Saturday, April 5, 2014

David Chadwick's "Thank You and OK!": Book Review

After 22 years studying with Shunryu Suzuki-- whom he'd later write very fluently about in "Crooked Cucumber" (see my July 2009 review)--Texan-turned-San Franciscan Chadwick decamps for Japan in 1988. Interspersing an account of his second marriage, to Elin, and the birth of their son there with an immediately prior stint as a practitioner at the tiny temple he calls here (names are disguised) Hogo-ji with another teacher he knew back in the U.S, the elderly Katagiri, the results aren't truly what the subtitle reckons as "an American Zen failure" there. The point that he's already spent decades sitting and that he's ordained speaks for itself. The back-and-forth twinned threads can be unsettling as one constantly veers from a monastic situation to everyday encounters in the bustling place he calls Maruyama. 

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. "I felt the hands of a woman who has pulled men down on her many times." (20) 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") 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. (5-2-13 Amazon US)

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