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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 12




I sit in the shade on the wooden deck outside the room I share with Norman and Jakushin, who continues to be sad and dark.  It is sunny today, the temperature is perfect and there's just the slightest breeze which is a friendly touch to this tee shirt weather.  I am the only one wearing a tee shirt, however.  The other guys are in baggy samue.  What a tranquil setting - Hogoji is indeed far from the sights and sounds of the normally noisy and fascinating fast-paced life of Japan.

Norman and Jakushin are both inside reading and writing letters in their respective languages.  We stay in a corner of the main temple building in what was once the monk's study, an eight tatami room.  Traditionally, this is how you say how big a room is.  Tatami are about three feet by six, so an eight tatami area is about a twelve foot square.

Across the tatami and about thirty feet away from our room is an even smaller room where Maku-san sleeps and reads.  He's quiet but not morose - he's the pixie of the place.  It's a day off and everyone's enjoying the free time on this fine May afternoon.  Bees are buzzing and birds are singing and tonight there will be frogs and crickets to join with the creek's rushing flow below.

In front of me, two large blue black butterflies with green markings and fat fuzzy bodies flutter about some terribly beautiful very red flowers, which engulf a row of shrubbery.  Maku says they are tsutsuji which my dictionary says is azalea.  Behind these shrubs there is moss on the ground, a short variety of palm tree, bamboo and pines rising above the shade.  Often from the heights of those branches comes the soothing voice of the yamabato, the "mountain dove," really a turtledove: "Hoo hoo hoo, hoo hoo hoo hoo."  I think of it as "the Laurie Anderson bird" because the cadence and coo of its call reminds me of one of her sequenced rhythm patterns.

To my right where the azaleas end there are two shrines, one about the size of a Coke machine and one the size of a birdhouse.  Maku says they are the homes of local spirits called kami which protect us.  I graciously accept any help that's offered.  Beyond all that is a hedge bordering a narrow and ridiculously steep asphalt road.  Sometimes farm vehicles and even taxis coming to the temple use it.  I sure wouldn't.

Earlier in my stay here I swept the leaves off that road with a bamboo broom and I looked at the blooming thistles in the fallow rice fields and admired their beauty and toughness.  Later I would cut them down with a kama, a short-handled Japanese sickle, and burn them with the weeds.  Thistles remind me of Katagiri's supportive and strong-spirited wife, Tomoe-san.  Back in the States she'd place these thorny stems and their strong flowers on the altar.  When I tried to do the same at Hogoji, I was gently chastised.  No thorns for Buddha here.

Further over to the right of the deck where I sit is a great bell hanging in an old wood beam tower, moss on its four foot high stone base and moss on its faded orange tile roof.  Sometimes I gaze at the moss and sometimes I gaze at the joinery.  Next to the bell tower, on a corner of this leveled area, is the verging-on-dilapidated tea ceremony cottage which is now used by Koji-san, the head monk, as a residence.  It has become important to me, a sanctuary within a sanctuary.

   Next to Koji's tea shack, growing around the stone wall from below is a huge oak tree, the granddaddy of the place.  It's climbable - massive low branches providing a large tangled room within.  Continuing clockwise around the perimeter of the open courtyard are the stone steps which go down to the level of the caretaker's house which had seemed so mysterious to me when I first walked in.  In this forbidding structure, beneath the shade of the pines and oaks, lives elderly Yoshiko-san, formerly the caretaker of Hogoji and the good witch of the woods.  Beyond the top of these steps is the long roof-covered sink for hand and face washing, tooth brushing, laundry and vegetable cleaning.

The temple has two main tile-roofed, heavy, wood-beamed buildings perpendicular to each other and connected by a covered walkway.  The principal one we call the hatto.  Hatto means "dharma hall," the hall of Buddhist teaching or law. 

The other main structure is the kuin and houses the kitchen, dining area, abbot's quarters and bath.  The steps and entryway there are the social center of Hogoji.  That's where the mailman leaves the mail and picks it up.  We serve tea informally to guests and chat with them there in front of the dining room.  We sit on those steps and on the deck during fifteen minute breaks in the morning or afternoon work periods.  Norman and I drink green tea and the Japanese monks have instant coffee.

At that time Norman might say, "I'm American - therefore I drink green tea."

And Koji might respond with, "I'm Japanese - therefore I drink coffee."


Inside the wide thick hatto doors is an expansive tatami room with big round posts and a high ceiling of boards two feet wide.  The wood there and everywhere in the temple is rich, exuding age and nobility.  Straight ahead is a deep, somewhat cluttered altar, made from hand-planed hinoki.  Almost all the wood in Hogoji is hand planed because that's how temple wood is prepared, but the altars are especially smooth, smoother than if sandpapered.

This main altar has multiple tiers and rises behind a parted maroon curtain.  In front center is a massive three-legged incense bowl two-thirds full of ashes which have been carefully prepared with a cute doll-house-size leveling tool into a smooth surface.  Next to it is a black lacquer box with thin green sticks of incense.  To the sides are thick white candles and two brass vases containing shining brass flowers.  There are various other ornaments and offering trays leading back to a small golden Buddha figure surrounded by foot-high guardian deities who are partially obscured by brocade curtains.  I know every inch of the altar.  I know every joint of the railing on the top level.  I know where the dust collects unnoticed.  I know the glassy smoothness of the surfaces as I wipe them with wet rags.  I know the look in the eyes of the Buddha up there and I know all the stuff that's stored below - blackboards, notebooks, sutra books, brooms and stacks of ashtrays for guests to use.

The area directly in front of the altar has twelve tatami.  It's here, by candlelight, that we do most of our chanting. 

I'm not allowed to participate in services in this central area because I'm a guest and haven't gone through the entering ceremony.  So I stand and sit, as appropriate, a few steps back in an adjoining tatami area outside the posts.  It's not considered the same room although there are no separating walls.  It's also right by the room where I live -  I can hop out there for service at the last second.

When visitors come for service, they sit out here with me while their kids squirm and run around.  Shuko says that listening to the service for merit is a valid way to participate.  They're here to catch the vibes.  Fine with me.  The children's playful voices add a delightful soprano to the drone of the chanting and I like to sit near the visitors and catch their vibes.


The single item on the altar that I can see most clearly in my mind's eye as I write, is the match box.  It is no ordinary matchbox.  The matches are regular old strike-anywhere wood matches but the container is striking.  It's an eight inch long A-frame box about six inches high.  The matches are in a drawer on the bottom of the "A" with a rough striking zone on the front of the drawer.  On each side of this matchbox there's a photo of a middle-aged Japanese man giving the "thumbs up" sign.  He's winking, sticking his chin out and tightening his lips in a beaming smile - all in a way that immediately conveys a gung ho, agreeable attitude.  In big bold letters across the side of the box, are written the words, THANK YOU AND OK!  For a time, every altar in the temple had one of these boxes on it and they were also scattered all over the kuin - in the kitchen, study and Katagiri's room.  Everywhere I looked that man was giving the thumbs-up sign and saying THANK YOU AND OK!

When we first saw one of these matchboxes, Norman and I had a long laughing spell.  We didn't know what the purpose was but it was surely some sort of advertisement.  As an isolated event, it was goofy and humorous, but then we saw them everywhere and were at a loss to understand what on earth they were doing there.  The Japanese monks, unlike Norman and me, didn't seem to notice them at all.

It was thanks to these matchboxes that I first became aware of the brotherly nature of the relationship between Norman and Shuko.  Later that day after work, Norman and I were just outside our room talking.  Maku was nearby getting the altar ready for evening service.  Shuko came in with some flowers.  Norman saw his chance.  He walked over to the altar, held up one of the aforementioned boxes and asked Shuko, "Where did this come from?"

"What?" said Shuko.

"This," he said pushing it closer to Shuko's face.

"From Akagi-san.  He gave us a case of them."  Akagi-san owns a liquor store in Kikuoka and was one of the best friends of the temple.

Norman looked concerned, "He gave us a case?  What for?"

"To light things.  We don't have electricity here.  We need a lot of matches," Shuko said.

"Thanks for the information," Norman said sarcastically.  "What's wrong with the plain brown matchboxes we've been using?"

"We can use them too,"  Shuko answered.

I kept quiet and out of the way, watching developments with Maku.  I'm sure he didn't understand much of their English but he was listening intently.

"You're not really going to leave these up on the altars are you?"  Norman continued.

"Yes," said Shuko, "Of course."

"They look stupid, Shuko."

Shuko spoke in a monotone.  "You know, our way is not to complain so much."

"And who is this 'we' who don't complain?" said Norman perturbed.  Do you mean 'we Japanese?'"

"No," said Shuko.

"Then just who do you mean?"

"That's the tradition of Buddhism," Shuko answered.

"Listen, I'm forty-eight years old and have been studying with Katagiri Roshi for twelve years.  Don't talk to me like I'm a child."

"Why don't you like them?"  Shuko answered with a question.

"Shuko, come on.  They don't fit.  Look.  Look around.  Everything is hundreds of years old.  These matches stand out like...  like...  well there's nothing as absurd as they are to compare them with."  Norman glared at him.

"This was a gift to the temple," said Shuko.

"Good, I'm going to give the temple a neon sign that says BUDDHA SAVES."

"It's not the same," said Shuko.

Maku and I looked at each other, opening our eyes wide and making a silly what's-going-to-happen look.

"Shuko, you're always saying that you want to follow Dogen's original way of eight hundred years ago.  Right?  Ha, ha, ha.  Thank you and OK!"

"Some things would be too impractical." said Shuko.

"Oh, now we're getting practical?  Then why don't we run some electricity in here?"

"All temples use matches,"  Shuko pointed out.

"It's not the matches, it's the design," Norman said exasperated.

"What's wrong with the design?"

"Look at this." Norman held it up again.  "See that guy?  `Thank you and OK!'"

"What's wrong with that?" Shuko asked.

"We don't say that," said Norman with exasperation.

"Japanese people don't read the words."

"I do - David does," said Norman.  "And not everyone is Japanese.  Isn't this an international temple?"

"You shouldn't discriminate so much," Shuko came back, using an old standby Zen admonition.

Norman was incensed and the smoke was rising in circles.  "What do you mean I shouldn't discriminate!  Do you think you never discriminate?  We could use them up in the kitchen but your discriminating consciousness decided to put them on the altars next to five hundred year old scrolls."

Shuko was quiet.

"Ah!  Why do I waste my time!" Norman threw up his hands.

I stepped up.  "How about let's be especially devout -  lighting incense and candles at every opportunity, holding extra services, toast marshmallows around a bonfire, whatever we can think of, and those matches will all be gone in no time," I said standing between the two of them, grinning and shrugging my shoulders.

          Maku tilted his head.  Norman and Shuko both looked at me blankly.