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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 26


May, 1988   -   MOTHER'S DAY CARD


Two of the last things I did before I came to Japan were to help arrange the funerals of my maternal grandmother and my mother's boyfriend.  Her whole life had been centered around them and now she was adjusting to the loss.  Mother's Day was coming up and I especially wanted to get a card to her.  During the takuhatsu excursion I'd seen signs and displays about Mother's Day on the buses and in the shopping areas.  I was surprised to find that even in the bus station in Kikuoka there was a selection of Mother's Day cards.  I have since learned that the Japanese business world here takes advantage of every possible opportunity to herd the masses to the stores to participate in obligatory gift giving frenzies.  I got a cute card with a picture of a nice smiling Japanese mother on it.  There was a poem inside praising her for working to the bone night and day for her children.  The Japanese was simple, Shuko helped me translate it and I added a brief note.

I had tried to mail it from the station but the bus for Ryumon was ready to leave, it was getting late, and everyone wanted to move on.  Shuko assured me that the card would get there just as fast mailed from the temple.  But the next day when I put the card in the temple mail box, Shuko told me it was a holiday (Children's Day) and the mailman wouldn't come till the following afternoon.

"But you told me to mail it today," I said.

"Today's a holiday.  You'll have to wait."

We weren't getting anywhere.  "Well I'm going to town then to mail it," I said.

"It won't help you," he said.  "You should just wait till tomorrow."


I retreated to Norman's room.  "This is what happens to you when you live here.  He's mind-torquing you," he said, twisting his fists in opposite directions like he was ringing out a rag.

"Are you sure?" I said, "You don't think it's just absentmindedness?"

He thought about it.  "Maybe I'm prejudiced.  I don't know.  Maybe it was a mistake.  Naaaa, it's the old torque-the-individual routine.  He might be doing it unconsciously but it adds up the same.  It's one of the things that they think is essential about training.  It's not Buddhist - it's Japanese."

"You mean stepping on the individual?"


"But why me?"

"Because you were there," Norman answered perceptively.

"And why today?" I said sitting down dejectedly on the tatami.

"No time like the present," he came back.  "No time like the present to subject the individual to the group.  The group is all that matters.  'Enlightenment' is just the substitution of the group ego for the individual one."

"Hmm," I said.  "In Mexico this sort of thing happened all the time with directions and information.  Everyone tells you the wrong time or place and nothing works out.  But it wasn't to mold you to the group.  There was no purpose.  They just didn't care.  I came to be quite fond of the lifestyle.  I learned to relax there and to let go."

Norman leaned over.  "Well, here you're going to learn to be uptight and to hold on... to the group... or whatever the group wants, as told to you by any senior.  The purpose of the training in Japanese Zen temples isn't to help you along the path to enlightenment - it is to cultivate you into a refined and obedient Japanese priest for Japanese temples."

"Great, but I'm not in the market for a Japanese temple right now, so in my case I guess most of the rules don't apply."

"Sorry, this steamroller is blind.  You are here and it is rolling over you."

"Well, come on now, Norman.  I think you just got out of your futon on the wrong side this morning.  It can't be that bad."

 We were sitting on the edge of the deck outside Norman's room.  Koji came out of his cabin holding a cardboard box full of dirty laundry.  I called him to come over.  He stood before us smiling enthusiastically.  Just the sight of his short strong frame and friendly chiseled face, filled me with warmth.

"Look at him Norman," I said, "A fine example of this Buddhist system.  Alert, kind, ready to serve, he is not only a transcendent boy scout, he is a truly good and wise person.  The system has worked for him."

"Indeed," said Norman.

"Nani?" said Koji, meaning, "What's that?"

"I was just praising you."

He just shook his head, smiled and held his laundry.

"The question, Koji, is this: Is the main purpose of Japanese training temples just to produce good Japanese priests to run Japanese temples?  Are Norman and I in the wrong place?"

His voice is lower and stronger than his body suggests.  "That is especially true," he said, "of bigger training temples like Suienji and Eiheiji, but it is still true to a lesser extent of any Japanese temple where there is training.  And yes, it is somewhat true that the practice here is most appropriate for Japanese monks who will have their own temples.  After all, we are in Japan.  But it is still an opportunity to follow Buddha's way under the guidance of Nishiki Roshi and for a while with Katagiri Roshi.  Don't waste your time wishing the conditions were perfect.  The important thing is to do your best while you are here to practice in harmony with everyone."

Norman and I simultaneously put our hands together in gassho, bowed to him and didn't bring our heads up till he had gone over to the long sink.


I told Norman and then Koji that I was going down the hill to mail the card.  Koji gave me an umbrella to take along since it was drizzling.  On the way down the air had a distinct spring rain smell and little mountain crabs scurried across the road.  Incredibly big fat blue and purple worms were all over.  Big as my little finger.  I touched one and it started squirming and hopping about like it was trying to get out of its skin.  "Hey, fellow, sorry," I whispered.  I walked on past rice paddies overflowing with water and jumped over rivulets on the asphalt.

Rounding a corner, I came to a curious item, an empty beer bottle that had a snake in it.  Upon observation I determined that it was the famed mamushi.  It's the deadly poisonous viper of Japan and has distinctive brown, round marks on the side that resemble the ten yen coin in size and color.  It's said that if one bites you, you've only got an hour or so to get to a hospital.  Coincidentally Koji had just informed me about the existence of this venomous serpent that very morning.  Many years ago while working in his rice field cutting weeds with a kama, Koji's father was bitten on a finger by a mamushi.  He promptly cut the end of the finger off.  Ouch.  Some farmer had apparently put this snake in the bottle and was planning to come back and get it later, possibly to consume its flesh or drink it's blood and gland juices in hopes of enhancing virility.  Or they might be planning to turn the snake in to the local government for a cash reward.  I thought about letting the poor critter go but decided it wasn't my business, especially since it was lethal.

After visiting the waterfall near the bottom of the road, I crossed the highway and stood in a sprinkling rain before a small store.  Alas, it was closed.  Assuming that the proprietors lived in back, I knocked on the door and after a moment a lady came out.  I had trouble understanding the country dialect but I thought she said there was no post office in the tiny village of Ryumon.  All I understood for sure was that if I wanted to mail a letter I'd have to go all the way into Kikuoka.  Double alas.

I wanted to buy a can of hot oolong tea out of one of the vending machines in front, but discovered I had no change and the machine kept rejecting my thousand yen notes.  There was a truck slowly coming down the road on the tight curve.  I hailed it to a stop and asked the driver for change.  Leaving the truck in the middle of the road, he came over and bought the tea, refusing to take my money.  He got himself a hot canned coffee, asked me where I was from and said my Japanese was good.  This I denied.  Then he asked me if Japan was better than America.  I said they were both good and that Japanese people had been so kind to me that in my heart they would always be tied for number one.  He laughed approvingly.

Since they couldn't get around the truck, three workers from a van came over and bought some hot canned drinks.  We got to talking and they insisted on buying me another can of oolong and gave me a cigarette and we all stood there and smoked and talked about simple things until there was a third vehicle waiting.  The rain was also picking up.

The truck driver gave me a ride up the road to the bus stop and went on in another direction after apologizing for not driving me out of his way into Kikuoka.  I assured him that he'd done all that was necessary.  As soon as I got out of his cab and was standing there alone, it started raining in earnest.


Out in the open I waited for the bus.  It rained hard.  I waited longer.  It rained harder.  That sort of progression continued until the wind and the torrential downpour drenched me completely despite Koji's fold up umbrella which was about as helpful as it would have been underwater.  For even though I held it tightly down on my head and backpack, the rain blew right up inside that flimsy ribbed shelter on a pole until water was dripping down from the top of my head.  Then it folded back on itself and was whipped about by the strong wind as I tried to return it to its proper form.  I was out there looking surely like a man being jerked around by his umbrella when a bus finally came.  A few seconds later I was traveling down the road within the protective shell of public transit.  There was only one other person inside, a young lady who kept her eyes down as I walked by.  I was completely drenched and stood shivering in the aisle.  The driver told me to go on and sit down and held up a towel indicating that he'd wipe it up.

In Kikuoka I left a pool of water in and around my seat on the bus.  Inside the station I checked my belongings.  Everything inside my pack was wet except for the card in its envelope.  They were still in the plastic bag from the store and the opening at the top had been folded over and taped.  My passport looks to this day like it was done in water color.

I saw a young man with a tall backpack going down the street and asked him in Japanese if he knew where the post office was.  He didn't say anything at first and I thought, oh how silly of me, of course he's traveling and doesn't know where the post office is.

So I apologized for bothering him and before I could walk off, he shocked me by saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand a word you said. I'm not Japanese - I'm Canadian."

Turns out he did know where the post office was.  It was rather obvious.  We were standing in front of it and it was closed.  It wasn't raining any more and so we stood on the sidewalk and talked for a moment.  Seems the Canadian was having a difficult time of it traveling around Japan.  Because he was of Japanese ancestry, people were always speaking to him in Japanese and unlike me, he wasn't experiencing them as being so kind, generous and understanding.  He said that many people, especially old people, couldn't accept the fact that he didn't understand their language and he was getting scolded and yelled at a lot.  One older man told him in English that he was a traitor to his race.  Some people would keep on talking to him in Japanese even after he told them he couldn't understand.  They just didn't get it.  He'd been trying to get a job in an English conversation school but so far no one was interested because they wanted to hire standard white teachers who had the right look.  In one place a French woman with a heavy accent got a job instead of him.  So he'd given up and was just hiking around till his visa and money ran out.  I suggested he go to Kyoto and look up a friend of mine I thought could help him, an American who owned his own language school.  I wrote him a note of introduction.  He thanked me and we parted.

After a short search, I found a stationery store that sold stamps.  The proprietor was a cheerful middle-aged man who wore a sport shirt he proudly told me he'd bought on his honeymoon in Hawaii.  He helped me figure out how much postage to put on the envelope.

I went to a hand-made noodle place next to the bus station.  The fellow there remembered me from before and we got to talking.  I ordered some noodles.  He offered to mail the letter special delivery first thing in the morning.  I insisted he accept money to pay for the additional postage.  I was having a good time talking to him while his toddler son ran up to me and then back behind his father's legs.  The kid also followed me out to the john and climbed up on a box outside so he could look through the window and watch me pee. 

The bus was pulling out and I flagged it down in the middle of the street.  There was just the driver and me.  As we rode back to Ryumon, he asked me if I liked Japan, Japanese food, Japanese women, and Japanese weather.  He said, "In Japan we have four seasons.  Do you have four seasons in America?"  When I said yes, he then asked me if it's hot or cold in America and if there were rainstorms.  He was interested to hear that we had these phenomena too.  That was one for the record.  I could place it right next to an exchange I had before I left the States for Japan.  A waitress I was chatting with in a cafe in a little town in Texas asked me if they could see the moon from Japan.

The bus driver surprised me when he turned right at the stop and drove a mile off his route to drop me off at the base of the obscure mountain road to Hogoji - at no extra cost. 

Walking quickly back up the hill in the late afternoon, I was soothed by the quiet of the countryside.  All of a sudden myriad crickets simultaneously launched into a chorus that buzzed intensely in my ears.  The sawing of their legs accompanied the pounding of mine.  Exhilarated by this ringing invertebrate recital I flew to the black vertical inscribed stone and the horizontal hewn steps and soon found myself breathing hard and standing amidst the combed pebbles of the courtyard.


There was still a tray of food on the long low meal table and I felt a bit awkward when Shuko, who was cooking, told me it was my lunch.  I brought it into the kitchen and put the food away and cleaned up the bowls.  Back at the room I asked Norman why it was there.  Didn't he or Koji tell Shuko that I went to town?  Norman told me that of course Shuko knew I went to town, but that he'd served my food up and made a point that it should stay there and be waiting for me when I returned.  Norman suggested it was just a guilt trip he was pulling.

It turned out that Shuko had freaked out when he heard I'd left.  He was especially piqued that I had missed lunch without getting clear permission and he had gone to Katagiri and complained.  Koji hadn't wanted to get involved and so he hadn't said anything.  At first that bothered me but then I remembered what he'd said about harmony and decided not to question his judgment.  It was clear to me that I hadn't psyched out the situation well enough.  I'd have to take the hit for it.

The next morning at the formal tea after morning cleaning, Katagiri broke the uncomfortable silence.  "David, while you are here, you must follow the schedule and the rules of the monastery.  Do you understand?"  He looked at me but he didn't have to wait because I immediately answered a loud and clear "Hai!"  I was sorry to have put him on the spot and I didn't really hold it against Shuko because that's the way things are in temples.  If you want to do something different, you'd better plan it well and cover your bases or they'll get you.  I've lived in Zen monasteries and centers much of my adult life and I've always had that type of trouble.  Like many institutions, and especially in Japan, you should expect to be treated like a child and if you complain about it you'll just be told to stop acting like one.  It's just one of the occupational hazards.  I encouraged my grumbling mind to quiet down by admonishing myself over and over, "Don't complain - don't explain."


At the tea break during afternoon work, Shuko asked me if I got the bus before it started raining hard.

"I was worried you were out there getting soaked," he said.

"Your worries were justified," I responded.

"Did you mail the letter?" he asked.

"Well, no, I couldn't.  The post office was closed.  But the guy who runs the noodle shop by the bus station is going to mail it this morning.  It'll probably get there a day late."

"Too bad you didn't stay," he said,  "The mailman came right after you left.  There's a letter from your girlfriend in the box.  Didn't you see it?"

"Well no," I said flustered.  "The post office was closed.  And you told me he wouldn't..."

"Yes, he came. And he said there were pickups and the mail would go out.  Your Mother's Day card might have made it on time."

"Thank you Shuko, thank you for telling me that," I said and turned to the others, "Gentlemen, with your permission," and I started banging my head on a post while they looked on in disbelief.