garden seem twenty times larger than it is. His tree-pruning is barbarous, the designs that result impossible to describe and uncomfortable to look upon.
The koi pond feeds into a small stream which does not cross the garden north to south, as it should, nor even east to west. Instead it makes a circle, feeding in turn back into the pond, where some number of fish glitter and splash. I tried to count them only once, but they seemed to split off and join into each other in ways I could not quite believe were caused just by ripples in the water. It made me dizzy, and when I looked away I saw quite clearly reflected in the pond a double of myself, eyes wide in horror. I jumped back, shouting in surprise, but the space beside me was empty. When I told Ryouji what I had seen he only smiled and refused to explain.
Since then I have avoided the place and its illusions. The other monks too are disturbed by the garden’s oddness, but since no demons have sprung from behind boulders they have begun to think that Ryouji was not being serious. They are content for now to watch and wait, and hope he will give it up and return to his books.
I hope it as well, but there is something in the air, something like the pressure that arrives before a storm. I remember the tales of the first patriarchs’ awakening and I shudder to think what it might mean.
Showa 26, Tuesday February 20th
Today, Ryouji walked into the dining hall when he was already there.
It was the noon-time meal, and the hall was filled with a peaceable quiet. But at the second Ryouji’s entrance, the silence turned to ice. This new Ryouji strolled to the table where he usually sits—was already sitting. He pointed to the seated version of himself, let out a yell of triumph, and started to jabber incomprehensible questions.
The hall exploded into riotous sound, the monks all shouting and pointing and trying to get away from these two impossible men. The first Ryouji slowly stood, brushing off his simple russet-coloured robe. He took two steps towards the newcomer, held out a single piece of paper, then flickered out of sight like a cloud of steam rising from a hot spring in winter.
Want to read the rest? Head on over to your regional Amazon, where you can pick up the ebook for only $2.99.