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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 51




The dramatic part of the morning temple cleaning is when the monks charge over the woodwork and floors with wet rags, moving fast to try to cover every surface before it's time for tea.  We hold the wet rag down with both hands and the whole body's weight as we run down the length of the floor.  After years of being wiped with water, wood becomes dark and has a deep richness to it.  Norman says the secret to keeping the temple clean is to try to get to some new, forgotten area every day.  One morning we were all silently shining the place up, working as busily as the termites in the foundation.  Koji and Jakushin were sweeping the tatami in the hatto, Shuko was wiping the floor in the kitchen, Norman was dusting the dining room, Maku was out front scrubbing the sink, oblivious to a half dozen yellow and black striped bees that were drinking on the other end.  I was running down the covered walkway with rag on all fours, and Katagiri was sweeping the back hall.  It was a picture of industrious Zen temple harmony.

Koji is the head monk so it's okay if he makes suggestions to others.  It's in the job description.  On his way to the kitchen to get a bucket, Koji pointed out to Norman that he had missed some dust in a corner.  I was ringing my rag out nearby.  Norman who does not like to be told what to do by people who were in diapers when he was playing lead guitar in sleazy bars, said to Koji that everybody was missing something or other and why didn't he get back to his job and make sure that he didn't miss anything.  Koji stomped off.  In the system he's used to you don't answer back like that, you simply say "hai!" and do what you're told.  But he let it go rather than cause a scene.  So we were all sweeping and wiping away and then from my vantage point on the deck I saw Norman abruptly stop and walk across the courtyard to the hatto with his broom and dustpan in hand, disappearing inside.  I got curious and crept around the covered walkway to the door to that building, slid it open and peeked in.  Norman was bustling about where I couldn't see him and Koji had just arrived at the steps with some rags and a bucket and was scrubbing them down.  Then Norman stepped out of the shadows from behind the altar, walked over to Koji, thrust the dust pan in front of his face and said, "Here's something you missed."

Norman is used to dealing with Shuko and even though Japanese do have common denominators, they are as different from each other as they are from us.  Koji instantly turned red and screamed unintelligible rapid fire Japanese in Norman's face, pushing him in the chest.  I feared for dear Koji's life, as Norman can get angry too and is twice his size.  But Norman took it like a monk at that point after he hadn't taken it like a monk to begin with.  He stood there silently and even backed up a little, surprised at the tempest he had brought on.  Thanks to Norman's newfound calm, Koji survived and it was over.

Soon we were in gyocha, the formal morning tea.  A heavy silence sat with us.  Koji was trembling.  Norman kept his eyes down.  Katagiri stared ahead, solemn and alert.  Koji spoke first.  He apologized before all of us for getting so angry.  After a moment, Norman turned to him and shook his head.  "My fault," he said softly.  After another uncomfortable few minutes, Katagiri spoke.  He said that what may look like anger at times may be a kind teaching.  He added that Hashimoto Roshi, his teacher at Eiheiji, was always disappointed that his attendants, of which Katagiri was one, didn't do a better job of cleaning, especially in the out of the way places.

Koji's outburst was understandable after the way Norman had incited him, but I didn't take it that Katagiri was only saying that Koji was right and Norman wrong.  He was also the guest teacher at a temple not his own and was upholding the senior position of the head monk at the expense of his own student, Norman.

Then Katagiri, keeping his chin in and his face held in a serious expression, his mouth rounded downward, lips held tight, eyes still straight ahead, stood and gasshoed.  He turned around and walked to his room.  Maku opened the sliding shoji.  Katagiri went in and Maku slid the door closed behind him.  I sat there and wondered, isn't he just teaching rote form? - anger can be kindness, clean thoroughly.  Then I thought, how ridiculous of me, still picking apart his every word and gesture, looking for the so-called "emptiness" and not allowing him the room to be unexceptional.  The emptiness I was looking for was just something extra.  He'd just done his job of helping the boys to cool the stew of their own much-ado juices and gone off without adding anything.

Each of us got up quietly and walked out.  Koji, however, stayed, and kneeling outside of Katagiri's door, said, "Gomen kudasai," a polite excuse me.  At Katagiri's "Hai" Koji slid the door open and went in. 

Norman stood at the bottom of the steps looking glum.  "Brain weevils," he said, hitting his forehead with the butt of his hand and moving off.

I stood in the courtyard facing the massive passionless oak and grey pines rising from the incline immediately below.  Through the branches and trunks I watched the morning sun illuminating the slopes beyond while a few bright rays streaked in from over the temple roof to catch my eyes.  The coo of the mountain dove sang through the trees and mingled with Koji's uncontrolled sobbing coming from the Abbot's quarters.


That night Norman, Koji and I had a tea of reconciliation.  They told me about Daigyo Zenji, the founder of Hogoji.  He was the sixth generation from Dogen.  He stayed on this mountain, mainly alone, for twenty years, practicing zazen and deepening his understanding.  When the feudal lord who gave him all the land in a radius of six miles lost an important battle, Daigyo was forced to leave by the victor.  He founded another two temples on the island of Kyushu.  One is at Takana where every year for two days they display writings and artifacts of Dogen Zenji which Daigyo had possessed.  On one of these days the monks from Hogoji went to visit that temple and Norman had held Dogen's kesa in his hands.  Maybe it would be something like a Franciscan being able to touch a smock of Saint Francis.


Daigyo Zenji is well known for the poetry he wrote at Daianji during the secluded years.  Here is one of his poems which the three of us translated that evening.


            sitting on a hillside

      with a young oak

            a leaf falls

            on the sleeve of my robe


incense does not

become the smoke

           nor do I turn

           into a dragon


            surrounded by the

            mountain sangha

            I walk to the creek


            and wash my face

            with the stars.