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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 82


June 19, 1988   -   I'M OFF


"I guess what it comes down to is choosing one's set of limitations," Shuko said as we sipped our farewell tea.

I nodded.

"Please come back anytime."

"Thanks.  You think you'll be here for a long time?"

"Maybe so.   I may be useful here to Nishiki Roshi."

"Creating the international monastery huh?"

"We will try," he said.

"Good luck.  It's a tough job."

"I'll do my best," he said with an unsettled but friendly smile.

"I guess I should go." I drank the rest of the tea in my cup.

"Good luck to you too."  He got up just as the morning work drum sounded.

Everyone gathered on the steps.

I thanked Maku for the photos of the ceremony with pictures I could send to family, Elin and friends.  Jakushin gasshoed and smiled.  Norman gave me a big hug.  I bowed to them all and turned around.  Koji and I were off down the steps, Koji insisting on carrying the heavy bag because he was concerned about my back.  I bowed goodbye to the patriarch oak.

"Do you think that's the tree Daigyo Zenji sat with?"

"Could be," said Koji.

We made a brief stop at Yoshiko's place where I paid my respects and thanked her for taking care of everyone.  I asked her how her condition was, not the standard "Ogenki desu ka?" but a more concerned query that is used for someone who has been ill.  She thanked me for asking and said "I've pretty much recovered."  And then she added "Okage sama de," which is a wonderful phrase that means "thanks to all that has made it possible."  It's a little like "Thanks to the good lord," but without the sense that there's only one paternal superbeing to be grateful to.

Yoshiko didn't ask where I was going and what I was going to do but just gasshoed with a piercing eye and encouraged me with, "Gambatte."  It's like what Katagiri would say to us when we would part, except he'd state it as a request: "Please take care of your practice."  Her spirit is more severe.  She is the good witch whose cold eye told me, "Don't be a coward and a flake.  Throw yourself into the Great Question."


There was water gushing down a ditch on the side of the road before the stupa as we walked past.  It had been dry for a week.  Koji explained that a farmer had been irrigating his rice fields but that now it was obviously full and he'd shut his intake, releasing this flow.  At a bend of the trough there was a large deep clear puddle that had formed from the spill and already it was full of tadpoles swimming to and fro, wagging their tails.

Bulldozers and dump trucks were working on a road across the valley.  We stopped for a moment and watched these tiny toys in the distance.  Their sound carried strongly across to us.

"I love heavy equipment," I said to Koji.

"I like cranes the best," Koji said, looking down.  There was a pause and then he spoke again.  "I'm going to leave too.  I'm going home a year earlier than I'd planned."

"Is that okay?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm happy to go back to my father's temple.  He and my mother can use me.  And I've had enough.  I think that maybe Dogen's way is too cold for me."

"Will you get married right away?"

"After one year maybe.  And you, will you get married when Elin comes?"

"I don't know.  We don't have to.  We should live together for a while and see how we feel."

"I envy you having a love marriage and being so free."

"Japanese marriages are much more likely to last though, aren't they?  And I'm sure you'll fall in love with each other in time," I said, trying to offer what I could.

"Please come stay with us when she comes."

"Yes we will come," I said.  "Of course.  Tell your parents we're married."

"Hai, that would be best," he said.


The Laurie Anderson bird called from the nun's grove as we walked down the road.  At Ryumon we stopped at Miki Oba-san's.  She was at home and made us strong instant coffee with Creap and sugar.  Koji in his boots and I in my tennis shoes sat on the edge of her tatami with our feet down in the entranceway.  She put my coffee on her desk by the phone, located, I noticed, so she could come in from working on her garden and answer it without deshoeing.  From where I sat I could see into a couple of small tatami rooms.  Everything was in faded colors.  Straight ahead was her kitchen with no room for a table.  That was it I think.  Everywhere there were boxes, magazines and various items stacked on the floor. She had lots of Japanese knick-knacks on tables and pictures hanging high on the walls tilted down from the top - Western-style scenes of famous Japanese places: Fuji San, Nikko, Miyajima.  She gave us special Beppu manju - aduki bean paste in mochi, the chewy, sweet, gluten rice cake.  We reminisced about picking tea together and she teased me for running away from the suzumebachi which she just called hachi - an ordinary bee.  She offered us more coffee but we declined and left after accepting a couple of apples.  We tried not to take them, they're so expensive, but she insisted.

From her phone Koji called the logger who had insisted that I come stay with him.  He said that he must have been drunk and couldn't remember a thing about it.  That was a little embarrassing.

I said goodbye and she gave me three thousand yen.  I didn't want to take it but Koji told me to.  As we walked down the road I remarked on how simple and poor her life was.

Koji said, "See that house there," and indicated a large new home next door, well-built with two new cars in a broad driveway.  "That's her daughter's.  She likes her run down old place better but she has the run of the big one too.  She's doing okay."

"You mean she doesn't work at Hogoji because she needs the money?"

"Of course not."


At the bus stop Koji gave me an envelope.  It said "from all Hogoji monks."  Inside was five thousand yen, exactly what I had left on the altar as a gift to the temple.  I had little money and I gratefully accepted.  I was afraid that if I said anything that my voice would crack.

"And this is from me," said Koji handing me another envelope.  "Look," he insisted.  It was ten thousand yen.

"Oh no, I, uh.."  But I couldn't talk.  I couldn't even say "no you shouldn't have."  He's so poor.  He'd worked in the family rice fields and gone to night school while I'd played tennis at the country club and driven my three two-barrel carburetor Pontiac around at night looking for action.  Oh well.  I stood there feeling raw, thankful and sad.

"Do you know what the Buddhists said an icchantika was?"

Koji surprised me.  It took me a moment to remember.  "No - what?"

"Not a being without buddha nature - only someone lacking faith.  You are neither."  And then he said,  "Kippu za feizu."

"Kippu en tachu," I responded.


I'm sure we were both relieved that the bus pulled up then.  Koji stepped in, putting my bag in the bus and then stepped back down.  I stood inside the bus and he stood just below on the ground.  In a nation where what one says at times like this is pretty well set in concrete, the monk and the foreigner exchanged farewells.  Several people in the bus looked on.

He put his hands together in gassho.  "Boku wa namagomi desu, dozo umete kudasai."

I answered him in kind, "I am garbage, please bury me."

The bus took off.  Koji stood there bowing till we rounded a bend and he was out of sight.  As we moved down the road toward Kikuoka, now and then one of the other passengers would turn around and look at me, maybe wondering if they'd heard right.


The next day, after an uneventful and blissful rest in the capsule hotel, I was sitting in the back of a bus waiting for it to leave for Beppu.  The bus was parked in the station lot right next to the intersection and I had a ringside seat on the local action.  There were farmers in their minipickup trucks going by, an old lady pushing an old lady's buggy - like a baby buggy but smaller, coming from the other direction was an old man in a kimono walking slowly in geta pushing a cane, a young woman was carrying a child in a pack on her back.  Meanwhile, people were boarding the bus.  They would look at me before they sat down as far away from me as they could.

Suddenly from across the intersection came a familiar sound.  It was like approaching cows.  "Ho! Ho!"  And there, coming down the sidewalk toward the intersection was a line of black-robed monks calling out that the dharma was back in town.  I could make out Norman easily as he was a good head higher than any of the others.  People on the street stopped and put coins in their begging bowls.  I could hardly see their chins for the wide conical straw hats but it looked as if there were just Norman, Shuko and those novices from Suienji.  The line approached the corner.  Then I realized that Norman was leading them.  Shuko was letting Norman be in charge.  Glory be.  Behind Norman were seven young monks.  Shuko was pulling up the rear.  They were probably coming to catch a bus to somewhere else for the afternoon's begging and were now catty-corner from the station.

After a line of schoolgirls in dark blue uniforms had stopped giggling at me and taken their seats, the bus driver shut the door.  I kept looking secretly at my friends out the window.  There was no stop light on the corner so Norman could go either way.  He chose to go to the right.  Shuko, however, decided to go the other direction and he called out to the novices to follow him which they dutifully did.

"Hey!" Shuko called to Norman just loud enough for him to hear.

Norman looked around finding himself alone in the middle of the street.  "What!?" he shouted at Shuko.

"Where are you going?" Shuko asked.

"I'm going to the station!" said Norman.  "Where are you going?"

"I'm going to the station too," answered Shuko walking with the puzzled monks behind him.

My bus started to pull out going away from the intersection.

"You give me a tiny bit of responsibility and then you take it away!  You won't even let me decide which way to cross the street!"  Norman yelled.

Shuko didn't answer.  He was surely getting embarrassed at this public display.

In the roar of the bus heading away, I couldn't hear the rest of their exchange but watched the pantomime: Norman jumping up and down and swinging his long sleeves in the air, gesticulating and probably by now cursing at Shuko who was walking into the station with his little ducks behind him.  The scene reduced to miniature and Norman and Shuko disappeared into the past.


          The bus to Beppu stopped and an old lady got on.  There was only one empty space left and that was the one next to me.  Bravely she lowered herself onto the seat, placing a paper shopping bag with handles between us.

I said the equivalent of "It's a nice day, isn't it ma'am."            When she heard these words coming from this alien mouth and, after a moment's thought realized that they indeed weren't English, it was music to her ears, and she sang along to the old song.  "Yes, nice weather isn't it!"

"Ogenki desu ka?"  I said.

"Genki desu," she answered saying she's fine and then added "Okage sama de."

Yes, I thought, okage sama de, thanks to all that has made it possible.  And I profusely thanked all who had helped me and all that had brought me to that place at that moment.  Thanks to parents and ancestors, wives and lovers, children and friends, teachers and fellow travellers.  Heartfelt gratitude to all beings and nonbeings on earth and in heaven, in the ten directions, from the past present and future who have made it possible for me to have been where I've been, done what I've done, known what I've known and to be sitting in this bus seat now so very happy to be rolling on toward Beppu and beyond, to more adventure and discovery.

The old lady asked me where I was going and what I was doing there.  I don't know what's next, I told her.  She looked at me puzzled as if thinking, he must have a plan or he wouldn't be here.

Well, I thought, if I don't have a plan, I'd better have a set phrase.  "Tomorrow's wind blows tomorrow," I said.

She laughed and nodded understanding perfectly.  She told me once her daughter went to LA and saw Disneyland and as we glided down the highway together she started jabbering away in dialect like Miki Obasan and I had no idea what she was talking about.