Thursday, 10 January 2008

Keeping Flowers in full bloom

When you approach the Temple of Concern the first thing you notice are the flowers. Whatever the time of year or day, whatever the weather, the flowers are in full bloom. The path that is barely there, handfuls of gravel scattered on thick mud that sucks at your shoes, is bordered by thick, luscious tulips of deep burgundy and purple hues. Heavy bulbous heads stand proudly erect on thick fleshy stems of vibrant green, and never wilt, never die. Beyond them, where the path reaches solid ground and becomes a lattice of wooden slats laid carefully irregularly, there are sprawls of creepers and ground-cover shrubs, all covered in tiny white and blue flowers like tiny jewels wherever you look. Even at night the air is heavy with pollen and scent, and bees buzz all around, their soft drone a gentle hypnosis.

The irregular wooden path, a metaphor that you must puzzle out and understand during your stay at the Temple, leads into the walled gardens that lie before the temple. Trees stand, branches laden with blossom that never falls, and never reveals ripening fruit, and the ground is laid out in checkerboard fashion. In one square bed grows vegetables for the Temple, in the one adjoining it grow yet more flowers. Against the wall jasmine climbs, and its scent is strong enough to be pervasive throughout the Temple. Even when I left the Temple the first time, I found myself wearing scents with a jasmine base, unable to concentrate on the outside world without the reassuring breath of jasmine close to hand.

Inside the temple, flowers that were cut over two hundred years ago and are still fresh and in full bloom today are arranged in vases, urns and sacred vessels. These have lost their fragrance now, but are still visually appealing.

I asked the Temple's custodian, a gaunt man with a black patch over one eye, waist-length brown hair, and a paleness of skin that suggested he never saw sunlight, how the flowers were preserved. He told me that they weren't exactly preserved, not in the sense I meant, and escorted me through the Temple.

The Temple is tall, though it sits on a small footprint. It towers impossibly when you see it for the first time, with turrets growing out of the middle of walls, and then themselves supporting further walls and further turrets, like a forest of incestuous mushrooms. We ascended first, and spiralled in towards the middle, and then descended a little again, and I think we must have reached the dead centre of the temple itself. There, sat in a small empty chamber at a plain wooden desk with nothing on it, was Brother Cantharides.

I started when the custodian told me his name, and the custodian half-smiled.
"It's more of a title than a name," he said. "Cantharides stimulates his mind."

"It's poisonous!" I said, and the custodian nodded.

"This is the five-hundred and thirteenth Brother Cantharides," he said. "Some last longer than others."

"And what is he doing?" I said, puzzled, and a little concerned.

"Keeping the flowers in full bloom."

I left the Temple again that afternoon, and as I reached the gate in the walled garden leading outside, I turned once more and looked at the Temple, the impossible chaos of towers and walls and chambers that somehow stretched upwards without falling and defied gravity and the scouring of the wind and the erosion of the rain, and then I looked at a small figure at the main doors to the Temple, the custodian, and I didn't ask my question, and he didn't answer it. But the answer was as clear in my mind as the ringing of the silver bell in the sanctum of persistent inner peace, and I wondered just how far this all went. And as I struggled across the sticky mud, I asked myself if I would be content, in that situation, with keeping the flowers in full bloom.

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