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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 24



I had been at Hogoji for a mere four days when we left for an outing of takuhatsu, formal monk's begging.  I'd read about it, seen pictures of it in books, magazines and on TV.  I'd been told about it for decades by Japanese and American monks who had done it and tourists who had seen the begging monks on the streets in Japan.  Norman regaled me with takuhatsu stories the night before and I was really looking forward to it.  I even dreamed about it, but in my dream it wasn't orthodox takuhatsu.  I was outside Elin's grandparents' home in Atlanta chanting with a guitar.  She was supposed to come put money in it.  When she got close I was going to grab her and take her back to the monastery.  But she only came to the window and looked down.

Koji alone was staying behind to take care of the temple and he begged me to remain there with him and help out.  I already was taking a shine to this diligent good-vibe head monk and was flattered that he was so eager to spend time with me, but I wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to do takuhatsu for anything.  He argued that he not only needed my help but wanted to get to know me better and that we'd have such a good time.  The schedule would be practically all free.  Koji's offer was tempting but I told him I was looking forward to the experience.  Then he suggested I could go the next time with him and admitted he was concerned about my back.  I said that my back was getting better after the beating it had taken lugging all my bags across Japan and that walking would be therapeutic for it.  So he gave up.

Sunday after lunch, Katagiri, Shuko, Norman, Maku, Jakushin and I gathered on the deck to the kuin and put on the traditional gear of takuhatsu.  It was a sunny day and we all wore thin black koromo over our kimono.  Katagiri pulled the linen mesh koromo up under my waist cord to shorten it a few inches.  He said it would make it easier to walk.  We put on rough straw sandals that tied around our ankles, secured curious white cotton covers on our forearms and shins and hung an extra pair of sandals at our sides.  Around our necks we put our rakusu, the biblike cloth of ordination, and over them slung black, heavy cotton bags holding our begging bowls and wooden-handled bells.  Then Katagiri tied a white cloth called a hachimaki around my forehead.  It would stop the sweat from going into my eyes, he said.  I appreciated all the attention he was giving me.  I felt like I was being dressed for the prom.  Last we donned straw hats the shape of wide cones.  They came down to eye level, as good as sun glasses.  Katagiri pointed out to me that they had the name of the temple in large kanji across the front and solemnly admonished me to be on good behavior.  I assumed a fiercely serious pose and he laughed in spite of himself.  I looked around at my alms mates now all bedecked like me.  We were dashing.

Koji, Norman and Shuko had been whispering to each other on the edge of the deck and periodically looking at me.  Strange.  What were they up to?  After a moment, Norman came over and said they were concerned that I wasn't in good enough shape and wouldn't be able to make it.  It's a rigorous practice that takes stamina and I'm a tad overweight.  Katagiri patted my stomach and said it would be good for me.  But they also thought my big feet would be too tender to withstand the constant abrasion of the undersized, rough footgear.  Norman said they'd get covered with blisters and blood.  I said not to worry but Shuko got permission from Katagiri for me to wear traditional white Japanese socks called tabi and he brought some along for me just in case.  They have a separate pocket for the big toe so they can be worn with sandals, but they are not part of orthodox takuhatsu gear.


After reciting the Heart Sutra at the entrance to Hogoji, we bowed toward the temple and to Koji.  Then we were off down the mountain on the temple path to the narrow paved road past the rice fields and terraces with wild flowers growing all around, thatch-roofed farm houses, kunugi oak for harvesting, wild woods and rows of shaded logs sprouting shiitake mushrooms.  The sound of water running down the mountainside came from all around.  The smell of spring was uplifting and delightful.  At the bottom of the mountain we entered the village of Ryumon, Dragon Gate.  Children came out laughing and ran around us calling Koji and Norman by name and remarking at Norman's and my size and strong features.  Katagiri led the way and carried a staff that jingled when he brought it down at each step.


We got to a bus stop after an hour of walking and rode through Kikuoka on our way to the big city - Beppu.  The bus let us off in the Beppu suburbs and we walked single file to the weekend home of a wealthy lay patron of Hogoji, Ogawa Sensei.

Arriving at the front door of his semi-modern large house, we belted out our theme song, the Heart Sutra, and were greeted by the Sensei, his wife and their twenty-six year old son.  We stripped off our begging gear in the entranceway and were treated to the use of his large hot tub, bordered with volcanic stones and full of hot spring water, abundant in this region.

We were fed a fancy meal of curried rice with meat and many side dishes.  After dinner we did the dishes and cleaned up while Mrs. Ogawa joined her husband in conversation with Katagiri.  I was surprised.  This is just not done in Japan.  Women typically work till they drop.  No one else is even supposed to enter their kitchens.  Norman said he had been there to witness the transition.  Ogawa Okusan, the wife, had at first strenuously resisted the monks' attempts to help but had finally succumbed and learned to appreciate it.  Ogawa Okusan says we are helping her learn to be a modern woman and calls us "feminists."  Shuko explained to me that in Japanese English it means a man who helps out at home.

Ogawa Sensei, who looks to be about sixty-five, manufactures kendo equipment and is a master of that martial art.  His son, who works and studies with his father, showed me their antique sword collection displayed in the entranceway.  As we stood there admiring steel and bamboo people started to arrive for an evening sitting downstairs in the spacious, wood-floored dojo, normally used for kendo practice.  The Ogawas and kendo students sat in their loose kendo clothes.  Some of the other men wore suits and ties and the women were in casual slacks and blouses.  This zazenkai meets once a month, coinciding with the monks' monthly takuhatsu in Beppu.

That night's meeting was especially well attended because of the presence of Katagiri who gave a lecture after zazen.  He introduced Norman as his disciple and me as his guest.  I hardly understood any of what he said as it got pretty technical, but I hadn't heard Katagiri lecture in a while so I enjoyed it strictly for the vibes.  It was the only talk that I heard him give in Japan and it was to be my last.  He never did like to say much anyway - outside of lectures that is.  As a matter of fact, the whole time I was there in Kyushu with Katagiri, he didn't even have dokusan, formal private interview.  We talked some, but I can't remember what about.  So my last recollections of being with this dear friend and teacher are like quiet, simple cartoons with empty bubbles above the characters' heads.


The next day after a pleasantly late six A.M. zazen with the whole family, we recited the Heart Sutra outside the house and walked off briskly single file again to the bus stop.  We rode quietly for thirty minutes.  Everyone seemed calm but inside I was tingling with excitement.

Finally the six of us arrived in bustling downtown Beppu and prepared to begin our ritualistic begging.  We strode amid modern buildings of glass, metal and concrete and the hubbub of traffic.  We walked past an elegant old wooden, tile-roofed home with a mud wall and garden.  Somebody who won't sell, I thought looking back at it.  We were surrounded by throngs of busily moving Japanese men and women in perfectly fitting, stylish Western clothes.  One thing we had in common with the crowd, especially the women, was the color black.  I looked over the sea of people and black was everywhere.  In their hurry the crowd didn't seem to notice us, despite our garb.  Moving intently on the sidewalk single file in costumes that date back a millennium, we were a time warp, a museum without walls, a pageant to the past.

We stopped at a crosswalk.  I watched the compact cars go by, clean and shiny every one.  In contrast to the people's black clothes, the autos were almost entirely white.  Austere color scheme, I thought.

I remember listening to the corny electric tune that accompanied our crossing.  It was "Comin' Through the Rye" and it came through a speaker above the flashing strutting figure which announced "walk" to the sighted.

"These Irish tunes, where do they come from?"  I whispered to Norman.

"Ireland," he said helpfully looking straight ahead.


When the moment was right, Shuko stopped and got out his bowl.  Then, using the thumb and first two fingers of our left hands to form a tripod, we raised our bowls to eye level and, holding the bells down with our right hands, we set out calling, "Ho!" and ringing the bells vigorously.  (All day long I thought "Ho" meant "the teaching," and was Japanese for the Sanskrit word dharma.  That evening Norman told me he'd heard it was actually an abbreviation for hatsu which means bowl, in this case the begging bowl.)  At any rate, we went down the street each independently calling "Ho!" past old funky markets and modern convenience stores, traditional shops selling kimono, sweets, altars, incense, pottery and scrolls and into crowded covered modern shopping streets lined with boutiques, coffee shops and drug stores.  The people were quiet but the air was filled with loud, irritating advertisements and overlapping music broadcast through loudspeakers.  "A Whiter Shade of Pale" faded into a pop version of "Pachelbel's Cannon" as we worked our way down the mall.

In this commercial maelstrom, one by one we'd pull out of the group at a door or open store front and, standing erect, alone and, hopefully more noble than ridicu­lous, would each chant the Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo loudly three times.  "Kanzeon namu butsu..." and so on.  Almost nobody understands this antiquated Buddhist Japanese any more than I understand Chaucer, but they surely know the name of Kanzeon and when they hear it, that's enough.  She, or sometimes he, is Avalokiteshvara, Kwanyin in Chinese, the bodhisattva, the enlightenment being, of great compassion - the Virgin Mary of Buddhism.

More often than not someone would come running out and place a coin or two in the bowl.  In that case the first chant would not be repeated and there would be a second recitation in which gratitude was expressed and boundless merit promised.  "Zai ho ni sei..."  Then that monk would bow, empty the money from the bowl into the black bag around his neck, turn and walk toward the direction of the others while calling, "Ho!"  With all of us outfitted thus and going "Ho!" in those shopping areas, I felt like we were related in a peculiar way to the Santas collecting money for charity on the street corners downtown in December in the States.

After one of us was done at an entryway, he would continue on past his stationary chanting comrades until arriving at the next unsolicited doorway.  Every once in a while a person would come out and angrily shoo one of us away.  An old guy did this to me.  I wondered if he was from one of the fanatic sects or maybe a person who regarded Buddhist priests as lazy, decadent leeches of society.

I didn't know the chants by heart but Norman had written them both out for me and I tucked them inside my bowl as crib sheets.  After an hour I didn't need them any more but I left them in the whole first day in case I got stage fright.

It was great to see lanky Norman in his monk garb bellowing out those lines from the distant past in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken joint, or to witness Katagiri chanting and shaking the staff that he'd brought, rattling its brass rings in front of a pachinko parlor.  He had such integrity and stood so resolutely.  He brought the butt of his staff to the ground accentuating his request for support for the priests' practice.  His chanting blended with the cacophony emanating from the pachinko gambling den, the whirl and clatter of thousands of silver balls dropping through hundreds of machines accompanied by raucous marching music.

I stared and absorbed the sound, transfixed, and, suddenly unaware of my role in this rite, time melted enough to transpose onto this scene my last memory of an even shorter Japanese priest, my original teacher Suzuki Roshi, powerfully bringing his similar staff down, the staff Alan Watts gave him, bringing it down at Dick Baker's Mountain Seat ceremony, bringing it down and saying goodbye in that chilling moment.  That was the last time I saw him, so brown-skinned with metastasized gall bladder cancer.  The ringing of his jangling staff was there at the pachinko parlor for a bent moment and then it was Dainin (Katagiri's Buddhist name) again, his Great Patience waiting for this Japanese pinball Vegas colored pleasure dream to spit out a sycophantic employee who quickly dropped a coin in Kata­giri's slot and darted back into the mirrors and screaming machines.


That night we returned worn out to the Ogawas', to a hot bath and a feast with beer and sake, talking and laughing.  Some friends of the family came over to greet us and especially to meet Katagiri.  We sat around in easy chairs and kitchen chairs, the TV on and no one paying attention to it.  After more talk and laughter the guests, who were in their fifties and older, started asking Katagiri, Norman and me questions about America and Zen in America.

At one point Jakushin, displaying surprising nerve, came out of his depressed silence and said he understood that marijuana and psychedelics had played a significant role in America in the development of interest in Buddhism and zazen and what did I think about that and how had these drugs affected my religious path.  Everyone turned and looked at me, waiting for an answer.  I froze with fear.  In Japan, legal drugs like booze and cigarettes, or anything a doctor prescribes, are regarded as perfectly all right and the more the merrier - but illegal drugs are all thrown together into the same heinous category and are considered to be an instant cause of insanity, death and societal decay used only by deranged scum.  I really didn't want to answer that question.  I said something about learning from many different types of experiences in our lives and added that we should avoid either seeking particular experience or trying to duplicate past ones.  It was just your boilerplate American Zen antidrug rap.  This didn't satisfy Jakushin and he pursued the topic with more insistence, asking me if such experiences had encouraged me.

I turned to Katagiri who was eyeing me eagerly and I said in English, "I'm not going to answer that question honestly.  Look at these people.  They wouldn't understand - they're much too conservative and narrow-minded."

Much to my dismay, Katagiri took my plea for help and translated it word for word to the interested group.

They said "No, no, no, please tell us."  I was nervous.  I didn't want to tell them anything challenging or upsetting.  I'm not even sure about it myself.  It's far too complicated.  I admitted I'd been encouraged to pursue zazen because of some experiences I'd had but said that many people and events had led me along the path and that I wasn't sure what caused what.

Katagiri then surprised me greatly by saying that many people had been encouraged to practice because of experiences they'd had early on with LSD and other mind expanders.  He seemed completely unconcerned about saying something unacceptable.  These old conservative Japanese folks who would doubtlessly support a life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence for anyone caught with a joint, nodded seriously and made is-that-so? types of responses to Katagiri's libertarian comments.  Katagiri, incidently, like Suzuki, back when it was an issue, asked people not to come to zazen high.  In '66 when he heard that another fellow and I had given the profits from the sale of thirteen kilos of Acapulco Gold to the fund to buy Tassajara, he was furious and chastised us in a lecture.  Jakushin was quite pleased with the answer his question elicited.  He listened thoughtfully but wisely said nothing.

That night there was no zazen and everyone went to sleep early except for Norman and me.  He said that it was nice having me along and that he was impressed with my stamina.  I said that it was great to be there and I was glad I hadn't let Koji talk me into staying behind.

"It was nice of him to be concerned about my back and to want me to stay at Hogoji so he and I could get to know each other better," I told Norman with a touch of pride.

"Well, I'll tell you a little secret," he said.  "The reason Koji didn't want you to go was that he was worried about the impression your appearance would make.  He thought you'd frighten people and give the temple a bad name."

"He did?"

"Don't tell him I told you," said Norman laughing.  He then said good night and went to bed.

I stayed up alone till midnight studying Japanese on the concrete steps that led to the Lexus in the garage.  Once I went down and looked at myself in the side mirror.  I almost never look at myself in mirrors.  No wonder, I thought, sympathizing with Koji.


The next morning after zazen and service we had a fantastic Japanese breakfast of hot rice with raw egg, a crumbled dried sheet of seaweed and scallions, all to be mixed together.  Each of us got a whole four inch baked fish, miso soup with tofu, a tiny potato salad, homemade daikon pickles, strawberries, melon and green tea or coffee.  While we ate, I sat on a stool at the Western-style counter and watched Ogawa Okusan whip up a sort of omelette batter and cook it in thin layers which were then overlapped into a loaf that she wrapped in foil and added to the bento, the boxed meal she made for us.  She suggested we eat it as a late afternoon snack before returning to Hogoji.

After cleanup over coffee and the morning news on television, Shuko, Katagiri and Norman inquired into the condition of my feet and body in general.  I felt invigorated and ready for more.  Katagiri looked my feet over approvingly.  "Very tough," he said laughing.  I did have one problem I told them.  My thighs were getting raw from sweating and rubbing together unprotected under the robes.  Katagiri called Mrs. Ogawa over and asked her if she had anything for my condition adding that there was no time for me to diet.  After they were through making fun of my weight and laughing at me, she went out and came back with a jar of salve that was for dry hands.  I went into the bathroom and applied it.  I thanked her and gave the container back.  She kindly wrapped it up in a handkerchief-sized cloth and gave it to me saying that she had no need for it.


And so we were off for our second day of takuhatsu.  During the morning session we invaded a residential area near the commercial district we'd been at the day before.  After a couple of hours we went to the home of a lay family, did a service at their altar and then had a sumptuous repast which included about thirty-five little dishes and morsels of various sorts.  After lunch and a brief rest in which we all fell asleep on the living room floor, we went out for the afternoon session.

The mendicant six walked swiftly toward the target area chanting deep and extended "hos" which were the roar of our motors, and then we peeled off like fighter planes at one door after another, each monk quickly standing at attention in his place and immediately beginning to chant so that the lines rang out like a sextet round.  First Katagiri, then Shuko, Norman, Jakushin, Maku and me, in the order of seniority of course, together throwing our body-mind units into the dance and song of the home-leavers, buddha's kids, but we sweated like his pigs on the hottest day so far in the year.  The longer we'd go without a break, the deeper we'd get into the rhythm of it and the less we cared about our trivial concerns: pecking order, perspiration, thighs, refreshment, coins, reactions.  We did it till we could hardly stand up and it seemed that it was the chanting itself holding up our heads and bowls.

An old rule of Buddhist begging is not to hit up the rich over the poor or discriminate in any way while on the job.  You're supposed to keep your eyes down and covered by the rim of your hat so you won't know who the donors are and they won't know you in a personal way.  Of course I was always peeking, being half amateur sociologist, but it was breaking form.  Takuhatsu is strictly a monk's practice and it's the lay people's practice to contribute to the monks in this way.  In old-time Indian Buddhism which is still observed in Thailand and some other Southeast Asian countries, the monks weren't allowed to touch money and begging was their grocery shopping.  Since they had to eat before noon, they only went out to beg in the morning.  Takuhatsu is not the sole support of these Japanese monks who touch money and eat dinner.  Norman says that in the rare instances where takuhatsu is still done in Japan, it is largely vestigial and ceremonial.  But he proudly added that it covered most of Hogoji's food costs.

A few people did give food.  Maku, the pixie, got a small bag of uncooked rice and Norman got some onigiri, cooked rice rolled in dried seaweed.  One guy that afternoon stepped out of a liquor store and gave me a glass of sake which I drank in a gulp in accordance with the established practice of nondiscrimination while begging.  There's an old Indian story about a leper whose thumb fell in a monks begging bowl.  The monk ate it without hesitation.  Buddha's death is generally attributed to eating some bad meat or, in other versions, mushrooms which had been offered while he was doing his rounds.  It was in that spirit that I drank the sake.  Cross my heart.

People would come up to us on the street and give money - not a lot, the equivalent of a dime up to a few dollars.  A Catholic priest gave five hundred yen.  That was neat.  School kids in black uniforms gave ten yen or even a hundred which surprised me.  One old lady who was permanently bent over at a ninety degree angle saw us on a break at some vending machines drinking hot coffee, cold cola, oolong tea and a sports drink named Pocari Sweat (the most popular soft drink in Japan) out of cans.  She hobbled slowly and pitifully over to us, opened up her cloth coin purse and gave six yen to Katagiri.  We collectively responded with the thanks chant which I hope eased her obvious discomfort.

One of the principal lessons that Norman says he has learned here concerns the relationship between priests and lay people and the distinctive roles of each.  Here laymen are laymen and monks are monks, at least when they're on duty.  He says that the lay people support the priests to live this kind of life and that the priests practice Buddhism for everyone and in this way the teaching goes both ways.

My lower back pain had all but disappeared, my greased thighs and my feet were fine.  I was ready for more.  The monks were surprised I held up so well but this old barefoot boy from Texas who's worn beach sandals since the sixties wasn't about to cop out with protocol-breaking tabi on the day of the hunt. 

This was a treat for Katagiri too.  He'd been living in the U.S. for twenty-five years and you just can't have the takuhatsu experience there.  Well, you could, but it might tend to make one feel like one of those religious enthusiasts in airports.  But toward the end of the day, Katagiri, the bastian of endless quiet effort, got exhausted.  He didn't feel well and Norman took him to a park where they waited for us.  He looked so disappointed as he walked off.  I felt bad for him knowing he wanted to stay with us.

The rhythm of takuhatsu, the vocalizing and the exercise, definitely gave us a group high and the interchange with the people of Beppu, though impersonal, was impressive and moving.  Materialistic and modern as it is, this is obviously still a country with deep religious roots.


While we were waiting for the bus to Kikuoka, we took our bento to the sunny second floor balcony of a department store and spread them out with some additional goodies and drinks on a table that overlooked a city park.  Sitting in that bare cement area in aluminum chairs with fiberglass straps, we chanted before our picnic, tired and hungry.  I glanced around at my fellow beggars and was filled with warmth.  We ate eagerly in silence.  Katagiri's eyes were downcast as he chewed.  Behind his head I saw storm clouds approaching.  Maku served us each green tea in porcelain cups that he'd borrowed from a ramen shop inside.  A wind started to blow in gusts and it quickly became violent and noisy.  Robes were blown up above knees and sleeves flapped in the air - suddenly the sky had become dark and drops of rain were hitting the food.  Staggering in the gale, we tried to move the table inside but before we could get a grip on it, the wind seized and overturned it.  Food and containers were going every which way.  Maku grabbed the cups that hadn't broken.  Rapidly the drops came thicker and faster.  As we rushed to clean up our mess, sheets of rain pelted us.  Norman took Katagiri inside while the rest of us threw our soggy half-eaten lunch remains into a trash bin that then blew over rescattering our leftovers plus a great deal more.  Circumstances being out of control, we retreated into the department store.  We had barely gotten downstairs to the entrance when the storm passed.  We stepped out to clean air and washed pavement.  Norman took Katagiri to the Beppu bus station in a taxi.  The rest of us walked in the sunshine and at least weren't dripping by the time we got on the bus to Kikuoka.


At Hogoji that night, blistered and bushed but exhilarated by the experience, we spread out our booty on tatami and counted it in the kerosene lamp light while drinking tea.  The grand tally was 62,851 yen, one small bag of unpolished white rice, and an unshakable confidence in interdependence.