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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 72


June 15, 1988   -   PRISONER OF PEACE


Maku was pulling out tiny spring weeds that were popping up in the gravel of the courtyard.  He worked with a wanderer who had spent the night and was joining us for the morning samu.  Koji seemed to have a low opinion of this scruffy, bearded fellow but knew we couldn't refuse him a night's stay.  With his long hair and single earring, his appearance certainly differed from ours.  Koji went off to work alone so that he could keep his huff to himself.

Norman and I were clearing out grass and dirt from a wooden drainage trough.  We were talking temple politics again.  "I was so fed up I was thinking of leaving after the practice period and going to Shinboji," he said.  "Katagiri said it was up to me.  He's had other students go there.  The roshi is a good teacher I hear.  But I can't do it.  It would embarrass Katagiri - and me too."

This was not the first time Norman had brought up the subject of leaving.  "You're gonna stay then?" I asked as I scooped up a spadeful of mud.

"Yep, another year or two.  I think Shuko and I can work this out.  They need me - they need a foreigner.  They've had two foreigners leave Suienji because they couldn't hack it.  There was a Canadian guy who'd been in Japan five years and studied Zen in Tokyo.  His Japanese was fluent - he'd studied Soto texts in the original.  His teacher sent him to Suienji and even after he'd been there a year they didn't count his seniority when they handed out positions.  They always had some excuse like his Japanese had too strong an accent.  All the Japanese moved through the training strictly according to their seniority, regardless of ability.  Ask Koji - no, never mind, don't - or do.  But all he'll say is that his Japanese wasn't good enough.  That's what I mean.  There's a bamboo ceiling.  Finally he left disgusted.  His teacher was furious with them but didn't complain.  Another student of Katagiri's left after a month and went to Shinboji.  He read the writing on the shoji.  As for me, I've read it and torn the paper off the frame and stuffed it in my mouth and eaten it and thrown it up and I still haven't left.  I've come this far - it's important that I stay."

"I can appreciate why a Westerner would want to practice at Hogoji for a while, say, half a year," I said.  "Even though it seems there's not a good teacher, at least not for foreigners, the practice here feels good.  But what about Suienji?"

"Suienji was not the perfect training temple that I had envisioned, with serene monks gliding through the schedule.  It was a reality sandwich.  The training wasn't what I wanted at all.  It was a lot of priestcraft - all geared toward learning ceremonies and how to run a funeral business.  Zazen was always being canceled for one reason or another - it's the central practice of Zen but at Suienji it was like an afterthought.  It seemed to me that most of the monks were proud of their position, lazy, stupid, greedy, angry, confused or some combination.  Mainly they were the sons of temple priests putting in their obligatory training time so that they could follow in daddy's footsteps.  They listened to radios, drank at night and had pinups on the wall.

"What they were really into though, was power trips.  It's what got them off.  You wouldn't believe it.  The senior monks were always pushing around the junior monks who in turn were pushing around the ones that came after them.  Sometimes it would seem like everyone was getting pushed around or making somebody else grovel.  The ones doing the lording over would growl and the ones groveling would grunt.  I saw them as bears and pigs all growling and grunting at each other.  And then one day I heard a growl starting to come out of my throat and I ran and hid in the tosu.

"Curious thing though, after being here at Hogoji for two months I went back to Suienji for a couple of weeks and, what-do-ya-know, I got all excited.  I felt like a kid who'd been away at camp and was going home.  The train goes right by the temple and I recognized the area and felt all tingly and when I saw the temple rooftops above the trees coming around a corner, I started to cry.  It's funny, the things I valued didn't necessarily come wrapped the way I might have expected.  I knew the b.s. through and through, but when I returned, I found  it didn't bother me.  I saw my fellow monks in a different light.  Some of the older priests were so wise and kind and many of the younger ones were my friends.  They welcomed me back and it was good to see them.  They have a system of correcting each other a lot that gets on my nerves, but that time I appreciated it more.  It's just a different way of being with each other.  Finally I was happy to take it like it was.  Anyone could practice in a dream temple.  I had to learn to practice in a real one."

Norman tied his work boots.  "But I'm still an American progressive egalitarian at heart and a thorn in their zafu.  They need me here to help them figure out how to relate to foreigners, how to include us as equals.  They might not listen to me, but my very presence will give them some hints."

"Yeah, like a club over the head.  That's a heavy sacrifice.  What about when you do go?"

"Others will come to take my place."

I glanced over to make sure no one was listening. "I've got a suggestion in case you keep running into trouble with Shuko," I almost whispered, "or any Japanese monk."

"What is it?"

"I had a geometry teacher in the tenth grade who was in a Japanese POW camp where eighty-five percent of the prisoners died.  I learned my first Japanese from him.  He used to say, takusan shigoto, lot's of work - that's what they always told him in the camp.  He said the prisoners were all skinny and weak and that the guards would do things like load a giant bag of rice on their backs and if they fell they got bayonetted.  He said that if the guards didn't like someone's attitude they'd cut his head off and hang it on the fence.  Why don't you pretend you're in a Japanese prison of war camp and that if there is discord, for whatever reason, they will cut your head off."

"Good idea," he said rubbing his chin.  "And Shuko can pretend that he's been captured by the CIA in Vietnam and if I get irritated he just might fall out of a helicopter.  You might suggest that to him?"


After lunch Norman and I stood on the path in front of the stupa.  The sky was blue and full of billowy white clouds.  A gentle warm wind wafted up the valley.  Yoshiko and Miki were weeding not far away.  Behind us the wanderer was sitting on the stupa steps reading before he took off with his back pack into the mountains.  Across the valley, a huge truck was unloading a bulldozer on the narrow gravel road that cut across the side of the mountain.  I followed the power lines from the mountain's distant tower back to the ridge above us.  In between, swallows were dancing in the air and a hawk circled.  I could hear scrapes from the shoveling of a farmer below us.

Just then Norman tugged at my sleeve.  There were two black butterflies on the edge of the lawn.  One of them was flying up and down and the other was on the grass making jerking motions.  A stretch of spider web was stuck to one of its legs and there was a twig on the other end of the twisted silken thread.  The butterfly was dragging this anchor around.  Norman motioned me to be still, then very slowly moved in on the hobbled butterfly.  I held my breath, knowing that if he touched it he could damage it so that it couldn't fly.  He grabbed the string of web.  The butterfly was flapping for high heaven and Norman the giant was moving closer.  He put his finger just a smidgen below the creature's leg and pinched the burden off.  Immediately the butterfly was in the air.  It flew around Norman's face and took off with its partner.