Don't Throw Up In My Okesa

I'm in the Italian part of Switzerland, in a town called Ascona! Hold on while I go buy some gelato.

Okay, now I'm back and eating chocolate gelato. This is important to my spiritual development because I'm trying this new thing where I just enjoy the simple things around me and don't make everything so difficult and serious for myself. The Italians already have this figured out. When we checked into our hotel today, the guy behind the counter said, "Technically I'm supposed to give you a single room and make you change to a double tomorrow, but I'm just going to give you the double for the whole time and not charge you extra because otherwise I have to change the reservation, and that means work, and work makes me unhappy."

I'm not sure why Buddhism exists in Europe, because there is limitless gelato, pasta, fine art, and rolling, green hills. The men smoke cigarettes casually and endlessly, scowl and have huge muscles. I'm not sure how these things could ever cease to be amazing.

I have had a bizarre week. I came to Switzerland with seven members from my sangha: my teacher, my dharma sister Shugetsu-san, who is an Australian woman in her forties, two young Japanese monks who trained at the monastery, a monk's wife who teaches goeka, and an abbot from the area near our temple who plays the shamisen and is an all-around good sport. We were invited by the monastery Kosetsu-ji to help with the hossenshiki of one of their nuns, Doko-san, who also practiced in Japan. Kosetsu-ji is an incredibly beautiful monastery surrounded by carefully cultivated gardens and a big mountain range. They have a really interesting mix of Western and Japanese elements, and lots of strong women practitioners. It was an honor to be invited.

The hossenshiki was like the United Nations of Zen; everyone was there. The bishop of Europe! My mother! My teacher! Two Japanese Zen nuns! And about eighty other people from throughout Europe and Japan. The day we arrived, we heard that the shusso and a few other nuns at Kosetsu-ji were sick and had slept the entire morning. This was obviously not good, because the shusso is the star. Luckily, she recovered, and business carried on as usual. Shugetsu-san and the monk's wife taught a goeka class. I served some Japanese monks coffee. The Swiss nuns drove and coordinated endlessly. Somewhere, a tireless tenzo cooked up a vegetarian lunch for fifty people. We performed the Ango opening ceremony and ceremonial tea.

The evening before the hossenshiki, we all went out to dinner at the nearby hotel. It was a wonderful vegetarian, Swiss meal of wine, stewed mushrooms and pastry, and lasagna. About an hour into the meal, the older Japanese nun had to be taken back to the monastery to rest. Apparently she wasn't feeling well. A few other people left with her, also claiming to feel unwell. Then, towards the end of dinner, the nun sitting next to me threw up over the whole table. I didn't think too much of this. Reflexively I wiped down her vomit-crushed purse with a napkin and brought it to the bathroom, where another nun was helping her. Then I said goodbye, went to my room, and fell asleep.

The next morning, I woke up nauseous. At first I just thought it was "empathy nausea." You know how when your friend is sick, you kind of feel sick too? But this was no empathy nausea. I could barely move. My mother, who had met up with me in Switerzland the day before, woke up and puked several times. It turns out everyone in the town had been infected with E coli from the water supply, but we didn't know this yet. My mom decided to opt out of the hossenshiki she had traveled all the way around the world to see, but I knew I didn't have this option. I had one purpose alone, and that was to be my teacher's Jisha in this damn thing. So I called him on the phone, searching for a way out.

"Good morning," I said.


"How are you? "

"I'm fine," he said.

"How is Shugetsu-san?" I asked. Shugetsu-san was my out. If she was healthy, I could be sick. But it was not to be. "She is sick and I haven't seen her all day. She is sleeping."

"Oh dear," I said. "I'm sick too. My mother just threw up a bunch of times. I think she can't come to the hossenshiki..." I let that sentence linger, waiting for him to tell me I could stay back, too. He didn't. "How are you feeling?" I asked finally. Turns out he was sick too. I hung up the phone and lay there in bed, trying to garner some strength of will. I remembered a story he told me one of having a 104 degree fever and having to do three funerals in one day. Between the second and third funeral someone called an ambulance to come give him an IV, and then he kept going. I lay there thinking about that ridiculous machismo Zen story and it got me out of bed. I brought a plastic bag with me in the car in case I threw up on the way to the temple.

I got to Kosetsu-ji a half an hour before the hossenshiki started, which is pretty late. I changed into my okesa and koromo, then went to see my teacher. We was lying in bed, sick.

"I want to throw up," I told him.

"Don't throw here," he said solemnly and quietly, using his broken English. "Throw in your own room."

That's pretty Zen.

I brought him some medicine and water, and then he put on his ceremonial robes. Very, very briefly he told me what I was supposed to do during the ceremony, which was open his zagu one time so he could bow, take off his ceremonial hat, and put it back on. Usually my dharma sister does this kind of thing, but she was singing goeka during the ceremony. We weren't sure if she was going to be able to do it, but she also managed to get out of bed.

Eventually we made our way to the hall. I was feeling increasingly nauseous and put a plastic bag inside my robes in case I had to throw up. I really felt like I was going to throw up, and was terrified I would vomit during the ceremony, in the midst of opening my teacher's zagu. Or inside his hat. We took our seats and the ceremony started. I opened his zagu at the right time. I sat in my place, fighting back vomit. Everyone once in a while, my teacher would randomly stand up and sit down again, I guess to avoid vomiting.

The shusso had her dharma combat. Then there were the words of congratulations, thankfully vomit free, and we exited the hall. Next was a group photo and then we were finished. We went back inside and I managed to fold my teacher's okesa and koromo.

"Were should I put your koromo?" I asked.

"In the suitcase, on top of the okesa." I put his koromo inside the suitcase and then had to sit down, my head in my hands. The room was spinning.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I really want to throw up."

"Don't throw up in my okesa."

I left, went to the bathroom, and then found a random bed. I lay down and slept for the next six hours. As I drifted in and out of a fevered sleep I smelled curry from a Sri Lankan lunch, and heard the not so distant the sound of the shamisen.

That is my hossenshiki story. I'm glad we were invited, and managed to stand in our positions and not throw up, and support the temple in some small way. Now I'm in the Italian part of Switzerland with my mother, and the next five blog posts will hopefully be detailed descriptions of gelato flavors and photos of rugged Italian men scowling and smoking cigarettes.


  1. You really do have the gift of writing. Great story.

  2. So glad you didn't throw up in the wrong place. Your sense of humor can sure make an awful situation a comedy. (I'm sure that's not what you were thinking when placing the plastic bag in your okesa!) Good to know you recovered and were able to enjoy the gelato with your Mom. Be well.


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