Waters from a Hidden Spring — Douglas Penick

Memory engulfed him. The water was warm, greenish, alive. Huge silvery bubbles rose from the depths of the dark pool. The bubbles grew as they neared the surface, popped. The air was filled with a scent of wet stone and decaying flowers.

Shōtoku Taishi dove into the dark vegetal water.
He heard whispering:

A boy:
“Before beginning.”
A girl:
“The narrator greets you.”

Warm water held him in the dark.
He rested in his mother’s arms.
Floated up beneath the high plains of heaven
There among the clouds reflected on the water’s surface.

Such unexpected happiness.

This was Shōtoku Taishi’s only visit to the hot springs, nestled amid the mountains near Iyo on the island of Shikoku. For generations, its waters healed the Emperors and Empresses, nobles, warriors, courtesans, priests and pilgrims.

In the reeds beside the pool, Shōtoku Taishi stood with Lord Soga no Umake, his ally, and the Korean priest, Eso, his teacher. It was early spring. Much of their work together still lay before them. The air was cool and pungent. These were three men in the beginning of their prime. They removed their clothes and dove into the pond.

A tiny dazzling crystal globe
Spins, whirrs in the air just before his eyes,
Absorbs him.
He dissolves in pure white light,
Spins and flashes through the sky.

There is a word
He thinks he knows what it is.
It flickers and does not last,
Drops beneath the surface.

They were overcome.
The three men thought as one:

“Life gives such miracles.
Always, we are touching the mind of Buddha.
It moves amongst us all.
It does not need to tell us its name.
We may enjoy it.”

Priest Eso sang:
“Surrounded by stately mountain walls,
We could live protected here forever
Like immortal Tsu-ping.”

Lord Soga sang:
“Protected beneath the arching shadows of the camphor trees
Red maple leaves shine on the surface of the pond
We breathe enfolded in great harmony.”

Prince Shōtoku Taishi sang:
“Profound and wordless
Is this world so different
From the dwelling of the gods?”

Years later, when Prince Shōtoku felt the end of his life moving towards him, the afternoon spent with Eso and Lord Soga in the hot springs in the mountains near Iyo on Shikoku momentarily engulfed him. He went to visit Emperor Suiko in her palace. He said:

“Just beyond the range of human hearing, gods and goddesses are singing, one and all. Their voices rise and fall as they dance across the bright mirror.
The mountains dance so slowly that it seems they do not move.
The seas dance so steadily that it seems they do not change.
The winds dance so wildly that it seems they are invisible.”

“In countless millions they sing, and without effort or intention, they sing the order of the world. They do not stop.”

The Empress paused, sent for a book and read to him:

“Here Chono has written:

‘Every sound of every being,
The sentient and the non-sentient,
Each of them is a song.
Plant, trees, soil, sand, voice of the wind,
Water noises,
Each has a heart and a heartbeat
Where we abide.'”

Shōtoku Taishi replied:

“I do not recall who wrote:

‘Songs expand,
Sounds dissolve,
Moving between visible and invisible.

Here we abide.'”

Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), and about spiritual searches amid social collapse (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation. Shorter works appeared in Agni, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Levekunst, Tricycle, etc. Wakefield Press just published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.