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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 77


June 18, 1988   -   GETTING WET TOGETHER


There are moments that cut through the petti­ness of day to day life and the confusion of social existence.  They don't always come during religious rituals or in the elusive depths of meditation.  On a clear warm day after cutting enough firewood for a month of baths, Norman, Shuko, Koji and I, sweaty and invigorated from the day's physical labor, went to the creek in the ravine.  Our quartet crossed the road above Hogoji and took a narrow dirt path that descended to the water's brink.  There we walked over two logs which bridged the creek.  Shuko and Koji were in geta, wooden platform sandals, which are unbelievably imprac­tical when not on level ground.  I watched them negotiating the steep dirt path and the rocks and then finally the logs.  How clumsy it looked.

"It's like mountain climbing with stilts," I said to Norman.

"Or threading a needle with gloves on," he responded.

We walked down the rocks, gravel and sand on the other side and took off our clothes by a small clear pool below a short waterfall.  The two Japanese monks discreetly held their hands before their genitals as is the custom and bathed themselves from the edge while Norman and I plunged in, sending a tidal wave down their way.  It was cold.  We bobbed in the deep, rolled over under the surface and sat so the cascade of the falls pounded our heads.  We beckoned our comrades to join us from where they waded ankle high, scooping their cupped hands down to bring up splashes of cold water.

A twenty foot high stone wall covered by moss rose on the side of the creek we were on.  I had thought we were in such a remote place.  According to Norman, the ground up there once supported a rice paddy, but now there are cedars like the ones planted all over these mountains to be harvested for charcoal and lumber.  Above us on the other side are rows of kunugi logs.  They were a meter long and stacked upright leaning criss-crossed against each other in a line up the steep hillside.  Shiitake mushrooms were growing out of the bark in the shade of the cedars.  A small mountain crab ran sideways across a slippery rock.  Tiny wild flowers were growing on the embankment.

So there we were, Norman and Shuko who weren't into their squabbling brothers routine, and Koji and me who weren't off to ourselves having an intense conversation.  We weren't alone studying, each in his niche, and we weren't following the schedule with the rest.  At this unusual moment, the four of us were just having a pleasant time, not talking much and not being entirely quiet either.  Shuko pointed out a configuration of lichen on the side of a stone.  Norman said that this may have been the spot where Daigyo Zenji washed his face with the stars.  It was a complete moment, a time unto itself with no particular meaning or accom­plishment - no one-upsmanship or culture wars.  The sunlight streaked in through the trees toward the end of the hot after­noon.  We forgot our own naked bodies and the futures we had planned for ourselves.  A yamabato cooed from a high branch.  The distant knell of a deep resonating bell wafted softly through the air.  Each of us listened, absorbing the vibrations.

"Mellow," I murmured while floating in the cold water.

"So clear, even down here," said Norman squatting on a stone island.

"Mmmmm," intoned Shuko.

"Evening service!"  said Koji standing up, reminding us that we had forgotten the meaning in the sound.  We quickly dried off with wash rag sized towels, threw on our clothes, ran over the rocks and the logs and leaped up the dirt path and onto the asphalt road down to Hogoji's entrance steps which we vaulted in our rubber zoris and wooden geta, scrambling back to get our robes on.  We arrived at the hatto, panting, just before the third round ended.  Koji placed the incense in the smooth ash plain of the large incense pot before the altar.  A few gongs of the brass bowl-shaped bell and we were off chanting the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, an invocation whose roots go back to pre-Buddhist Hindu magic incantations.  It asks for mercy for all beings.  I stood in the room, eyes unfocused, feeling love for my good dharma brothers.  We chanted to the thump of the wooden fish and forgot the magic moment in the creek.