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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 50


May, 1988   -   SHUKO TELLS ALL


Every few hours visitors walk up the steps.  Whoever is around will greet them.  The friendliness of the greeting of course differs with the mood and personality of the monk.  Maku tends to just bow and smile.  Jakushin seems to force his salutation out of the gloom.  Katagiri is always cordial but not inviting - he will quickly return to whatever he's doing.  Koji and Norman are the most outgoing and each will go out of his way to accommodate the guests.  So will Shuko though he's more reserved in his approach.  But he has a way with guests, taking his time and speaking softly.  He's not comfortable with people the way Koji is but he makes up for it in the quiet and attentive way he takes care of them.

On the afternoon of a shiku-nichi three ladies walked into the courtyard.  I was doing my laundry and said good day to them and they responded enthusiastically.  After they had paid their respects at the entrance to the hatto and thrown a few coins into the donation box, I asked them if they'd like some tea.  They would.  There were two middle-aged ladies and a younger one of about twenty, all dressed casually in slacks and loose blouses appropriate for walking in the woods.  Shuko came out from the kitchen where he was making dinner and joined in.  The ladies made a fuss over me being a gaijin.  Shuko sat on the steps with them while I went to make tea.  I came back out in five minutes with a tray, cups, a brewing pot of green tea and some cookies.  Shuko was answering a question about the practice at Hogoji and the ladies were listening respectfully.  I poured the tea.  It looked like pea soup.  Shuko's eyes bulged.

"It looks a little strong, doesn't it," I said embarrassed.

"Yes it does," he said.

The mother of the young lady saved the day by saying that's exactly how she likes it.  She picked hers up with a gochiso sama (what a treat) and took a sip.  The other two followed and they all three said, "Oishii!"  They also told me my Japanese was excellent.  Nice of them considering I'd only said a few simple words.  I knew that for the rest of their lives they would tell this story laughing and saying how gaijin can't make tea.

They asked me if I was a monk and before I could say no, Shuko said yes, that I was a very good monk.  So I countered by saying that I was a namagusa-bozu which is a monk who "stinks of being raw," a decadent monk.  They got a kick out of that but waved their hands sideways signifying disbelief.

The young lady was attractive despite a youthful complexion problem.  I might have been the first foreigner she or any of them had ever met.  She kept staring at me.  She said I was very handsome which made them all giggle and then she asked if I was married which made them quiet until I said no and then they giggled again.  It was taking much the same course as the talk with the Philippine ladies in Kikuoka had.  I said that I was engaged which wasn't quite true, but things were leaning in that direction.  This elicited ehs and ahs and in no way diminished their interest in me.  The conversation drifted till we all found ourselves saying gosh, it's getting late and we've so much to do, it's been wonderful talking to you, do come back and the like.  The young lady looked at me sweetly when they left and stirred my mind and body for the rest of the day where it had been still for a time.


"Well, that was nice, wasn't it," I said to Shuko back in the kitchen as I washed the cups and he sliced the dinner pickles.

"Yes, you are very good with guests," he answered.

"You're the one who has a way with guests.  You snow them."

"Snow?"  His English is good but he doesn't know everything.

"Um, charm them.  Charm them with the dharma, charma dharma or should that be charming dharming?"

"Oh," said Shuko unsure whether it was a compliment or a put down.

"But the tea!  Oh I'm sorry, you must have been terribly embarrassed."

"Oh no, it's all right," he said.  "You'll remember next time."

"Yeah, listen, I used to know how to make green tea.  I'll practice on Norman some so that doesn't happen again.  He's expendable."

"Good idea," he said with no hint of sarcasm.  When Shuko speaks English, the tone is flat, the way that Japanese is spoken, without the hills and valleys of intonation that we have in English.  So it's hard to see where he's coming from.  But I don't care.  He can be coming from anywhere he wants.  I dried the cups individually, walking each one to the cabinet where they were kept.


Once Shuko was out on the deck while I was talking to an old lady visitor at the temple.  She said of him, "Odayaka na kao," a peaceful face.  Shuko does have a peaceful face and it stays that way almost all the time regardless of how things are going.

Norman says that it's often a superficial peace.  "You never know what's going on inside," he said.  "But that's generally true in Japan.  Appearance is everything - facade is art."

Shuko lived for eight years in the States.  Elin says he was considered attractive by the women at Zen Center where he spent a good deal of time.  He makes a good first impression.  At Zen Center he was helpful to people when they needed him.  Many students, especially the newer ones, prefer Japanese monks to Western ones.  They look the part.  Funny thing is that Shuko got interested in Zen in America and was ordained by a lovable recluse Japanese priest who lived in the mountains North of San Francisco.  Shuko had not studied Zen in Japan up to that point and was less experienced than a lot of the Western priests and even some of the people he was advising.  Ironically, it seems he fit in better in the States than in Japan.


That evening after zazen Shuko invited me to have tea with him.  We didn't have it in his room.  He closed the shoji door quickly and motioned me toward the study area.  He made genmaicha.  Some of the kernels of rice had popped creating little puffs of white.  He put a few pinches in a small reddish brown tea pot.  Sliding the pot over to the large thermos and pressing the thermos top, he pumped steaming hot water out of the spout and down into the pot.  After a minute of silence, he poured the tea.

"This little teapot comes from my home prefecture.  There is a special type of clay there.  This pottery is important to the people from where I come.  A poor family or a rich family, either one will have a teapot like this, or a cup or a vase on the altar or some pieces in the cabinet.  It can be the most important object in the house.  If there is a guest they will bring it out.  If it's considered valuable it won't leave tatami level unless it's being held with both hands and one elbow on the mat."

"Like in tea ceremony."

"Yes, that is the way to care for something so that it won't break in a thousand years."

I leaned down and looked at the aged brown earthy implement and thought how wonderful to come from a place which prizes simple, straightforward, functional objects like that.  "Where I grew up we valued oil fields, slaughterhouses and bombers," I said.

Shuko was unusually forthcoming that evening and reminisced about his past.  He comes from a poor farming family in Northern Japan.  He did well in a commercial school and after graduating did accounting work for a company in Nagoya.  He was working hard in the day and going to night school.  He said he wasn't your typical country boy, or your typical Japanese boy for that matter.  He had some bright ideas and he told them to his boss.  "Pretty forward behavior in Japan, especially for a new employee.  Stack one miracle on another, my boss listened to me."  He became the boss's favorite and was quickly promoted.

Things went along rosily for a while but he indicated that he got full of himself and created resentment in the organization.  "This grew into a lot of resentment," he told me staring out the window into the darkness.  "We've got a saying here that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

"Yes," I said, "I've heard that often."

"I thought that being on the good side of the boss would protect me from that sort of thing."  He paused.  "I could see only a promising future.  But I was rising too quickly."  He stopped.

I could see the nail rising above the others and a giant hammer pausing before its powerful descent.  Something happened.  And what that something was, he wouldn't say.  Something behind the peaceful face.  At times, he has told me about various things that he's sad or discontent about, like his marriage breaking up or his relationship with Norman, but I couldn't get near whatever happened to him in Nagoya.  Something bad.

He left Japan right after that and went to college, choosing, for some strange reason, the American University in Beirut.  He said he had to get out, out of this stifling conditioning, out of this constraining and at times humiliating country.

"I wanted to go anywhere.  I was sure that anything would be better than Japan.  I chose Beirut because I could get into the school there quickly.  I took the first plane that I could make."

There he met his wife to be, a small Irish American woman from Boston who was defying her parents wishes by going to school in Beirut.  She took a liking to this Oriental stranger and started bringing him fruit and doing his laundry.  He didn't know about dating and Western ways and so he responded in the only way that he knew how.  He asked her to marry him.  She immediately accepted.

He went to America with high hopes of the favors he would receive as the son-in-law of a lawyer but was to find himself living for the first year as a stowaway in a sorority house.  There he improved his English and came to be fast friends with many of the sisters.  Sadly, he was never accepted into his wife's family and he couldn't get a good job.  He and his wife never adjusted to each other and before long he ended up on his own and very unhappy.

Now he has the yellow robe and will maybe have this international training temple as his own someday way out in the middle of nowhere.  It sounds romantic but I wonder if he can hack it forever here.  If he does stay I wouldn't be surprised if he gets married by arrangement and lives in a house down in the village.  Just a hunch.  Temple priests usually get married.

Shuko was raised strictly.  He said that his mother wouldn't let him in the door if he was hurt or had been beaten up - not until he'd stopped crying.

"Beaten up?" I said.  "Did you get into fights?"  I couldn't imagine this gentle man as a scrappy kid.

"Oh yes, I caused a lot of trouble until I got older and realized that the only way out of that place was to do well in school."  His parents worked long hours.  He received much of his rearing from his grandparents.

"In my family nothing was supposed to be fun.  Every minute was a chance to make an effort or bear up under some difficulty."

His grandparents had the ultimate say in the big farmhouse where they all lived.  They decided when he could go out and for how long.  "This ended up meaning that I couldn't go out.  I had to stay in and study all the time.  I read a lot."  He sat up a little straighter and bit his lip.  "You know what my favorite book was?"

"No, what?"

"Huckleberry Finn.  I had a Japanese translation that my father gave me.  It was the best gift I ever got.  It represented to me everything that I wanted that I couldn't have.  I lived in beautiful countryside like Huckleberry Finn but I couldn't get out and run around in it like him.  I felt like a prisoner.  I wanted to have adventures."

           When he was bad his grandparents would hold him down and burn the back of his neck.  He said that most kids only got that sort of treatment once and that from then on they would never again do anything to merit such punishment - however, in Shuko's case he received this frightening negative programing a number of times.

When asked what he might have done that was so horrible, he said, "Oh, I'd go fishing at night with friends."   I asked what was so bad about that and he reminded me that he wasn't supposed to go out at all at night and that his grandparents considered fishing to be dangerous because, as is the case with most Japanese people until recently, he didn't know how to swim.

"They were really stupid," he said.

Ah, I thought, I can see the anger on his face.  Now his bitterness will come out.  "Why do you say they were stupid?" I asked.

"Because they would come right up to the light."

I searched for the meaning of this statement.  I imagined his sadistic grandparents holding a torch, the torch they were about to burn him with, their faces near the light.  "But...  why did that make them stupid.  I don't quite get it."

"Because we could catch them," he said smiling.

"What would you do with them when you caught them?" I asked.

"We'd eat them of course."

I must have missed something.  The kerosene light flickered slightly as a cool evening breeze entered the room through the opened window.  The woodwork creaked.  He went on.  I listened intently.

He laughed again.  "They were so stupid.  We'd hold a flashlight down to the water and they'd come right up to it and we'd catch them in a net with a long handle and then we'd make a fire and cook and eat them on the spot."

"You would?"

"Yes.  That's how I learned to clean fish and that's the first time ever I cooked anything."


"Yes, and it was the smell of the fish on me that would wake up my grandmother when I got home and she'd get angry and scold me.  She'd wake up my grandfather and they'd burn me on the back of the neck with incense."  He explained that one reason why this punishment had not stopped his erring ways was that, upon first being touched with the hot incense, he would scream in such an anguished way that his grandparents would be convinced that he had reached that ultimate degree of pain which was necessary to change him forever.


I have since come to realize that what happened to Shuko wasn't as horrible as I had first imagined.  I've asked a few Japanese about it and from what I can piece together a lot of older people thought that poor behavior could be "cured" by okyu, or moxibustion.  It's like acupuncture except it's hot instead of sharp.  I've had it for an embarrassing physical ailment - with good results - and it didn't hurt much.

Whenever I think of Shuko, or his name comes up, or his smooth, round face appears in my daydreams, I remember him as the monk who ate his stupid grandparents in a fit of revenge.