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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 62




Nishiki Roshi arrived late that morning with a dozen monks.  Shuko and Koji came out to greet them.  I stood inconspicuously on the deck near my room and watched them walk in.  They came carrying their gear all the way up the steps, the official entrance.  Nishiki was tall with a Roman nose.  His robes were light brown, thin, and soft looking.  Though his head was held high he had a warm smile that disarmed me.  As he approached the hatto I sensed his confidence and authority.  How clear it was, even from a distance.  Before a word was spoken Hogoji was his and his alone to foster, to guide and to pass on.  And as for us - any of us could walk out at any time we wanted, but while we were here, we too were his.  The vibes were overpowering and I submitted.  The tough looking monk who followed behind him must be the notorious Dokujiki I thought.  He wore a grimace and walked with a swagger.  The monks who followed were in his charge and by the determined looks on their faces seemed to be intent upon doing no wrong, for whereas Nishiki was said to lead lightly, this monk was reputed to comprehend only the heavy hand.

After Nishiki had offered incense at the main altar and made his bows, he left to greet his colleague and guest, Katagiri.  Dokujiki led his bevy of Suienji monks to the back of the building behind the altar where they neatly placed their belongings.  At Dokujiki's command they then proceeded to remove the fusuma partitions that separated Norman and Jakushin's area from the rest of the hatto.  As our castle crumbled we silently scrambled to cram all our possessions into the corner closet.  We stacked our low tables and books in Maku's room.  Dokujiki walked by inspecting.  He paid us no mind, but barked something to his monks.  Wasting no time to rest from their journey, they went to the courtyard.  Dokujiki told Shuko to fetch the bamboo brooms and his retinue began sweeping the grounds which were already immaculately leafless.  After that they compounded the insult by cleaning every square inch of the hatto and zendo.

For the next thirty-six hours Hogoji would undergo a marked change and we would be off balance.  Whatever petty gripes were going on amongst us were, at least for a while, forgotten due to the common threat to our monastic ego.  Norman made little attempt to hide his contempt for the pomp.  He did seem glad to see a couple of the Suienji monks whom he knew from his days there.  The rest he said were novices and they jumped to the orders barked by bushy-eyebrowed Dokujiki.  Norman called him the "marine sergeant" and he looked the part, being short and thick, and having a military air.

Koji, trying to take care of everyone and everything at once, was propelled into an even more intense blitz of activity.  Shuko seemed uncomfortable because Nishiki, his teacher, wasn't paying any special attention to him.  Another monk was acting as Nishiki's attendant.  So Shuko appointed himself in charge of Katagiri.  I was worried that Norman would blow up over that but he let it go saying he didn't think Katagiri would appreciate being the rope in a tug of war.  Maku and Jakushin made an uncommon alliance and hid together in the kitchen with the women where they could be useful while not having to be bossed around.  Katagiri had vacated his room to make way for his old dharma brother Nishiki because it was the abbot's quarters.  He seemed out of place for the first time with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  He hung out in the dining room looking lost.

Norman and I snuck off in the confusion and stood back on the road looking through the trees at Dokujiki and his troops putting their signature on our handy work.

"I'm glad to see the bastard," he said.  "He forces me to have sympathy for Shuko.  Did you see how he pushed Shuko around when he got here?"

"He does have a unique style," I said.  "I wouldn't want to be on his bad side."

"He can be brutal."


Norman said that at Suienji, when some of the picky senior monks get going, sternly correcting the younger ones, they sound like samurai or gangsters on TV - roles that you never see Japanese men acting out under normal circumstances.  "It's a recessive genetic authority defect," he said.  "You'll find a monk roaring down the hall with raised kyosaku in hand like a warrior, shrieking at some offender who scratched himself.  All the Suienji senior monks aren't like that - but it happens enough."  Norman's favorite old monk and closest confidant at Suienji, Godo Roshi, advises the monks never to scold juniors out of anger.  According to Norman though, some of those in authority under him don't listen quite as well as they should.


At Suienji there is a Ryaku Fusatsu ceremony twice a month.  It's a Buddhist confessional or repentance ceremony which is finished off by repeating the ten pure precepts.  It goes way back to the beginnings of Buddhism.  The way they did it in the old days was the monks would gather and each would find another monk to whom to confess whatever rules he'd broken.  Then they'd all have a ceremony wherein they'd chant the two hundred and some odd precepts - add a hundred for the women.  Nowadays in Zen it's become more streamlined, but it's still a beautiful ceremony, many people's favorite.  In English, one part goes, "All my ancient twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate and delusion, born through body, speech and mind, I now fully avow."  At Zen Center it's performed once a month on the night of the full moon so we call it the Full Moon Bodhisattva Ceremony.  I've had several Japanese tell me that the difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that the former has no confession.  Not so.

Norman told me that one time when Nishiki was officiating at Suienji's Ryaku Fusatsu, two young monks nodded off.  After the ceremony, Dokujiki followed them back to the sodo, the monks' hall where they sat and slept.  Screaming in a rage, Dokujiki grabbed the kyosaku and went after the young monks.  Everyone else quickly left the scene except Norman who stayed to see what was happening.  The others called for him to get out while Dokujiki repeatedly whacked the two terrified fledglings with the thick winter stick.  Norman looked on in horror and started to go in.  Some old monks came back and pulled him away saying, "Don't watch!  Come away!  This is wrong!"  As they held him back these older monks told Norman that they knew this was not the way it should be done, that Dokujiki was way out of line.  But no one would do anything to protect the poor young offending monks who were back there cowering at the blows.  Trainees would be yelled at and chastised severely for making tiny errors, but since Dokujiki was in a position of authority, nobody said a word to him about his transgressions.

          "Some people would tell you that this is a tough form of Buddhist compassion," said Norman, "But it has nothing to do with Buddhism or compassion.  It's a perversity which should be rejected.  There are parallels to this in schools, business and sports here in Japan.  They're slowly growing out of it like the Marines is in the States and I say it can't happen too quickly."

"Even the stick should be dropped.  The stick and this stupid macho attitude.  At Bodhgaya in India, where Buddha attained enlightenment, there's a Rinzai temple where they carry the stick and hit people who are dozing or who are suspected of improper sitting.  Buddhists from all over the world come there and look at that and they wonder what on earth are they doing?  Smashing people with sticks and hollering and screaming.  What the hell has that got to do with Buddhism?"


Standing with the visiting monks where our room had once been, in the corner of the now expanded hatto, Norman, Jakushin and I put our robes on in silence while the bonsho rang for the noon service.  We went out together into the hatto and took our places, me standing back a few steps as usual.  There were about fifteen monks lined up on either side of the altar facing each other.  Shuko was running around adjusting people's positions in their lines according to Dokujiki's instructions.  One of the senior Suienji monks was on the bells.  On the third round of the bonsho the ring of a small bell came from the Abbot's room signifying that Nishiki was on his way.  He came into the room followed by his jisha, who carried the incense, and Katagiri.  Shuko moved in behind Katagiri and guided him to a front position and stood next to him.  Dokujiki was in the rear on my side.  Bells hit, everyone bowed to the floor on their zagu, more bells hit and then Dokujiki introduced the sutra: "Maka hannyaharamita shingyo," with the last "o" rising, falling and drawn out dramatically.  After the introduction we all joined in on the beat and for the first time at Hogoji I heard a wide range of voices try out the building's acoustical potential.  We charged through the national anthem of emptiness with drum and bells to the full-charged ending which in English is, more or less, "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, Enlightenment! Yahoo! Wisdom Sutra."  We were like one big panting celestial animal.  No wonder monks chant.

Towards the end of the sutra a young monk slowly brought an important looking brocade book out from behind the altar.  The book was set on a low lectern, proper for holding something to be read while kneeling.  The monk placed the lectern before Dokujiki, took a few steps back and kneeled.  He must have been new to all this because he looked pretty nervous.  Dokujiki recited from this book an eko, a solo recitation dedicating the merit of the service to all beings and various great patriarchs of the Way and other members and donors who have passed on.  I looked at Norman who was facing me, sitting on his shins in the line across.

Ideally, when the eko is finished, the monk who delivered the book comes back, falls to his knees and picks up the stand an instant after the kokyo or chant leader puts the book back down on it.  Then the monk returns the eko book to the back part of the altar.  The book is a foot and a half long and ten inches wide, one of the fancy folding type.  The monk arrived at the right place at the right moment at the end of the chanting, kneeled down, picked up the stand and swung it around - but unfortunately he picked it up a second too soon, before Dokujiki had put the eko book down on it.  The poor nervous monk didn't even realize it.

Norman watched Dokujiki's scowl and bulging eyes.  At that point Dokujiki turned around and smashed the astonished offending novice in the shoulder with the book.  A boom resounded in the room.  Maku, unaware of what was happening, was startled and let out a cry: "Agh!"  Norman couldn't contain himself and blurted a "Ha!".  Nishiki looked up and made a deep, puzzled "Mmm?" type of sound.  I giggled, "Hee!"

The sequence of these peculiar sounds was a striking divergence from the expected single bell's ringing that was to have sung through the air at that moment.  Following was a hovering instant of silence and immobility.  In each person's head it echoed.  "Boom! Agh! Hah! Mmm? Hee!"  It was like a clip from "The Three Stooges Go to Church."  The silliness of the sounds and uniqueness of the moment diffused Dokujiki's lust for punishment.  He grunted and opened his bowing mat for it was time once again to prostrate ourselves to buddha, the perfect essence of our being.