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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 4

MARUYAMA - May 16, 1989  -   GANGBUSTER ZEN 


I close the front door and enter the cool darkness of our garden in the wee hours.  A maple branch brushes my head as I manage the brief path of stepping stones.  It's still too early for spider webs.  A step to the asphalt drive and a hop over the foot-wide mizo (drainage ditch) bring me to the edge of the bamboo grove in Daianji's [Sogenji] grounds.  To my right, by the stone wall in the mizo, a night heron stands still in the sludge.  Skirting the bamboo I cross the sandy soil past knee-high stones and stone shadows cast by a distant flickering florescent light.  On the central walk by a stone bridge in the dark I hear the deep honking of an ushigaeru, a sumo-sized bullfrog that calls from beneath the flat lotus leaves in the water of the pond below.  It splashes abruptly in the blackness, fleeing to the bottom.

I walk in the shadows under the massive sammon, the interior "mountain gate," with its dusty old life-sized wooden carvings of human and semihuman saints slowly decaying in the sealed upper chamber where the monks visit and chant to them on New Years day.  Straight ahead, I see the lights of the hondo, the main hall.  An uguisu, nightingale, calls from the surrounding pine trees.  The morning bell reverberates through the temple grounds and out to the sleeping homes.

The sputter and put-puts of a motor scooter can be heard approaching from the street outside.  It might seem an unwelcome intrusion into the natural sounds, but it's just another regular visitor of the dewy dim morning.  It enters the quiet temple compound following its headlight along dirt paths to deliver the morning paper.  The scooter putters out and away, down a narrow side street.

The hondo at Daianji is even bigger than the sammon, with a two-tiered tile roof that sits on it like an oversized hat.  All the buildings of Hogoji in Kyushu would fit inside this one hall of Daianji.  The light from the hondo shines through six large bell-shaped windows with thick lattice work.  Two stone lanterns, as tall as I am, stand on either side of the walk.  While I'm waiting I like to stand before the lanterns and line up their silhouettes within the glow from two of the bell-shaped windows.  When I get them centered just right, the entire form of the building sits in my head in a way that I quite like.  Sometimes I pretend that I have discovered a secret position that can unlock the mysteries of the mind.  One morning when I stood so, the right half of me fell off into deep space.  The left side didn't follow for some reason.  Maybe it wasn't lined up right.

A cloud passes between the moon and me, over the hondo and down the connected buildings and walled-in gardens.  Large wooden doors in the hall leading to the hondo swing open releasing light.  Footsteps come from the corner between the bell tower and the entrance to the kitchen.  It is the women coming from their rooms.

On the other side a hand bell rings and a procession of men comes from the zendo (zazen hall) area behind me, their hands together at the solar plexus in the position called shashu.  They follow a path through the pines and swing around in front of the hondo.  Their heads are all bent down watching the uneven stones in the path and I join the end of the line.  We leave our sandals on the floor inside the entranceway by the wall, and quickly step onto the walkway and up the stairs into the hondo to chant the morning sutras.


Three and a half centuries back, Lord Imeda supported the construction of Daianji.  According to Taizen, a monk from San Antonio, the temple was built to be stately and expansive, not only because Imeda was a benefactor of his faith but also to show off his wealth and power, though apparently the venture crippled him financially.  Taizen said it was built quickly, utilizing every available worker in Imeda's territory for several years.  Daianji still dedicates services to Imeda's ancestors.  Sometimes on our way up into the woods Elin and I walk behind Daianji through the Imeda family graveyard.  It's not a usual ohaka where ashes are interred, but a true graveyard where corpses are buried.  That is still the imperial thing to do.  In Japan they didn't lay them down though, but sat them in the seiza position, resting on their knees.  The grass grows high around the many prestigious tombs.  Unlike the regular ohaka, which can be found on other parts of the hillside, the Imeda graves are untended.  There is no bouquet of flowers nor glass of sake with a leaf floating in it, no burned matches, candles or incense butts.  Often from that hill, Elin and I have surveyed our level neighborhood below, the suburbs of Lord Imeda.  Since his lifetime buildings have spread over the rice fields below and there are far fewer birds.  Only the temple buildings remain the same.


At Daianji morning service, the gang lines up in robes on both sides of the altar - about thirty feet apart.  It's an interesting and diligent crowd of about twenty, five of whom are women.  At one minute to four A.M., they will be found standing on tatami overlooking a pool of shiny wood.  There are six from the U.S., three French, a couple of Germans, a Canadian, a Spaniard and a monk from India.  The Japanese population now stands at about eight, among them two strong-willed nuns.  This sort of collection of foreign and domestic monks and lay men and women is rare.  Elin and I treasure living next door to these people.  They're busy running after the schedule, sitting zazen till late at night and taking naps in the afternoon, but we meet with each of them now and then - in the temple kitchen, on a path, at the kiln, at our house.  Some we see more often.  But during service, as in all formal practice, one doesn't relate, one listens.

The small brass bell is hit - we quickly bow and sit.  I pull the sutra book out of my sleeve and place it in front of me parallel and adjacent to the edge ribbon of the tatami.  The bell, hanging from a beam outside the back door, is still being rung - we're waiting for the abbot.  A young German visitor sitting next to me is told by a French student to sit in line with the rest of us, with knees about six inches from the tatami edge.  The sutra book he's been loaned is positioned for him.  He straightens himself up and looks around anxiously to see if there's anything else that he's doing wrong.  The others look relaxed and comfortable, sitting with straight backs.

Watanabe Roshi, [Shodo Harada] the abbot of Daianji, comes in as the hanging bell concludes its rolldown.  He moves down the wide wooden aisle that skirts the edge of the spacious hall, wood that flows toward the altar, going between square pillars of hinoki (Japanese cypress valued for its longevity and beauty) and under long beams.  There he is.  The master of this place for sure.  He is always there with his incense and presence doing his job day in and day out.  It is because of him that each of us is here.  He is a rock - short, solid and fifty.  I watch him walk up to the altar.  Everything he does has punch, style and attention.

As usual the opening chant is the Heart Sutra, the Prajna Paramita, but it is in English.  An hour later, the last chant is the Four Vows in Japanese and then in English.  It goes something like this:


Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

Delusions are limitless, I vow to cut them off.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The Buddha's Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.


It's a tall order.  I was taught by Soto Zen teachers [Suzuki] just to chant it and not get hung up on the impossibility of it.  Watanabe's Rinzai Zen way is more like a fist hitting a palm saying it's possible - try to do it as hard as you can every instant.  Taizen says Soto is soft, Rinzai is hard.  It doesn't bother me to move from one to the other.  In this business you get used to contradictions - even if you stick to one sect or one teacher.  If contradictions are in the way, then the Four Vows will be impossible.

I'd never had anything to do with Rinzai before - outside of reading.  The first time I visited Daianji and ate lunch with the monks, I was struck by the difference in style between Daianji and Hogoji.  It was rough here, compared to the proper Soto eating style.  They chanted loudly and energetically, passing the aluminum pots and wooden bowls of food down with thumps and serving themselves quickly.  It was the Wild West to Hogoji's Boston.

Watanabe sits at morning service on a long thick purple cushion while beneath him, under the floor, in the center of the room, rests a rowboat-sized earthen bowl which resonates the voices, drum and bells like the body of a guitar.  Rich tones and overtones are created by the chanting in the wide high-ceilinged wood room.  It's the Daianji dharma train blowing its whistle in the tunnel of night and steaming on through forests of sound.  It's not beautiful in the way that Gregorian chants are, but it wears well, calls profoundly to our deep intentions and is a dynamite way to start the day.  Soto Zen temples begin the morning quietly with zazen and get to the chanting later, but in Rinzai it's gangbusters from the word go.  Rouse that ki energy in your belly and give it all you've got.

There are times when the energy in my spine gets activated and I feel like there's an earthquake happening.  One morning I felt that way and then I noticed the room rippling, the people bobbing up and down and the pillars shaking.  That was an earthquake, a 7.1 a few hundred miles away.


After about an hour in the Hondo we file out to the kitchen altar.  The morning service concludes with the Heart Sutra in the zendo.  Watanabe leaves and the monks take off their kesa and hang their rakusu around their necks.  At one whack of the clackers everyone assumes the zazen position and I walk out of the room through a large opening at the rear and sit on a tan, a raised tatami platform, in the guest area.  A monk picks up a mallet and hits the han, the wooden board that hangs inside.  Then silence.  From far away a new ringing is heard -  it's Watanabe striking the small sanzen bell.  Time to meet the Roshi, one on one.  The head monk in the zendo hits a hand held bell three times, there is electricity in the air - he hits it a fourth.

The first time I was there, I was just hunkering in for an hour and a half of zazen with no idea of what was going to happen next.  Suddenly everyone leapt up, jumped down to the floor into their zori (sandals) with a kaboom! and tore out of there as fast as they could like the building was going to explode.  They weren't trying to get away from something, they were rushing pell mell to sanzen with Watanabe, hustling as an expression of their enthusiasm for their practice, for breaking through to an understanding of what life and death are.

Now I run with them.  Some of us are working on koan, the translogical questions of Rinzai Zen.  Some are developing breathing through the practice of susoku-kan, breath counting.  But all of us are haulin' ass to get back to that building we just came from.

Once people get to the door, their position in line to see Watanabe is determined, and they stop running and act like ladies and gentlemen again.  But until they get there, it's full steam ahead.  They cut through the woods and cross the stone walks and they leave behind a few sandals here and there.  If it's dry they raise dust, if it's wet someone may slip.  The head monk leaves the zendo last and gathers up stray footware on his way over.  He doesn't run - he pulls up the rear.  It's his job.  A friendly French monk named Dai-san takes his time getting there too.  He likes to be last in line.  He even comes in behind Den-san, the blind nun.  I always go fast enough to be ahead of her.  She's getting faster by the day.  She knows every stone and bush.  Sometimes while I'm chugging ahead I turn back and see her moving steadily forward, her red-tipped white cane snappily probing the ground in front of her.  If I see she's gaining on me, I give a little extra push and make sure to get in before her.  I have some standards.

[It's been a long time and I'm sure if I wrote it this way that that is the schedule at least for some days, but my memory is that we'd sit zazen before going to sanzen but here it seems to be sanzen first then back to the zendo for zazen.I'll write Chisan and ask. - dc]