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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 61




If time is what keeps everything from happening at once, it was not functioning fully on the day before the ceremony.  The Hogoji monks were futzing around with the tools of ceremony: incense, trays, candles, sutra books and esoteric paraphernalia that doesn't often come out from behind the altar.  There were impromptu meetings sprouting here and there between Shuko, Koji and others and subconferences with Katagiri about how everything should be structured: when the meals would be, where they'd be eaten, how responsibility would be divided, what order the monks would be seated in, who would take care of whom and, generally, what would happen where, when, with whom and with what props from the time Nishiki arrived till the time he left.  Koji had to be content with the grounds as they were and they were fine.  From the bottom of the steps where cars can park at the bend in the road, to the woods behind the temple buildings, from the stupa to the dark garden area around Yoshiko-san's house, all was swept and in order.  Soon Nishiki would arrive with his entourage and at least the first impression was bound to be good.

Akagi-san who owns a liquor store in Kikuoka came in a couple of times in the morning with deliveries of food and supplies as well as sake for the guests.  Maku was preparing futon for the visiting monks and making sure everything was ready for them.  Jakushin was practicing for the ceremony.  Shuko and Koji had asked him to be doan and he was proud and uncharacteristically nervous.  He was in the hatto going over the chants and marking clearly where which bells were hit.  He wanted to make sure that Nishiki, the other monks and all the guests would not be disappointed in his performance.

Gaunt yet spirited Yoshiko, who had been down due to illness, was in the kitchen helping to prepare some of the special dishes for the feast before the ceremony.  Miki Oba-san and a couple of the other stout old ladies from the village were helping out in the kitchen too.  They laughed and talked while working hard and fast and their charm was so infectious it even softened Yoshiko's severe features.  I was in the kitchen with them till Shuko put me on the task of preparing seventy-five sets of bowls for the guests.


Norman came over to help.

"What's up?" I asked wiping a bowl with a towel.

He took out a stack of bowls, removed the paper from in between and set them next to me.  "I'm still pissed about the sutra books."

"You don't give up easy."

"I know.  I wish I could.  That's one of the problems of being locked up in this way.  Like the song says: 'little things mean a lot.'"

"So what are you gonna do?"

"Nothing I guess.  I'd like to go to Suienji after the practice period and finish the job but I don't want to bother Katagiri about it and he's the only one who could make it happen.  If he put in a word with Nishiki Roshi..."

"What if I talk to Katagiri about it?"

Norman sighed.  "I don't know.  Oh, that's okay I guess."  He walked away rubbing his head.


I spoke in a hush indicating that Norman was in the next room.  Katagiri was cooling himself with an advertising fan from a Kikuoka hardware store.  He seemed so weary of the matter but I pressed him on it.  "If they want to be an international temple, then they should provide for Westerners, unless you agree that there should be this sort of obstacle course.  It seems to me that they need to learn something too, not just Norman."

Katagiri nodded.

"Norman could spend some time on it at Suienji where there are more monks engaged in varied activities.  It wouldn't take him long.  If you'd just mention it to Nishiki."

Katagiri said that Nishiki would want it to go through Shuko and I said, "Well great - except Shuko'll never get around to it because he's got an inner directive that goes, 'whatever Norman wants, Norman doesn't get.'"  I don't think he'd heard the tune before, but he understood the lyrics.

Poor Katagiri.  He cared about the sutra books but mainly he wanted things to go smoothly.  Reluctantly, he said he'd talk to Nishiki.  I apologized for bothering him and he thanked me for my concern.  We gasshoed.  I was glad to get out of his room.

Just as I walked out on the deck I heard Norman screaming bloody murder.  Oh no, I thought, he's finally cracked.  Cautiously I looked to see what I could do.  He was pummeling the tatami with the wooden clackers.  They're tied together at the end and were banging into each other as well as the tatami and Norman was making emphatic grunting noises as he smashed them down.  Katagiri quickly opened the shoji and looked apprehensively at what Norman was doing.  Norman stood up, turned around and saw us.  The ladies came in from the kitchen and Shuko from the back where his room is.

"Uh, uh," Norman said, looking at us all, "mukade."

We looked down where he had been banging and saw the flattened corpse of a four inch centipede.  Silence.  He turned around, bowed to it and picked it up in one of the pieces of newspaper that had been used to pack the guest bowls.  People dispersed and Norman went back to work embarrassed at the racket he'd made.


Shuko softly spoke my name.  I turned around and he gestured me out into the courtyard. He said that Nishiki and his entourage plus lay members who were coming to help would start arriving soon and couldn't I please wear samue.

"You're the only one here in Western clothes," he said.

"Okay, I give in," I said.  "But as soon as Nishiki's gone I'm back in civvies."  Although he didn't know what civvies were, he agreed and went off to fetch some samue after Norman said that both his other sets were filthy from working outside and they'd be too long in the legs and sleeves anyway.

Shuko came back with the black cotton outfit and it didn't feel as much like prison clothes in my hands as I expected.

"Put them on in the ofuro," he said and then turning to Norman, "Did he bite you?"

"No, I bit him."

I went back to the bathroom but Maku was cleaning it out.  I excused myself and backed out.  Shuko's room is across from the bath so I opened the door.  Wow - what a mess.  It was full of boxes, stacks of paper, books, piles of clothing and strewn with candy wrappers, dirty coffee cups and open newspapers.  But the futon was properly folded and on its shelf.  Ahah, I sighed, remembering how mysteriously and quickly he always opened and closed his door.  I closed the shoji quietly.  So I took off my pants in the hall much to Miki Oba-san's pleasure.  She cackled at me from the kitchen where she was kneeling on the floor slicing vegetables on a cutting board.

Shuko was waiting for me.  Miki stood up and Norman joined her laughter when he saw me.  Samue are supposed to be baggy but these were like tights and stopped at my sweaty elbows and knees.   Katagiri came in to join in the ridicule and then Yoshiko, the other ladies, Koji, Jakushin and Maku.

"You should see yourself," said Norman in a fit.

"We're really packing 'em in today, huh Norman?" I said surveying the small audience.

"Never mind," said Shuko looking disappointed.

I left the room before Nishiki et al showed up as I suspected was about to happen.  I was sure if I stayed that soon all of Japan would be surrounding me and laughing at my appearance.