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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 37


May, 1988   -   THE FOURTH GRAPE


"Four is an unlucky number," said Maku.  Four is shi and shi is also death.  I had brought him four grapes.  He took three.

"You could still say yon for four couldn't you?  It wouldn't be unlucky then would it?" I asked.

"Superstition is not so logical," he said peeling the large green muscat.

"Of course," I said, eating the fourth grape.  "What do you do about four?"

"We say yon or yotsu a lot."  He sat on a cushion facing an open shoji screen.  A kerosene lamp burned on the desk to give him light.

"Anything else?" I asked, pleased to be having an actual conversation with untalkative Maku.

"Hospitals don't have four in their phone number and we don't do things in fours so much.  Many items, like table settings, are sold in fives."  He put a green ribbon as a marker on the page he was reading in a thick book, closed it and put it to the side.  "Nine is also unlucky."

"Why's that?"

"Because ku also means suffering.  That's why we often say kyu."

"I was born on the ninth, I said

"Nine is lucky in China," he added tactfully.

"I don't think I could keep up with all of it.  I'll just have to depend on faith and hope I don't step on any cracks."


I told Maku about cracks and mothers' backs.  He said, "Cover your thumbs when you see a hearse or you won't be with your parents when they die.  Same goes if you cut your fingernails after sunset."

I wanted to hear more but I had to get going. "The reason I came in is to ask if you want to go to town today."

"I don't like to do things on days with dates that have four or nine in them."  He ran his fingers along the spines of books in a bookcase to the right of his desk.

"Then how can you ever do anything on days off?"

"I try to cook on four-and-nine days and get another day off."

"Does the monastic four-and-nine day tradition derive from these beliefs?" I asked.

"Maybe," he said.  "Life is full of superstition.  And Zen is full of magic.  Zen comes from Taoism, not just Buddhism.  Taoism is full of magic.  So is Buddhism.  So, I believe, is Christianity."  He was still looking for a book while he talked.

I told him that Edward Conze, a cranky and eccentric Buddhist scholar, said once in a class I was in, "If there's no magic, there's no religion."

"But what is magic?" I asked Maku.  "I didn't understand Conze.  Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi never taught us anything but sitting and not getting caught by things - by things like magic."

Maku tilted his head then straightened it again.  "Everything is interconnected.  Magic is just a result that uses connections you don't see.  New technology is magic.  The natives in New Guinea during the war when Nishiki was there thought airplanes were magic.  When they first met Europeans, they thought mirrors were magic.  To a young child, his parents are magic.  Maybe the ultimate magic is enlightenment."

I'd never thought of it that way.  Norman said that in Japan they practiced magical-faith-Buddhism as opposed to America's psychotherapeutic-protestant brand, but I'd never really gotten a handle on the distinctions.  I watched as Maku found the book he was looking for and brought it down on his desk.  I'd always wanted to see what sort of magic books he was studying.  I scooted up to his desk to see.  Good, I thought at first glance, there are pictures.  I moved in closer and was bewildered to see English.  "I See Everything" was the title.  He opened it up.  It was a large glossy book full of color pictures.  The page he opened up to had "backpacking" written in big letters across the top.  There was a drawing of a hiker with a backpack and a tent and all across that page were pictures of camping items with the names of everything in English next to them.  Maku turned the page.  "A department store" was written across the top and the next two pages were full of pictures and words of that scene.  He kept turning the pages and smiling.  "I see everything," he said with a twinkle in his eye.  "I also study English," he said in English.