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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 41




When the big standup buddha drum in the hatto calls, I throw on my work clothes and go to the courtyard where the work leader assigns tasks.  Except for the tenzo in the kitchen, we usually work together for a couple of hours in the morning as well as in the afternoon.  We work at a consistent and enjoyable overall pace which varies individually from Koji's driven to Maku's spacey.  Work in the temple is not called work or shigoto, but samu which is work-practice, another form of zazen.  There may be some talking during samu but not much.  I'm sure there'll be a lot less when I'm gone.  On this mountainside, temple toil is a joy as it should be everywhere.  The feeling is natural and unforced and it seems that Dogen's way takes us away like a leaf in a stream or a turtle in a spin dryer.

I've swept and raked paths and grounds, chopped and sawed firewood and emptied the outhouse.  I've cut grass with a kama till my arms were about to drop off.  The Japanese at Hogoji squat as they work but Norman and I haven't developed those particular muscles since childhood and after a while we fall down on our knees, staining and soiling our trousers.  To them it's bad form and Koji warns me I'll get a hole in my jeans.  I say that's all the rage these days.  I remember kneeling at the edge of a high stone wall whacking at the vegetation and then pausing to look at the lush, green, irrigated terraces overflowing with water which spills down the verdant steps to Ryumon.

Frequently Katagiri shows up and pitches in but not as much as he used to at Tassajara or, according to Norman, in Minnesota.  He seems to be fighting some bug, but he doesn't say.


One morning Katagiri, Koji and I were barbering the grass while Shuko, Norman and Jakushin were trimming the hedges around the dome-shaped stupa.  I had to mow down many bright colorful flowers.  Koji told me not to worry, that they would grow back.  I saved these wild blooms in a pile that I planned to take back up with me to the top.

Maku brought cups and a pot of green tea down to us for our morning break.  We sat in front of the monument on the turf.  It certainly stands out by itself in the midst of all this greenery.  The base is a circle of about thirty feet in diameter.  On the top of the smooth cement dome there is a block with large Sanskrit letters on each face, and out of that ascends a golden spire.

Koji called it the Hokyorinto and said that it meant the dharma-bridge-wheel-stupa.  A stupa was originally a shrine that housed part of Shakyamuni Buddha's remains but nowadays it can mean more than that.  From India to China the stupas that claim a bone bit or tooth probably exceed the number of molecules there were in Buddha's body.  I'm sure it's the thought that counts.

It turns out that the monument whose environs we were sprucing up contains the ashes of Japanese, American and Australian soldiers who died fighting in New Guinea where Nishiki was stationed during the war.  He was an officer in the Japanese army. 

Norman leaned over and whispered, "Wonder if the old imperialist thought at the time that the Emperor was a god."  I thought perhaps Katagiri had overheard us so I took the opportunity to ask him if he had ever believed that the Emperor was a god.  He grimaced and vehemently shook his head no.

Next to the stupa two black butterflies were having a time, going around together in circles, parting, landing on flowers (there were plenty left), coming back together.  Koji says they are kuro-koge-hacho, burnt-black butterflies.  They do look like charred velvet on the wing.  And those lighter blue and green markings are fairly glowing.

I remembered sadly a brief period in my youth when I caught butterflies in a net and mounted them for display.  It was fascinating for a while, having them close up and immobile to admire.  But more and more I was disturbed by the transfixing experience of watching them painfully writhe and die from the fumes of ammonia in a cotton pad that I would place in a jar with them.  After a period of struggling with the horror I was creating, I realized that their beauty was in their living, their lives were their own.

The ebony pair swept around me.  I always see two.  I'm sure they're not the same but I think of them that way - mating for life and all.

Then for all beings who had been born and died, in war or not, eastern or western or northern or southern, remembered or forgotten, human or butterfly, I put the wild flowers I'd cut and collected at the base of the memorial and we went back to work whacking flowers and grass indiscriminately.


For a couple of days we picked leaves from the tea plants that grow down by the stupa.  Miki Oba-san, old lady or grandmother Miki, and two other old ladies came from the village below.  Yoshiko-san was feeling well and joined in.  We worked together all day long.  Due to their country dialect I couldn't understand much of what the old ladies from the village said.  And every time I tried to speak to them in Japanese, they would laugh loudly, Miki showing her few darkened teeth and one silver one.

The tea bushes were low with small dark green leaves.  Some were rounded and some were squared and ran along like hedges.  We picked the smallest lightest new baby leaves off the top and dropped them into cloth bags worn around our necks.  Green tea is full of caffeine.  Sometimes I would take a couple of tiny leaves and chew them thoroughly, until I'd feel a buzz which would keep me going nicely.  While the old ladies filled their bags I would futilely try to keep up with them, expending lots more energy and adding little to the bounty.  Their nimble hands had the technique down.  They worked steadily and without resistance. 

Nothing distracted them, not even the bees, which made me nervous.  There are a number of varieties including your run of the mill honey bee.  Larger than any bees I've ever seen in the States are the suzumebachi, the sparrow bee.  One day I was trimming vines and pulling weeds on a stone wall with Norman and Katagiri.  The three of us were standing along the wall on stones that jutted out just for that purpose.  We were working away in silence when I thought I heard a helicopter.  We turned in the direction of this put-put sound and Norman remarked, "Oh my gosh, it's granddaddy."  Sure 'nuff, coming down along the same wall we were working on was a bee of mythical proportions.  We slowly climbed down and gave a wide berth to this noble beast: yellow, black, fat and chugging along. 

As it passed, I heard Norman mutter in awe: "The Hymenoptera, the Hymenoptera."