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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 18


May, 1988   -   UNDER THE BEAMS


At Hogoji we rise at three thirty, put our bedding away and go wash our faces - except on shiku-nichi, the four-and-nine day, when we get up an hour later.  Washing the face is not an optional part of the schedule.  On my second morning I didn't do it and Jakushin asked me after breakfast why I had skipped face-washing.  I said there was no good reason and that's when I learned it's part of the collective morning regimen.  That part of temple practice had never been passed on to us quite as strictly at Zen Center, possibly because of the less centralized layout of the modern plumbing.   After that admonition I always went right out to the lantern-lit long sink, splashed my face and brushed my teeth with the guys.  On the next day Jakushin pulled me aside and told me not to go to the sink only in my kimono, that since it was a morning practice, I should wear my koromo, the more formal robe, as well.  I had thought it was a rule not to wear the koromo to the sink, but then I realized that the difference was that in the States the sinks are next to a toilet and in Japan they're separate.  Two rules had collided and I'd never known it: wear koromo to wash the face and take it off in the toilet area. 

When Jakushin instructs me like that I say, "Hai!" like a good boy.  Now and then he continued to point out slight infractions to me and that was how we knew each other.


We spend about an hour and a half sitting in the zendo in the morning and from one to three hours at night.  At no other dojo, or practice place, that I've been in could the word "about" be used in that way.  Everywhere else it's definite.  But at Hogoji the times aren't exact because the timing is based on the rising and setting of the sun.  Morning zazen ends when the sky starts to get light and the bonsho announces the sunrise.  Some Catholic monasteries expand and contract their times of practice in accordance with the length of the days.  The monks get more sleep in the winter that way.  At Hogoji the zazen periods are longer than the forty minutes I'm used to but one may get up at will to go to the toilet or to do kinhin, walking zazen, outside the zendo.  I'm not sure how the wake up time was traditionally determined, but I imagine incense was used.  These days we throw away tradition cavalierly and use alarm clocks.

The zendo is a small room adjoining the hatto, separated from it by removable fusuma.  There's no action in there except walking in, sitting down, swaying from side to side, putting one's hands together palms up,  sitting up straight with the eyes half open, breathing, and then, after a long while, the preceding actions in reverse.  The zendo is deeper than it is wide and we sit facing the wall on either side.  There's an altar at the end with a three foot high seated wooden statute of Daigyo Zenji, the founder of Hogoji.  The names of many deceased monks and lay people are written on small plaques that are placed all around this altar.

The zendo is the heart of the temple.  It means Zen room.  I was showing a couple of high school girls the zendo at Tassajara once and one of them asked what's so Zen about it and I said, "Well, it's where we sit zazen and Zen means zazen."  It comes from the Sanskrit, dhyana, which is the "right meditation," of the Eightfold Path.  The word originally meant "trance."  Zen is the sect which emphasizes dhyana, especially cross-legged sitting.  When the Buddha is reputed to have attained enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree he was practicing dhyana.  According to Zen he was practicing the "new" dhyana: non-objectifying, non-grasping awakeness in all postures.

So she asked is it more Zen than any other place and I had to agree that it was no more "Zen" than any other room or anything else.  So, as we are striving to bring our zazen into every aspect of our daily lives, each room at Hogoji is the heart of the temple when one is there.

Sitting zazen for hours a day may seem like a lot of nothing when there's so much to do but it's the Buddhist treasure hunt and the reason we keep still in this search is that the treasure is supposedly always right here just waiting for us to find it.  Suzuki, my old teacher, once said we find our treasure by watching and waiting.  Gary Snyder, a teacher of Buddhist hunters who prowls the Sierra Nevadas in California, has suggested that hunting is one of the experiential origins of meditation.  Indeed, throughout human history hunters have had to sit and wait motionless, even for days at a time.  And Dutchananda, another sportsman on the track of this timeless snark, once pointed out that the path, the "way," is "marga" in Sanskrit.  He said that marga is not a regular old trail or street but is a word that originally meant the hunter's path, the course which is unknown ahead of time to the hunter who has to sniff and look for signs and watch and wait.

We move silently through the morning schedule together.  I have been surprised at the lack of authoritarianism and bravado in these structured and peaceful hours or at anytime.  I'm pleased that there's no kyosaku, no stick (for striking sleepers on the shoulder with a loud whack!).  I've heard of very few other zendo in Japan without it.  If the stick is used it's counterproductive to fight it - you sure won't get any support from teachers: don't discriminate! just sit! etc.  Zen is famous for the stick - it's the first thing most Japanese people refer to if the subject of practicing Zen comes up, the stick and the pain of sitting so much in lotus position.  Most of the locals I talk to seem to respect Zen practitioners only because of the pain and hardship they endure, not because they find anything wonderful or help others to find it.  There doesn't seem to be an idea of Buddhism offering anything accessible to the average person in terms of daily practice.  Buddha must be rolling over in his stupas.


Further down from the zendo there is another altar in a small room that is used for special services.  The focal point of that room is a bigger than life, standing Medicine Buddha with a wonderful soft countenance.

Next to this statue is the taiko, a large drum on a stand.  It's a big hollowed out round piece of wood over two and a half feet wide and three feet long with tight leather heads at each end, one of the few animal products in the temple.  There are large brass rings hanging down from the side.  The taiko is hit with two broom handle-sized foot-long strikers with rounded ends.  It's used in ceremonies, to call us to work and at the beginning and end of the morning zazen and at the end of evening zazen in contrapuntal conjunction with the big bell and the thick, resonant block of wood, the han, which also hangs outside.  The end product of these sounds is to tell us how many quarters past what hour it is.  We don't really need to know the time but it's a pleasing tradition - and my favorite song.

          I remember at Tassajara once talking to a classical composer and musicologist named Lou Harrison.  I apologized to him for the lack of music there and for the fact that there was even a rule against having musical instruments.  "Nonsense!" he said.  "This place is full of music.  You have all the musical instruments and music you need.  I hear your bells, that thick hanging board and the drum going from morning to night.  There's a lot of space in your music but it's all you need."         After zazen there are various services, the main one being in the hatto and lasting about an hour.  It would take a long time to get all these tongue twisters down but Norman has done it admirably.  I know the basic material, the Heart sutra, the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, the San Do Kai and others.  But there are also some long unfamiliar humdingers.  I can't even follow them with my romanized sutra books.  I do the best I can, mumbling similar deep syllables till it's over and every day I learn a little more.

As much as I enjoy the consonance of group practice in these halls, I relish tiptoeing around in the dark after everyone's asleep - especially if moonlight is coming in through the windows.  It's like being in an old shadowy, magic museum.  Sometimes I stand by the drum looking at the Medicine Buddha, enchanted in his shadow and listening to the long empty space between the last evening and first morning drum beats.


The tosu or the toilet area is off the covered walkway from the hatto and past the hanging han.  Tosu means "east room" because that is the position where it was originally located in rigidly structured temple layout.  However, the tosu have been located on the West side for about the last thousand years or so - they just haven't gotten around to changing the name yet.  We may have lots of specialized terminology but

the toilets are just regular squatters - outhouses, except they're just off the deck.  But they are clean and don't smell because they have vent pipes.  Between them is an exposed urinal.  So far, about half the time when I use it, I turn around, start to walk out and bang my head on a low beam.  I may curse, standing throbbing in front of the toilet altar as I bow out.

That is not the only place I bang my head, either.  There are a lot of low beams around here.  After a year in these environs Norman still has periodic nasty run-ins with beams.  When that happens, his very worst thoughts about cultural differences surface, sometimes augmented with particularly colorful language.

As a painful looking lump on his head appeared to visibly swell, I overheard him telling Shuko through clinched teeth that he was of a mind to go get a chain saw and take some of those beams out.  Shuko suggested that if he were more mindful, he wouldn't hit his head, adding that those beams were his teachers.

I could hear Norman's blood pressure rise.  "Maybe they should be lowered then to your head level so they can be your teachers."  He asked Shuko if the new buildings that were being planned for Hogoji were going to have more clearance.

Shuko said they would be traditional, like the practice.

"But this is supposed to be an international monastery," Norman countered.  "How can it be international if the height of foreigners isn't considered?"

"The practice will be for foreigners as well as Japanese." said Shuko.

"But this is going to be your temple someday," continued Norman, "Don't you even want to try?"

Shuko didn't say anything.

Norman went on, his voice was rising.  "You won't say anything because you'd rather that generations of gaijin - outsiders, went around banging their heads rather than your having to disagree in any way or make any waves with...with whoever's deciding these things."

"Japanese are getting taller too," said Shuko.  "They will also have to be mindful."

"Do you want a temple or an obstacle course?"

"I don't know what that is," Shuko said softly.

Norman opened his mouth and lifted a finger.  But before a word came out, he must have thought better of it for he paused with a quizzical look on his face.  "Oh, of course, I see.  How stupid of me," he said and walked off.

At the afternoon tea I presented to all a sketch.  Although it revealed a decided lack of artistic talent, it was nevertheless well received.  It was a rough draft of what I predicted would become the first official addition to Soto Zen monk's garb since the wristwatch.  It showed a tall monk walking toward a low beam.  Protruding forward from a headband were two antennae which perceived the approaching beam and sent an unobtrusive vibration to a wire in the headband thus alerting the monk.  After evening zazen I ended up with Koji in his tea house intently discussing the appropriate name for this revolutionary apparatus.  The English name would be "Beam Alert."  Koji, I think, had never encountered anything so bizarre in his life.  He participated in that silliness though, with the same gung ho energy that he brought to every temple activity and there was even an added enthusiasm as one might find in a child playing a new game.  This was the beginning of our friendship.


Japanese Buddhism must be the most togetherness-oriented religious practice in the world.  Soaking in the bath is about the only part of the schedule that one does alone at Hogoji and I was surely not alone in treasuring that private pleasure in the company of candlelight and the smoke of incense.  It is

only during bath time at the end of the day that Hogoji is truly a "monastery" - a place for monks to be monos, solitary.           The ofuro is a small room with blackened board walls.  There are stretched plastic windows by the tub through which one can see the cast of trees on the hillside and hear a choir of birds that sings in those trees.  There's a big light blue plastic garbage can full of cold water next to the tub that's there to help cool it down if it gets too hot or if one wishes to douse and invigorate oneself.  There are brushes, a loofah, soap and little wooden buckets to pour rinse water with before entering the bath.  There is a small round wooden platform thoughtfully placed on the bottom of the iron tub so you don't burn the bottoms of your feet.  The fire is right below, stoked with wood from the outside.  The tub itself is an old iron pot that is set in an elevated cement surface and is just barely big enough to squat in.  No one can ever quite believe that I fit into it.

I remember that first bath at Hogoji.   I was watching an ant crawl out of a crack in a huge old stump in the courtyard when a monk came up to me and said "bath" in English.  I asked if he was Maku and he said "hai," and stood there as if waiting for another question.  I couldn't think of any other questions so I thanked him and started off for the... I turned around.  He hadn't moved.

"Could you tell me where the bath is please," I said in English.  Since he'd spoken to me in English first I thought it only polite.  It seemed he wasn't sure what I'd said to him so I repeated it in Japanese. He started walking toward the kuin steps.  We walked around on the deck to the right, past the tosu and through the back door of the building.  In the bathroom he gave me an orientation by pointing at objects, handing me a tiny towel, showing me where to hang it when I'm through, where to light incense and he indicated where and how I should bow doing a pantomime of the steps I should go through.  I felt like I'd received instruction in bath procedures from Harpo Marx.

After I'd cleaned myself, I entered the tub which was so minuscule and the water so scalding - as hot as I could take it.  The iron was so hot I had to squirm into the most compact and precise still position so as not to touch the menacing side.  Precarious, yes, but I savored that solitary period, my thoughts drifting to the large plunges of the hot tubs of Tassajara, in contrast to this pot.  The bath is a place for zazen, "second only to the zendo" said Suzuki.  While cooking there in the Hogoji water I dutifully returned my attention to the flickering room and my breath in the cauldron.  I soaked till I forgot where I was and thus was I baptized at Hogoji, distinct from any immersion I'd had before.

All the burnable trash plus twigs and branches gathered from temple grounds are used to make the bath water hot.  The first time it was my turn to make the fire and keep it going, I noticed that there was a lot of plastic in with the paper, cardboard and wood.  Norman and Shuko were nearby raking leaves up behind the kitchen and I called them over for a consultation.  "Do you burn plastic here?" I asked.

Shuko immediately responded, "No, it goes in with the unburnable trash."

"Oh good," I responded with relief.  "I'll separate out this stuff."

He looked down.  "No, you can burn that."

I stopped to think and in the pause, Norman broke in.  "Why do you say we don't burn plastic here?" he asked pointedly.

"We don't," said Shuko.

"What do you call that?" he said, pointing to the plastic bags and wrappers in the cardboard box.

"Well that's not much," said Shuko.

"What do you mean it's not much?  It's plastic."

"Yeah, but it's not big - it's not thick plastic.  It's burnable."

Norman countered, "You said we don't burn plastic.  We do.  Here it is.  Admit it."

"We don't burn hard plastic containers that make that thick strong smelling smoke," Shuko said.

"Admit it," said Norman, raising his voice.

Shuko looked down in the box.  "Well that's like cellophane."

"It's plastic."

"Don't worry about it, that's how it's done here.  Everybody burns some of this paper thin stuff."

"Yeah but you should stop.  It poisons the air,"  Norman  answered.

"Oh, is that so?"

"I've told you a million times."

Shuko was unmoved.  "Industry here doesn't pollute as much as in America and there aren't so many cars so maybe it's more important that you don't burn plastic in America."

"This is a global problem," Norman said grinding his teeth on the word global and dragging out the 'o.'

"You have a lot of acid rain there," Shuko continued.  "You're destroying all those lakes and everything, it's terrible."

"Shuko, it doesn't matter where you are.  I agree it's terrible - acid rain in America, but two wrongs don't..."

"You should clean up your smokestacks," Shuko added.

"And Japanese factories are polluting the air all over Southeast Asia,"  Norman countered, quickly adding, "But that's not the point.  We should just do our best here - now."

"The air here is very fresh - burning this won't make it dirty," Shuko observed.

"You are being stubborn," said Norman.  "And you are being passive aggressive as usual."

"I don't mean to be," said Shuko, disappointed by Norman's inability to understand his point of view.


Afterwards, when we were alone together, Norman said he'd given up on this solid waste management issue a year or so before and should have known better than to have butted into the conversation.  He said that in the past he'd talked to everyone about it and that they'd all nodded and seemed to agree.  He thought the matter was taken care of but the very next day there was the aroma of burning plastic in the air.  Norman was surprised to find that nothing had changed.  He said it was a very slippery situation with the monks continuing to agree and act concerned while never changing their routine in the slightest.

The addition of yours truly had reawakened his environmentalist zeal.  He and I decided to take matters into our own hands.  Every day we dutifully sorted out the plastic from the paper and saw that it was included with the other, bigger unburnable stuff that got buried.  It worked pretty well, but sometimes someone else would notice a plastic wrapping or bag in the unburnable trash and pull it out and burn it with the paper and cardboard like it was "supposed to be."