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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 44


September 29, 1989   -   MOO IF YOU LOVE BUDDHA


I walked to the sammon and sat in the open air on a beam that runs across the black rough tile under the massive overhang of the mountain-gate roof.  Some tourists trip on these obstacles but their traditional purpose is to keep out little devils that are so short they can't get over them.  I sit to the side on the demon stopper with my knees on an old blanket I bring for that purpose.  I've stopped going to the zendo.  I just come sit here, go to sanzen and then go home.  It still takes an hour and a half.  Watanabe said I had to get permission to skip the zendo part from the new head monk.

Taizen had to return to Kyoto to help out his original teacher.  The new head monk is a stern middle-aged Japanese guy who put off getting his own temple to come to Daianji to study koans with Hojo-san.  He said of course I could skip zazen in the zendo and so Watanabe also gave me his blessing.  They're so understanding.  But our reasons are different.  To me, an hour or so of zazen is enough, but to them it's because of the press of duty.  They say that since I'm a layman with responsibilities and bills to pay, it's a wonder I can come at all.

Straight ahead inside the hondo the morning sutras are playing while the latticed bell-shaped windows act as speakers bringing me the ancient chanting largely from the mouths of young foreigners.  Before long, I watch their silhouettes walk to the zendo and after a while Hojo-san walks back alone passing in front of my gaze and disappears into an entrance.  Soon I can hear everyone's feet leap onto the floor beginning the stampede to sanzen.

As they charge across the temple grounds, between the trees and by the bushes, I stand up, fold up and leave the blanket I sit on, and walk over to take my place in the back of the dark room where I sit on a couple of folded-over square cushions and wait my turn for sanzen.  Since I don't come from the zendo, my place is permanently last, behind visually impaired Den-san and the slow Frenchman.  The longer to sit.

I'm working on a koan now.  The first nine months it was susoku-kan, breathing practice.  Since then it's been "Does a dog have buddha nature?"  I repeat the question, actually, the poem which presents the question, and then I give the answer.  The answer is always the same, it's given in the poem.  Zenwise it's a very famous answer: mu.  It is a word which ostensibly means "no" but which in Zen has come to mean something more elusive like "neither no nor yes" or "neither yes nor no nor not yes nor not no" and that can go on and on.  It's emptiness and it doesn't have a meaning one can codify.  You've got to have it in your guts.  Although "mu" is the answer, if one doesn't say it right, it doesn't count, the koan isn't passed and it has to be presented again at the next sanzen.

Katagiri and Suzuki in typical Soto style didn't assign these conundrums to students, but they would sometimes discuss them in lectures.  Katagiri tolerated the fact that some of his students, rather than be involved with the Suienji system, studied in Japan with teachers that used koans.  Suzuki's teacher once sent him to study with a Rinzai teacher.  He said he got passed on his koan without having deserved it.

Some teachers pass their students through a series of koans quickly.  I have a friend who studied for less than a year with a well respected Western Zen teacher and he passed eighty koans.  The older Watanabe (no relation) Roshi in Fukui prefecture is reputed never to have passed anyone on mu, their first koan, and he's been in business for decades.

Some Buddhist friends from the States were visiting Elin and me and the husband asked if I'd been working on koans.

I said I had.

"How many have you passed?"

"None.  I'm still working on the first one, mu."

He asked if I knew that so-and-so was studying with so-and-so and had passed thirty koans in the first month?  I felt like the football player who was kicked off the team because he couldn't meet the academic requirements.  I'd heard the joke at a football banquet when I was in the ninth grade.  All he had to do was to spell one letter in one word correctly and he'd make the team.  The poor guy spelled coffee, "k-a-u-p-h-y."


          This morning, such competitive considerations far behind, I sat before Watanabe and repeated the poem.


Joshu Osho                 - Joshu the venerable monk

Chinami ni soto            - was asked by Chinami

Kushi ni kaete             - as for a dog

Busho ari ya mata nashi ya - is there buddha nature or not?

Shu iwaku mu               - the priest(Joshu) answered mu


Then I gave my moment's rendition of "mu," exhaling it deep and unadorned.

"Not bad but not one," he said after a pause.  "You still don't have the samadhi of mu."  Then he demonstrated a low steady mu.  Inspiring - a hard act to follow.  "Keep it up," he said, "Let it come of itself."  And he rang the bell.


I love mu.  I used to repeat the word "buddha" and some variations on that theme when I needed something to center myself or when I felt lost.  (Once when the slippery walls of confusion had so thoroughly surrounded me, I thought, this is low enough, this will be my bottom.  But how to proceed from here?  I then decided to say "buddha" and let that be my rope, to climb and be pulled by - and it would be my sky, to be big and bigger in.  Sometimes I would say it repeatedly - sometimes I'd forget for weeks.)  Now I go "mu."  It sounds like "moo" but it doesn't make me feel like a cow, more like the ushigaeru.  And thus it seems like the appropriate practice for this place.

Maybe I use it more like a mantra than a koan (which he pointedly has told me not to do).  I don't think I'm supposed to like it this much.  I get the idea it's supposed to bring all my delusions and angst to a head, to crystalize the mortal dilemma.  Compared to the inspiring directions I get in Sanzen and the noble examples from the old stories and Hojo-san's lectures, I'm just humming a tune and going about my business.

And sanzen.  What a system - meeting the teacher every time you go to sit.  It's so different from the Zen I was raised on in Northern California.  I was embarrassed one day having tea informally with Hojo-san when he asked me what Soto practice was with the teacher.  When I told him we didn't work on koans, he asked if dokusan (the Soto word for sanzen) was just like advice or therapy.  I said that I didn't know.  And then when I told him how seldom we met in dokusan at all, he was just puzzled.

I remembered a time when all the senior priests of the San Francisco Zen Center were called together to meet with Katagiri who was acting as interim abbot and our principal advisor.  Priests came from the farm, Tassajara, Berkeley and San Francisco and sat in black robes facing Katagiri as he and the rest of us were informed what the topic of the meeting was.  Katagiri was told that many of us had to meet with new and younger students to guide them and answer their practice questions.  Could he please give us a teaching on dokusan, the private interview?  We wanted him to clarify and codify it for us.  A tape recorder rolled on at his feet.  We all sat seriously awaiting his answer.  He looked pretty serious himself.  Pregnant silence.  But it was an hysterical pregnant silence, for there was no baby for the basket - the answer never came.  He said he didn't know - that his teachers didn't give dokusan or even teach him dharma, and he had to figure it out for himself.  We also would have to figure it out for ourselves. The tatami was pulled out from under us.

I didn't want to talk to Watanabe about what Soto Zen was.  I'd never figured it out myself.  Like Suzuki had said, it was sitting with wandering mind and painful legs.  We also didn't talk much about Zen and especially not about enlightenment.  We regarded Zen-that-ran-after-enlightenment as goal seeking or, "having some idea," as Suzuki said.  I told Watanabe that I treasured every moment I'd had with my Soto teachers and friends, but that it was good to have something definite to chew on for a change.


After sanzen I walked home.  The buildings were all wet in overcast dew and blue predawn light.  Fukuyama Sensei, our neighbor who's head of the city's school board, was sitting zazen under the Sammon.  I picked up my blanket and walked on.  I thought of Taizen and wished he was still around to talk with and tease.  A lady jogged by with her preteen daughter.  I walked in our back door after ducking under hanging laundry that had not quite dried the day before in the humid air.  Good to be here, I thought, filling the kettle with water.