Late January, 2016
Once we made the initial ferry crossing to Bainbridge Island, Senji’s fellow monk, Gilberto, picked us up at the landing. Gilberto is a “CuBu”, a Cuban Buddhist, a rare breed. He is heavy set man, in his 70’s, with a wide, friendly face. He wears round bifocals that make his face even rounder than it normally would be. Gilberto grew up in a large family in the Bronx. He did the “Easy Rider” bike trip across America in the 60’s. He had a brother who fought in Vietnam, while Gilberto protested the war when he lived in Berkeley. Gilberto later raised a family, and committed himself to the life of a monk thirteen years ago.


Gilberto drove us a short way to the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Temple. It was pouring rain when we got there. The temple complex is a small group of buildings connected by elevated walkways. The whole area is surrounded by woods. There is the temple itself, the tiny house where Senji and Gilberto live, the guesthouse where we stayed, and a building with bathrooms and a shower. The temple complex is located in a low-lying area, so the heavy rains had flooded most of the land near the buildings (the houses were on stilts). The Zen garden was under water. Most everything was under water. It was kind of a mess.


The temple itself is beautiful (there are photos of it online). There is an altar covered with a scarlet cloth. The covering has gold wheels embroidered into it. There is a picture of the founder of the sect, Guruji, on the altar, along with statues of the Buddha and Kwan Yin. Senji and Gilberto often place offerings of fruit, water and tea in front of the statues and the pictures of friends who have passed away. They put mangoes in front of the Buddha. When the mangoes are ripe, they will take them back to their house. Apparently, the Buddha will be satisfied at that point. The temple is full of paintings and calligraphy. There are pictures of Gandhi and Harriet Tubman above the doors. The temple reeks of incense and prayer. I love the place.


We spent six days at the temple. Karin, Stefan, and I did some sightseeing during that time, but mostly we stayed there. We became accustomed to the daily ritual of Senji and Gilberto. They prayed and chanted every morning at 6:00 AM, and every evening at 5:30 AM. After prayer, we had a meal together. Senji usually cooked for us. He made us soba noodles and a Japanese curry. Gilberto often asked me to say the blessing before we ate. After we prayed as Catholics, then we would recite the Buddhist chant.


We talked quite a bit. Gilberto liked to discuss politics. He talked about the nuclear submarine base in nearby Bremerton. Gilberto explained that if Kitsap County, where the Bremerton Naval Base is located, were an independent country, it would be the third largest nuclear power on earth. In a place where life is abundant, death is always close by.


Senji and Gilberto are a team. They are often on the road. Senji goes all over the country to participate in peace walks, and Gilberto helps an indigenous community in Mexico. While they are at home, they are like two middle-aged bachelors who have lived together for a long time. They have a tiny house, with a microscopic kitchen. There are pictures on the walls from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John Coltrane. The boys like to listen to classical music and free jazz. The house has a sort of masculine clutter that no woman would tolerate for a minute. There is literally no horizontal surface in the house that is not covered with books or papers or dishes. However, it is a home. I have seldom felt more welcomed or more at ease than in the house of the two monks.


The temple is an oasis of peace is an angry world. I couldn’t stay there, but I am grateful for the opportunity to visit.


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