FICTION

The Bronze Bonze

An enthralling tale of temptation and its payoff

by Steve McClure

Yoshiyuki Yoneda had a problem. As chief priest of a temple in Kyoto, he ministered to the spiritual and ritual needs of his local community. But like many other clerics in Japan’s ancient capital, he also wanted to attract fee-paying tourists to his temple.

As far as his strictly religious duties were concerned, Yoneda was a model priest, although hardly a paragon of ascetic virtue — his love of food and drink showed in his roly-poly frame, chubby cheeks and plural chins. But his faith in the Buddha’s teachings had never wavered. He felt it was important to spread the Enlightened One’s word in today’s materialistic society, and not merely officiate at funerals and collect offerings.

When it came to pulling in the punters, though, Yoneda was an abject failure. He had a very un-Buddhist feeling of envy when he passed the city’s big-name temples and shrines and saw the fleets of buses disgorging masses of tourists who dutifully lined up at the ticket gates.

Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji and Dokakuji — the temples of the Golden, Silver and Copper Pavilions, respectively — were special targets of Yoneda’s envy. And for good reason. The temple where he served as chief priest — in fact, the only priest — was Seidokakuji: the Temple of the Bronze Pavilion. As such, it was very much an also-ran in the Kyoto temple stakes.

Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji boasted buildings built along classical Japanese lines in expansive, well-kept grounds, while Dokakuji (more correctly known as Daiunin) had a spiffy pagoda with a spectacular spire jutting from its roof.

Seidokakuji, however, was just another run-of-the-mill single-story wooden temple, whose roof featured some bronze sheeting that was badly corroded and in need of repair. The temple grounds consisted of a few bits of scraggly shrubbery that had once borne the appellation of “garden,” and a dank, poorly maintained graveyard that was a favorite haunt of the neighborhood’s stray cats.

Seidokakuji had been founded in the late 16th century by a nobleman who intended to use it as a private retreat after retiring from court life. But soon after the temple was completed, the peer in question had permanently retired to the (presumably) celestial realm, and Seidokakuji fell into neglect and obscurity until it was little more than a footnote in the grand saga of Kyoto.

Yoneda had inherited the position of chief priest at Seidokakuji from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, and so on as far back as the temple records showed. In his darker moods, Yoneda likened his hereditary office to a family curse.

He found himself sharing these thoughts late one January evening with his old schoolmate Mitsuaki Matsumoto after quaffing more than his usual intake of sake.

“It’s just not fair, Matsumoto,” complained Yoneda. “Why shouldn’t Seidokakuji be up there with Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji and Dokakuji?”

“Erm, have some more sake, Yoneda-sensei,” Matsumoto replied diplomatically. “I feel your pain, but to be honest, Seidokakuji is a bit less . . . visually appealing, shall we say, than the temples you mention.”

“But look at Ginkakuji — it doesn’t have any silver on it at all. Talk about false advertising!”

“Yes, but you have to admit that it’s a beautiful building, and the grounds are exquisitely landscaped,” Matsumoto pointed out. “Forgive me for saying so, old friend, but Seidokakuji is a hole in the wall in comparison. The fact that you can see Mrs. Watanabe’s washing from the temple gate is hardly something to write home about. And being at the end of a dead-end street in a part of the city that’s nowhere near any of the big tourist sites doesn’t help either.”

“Well, I’m at my wits’ end,” moaned Yoneda. “I don’t have any money to repair the blasted roof, and I’m losing more and more funeral business because the place looks so ratty. It’s a vicious circle.”

“What you need is a marketing plan,” said Matsumoto, his eyes lighting up with nihonshu-fueled enthusiasm. “With the right PR strategy, we can make the fee-paying public aware that Seidokakuji, modest though it may be, is no less deserving of recognition than temples like Kinkakuji.”

“Thank you for your optimism, no matter how unfounded it may be,” replied Yoneda wearily. “Just how do you propose to go about that?”

“By turning adversity into advantage. Look at it this way — there’s really nothing to see here, right?”

“That’s putting it rather bluntly, but I’d be a liar if I said that wasn’t true,” admitted Yoneda.

“Well, I have a brilliant idea, if I say so myself. Just leave everything to me, and in no time you’ll be turning away the hordes who come to Seidokakuji.”

“Matsumoto, you’ve always been a true friend and have never steered me wrong — I remember how you kindly sorted out that silly business with the headstone company for me — so please go ahead and do what you think best,” said a by-now sloshed Yoneda.

Matsumoto was as good as his word. With the help of a well-connected friend who worked at a major ad agency, he crafted a guerrilla marketing strategy centered on social media. The campaign leveraged Yoneda’s nondescript temple into a symbol for the frugal restraint appropriate during the current period of economic stagnation, as opposed to the vulgar ostentation of places like Kinkakuji (although this was never explicitly stated, of course).

“Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji are so . . . ‘bubbly,’ ” explained Matsumoto, referring to Japan’s late-’80s era of excess, as he outlined his plans to Yoneda during one of the bibulous strategy sessions they held through February and March. “People are rediscovering the traditional virtues of simplicity and honest poverty — I mean, look at how “Hojoki” (“The Ten Foot Square Hut”) by Kamo no Chomei has recently become a best-seller even though it was written almost 800 years ago.”

But Matsumoto’s real stroke of genius was to spin a tale about the mysterious bronze bowl of the Temple of the Bronze Pavilion, a vessel rumored to have been used by the Buddha himself to wash his feet. By chanting the right mantra — available for a modest fee at the temple itself, or via the Seidokakuji website — while staring deep into the depths of the sacred bowl or its virtual online version, one could divine the true state of one’s soul, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the future.

Matsumoto’s campaign went viral, as the unpleasant neologism puts it. By the height of the spring school-excursion season, on any given day the line of people waiting to pay their ¥300 admission fee to Seidokakuji extended the length of the narrow dead-end street leading to the temple, and out onto the main drag beyond.

The number of international visitors also grew as the foreign media latched onto the man they dubbed “the Bronze Bonze,” and found that his suddenly popular temple made for a good story.

“We’re giving the people what they want,” enthused Matsumoto. “People are coming away from their visit to Seidokakuji convinced that they’ve gained a valuable insight into their karma. And who are we to say they’re wrong?”

“I’d like to see the look on the faces of those complacent cretins at Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji now that we’re the big noise in town,” chortled Yoneda. “All that glitters is not gold — or silver, for that matter.”

“Very witty, old friend,” Matsumoto replied. “But instead of standing around cracking jokes and patting ourselves on the back, I think we should empty the collection boxes — they’re getting rather full!”

Now that Seidokakuji was flush with funds, Yoneda had been able to repair the bronze plating on the temple’s roof. He hired a crew to tidy up the grounds and shore up some of the more decrepit tombstones in the graveyard. And it was now considered the height of refined sophistication to have one’s funeral at Seidokakuji. The temple’s account books were full of reassuring columns of black ink.

Life is good, thought Yoneda. After all my hard work the past couple of months, I deserve a vacation. Thailand seems a good choice — lovely beaches, I hear, and of course it is a Buddhist country. My knowledge of the Theravada tradition is so lamentably rusty.

And what with Seidokakuji’s higher public profile these days, he ruminated on, it really isn’t appropriate for me to mingle with the herd and take public transport. People expect the chief priest of a well-known temple to display a certain dignity and . . . gravitas. Perhaps a Lexus sedan would be the right vehicle for someone in my position. Or maybe a Bentley — I wonder if they come in bronze?

First things first, though — it’s time I bought a new suit. I’m tired of wearing the same old duds.

The next day, Yoneda went to a local bespoke tailor that Matsumoto had recommended and was fitted for an Italian-style charcoal-gray suit that struck what he thought was just the right note of refined restraint for a cleric whose public profile was steadily increasing. Back at the temple after the alterations, he tried it on and preened himself in front of the mirror in his bedroom.

“Fine feathers make fine birds,” Yoneda said to himself smugly. “Now I really look like someone substantial. Buddha would be proud of me.”

But turning away from the mirror for a moment, Yoneda’s eyes met those of a small statue of the Buddha on his bookcase. The chief priest found that he couldn’t look the image of Gautama in the eye; it was as if the Buddha were glaring at him reproachfully. His self-satisfied feeling suddenly evaporated, and he shifted his gaze back to the mirror and took a long hard look at his reflection.

With a shock he saw that the man in the mirror looked more like a man on the make than a man of the cloth.

I’ve sold out, Yoneda realized. I’m a hypocrite. I’m no better than the people who sell trinkets at neighborhood festivals. I’m a huckster and a whore. What a fool I was to listen to that idiot Matsumoto. Him and his bronze bowl! It’s time to put an end to this right now.

With that, Yoneda stormed out onto the steps that led to the altar display. It was just after 10 in the morning, and there was already a line of visitors waiting to peer into the depths of Seidokakuji’s mysterious bronze vessel.

“Listen, everybody!” Yoneda shouted. “This is all a sham and a fraud! There’s nothing special about this bowl. I bought it in a department store for ¥900. I did this just to make money. I’m a horrible hypocrite who humbly begs your pardon.”

A blonde woman at the head of the queue who evidently understood Japanese looked up at Yoneda with a wide-eyed expression.

“Wow — awesome! How totally Zen!” she bubbled.

Yoneda looked at her with a mixture of pity and disgust. “You don’t get it, do you? I’ll show you!”

He picked up the bowl, and splashed its contents onto the heads of those at the front of the queue.

“A blessing, a blessing!” they chanted.

“You people are hopeless,” Yoneda yelled. “Get out of here and get on with your lives. There’s nothing for you here!”

“There’s nothing for us here, there’s nothing for us here!” chanted a growing chorus of the throng. “A new mantra for a new revelation! There’s nothing for us here, there’s nothing for us here!”

“You ignorant fools! I’ll show you!” Yoneda held the bowl in front of him and, unzipping his fly, proceeded to relieve himself into it. The chanting suddenly ended.

“If you don’t clear off this instant, I’ll douse you with this,” Yoneda threatened as he brandished the bowl. The crowd got the message and, turning on its collective heel, ran out of the temple grounds, leaving the priest standing alone on the steps holding the now-defiled bowl.

Well, I guess that’s the end of my career as a cleric, thought Yoneda. What a stupid note to go out on.

“Please forgive me, Enlightened One,” he said, looking at the impassive image of the Buddha inside the temple. Plunging into the depths of despair and self-pity, Yoneda sat down on the temple steps, put his head in his hands and began to weep.

“Excuse me, Yoneda-sensei, have you seen my ball?”

Choking back his tears, the priest looked up to see Aiko, his neighbor Mrs. Watanabe’s little granddaughter, looking at him with an expression of concern on her face.

“I was trying to see how high I could throw it, and it went over the wall into the temple grounds. I’m very sorry to trouble you, but do you mind if I go and look for it?”

“Dear me, Aiko-chan, not at all. Let’s go and look for it together. But please wait a minute — I have to attend to a small errand first.”

Yoneda picked up the bowl and took it into his modest living quarters next to his office behind the altar, and flushed its contents down the toilet. He placed the bowl in the sink to be given a good scrubbing later. He washed his hands carefully and went back to the front of the temple to rejoin Aiko.

“Right, let’s look for your ball,” said Yoneda, leading the girl around to the rear of the temple, a rather damp and musty place he seldom visited.

“Look, there it is!” exclaimed Aiko, “right next to those pretty flowers! Thank you, Yoneda-sensei.” The girl picked up the small red rubber ball and scurried off as the priest muttered, “You’re welcome.”

His attention was focused on the flowers that Aiko had pointed out. Funny, thought Yoneda, I’ve never seen anything growing here before.

He leaned down to take a closer look at the flowers. They look to be some kind of orchid — how strange, he mused. Yoneda carefully picked one and went to the sunny area in front of the temple to get a better look at it. Holding it up to the light, he saw that the flower had an unusual color — somewhere between tawny and deep amber. In fact, Yoneda realized, these are bronze orchids. How ironic. I’ve never heard of flowers like these growing in the temple grounds.

He took a deep whiff of the orchid’s heady perfume. “Lovely,” he sighed. Yoneda approached the altar and carefully placed the flower in a vase into which he’d providentially put some water earlier that morning.

He knelt in front of the altar, looked at the flower and reflected: This flower is worth more than all the money I collected with that stupid bronze bowl.

That’s when it hit him, like a blow to the head and a lightning bolt through his body at the same time. With a gasp of recognition and joy beyond expressing, Yoneda realized he had just experienced satori, the flash of sudden enlightenment that he’d read about and tried to achieve in countless meditation sessions, always without success.

Tears streamed down his face and he prostrated himself before the image of the Buddha. He chanted the ancient mantra, “Namaku Samanda Bodananbaku,” until it grew dark and was time for bed.

When Yoneda got up the next day and looked around the temple grounds, he noticed more of the beautiful bronze-colored flowers growing in the precincts. Over the course of the next few weeks, the orchids spread throughout the compound. Aiko told her grandmother about the lovely flowers she’d seen growing at the temple, and word of their beauty circulated through the neighborhood and then all over Kyoto and beyond, like pollen in the spring breeze. And all this without viral marketing and social media.

Now there was indeed something to see at Seidokakuji. And it wasn’t just the rare bronze orchids, whose provenance always remained a mystery. It was the sight of a man who was truly at peace with himself; the quietly enlightened Yoneda, for whom a problem had led to an unexpected but most welcome solution.

Stephen McClure is a Tokyo-based writer. This is the first short story he has published this century. Illustrations by JOHNNY WALES