Bending a Golden Ear to Zen Teaching

September 30, 2014 at 10:45 pm

By Terry Watada.

            An old friend sent me a book last spring that he thought I would like to read.  The Golden Ear by Miki Kikkawa is a fable that illustrates a Buddhist lesson with varying degrees of success.  Through a mysterious plant, the tale demonstrates the interconnectiveness of all beings.

A long stem grew and stretched out of the water.   At the very top of the stem, just one bud was hanging down and facing the water.

I felt strange because the bud was far too long, as long as the stem.  It almost reached the surface of the water.  There were no leaves, not even one.

Then one day, I was told the bud was called The Legendary Bud.

Apparently, no one has ever found this plant but it has captured the imagination of several people.  In time, the plant became known as The Flower who knew who she is.  Thus begins the fable about how the flower came to self-knowledge.

Miki Kikkawa is a lecturer at the University of Niigata Prefecture.  She grew within the influence of her family’s tradition of Zen Buddhism.  The tone is set from the beginning when the anthropomorphized plant (with eyes, mouth and an ear) begins asking, “What am I?”  Through a series of dialogues with a frog, a strider (looks like a mosquito), and others, the plant seeks an answer to her question.  And the answers build throughout.  The interchanges get a little fanciful since the plant is somehow able to communicate telepathically it seems with distant rice plants, snowflakes, the crescent moon, the wind and the sun.  Perhaps the oddest is the seahorse; after all, the plant is in the middle of a marsh with no mention of a sea nearby.  Be that as it may, the answers are universal.

The snowflake shone with reflected light from the sun and added more in her pure voice.

“I am sure that you will understand this in the near future.  All things are changing without exception.  This is fleeting, sad and full of sorrow …, yes, this is.  But listen, even if this is so, you will surely understand someday how wonderful it is and how many blessings it has.  I promise.”

Ever-present change, gratitude for life, and interconnection are within the teachings of the Buddha.  Strange then that there is mention of God.

I actually felt that I had received the words from God … Now, I believe that they are the true words that God gave me.

I’m not sure if she is talking about God in the Judeo-Christian sense or something metaphorical.  In any case, this is not Buddhism and is more than a little confusing.

The Golden Ear is a gentle rumination on the nature of existence and as a fable it is effective as long as the reader can accept the premise of a talking, telepathic and philosophical plant.  The illustrations by Kunihiko Aoyama are fine, perhaps more effective in colour but fine nevertheless.  The English, translated by Reiko Sasaki, is competent if bumpy from time to time but doesn’t get in the way.  The language feels a little prosaic for me and lacks the poetic punch the sentiments require, but the book is a quick read and easy to grasp.

When the silent water mirror is made, there the sky is shown, the floating clouds are shown, the flying birds are shown, and the moon is shown.  At each time, I am not only the watermirror, but also the sky, the clouds, the birds and the moon.  There is no gap or border between the sky, the clouds, the moon and me.  I am each of them.  I will be the sky and the sky will be me.  I will be the birds and the birds will be me.

The Golden Ear: What am I?  By Miki Kikkawa, Babel Press USA (Honolulu HI 2013)