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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 35




Hogoji's kitchen has a dark wood floor which has some frighteningly weak places that I carefully avoid, fearing sudden exits into the netherworld.  There is a lower section with a dirt floor that is literally on ground level.  The soft, firm footing of this area is not the same loose, sandy dirt as outside.  These floors are packed and rich in clay.  We sweep them in the morning along with the wood and tatami floors.  I am content to work on the dirt floors as I do sometimes when I'm on kitchen duty.  I like the way they absorb me.

The kitchen is poorly lit by kerosene lamps, like all the interiors - except you need to see in the kitchen more than elsewhere in order to get your mitts on the food and stir it and whatnot.  It's even darker here because of all the ages of kerosene and wood smoke that have blackened the walls and beams and wood slats below the roof in this ceilingless room.

They could use a good lighting consultant.  There is one Aladdin lamp, the Rolls Royce of kerosene lighting, but it's only used occasionally for sewing and reading at the round table in the study.  There are hurricane lamps, the kind that are intended for exterior use such as lighting paths.  The all-glass ones are better but often have poorly trimmed wicks and blackened chimneys.  I pointed out to Shuko that the lamps weren't well trimmed and cleaned.  I said I had years of experience living without electricity and suggested some improvements, but he couldn't see what the problem was.  I tried to elicit support from Koji who said he could see just fine.  He suggested I get some glasses on the next town trip.

"But it's not just the fact that it's hard to see," I told him, "There are the fumes too.  And the heaters are even worse.  Sometimes when we get the kerosene heater going in the study the smell of kerosene gets so bad I think I need a gas mask."

He laughed and said I was a great kidder.

I told him I wasn't kidding and that at Tassajara we kept our lamps burning clean and that when we eliminated kerosene heating from the rooms that the general health of the community improved dramatically.

Koji refused to take me seriously.  He wanted the mind of Beam Alert, not the Health and Safety Fascist.


We wash the dishes in cold water which runs continually from the kitchen tap.  By that I mean it runs wide open all day and all night.  The first time I walked into the kitchen I saw the water was on and turned the faucet off.  Maku ran over and turned it back on immediately.  He put his arms together in an "x" but didn't explain anything.  Later Norman told me that the water supply is a gravity feed from a hose that comes down from a creek.  There's no shortage, but if the flow gets interrupted, air can get caught in the line and stop the water.  It's weird to come from California where every drop of water is precious to a flow through system like that.  I never did get used to that tap always being on.  It may have been the single hardest thing I had to adjust to in Japan.


Koji was washing and I was drying.  I was asking how do you say this thing and that action and was writing down what he told me on a sheet of paper I kept in my pocket.  I had just learned the words to distinguish the hand towel, tenugui, from the cloth which we used to wipe the table, whatever-it's-called.  The damp dish towels, the fukin, had turned grey with use and I said I'd be happy to wash them but Koji said they were still clean.  To me they looked like zokin, rags used to clean the floor.

"How do you define 'clean?'" I asked him.  He said that clean is clean and I said that the Japanese and English words obviously didn't match up.

Even though it's not exactly as Dogen planned it, the kitchen during cleanup is one time we regularly socialize, chatting some as we wash and dry together after meals, me always writing down new words and sometimes making energetic and diligent Koji fall down laughing.  It's easy to make him laugh but only the rare perfectly timed comment can fell him.  One must understand that these Japanese monks, although frequently very good natured, don't joke and cut up, or for that matter, act cynical or ironic or silly or sacrilegious or poke fun at things.  At least on the surface, everyone takes the monk trip real seriously.  I'm not saying that they can't be easy going - there's a lot in terms of lightness that can be learned from the Japanese monks here by foreign Zen practitioners, some of whom at times get very heavy and dark indeed.  It's just a matter of difference of style.  I lurked around the corners of these differences ready to strike.

Koji was inquiring into my personal history, a topic I was more than happy to talk about.  It was almost as if he felt that my answers might contain some gem of wisdom.  I'm older than Koji is, taller, fatter and uglier.  And have studied Zen a bit longer too - to no avail, but he didn't know that, and so he was relating to me with respect.  He wanted me to share with him what motivated me to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha all the way up those seemingly interminable wood beam and stone steps outside.

"Why did you come here to practice at Hogoji?" he asked.

I turned to him.  He had a serious look on his face, open and respectful.  I asked him for a clarification of a Japanese word he'd just used.

He explained it.  I added it to my list and returned to drying dishes.  He looked a little perturbed and was obviously waiting for an answer.  He asked again, saying, "Why did you come here?  Are you just here to study Japanese?  Is Hogoji just a language school to you?"  He's such a sincere guy.

Maku was sweeping the floor and listening with reserved but keen interest.

I looked at Koji and told him pointedly, "That's right.  I have absolutely no interest in Zen at all."  He gaped at me.  "I came here merely to study Japanese for free.  In zazen I review vocabulary."  I started listing the words he had taught me in the first week and Koji was on the ground clutching his sides.  I even got a reaction from Maku who smiled.  I was pleased and dried another dish.


The tenzo, or cook, has a big job and is usually exhausted by the end of the day.  He must collect wood, keep the fires going just right, and not burn the food.  We cook with wood in big crocks called hibachi that are down on the dirt area and which are started with fire from twigs and branches but hurray! no plastic.  The ventilation is poor.  There's the big opening that goes unobstructed to the courtyard out front and a large glass window to the other side which opens up, but it's not always enough.  It's a situation where being "traditional" just isn't good enough unless there's a strong draft.

Late one afternoon I was raking the gravel in the courtyard out front when I noticed clouds of smoke billowing out from the kuin.  I left my zoris at the side of the thick stone step and entered the building.  Smoke was hanging in the air and my eyes watered.  I walked through the dining area and into the study, the air getting thicker with smoke as I progressed.  The source was obviously the kitchen.  I entered with some concern and readiness to act.  The fumes made it hard to see and breathe and I immediately started coughing.  As I stood there I heard a tune being hummed and looked through the haze to see Norman sitting down in the lower section between the two hibachi.  Smoke was billowing out from underneath them.

"Norman!" I said for lack of anything else to say.  As I got closer I could make out that he was in a semisprawled position, his long arms and legs dangling out.  Below his shaved bumpy head was a maniacal grin.  This face instantly told the story of one whose day had been long - filled with trials and frustration.  There was a distinct look of resignation, even submission to forces greater than ourselves.  I realized that Hogoji was in no danger of burning down but that Norman might be a candidate for the straitjacket pretty soon if something were not done.

"Norman?" I said again, hoping for a reply.

He tilted his head slightly, looked at me piercingly with his smoke glazed eyes.  Slowly he put his right hand out with the thumb up.  "THANK YOU and OK!" he said defiantly through the smoke.