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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 49


October 18, 1989   -   MR. TEN SQUARE FEET


Elin and I went over to Daianji to welcome back Hojo-san.  He'd just returned from a two week trip to America.  It was nine in the morning and we had an hour.  I reminded her that I had a class at home at ten so we should keep track of the time.         These are the best days.  All traces of summer are gone.  The deciduous leaves are melting to yellows and reds and, as we walked up to the big temple gate, we felt comfortable and relieved in the slight fall breeze.  Ananda and Dai-san smiled and waved as we rounded the stone path toward the entryway by the kitchen.  A wasp buzzed by.

A moment later we entered the large tatami room where people sit in the morning waiting their turn for sanzen.  Who would guess that behind the fading sumi paintings on the fusuma, Watanabe sits alone amidst stacks of paper and books in his two little rooms, Mister Ten Square Feet indeed.  We could hear him back there on the phone and so we went through the adjoining area where the meals are eaten and stepped out onto the deck overlooking yet another dreamy garden, one of the many to be found around this old rambling temple.  Within tile-roofed clay walls, there is a tasteful arrangement of shrubs and stones connected by soft moss surrounding a venerable old tree with drooping branches propped by forked sticks.

There were a couple of wasps buzzing around.  These weren't the little black wasps that collect on the panes by the osetsuma.  I move the sliding doors and brush them out with no concern.  No, these are more like what we call hornets in the States.  They're big, long and brown.  They come in sizes, like tee shirts or bees.  I'd seen a medium on the way to the kitchen.  These were the larges.


We could tell by the change of timing in his words and the tone of his voice that Watanabe's conversation was coming to an end.  Goodbyes in Japanese tend to drag out for a while with each party adding yet another formalized expression to the prior one.  We sauntered over just outside his door and waited for the short parting shots to die out and finally heard the sound of the receiver clunking down.

I called out "Sumimasen."

Immediately he responded with, "Hai!"

Then in English Elin and I both called out, "Welcome back!"

We talked for a second through the closed door and he bade us go wait for him in the osetsuma.  According to my Japanese-English dictionary, an osetsuma is a parlor or drawing room, but it's awfully plain to be called by such a dignified name.  It's Hojo-san's comfortable everyday meeting room where he receives guests informally.  It's small and slightly cluttered with cushions, tea paraphernalia, books, and an open cabinet with papers and tapes of his lectures.  Hojo-san was there right away and seemed happy to see us.  We all sat down on zabuton on the tatami and he started preparing some macha tea for us.  When we sit together on the floor we all seem closer to the same size.  His face is smooth and friendly, tan.  He smiled comfortably as he removed the potent green macha powder with a narrow, flat bamboo instrument from a silver can and spooned it into unglazed clay bowls.

Elin asked him how his trip to America had been.  He said he'd gone to lead a seven day sesshin in Oregon, and after it was over he'd flown down to the San Francisco Bay Area where he participated in another meditation retreat with a group of people who had cancer.  He went straight into talking about the cancer retreat and was obviously touched by the experience.

"I had to give a talk and I didn't know what to say.  I wondered what I could tell them that would help?   I had pictured them as sick and troubled.  But when I arrived and saw their faces, the bright eyes - I knew they were not sick.  Their minds were healthy."  He briskly stirred a bowl of tea with his whisk.  "Then I knew that I could speak to them."

He said he was ready to cut it off at any point for fear that they would tire quickly, but people kept asking questions.  A lively discussion ensued for two hours.

"This is the way that we must all practice," he said.  "This is the way that we must live, as if we might die any minute, with a knowledge of the preciousness of each day and each minute."


In that morning's sanzen Watanabe had radiated this sense of immediacy.  He made it seem like realization is right here and available instead of a billion lifetimes of effort away.

He replied to my "mu" with the usual guttural "Hai!" starting low and moving up an octave, ending abruptly as he simultaneously squeezed his mushroom stick.  It didn't have the same casual tone as when he'd said hello to Elin and me from his room.  It had more of a sobering effect like a judge smashing down his gavel in court.

Making a fist and putting his thumb out, the way an artist might do who was eyeballing a subject for the canvas, Hojo-san rumbled out from his guts a "mu" of his own and pushed his thumb down till his arm extended in front of his navel.  "Not in your head," he patted his shining pate, "in your tanden," he said, hitting his belly.

He put his thumb back to forehead height and pushed it down through the air again with the force of a weightlifter pumping iron, encouraging me to thus concentrate on my koan.

He said, "When you're teaching English," and then "mu-u-u-u-u" his voice riding down with the thumb.  "When you're on your bicycle, mu-u-u-u-u-u."  He concluded in English, "Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!"

With the sound of his donut shaped bell, I stood up and bowed.


These memories came to me in flashes, all packaged and wrapped and zipping by in the spaces between words while Hojo-san talked about his trip to America.

I looked at him speaking so energetically about his experience at the retreat for cancer patients.  He was alive and learning - not dead in that pool of wisdom that some seem to drown in.  The guy has been so isolated in same-as-it-ever-was monastic practice and his role as know-it-all big shot that if he didn't make an effort, he could just ride out the formulas and never know that the world was turning.  He's eager to turn too, though he says he doesn't want to catch up to everything, just what he thinks he can handle, and I could feel his effort in the sound of his words.

"To Japanese, cancer is a death sentence.  The doctors don't even tell you if you've got it.  They just tell your family.  And then your family won't tell you - and most people don't want to know anyway.  People put their parents in hospitals just because they're old.  They aren't with their parents when they die.  That used to be thought of as a terrible thing.  Now everyone just wants to run from death - to keep it away and not deal with it.  These people were finding great life in each moment of dying.  I'm grateful to them."

          Hojo-san was rinsing out the bowls and making a new batch of tea from dried flowers.  Just then a humongous wasp flew into the room through the open window.  "Oh my god," I gasped, "I didn't know they came in extra-large." The tug between his words and my thoughts had vanished, for before us was this wasp, a Goliath, a good two and a half inch forget-everything-else type beastie.  I managed to hide a swoon in a readjustment of my sitting position.  The giant hovered above the table and neither Elin nor Hojo-san seemed to care.

"Uh, uh, what's that?" I said as nonchalantly as possible.

Hojo-san looked up and said, "Oh that's a kumabachi."

"Kumabachi - that means bear bee," I said mechanically, holding onto a leg of the table with one hand and Elin's ankle with the other.

"Their bite isn't as bad as the suzumebachi.  They're big, but not much of a bite."

"Well I sure don't want to test it," I mumbled in English, wondering how they could possibly live in a screenless temple when monsters like these could fly in at any time. 

Watanabe asked Elin about how her work was going on some bowls she was making with Jo-san, which is what he calls Jessica.  Betraying me, Elin answered him casually, rather than say that we had to get back soon.  I looked at the clock and saw that it was thirteen till ten.  Soon I had class.  But this beast would surely attack me before that and I would be taken to the hospital in cardiac arrest while Elin and Hojo-san discussed the natural glazes in local clay. 

Then with a hellish buzzing the wasp flew out into the hall.  I had not been able to hide my fear and Elin and Hojo-san were now laughing at me.  I chuckled nervously and smiled like someone who had just lost on Wheel of Fortune. 

I remembered another sanzen session.  He had asked me if I understood the word, "gyroscope," and I'd said "Hai."  I must be more like that, he said - like a gyroscope, concentrated on one spot and centered in one spot and then I could spin and keep my balance no matter where I am.

The bear bee reentered the room and promptly buzzed right into my gyroscope.  "Oh gaah," I lowly muttered.  I was sure that this was the end, but it flew out the window.  Hojo-san had asked us how our classes were going and Elin was telling about how much she was learning from her students.

I looked at the clock.  It was ten till ten.  All of a sudden I remembered that my class wasn't at ten, "How could I have forgotten!"  My eyes went up and I caught my breath.  "Oh no!  It's at nine thirty!  It was Twenty minutes ago!"  I jumped up screaming, "Ahhhhhh!"

Hojo-san looked at me surprised.  "Nani?" he said glancing about to see if the bear bee was back.

I was already half out the door explaining in submachine gun style that I'd blown it because this talk was so fascinating and I hoped he could hear me as I zoomed away, "Excuse me, I'm being very rude!  I cannot be forgiven!" - standard phrases.  The latter I repeated as I ran on the stones past the wall outside his window.

"Hai!" he called out as a dust cloud rose behind me.