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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 20


February 2, 1989   -   REMEDIAL BREATHING


It's a little warmer today than usual.  There was no ice in the mizo or on the pond.  I knew as soon as I got up that there was a thick cloud cover way up in the sky.  But even on a bitter cold day when being still inside the temple buildings is like being stuck in a walk-in freezer, a toasty glow generates from inside me.  I sit zazen in the back of the room where we wait our turn to see Hojo-san.   It's a comfortable place to sit, darker and more anonymous than the zendo and there's no one walking softly and carrying a big stick.  The silence is periodically broken by the ringing of bells, feet on the tatami, the squeaking of the shoji opening and closing, a spoon hitting the side of a pot in the kitchen and shouts of zealous monks coming from the sanzen room.

Hojo-san's little handbell rings with its distinct tinniness.  The sound triggers the next in line to twice strike the here-I-come-bell which is an eight-inch miniature of the big bells that hang outside temples in their own towers.  It's suspended from a foot high scaffolding and is struck with a wooden mallet like a tiny tack hammer that will soon be replaced because it'll break from constant and emphatic use.  People hit this bell in quite different ways, some very hard and some softly, some nervous, others bright.  I wait till the tone of Watanabe's bell has ended.  Jessica is Miss Gung Ho.  This woman has been over here for twenty years and she's still an exemplary eager beaver.  She's what every teacher must dream of.  She's leaning over waiting with a hair trigger on the mallet.  I'm sitting thirty feet away and I can almost see her hand move before the sound of Watanabe's bell reaches me.  The light's hardly turned green and she's off down the corridor to get the big E.

When it's my turn to walk down the covered walkway to see Watanabe, I hold my hands in gassho, my feet are bare on the wooden deck that leads to the building where he waits.  I take a look at the small mossy garden to the left and note the increase in light as spring approaches.  I stand and wait for Jo-san to come out.  When she does we bow to each other without eye contact, then I step inside the building and prostrate myself outside the sanzen room.

When I get in front of Hojo-san, he is sitting like a pyramid, waiting and breathing in a low rumble.  It's not asthma, this is his breathing yoga.  Sometimes when I come in he'll be chanting softly.  Other times he nods off between interviews - alertly sleeping, maybe like a soldier, still ready to respond instantly.  I make a standing bow and walk forward a few steps in the semidarkness illuminated only by the candle on the altar behind him in the corner.  There's a string with a bead at the bottom hanging down from a round paper lantern and I always consider it part of the ritual to barely brush it past the side of my head just above my right ear on the way down to a prostration.  I come up from this bow on my knees, pull myself forward a few inches, and sit in seiza a couple of feet in front of Watanabe's knees.  A thin trail of incense often floats between us.  He sits firmly, at home with himself, a foot-long carved teacher's stick held at each end in fists that vibrate on the thighs under his light grey robes.  This stick is the nyoi (not to be confused with nyoi which means "urge to urinate") it's slightly curved in like the lower back should be in zazen and on the end is a carved mushroom representing wisdom.  His black eyebrows and eyelashes are the only hair I can see and the lids leave a sliver for the window of his eyes.  It's no-nonsense time.

At first he observes my breathing, my susoku-kan.  After a few breaths he lets out a guttural, "Hai!" which means "yes,"  "okay," "got you," "roger."  When he says it he grips his teacher's stick and the energy he puts into it causes him to launch off his cushion a tad.  Today he says nothing and just demonstrates his long, steady, rumbling breathing.  Sometimes he will ask me a question or tell me something and I will struggle to understand and respond.  There's a lot happening between the words, that's the heart of these meetings.

He rings his bell, black metal and shaped like a donut.  It's over.  I stand, bow deeply, and back up with my hands in gassho past that dangling cord, feeling it graze my right temple.

On the deck I pass young, thin Den-san on her way in without her red-tipped cane.  As I go through the waiting room I can barely see in the dim light the photos of past abbots of Daianji hanging on the wall, a bunch of tough looking cookies.

This morning as I step outdoors, it is still dark and cloudy as I move on the stone path.  Walking amidst the temple buildings after sanzen, I get a pleasant rush and sense of place, like I could die in this spot with the old tile roofs I love.

I reflect on the sanzen and feel a pleasant rush, a sense of immediacy.  "That's why I'm here," I say out loud and walk on down the stone path.  An old man chanting in front of the hondo turns and looks at me.