Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 8
Family and Death
Most problems we create because we don't know ourselves.
Two small creeks plunge down the steep mountain past either side of Rinso-in and converge in front of the temple at a point watched over by a row of old, merciful Jizo statues decked in faded red bibs. The rainy season was three months off, but in late March of 1952 the rocky creek beds were swelling with gushing spring runoff from the wooded and tea-hedged slopes above. Around the stones and water, small yellow butterflies danced.
The gardens and woods surrounding Rinso-in were lush, overflowing with diverse shades of green and laced with the wide stretching webs of large orange and black spiders. In the back pond around a large mossy stone, frogs croaked beneath the lilies. Fat hornets buzzed around the dark wooden posts and beams of the sprawling old building. Under the extensive overhang of the straw thatch roof, swallows swooped in and out, building nests. In front, under an eave, slept the family dog, an old mongrel.
In the mud of drained rice fields below, women and men stooped, planting the year's rice crop. The nights were still cold, but the days were becoming warm. At times the smell of the morning's catch would blow in from the fishing boats docked by the bay. Yaizu was buzzing. The streets were full of women going shopping, men doing business, and children out of school on spring vacation. It was a good season in a good year. The occupation was finally over, the wounds of the war were almost forgotten, and Japan was beginning to feel good about itself again, as it enjoyed money, food, progress, and modernization. Cars and bicycles covered the streets. Everyone was working. The plum trees were in bloom.
Before sunrise Shunryu had risen, sat zazen, and performed the morning service in the buddha hall. A monk named *Otsubo joined him. Otsubo was thumping the mokugyo while they recited the Heart Sutra. Shunryu's chanting was soft, almost muffled. The choppy old Sino-Japanese words moved in a steady rhythm in contrast to Otsubo's erratic voice, which rose and fell in intensity and pitch. Shunryu stopped the service repeatedly to correct Otsubo's handling of the wooden drum--through lack of talent or stubbornness he could not seem to get it right. After service, which concluded amidst the statues and memorial plaques of the dark founder's hall behind the main altar, Otsubo swept the front courtyard, and Shunryu swept his way down the hard-packed dirt road to the farmhouses, as he did every day. Then he returned, bamboo twig broom in hand.
Otsubo was about thirty. He was there not because of any strong tie to Shunryu or Rinso-in, but because he had nowhere else to go. If he'd come on his own, the customary one night's hospitality for a traveling monk would have fulfilled Shunryu's obligation, but he had been sent by Kishizawa, who had no work for him at Gyokuden-in. And he was just too eccentric and uncontrollable to function smoothly with Kishizawa's disciplined monks. Shunryu's accepting nature would work better for the out-of-step Otsubo. Even Shunryu had at first suggested that Otsubo go elsewhere, but he couldn't deny Kishizawa's second request and reluctantly took on the strange monk. Everyone would have been happier without him; something about his presence was unsettling.
At seven in the morning, smoke poured out the opened shoji doorway from the unvented wood-burning stove in the kitchen and hovered over the red and gold carp in the kitchen pond. Chie and Kinu Obaa-san put the breakfast out: steaming hot white rice with raw egg, scallions, and seaweed, a four-inch sardine for each person, a gob of *natto (a sticky, fermented soybean paste), *miso soup with a cube of tofu, and green tea. It was more than they'd had for days at a time during the war and the years of scarcity that followed.
The women sat at the large, low table with the children: Yasuko, seventeen and in her next to last year of high school; Hoitsu, twelve and taller than his father; Omi, ten, the quiet, artistic girl; Otohiro, seven and just starting school. The monk Otsubo was uncomfortable with others and ate by himself on the steps leading down to the bath area. Everyone gave him plenty of space.
Shunryu also ate alone, at his own table a short distance from the family. It was an old patriarchal custom. Everyone was quiet. Periodically Chie would pour tea for him and offer more rice. Shunryu responded with monosyllables or short gestures. After breakfast every day he said, "*Ohayo gozaimasu" and his family responded to his "good morning" in kind, their bodies bent in respect. He would wash his own bowls--no one else could touch them. Then he went to his room to get ready for the day. Chie put his cloth-wrapped box lunch into his bicycle basket. He was off down the hill with the equivalent of "*Be back later," Chie calling back a response and tilting her body in farewell. These would be the last words they would ever speak to each other.
The children soon went out with lunches prepared by Obaa-san, their grandmother. As there was no school, the girls went to the shopping street to do errands and meet friends, a thirty-minute walk. Hoitsu and his little brother went down to the flats by the river with other neighborhood boys to fly kites and throw rocks in the water. They didn't get out to play much. Even today their father might have wanted them to stay home and study, but he was too busy to keep up with them, and he would be in town till late afternoon. The children would be gone most of the day as well. They didn't like to be around the temple when Otsubo was there.
Otsubo hadn't gone into town to work as he sometimes did. The day before he had helped do a memorial service for a family at Zuioji, Sugiyama's temple. It had not been clear when Otsubo had first arrived that he could handle that sort of responsibility. Sugiyama, who had assisted at Rinso-in since 1937, said that the first time Otsubo had shown up at his temple, he heard someone calling from outside. When he went out, Otsubo was on the ground rubbing his head into the dirt saying, "Please be good to me."
If he wasn't doing something weird, he'd find small ways to express his contrarian nature. At Sugiyama's father's funeral Shunryu admonished Otsubo for pouring his miso soup over his rice. Combining dishes was not proper form, which is especially important to priests. Still, Shunryu was generally tolerant of Otsubo's oddities. He allowed the strange monk to wear the civilian uniform from the war days. It made him look like a soldier. Otsubo had been in the army during the war, and people thought that was what had made him so peculiar. He was considered to be a war burn-out, a shell-shocked monk.
Nobody wanted him at Rinso-in. The family resented having his dark cloud floating around the place. Chie had spoken to Shunryu about him a number of times. She said he gave her the chills. He especially frightened the children, who were afraid of his crazy eyes and had told their father so. He said that was no way to talk about another person, and finally he just told them to shut up. He spoke more politely to Obaa-san when she mentioned her uneasiness with Otsubo. It couldn't be helped, he told her. Fine for him to say:
he was gone most the time, and they were stuck with Otsubo. Chie might be in charge of day-to-day life at Rinso-in, but Shunryu had the final say.
Otsubo had first come to Rinso-in in the fall but hadn't stayed long. He'd gotten into an argument with Chie and walked off. After a couple of fruitless months searching for a temple that would keep him, he returned. Shunryu took him back in without a word. Otsubo tended to hang out in back behind the racks with the laundry drying poles, where he would cut up firewood for cooking and the evening bath. He wasn't much help inside the temple, but maybe that was for the best. He would go into the woods, bring back branches, and cut them up with a hatchet, or sit on his heels, smoking cigarettes and tossing the butts into the creek. One thing that particularly infuriated Chie was his habit of teasing the dog by blowing cigarette smoke in its face.
It was a quiet day at Rinso-in, Thursday, March 27, 1952. No visits or business were planned. No one there but Chie, her mother, and Otsubo. Even the old caretaker had gone up into the mountains looking for mushrooms. Chie and Obaa-san kept working. Food had to be prepared, tatami swept, bedding aired and whacked, deliverymen met, flowers picked and arranged at altars. Chie took care in selecting flowers from the surrounding gardens and hillsides, lush in the early days of spring. Like Yoshi before her, she specialized in *ikebana flower arranging, and her aesthetic sensibility was evident at each altar and entryway.
A little before three o'clock, Chie heard the dog barking in the genkan. She was as sensitive to his sounds as she was to the cries of her children and could tell that the dog was in distress. She went down to see what it was--probably Otsubo torturing him again. So inexcusable.
Our human destiny is to have suffering.
The *Tanakas, the couple whose memorial service Otsubo had assisted with the day before, were walking up the road with gifts in hand for him and the Suzukis. They were more than a little unsettled to meet Otsubo moaning and staggering down the road like a drunk, blood splattered on his face and shirt, and more blood streaming down from his neck. He mumbled something about going to the police station. Then they heard pitiful cries for help coming from the temple. It was Obaa-san calling.
They ran into the genkan and saw a terrible sight. Chie lay against the wall by the wood stove, her whole body covered in blood. Obaa-san was putting a thin towel over her daughter's head, futilely trying to stop the bleeding. Next to her the dog's limp body lay in a pool of blood, and not far away lay a bloody hatchet. Mr. Tanaka ran to the phone and called for a doctor. Neighbors rushed up to see what was happening.
A priest named *Sone had taken the train from Shizuoka and was early for a weekly English class with Shunryu. He flew off on a bicycle to Zuioji to tell the Sugiyamas to come right away. Down in the village the word was quickly spreading. But still no doctor had arrived.
Hoitsu and Otohiro were playing by the river and had seen Sugiyama riding over the bridge on his bicycle as if in a great hurry. The boys knew he could only have been going to Rinso-in, so they followed out of curiosity. They came up the road through the village, passed the bell tower into the courtyard filled with neighbors, and went inside to witness the horrible sight. They watched as their mother was carried outside.
Yasuko and her little sister, Omi, were walking up the road when a neighbor ran to them and said, "Something horrible has happened to your mother! Go quickly!" The girls ran to find their mother lying unconscious with Obaa-san tending to her. Blood was everywhere. They stood with their brothers, helpless and overwhelmed.
In town, Shunryu was stopped by a merchant who had heard rumors flying. He raced back on his bicycle to Rinso-in to find a police car in the driveway. Then he saw his wife, groaned loudly, and kneeled down before her.
Soon he and Obaa-san were in a police car following the ambulance to the hospital. Otsubo had struck Chie seven times in the face and head with the hatchet. There was nothing the doctors could do, and gradually her vital signs faded. Shunryu and Obaa-san were with Chie when she died at eight that evening.
A grieving and shattered Shunryu returned home and gathered his numb children together in the family room. He spoke as he had never spoken to them before, with humility, softness, and overflowing sadness. He told them that their mother was dead, that she had died at the hands of Otsubo. Then he said, "Please do not hate this man who has killed your mother. Rather you should hate me, because I didn't listen to her or to Obaa-san or to you when you all warned me about him." And he added, "From now on let us be together."
He continued to confess responsibility for his wife's death to everyone he spoke to. "It was my fault," he said to Amano, his godfather and confidant. "I was too stubborn. I wouldn't bend. I was so wrong."
Suetsune-san arrived at Rinso-in to pay his respects. He started crying as soon as he saw his teacher. "She took such good care of me when I lived here. She fed me when food was scarce and washed my clothes when there was so much to do." Shunryu nodded, in tears. "It was my fault. I asked her to do what she could not do; I made her try to do the impossible."
Obaa-san silently acknowledged Shunryu's confessions and sincere apologies. She did not alter her respectful way of relating to him. Her sadness was great, but she had a strong inner core and would endure this tragedy for the sake of the family. Her first child had drowned in a river when still small, a son had died as a soldier in the war, and now Chie, the last, had been murdered at the age of thirty-nine by a monk. Her strength flowed out to the whole family as Kinu Obaa-san stepped with composure into the position of nurturer of the temple's interior, encouraging Shunryu to continue his outside duties. To dwell on her daughter's death in bitterness was not her way and would dishonor her daughter's life.
Hoitsu had taken to heart his father's admonition not to hate Otsubo. Father is right, he thought. But neither could he hate his father. Hoitsu rather saw the tragedy as the family's fate, something beyond his understanding.
His older sister, Yasuko, did not adjust with such philosophical detachment. At first she had been too confused to speak or to think. When she finally realized what had happened, she saw her mother's murder as her father's fault. The fact that he took the blame did not bring her mother back, and she could not forgive him. He had become warmer, but when she had a bad dream and called out for her mother, he scolded her harshly, with the same tough attitude he had always shown. He was making an effort, but Obaa-san was the one who could come closest to filling the vacuum created by Chie's death. Yasuko's position as the oldest child was now all the more important. She determined to be strong for her younger brothers and sister. She cried least of all.
Little Otohiro didn't think about blame or cause--he just wanted his mother, and he wept and clung to Obaa-san. Omi, the third child, the most vulnerable and dreamy, became even more quiet and withdrew into herself.
In an outpouring of sympathy, people came to the temple to console the family and to thank them for Chie's good deeds. For years they would continue to remind the children of how much their mother was loved in the community, how much she had contributed, and how much she would be missed. She had always kept food in the basket of her bicycle to hand out to the hungry; she had served her husband and guests in sickness as in health. Her life had been a full and useful one.
Otsubo was tried for the murder of Chie Suzuki, acquitted by reason of insanity, and sent to a mental institution.
The night of Chie's death, Shunryu put his futon in the room in which his children slept. They all huddled together in silent anguish. He would continue to sleep in the same room with them for some time. And even though the children would still be raised by Obaa-san, he was less distant. He would hold Otohiro more, and listen more attentively to what they had to say. Shunryu's life had been deeply changed, his heart softened, and his ears opened. He would always harbor a deep pain, unexpressed in words.
Our way has no end and no beginning,
and from this way we cannot escape.
Hoitsu's parents had always told him, "Study! Study!" But he wanted to play. He would sneak away from his schoolwork to join the farmers' children in the fields below. He wanted to be a farmer, not a priest, but he assumed he had no choice.
In the summers Hoitsu was sent to Rinso-in's parent temple, *Sekiun-in, for a few weeks to practice like a monk. He also went to Sekiun-in in the winter for sesshin. The master there was kind to him and didn't hit him with the stick. He liked it better there than at home, except when they shaved his head--that embarrassed him.
At home he would just get a close-cropped haircut like the other boys. At home his father would call, "Hoitsu, get up!" early each morning. He would hold on to the covers, but Shunryu would pull them off from the bottom. Sometimes his father would drag him off to zazen, and afterward Hoitsu would have to read the chants while still rubbing sleep from his eyes. He didn't at all like the idea of becoming a priest.
Then one day he was bicycling home from town with his father, and Shunryu said, "You don't have to be a priest you know."
"What? I don't?"
"No. It's all right if you study hard and become something else, but study hard."
When the words sank in, Hoitsu understood that Shunryu's plans were not built around having his son succeed him. So now what was he going to be? Memories of his dying mother colored his every thought about the future. There were some simple books on Buddhism in the temple, and he would look at their covers now and then. Finally he read one, then another, and thought about his life.
Now and then Shunryu took Hoitsu to hear Kishizawa lecture. Hoitsu was twelve years old and didn't understand what was being said, but he knew he was hearing a great teacher, just as Shunryu had known when he heard Oka Sotan as a boy. Something began to rub off. One day Kishizawa spent some time with Hoitsu, showing him a seashell. Shunryu and Noiri stood off to the side and left them alone. When it was time to leave, Kishizawa said, "Would you like to have that seashell?" Hoitsu said yes, took it home, and hung it in a special spot.
Kishizawa was a lover of books. He read and wrote many books, and when he traveled and met other Buddhists he would ask them to show him some text he might not have seen before. Kishizawa's only regret toward the end of his life was that he had supported Japan's militarism before and during the war. Ian Kishizawa died in 1955. He had helped Shunryu refine his speech and thinking and deepen his precepts and zazen--bounteous gifts to share with all people, not just with priests. It is said that Zen is the way beyond words and letters. Shunryu would always hold even that to be a half-truth after his experience with Kishizawa.
Sincere practice means to have sincere concern for people.
Our practice is based on our humanity.
In March of 1954, a fishing boat from Yaizu returned with a crew of critically ill fishermen who had been contaminated with a heavy dose of radioactive fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini atoll, and one of the men had died. Before the crew realized what the problem was, their fish had entered the marketplace. Tons and tons of fish had to be discarded. A general panic seized Japan, and rumors spread that all ocean life had been contaminated. Anti-American rhetoric ran high--this was seen as the third atomic bomb, even worse in a way than the first two, because they had been at war then. The Americans were not apologizing or admitting any wrongdoing. At that time Shunryu became involved in some meetings with Americans and locals. His voice was small, but when he had the chance to talk he encouraged people to calm down. He tried to counter the hysteria and self-righteousness he saw erupting everywhere. To him most of the rhetoric was just a confused political game.
Some saw him as always taking the American side, but when a march was called to protest American nuclear testing, he decided to go. People around the temple told him not to, warning that he would be discredited by being associated with communists. The Japanese Communist Party, a relatively tame organization with members in the Diet, made a big issue of the Bikini incident. Shunryu said he was happy to walk with anyone who opposed nuclear weapons; it didn't have anything to do with political beliefs. It was just a chance to make a small statement for peace. He wasn't an outspoken leader but walked unobtrusively with others, doing what he thought was right.
*Masaji Yamada, one of the senior danka of Rinso-in who lived just below the temple, had watched Shunryu carefully through the years. He was from the oldest and most conservative family in the village. Masaji didn't criticize Shunryu for going on the march.
"Everyone knows he is a pacifist," he said, "and especially pro-American at that, but he does not force his views on others. Like So-on, Shunryu-san is a priest as a priest should be. He recites the sutras well and isn't preachy."
Just below Rinso-in at a bend in the creek, right at the spot where Shunryu would stop sweeping the dirt road every morning, a danka family named Yamamura lived in a pristine thatch-roofed farmhouse. Young Masao Yamamura was often out in front of his home, and Shunryu would come over to say hello. It was 1956; Masao was twenty-two.
The young man treasured the opportunity to talk to Shunryu. As a boy he had looked forward to the day when he would be old enough to join Shunryu's post-war program for youth, but that program had ended in 1951. Nevertheless, he felt he was learning a lot from Shunryu in these occasional morning talks. To Masao there was no one else like him.
It was from Shunryu that Masao first heard the word "internationalism." Shunryu told his young friend that the Japanese must learn from their mistakes in the thirties and forties and must help the world get beyond the Cold War. Shunryu didn't say a lot at one time, but he chose his words carefully, and in time they added up.
"We must educate ourselves about the ways and languages of other peoples," Shunryu said one day. "We must think globally and not be limited by national boundaries, in order to achieve world peace."
At times he'd mention his old yearning. "I want to leap the border."
"Why is that?"
"I want to do more with my life than what I'm doing, more than look after the danka here."
"Where would you go?"
"Abroad, maybe to America."
"What do you want to do there?"
"Teach Buddhism, for world peace. If I could do that, my life would be fulfilled."
Masao knew that Shunryu was expressing ideas that he didn't necessarily tell to his family or fellow priests; most people's worldviews were narrow. They, as well as the danka, had faith in him and he in them, but they didn't necessarily know his dreams.
Aperson who falls on the earth, stumbling on a stone, will stand
up by means of the same earth they fell on. You complain because you think earth is the problem, having caused your fall. Without the earth,
you wouldn't fall, but you wouldn't stand up either. Falling and
standing up are both great aids given to you by the earth. Because
of mother earth you can continue your practice. You are practicing
in the zendo of the great earth, which is the problem. Problems are
actually your zendo.
At Seison the potter's home Shunryu liked to take off his outer robe, lie down on the tatami, even drink some sake, though he had to be careful, because it didn't take much to put him to sleep. He was known as a weak drinker, when he drank at all. If Seison wasn't there Shunryu would just say to his son, "Excuse me, I feel like I'm at my parents' home," then grab a pillow and fall asleep in his white kimono. There weren't many customers coming in. When Shunryu saw a piece of pottery he really liked, he'd take out his wallet and leave all the money he had for Seison, saving only what he needed for train fare. He never had much money, so he usually paid less than the cup or bowl was worth. Once when Seison's son pointed out that Shunryu had underpaid for a plate, Seison sternly told him not to regard Shunryu as an ordinary person.
"How nice it would be if all customers were like him," Seison said. "I wouldn't have to be in the awkward position of having to tell them the price. But don't confuse him with laypeople."
Seison was ten years older than Shunryu, and Shunryu treated him like a senior monk. After the war when Shunryu had not attended Seison's pottery class because he didn't have any money, Seison had scolded him, saying, "This isn't just something you buy for your own pleasure." So Shunryu kept coming, whether he had money or not, and considered Seison one of his teachers.
When Seison showed Shunryu a beautiful large pot that bore his characteristic splash of crimson, he told Shunryu he wasn't going to sell it. "Good," said Shunryu, "I'll take it," and he did. Later when Seison and his son were visiting Rinso-in, he brought a wooden storage box he had made for the pot. Shunryu asked Seison if he would give the pot a name and write it in sumi on the box. "Pot stolen by a monk," Seison wrote, to Shunryu's delight.
The ashes of Seison's oldest son, who had been killed in the war, were finally received from abroad. Shunryu came the day before the funeral in his work clothes to help with preparations. The next day he wore his most beautiful robes to conduct the ceremony. It was one service that meant a great deal to Shunryu, but that wasn't true of them all.
As had been his fate since he was thirteen, Shunryu had to do endless memorial services in people's homes. He would stay afterward to eat fancy meals and accept the family's contributions tucked into white envelopes tied with black ribbon. In the evenings he would sometimes end up in noodle shops and bars with his friends. Shunryu was well respected and popular in Yaizu, but his life consisted of either priestly duties or socializing with friends. It was not the life he had dreamed of as an idealistic young man.
On most days Shunryu would do the morning service and then set off to town on his bicycle. Unless there was a funeral or meeting to attend, he would frequently not return till after dinner or even after bedtime. He had some responsibilities at nearby training temples, but all he did was help out with ceremonies or with the training of boys who were eager to do what was expected so they could take over their fathers' temples and leave the rigors of practice behind as soon as possible. Inevitably he would get involved with the problems that go with such positions--temple politics. He was disgusted not only with the current state of Zen as he saw it, but also with his own situation. He had some good friends among the temple priests and in the hierarchy, but there was nothing he could put his heart into.
The children still didn't see him much, although he ate breakfast with his sons and Obaa-san and wasn't as distant and strict as he had been before his wife's murder. Hoitsu had been ordained as a monk and would soon go to Komazawa University. Otohiro was still in elementary school. Yasuko was at college in Tokyo.
Omi no longer lived at home. About three years after her mother died she had started to act strangely. She would laugh at inappropriate times or wander away from home and have to be found and brought back. She couldn't apply herself in school and got caught shoplifting. Finally her behavior became so unsettling that Shunryu consulted the family physician. Dr. Ozawa recommended that Omi go away for treatment; he thought her family could no longer take care of her. By 1957 she had been in an institution for several years. Now and then Shunryu or her siblings would visit her.
Now Shunryu had two kindergartens to tend to, and Mitsu was principal of both. In April of 1954 he had opened a branch of the Tokiwa Kindergarten near the train station. In a brand-new building with living quarters for Mitsu, a second kindergarten had been created by popular request. He would see Mitsu in the mornings when he went to greet the kindergartens' teachers.
After stopping at the kindergartens, Shunryu would visit with friends. If there were no other obligations, he would go to Amano's hotel to socialize, drink tea, and maybe play go. He would go to Zoun-in, his old temple, and visit with Kendo and his son Shoko, who had reluctantly decided to become a monk. Before leaving Mori he would always drop by Seison's home-studio. Some of Shunryu's friends, like Amano, threw business parties at Rinso-in, which were attended by geisha. Shunryu attended and enjoyed himself but ultimately didn't want that kind of life.
In many ways Shunryu had a full and useful life, but it wasn't fulfilling enough for him. He could not be satisfied unless he was practicing and teaching the way of the many great teachers he had met and studied with. He had to pay his debt of gratitude to them, pass on the torch he had received, and engage with people in a deeper way. He started to get irritated at the way people would say "Hi Hojo-san!" when he rode by on his bicycle. It made him feel marginalized and meaningless, exchanging greetings with no real relationship. Just as when he lived with Miss Ransom, he again saw himself drifting off course. He had become the temple priest he didn't want to be--busy with many responsibilities yet coasting along, with life going by, stuck in Yaizu.
Next: Chapter Nine
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