Thank You and Okay: An American Zen Failure in Japan Paperback – August 1, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Glenn Masuchika, Chaminade Univ. Lib., Honolulu
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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There have been some small changes in the twenty years since Chadwick trained at Shogoji, a Soto Zen temple in Kumamoto prefecture (which the author makes a thin attempt to veil by changing the name to Hogoji). A sodo (a dedicated mediation hall) and shuryo (study hall) have been added, and cooking is now done with gas instead of wood. But otherwise life on the mountain remains much the same. There is still no electricity, the kitchen is dangerously dark, poisonous centipedes are hunted with murderous intent, and practice remains remarkably sterile.
One of Chadwick's Zen mates, an American monk with a decade of Japanese Zen experience, confides that "the purpose of training in Japanese Zen temples isn't to help you along the path to enlightenment - it is to cultivate you into a refined and obedient Japanese priest for Japanese temples." Having attended the 2008 training at Shogoji, this reviewer can verify that the purpose of the training remains precisely the same. (See my blog, FullThangka, for more on that experience.)
Chadwick's memory of an incident at the San Francisco Zen center is particularly revealing of the decline in Zen training. A gathering of senior American priests requested Katagiri-sensei, an important player in the introduction of Japanese Zen to the United States, teach them how to do dokusan, the practice of private interviews with students. Katagiri-sensei said he couldn't help them. That he had never been taught himself. That his teachers never taught dharma. They would have to figure it out for themselves, as he had.
There's certainly something to be said for being the source of your own enlightenment. The Buddha said as much in his parting message. But where, then, is the need for temples and priests?
Perhaps these shifts replicate the familiar tale of a foreigner struggling to find a place in Japan. A lovely moment comes as, comforting a Filipina barmaid, she asks him as a "priest" for a blessing. She takes his hands and puts them on top of her hair. He blesses her, noting the familiarity of a gesture in a different context than the woman usually has found with a man.
Twice, black butterflies will hover together to express beauty. The fearsome incursions of giant wasps and enormous centipedes Chadwick summons up well, as well as more mundane encounters. The title itself comes from a ubiquitous box of matches. As he tells his fellow monk Norman: "'Thank you' is the gratitude, the gateway to religious joy, and 'OK,' which comes from 'all correct,' represents the perfection of wisdom. This is our mantra." Of course, Norman responds that David's infected with, using his friend's favored phrase, "brain weevils." (311)
His added Zen however wobbly enables him to be more patient than many would coming to the Far East from the Far West. There's an off-kilter sense often present here. A funny anecdote about the ridiculously pedantic forms required for his driver's license, the motions assumed one has to go through even if faking it, make for a great story about a rigid system that (as when he gets his visa extended) can still be bent. Late in this series of rambling vignettes, he reflects that Katagiri was suspected on coming back to his native land from his work in America, and that Japan tries to resist outside influences. "It's pretty obvious that the extent to which foreigners suffer here is the extent to which they try to belong." (386)
The push against innovation pulls against the subtly more gentle, more humane attempts of the few monks to lighten the weight of discipline and hierarchy that impose their presence on those at Hogo-ji. Lightly, he critiques the way (this is delineated well in the "Crooked Cucumber" about his teacher Shunryu Suzuki; I reviewed this in July 2009) that for Japanese, Zen means the stick, the pain of sitting, and the hardship endured. As for "helping anyone or offering anything accessible to the average person in terms of daily practice," he wonders what the Buddha would have thought. He doesn't delve deep into Buddhism itself, but he suggests in zazen that one's "just finding out a hint of what we are beyond our little boxes of unfolding thought." (369)
Chadwick does not come down too hard on Japanese Zen, but as the book progresses, you sense the need for American versions to adjust to their own culture. There's a telling scene after Katagiri's ashes are returned to his native terrain: the village has lost its young to the cities and the allure of the Western-imported ways; meanwhile, Americans clad in monastic garb, half of them women, attend the funeral in the dying rural village.
The book is marketed as humorous, and it's in a light tone that helps readability. Yet, while for me it went on far too long, it's worthwhile to a patient reader for the subtler cultural differences. These need not be sent up always as folly. Surely Chadwick with his own relative fluency in the language he diligently studies accounts for more insight than many visitors possess.
Top international reviews
Only the final review (written 3 years ago)was written by someone I think is genuine, who has written other Amazon reviews and they only gave this book 3 stars. Although other people say they found it "hilarious" I didn't - put it down to my British sense of humour. The book leaps about between the author's time at the monastery in 1988 and his time in Japan with his wife and teaching English in 1989. I couldn't see the point in this and found it rather annoying and confusing.
I'm not sure really what the book was trying to do. didn't get the point of the book at all. If it was to inform you about life in Japan in the 1980s from an American's viewpoint it just about did it, but to ask any more from it, or to expect to learn much about Zen Buddhism or how it really feels to be in a strict training monastery - forget it! There are much better books out there I would recommend for that eg Janwillem van de Wetering's "The Empty Mirror" (who by the way spent 2 yrs at the monastery, not the 8 months mentioned by a reviewer on the back cover), "Eat, Sleep, Sit" by Kaoru Nonomura (a young Japanese who spent a year in a monastery) and finally (from a feminine western perspective) "The Wild, White Goose" by Roshi Jiyu-Kennett.