sutras – poetry by luke kurtis


when i stayed
in Tokyo
i took walks
every day
with my camera

one day
i found myself
at a hushed temple
tucked behind a wall
in a quiet neighborhood

i admired the architecture
from the outside
which is all one can do
at most temples in Japan

but then i saw a genkan
off to one side
with a shoehorn
and getabako
—signs of welcome—
but still
or even uninviting
to western eyes
with nothing posted to say
either “come inside”
or “no guests please”

the cubbies were empty
so no visitors were there
but i assumed
it was ok to
remove my shoes
place them neatly
and enter

and so i did
thankful my socks were new
and had no holes
as i put my shoes away
then pushed the shoji screen
just far enough
to step through

the wooden floor
was soft and smooth
and felt soothing
to my feet

i shuffled
farther along
quietly down a hall
lined by blond wood
and delicate screens
calm light dancing
like petals in a breeze

i emerged into a garden
with stone lanterns
and green moss
under shade of leaves
and pine

i heard someone coming
when a monk passed behind me
and turned my way

i nodded
he bowed

i crossed a bridge
to the other side
of the small garden
and found myself
in the main hall
tatami underneath
like soft grass in spring
glorious screens with birds
panels with gold leaf

i felt at peace
still unsure
if i was supposed to be here

but i took a seat
joined my hands
and gazed
toward Buddha

his face was
—without shadow—
eyes hovering
between worlds
a calm expression
of accord
light and life

i said a prayer
for my family
who i had been apart
from for so long
while living in the east

then i noticed a stack
of booklets
printed only
in Japanese

the cover was red
and opened
to the right
like an accordion

i knew it was
a sacred text
—a sutra—
from the Chinese
with hiragana
which i could read
and chant
so i put it
in my bag
a bit of Buddha
to go

but later
back home
when i pulled it out
and used my phone
to translate
the words i didn’t know

i found it said
“do not remove”
right across the front

what could i do
with stolen sutras?

i did not mean
to steal
i thought it was
free to take
like the pamphlets
and tracts
in so many
churches and temples
in other countries

but in Japan
things are different
and my Japanese
is not good enough
to always know the way

to this day
i wonder
if i was supposed
to be in that hall
at all

or had i
from the path

and maybe the monk
who saw me
just didn’t know
how to say

“do not enter”

but perhaps
his bow was a welcome

and i found myself
where i was
supposed to be

luke kurtis is an interdisciplinary writer, editor, and artist. His books include Angkor Wat: poetry and photography and Springtime in Byzantium. is his long-term art and publishing-as-practice project where he helms all aspects of the studio while collaborating with a range of artists and writers to realize their projects. He lives and works in New York City.

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