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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 29


May, 1988   -   A LETTER AND A TABLE


When I stopped banging my head on the beam, I picked up the letter that had arrived the day before when I was out drowning in the rain.  I was tingling with excitement but I tried to act cool as I casually opened my treasure and began reading.

Norman saw the return address on my letter.  "Ah, a letter from David's sweetheart."

Everyone looked up.

"The letter you've been waiting for?" asked Koji.

"Yes," I said.

Jakushin asked what her name was and I told him.

"Oh, Elin," said Katagiri, "From Zen Center?  The one who took care of my room at Green Gulch?"


"I thought she was from Georgia," said Koji.

"That's where her mother lives.  She's just there for a while finishing her thesis for college."

Katagiri smiled.  "She's a very pretty young woman."


"And she has a pleasant..." he was thinking, "an easy way.  Zen is natural to her."

The guys were listening intently.  I felt a little proud.

"Opposite from you," Katagiri slapped me on the shoulder.  "You are the enemy of Zen."

"Elin's a good volleyball player," said Norman.

"Uhhuh," I was still fumbling the letter in my hands.

"Are you going to marry her," asked Koji.

"Well I don't know.  I don't know when I'll even see her again."

"Is she a Buddhist," asked Jakushin who hadn't understood when Katagiri said she was from Zen Center.

"David's being very quiet," said Katagiri pushing me.  "Maybe you're in love."

There I was, surrounded, with everyone laughing at me.

"You're turning red," said Koji.

"Let the poor guy read the letter," said Norman mercifully.

They returned to their newspaper and I dove into the piece of paper I had been dying to receive.  What she said wasn't at all what I'd expected.  I thought she'd say that it had been nice knowing me and let's be friends, but she said that she missed me and loved me!  Yippee.  She went on and on conjecturing why I hadn't written her.  She'd received nothing at all from me.  In fact, I'd sent her several cards with friendly and restrained notes on them.

"What does it say," asked Koji unable to let me be any longer.

"She says she didn't get my cards."

"How long ago did you send them," asked Norman.

"I sent one almost three weeks ago.  Hers only took three days to get here."

"She's gotten it by now," Norman said.

"Maybe it got lost by the post office in America," said Shuko.

"Oh sure, and why couldn't it have been lost by the post office in Japan," Norman snapped back at him.

"The Japanese post office doesn't lose letters like they do in America.  Here all the workers take their jobs very seriously."

Before Norman could counterattack, Katagiri returned us to the subject.  "Did she say that she loved you?" he asked, teasing.

I was pleased to answer.  "Yes she did and she said that she loves you too."  Katagiri reeled back as everyone laughed at him.

"Good one David," said Norman.

"She says hi to you, Roshi and to Norman and Shuko.  I told her in the States you guys would all be here."

"What else did she say," asked Koji.

"Well, she said that she loves me but she has a problem."

"What's that," he said.

I told the truth.  "She says that I'm too fat and too loud and too old and that I'm an alcoholic."  I put the letter back in my pocket amidst their laughter and reread it several times before dinner.


When yakuseki was over I went to my room and took off my robes.  After hanging them on the rack I threw on some jeans and a flannel shirt.  It would be a couple of hours till evening zazen and I wanted to get a letter of my own written to Elin and off with the next day's mail.  I looked at her letter on my desk and felt a tightening in my throat and chest, an aching.  I remembered her affectionate manner, her clear eyes and disarming laugh, how appreciative she was of politeness, attention and small gifts. (She comes from a family which, although large and loving, had an overbearing emphasis on self-reliance and a get-the-next-to-the-cheapest-thing-on-the-menu thrift.)  I thought of how she'd snap at me for saying something that was philosophically superficial or careless, how she scoffed at mindless adherence to any path like Zen or the political correctness she encountered at school.  I envied how fast she could read, how involved she'd get in books, and how easily she'd cry as she turned the pages.  "Ahh," I groaned and rubbed my eyes.  I must write.  What to say?  I stepped outside.  Perhaps a brief commune with nature would clarify things.


I went down to the steps on the corner of our deck and started to slip my feet into my zori when I noticed something moving in one of my tennis shoes.  Oh no, I cringed, not a mukade.  I carefully picked up my shoe and was preparing to shake it out when I saw a pair of tiny eyes staring at me from the cave below the tongue and laces.  Something moved back further in.  It wasn't a mukade.  I put the tennis shoe down on the ground, tilting it toward the heel and tapping.  A small green lump appeared - a tiny frog.  Quickly it came bounding out with what was probably the highest leap of its life and went bouncing away into the bushes.  "Ahhh!" I exclaimed aloud and then in a whine, "Kermit, I might have squashed you!"

I walked over to Koji's, passing in front of the bonsho and thinking about ubiquitous life.  I looked at my feet to make sure I wasn't stepping on anything and thought of the Jains in India who traditionally went naked, filtered their water so as to save tiny life and carried sticks with bells to warn little creatures of their coming.  I looked at the big

bell in its house to my left.  In my mind's eye I pictured it

with large wheels and me pushing it and ringing it to warn all beings that my big feet would soon arrive over their heads and to please move out of the way.  But, of course, the giant wheels of the bell house were grinding veritable civilizations of microscopic creatures into minioblivion.  I mounted it on a balloon so that it floated before me ringing its mellow deep knell kilometers in advance.  I flew around the bell, circling higher and higher over Kyushu.

"What was that all about," came Koji's voice interrupting my flight.  "And don't walk on the moss."

I tiptoed off the island of moss and walked up to Koji's door.  He sat down at his low table on a zabuton and asked me to please sit down on the zabuton before another similar and heretofore unseen table that was perpendicular to his.  There was a vase on it with wild flowers.  And there was a clean, well-trimmed and full kerosene lamp.

"Very nice," I said.  "Where'd you get this?"

"Yoshiko-san.  She said that she didn't need it.  Do you like it?"

"Yeah, it looks elegant.  The grain is beautiful," I said stroking it. "What type of wood is it?"


I looked it up in his dictionary - zelkova.  I'd never heard of it but I'd seen it in Japanese homes in San Francisco.

"It's for you to use anytime you want.  Even if I'm sleeping."

"Ahh, Koji, that's so kind of you."

He pointed to the window directly to the left of the table.  "It has good light."

I slid open the shoji and looked down at the round cement stupa and lawn below, illuminated by the setting sun.  "Thank you very much, Koji," I said as politely and sincerely as I could in Japanese.  "You are truly my good friend."

Then he made us coffee with Creap and pulled out a couple of cigarettes from a box on his table.  I decided to put off the letter to Elin until after zazen.

"I'm happy you are here," he said.  "I never get to talk to anyone about what I'm thinking."

"Please - talk away."

Koji did talk away and I learned some about recent Hogoji history.  It turns out that he'd been unhappy at Hogoji for a year, ever since two dharma buddies of his split.  He'd been with them for two and a half years at the head temple and then half a year at Hogoji.  They were good monks he said, but most important was that they were all compatible.  For a while it was just the three of them and they lived and practiced together harmoniously, following the morning and evening schedule and getting the old run down temple back in order.  They were the first team that Nishiki sent when he decided to bring Hogoji out of moth balls and develop it into an international temple.

One day Nishiki arrived with his disciple Shuko and made him the head monk.  Shuko hadn't gone to Suienji from another temple, Suienji was now his home temple.  He wasn't sent to train under Nishiki by his father whose temple he'd take over someday like most of them.  Shuko's years abroad and unusual command of English would obviously be indispensible in dealing with foreigners and it seemed Nishiki planned for Hogoji to become Shuko's temple.

Another disciple of Nishiki's arrived at the same time.  Shuko and this other monk were tight like Koji was with his buddies.  They came speaking of Nishiki's way and Dogen's way.  They were full of ideas of how to structure Hogoji so that it would be like Dogen's original temple near Kyoto.  Immediately the chemistry was bad.  Hogoji became polarized.  Koji said that Shuko and his cohort didn't practice with their bodies but with their heads.  They spent all their time together planning the future of Hogoji and remade the schedule.  He said that they got so fanatic about studying the old systems and rules that they stopped joining in on most of the schedule with Koji and the other two monks, including the zazen.  Koji said that they were just in Shuko's room planning all the time.  Things got more and more uncomfortable.

Nishiki came to Hogoji to check things out and one of the monks felt compelled to fill him in on what had been going on.  Nishiki was furious and immediately made Koji the head monk.  Shuko's friend had to go back to Suienji.  Nishiki told Shuko in front of the others that he shouldn't go off on a trip on his own like that.  His practice should be to follow the entire schedule and to not try to control things.  He was just a new monk and he should practice accordingly.  Shuko, humiliated, nodded his agreement.  He apologized for causing discord but said that he was only trying to establish Dogen's way for Nishiki Roshi.  He said that it was obvious that his understanding was flawed and that he would practice sincerely with the others and try to purify his mind.

According to Koji, Shuko had said all the right contrite things and was just laying low and waiting for the time he could come out again.  Norman, Jakushin and Maku came from Suienji to give the place some new blood.  But for Koji's buddies the damage was done and soon they cut their stays short to get back to their home temples.  The magic was gone and Koji was alone.

"Only the egotistical monks are left.  Even now Shuko puts on airs," Koji said shaking his head.

"Weird," I said.  I hadn't been aware of any of this.  "I thought that only Norman was having a problem with Shuko.  Shuko's so quiet and seems to get along with everyone."

"He still has a plan," said Koji.  "He wears his yellow robe, the transmission robe.  It's like bragging.  I have one too but it has no meaning in a sodo (monk's hall) like this.  I only wear black robes.  All that matters is seniority."

"All that matters is seniority?" I asked.  "What about heart or understanding?"

"Of course seniority means nothing by itself.  But as for who's in charge, seniority is the determining factor and his yellow robe doesn't give him that.  I am the most senior monk in training both here and at Suienji.  I've been away from home for four years.  No one else has trained here for that long except the officers and head priests.  I'm sorry to brag.  That's not my intention.  I don't want any power but I sure don't want Shuko to have it.  He forces me to remember my seniority."

"Well I'm sorry that all happened Koji.  I don't care who's senior but I'm glad you're in charge 'cause you've got a light touch."

"One good thing is it is wonderful having Katagiri Roshi here.  He is a great priest.  I don't have such a strong feeling for Nishiki as a dharma teacher, just as a form teacher.  Katagiri is an emptiness teacher."

"I agree - it's good to be with him here - sitting and working together, eating, doing takuhatsu, having tea.  Not much talking - with him anyway."

"He teaches with his posture and his silence," said Koji.

I nodded.

"Things got better when he came," said Koji, "But only since you came have I been happy again.  You have inspired me."

"Certainly not with my silence, but my posture's not bad.  Anyway, I'm just having fun," I said to him, "Corrupting the head monk."

He waved me off in jest saying that was just a lie.

"No, it's true.  Look what's happening to you Koji.  I'm tempting you from your duty and pulling you from your faith with everything I've got.  Are you sure I don't work for Mara?"  (the legendary king of the lower realms.)

"I don't think so," he said laughing.

"Well, be careful.  Do you know what Baker Roshi, Suzuki Roshi's successor said?"

"No.  What?"

"Once he said, 'Years of expensive Zen training gone to waste.'  That made Koji laugh.  I continued, "And on another day he said that my practice was to lead my fellow students on the path to hell."

Koji put his cigarette out.  I rubbed my new table and admired the grain.