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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 19




Breakfast at Hogoji is formal, and calls for the use of oryoki, the cloth-wrapped nested set of black lacquered monk's bowls and utensils.  This daily meal ceremony was the precursor of the Japanese tea ceremony.  Every motion is prescribed.

It's the last thing that my friends back in Texas would have imagined me doing with large chunks of my life.  It's nothing I would have volunteered for but it's part of the Japanese Zen package, a very important part to the Soto Zen teachers I've known.  They would feel naked without it in monastic life.  The largest Tibetan Buddhist group in the States took up the practice.  I must admit that I look back warmly on many years of oryoki use.

It's not your chow-down approach to dining.  I think John Madden would not appreciate it if he caught us eating in formal oryoki style at a tailgate party outside Candlestick stadium.  Neither is it the austere eating style used in some Catholic monasteries where scripture is read during meals because, it seems, the monks aren't supposed to enjoy the food - the meal shouldn't distract them from their prayers.  A Catholic monastic told me Saint Francis had a weight problem and felt he was too greedy, so he threw ashes on his food.  The use of oryoki, on the contrary, intensifies the experience of eating.  It zooms one in on the victuals.  In keeping with the teaching of just sitting, just working and all, the oryoki encourages us neither to jump at the meal nor to deny it.  Just eat it and just enjoy it.

During meals, chants are the only vocalizing and we don't chant with food in our mouths.  Eating silently is a pleasure.  Suzuki used to say we could talk or we could eat but that we couldn't do both at the same time and indeed I have noticed that conversation covers a meal so that the act of eating becomes automatic and the taste of the food is lost.  When Suzuki and his students ate together informally on a shopping trip or a picnic, there would sometimes be a tense silence with each of us trying so hard to "just eat."  At that time, he would often ask someone a question and get a little talk going and thus nudge us to relax and be natural.  Ah, this path of just doing things naturally can be so full of unnaturalness, overdoing and inappropriate application of methods.  What humorous dolts we are.  It seems upon close scrutiny that our way, all of us, teachers and students alike, is to just bungle along together.

Oryoki, on the other hand, is the ultimate in grace and economy.  The outer piece of material that wraps around the set of bowls functions as a tablecloth and there is a folded napkin that goes over the lap.  The bowls are set out carefully on the first cloth.  Oryoki achieves the pinnacle in water conservation as the bowls are washed at the end of the meal with part of the wash water being drunk and the rest ceremoniously collected in buckets.  And the water from those buckets is collected and poured on the garden.  Then there are a wooden spoon and hashi that come in a cotton envelope with an implement called a setsu that looks like a tongue depressor with a swab at the end with which the bowls are cleaned after the meal.  All the implements are lacquered wood.  There's even a cute little bowl-drying cloth.  Everything has a special name.  It's the sort of thing you'd think young girls would like if you fell into sexist, ageist stereotyping.

Nishiki is considered to be the world's leading authority on oryoki and various other details of Soto Zen monastic life.  There seems to be a certain amount of pride around Nishiki's temples in being a part of a monastic system that continues that original true way of doing these things.  I have heard Koji openly scoff at the prestigious Soto Zen training temples of Eiheiji and Sojiji which have strayed from the "correct" oryoki path.  Norman looks down on such petty distinctions.  "Like they tie their knot a little different and stuff like that."

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, wrote a treatise on just exactly how to do it.  He left a lot of tracts on how to do this or that just right in the monastic life.  How to get up, wash, clean the teeth, dress, walk, study, wear your robes, make meals, greet senior or junior monks, you name it, he told exactly how to do it.  It was all part of his way of memmitsu-no-kafu or extremely careful attention to the minute details of daily life.

There was a visiting roshi at Tassajara a long time ago while Suzuki was still alive who gave two hour talks every night on all that minutia.  Some of us called him Bulldog Roshi.  He was a complete memmitsu-no-kafu freak.  He had been the ino of Eiheiji for thirteen years.  That means he was in charge of discipline and ceremony.  We all just wanted to sit zazen with a reasonable mix of ceremony, lectures and work, but this guy OD'd us on Dogen's details till they were running out of our ears.  It was like being trapped in the Amy Vanderbilt school of etiquette by an anal retentive who had a messiah complex and it caused a great deal of resentment.

At Tassajara when someone got too finicky about following Dogen's way, someone else might roll their eyes and say, "Nine clay balls."  That referred to Dogen's instructions as to how the monks should wipe their asses.  Katagiri said that when he was at Eiheiji he tried to do everything just right and even practiced "nine clay balls."  He said he was the only one to do it, perhaps for centuries.  He never did explain to me exactly what that practice entails.  But he did tell me that the only essential practice of Zen is zazen.  Dogen said the same thing.

To be fair to Dogen, he probably did develop a communal monastic way that was as aesthetic and refined as anything ever could be and it certainly has given lots of monks a harmonious simple, graceful form to follow that was so involving that there was less room for petty thoughts and almost no time to get into trouble.  It extended the samadhi of zazen into every aspect of their lives.  In that sort of practice, there is nothing personal left and not much room for choice.  It's the Dogen dance and he indicated that the only way to do it is to do it completely.  I'm certain that it has helped many people to find their treasure and it has surely produced many fine temple priests.  But to those who can't just take it and leave it, sometimes it seems that what Dogen is saying is that if you don't do this particular practice just like this, then you will likely be born in ghostly realms for a virtual eternity with the same chance of running into the One True Path as Voyager has of hitting a dime floating out past Neptune.


I was eating with oryoki for the first time in years, and after a few days of bungling and holding the group up (there's a teamwork aspect), Katagiri suggested that I take a refresher course from Shuko.  Shuko went over the whole procedure with me in the study while Maku and Norman were washing the dishes.  Koji stayed and watched.

Shuko reminded me that the first bite should be from the big bowl, Buddha's bowl, which usually contained rice.  And then every second bite should be from that bowl.

"Oh Shuko, I was taught that at Tassajara long ago," I said, "I wouldn't do it any other way."  He didn't look impressed.  Oops, I'm just supposed to listen.

Shuko was showing me the proper way to put the offering to the spirits on the tip of the setsu and I said, "Oh wow, that's new to me.  At Tassajara we do it like this," and I showed him.

He smiled and gently reproved me saying that Dogen originally taught this particular method and it's the way he intended for his monks to do it.  Koji agreed, nodding and grunting seriously.

Just then Norman stuck his head out from the dish washing area and said, "Yeah, Shuko, but that was a long time ago.  Anyway, haven't you heard?  Dogen's dead."

Shuko forced a slight smile that didn't hide his irritation.  Maku was looking on bewildered and Koji glanced at me for translation so I obliged him, but that didn't increase mutual understanding.  Koji looked back at Norman and Maku dried a soup pot.

Shuko continued the lesson until he heard my stifled laughter.

Norman came out saying, "What's so funny, David."

          Shuko sighed, for he couldn't control us.  Ever since Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of China, said that nothing's holy, there's been an opening for an occasional pie in Buddha's face.

"I'm sorry.  I remembered something from when I was ten years old and couldn't help but laugh."

"What?" said Koji.

"We should continue with the oryoki instruction," said Shuko.

"Hey Shuko," Norman broke in, "Koji's the head monk.  Don't impose your will on him.  And I want to hear too."

Shuko froze and looked down.  Koji looked on with interest.

"Well, friends used to spend the night with me a lot.  If they were new to my house and didn't know my mother, they wouldn't be at ease and would try to act proper and make a good impression.  My mother is unjudgemental and doesn't mind a little zany cutting up.  But they wouldn't know it, especially since she's quiet and dignified.  It was a perfect setup.  On the first occasion that my friend Jim was over, we were eating breakfast cereal with milk out of big bowls as kids in the States frequently do.  Asking if we wanted anything else, Mother hovered over the table where Jim sat self-consciously watching his P's and Q's.  Catching his attention with a 'Hey Jim!' I plunged my face into the milk and cereal."

Norman laughed loudly.  Shuko was pale.

"It completely blew the kid's mind."  I looked at Shuko.  "I guess it was a little sophomoric, wasn't it?"  He didn't understand.

"What did your mother do?" asked Norman.

"She just laughed and said 'Oh David!'  As long as I didn't leave her a mess, she didn't care."

My Japanese dharma brothers were mute - their worst fears of American barbarian character having been attested to.  "My question is," I looked at them sincerely and placed my hands around the large oryoki bowl, "How would Dogen have me do that?"  Koji's was wide-eyed, on system overload.  Shuko was trying to maintain dignity.  I looked Koji in the eye with a sincerity that I reached to find and he put his head down on the table in his arms.  Shuko kept a neutral glazed look.

Norman came over and nudged Shuko.  "And food fights, Shuko, how did Dogen lay that one out?"

The lesson was over with, the holy sacraments shattered.  Shuko went back to his room, Norman and Maku to the kitchen cleanup.  I picked up Koji and helped him back to his cabin.  As we passed Katagiri's room, he was looking through an opening in his shoji and smiling like he was wondering what just happened.  In this and many ways, trying to follow Dogen's supreme and detailed path has guided and informed us.