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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 70

June 10, 1988   -   LSD NO, WHALE MEAT YES


"Have you ever had LSD?" Jakushin asked.

I was taken aback and remembered the evening at Ogawas' country house in the suburbs of Beppu.  "Yes but it's been over twenty years."  I had been pleased that he'd wanted to talk.  We'd never had a friendly conversation.  Our exchanges tended to revolve around my trivial transgressions of temple etiquette.  I felt uncomfortable with Jakushin and had never been able to figure out how to extend myself to him.  We sat on the deck outside our room.  He pulled a couple of cigarettes out of his sleeve - he'd never offered me one before.

"Can you get me any?"

"I don't know where..."

"Do you know anyone who could send it from the States?"

"No I don't," I immediately answered and not in all honesty.  It was very interesting that he asked but no way was I going to get involved in something like that.

"I've taken it several times," he said.  "But it's almost impossible to get."

"Yeah, I don't know," I said, wishing he'd talk about something else.

"Too bad."

"Do you have someone to take it with if you find it?"

"Yes.  I have a friend at Suienji."

Wow, he has a friend.  I was glad to hear it.

He asked me to wait a second, went into his room and came back with a book.  "We use this," he said handing it to me.

I looked at it.  It was in Japanese but seemed familiar.  Ahhh.  It was a translation of a book that had been big in the late sixties.

"Be Here Now," I said, surprised.  "I can't believe it."

"Do you know it," he asked.

"Oh yes," I said, "Quite well.  It's a bit of history.  Very interesting.  Well, I don't know what to say.  When you take it, are you quiet?  Do you sit?"

"Yes, we sit and sometimes read from this book."

Nishiki would just die.  I couldn't help but laugh.

Just then Koji came out of his cabin looking at his watch and told Jakushin that the bell for evening service was two minutes late.  Jakushin excused himself quickly, thanking me and went in to get his robes on.  I told him I'd start it for him.  Saved by the bell, I thought as I trotted over to the bonsho.


There was a three day sesshin before I left Hogoji - three days of just sitting or "mind gathering" as it's sometimes translated.  It was a perfect way to conclude my stay there.  The calm following the ceremony had been a welcome period of relaxation and was good preparation for three days of doing nothing alertly.  The sesshin schedule and positions were discussed at the morning tea the day before.  Wake at three and sit all day in the zendo except for services, meals and half hour breaks after the meals.  I was used to forty minute zazen periods but, as usual we could do kinhin anytime. Since there was no senior priest leading the sesshin there would be no lectures or dokusan.  Just us chickens.


Ten policemen from Beppu arrived on the day before the sesshin.  They were young and strong with short hair and walked energetically into the hatto with a precision that made the Suienji monks look like bums.  They changed into dark blue jump suits and assumed the seiza kneeling position, awaiting instructions like obedient Dobermans.  I went out to look for Koji who was on his way to greet them.

"I've got to give them a lecture," he said, "What should I say?"

"Tell them the opposite of what they expect," I said, "like the Sixth Patriarch suggested."

He stopped and looked down.  "Hai," he said and went on.


The sesshin officially began for us with the evening sitting before the three full days.  During the sunset bell I walked from my room through the hatto to the zendo and paused to look out the open window into the courtyard.  There was diligent Koji in his robes combing the courtyard into a novel scheme of thick vertical lines.  He used an instrument I'd not seen before - a wooden rake that relied on fat dowels to divide the gravel into wide deep valleys and high ridges.  Toward the end of the second round of the han he ceased his energetic landscaping - slid the rake under the deck and leaped up the steps and into the hatto where I was.  Before entering the zendo - on time - we stood for a final five second appreciation of his efforts - nest building for the mind gathering to come.


After that evening sitting, the cops all stretched and groaned and rubbed their legs.  Koji, playing the tough guy, yelled at them sharply to shut up and keep still.  The zendo took on a samurai atmosphere till they were gone.  I asked Koji a few days later why he had acted that way and he said they would have been disappointed if he were not strict.

"Hey, I told you not to give them what they expected," I said.

"I'm sorry, that's the way we do it."

"Old habits die hard, huh?"

The cops brought whale meat as a donation to the sangha.  When they departed after dinner the next evening, they left an envelope with ten separate ten thousand yen notes in it as a donation, about seven hundred fifty dollars at the time.  Down the hill they went in single file, never having spoken a word to anyone.


The sesshin was a real vacation.  Monkey-mind slowed down, emotions quieted, and the curtains of consciousness pulled back.  I did my best to be a light unto myself and "just sit," as Katagiri had taught, "without trying to do zazen and without expectations."  The problems of day to day life faded and I was filled with a wonderful feeling.

I guess it may appear out of balance to sit and follow one's breath all day - not exactly a natural daily life sort of practice.  But if there's one thing I felt, it was balanced,  which shows how out of kilter my daily life gets.  During a sesshin the mind's clarity can be experienced as not different from the body.  As the clock ticks or the incense burns, time becomes less of a thing, and space not so defined.

Dogen might say that I had the zazen of demons.  I know for sure that I didn't experience the "dropping away of body and mind" that he did one day in China.  But he also said that taking the posture and practicing zazen is enlightenment.  To me it just felt like your ten-cent deluded-student-of-the-way type of zazen.  Maybe I sat therapeutic zazen or not-zazen or just failed zazen.  But I didn't sit there going "darn it, darn it, not enlightened yet" or anything like that.  I worked that out of my system a while back.

There are a number of experienced teachers of meditation and zazen all over the world with whom one can study.  Maybe they're more like guides than teachers.  Some of them, like the formative ones I've had, don't say too much.  A lot of practitioners say that one can't study zazen without a teacher.  The teachers I've known definitely liked to have students and never seemed eager to let them go but, at the same time, indicated we had to do it for ourselves.  Indeed.  All the books and teachers in the world can't do it for you.  But one thing I have picked up from my teachers and fellow students is the joy of continuing this bumbling unseen path of me as I am and us as we are.