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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 60


May 30, 1988   -   PREPARATION FOR HOYO


Hoyo was coming in early June.  Hoyo was a memorial ceremony for the founder of the temple and all those who had been associated with it.  In the busy days of preparation for the Hoyo, we worked straight through a precious shikunichi.  Nishiki Roshi and a bunch of monks from the head temple of Suienji were coming, as well as many lay supporters of Hogoji.  Everything had to be temple shape.  We worked outside every day it didn't rain and inside when it did.  Koji, who was in charge, felt the crushing weight of responsibility on his rake.  He's the guy you'd want in command.  He didn't say anything much, just set an example.  If I'd been in his zori I'd have been giving pep talks and invoking loyalty, but he just blazed on and, as the ceremony approached, started weeding, raking and cleaning during services and meals.

Koji's zeal greatly interfered with our bonding as well as my Japanese study.  He missed my company too and so he took the boss's prerogative of selecting an assistant.

"Would you work with me outside of the work period?" he asked me.  "Shuko's lazy, Norman's sulking, Maku's on a cloud and Jakushin has a complex.  It has to be you."

"Well let me see," I rubbed my chin.  "It presents a practice problem to me, Koji."

"Oh," he said seriously.  "I'll understand if you say no."

"It's not so simple.  I have to consider it.  You see, my practice is avoidance.  But which avoidance?  Should I avoid following the schedule with the group, or should I avoid working extra hours with you?"

Koji handed me a rake.

For the next couple of days we were a whirlwind of efficiency and accomplishment.  We went to morning zazen and skipped service to get dressed for work.  We ate late, separately from the others, sitting on the edge of the kitchen's wood floor with our feet in the dirt.  We kept going till it got dark, took our baths and went into evening zazen late.  During the regular samu period we worked with everyone else.  I was glad no one held our separateness against us.

Koji said we had to make a good impression on Nishiki and the guests.  Well, that's what Koji was doing.  I was just being with Koji.  To me it was play.  Katagiri tried not to smile when he saw me.  He knew that I'd sneaked through the system again.

There was something wrong with Katagiri, I thought, or he'd be with us more.  I'd always known him to get out and hustle when there was a lot to do.  He was coming out some but not as much as I'd expected.


I remembered helping Katagiri cut firewood in the late sixties at Tassajara.  It was just the two of us.  I was being as quiet and industrious as I could manage.  I was an eager young student and he a brown-robed priest.  This meant to me that he was enlightened and therefore that everything that he did expressed his enlightenment.  It was an opportunity for me to be with him and gain a flicker of that illusive Oriental wisdom - maybe some of it would rub off.  Such was my thinking.  He was using what we called a Swedish saw and I was wielding a hatchet, chopping the twigs off branches and putting them up on a saw horse for him to cut.  He was trying to saw fast, pushing very hard but with poor results.  A fellow student who had been a logger and a carpenter was walking by on the bridge.  He stopped Katagiri and told him that he wasn't sawing right.

"When you saw, you don't force it, you just go back and forth, cutting the wood on the push, unlike Japanese saws which work on the pull.  Either method is okay, but the key is not to force it, to let the saw do the cutting.  Excuse me, Sensei," he added, "But you've just got to be a little more Zen."  Katagiri swallowed, bowed to him and adjusted his sawing style.  A few times when I fed him branches he laughed and said, "I have to be more Zen."

He was never arrogant - he never acted superior.  He just joined in and was an example of continuous effort.  But he'd been a little more reclusive at Hogoji than I was used to.  I went to Katagiri's room and asked him if he was all right.  He nodded yes.

"Can I do anything," I said.


"A massage?"

"No, I'm fine.  Just take care of your practice - and Norman."

"Okay, I will," I said and left him alone.


On the second day, Koji and I weakened and went to buy a pack of cigarettes after lunch.  We agreed to hold it to a few a day until the ceremony was over.  He said he couldn't be seen buying them so I had to do it.

"Why can't you be seen buying cigarettes?  This is cigarette heaven.  I never saw so many people smoking - the men anyway.  And I've seen a number of priests smoking.  Why can't you?"

"Nishiki says priests shouldn't smoke."

"Ohhh - I see.  Suzuki felt that way too and Katagiri.   I also agree completely."

"I do too."

We stopped and looked at each other.

"Then we are of one mind?" I asked.

Koji nodded.

 "Just three a day till the ceremony's over?"

"Just three," Koji answered and we continued walking downhill - quickly because we wanted to get right back to work.

Koji said he wished the boys would quit fighting.  He was annoyed with Shuko for being aloof and Norman for being cantankerous.  "I understand Norman's point of view," he said.  "Shuko doesn't treat him fairly.  But Norman should remember that the most important thing is for us to be at peace with each other."

"In other words the group is always right?"

"It's so complicated having gaijin," he said looking at me.  "If it weren't for you we would be more confident in our way."

"But listen, Koji, you're also having trouble with each other - not just foreigners."

"Funny thing is that because of you gaijin we're learning more about working together which is what we're supposed to be good at.  You'd think we'd be learning about individualism - and we are - but it's the group thing that I notice.  We only really know how to cooperate with each other - with other Japanese.  It hurts us so much to always have conflict with foreigners.  I guess our group mind stops at the shoreline."

"And we Americans aren't just learning about harmony, we're also refining our individuality," I said.  "It's never just one side.  We've both got to adjust all the way around."

"Balance," said Koji.

I took a deep breath and droned, "WE, WE, WE, WE, WE, WE, WE, WE."

"ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME," he responded with perfect timing.

"WE, WE, WE, WE, WE, WE, WE, WE," we sang together followed by "ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME."  And so down to Ryumon we marched chanting the Japanese/American cultural balance sutra - past farmhouses, by the waterfall and across the highway to the store where we discontinued our droning and I bought the foul weed.  On our return we stopped at a secluded spot and sat down on some rocks only to find we'd forgotten matches.

"Is this place called Ryumon, Dragon Gate, because of the temple," I asked.

"Yes, it's like the first gate to the temple.  There's an old saying that a monk enters the temple a mouse and leaves a dragon."

"I wonder if maybe the town should be called Mouse Gate until further notice."


The afternoons were getting hotter, but we didn't slow down.  After the second day of practically nonstop raking, cleaning and sweating, as the last evening bell tolled, Koji and I sat exhausted in his room smoking our fourth cigarettes of the day.  "Persuasive little fellows," I said putting mine out.

He got up, came over behind me and without asking gave me a godsend five minute massage.  Then he went to his storage closet.  After fishing around for a moment, he came back with a tall box and set it on the table.  My eyes bugged out as he opened it.  It was a bottle of sake.  He opened the top and poured each of us a glass.

"Hannyacha," he said (wisdom tea).  I felt the wisdom of its warmth within me.  Our tongues loosened.

I made him promise he wouldn't feel angry toward the others for not being as dedicated as him in preparing for the ceremony.

"Being a silent example isn't enough," I told him.  "You should be like a good Christian monk - love them in your heart and bear no grudge."

"I will do my best.  And what will you do," he asked me.

"I will hate them and feel superior.  But just till the ceremony.  I don't get the chance very often."

"Okay," he said, "I will love them and you will hate them.  We'll be a team.  And we'll cancel each other out."

"Excellent," I said, happy that our balancing act was still in full function.

Koji lifted his glass.  "And then we can be good Buddhists and forget the whole matter."

We drank another rule-busting toast.