In a traditional-style Japanese home, or a temple today, the floor consists of straw mats, beautifully constructed with exact precision. Life is lived on the floor, the whole building being raised a couple of feet off the ground. The mats and the wooden corridors are kept spotlessly clean, and no dirt from outside is allowed to enter; shoes are left in the porch located on the ground level.
The avoidance of what is called aka, which can be roughly translated as dirt, grime, or anything greasy or slimy, has always been a major preoccupation in Japan. For instance, in the first half of this century, a Japanese girl would tend to hesitate on entering a Western-style classroom at school. Her instinct was to remove her shoes, so as not to bring the dirt of the playground into the classroom.
Again, Japanese women wear with traditional dress a pair of white cotton socks. An aristocratic Kyoto lady on her “at home” day used to change her socks when one visitor left, before receiving the next one. Socks that had been worn for even an hour were, so to speak, notionally impure.
In some countries of East Asia, however, at the beginning of this century, the village dwellings had a floor of earth, and life was lived on rough chairs and tables. As in Western life, dogs could freely enter a house if they belonged to the home. In such villages, some of the men had a habit of chewing betel-nut leaves, and spitting out the remaining fibers. It makes a brilliant red splotch on the ground, but is soon trodden in when outside the home. There were some who did not bother to make any distinction between the inside and outside of the house.
A Buddhist from such a village came to train at a temple in Japan. He was very keen and had made some progress in the language before coming, which is rather rare in foreign visitors, and accordingly impressed his hosts. Looking round the temple, he at once realized that his almost unconscious habit of spitting on the floor would be quite inappropriate in these spotless surroundings, and he made great efforts to remember not to do so. But occasionally the force of old habit became too strong, and he would pass on his way unaware that he had left a red splotch in a corner of the room. The first few times it happened it was pointed out to him, with increasing resentment by the monks, and he always apologized profusely and hastened to clean it up. But he still had lapses.
After one such lapse, the head monk was talking about it to the old abbot over tea. He was a perfectionist and expressed his disgust freely.
“Do you think that our new monk is making efforts to get rid of this regrettable habit?” asked the abbot.
“Oh yes, he’s very sincere. In a way, he’s as distressed by it as anyone. It’s not his sincerity that is lacking; it’s simply that the culture he comes from can hardly be called a culture at all. It’s really a sort of animal life that they’re living, judging from this sort of habit.”
He noticed that the abbot had absently picked up the tea cloth and was wiping up a few drops of tea and crumbs that had evidently fallen on the floor. He went on, “It seems to me that with such a huge gap between their way of living and ours, it’s rather useless for him to come here to train. It’s a nuisance for our people to have to go round mopping up these stains whenever they see them.”
The abbot was vigorously mopping with his tea cloth at the floor round the table.
“Oh, it’s all right here, teacher. He’s not allowed in this room. He hasn’t been here, spitting on the floor in that disgusting way of his.”
The abbot still plied his cloth, and the head monk stopped abruptly. He suddenly realized that there are other, more venomous forms of spitting than the merely physical one.
He changed the subject, and the abbot stopped mopping