Sumati and I arrived in Tokyo in December having come from India by way of Thailand and the Philippines. The cold was a shock to the system. Not long after arriving, I came down with pneumonia. We were staying in my friend Peter’s apartment, and as is customary in Japan, there was no heat. However, we did use to snuggle up to the kotatsu (table heater) during dinner. After dinner it was time for a jump into the very hot Japanese bath, out into the unheated room, and under the futon covers on the floor. All of these things, combined with a probably depleted immune system from traveling and living in India for several months, created an opportunity for the pneumonia to set in.
Peter was working and so had a state medical card which provided very inexpensive medical care. Because we were both blonde haired gaijins we thought that I could just use his picture ID. It worked. The only problem was I never found a doctor who could speak English, and I did not speak Japanese. The breathing problems became so severe I had to sleep partially sitting up.
I knew that Peter’s girlfriend was not happy we were staying. We felt it would be best if we found somewhere else. We met a Japanese sannyasin named Adinatha who offered us a room in his apartment. Very soon after leaving Peter’s, I started getting better, but what finally healed me was acupuncture. Adinatha knew a sannyasin acupuncturist and suggested that I go see him. I really don’t like needles, which probably saved me from more serious drugs. So, the thought of someone sticking numerous needles into my skin did not appeal. But I saw him, had a session, and still I could not say that I enjoyed it, but rather endured it. Very soon after having the session I was healed.
One day Peter called us to tell us he knew of a Japanese house that was being offered by a Japanese reporter who for some reason preferred to rent to foreigners. It was being offered for a very reasonable rent, fully furnished with everything we would need. It was also located closer in to the city on the Marunouchi subway line which was very convenient.
Sumati had started working for the same company where Peter worked, proof reading advertisements in English and instruction manuals for Japanese companies, such as Nikon, Panasonic, etc. Teaching jobs were coming my way and I was getting a full schedule. I had one job I traveled three hours each way for and taught for two. But the pay made it worthwhile.
The combination of a long-haired sannyasin dressed in orange and wearing a mala proved the perfect antidote for the serious Japanese mentality. These were very serious students, and I found the most important aid to their learning English, was creating an atmosphere in which they felt comfortable being a little crazy. They knew that it was okay to make mistakes and have fun in my classes.
When I was in Nepal, before going to Poona, I had met a Japanese couple at our guest house. Later on, I would run into them again in the Ashram. They both took sannyas around the same time as I did. Her name became Geeta and his name was Asanga. I remember seeing Asanga during some of the meditations, and he seemed to be one of the most focused people I had ever met. In my Zazen group on my second stay in Poona, Asanga was the one who performed the tea ceremony.
The rumor had been going around the sannyas community in Japan that Asanga had become enlightened while in Poona. He was returning to Japan soon. One night, Satchidanda, another sannyasin living and working in Tokyo, invited a few people over including Asanga. That night, I recognized something had changed with Asanga. It was as if his being occupied the entire room, whereas previously he was the most contained person I had ever met. In that small apartment room, he was a wide presence.
Asanga was Chinese Japanese from Chinese parents and lived in Yokohama. Sumati and I visited him one day and had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I visited Asanga once more before leaving Japan. This time it was with my travel buddy Narayanadeva, who by this time had come to Japan. He was taking over our house and some of my teaching jobs as Sumati and I returned to Poona. By this time Asanga had opened some kind of a night spot in Yokohama called, if I remember correctly, Samadhi. The three of us just spent time sitting together in silence.
This is from the collection of stories, essays, poems and insights that is compiled to form the book From Lemurs to Lamas: Confessions of a Bodhisattva. Download a PDF or order the book Here.