“The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming. . .” (Ps. 19 & 121)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
September 4, 2016
The temple bell stops—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
I was awakened by the breakfast bell. Overslept without knowing. Rubbed my eyes at the sound, surprised by the daylight. I had arrived tired. With a cough from the wildfire haze that had sunk over the valley. Packed an overnight bag and crossed the bay to Marin. A pilgrimage I had made many times. Golden hills slanted toward the sea. An old horse barn turned into a zendo. A farm that smelled of incense and eucalyptus in the morning, sunshine and dust in the afternoon. A small room with no lock on the door. A paper nameplate that read Rutledge.
I don’t know what makes a place sacred. Why we are drawn to a site or wish to return. I don’t why Jacob set a stone or why Jesus stole away before dawn. Unless it was the felt quality of the experience. Some connection in the quiet. In my own case, the pilgrim’s yearning was a part of it. The return. Every time I returned begged the twin question that my father used to ask: Where have we come from and where are we going? He had been gone a long time, hidden as the poet said, in the hills and vales, “among all that is.” But now the hills themselves were asking. I sat up in the bed and listened to the fading sound of the bell.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
the sky proclaims [divine] handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
night to night speaks out.
There is no utterance,
there are no words,
whose sound goes unheard.
I slid the door open. Put feet into sandals damp and cool. Looked out over what I could see of the hills under a low slung Pacific fog. Walked mindfully, having slept through zazen. I remembered the old kinhin breathing we had done with each step. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. One hand over the other, walking like a forest monk. Joining the end of the line. The chant of gratitude had ended, but I held it in mind. This food is the gift of the whole universe. I bowed to the others. I bowed to my bowl.
Back in my room was the book I had brought. Peter Matthiessen’s story of pilgrimage and presence. He had traveled to Nepal with the biologist George Schaller hoping to glimpse a rare snow leopard. But a few paragraphs into the book, it becomes clear that Matthiessen on a different kind of pilgrimage. On the third page, he reveals that he has brought a small green bronze Buddha with him; it had sat beside his wife’s hospital bed when she died of cancer the year before. Pico Iyer observes that as readers, “we realize that the ‘path’ that Matthiessen has referred to is an inner as well as an outer one.” Matthiessen accepted Schaller’s invitation to trek through Nepal. But he is looking and listening for more than leopards.
I turn my eyes to the mountains;
from where will my help come?
It’s a question asked or possibly sung by the psalmist. Some scholars consider it a song of ascent, something known to pilgrims in the hills above Jerusalem. Perhaps they didn’t know what made a place sacred, either. Perhaps they were just drawn to it or wished to return. Perhaps there they could set a stone, say a prayer, or sing of the old twin question: Where have we come from and where are we going?
I’m sure that’s what Matthiessen was asking of himself and of the family to which he would return. He had come from a place of long suffering. He was going an uncertain way into a future that was not what he had planned. And his book holds the questions implicitly, as he looks to the hills, as he reflects on the wisdom writers, as he deepens his Buddhist practice, and as he considers the Universe itself the great Zen scripture. Like Bashō did. The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming. . .
The book, which I had been reading before sleep, offered no ultimate answer, only the bell’s invitation to wake up. One passage rang in my mind as I sat at the breakfast table. Early on his pilgrimage, Matthiessen writes of immersion in the world as something that is natural to us all before we forget it.
In his first summers, forsaking all his toys, my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through.
I looked at my bowl of oatmeal. Simple and full. I inhaled its rising steam, added milk and walnuts. Our breakfasts were eaten in silence. All that could be heard was the clink of spoon against bowl. Scrape of chair. Sound of pouring coffee. I felt at rest at the very center of the universe. Not that my table was the center. But that any place was. Any bowl of oatmeal accepted in gratitude.
I wished that everyone could eat one meal a day in silent contemplation. Feel the nourishment of the food. Smile at dear ones around the table. Make sure that everyone had enough. Then carry the empty dishes together. Dip them in soap and water. Walk into the morning light feeling awake and alive. Not an observer, but a part. Which is why I had gone to the hills. To be reminded.
If the twin question is where have we come from and where are we going, then it is held together by the present moment, by where we are. And if a pilgrimage is anything at all, then it is going to a place for the purpose of realizing where one is and being present there, inasmuch as anyone can be. The old Hebrew poets had beautiful language for this, evoking the sky and the hills as signs of sacred handiwork, telling of the earth and all that is in it as our relations. The law or the precepts were written in the stars, on our hearts, spelled in flesh and bone as we relate in body, speech, or shuffled prayer on the way to breakfast.
But the old Hebrews were also known for their prophecy. The spoke not only of wind and whisper, but of fire and demand. They thundered right relation and warned those who neglected, abused, or oppressed their relatives. Yet the two are related. The prophets must have gone to the hills, too, seeking sustenance. The poets must have come down from them, renewed and ready to do the work of restoration and repair. These are great themes of our religious tradition, handed down to us in Hebrew literature and in Christian story, bound and hallowed and come to be called sacred. We hold these themes in the present moment. In between where we have come from and where we are going.
Such thoughts came and went as I angled down the hillside toward the sea. It was too cold to swim. But I was only going to listen. To the bell of water and wind. The one that the psalmist heard. I was only going to follow. The path that was inner as well as outer. The one that Matthiessen had gone. I was only going to ask. The questions of past and future held together in the present. The ones my father had given. I was only going to “stand rapt for near an hour.” As the boy had done. The boy in the great sandbox of the world.
 Wendell Berry, “Three Elegiac Poems” in Collected Poems 1957–1982 (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 51.
 Psalm 19.2-4, TANAKH translation.
 Pico Iyer’s Introduction to Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008), xx.
 Psalm 121.1 TANAKH.
 Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 32.
 Ibid., 38-39.