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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 66


June 5, 1988   -   PERIOD THEATER


Aside from takuhatsu, there's nothing like a high ceremony to bring out the time travel aspect of Zen life in Japan.  Here we are dressed like monks of centuries ago, chanting the same lines in the same buildings.  It's jidai-geki, period theatre, these robes and trappings, chants and choreography.

Koji said that since I was wearing robes I should be with the rest of the monks, reversing his opinion that I should be a guest.  He had just wanted to help me skip the rehearsal.  So there I was seated right behind Dokujiki who gave me a "what the hell are you doing here?" look and then turned away.  The bonsho started ringing and Nishiki was on his way in.  With the shoji all down, including the ones separating the zendo, the hatto was now a spacious room which could hold all the monks and the guests.  You'd think after the painstaking preparation and much to do that there would be a very solemn atmosphere at the time but there wasn't.  An old lady behind me reached up and straightened my kesa and tucked it in correctly.  Nishiki was at the altar.  Ladies were still out at the sinks chattering and washing pots and all those lacquer bowls I'd helped stack.  Maku was all over the room snapping pictures.  When Nishiki entered, people were still coming up to a table near the altar and adding their white donation envelopes.  Men put their cigarettes out.  Nishiki wore soft elegant robes of muted hues, a light brown koromo, a purple kesa and a high pointed golden cap.

Then we were off and chanting the Heart Sutra and I felt right at home.  When we finished we went right back to the first word of it and started over without missing a beat.  There were large wooden boxes right in front of us that I hadn't noticed - the size of foot lockers.  Dokujiki reached in front and took off the lid.  I then recognized them as the boxes that held the long version of the Prajna Paramita Sutra that we kept in cabinets behind the altar.  That's what the Heart Sutra is the heart of.  There were six of these boxes with the tops off and the monks were reaching in and taking out the folding sutra books, so I took one out too.  They started fanning them.  These aren't books with bindings but are made from one long piece of paper folded back and forth with hard brocade covers on each end.  What the monks were doing was to let the sutras rest in their left hand and then to grab the top with the right and pull it way up and around so that it fanned out like an accordion, and when it started falling down on the right side they pulled their left hands over following the arc into the right hand and closing it.  This is the turning of the Prajna Paramita Sutra.  Koji had quickly shown me how to do it before the ceremony.  The first time I tried it, it worked just like a slinky going down the steps in my grandmother's house.

It was no normal Heart Sutra chanting anymore, for when each monk's book would rise and fall, so would his voice.  They were shouting at the apex and since the fannings were going on at random, the heavy rhythm of the chanting was being augmented with the arrhythmical punctuation of rising and falling roaring voices.  We went through six hundred volumes in about ten minutes.  Now what does this sutra say? I thought to myself.  Oh forget it, just throw the next one.  The only mistake I made was once I lost control and one side of my sutra book came down on Dokujiki.  His growl was covered by the din of the ceremony.  He straightened his kesa and we continued unflustered.  It was ancient ritual rock and roll and when it ended the room echoed with reverberations.  What we had done was to symbolically recite the whole long version of the Perfection of Wisdom.

During the next chant the monks stood up and walked around in a snaking line down toward the altar and then away from it.  Then we sat down and Nishiki did some special very slow chants.  His voice went up and down wavering like a ghost in an old movie.  Then he kindly gave a brief lecture.  By that time all the ladies had finished washing the dishes and were sitting in the back of the room.

The whole assembly then got up and followed Nishiki out into the warm, sunny outdoors and we had three brief services at different altars which had been prepared by Norman.  One of the services involved Yoshiko and the statue of Avalokiteshvara in her garden.  It seemed like a recognition of her practice and maybe a farewell.  Following this treasure hunt of incense, flowers and candles, the procession went over to the stupa where there was the last brief ceremony for all the people on both sides who died in the Pacific War.  There was an altar set up for each of the four directions and Nishiki made an offering at each one.  We circumambulated the monument walking inside the low hedge while guests congregated on the outside.  Then the chanting stopped.  That was it.  The ceremony was over.

People talked on the lawn while others offered incense at the altars around the stupa.  Shuko was standing with Nishiki and Akagi and some distinguished looking visitors.  Jakushin seemed to have recovered from his humiliation and was deep in conversation with some young ladies who'd come with their parents.  They were looking at him with admiration.  Norman was talking with a couple of the Suienji monks he knew.  Dokujiki was keeping his eyes on the younger monks.  Koji ran back to the kitchen to get dinner going and Katagiri wandered off by himself up the road.  Maku was still taking pictures, a lot of which were of me.  Songbirds were singing, mejiro, the white-eye, in the lead.  There were several mejiro, tiny and yellow-green, drinking nectar from the camellias between tunes.  There was a warm fresh smelling breeze that escorted incense away into the air as I exchanged pleasantries with Miki Oba-san and Yoshiko.  We looked down into the gorgeous green cultivated valley.  Miki imitated the mejiro: "Cho bei chu bei cho chu bei."  She sounded just like them and she laughed and said something about its call being a pun on some men's names - I didn't get it.  A pair of black butterflies were zooming around and she gave them a different name than Koji had.  She called them ohaguro - black teeth.  In the old days women used to dye their teeth black.

The ceremony had gone fine.  It was simple, direct, almost casual and not too long.  I realized I'd been too negative about it beforehand.  It's my anti-institutional self-programing, my fear of confinement.  But it was no more confining than a bus ride to town and I could see how much it meant to all the visitors.  Even though I've lived with groups for so many years, I still get claustrophobic at the thought of losing myself into the whole when quite often the opposite of my fears is true, I lose nothing but gain a lot.  It's clear to me that when we function smoothly as a group, our differences and gripes become irrelevant but we do not lose our distinctness.  It's transformational.  The very substance that was an irritant becomes a note in a harmonious chord.


That night Nishiki and Katagiri were in the abbot's quarters getting plowed on sake with Akagi and a few other guests who remained.  Norman and I hung out for a while in the dining room with the Suienji monks and Dokujiki and we drank sake too.

"Don't stand up," he said to us.  "You make me feel short.  Stay - sit and drink."  The more sake we drank the less he seemed like a jerk.  As things got looser I accidentally spilled a cup on his lap.  Taking no offense he jovially poured his over my head.

Before Norman and I left for the evening we did a little song and dance for the boys, something that Norman had dreamed up.  We danced arm in arm moving sideways and kicking.  The song went thus:


        Do the Soto-shu 'cause nothing else will do

        Do the Soto-shu just me and you

        A one a two, a doodly-doodly-do


The other monks thought that we were crazy but applauded appropriately.


On my way to bed I brazenly stuck my head in Nishiki's room and said goodnight to him and Katagiri.  Katagiri asked me to come sit by him.  I politely declined but he insisted so I went in for a minute.  I was quickly introduced to the guests who smiled drunkenly and went back to talking to Nishiki.  No sooner had I sat down than Katagiri poured me sake in a small cup and insisted I drink it all at once.  This he did several times.  I refused on the fourth.  Katagiri's guard was all the way down.  He looked at me like the old friend he was, threw his arms around me and hugged me with abandon.  "I love you, David," he said, and hugged me some more.

"I love you too," I said hugging him in return.

The others didn't pay any attention.


The next morning at tea Katagiri reminded Nishiki who I was, where I'd come from and how long I was there for.  I thanked Nishiki for the opportunity to practice at his temple and reminded him I'd shown him around Green Gulch a few years back.  He asked me a lot of questions about my history with Zen and seemed genuinely interested in my answers.  I was touched by his kind manner.  The whole time he was there he had been reserved and gracious.  I'd had an image of him as being a snobby aristocrat and what I was looking at was more like an elegant old monk who probably spent all his time trying to promote his institution and train priests.  He was going to a lot of trouble to get Hogoji up and running as an international temple.  Of course it wasn't being built to Norman's and my specifications but it was still a noble venture.  Nishiki may not be my type of teacher but he appeared to be a person who had cultivated some wisdom and self control.  I saw him as a sort of public servant and I felt petty for having thought ill of him.

Akagi-san came from Kikuoka to drive Nishiki Roshi out, and waited with Koji in the courtyard while Nishiki finished doing a work of calligraphy for each of us as a parting gift.  Nishiki came out on the deck to say goodbye.  I nudged Katagiri and asked if he'd brought up the romanized sutra book deal with Nishiki.  He said it was up to Shuko.  Heck.  He'd just been putting me on.  I took matters into my own hands.

"Excuse me Nishiki Roshi," I said as politely as I could.

"Hai," he said, offering me his attention.

"I've been having a lot of trouble chanting here because the books are hard to read.  Maybe I could make you a new romanized version for Westerners.  I'd be happy to do it."

Nishiki nodded thoughtfully.

Katagiri broke in and suggested that maybe Norman could go to Suienji and do it and they talked about it for a moment.  I breathed a sigh of relief that Katagiri had understood where I was coming from.  I'd done what I could but I wouldn't wager that anything would come of it.

We all bunched together on the kuin steps for a group picture which Maku took.  Typically, he didn't want anyone to take another group picture with him in it but Nishiki insisted.  Maku then announced that the film was a gift from me.  So that's why he'd taken all those pictures of me at the ceremony.  He'd been short and I'd loaned him the money to buy several rolls when he went into town.  Later I'd refused to let him pay me back.  It was my only donation to the temple up to that point.  Nishiki thanked me and I told him I'd give him copies of all the good pictures.

Everyone laughed at me.  They had to be laughing at me.  I had no idea why.  I said, "What's so funny?"

Koji came over and whispered in my ear that when I used the word "agemasu" for give that even though it was the polite form, it wasn't polite enough.  When speaking to Nishiki I should use the very polite term, "sashiagemasu" meaning to give to someone clearly on a higher level.

"Sashiagemasu," I said, and they all laughed even harder, especially Katagiri.  I looked at Koji and he indicated I'd done just fine though he didn't stop laughing. 

After that Nishiki bid farewell to Yoshiko and then the whole group walked down the wood beam steps under the sugi to where the vehicles were parked.  There was a moment's wait while Nishiki talked to Katagiri and the monks stood at attention in shashu.

Dokujiki turned to Norman who was standing next to me and said, "Poketto wa dame," meaning, "the pocket is no good."

Norman looked at him blankly and said, "Nan desu ka?" meaning "What?" and Dokujiki tapped his hand and said again, "Poketto wa dame."

"Poketto?  Poketto?"  And Norman laughed and took his hands out of his pockets.

As we stood on the road in gassho, Nishiki rode off with Akagi and the Suienji monks followed in the van driven by Dokujiki.

The sound of the vans disappeared.  We were alone again.  We looked at each other happy and relieved and walked back up the steps.  There was no schedule and no cleanup.  Koji said it could all wait till the next day.  Radical.  Yea!  At the stupa Norman turned to me with a wacky look and shook his finger at me.  "Poketto wa dame," he said.  "Poketto wa dame!"