The zendo was especially quiet that afternoon as many monastic practitioners perfectly aligned themselves in silence. They each sat in the traditional zazen position, a prescribed cross-legged posture, while all attempting to uncover their ultimate truth. To outsiders, zazen appeared to just be a way to sit. But for these dedicated men and women, it meant the stoppage of all judgmental thinking as one had to allow any ideas, thoughts, or images to pass by without any sort of involvement in them. Little known fact: this is precisely why they can’t get married or have kids; it just wouldn’t work.
The abbot sat at the head of the zendo, on a slightly elevated altar. While considered the most enlightened of the group, he was also the monk responsible for the administration of the temple. So for example, when the residents became unhappy with the obscene amounts of rice and pickled vegetables they were forced to consume—he was the one to hear about it.
They were engaged in what was called sesshin—a period of intensive meditation. It was the time of day in which they devoted themselves entirely and exclusively to zazen practice, which is why it was extremely unusual to see a lay student walking down the meditation room, towards the abbot.
The student placed her hand on the superior’s shoulder and the abbot, still without judgment (which must have been difficult) looked up. The look of concern on the young woman’s face made the monk realize some issue of utmost importance had arisen.
The student and the abbot stood outside, at the edge of their upstate property. A paved street separated the temple from what was not theirs—woodlands that the monks oftentimes walked in relaxation. The woods were still present but a new oak sign had been planted into the ground. It read: Pleasure Palace Coming Soon!
If the abbot’s diet were not so properly balanced, he would have fainted.
The very next week construction began on The Pleasure Palace. And as soon as it did, the monastery’s abbot walked directly across the street to confront his new neighbor.
To his surprise, however, he saw an elderly man dressed in traditional Buddhist robes.
“Excuse me, but are you the one responsible for the creation of this business?”
The elder responded, “Yes I am. And I see that you are the abbot from across the street. I thank you for your dedication and sacrifice to our great tradition.”
The abbot was at a loss for words.
“Yes, thank you; you’re welcome. It has been a privilege but I am a little confused as to the nature of your enterprise.”
“You speak of The Pleasure Palace.”
“Yes. You could imagine my astonishment to read that sign for the first time.”
“I know; it’s quite the sight. It’s funny I was going to put up four of these sights!” The elder laughed and then continued, “Get it!?”
“Yes, I’m very aware of the legendary accounts of the four sights,” he answered with little amusement.
“Ah, the West has influenced my humor, I must admit.”
“Again though, just to clarify, what will be going on in your palace of pleasure?”
“The preceding experiences to immersing oneself in the Buddhist tradition.”
“I don’t understand. That is precisely what we do here already, at the monastery.”
“No, I think not.”
“Then what are these preceding experiences that you speak of?”
“I have been a Zen priest for many years and yes, I was even an abbot myself. I spent decades buried in a temple, engaging in rigorous self-control all the while seeking insight into the nature of things. I emerged eventually, and re-acquainted myself once more with the outside world. What I found was disconnect, even within our own. And so I began to wonder—what truly separates all of us from the greatness that was Buddha himself? And during meditation one evening, the answer came to me—The Pleasure Palace.”
“The Pleasure Palace was a place of confinement,” the abbot retorted. “The king built it to stop the prince from thinking about unhappiness. Only healthy and young people were allowed in the palace and its garden.”
“Yes. The king did not want his son the prince, Buddha, to know that everybody gets sick, grows old, and dies.”
“But it obviously didn’t work as the prince was not happy and wished to know what life was like for those living outside the palace walls.”
“But it did work—just not as the king intended it to. Buddha was 29 when he left his palace. He had 29 years to immerse himself in the luxuries and amenities of earthly pleasures. The saturation of these experiences is what allowed him to never thirst for those base desires again. To quote a phrase—been there, done that.”
“And so your pleasure palace will aim to do just that? Engage in earthly pleasures, almost as a purge, as a means to ready oneself for a life of discipline?”
“Precisely. And how convenient, there is a monastery directly across the street for when they are ready!”
The abbot rubbed his chin in thought before asking, “And what kind of earthy pleasures will go on here?”
“Oh, all kinds!” the elder enthusiastically answered. “Dancers and singers will fill our halls with fervor and excitement every evening!”
“What kind of dancers?”
The elder winked and slyly responded, “All kinds.”
The abbot loosened his robe as if that were even possible and inquired, “And if I may ask, if I were to need a release myself, a purge if you will, might I be able to come over and experience the delights of The Pleasure Palace as well?”
The elder generously placed his hand on the abbot’s shoulder. With a warm smile and a wise resonance he responded, “Sorry. Young people only.”
And so the construction continued and soon enough the monks at the monastery could hear the moans, laughs, and screams next door, which were always coupled by a constant thumping vibration.
The abbot was, at first, very worried how this would affect his practitioners, but then he noticed a striking change. Everyone’s zazen skills, including his own, were sharpening; the obstacle of The Pleasure Palace had forced the monks to dig deep down and truly master the stoppage and temptations of passing thoughts. As a matter of fact, many of the residents started leaving the monastery altogether, citing—finally after years of intense study—the unveilings of their ultimate truths. No one is quite sure where they went, although it has been rumored that many of them were able to lead more traditional lives with husbands, wives and kids; it is said some of these brave souls even grew their hair back without ever feeling the need, toddlers and all, to tear it out.
And one day, when the abbot entered the zendo, he realized he was only one left.
The monastery indeed grew lonely but the abbot remained steadfast and felt comfort in knowing that it was only a matter of time until the inhabitants at The Pleasure Palace had their fill of comforts. The abbot assured himself the monastery would flourish once more (usually while solitarily eating his rice and pickled vegetables). When that occasion was nearing, however, he was unsure, as they certainly didn’t sound like they were slowing down any time soon.
Gregory Cioffi (SAG-AFTRA, AEA) is a professional actor and a published writer. His works have been published in The Feral Press, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, The Five-Two, Aphelion, and Allegory Ridge. Six of these stories have been archived in Yale Univeristy’s Beinecke Collection (Rare Books and Manuscript Library). Greg’s first film, The Museum of Lost Things, just recently won awards at The Long Island International Film Expo, Global Shorts, and The Madrid International Film Festival. Image: "Portrait of Hosokawa Takakuni", Kanō Motonobu, 1543