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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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COMING [section name]

Chapter 1 

MARUYAMA  May 15, 1989   -   AWAKE IN THE DARK 


             I was awakened this morning by a disturbing sound.  My mind groped at it.  In my dream it had been a baby crying.  Then it changed to a woman calling in distress from a distance.  She stood alone on a vast plain.  I moved toward her.  Her dress was a robe and she was a he.  It was Katagiri Roshi crying out and I was trying to get to him - but I couldn't - I couldn't move closer or open my mouth.  I awoke and lay there with an uncomfortable feeling.  Still the sound.  I sat up staring at nothing, hearing that irritating noise.  It came from the darkness - in front of me - from the closet.  A thick-headed moment passed and then I knew that it  was the alarm clock.

I remembered Suzuki Roshi's advice: when the bell rings, get up.  Moving forward, clumsily climbing out of the covers, I got up.  I reached into the blackness and found the clock, fumbled with it and turned it off.  Release.  I climbed back in bed and gave Elin a hug and a kiss, to which she responded with a sweet faint sigh.  I held her for a second and then with some additional effort, got out of bed again and put on the pair of red plaid undershorts and white v-neck tee shirt that were sitting on a low table waiting for that moment.

The kitchen clock said 3:45.  I put the kettle over a flame and walked out to the sink by the washer.  I stopped for a minute, stared blankly, went back to the kitchen, took the kettle off the fire and shook it, added a bit more water, put it back on the burner and went out again to brush my teeth and wash my face.  The bell tolled from Daianji [Sogenji] - the temple is right next door - calling the monks and students to morning service, to the chanting of sutras, dharanis and gathas, calling me and penetrating gently into the houses of our sleeping neighbors.  I flossed my teeth [x] mechanic­ally and again the bell pealed a gentle, resounding F above middle C.  I know because I checked it on an old organ in the front hall.

I went into the living room, which is what we call the front tatami room off the kitchen.  I was dangerously near somnambulation but could direct myself to the sliding closet door, the thick paper-covered fusuma behind which were my robes.  The door was off the track and wouldn't budge.  I kicked it on the bottom and it slid back with ease.

Reaching in I pulled out a white juban, a waist length underkimono.  I put it on, tying its thin strips of white cloth together at my side.  Then on went a grey kimono, the left side crossed over the right, and over it a wide, white sash - an obi - wrapped firmly three times around my waist below the belly button.  In the layers of robes that make up a Japanese monk's outfit, the kimono is a sort of underwear even though it's the second or third layer.

Again the distant bell sounded, keeping me on the move and undistracted.  Next I slid into a dark blue, thick cotton robe with long hanging sleeves.  It is called a koromo and dates back to the early Chinese Zen garb.  Quite often they're black but some Rinzai Zen monks wear these blue ones in the winter and we picked up on them years ago at Zen Center.  They feel like soft denim.  This outer robe is cinched with a loop of black cord that gets doubled up and goes twice around my waist.  I used to tie the two ends off right about where my kidneys are when I was younger, but now, alas, I can barely tie it off at all at middle front, and not because the cord has shrunk.  This robe, and even more so the next one, which is draped over it, are the sacred robes.  They greatly circumscribe one's conduct.  I only wear robes for formal practice like zazen (Zen meditation) and services over at the temple.

At this point I could put on that final robe, called the okesa, or kesa to be less deferential to it.  It's the most formal robe, the monk's robe of ordination, the one that goes back to the beginnings of Buddhism in India when it was the only layer.  Back then it was also used as a tent to sleep in.  It's the same as the robe that's saffron in the more traditional Buddhist countries like Thailand.  Mine's black.  There are yellow and brown and purple ones too but they're for priests with high status.  The original kesa were made from discarded rags or the clothes of the dead.  They are large rectangles made up of many smaller rectangular pieces sewn together with connecting strips.  Although the color and size differ, the method of sewing and the relationships of the parts are very similar in various Buddhist countries.  At the San Francisco Zen Center, as in a few places in Japan, we sew our own by hand.  It takes a long time.

The kesa I have here in Japan was a gift to me from sweet, wonderful deceased Joshin-san, a sewing nun with a partially missing ring finger on her left hand.  She cut it off one day when she was younger - to prove the sincerity of her request to change teachers.  Her kind tiny hands had cut and sewn my kesa while I was the head monk at Tassajara, a Zen monastery in the mountains off Big Sur.  That was fifteen years or so back.  It's like having a flag sewn by Betsy Ross.  I treasure it but I don't wear it now.  I leave it in the back of the closet.  I couldn't tell you how many rules and regulations there are for this robe in the Soto-shu, the largest sect of Zen - like not keeping it beneath other garments in the back of the closet, for one.

I maintain a more low-key posture and wear a rakusu instead.  It looks like a black bib but is actually a miniature kesa that straps around the neck.  It's less formal but it does the job.  It's old, tea stained and in need of mending.  On the back side are some kanji, Chinese characters, written by Katagiri about twenty years ago.  Suzuki was dying when he ordained me, so he couldn't do the ceremony.  Katagiri officiated for him and also wrote on the back of my rakusu.  On the time-soiled white backing it says "no end" in the center, up to down.  To the left is written "enlightenment" and to the right, "delusion."  I looked at this old rakusu while I was standing by the closet in the dimness of the living room, light coming in from the kitchen where the tea kettle was puffing out the first hints of a whistle.  No end to delusion.  That sounds right.  No end to enlightenment.  That's good to hear.  Suzuki used to say that there was no end to suffering, which made sense to me as I plodded back into the kitchen.

I poured boiling water into the small ceramic tea pot that held last night's genmaicha, green tea with some roasted brown rice in it.  I stood waiting for the tea to steep and reached into my kimono sleeve to make sure I had my sutra book down in it.  It was there.  I poured the tea into a big blue porcelain sushi restaurant cup.  The clock said six till four - time to go.  I added some cold water to the tea and gulped it.  It was warm and felt good on the way down.

Twisting around I adjusted my robes.  A thought occurred to me and I laughed.  No matter how ridiculous my feeble efforts, by wearing these robes I am partici­pating in an ancient tradition that goes all around the world and back for at least twenty-five hundred years.  The outer layer is from India, the next was added a millennium or so later by the Chinese, further in are the Japanese kimono and juban, and below it all is my American underwear.

An international outfit, I mused, heading off to the temple in the darkness.