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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 58




"Ganko-san, please come down from there!" Shuko called up to Norman.

Shuko was standing in the courtyard underneath the oak tree and I was coming up the steps to get some gloves because I was getting blisters on my fingers from raking. 

"I'm not coming down till I can put the pine nuts in the rice."  It was Norman.  I didn't see him anywhere.  I got to the top.

"Please come down now," said Shuko.  He was looking up.  I looked up.  Norman was way up in the big old oak tree.

"Not till I can use the pine nuts," he said.

"Hi Norman," I called to him.  "How's the view from up there?"

"David, please go away," Shuko said to me.

"Why?  What's happening?"

"He won't let me put pine nuts in the rice.  Every time I'm cook he finds something I'm doing that's not acceptable.  I've snapped.  I'm not coming down till I can put pine nuts in the rice."

"Where'd you get the pine nuts?" I called up.

"From Akagi-san.  It's an offering to the temple Shuko!  Like the matches!  Thank you and OK!"

"The Buddha bowl is only for pure rice," Shuko pleaded.

"Fine, I'm staying."

"Why not make an exception, Shuko?" I suggested.

"There's never been an exception.  Please go back to work."

"I've heard of barley," I pointed out.

"Barley is like rice."

"No it's not," came Norman's voice from the tree.  "It's not-rice like pine nuts.  Barley is like pine nuts."

"Barley is a grain," countered Shuko.

"Come on Shuko," I said,  "Norman's tenzo.  Don't you want to eat?"

"Please go away," he said and then looking up, "Please come down."

Norman climbed up to a higher branch.

Koji walked up the steps.  "Is tea late?"

Shuko looked glad to see him.  "Yes, Ganko-san is being stubborn."

"What?" asked Koji.

"He wants to put pine nuts in the rice," said Shuko.

Just then Maku unexpectedly came out of the kuin with the tea and coffee tray, set it on the deck and hit the clackers.

"Pine nuts in the rice?" said Koji.  "Sounds good."

Shuko stood still for a moment looking frustrated.  Since Koji was the head monk, the argument was over.

I looked up.  Norman was climbing down.


After mid-morning tea break we went back to work down behind Yoshiko's house.  It had rained the day before so we had to work on the no-work shiku-nichi.  An hour later we were adding leaves to a burning pile.  Koji looked up the hill while scratching his four days' growth.  He said it was time for the noon bonsho.  Obviously we couldn't all go to service and tend the fire.  Shuko asked if service would be naiken.  Koji suggested doku, looked at me and asked me if I would be doshi.

"Hai!" I said, handed him my bamboo rake and quickly went off to ring the bonsho and perform the service doku - alone.  I was hoping for naiken, an obscure word which Koji said was an "offering with the heart" - a euphemism for no service at all.  I always try to get out of going to noon service because I don't want to go put on my robes for a few minutes and then take them off again.  Everyone else must have felt the same way because I, the lowliest in the pecking order, frequently got the honor.  I was lucky that day because Norman was placing the lunch offering on the altar when I came in from ringing the bell bedecked in my robes and ready to perform the service.  Lunch was all done so he stayed with me and hit the small bells and we did the Heart Sutra in English together.  Each of us at times forgot what line was next but the other would know and so together we made it through.  It made me homesick.

After noon service I quickly helped Norman serve up lunch, bringing out the bowls - like dinner it's informal, no oryoki.  For a change everyone was in work clothes but me.  I still had my robes on though I'd exchanged the kesa for a rakusu.  We chanted before the meal and ate our white rice in silence.  We always have white rice for lunch and that's after always having white rice gruel for breakfast which is made from the leftover white rice from the previous day's lunch.  I'd rather have brown rice but white rice is okay and anyway, if one can't adjust to white rice, it's better to stay away from this part of the world.  We also had miso soup with tofu, sauteed carrots and burdock root and daikon pickles.  There's very little protein but I'm not fainting on the job.  Norman likes it too and doesn't seem to be suffering from malnutrition which has been a problem for Westerners in some temples.

Lunch was almost exactly like every lunch I'd ever had there except for the pine nuts.  In situations of limitation the smallest treat can bring the greatest joy.  To me the pine nuts were appreciated as much as if I'd been taken out to lunch at Greens in San Francisco.  I chewed each nut separately and thought of Norman in the tree.


I went back to the hatto to prepare the altar for evening service, one of the responsibilities of the noon doshi.  A single stick of incense remained in the large white porcelain bowl that rested on the lacquered table in front of the rising altar that housed the Buddha statue.   It had burned out half way down.  The thin green offering stood at half mast in the center of the smooth grey plain of ashes.  I gazed into the bowl and lifted the stick out.  It left a tiny hole where it had been situated and I had the impression that I was a giant caddy lifting a pin from the cup on a putting green, or putting grey, on the moon.  I watched to see what sort of golfers would walk onto the moondust playing surface.

"This is the last one."

I quickly flew back to earth to find Norman standing next to me.  "What?  The last what?" I said wondering if he meant that was the eighteenth hole.

"Thank you and OK," he said leering at me.  I realized that he meant the matches on the altar.  There that fellow was on the side of the box, giving his thumbs up sign, beaming and bringing a modern international touch to the hatto day after day.

"The last one?  How could we use that many matches?"  I puzzled.

"I helped the process along a bit," he said.  "Practical pyromania is something I learned from the Weathermen in the basement."

"Norman, I've become fond of these matches.  To me they symbolize the core of our practice.  Think of it.  'Thank you,' is gratitude, the gateway to religious joy and 'OK,' which comes from 'all correct,' represents the perfection of wisdom.  This is our mantra - thank you and OK," I said reverently.

"You are infected with brain weevils," he responded.