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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 8




It was almost four thirty in the afternoon of that first day when Jakushin returned from a shopping trip to town.  Norman introduced me and Jakushin nodded.  His face reminded me of Bela Lugosi, morose yet handsome but for the pockmarks.  He didn't give off a friendly vibe.  He looked at my corner and how it was set up - especially eyeing the robe rack which separated my desk from where his bedding was folded up against the wall.  He pushed it more over to my side without saying anything.  "Gomen," I said, excuse me, and moved it even a little further in my direction.  I offered him some tea and chocolate that I'd brought in but he shook his head no.  Then he left without a word.

"Gaaah!" I feigned trembling terror.  "Is he mad that I'm here?"

Norman wasn't pleased.  "Why does he have to act like such a tyrant?  That was completely unnecessary.  I was very careful to make sure that rack didn't use up any of his space.  There're three of us here and he still has half the room.  He's pissed 'cause he wants a room of his own."  Norman got up and started to move the robe rack back but I insisted he not do so.  I didn't want to get on my new roommate's bad side.

"Okay, but don't let him push you around," Norman said.

"Well let's not worry about it.  I don't mind being bossed around a little."

"You'll be sorry.  If you don't play along with them, their power trips won't work.  When I was first at Suienji the monks tried to haze me - to get me to do things like hand them a pen that they were sitting right next to or make them tea and I just said, 'Do it yourself.'"

"How could you get away with that?  Isn't that the tradition - newcomers don't say no?  Right?"

"I'd been a monk longer than any of them.  I'm too old to play nursemaid to spoiled boys away from their mommies for the first time.  You come in this place it's like going to prison.  You establish what your relationships are going to be like real quick.  But after that we got along fine and I made a number of close friends."

"Well then, do you think I should go for breakfast in bed?"

"Good luck."

Just then Shuko stuck his head in.  "Your turn for the bath," he said to Norman and then to me, "You're last.  Maku's next to last.  Can he find you here?"

"Sure.  But I don't know who he is."

"He'll know who you are," Shuko said.  "Is everything all right?"

"Yes, Norman has provided for me well.  But there is one thing."

"Yes?"  Shuko was listening.

"I want breakfast in bed tomorrow morning at nine."

"Service will be at four-thirty, soon after your bath,"

he said.


The bonsho, the big black-green brass outdoor bell, was ringing for service.  Norman was sprawled out snoring and I had to step over him to get to the robe rack.  His eyes opened immediately after the first round ended and pretty soon we were both flowing in black and off to chant the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, a fairly untranslatable incantation designed to evoke compassion from Avalokiteshvara.

We stood facing each other to either side of the altar with our hands folded at the chest in shashu.  I was standing back a ways where Norman told me to - in the guest zone.  Maku, a cherubic, shy monk was a yard in front of me.  Facing him and next to Norman was a slight but sturdy, serious looking fellow whom I hadn't seen yet.  At the end of the third round of the bell, Katagiri came in followed by Shuko who carried a stick of incense pinched between the thumb and first two fingers of each hand and held at eye level.  Shuko walked around and thrust the incense in front of Katagiri who stood before the altar.  Katagiri took the stick, planted it in the ashes and we were off and running on my first service at Hogoji.

It was a short banka, evening service.  The monk I hadn't met hit the large and small bowl-shaped brass bells and the mokugyo, the wood fish, a hollowed out drum that is carved to resemble a fish.  It's hit with a wooden striker bound with a rounded leather pad at the end, making a soft rich thump thump thump.  Norman led the chanting in his baritone voice.  I'd chanted the Dai Hi Shin Dharani countless times in the States, usually with at least twenty people.  With just six of us there, we each had to chant with force and yet pay close attention to unison.


After service we all moved to the dining room.  Jakushin brought the dinner out and set it on the long low table.  Everyone else helped by bringing bowls, hashi, a tea pot and wooden clackers.  Flat zabuton cushions were placed on the tatami around the table.  We kneeled on them in seiza, a distinctly Japanese position wherein one's body weight rests on the shins with the buttocks on the heels.  Norman sat on a zafu (a round zazen cushion) in lotus position (with his legs crossed).  Like many Westerners his legs couldn't take seiza for long.  Barely moving my head I examined my new sangha.  We were a sight - seven shiny-headed men in robes.  Only one wore glasses - Jakushin.  I was tingling with openness - like a first date - and I was beginning to remember that being together with others in this intimate way is a type of love-making.

Jakushin hit the clackers and we recited the last verse of the Soto Zen meal chant which I half remembered.  Dinner was soba, buckwheat noodles which we dipped in a shoyu (soy sauce) broth.  There were scallions and dried seaweed to add to the broth and white daikon pickles on the side.  We didn't talk while we ate but everybody slurped the bejeezus out of the noodles.  I didn't mean to be rude but I just can't do it.  I silently put my noodles in my mouth and chewed them, hoping it didn't gross anybody out.

Dinner isn't called dinner - it's yakuseki, the medicinal meal.  It's an old Zen name for the evening meal which originated in China.  One of the original Buddhist rules is that monks not eat after the sun reaches its zenith.  But the Chinese population didn't like begging, which had been well accepted in India, so the monks couldn't depend on offerings in order to eat.  Baizhang, a revolutionary Chinese master, initiated the policy of, "A day without work is a day without food," and the monks started growing their own rice and veggies.  Then, because they were working, they got hungrier.  First they tried hot stones on the stomach.  After a while they instituted an evening meal.  But to pay lip service to the rule, they didn't call it a meal - they called it yakuseki which literally means "medicine stone."

          Yakuseki was over quickly and was just as quickly cleaned up.  Everything was washed, dried and put away, the table wiped and the floor swept.  I stood around looking for something to do but it was over before I could make myself useful.  Then we all sat down again at a low square table with a kerosene lamp on it in an adjoining room that was between the dining room and the kitchen.

Katagiri introduced me.  I didn't understand everything but I knew he'd said that I was a disciple of Suzuki and that we'd known each other a long time.  He asked them to help me out.  With prompting from Katagiri I said that I was a very poor monk and to please be good to me and they responded in unison that they appreciated my efforts and to please try to do my best.  It was a formality that I hadn't been told of but I thought I'd gotten through it decently for a very poor monk.  Katagiri bowed in gassho, palms together.  We gasshoed with him and he retired to his room.

The remaining five monks went quickly over the next day's schedule and activities, each according to his position which rotated every five days.  The guy who had hit the bells at evening service informed us what sutras would be chanted the next morning.  Norman jotted them down in a small notebook and stuck it in his sleeve.  Jakushin read from a list what the meals would consist of.  Shuko said we'd be cutting firewood during work.  A few other matters were agreed on.  Every evening we would go through this traditional procedure and every evening the information would be almost identical - and the longer I was there, the more eagerly I awaited the slight variations.

We gasshoed and everyone relaxed a notch.  Shuko smiled and welcomed me again, but this time informally.  I was introduced to Koji, the one who had hit the bells and the only monk I hadn't met yet.  He bowed his head down.  He was the shortest guy there and the most intense.  Almost as short was Maku, a curious guy with an air of lightness.

Walking out of the dining room onto the deck, I could see  lengthwise across the courtyard the last streaks of the setting sun striking the roof of the bell tower.  I slipped into my zori and went out to the narrow steep asphalt road and walked up till it met the road from Ryumon curving back up behind the temple.  I stood on that spot and gazed down at Hogoji's tile roofs nestled in the trees.  A soft warm breeze stroked me over and over.  The air was clean, full of the twilight callings of birds and frogs, and carrying the thick sweet aroma of wet spring blooming.  I could hear a creek flowing down below these wildflowered fields and see a nearby low mountain covered with a crop of sugi and a swath of old-growth oak and tall pines rising up on the other side.  In the direction the water was flowing, there were ever descending rice paddies and a marvelous expansive view of mountains rising and valleys beyond.  And the whole view was crisscrossed by power lines and punctuated by the impressive towers that supported them.  There I stood in the spell of the valley and watched the day glow to an end.  It was the most beautiful sight and I was overwhelmed with emotion.  I had arrived and met the few comrades I would be living with.  I'd had a taste of the place and it was good.  I realized I'd been drunk with needless anticipation and worry.  The sunset burned that cloud away.  I stood there feeling raw and grateful and walked back down wiping the corners of my eyes with the sleeves of my robe.


Shuko got out his sewing kit and coached me while I repaired my robes in a few places.  He was methodical in the way he opened the sewing box, found the right needle and materials and watched over me making sure I did everything correctly.  While I stitched he made green tea and brought out another kerosene lamp from his room to make sure I had enough light.

Shuko was in his late thirties, about five-five with a handsome olive complexion and a round face.  He was lightweight, but didn't look at all skinny.  A shaved head looked good on him.  His pate was smooth and well formed, unlike bumpy Norman or pointy me.  Norman and I are, I suspect, the result of the foolish American obstetric practice of using forceps to bring forth soft little babies.

"Zazen is free tonight," he said.

"Free?  I don't have to pay?"

"Optional, since today is a four-and-nine day.  And it starts later than usual."  He has a kind manner but his sense of humor isn't as good as his English.

As I sewed and we sipped our tea he asked about Zen Center and I brought him regards from several stateside zennies he'd known well.  I told him the gossip - a lot of repeats from the talk with Norman: who had married, who was living together and who had broken up, comings and goings.  There was some sad news about a gay monk who had AIDS.

Shuko shook his head and said that you could only have this sort of talk about the American Zen world.

"Our lives are pretty boring - it's mainly men and none of them are dying of AIDS because there are no homosexuals."

"No homosexual monks in Japan?" I asked.

"I don't think so."


"Oh," he responded surprised, "You think there are?"

"Wherever there are people there are homosexuals, Shuko.  I've known many Japanese priests and I've got some interesting stories I'll tell you someday if you've got the time."

He looked off balance and shifted his position.

The sunset bell was struck in the introductory sequence and Shuko excused himself to get ready for zazen.  I got up hoping I hadn't said anything that bothered him.  I can never control what I say anyway, things just come out.

It would've been better if I'd followed the admonition of Dogen, founder of Soto Zen: think three times before speaking and then choose to speak in only one out of ten of those instances.  I reflected on how distant I was from that ideal.


Free or not, everybody showed up for zazen.  Katagiri offered the incense.  He sat cross-legged in front of the altar facing out toward us and we all sat facing the wall.

Sitting cross-legged like this is certainly not necessary in order to do zazen but it's the most solid of positions, rendering the body stable, compact yet open - parked on its own tripod, the knees and butt as the three points of contact with terra firma.  Most folks place their behind on an additional cushion.  The natural position of the spine isn't straight but curves in at the lower back and we sit accordingly.  The top back of the head pushes up so that the chin is in.  Sometimes I imagine there's an insert there at my apex with female threads.  I screw an eyebolt into it and let a crane hook it and hoist me up.  Zen teachers often advise us to keep focused on the hara, the lower belly (the same as the tanden), as the center of gravity.  We try to keep our eyes half open but sometimes they close and sometimes we fall asleep.

I sure didn't fall asleep in zazen that night.  I sat with a mind whirling about with the passions of the day - and as I sat I watched it all spin into butter.  I reflected on the basis of our practice, the bodhisattva's vow, which extends our desire to help ourselves and our loved ones, through the power of the vow, to all beings for all time which means we include all beings completely and turn into butter together.