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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 28


February 27, 1988   -   TAIZEN SMOOTHS IT OUT


Taizen is another good old boy from Texas just like Elin and me.  He'd look great in blue jeans and a bolo tie but wears robes pretty handsomely too.  Elin calls him our cowboy monk but Ishitaki says he has wonderful Japanese manners.  He is one of our best friends at the temple and is working on his second decade in Japan.  He's paid his dues.  He was in a very tough training temple for years.  He told me once he cried himself to sleep every night for six months - something about a senior monk continually threatening to smash him in the head with a brick.  He survived all this "rough practice" as it's called (although I guess the brick bit is beyond any acceptable norm) but I think it took its toll.

Taizen can read old Buddhist writings as easily as he can browse through the Japanese language newspapers.  He read "You've Got To Have Wa" in Japanese - it was written in 'Merican for god's sake.  If anything, his English was suffering.

He was head monk for six years at Daianji.  He'd often sit zazen all night.  He was really trying to bust through to enlightenment - and this is a real bust-through-to-enlightenment sort of place - but he seems to have met a bamboo wall in his koan practice with Watanabe.  He says they don't have en, a heavy word meaning something like affinity.  He's dissatisfied but still trying.

Unlike Jessica, who takes everything lightly, Taizen tries to fit in and be accepted on Japanese terms and this makes him a little uptight.  He's always telling me things like to fix the holes in our shoji (the ones that can be seen from the garden when approaching the front door) or people will write us off. (I did get to it, but not for his reasons.)  Jessica was there when he said that and she just laughed at him and offered that we were all written off to begin with for not being Japanese.

His Japanese is proper and polished and the way Jessica throws plain informal language around, especially when she's talking to Watanabe or people in the neighborhood, gives him the willies, but he says she can get away with it because she's a potter and thus allowed to be eccentric.  I told Taizen that it seems to me the main thing is that she doesn't care what anyone thinks except for Watanabe and Watanabe doesn't seem to care at all about pretenses.  "So you get along better with Ishitaki and Jessica gets along better with Hojo-san," I told Taizen who made a face and said that maybe I was right and it was time for him to get out of Japan.

I agreed but Jessica wouldn't have.  Taizen's proper monkness and Jessica's hippie-funk lay-lady vibes do not interfere with the fact that they are best friends.  They're always giving each other presents - he made her an inkan (a personal seal which all Japanese use instead of signatures) with the kanji for her Buddhist name, Jodai, carved into the small round end, and she gave him a pair of warm wool socks and a can of instant chocolate for the coming winter.  Like Jessica, Elin and I like Taizen a lot - but we do wish he'd soften up a little.


I needed Taizen's help.  I had no idea what the folks at Immigration were thinking since Kobashi had so generously called them up for me and I needed to talk to Miyake to make sure everything was okay.  I begged Taizen to help me because his Japanese was so good and Miyake liked him and I thought that this was no time for unintentionally making an unimaginably rude mistake.

"Ask Jo-san," (Jessica) he said.

"She's no good at stuff like that.  And she won't do it.  She has a policy against it.  You're my only hope." 

"Ask her again. You think I'm too uptight anyway."

"That's true, but she's more uptight about the truth than you are.  It's funny, temple-wise she's a company woman."

"Yeah, I know what you mean.  She's in tight with the boss.  Well I'm busy, ne," he said.

"You people are supposed to be doing nothing but you never have any time.  Mercy!  Mercy!"

"Your Japanese is fine, ne."  He's always saying ne, which, in Japanese, means something like 'isn't it?' or 'Don't you think so?'

"You're a priest, You're supposed to be helping people.  Save all sentient beings.  Remember?  In this case me."

"You're a priest too, ne?" he said.  "Help yourself, ne."

"No I'm not.  I failed.  Help me please.  For all I know they now regard me as an undesirable alien and I want to be represented by a respected alien monk.  It might be my only shot.  C'mon Taizen, don't be selfish."

"Hmmm.  It's tough, ne.  I think what you mean by selfish," he said, "is like someone who's not thinking about you first, ne?"

"You wound me deeply, Taizen, and you are absolutely correct," I admitted.

He hemmed and hawed - I offered the ultimate bribe.  It worked.  We agreed to meet in ten minutes, just enough time for me to get his bribe.  "See you then, dharma brother." I bowed deeply in gratitude.  "And Taizen," I added, "you know you're gonna need remedial English lessons before you move back to the States."

He and I met at the pay phone in the parking lot in front of the temple.  I gave him his bribe straight off.  It was more than he'd dreamed of, a sixteen inch long chocolate bar - really good chocolate, rich and not too sweet.  It cost a thousand yen.  He looked around and when he was sure he wasn't being watched, he tore off some of the wrapping and took a furtive bite.  I love to corrupt monks.  Everybody's got their price.

With a shaky index finger I made the call and said hello to Miyake after I got him on the line.  We exchanged a few pleasantries.  So far so good.  Then, after asking permission, I put Taizen on and they soon were talking around the delicate topic of our visa status.  Should we request permission to work?  What sort of letters and documentation should we get? and so forth.  Taizen hung up the receiver.  The call went quite well.  I was incredibly relieved that Miyake didn't mention Kobashi's call.  So it looked like they were not going to deport us after all.  Terrific.

A great blue heron lifted out of the mizo by the stone bridge and flew up over the power lines.  It was a lovely day.


I bowed down touching my forehead to the asphalt, physically exaggerating a gratitude I truly felt to Taizen and all our benefactors.  "Stop it," he said with embarrassment.  "The neighbors, ne."

"I couldn't control myself," I said standing up as he looked around uncomfortably.

"Maaah... Look what's coming," he said squinting to focus on a figure coming down the street lined on both sides by pines.  It was a monk.  He was pretty far off but I could make out that he was in robes.  "That's the head monk from Shimboji," he said.  "He's on a pilgrimage."

We watched the monk approach.  He wore the traditional monk's traveling gear, similar to the takuhatsu outfit.  His conical basket-like hat hid his face from his nose up.  I could see a Samurai movie stiff-lipped scowl.  Taizen bowed appropriately.

"Hey there!" I said without thinking and waved.  Taizen elbowed me in the ribs as if that was not the correct thing for me to do.

"Phooey on him," I said as the monk continued walking silently with eyes down.  Except for my unappreciative presence it could have been a scene out of a documentary on the preservation of the ancient and serene way of Zen in bustling, modern Japan.    

When he had entered the gate, I turned to Taizen, "I hate monks.  They think they're so much better than everyone else."

 Taizen rubbed his hairless head.  "Yeah, I know what you mean, ne - I hate them too, ne."