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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 9




Jakushin told me to shush and I put my hands to my mouth apologetically.  He quietly pointed out that we're supposed to be silent from the beginning of the sunset bell which precedes evening zazen till the formal morning tea is over.  I gave a let's-go-outside sign to Norman, but he whispered he wanted to go to sleep.  He handed me a couple of thin books with folding pages.  One had "Soto Zen Sutras" on the cover - the other was blank.

"They've got a lot of mistakes and are tough to read in the candlelight but they're all we've got."

"Looks like they've had some use," I whispered looking at the frayed corners and cellophane patches.

"Here's the order of the sutras tomorrow." He handed me a piece of note paper with page numbers opposite the sutra names.            "Okay.  Thanks."

"Take your bedding out by the altar - anywhere out there.  We're all supposed to, but only Maku will be there too.  If you hear noises don't let it spook you.  It's just rats.  They never bother Maku - but then nothing wakes him up.  He slept right through an earthquake last year that brought everyone else scrambling out to the courtyard."

Jakushin eyed us.

"See you tomorrow morning."  Norman gasshoed.

"Night."  I gasshoed back to him and to Jakushin who nodded.


I picked up my futon which was on a shelf in the closet and walked out to the dark room.  A spasm reminded me that my back was weak and I made sure to only bend my knees in putting the futon down.  Then I went back and got a flashlight and the rest of my bedding which included a big fluffy quilt, a very small pillow stuffed with beans that had what seemed like a towel around it for a pillow case, and sheets that were too small and also made from towel-like material.  I had a feeling that I'd been getting since I arrived in Japan: like I was in a parallel reality where everything was just a little bit different in each aspect from the way it was back home.

After doing some exercises for my back I got under the covers, exhausted.  What a relief to be in bed and to be alone in the dark.  I rolled over and looked at the altar in shadows behind a large column that was between us.  A sound came from the pitch blackness behind the curtains and gave me a start.  Scampering - a mouse, a big mouse or a rat.  I rolled back over on my other side.  Dim light glowed through the shoji of Maku's corner room.  I lay on my back and looked toward the ceiling.

A blanket of calm and sadness fell over me.  I had been in Japan for two weeks and in Hogoji for one day.  "I am here," I whispered.  I thought of Kelly, my fourteen year old son in Spokane.  We'd never been apart for long till recently.  I missed him.  I didn't want to be away from him but it just had to be for now.  It made my heart hurt to think about it.  And Elin, my bright young brown-eyed love, far away in Atlanta writing her thesis.  What would become of us?  Would I ever see her again?  I groaned.  And I thought about my mother whose boyfriend and mother had just died.  She was all alone in Texas.  And my sister and her family and my friends in California and elsewhere.  I kept sinking deeper into homesickness and self-pity till I was afraid I'd start crying and be heard.  I started thinking about the month plus of slavery to temple life that lay ahead and was afraid I couldn't do it and didn't want to do it and I thought about running away.  I felt like I had committed myself to a mental institution or found myself in jail.  But there was no way out - I had to do my time.  I lay there getting sad and paranoid until I started noticing the sounds of the night, the frogs and the creek outside and they were my lullaby and my comfort and finally I fell asleep.

          I slept deeply for hours, but at some time in the middle of the night, I rose from that peaceful depth to dream - and the dreams were intense, vivid and disturbing.  I sat up in bed confused as bright colorful spinning objects that I thought of as "astral toys" rolled onto the futon.  I looked at them without wondering and fell back down to sleep.  Again I awoke, unsettled, and found my bed full of live disembodied heads.  I noticed ghouls lurking on the edge of the futon as I picked up one of the heads, misshapen and alive in my hands.  It looked at me.  I spoke to the god of bad dream and asked him to please explain what was happening but he wouldn't say.  I sank into sleep.  Next I found myself in the midst of shining blue light so overpowering that I just lay there saying, "buddha" over and over.  As the light dimmed and I fell back into unconsciousness, I could hear an owl hooting and scratching incessantly and I felt it was trying to tell me something.


At three thirty when one of the monks ran around with a small hand bell, I awoke refreshed and elated though slightly trembling from the night's frightening journey.  I stared in the darkness for a second getting my bearings, threw the covers off, leapt up onto the tatami for my first full day at Hogoji and found myself standing nose to nose with someone.  A lamp was lit outside and from its slight light I could see that it was Maku who stood there smiling sweetly with his bedding in his arms.