The last portrait made me stop to take a second look. Unlike the other monks, this one was gazing directly out at the viewer. His face was painted in the standard Yamato-e style, just lines for the eyes and a hook for the nose, but there was something strangely expressive about the minimalist painting: a slight tension in the angle of his eyes, one hand holding a brush in midair, as if hesitating.
The bald little monk stared up at me out of his portrait, as if he were trying to speak to me. The plaque beneath the painting read:
Monk Anchin (1244-1316)
Collection of Seitokuji, 14th century, artist unknown
There was no background or architectural detail in the plain portrait, but there was a lit candle-stand beside him, a common pictorial convention for depicting nighttime. Why would the artist take pains to portray Anchin, unlike the other poets, writing by candlelight?
Taking my notebook from my purse, I added Anchin’s name to my notes on the exhibit. He couldn’t have been a particularly notable poet. In high school, I had made a habit of memorizing poetry—which endeared me to my classical Japanese teacher and precisely nobody else—and even I had never heard of Anchin.
Before I left, I even spent 3,000 yen on the glossy exhibition catalogue, so I could take home a copy of the painting. My own research specialty is medieval Japanese women’s diaries, and at this stage in my career, there isn’t time to waste exploring intriguing tidbits outside my field. But seeing Anchin’s little face, I couldn’t resist the urge to find out what he had to say, what seemed to be on the tip of his tongue in his portrait.
It took some doing, but I tracked down a journal article about Anchin. The issue came out of the university’s offsite storage facility crumbling and dusty. It was an obscure journal from the 1930s, with an article written by a professor I’d never heard of: “Annotated Selections from the Dream Diary of Monk Anchin.”
I’ll include an excerpt from the introduction here:
Monk Anchin’s remarkable diaries are a treasure of the Kamakura period that have been overlooked for too long. Previous scholars have neglected his diaries, perhaps because of their length and the difficulties of his written style. Notably, in 1834 the scholar Ishizawa Takeru dismissed Anchin’s diary as “an idiosyncratic work with minor poetic value and little historical interest.”
It is regrettable that because of this early scholarly misinterpretation, no one has attempted a full transcription of the diary. Ishizawa reached his conclusion by reading the brief excerpt traditionally contained in 19th century anthologies, and I suspect that Anchin’s dream diary has not been read from beginning to end in all the intervening centuries.
It is true that Anchin’s diary is a singularly ahistorical text. He offers no information about daily life or special events at the temple; the diary reveals to us very little about the life of a monk at Seitokuji in the Kamakura period. Similarly, although his classical Chinese poetry was well-received by his contemporaries, subsequent generations considered his verses undistinguished.
But his diary is, nonetheless, a monumental and unique work: with fifty volumes representing the fifty years of his life after he took Buddhist vows, it is perhaps the world’s longest continuous dream diary, full of insights into the unconscious mind of a highly literate, devout, and, yes, idiosyncratic man.
We can speculate about Anchin’s life from court and temple records. Born the fifth son of a minor aristocrat, Anchin achieved some early success as a poet, but never received an official appointment at court. He never married, and took the tonsure in 1266, at the age of twenty-two. Although he spent the rest of his long life at Seitokuji, he was by no means disconnected from society; he contributed poems to social gatherings at the capital and frequently traveled on long pilgrimages.
I have selected the following excerpts from Monk Anchin’s diary on the basis of their poetic or psychological significance. It is my hope that their publication will contribute to a reexamination of his life and work.
Since nothing had been written about Anchin in all the intervening decades, the professor’s hopes had apparently gone unfulfilled.
Dreams were an unconventional choice of subject for a medieval diarist. But if he was best known for his dream diary, it explained why the anonymous artist had painted Anchin, brush in hand, beside a lit candle. As if he had just awoken from a dream and was hurrying to write it down. I’ve always been a vivid dreamer myself; when I was a teenager, I’d even kept a dream diary for a few years. I shredded it before I went to college, which I now regretted.
I settled down on my couch with a glass of wine and the diary excerpts. That was how I spent most of my nights alone at home, anyway, with Bach, Bordeaux, and books. And there was a certain transgressive pleasure in spending an evening away from my research or my students’ papers, in the unfamiliar company of Monk Anchin.
First entry, undated but presumed to be from 1266:
Last night I saw a dream so strange I was compelled to take up my brush, to write it before it fled from memory. In my dream, a woman came to my bedchamber and sat beside my pillow.
“It’s a shame when a good-looking man takes vows so young,” she scolded me. “You’ve robbed the women of Kyoto. I’m terribly put out. At least we can meet in dreams, can’t we?”
Her smile as she teased me was incomparably lovely. She outstretched her arms to me, and I saw that she wore her robe turned inside out—which once was thought to bring good dreams, as in Ono no Komachi’s poems of longing.
When I reached for her, my hands passed through her body as if through mist, and she disappeared.
1267, the new year:
The first dream of the new year tells what is to come. A dream of a hawk is said to be auspicious, but what should I make of the dream I saw? Two hawks flew together through a clear sky. A cloud came and went, and there was only one hawk remaining.
1273, tenth month:
In last night’s dream, I had retreated from the temple into solitude in a brushwood hut. There I would live in absolute simplicity, apart from the vulgar world.
A female pilgrim knocked at my door and asked for shelter from the rain. Although I should have turned her away (as the lady of Eguchi turned away the wandering monk Saigyō, so as not to tempt him), I allowed her inside and made her tea to warm her. We composed poems about the rain.
There is no escape from worldly desire, is there? Not in a temple, not in seclusion, and not even in one’s own heart.
Anchin’s dream reminded me of a dream I’d had as a teenager.
In my dream, I was waiting on a train platform. Rain fell down in a curtain from the overhang. I was in my school uniform, and my shoes and socks were soaking wet; a puddle grew on the concrete at my feet. The platform was deserted. Trains passed by without stopping, as if I were the only person left in the city.
A man joined me on the platform—an ordinary-looking salaryman in a gray suit, carrying a briefcase. He bought two cans of hot tea from the vending machine, and although all the benches on the platform were empty, he sat right next to me. But I wasn’t afraid. We drank our canned tea together, as if we were the best of friends.
I was so young when I had the dream, I could hardly remember any more than that. It must have been written down in my old dream diary, but that was long gone. But I still remembered the thrill of it: to have the attention of a man, to be alone with a man, had seemed naughty and wonderful. It had felt so real. I remember waking up and hurrying to the mirror to see if my cheeks were red.
That had been just the silliness of a girl, of course. In my waking life, men had never paused to look at me, and I had never dared to speak to them. Since I’d started working at a women’s college, it had become even easier to avoid men. I had been on a few dates, arranged for me by my worried parents or friends, but the silence had always stretched too long, and I’d never had a second date. There weren’t many Monk Anchins left in the world, not many men interested in listening to a plain middle-aged woman talk about the fourteenth century, or in sharing a pot of tea and reading poetry together. ‘Born in the wrong century,’ my colleagues sometimes said about me, which I know they didn’t intend to be cruel.
I brushed a few fragments of the journal’s yellowing paper off my lap and set it aside for the night.
That Saturday afternoon, I sat at my usual table in the back corner of the department store’s top-floor café, carefully arranging my papers and pens around the delicate china saucer and plate.
It was 900 yen for a thin slice of dark chocolate gateau and a cup of milk tea. Just a little luxury, something to sweeten the routine of grading papers. I hadn’t made it to that coveted position of full-time professor at a proper university, where perhaps even grading papers would be a joy; at forty-one, I was still an adjunct lecturer at a two-year women’s college, correcting grammatical errors and encouraging my pupils to look up information in books rather than on Wikipedia.
After an hour’s work, I set aside the half-finished stack of papers and pulled out the rest of Monk Anchin’s diary instead, savoring the bitter chocolate gateau as I read the last diary entry, written shortly before his death at the age of seventy-two.
1316, seventh month:
Now that I have been celibate for fifty years, all that was left of desire should have long since burned away, and yet…
I’ve seen the same woman in my dreams for years and years. I believe that I saw her once with my waking eyes. Not when I was a young man in the capital, and she a beautiful maiden, but when we were both withered and old.
It was at the height of cherry blossom season, when the temple was crowded with travelers. Through the crack of a door, I saw a little girl pretty and fresh as blooming dianthus, playing beside her grandmother. Unaware she was being observed, the woman didn’t conceal her face; whatever beauty she’d had in her youth had long since faded, but her eyes were sharp, and her voice as low and sweet as a koto string as she read aloud to her granddaughter. And I knew it was her—not the greatest beauty, not the most charming or the most learned—but the same woman I’d seen in my dreams. I saw her in the waking world only this once, perhaps fifty years too late.
In my dream that night, she came to me, and she said, “When you were twenty, and I only seventeen, we both attended the Kamo festival. You stood beside my carriage then. I saw you, so dashing in your cap. I lifted my blinds in hope that you might catch a glimpse and slip a poem to me, but you turned your head left instead of right, and then you were gone. If you had turned your head right, do you think we would have known each other by daylight, not only in dreams?”
Last night, I saw her again. There were five-colored threads tied to her hands, which she offered to me to hold, like a bodhisattva welcoming me to the Pure Land.
“We’ll part soon, even in dreams. I’ll see you again,” she said.
“Will we share a single lotus in the world to come?” I asked her.
“Do you think it’s so easy to become a buddha? In seven hundred years, I’ll make sure to come here once again. Promise me that you’ll find me at Seitokuji. Promise me that you won’t forget.”
How appropriate that I saw her on Tanabata, a celebration of reunited lovers. Seven hundred years—whether Seitokuji still stands, or whether it is ashes, I’ll be here once more.
In my career, I’ve read dozens of medieval diaries. I haven’t found a publisher for my monograph yet, but still, I believe I’m something of an expert. Most medieval diaries, at least the ones that survive today, were intended for broader literary consumption, and therefore were thick with classical and poetic allusions, but Anchin’s prose was unornamented and personal—almost uncomfortably so. It was unlike any medieval text I’d studied. I briefly wondered whether I should prepare a paper on the dream diary of Monk Anchin for a future meeting of the Medieval Diary Literature Research Group, but I couldn’t imagine speaking about him in public. I wanted—strange as it was—to keep him for myself.
Monk Anchin died in 1316; thanks to his diary entry, I knew that he must have died shortly after Tanabata, the seventh day of the seventh month. It was a rather stunning coincidence that this summer happened to mark seven hundred years after his death, the year that he promised to return to Seitokuji to find his dream-bride.
I tried and failed to put it all out of my head. Over the next weeks, I read and reread Anchin’s diary. I returned to the museum exhibit to sneak forbidden photographs of his portrait. And in my dreams, I saw: a pair of dark eyes, a crescent moon, a curl of smoke, half a line of poetry, dark woods stretching out beyond the cypress pillars of a temple’s veranda.
One night, after the stimulation of Glenn Gould’s magnificent Goldberg Variations and perhaps a too-generous pour of wine, I visited Seitokuji’s official website. The temple still existed, and like some other temples struggling to pay the bills in an irreligious age, it offered overnight lodging for tourists. In addition to a gallery of inviting photographs showing off their austere guest quarters, contemplative gardens, and delicate vegetarian meals, there was an online reservation form.
According to the Gregorian calendar, Tanabata fell on July 7th, which was right before final exams and not a convenient time for me to disappear. But Anchin would have been using the old lunisolar calendar system, and the seventh day of the seventh month in the old calendar actually fell on Tuesday, August 9th (according, at least, to the online calculators I used). That was the summer holiday, and no one would notice if I left the city to go on a little pilgrimage.
With just a few cabernet-emboldened clicks, I had my temple reservations and train tickets booked. Perhaps it was silly of me, but I couldn’t help but think that someone ought to be there to commemorate his life. Was I the only person alive who cared about Monk Anchin? No one had ever bothered to fully transcribe his diary. No academic had written an article about him since the 1930s. How sad to think that he had lived, died, and been utterly forgotten. What if he returned, after the promised seven centuries, and no one were there at Seitokuji to see it? I didn’t want to let the date pass unwitnessed. That was all.
Monday evening, the night before Tanabata on the old calendar, I arrived at Seitokuji. I’d visited plenty of temples for research trips or sightseeing, to the point where all the intricately carved transoms and mossy rocks started to blur together, but this felt different. With every worn step I climbed, every statue I admired, I imagined that Anchin had stood in the same spot seven hundred years before. I’d never had a personal connection to a temple before. I had to remind myself that I still didn’t have one: I was engaging in shallow literary tourism and self-indulgent fantasy, nothing more.
There were other guests staying at the temple as well. In the public bath, I sat across from a pair of little old ladies from Osaka chatting about the next stop on their vacation. In the corridor, I saw one of the temple’s monks struggling to communicate in English and hand gestures with a family of Chinese tourists, and I wondered how they’d ended up at out-of-the-way Seitokuji. Seitokuji had a long enough history, but I’d assumed international tourists would be likelier to visit Kiyomizudera for its waterfall, or Ryōanji for its rock garden.
My room was spare and elegant, just bare mats, a futon, and a buckwheat-husk pillow. No television or wifi, which I appreciated; other than the slight buzz of the electric lights, I could imagine that I was back in the thirteenth century. A monk brought my dinner in on a tray: tiny bowls of tofu, vegetables, and rice, delicately flavored and artfully arranged. I wondered if Anchin had eaten so well here in his day, or if temple fare had been humbler then.
After dinner, I brought out my reading. Thanks to some archival wrangling, I’d gotten my hands on a copy of a facsimile edition of Anchin’s diary. The copy quality was only so-so, and it was frequently indecipherable, but still it felt like a miracle to see Anchin’s own handwriting. From the boldness or faintness of his brushstrokes, I could imagine the passages he had rushed to write, or the places he had hesitated, brush in hand.
After dark, I went out to the temple’s veranda alone. Here, far from the city, I could hear cicadas singing and see the stars.
Anchin must have seen this same night sky, I thought, seven hundred years ago.
I sat on the edge of the veranda and stared up at the distant, unchanging stars. In my head, phrases from Anchin’s poetry shattered and recombined. I felt so close to him here.
The faint scent of incense tickled my nose. No—cigarette smoke. My nose wrinkled and I had to pinch it to keep from sneezing. I glanced back over my shoulder and discovered the culprit: the teenage boy from the family of Chinese tourists I’d seen earlier that evening. He was leaning against one of the temple’s cypress pillars, smoking a cigarette and staring off into space.
Well, the presence of an intruder, and one so rude as to smoke a cigarette in a nine-hundred-year-old temple, damaged my reverie. But I was hardly about to leave my perfect spot for stargazing. I’d been here first!
I tried to refocus. The smell of cigarettes was distracting.
I looked over again, and saw the boy stubbing out his cigarette and neatly disposing of the butt in a portable ashtray. Polite. I thought he might go back inside then, but no such luck—instead, he sat down cross-legged on the veranda, no more than a few meters away from me. He pulled out a little notebook from the pocket of his oversized jacket and hunched over it, pen in hand.
I took the time to look him over while he was staring down at the notebook. He couldn’t have been much older than nineteen or twenty, and his gangly frame still had that elbows-and-knees pointiness of adolescence. His hair was long and shaggy, hiding some of his acne-scarred face.
Trying to retain some sense of solitude, I turned away and closed my eyes. I had come here to be with Anchin, to see if he had returned after the promised seven hundred years. Silly, yes, but…
My mind drifted, and among the cicadas’ song, I heard another sound: the scratching of pen on paper. I glanced to the side, and there was the boy—biting his lower lip and writing away in his notebook. He looked utterly absorbed. My irritation at him ebbed slightly; in him, I saw a shadow of the bookish girl I had been when I was his age.
He looked up at me, and we were caught awkwardly staring at each other. I nodded politely at him—he stared at me, then hunched his shoulders and offered a tiny smile.
“No Japanese,” he apologized, in heavily accented English.
“No Chinese,” I answered, and I couldn’t help but smile in return. I wondered why he and his family had come here.
I thought it might end there, but he stood, crossed the gap between us in just a few steps, and sat down again, right beside me.
“Can you read this?” he asked, again in English, and handed me his notebook.
He had been writing poetry—poetry in classical Chinese, at that! What a rare bird. Did they teach poetic composition in Chinese schools these days? My own students were about his age, and it was a struggle to get them to read even the most accessible poems, much less compose their own.
I took a moment to look over the poem. Clumsy in places, almost brilliant in others. A sudden pain ran through my chest. His handwriting was charming, neat and somehow masculine in the boldness of his penstrokes. And the poem wasn’t bad at all.
“I can.” For a few minutes I didn’t return the notebook to him.
He handed the pen over to me, and I realized that he was hoping I would write a response. Ridiculous! As a medievalist, I’d read my share of poetry in classical Chinese, but I’d never written a single line of my own. Instead, I wrote out a quatrain that I remembered from Monk Anchin’s diary. Anchin’s poetry was in classical Chinese, so the boy could read it, and his style seemed to suit the atmosphere of the night.
I handed the notebook back to the boy, and he bent over it for a moment—then his head snapped up, and he stared at me open-mouthed. His brow tightened, and he said slowly, deliberately, “That is… very… good,” as if it caused him physical pain to be unable to say more, to express what he was thinking. His English was almost as bad as mine.
“It is not mine,” I admitted, because I could hardly take credit for Anchin’s genius.
“Show me more?”
We wrote back and forth to each other. Some of his poems were his, some were famous verses that even I recognized. I replied to him with Anchin’s poems, some half-remembered Li Bai, and a few poorly turned couplets of my own.
“My name.” He wrote it out and pronounced it for me in Chinese; I had to repeat it several times before he nodded. I wrote my name and did the same for him. He looked so serious while he practiced saying my name.
The crescent moon had risen high above us while we wrote. I pointed to it, and he stared up at it with such earnestness, as if he’d never seen the night sky before. My throat hurt, my chest hurt. The stars reflected in his wide, dark eyes.
Suddenly, I was struck by the overpowering urge to tell him about Anchin. I hadn’t mentioned Anchin or my unseemly obsession with a long-dead monk, not to anyone.
“Seven hundred years ago,” I began. If only he had understood Japanese! It was a struggle to find the words in English. “There was a man. Here.” I had forgotten how to say monk in English.
“At this temple?”
“Yes. He wrote this.” I gestured to the poems I had written. “He saw dreams… every night, many dreams of a woman. He said he would return here—after seven hundred years—today—to meet her.”
His forehead wrinkled in confusion, evidently unable to find the right word in English. He wrote a phrase in Chinese in the notebook, punctuated with a question mark. At first, I didn’t recognize the simplified characters, but then I understood: reincarnation?
“Yes, that,” I answered, pointing to the word in the notebook.
“Do you believe?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know also.” His shoulders hunched forward and he stared down at the aged wood of the veranda: “I had a dream last year. I saw this temple, the moon, the… statue of Guanyin? Like tonight.”
It was impossible, of course, but there were times one wanted to believe in the impossible. I had to acknowledge it: if Anchin had come back, it was in this boy’s body. His great, dark eyes; his bold handwriting; his clumsy, potent poetry; his ungainly hands trembling in his lap as he tried to tell me about his dreams.
Why did he have to be a boy? Why did he have to be born in the wrong country? After seven hundred years waiting, couldn’t we have been spared this?
“It’s late. I should sleep,” I said, because I didn’t know the right words to say to him in English or in any language.
A boy half my age, with acne-pitted cheeks and eyes as big and trusting as a golden retriever’s… It would have been wrong to kiss him. I was old enough to be his mother. So I didn’t—I didn’t even touch his hand.
We sat together on the veranda without speaking, without touching, until the sun rose and the temple bells rang to wake the monks for the morning services.
It would have been rude to skip services after staying at the temple, so I dutifully attended, kneeling in the back of the hall. I hadn’t slept a wink. The scent of incense, the dull gold gleam of the image of Kannon in the altar, and the monotonous chanting of the monks made my head spin.
I had met Anchin—had looked into his eyes and recognized him—and still the world continued to exist. The vulgar world, into which one or both of us had been reborn in the wrong time and place.
After services, the family of Chinese tourists said goodbye to the monks and hauled their bags down off the veranda.
I watched as if in a dream. The father swung open the trunk of the car and began loading up suitcases. The mother opened the passenger side door.
The boy tapped his mother on the shoulder, then ran back to the temple. He vaulted up the stairs to the veranda and stopped short, just a few feet shy of me. And then he stared, as if he were waiting for me to say something.
I tried to memorize his face. This was my last chance.
“Seven hundred years,” I told him. “You will come again in seven hundred years. I will wait.”
Would Seitokuji Temple still stand in the year 2716? Seven hundred years—I couldn’t conceive of it. Even the few decades of solitude remaining in this lifetime were too much to bear.
He stared and stared, and then he shook his head. “I will study Japanese. When I graduate college… I will come here again. Two years. You will wait—you promise?”
I wanted to tell him that that was insane, that he was a young man with promise and a life and country and language of his own. That I was too old for him, old and strange and unbeautiful, not at all worth uprooting a life for. That I was willing to wait until the next lifetime, when perhaps we would be born in the same decade, the same country. That my delusions about Anchin were born of middle-aged loneliness and regret, that he was being swept up in teenage melodrama, that we both knew perfectly well there is no such thing as reincarnation…
But how could I say all that to him in English?
Instead, I said: “Two years, or seven hundred years. Either is okay. I will wait.”
He reached out and touched the back of my hand with his fingertips. And then his mother called for him in Chinese, and he was gone, running off like a deer back to the car.
I watched him climb into the backseat of the car. The door closed. The car drove out of the parking lot and onto the winding road descending the mountain. It disappeared among the trees.