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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 74


June 17, 1988   -   THE TYRANT OF NARA


I was leveling the gravel in the courtyard while Koji carefully raked the delicate moss islands, one with a decaying stump, two with young cherry trees and two islands which are bare but for their soft green mats.  I was bringing renegade pebbles from stepping stones and the edge of the moss blankets back into the flock.  Then I drew the gathered gravel hills into the valleys equalizing the distribution.  Koji had taught me two verbs for "to level": taira suru and narasu.  I repeated a phrase over a few times.  "The tyrant of Nara is on the level."

"What's that," said Koji.

"The tyrant of Nara is on the level," I repeated.

"What does it mean," he asked.

"It's how I'll remember that taira and narasu mean to level," and I pointed out to him the similarity in the sounds.

"Got any others?"

"Yeah, like I kept forgetting bessu."  (Bessu are traditional Japanese socks which we wear for ceremonies.  I've only seen them in white.  They're like tabi except without the separate compartment for the toe.)  "Ready?"


"Bess and Sue went down the street, with their bessu on their feet."  That took a little explaining.

"Do you do this with all the words you learn," he asked looking at me as if I were a little peculiar.

"As many as possible."

"Doesn't that give you more to remember?"

"I think the brain likes it that way.  The more ways we can tie things together, the better we remember."

"Then we will remember each other well," he said.


At the tea break Norman was telling me how things went with him and Shuko the day before on their trip to town.  Sounded like they'd resolved some sore points.  Norman got Shuko to admit to consistent transgressions, a minor miracle, and Norman owned up that he let things get to him too much, that he had a problem with anger.  Instead of each attempting to gain an advantage over the other they promised to work together toward harmony.

"That's very noble of you Norman."

"Noble schmoble.  The problem is putting it into practice.  But I'm gonna try, I'm really gonna try and I think he will too.  It's been a lose/lose situation.  We both keep thinking the other guy is wrong but if we can't live in peace with each other then we're both wrong."

I asked Norman if there was historical precedence for his dilemma in the Buddha's lifetime.

"Oh yeah, everything you can imagine happened within the Buddha's sangha and they had all sorts of ways to deal with it, including dhyana (mediation).  It's how the rules developed - one by one in response to real issues that came up."  Norman went on to explain that in time the Vinaya, the rules and regulations, became as important as dhyana.  That situation is considered a major obstacle in itself.  Before Buddha died he told them not to stick too hard to the rules, especially the long list of precepts - just be flexible and recite the short list.  "He could already see what the anal retentives could do with guidelines." 

Norman laughed.

"What's so funny?"

"Buddha was once asked something like, 'If you're so perfect then why is there discord in the sangha?' and he said that it was because he'd hit a fish on the head in a previous life."

"A fish, huh?"

"Yeah, wonder what Shuko and I did."

"Whatever it was, may I extend my best wishes to the both of you in your endeavor to sever all your ancient twisted karma."

He raised his teacup.  "I'll drink to that."