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Buddhadharma : Summer 2013
SUMMER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 37 technique for the tatami-cleanup detail, of which I was now part, was to take a damp rag in hand, crouch down, and then literally run while push- ing the rag in front of you across the surface of the mats. You had to make sure to do the wiping with as much fervor as that exhibited by your fellow cleaners, or you would be gently chided should you push the rag with insufficient frenzy. This was a typical instance of where elements of Japanese culture, in this case groupism and manic zeal, had become intertwined and iden- tified with Zen practice. It was really a minor thing, objectively speaking, but it was no less grating on my nerves owing to the paranoia spreading through my psyche, a paranoia born of the separation I felt between myself and this strange culture that, as fate would have it, was the crucible of the spiritual practice that meant so much to me. A week after this sesshin, Yasutani Roshi, Yamada Roshi’s own teacher, delivered the teisho at zazenkai (a one-day mini sesshin) and after- ward conducted a Buddhist jukai (confirmation) ceremony. I was one of those confirmed, and he placed around my neck a foot-square cloth halter known as a rakusu as a symbol of the patch- work rags Shakyamuni Buddha had worn after his supreme enlightenment. This indicated that I was now, on paper at least, a Buddhist. The front of the rakusu was a navy-blue pleated rectangle of cotton, with a strap for hanging around the neck, while the back was white linen on which was penned, in calligra- phy, a kanji inscription appropriate to the person wearing the garment. On mine, Yasutani Roshi had inscribed a passage from the “Ten Ox- Herding Pictures” that read “Riding the Ox,” a symbol of enlightenment. I’m sure at this remove that he was merely making a pun on the animal- husbandry connotation of my last name, but at the time I was certain he was singling me out for my deep attainment, perhaps even at Yamada Roshi’s behest, the latter’s way of telling me I was making great Zen strides but without doing so directly. On the one hand I was souring on Zen’s cultural trappings; on the other I was convinced that Japanese Buddhism would live on through me. I would revive the dead cicada, Yamada Roshi’s metaphor for what had happened to true Zen in Japan. One day not long after, as I was vacuuming the Yamadas’ living room rug, Yamada Roshi’s wife, Oku-sama, started talking about my future in a way that took me by surprise. She began by saying that I should go back to college and get a degree, find a woman to marry, and then come back to Japan to complete my koan study with Yamada Roshi. At the end of her comments she added, “And then, you will become a wonderful roshi.” The Japanese term she used was “sub- arashii roshi.” It appeared that she had already spoken to Yamada Roshi about this, as she then turned to him as he sat in his chair listening to Beethoven and said, “Right?” He grunted over the music as if to say, “Well, we’ll see if he’s up to it,” before saying out loud in a serious tone, “You must make Zen your life’s work.” He then closed his eyes again in Beethoven rapture. I was floored. This time he really seemed to be acknowledging my Zen achievement, and my chest swelled with pride. All my misgivings about Zen’s Japanese cultural trappings evaporated in that instant. But little did I know, my ambiva- lence toward Japan itself was about to reach its crisis point. My feelings of estrangement from Japanese society had deepened considerably over the past twelve months as a result of all the shouted “Gai- jin!” of obnoxious schoolchildren, as well as the cautious stares from adults who seemed to be fearing I might suddenly ask for their daugh- ter’s hand in marriage. Japan had had an official policy of isolation for over two hundred years in an attempt to keep itself “pure” of foreign pol- lution. Now a different sort of isolation was at play, expressed in phrases like ware ware nihon- jin (“we Japanese,” as opposed to “you barbar- ians”) and waga kuni (“our country,” as opposed to “your barbaric one”). Around this time, I ran