Interview with Dr. Kazumitsu Wako Kato, the young Soto Zen priest in charge of Sokoji when Shunryu Suzuki came to America, and his wife Emi - interviewed by DC. Kato assisted at Sokoji from 1952 - 63.
for lots more on Dr. Kato, mainly by him, go to the website of Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission in LA. Some good stuff there on the history of Zen in America and about Zen in general.
Reverend Wako Kato, Ph.D., has served at Sokoji in San Francisco from 1952 to 1963 and at Zenshuji since 1963. He also holds the position of chief priest of Fuganji in Nara, Japan. Besides his priesthood, he held academic positions at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. After he moved to Los Angeles, he taught at California State University, Los Angeles, where he was granted Professor Emeritus. He was also a Visiting Professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Before this lecture series began, he was a Dean of International Studies at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in Japan for seven years and now, Professor Emeritus there. He has authored seven books and numerous articles in English and Japanese. - from Zenshuji ministers page.
Zoom Info on Kato - web links
Kato was a Alan Watts' Zen mentor for The Way of Zen and introduced Shunryu Suzuki to Watts. - see DC on Watts
6/13/04 - I called the Kato's today at their Pasadena home where they still live and still have the same phone number. Emi answered and we had a charming talk. Later Dr. Kato and I talked and I said it was good to know they're back in the US from their Nagoya home and mentioned I'd put this interview up and seen all his talks on the Zenshuji website mentioned above.
I checked with him about the name of the abbot of Zenshuji before Yamada. My transcription had Sasaki but I asked if that wasn't a mistake. Wasn't it Daito Suzuki and he said that's right? Daito had originally come to assist Hosen Isobe, the founder of Zenshuji. And he was the abbot there for many years. I reminded him that Daito Suzuki had come to America in about 1930 and that Shunryu Suzuki and a few of his fellow students at Komazawa University in Tokyo had gone to the docks to see him off. There were only a few of them as most of their classmates, as I understand it, couldn't understand why any monk would want to leave Japan. But Shunryu Suzuki and his idealistic friends saw it as a noble venture, going to the West to bring Buddha's teaching. Shunryu cried as he waved goodbye to the departing priest who was fulfilling a wish he carried deep in his heart. In 1959, when Shunryu came to America to be the priest at Sokoji, a temple that Daito had founded in the thirties, one of the first things he did was to go to LA to visit an ailing Daito. Soon after that he conducted Daito's funeral, the first one, I think, that he did in America. I see it sort of as a completed circle. It's a neat story.
Dr. Kato said that they certainly had some karma together.
Something I just learned or just remembered - I asked who the Wako Kato was I'd seen mentioned here and there in old Wind Bells and interviews. Is that him, I asked? Yes it is. Dr. Kato's Buddhist name is Wako so he says that officially he's Wako Kato. Wako is the onyomi or Japanized Chinese reading of the same characters that, in the kunyomi, or strictly Japanese and less formal reading, are pronounced Kazumitsu, his birth name.
Dr. Kato is working on a story of his life at present which will be ready to publish soon. I look forward to reading it.
8\27\95 - Dr. and Mrs. Kato (Kazumitsu [KK] and Emi [EK]) at their house in Pasadena, CA. They also have a home in Nagoya, Japan.
DC: Good to be with you. Tell me about it all.
KK: Suzuki Roshi married my wife and me.
EK: No he didn't - Tobase married us.
KK: Oh, that's right. It was so long ago. I think approximately a little over a year before Rev. Suzuki's arrival, Rev. Tobase left for Japan, therefore I was taking care of Sokoji. I was twenty-eight, born in 1930. Then Rev. Suzuki arrive. It was May of 1959. I went to the airport and greeted him and brought him to the temple. Other members of Sokoji were also at the airport. I showed him around the area and his living quarters which we had prepared because nobody had been living at the temple.
We were living on Rhode Island Street at the time in Potrero Hill in San Francisco.
DC: So what was it like?
EK: We loved it there.
KK: Larry Ferlinghetti was living near us. Then there was KQED director Hagopian living near us too. We were surrounded with artists and writers - Michael McClure. It was a very interesting period. Alan Watts was active and Gary Schneider was living in the Sonoma area, but was in and out of the city as well as Kyoto and Phillip Whalen was around. The Academy of Asian studies on Broadway included Phillip and Claude Dalenberg was living there. And Gaifu Feng who moved to Colorado - he translated the Tao Te Ching (with Jane English)- he was an Academy member too who leaned on Chinese Philosophy, especially Taoism. Those days - the late fifties and the early 60s was the height of interest in Zen and Taoism in San Francisco, a very exciting place. It was the Alan Watts Zen boom. DT Suzuki's works were popular. On a few occasions he visited the Academy en route to New York or Claremont colleges so we'd hear him. Kenneth Rexroth was alive then and he read poetry here and there, including at Esalen Institute. On California Street there was a place called the East West House. Most of them went to Sokoji to sit in those days. It was near Buchanan - a big Victorian style house - three stories - and a whole bunch of people lived there. I don't know who ran it. I enjoyed visiting there. A Rinzai monk visited from Mishima city - Soen Roshi. Alan Watts and I were reading the Rinzai Roku at the Academy at that time. That is the background that Suzuki arrived into. To everyone in these circles, the arrival of Suzuki Roshi was an exciting event.
He was actually assigned to be the priest of the Sokoji congregation which was mainly Japanese first generation and a few second generation Japanese. But American people started to come to ask him questions and I was sort of a chief translator between Suzuki and the Americans. His English was not very good at the beginning - not to the point of being at a communicative level. But amazingly with his sort of calm slow pace, he communicated with them within a short time and to many people he was a fascinating person when he talked. He had an always calm unchanged fashion. Nothing excited or angered him. He was a very sincere warm person in general. Yet he had a backbone - he used the stick and had a stern zazen. But after zazen he was a warm person. My English wasn't that good either at the time.
DC: Was he sent with the idea that he would be the bishop of Soto Zen in America?
KK: He may have been asked to be the archbishop of American Soto Zen but he had no desire for that. He didn't care if he was teaching many people or just one person.
DC: And how long were you there with him?
KK: I moved to LA in 63.
DC - Suzuki Roshi talked about some power struggles with a Bishop Yamada in LA back then at the first.
KK: Yamada was the bishop, the head of American Soto Zen Buddhism. He had a set mind. He later became the president of Komazawa University [the Soto Zen University in Tokyo] and later became the abbot of Eiheiji - kanshu. It's quite possible he may have had differences with Yamada because when Yamada Roshi was here - he came in '61 or '62 - the reason I went to LA from San Francisco was Yamada Roshi's unofficial order - so I was helping Sokoji and Suzuki and I was teaching at UC Berkeley then and at that time Yamada said he needed an English speaking assistant. At that time, in '63 or '64, Yamada also had differences between Maezumi and himself. Maezumi was assigned initially to Zenshuji but he started his Zen Center in '64 or '65. He had zazen going at Zenshuji in '63 when I went there. Yamada was called back to Japan to head up Komazawa University and Togen Sumi Roshi came to take his place and he probably didn't get along with Maezumi either but I stayed away.
DC: They certainly didn't get along. But that's a long story [which will be on this site soon].
KK: I came to Sokoji in June of '52 and I left in August of '63 so I was there for 11 years. I came to assist Tobase Roshi, but unfortunately Sokoji was very poor with few members. Just 50 or 60 families and they could not afford to pay me and also the board members asked me to study English because their children were basically English speaking - therefore I started studying English at San Francisco State. As you know to master a European language from Japanese is not that easy. So I studied and got a second BA and went on to Berkeley to do graduate studies and got my MA and PhD in comparative philosophy. All the while I was helping Tobase at Sokoji till he left in late '57 or early '58. For a year and a half I took care of Sokoji alone - I don't remember how long.
DC: Well, tell me something about your experience with him.
KK: One day I was carrying Suzuki Roshi's bag as an attendant. Some priests were going to visit Sokoji. We went to the airport and I just followed him. A whole bunch of Japanese came toward us and Suzuki was supposed to meet them - they were so visible because they were all wearing robes - and Suzuki was wearing a robe and they all looked at him and he just didn't notice them - a whole bunch of shaved heads. And after we passed them I said to him, aren't they Japanese monks? "Did I miss them?" he said. "Oh, I see. Maybe that's them. Go ask them." And of course it was them. That sort of incident was numerous. In that sense he was absent minded. Maybe he was thinking or maybe not thinking.
EK: To me, on the whole, he was so gentle. I noticed that his interest was in recruiting the English speaking members and in teaching Buddhism to children. I really have no background in Buddhism.
KK: Recruiting is not the right word. He actually never solicited. People came. He was there - and people were interested in him. We were very very closely attached to him.
EK: I brought my daughter to Sunday school and she always wanted to bring him a little gift because he was such a warm personality and I encouraged her and so one day she polished a tiny little red apple and put it in a little box and put a ribbon on and gave it to him and when he opened it and he was just overwhelmed with the feeling of warm gratitude. She was just three or four and they communicated just beautifully and both of them just smiled and they said no words. Her name is Kazumi.
One day it snowed in San Francisco which was so rare and she made a snowball and put it in a box and took the city bus and went to the temple and when he opened it at the temple it was of course all melted when he opened the box and he said, "My what a beautiful snowball." But she was pretty sad and she tried to explain what happened. They had such a beautiful relationship.
He even conducted Sunday school and the kids just loved him. Many of the members were laborers and worked on Saturday so people brought their kids to Sokoji on Sunday - it was sort of social. The adult service was at ten and the kids would be there too and then after the service the adults and kids would separate.
Mrs. Suzuki was the opposite of her husband. So she did Sunday school and he kind of backed off from it up to that point.
KK: At that time there were very few people who sat. They would come and go. There was a woman on Second Avenue, an elderly person - Della Goertz - I met her at Sokoji - she lived around Arguello, and there was a fellow called Roger Marleck [?], an architect. The membership would change. At the beginning there were only a couple of people. I met some of them at the Academy of Asian Studies and there was an artist in residence there named Saburo Hasegawa. He was an aesthetician. He studied at Tokyo University and was quite well known as a new form of artist - emerging calligraphy and other art together - sort of avant garde. I took him to the airport in a wheelchair and he was going to some hospital. Noriko was a student of his. Mary Beth Smith was a student of his and an artist living in Mill Valley and she didn't go to Sokoji to meditate but we all knew each other including Reverend Suzuki. He went to the Academy off and on. Hasegawa's funeral was at Sokoji and I officiated and Alan Watts arranged all the paperwork and everything. That was before Suzuki arrived but after Tobase left.
Generally speaking, when Suzuki spoke to the Japanese congregation on Sunday, he talked about excerpts from the teaching of Zen masters from the Koroku and then he'd bring their sayings down to our daily level and usually he concluded with a Soto Zen interpretation and some understood and some didn't but the stories were very interesting such as the one monk asks the other, What is your name? and the other monk says my name is such and such, and it was the questioner's name and the questioner would say, that's my name, and the monk says, Why not mine? And then he would bring it down to the daily level. The congregation liked him very much but most of them didn't speak any English. Hirano did and Hagiwara did. There was some friction with his zazen students because of the cultural gap. They, the Japanese Americans, were laborer's most of them - laborers, carpenters and house cleaners and they scraped together pennies to maintain that temple.
During the war the Japanese nationals could only take what they could carry and they lost everything and it was the law that foreign nationals could not own property but some of them changed the names of the houses to their children's name. So Sokoji members didn't know English and their skills were limited so many of them cleaned houses - I did that.
EK: They worked very hard - many of them cleaning. Many of them would go to people's houses in the evening and would cook and wash dishes and be fed.
KK: I received a dollar and a half an hour and women received a dollar and a quarter. Many were farmers or farm laborers and after the war even those who had had land or money had to start over. In those days there was quite strong prejudice against the Japanese - after the war. In 1960 I was appointed an assistant professor at San Jose State and I couldn't get an apartment. And in Berkeley we couldn't find an apartment - You're Japanese? We won't rent to Japanese. And they'd shut the door right in my face - that happened many times. We had to live in a black neighborhood in Oakland with prostitutes and winos and I was an assistant professor at UCB. Up to maybe '65 that persisted but it gradually changed and the reputation of Japanese was that they made cheap toys.
EK: The majority of Americans had a stereotype of Japanese in their minds. We constantly had to struggle against that. Only those who were enlightened [she means this casually, not in terms of Zen] came to Sokoji to meditate.
KK: And those people wanted to know more about Asian culture. I was in the academic community and it was the early stages of this sort of course and I was amazed that the contents of the courses was sort of at a tourist level. There were three types of students: One would seriously study from the foundation of the language - like Robert Bellah or Debois, Donald Keene. The second level was sort of the newspaper reporter type - they'd try to grasp the key and write about Japan and the third was the tourist level and in the small colleges still the second and third type were teaching and in the major universities like Harvard or UC, the real specialists began to teach and actually today the second and the third are gone. Now almost all specialists have a good grasp of Japan.
Even in the seventies I was in the Sacramento area researching about immigrants from Japan and I wanted to interview a number of Caucasian people and many of them refused to say anything - some of them said, "I still remember Pearl Harbor," and they'd hang up. But the times changed and we endured.
In Sokoji and the Academy there was none of this so I felt very comfortable but many of the congregation weren't. We were treated badly so it was natural. And also there was the difference of culture. They'd scrapped the white people's kitchen floors but they really didn't know them. And Americans had learned very little about Japanese people - textbooks were not like today. Now they are much more internationally oriented. At Zenshuji in LA also the old members were territorial and there was some closed feeling about the Caucasian zazen students.
DC: Very good. Keep going.
KK: Once Suzuki Roshi and I went to Stockton to check out a Zen meditation center run by a Caucasian - headquarters had asked Suzuki Roshi to do so and to write a report about whether it was legitimate or not - something that Tobase had set up and they were calling themselves Soto.
DC: That's MacDonough's place.
KK: Yes. And Suzuki Roshi was in heavy robes and it was 102 degrees and the car wasn't air conditioned. I was driving and he said, "Why don't you open the window?" and I did but just hot air came in, and he said, "I wonder which is better - the air is warmer than our body temperature," but anyway we finally arrived at his house and there was a little altar and Suzuki Roshi forgot his mission and he said, "Let's meditate together." And it was hot inside his house - like 110 degrees. We sat for about an hour and MacDonough became very very uncomfortable and Suzuki and I meditated and then we chanted and then we left and Suzuki had forgotten his mission and he said, thank you very much. And on the way back I asked him, "What did you think?" And he said, "What? It was good zazen." So I wrote the report and said he wasn't qualified. Good zazen? In a 110 degree house? It was hell I tell you.
DC: I remember that Peter Schneider, an old student of Suzuki's whom he ordained, told a story of the lecture you gave on "Why I decided to not to be a Soto priest." When Peter came to Zen Center in '63 it frightened him. But I think you're a priest. You just didn't want to become a company priest.
KK: He must have heard that after I left. I continued to come up to Sokoji from LA from time to time to help Suzuki with sesshin or ceremonies.
Maybe that is why I went into academic fields. Why I didn't take a temple - I was just 22 when I came here. I had been in two temples - in Nagoya and at Eiheiji. Now I'm abbot of a temple in Nara to the south of Nagoya. Noh play began in my temple. Zeami was a very famous Noh actor of the 14th century and he practiced there. Fuganji. I'm still a priest. There are no members. It was only a temple to train monks. Only paperwork is necessary - no funerals. But it has 60 sub temples.
DC: Tell me about the war.
KK: I was 15 when the war ended - I had been drafted into the Navy - the whole school had decided to join actually. I was living in a small temple in Nagoya where my father was the first married priest of that temple - he got married in 1925. I was the older son so my destiny was to be a priest. Maybe getting married for priests started in 1910.
Once I was in Sokoji and a Rinzai monk visited [I'm sure this is Soen Nakagawa - DC] and he said he wanted to pay respect to the abbot and Suzuki said, "Let's chant the Hannya Shingyo [Heart Sutra] together and then the Rinzai monk looked at the book which was donated on the occasion of the memorial service for some person who was dead and the Rinzai monk stamped on the floor and he said, "This is not Zen!" And Suzuki was surprised and he said, "We do everything here. We eat everything here. We cater to everybody - dead or alive." and he smiled. And the Rinzai monk was embarrassed. I was frightened thinking, what will happen? Suzuki handled it very well and maintained his calmness.
Usually in Japan the priests don't give long sermons like in Christian churches or like the Zen tradition here to give long talks - in Zen. So in the beginning Suzuki didn't know what was expected. So every Sunday morning he had to give a talk and he said, "What a chore. We have to think about what we have to say." And the first sermon he gave was like this:
And after that he gave talks based on the Koroku. But he had to talk to their level which was not so high. And in the zazen group he had to talk to the level of intellectuals. And I don't think he preferred one over the other but there was friction between them and I think the Japanese group asked him to make a decision which way he would go and that was probably a very difficult decision - he wanted to do both.
His talks to the Japanese group were no set time - fifteen minutes to forty-five.
Sometimes he'd say, "Somebody gave me some nice manju, candy, that I really enjoyed," - sometimes he'd do that too.
EK: And he'd connect with nature. He saw a beautiful plum blossom and he talked about it one morning and everyone smiled and I imagined it.
KK: He gave low calm warm talks.
He didn't know that Sokoji had asked for a married priest. [Yes he did. That's why he married Mitsu before he came. I think that KK may not have said this but that I may have written that in years ago in the transcription and forgot to put it in brackets. Or, if he said it, he was just wrong.]
DC - Why did they ask for a married priest?
KK: Tobase wasn't married but I don't think there was a serious problem, but about half of the members didn't like Tobase. He was a kind of idealist so everything had to be his own way and he didn't always grasp the situation. He didn't teach zazen.
DC: Claude Dalenberg, Ananda now, says that he sat with Tobase for ten minutes at a time in some sort of class.
KK: I knew Claude in 1955. There was a fellow called Robert Graves who was an ethnic musician. He later got a PhD in ethnic musicology from UCLA and taught at the University of Washington and then he came to UC Irvine as a dean and he and I were classmates - he was a Latin American. He met Alan Watts. He took me to the Academy of Asian Studies and introduced me to Alan Watts. Soon after that I met Claude.
Suzuki was a very gentle priest and I couldn't imagine he would be able to establish a Zen center. I couldn't imagine that he had any passion or dream of building something like that and I still think it came to exist kind of naturally and it separated from Sokoji because of friction.
He started sitting zazen quite soon. The intellectual community around the Academy was ripe. And actually before Suzuki, I'd lead zazen sesshin at Sokoji. I'd only had four and a half years of monastic life and that wasn't enough to teach zazen. Many priests just bring in form when they teach zazen - how to sit down and hit the bells - that's what I knew but that wasn't enough to lead people. I was ordained when I was nine or so. Knowing how to do memorial services and Obon [an August service for the dead] isn't enough. My first monastic experience was at eleven and one year at 16 and another two years by the time I was 22. How could I lead zazen? I only knew the forms - not the essence.
He had studied with Kishizawa Roshi and so on and he came when he was older.
DC: What else?
KK: Alan Watts published the Way of Zen in 1960. I helped him do that - we read the Koroku - just the words but not Zen itself. Every Friday all day I suffered - all week I'd study for Friday. I was paid - I needed the income to survive. He got a grant from the Boringen [sp?] Foundation to do it.
DC -He told me he made one penny a copy for that book.
EK: He was a very docile, warm, kind, even tempered person.
KK: Tobase's nephew called Tobase was in America and I think he still lives in San Francisco. He must be in his fifties. Ask Otohiro. Tobase's nephew had already graduated from college in Japan and he used to come to the temple - it was a place to eat and chat and one day he was complaining about this and that about America and Suzuki was sitting in his desk chair and Tobase's nephew was sitting on the couch. All of a sudden Suzuki jumped on Tobase and slapped his face about five times. He landed on his back. We were so shocked. Suzuki said something like: "For that you get this and if you complain more you'll get more!" Tobase's nephew was coming almost everyday and always complaining. Suzuki hopped right over on top of him. I think Tobase stopped coming for a couple of weeks so Suzuki called him and said, "Why don't you come? There's too much food here. We miss you." And Tobase was surprised he called him up.
DC: Do you know or did you know Ogui of the Buddhist Churches of America, the Jodo Shinshu temple near Sokoji?
KK: I didn't know the BCA priests because in those days we weren't as friendly as today - the Japanese sectarian tradition.
DC: Then more on Sokoji?
KK: People dropped by often. I dropped by all the time. It was a quiet place and you'd open the refrigerator and there was always a cantaloupe or a honeydew and I came because I was always hungry and I wasn't earning anything much and I was doing menial labor and going to school and every event in the evening or on Sunday and any memorial service or Buddha's birthday or Obon or Hanamatsuri I went there and helped but I earned money working elsewhere. Caucasians dropped by too. Often weird people.
Once when Tobase [the elder, the priest] was there, the Fairmont Hotel elevator man, an older English man, came by and said he was an ordained Buddhist - ordained in Thailand or somewhere and he asked Tobase to let him give lectures and a Guy named Perry came with him and they called themselves reverend and they gave long long lectures and no one understood what they were saying - I didn't understand but anyway we were all sleeping.
EK: The inside of the temple itself changed when Suzuki came. Reverend Tobase never cared for tidiness or aesthetics. Reverend Suzuki always cleaned and put plants and trees and flowers and pictures inside. He loved simple but aesthetically pleasing atmosphere. Not only clean but he made it feel good and serene.
KK: He liked to clean and spent a lot of time working in the building but in Tobase's time I was cleaning. And he cooked for himself. Sometimes Japanese members brought him food but mainly he cooked for himself.
EK: He was extremely contentious about being at the temple all the time. I remember a few instances when we thought he should get out of the temple so we brought him to friend's houses for dinner and he enjoyed it but at the same time he was always concerned that he should be at the temple because maybe someone might come. We always had to bring him back early.
KK: I would discourage people from dropping by when I was there. But people dropped by when Suzuki came and some of Suzuki's students would drop by now and then.
DC: What about Katagiri? Did you know him?
KK: I was a good friend with Katagiri. He's been here to this house. He loved eggplant and soba. Katagiri was in LA in '63 or '64 and he moved to San Francisco in '65 . They were so poor, poorer than we were.
DC: You've mainly been a scholar since those days, right?
KK: I have received many academic awards. My academic performance is in accordance with Zen.
DC: How about other students of Suzuki's?
KK: I knew Richard Baker when he was getting an MA at UCB. We remember Bill Kwong well.
DC: Suzuki wasn't such a big shot in Japan I don't think.
KK: The ones who get power in Japan are the ones who know ceremonial procedures. This is true of flower arrangement and tea ceremony too. People see the forms but never learn the essence. It's very sad. Many young Zen priests are also that way. You can master the procedures in two years but not the essence. We need years of zazen done with the whole body.
I was teaching at UCB when Yamada came. At that time he came to our house and asked me to come to LA. He begged me and phoned me a number of times. So I decided to come. I got a job at Cal State in LA and until he left I was his assistant. I haven't lived in San Francisco since then.
Phone to Japan - 12\2\96
DC: Tell me about when Suzuki first arrived.
KK: When we met Suzuki at the airport, he may have come in on a prop plane but there were jets then. I distinctly remember Alan Watts telling me in '56 or '57 that he’d flown a jet to New York and that it had gone so fast that, "I felt my body in New York and my soul still in mid air." I was wearing a suit and rakusu. Hagiwara [a leading member of the Sokoji congregation] was there with six or seven other Japanese. We met him after he’d gone through customs (though he may have done that in Hawaii). We went to Sokoji. He was surprised at how old and run down the building was. He went to the meeting room on the second floor and offered incense at the altar and bowed three times to the floor. There were about sixty or seventy people, men and women, there sitting in the pews. It was pretty full. The downstairs wasn’t used much then. We’d put a temporary altar together for big ceremonies. Afterwards people greeted him. The congregation was comprised mainly of people in their forties to their seventies. Kunihiro and Matsumoto were there. Later I showed him around Japan town. I took him to Honami, the elegant Japanese artifact store which sold urns, Japanese stationary, calligraphy paper, stones and brushes. He was impressed with it and with the elegant Mr. Honami in his late sixties and his two daughters in their mid thirties.
The Japanese community was still intact in Japantown at that time. By '66 it had already changed with many people having moved to the avenues. Suzuki moved right away into the small room on the third floor of Sokoji.
DC: What about Tobase?
KK: Tobase didn’t have a wife. He lived in Sokoji as did a nun named Nazuka. She came with him. They were probably lovers. She stayed on for a while and later married. I remember MacDonough being there at times with Tobase.
DC: And more on Alan Watts?
KK: I probably introduced Suzuki to Watts at the Asian Academy. Watts left the Academy soon after that and it moved from Broadway to Fillmore and Market and an Englishman named Wood was the director.
I mentioned Watts in the preface to my translation of Lin Chi, the silver colored book I sent you.
DC: Do you remember Iru Price?
I remember going to Iru Price’s house for dinner on Mission Street. He came to Sokoji on and off.
DC: More on Dick Baker?
KK: Dick Baker came to my house several times. He was sort of formal.
DC: How about your wife? What did she do, if anything, at Sokoji?
KK: Emi did Sunday school at Sokoji till we moved to LA. That was when Yamada came. He came to my house in San Francisco and asked me to go there and help him as an English interpreter and to help with a training program for Japanese monks. Daito Suzuki had been abbot at Zenshuji till Yamada came. Yamada had a monk named Kurahara who was 27 and a nun named Oki. Katagiri came and he was about 36. Zenshuji was much larger than Sokoji. Maezumi didn’t get along with Yamada. The training program didn’t go well. Katagiri felt like he wasn’t going anywhere there. He and Yamada and Suzuki arranged for him to go to San Francisco. He was poor in LA, poor in San Francisco and poor in Monterey. I liked him. He was nice, naive. He stayed with us when he first came. One night my wife asked him what he’d like to eat and he said eggplant so she made him a bowl of eggplant and some soba. In '65 ['64] he moved to San Francisco and lived in a tiny room across from Sokoji on Bush Street.
DC: You mentioned a Rinzai monk last time. That must be Soen Nakagawa.
KK: Soen Nakagawa visited Sokoji in '59. He was alone wearing robes and came to morning zazen and service. There were just the three of us. After the morning chant I was at the altar and there was a dramatic incident between Soen and Suzuki. Soen tore up a Hannya Shingyo book. Soen was taller and heavier than Suzuki. Afterwards we had tea together. It was very harmonious then. After he left I asked Suzuki what had happened and he said Soen had asked if the book was Zen and he had said it was. I didn’t quite understand what the incident was about.
Roger Merick sat at Sokoji back then and Janet Beatty. She was after Okusan came. Before Okusan came Suzuki would get frustrated at times because he had to clean the temple and do the shopping and cook and do the laundry. I don’t remember any woman helping him and I came every few days. I was glad he’d come because I’d been taking care of the temple for over a year since Tobase left and I was teaching at Berkeley.
There was a sesshin in LA after Yamada came. Five or six people came to LA from San Francisco to join in. They stayed at our house before and after it. Phillip Wilson was there. He was jolly. Betty Warren broke her leg. It was a big treat for me because I wasn’t used to LA yet.
DC: When was the last time you came?
KK: I went to Suzuki’s funeral.
Phone to Japan - 12-13-96
DC: What do you remember of Sokoji in terms of the physical layout?
KK: Sokoji didn’t have pews with a folding down board in front to kneel on, just benches with a sort of flat cushion.
We created a short platform on three corners of the room on the second floor.
DC: And what about the nun who was with Tobase?
KK: Nazuka left before Tobase left. She married later on. Maybe she came to help Suzuki some when he arrived.
DC: Where were you in school when Suzuki arrived?
KK: I was finishing my PhD when Suzuki arrived. I got it in '60. I may have already started teaching at San Jose State then. I commuted there.
DC: And what about Emi then?
KK: Emi was a housewife taking care of our daughter, Kazumi, who was born in 1956. Emi was born in Hawaii in 1932. Her father was Japanese and worked for a big Tokyo firm, an import-export firm. When she was one year old they returned to Japan because the international business scene got nervous. She returned to the US in 1951 as a US citizen.
We lived in Oakland in '55.
DC: And after Suzuki arrived? What was happening at Sokoji then?
KK: The Sunday service may have started at ten. We’d chant the Hannya Shingyo and then Buddha’s names and eko [dedication of merit]- a sort of short version of the choka [morning service]. It took thirty or forty minutes. Then there’d be a short talk, then tea and almost always lunch.
Suzuki asked Emi to teach Sunday School. I was doing it too - sometimes downstairs - during the tea after service.
While I was residing at Sokoji I didn’t do much cleaning or arranging of chairs. But immediately Suzuki started to rearrange things and bring in flowers and in a short while the temple interior changed a great deal. It showed his character.
I didn’t go to the temple much during the week before Suzuki came, but members kept it open. Hagiwara, Matsumoto, Hirano. And Hoshino also came by often - he was a kind of leader, an active member - he owned the restaurant. Members came randomly - many were self-employed - gardeners, house-cleaners.
There was a caretaker on temple payroll. [He obviously didn’t clean - changed lights, did maintenance.]
Men would smoke in the halls and office and kitchen. Some would stay in the kitchen during the Sunday service and I’d scold them saying why don’t you join us? Suzuki didn’t like smoke. I smoked so I noticed. He wouldn’t say anything but would open the window and give me subtle hints like that. Katagiri quit smoking after he came.
DC: What did Suzuki look like, what sort of robes did he wear?
KK: He wore black and brown robes and an ochre okesa, not a bright yellow one - dark yellow or dark saffron - earth color.
I wore robes on Sunday.
In Japan, priests don’t give talks like in America. Only professional speakers do that. Some are just talking priests. They don’t know Buddhism, just a sort of Zen talk, a sob story - they know how to make old women cry and laugh. Tobase was not a good talker but he gave talks. The Japanese community followed the Christian tradition of having a sermon
DC: Do you know Kobun? What about him?
KK: Kobun is a helpless child. Women feel they have to take care of him.
DC: Kobun once fell asleep while giving a lecture during the guest season - it was pretty early on and there were some guests sitting in chairs who wanted to know what Zen was all about and so they heard Kobun and he fell asleep and then drool came down in a string from his mouth till it fell and woke him up.
KK: He talked so slowly sometimes I wanted to beat him up.
Suzuki was just slightly better than Kobun. Very slow talker. He’d say, what a chore - shindoi, distressful - "to have to talk on a weekly basis is so difficult." But he studied. I remember. There were a few Buddhist books there. He spoke from the Eihei Koroku or from the biography of Dogen, incidents that had happened in Dogen’s life that he sprinkled throughout his writings.
Like in the Tenzokyokan [Dogen's instructions to the cook] he told the story of the old Chinese monk who was drying shiitake mushrooms in the middle of a hot summer day. Dogen asked, "It’s so hot, why don’t you rest and do it after it cools down?" The monk replied, "This is what I’m doing. It’s my job and no one else’s job." Dogen was so impressed. The time is now - what I’m doing is now. This is reality. I am here now. That incident with the Chinese monk reminded Dogen that reality is this time and this space and this person - the three meet - that’s time - there’s no other reality. If you’re thinking about tomorrow, that’s not in reality. In that way Dogen used his experience as a teaching device. And he’d say, My master said this. Suzuki often quoted such passages from Dogen. [Taigen Dan Leighton says this concept, not the story, is from Uji]
And Suzuki would speak from the Hekiganroku and the Mumonkan. The story about the monk asking the other monk what’s your name and the other monk saying my name is so and so, it being the name of the questioner - that was Gyosan, Yang-shan. And there was the story when Joshu had just arrived and Huang Po or someone asked, where does Buddhism come from or something and Joshu answered, my feet are dirty, I need clean water. Suzuki used that.
The talk he gave the first time was from the Nirvana Sutra I believe. [Taigen has several sources]
DC: What were you called then? And Suzuki?
KK: They called me Kato-sensei and him Suzuki-sensei. That is not the custom in Japan. It’s an American usage.
Roshi is not a title like reverend.
DC: Then what do you call it?
KK: In Soto it’s an address of respect like "sama" among priests. In Rinzai you must have inka shomei to use roshi. It means you’re worthy of teaching monks. The way it’s used in America is American, not Japanese. It’s used too much. I got a letter from Glassman signed roshi. That’s like signing master. It’s stupid.
DC: I got a letter from Aitken sign roshi.
KK: That’s stupid. To sign roshi is ignorant.
DC: And listen to this - I got a letter from Maezumi signed roshi.
KK: That’s stupid. He’s stupid. He stretched himself to a height he could never reach and therefore he became an alcoholic. He dramatized his life. His entourage, his close disciples knew what was going on and stuck with him for personal gain.
DC: Suzuki was told that Watts had written a letter saying we should call him roshi and that reverend was an incorrect usage and the people there said that’s the hardest they’d ever seen him laugh.
KK: Suzuki took it as a compliment coming from his fellow monks and students. That’s appropriate. And so is the way the Wind Bell uses it - it’s a term of respect used by fellow monks. People outside of the system don’t generally use it. It’s okay to call Suzuki, Suzuki-roshi to others.
I’m called Roshi and receive letters addressed Kato-roshi. I’m just a professor who doesn’t shave his head.
In Buddhism there is essentially no rank. Dogen said in the Eihei-shingi that all monks are equal but if one is more experienced we must respect his experience. Institutionally, using roshi as meaning the highest rank is not practiced in Japan - that’s American.
DC: How about more on the Japanese American congregation?
KK: Japanese American women sometimes some would come to Sokoji in Kimono for special occasion like Obon, maybe starting again about the time Suzuki came. After the second world war the Japanese had been the enemy, so Japanese people quietly, inconspicuously lived in San Francisco - they wanted to be American - not identified with Japan. They hid kimonos for a long time. About the time Suzuki came Zen was flourishing in the US and there was growing actual interest in Japanese culture and Japanese-Americans were starting to have their own identity again by doing such things as wearing kimono.
DC: What was it like on the street back then - around the old Sokoji?
KK: Bush and Pine were one way back then.
Driving in from the airport in 59, the freeway was under construction, completed here and there, the Bayshore Freeway - 101 - candlestick was under construction in the swamp area and we had to go by the Cow Palace route.
My wife didn’t go to the airport with me to pick him up.
DC: Anything else about Sokoji?
KK: There were movies at Sokoji back then.
They started to use the downstairs office at some point but I don’t know - I went upstairs.
I agree the Japanese-Americans were old-fashioned, but the second generation like George Hagiwara and George Hirano weren’t. The older ones were.
DC: Anything else on Suzuki?
KK: Suzuki was quiet, subtle. His wife was jolly. She spoke before she thought. He was warm, mellow. She was sharp and not that warm. But she got along well. He depended on her. He felt responsible for her well being and was very kind to her.
DC: And about being Japanese back then in America?
KK: When I was doing research in the early seventies in the Sacramento area on Japanese who came to that area from Japan in the 1860s, a woman slammed a door in my face and said, "I don’t talk to Japs, I remember Pearl Harbor."
DC: How do you say, Crooked Cucumber in Japanese?
KK: Crooked Cucumber is magata kyuri. [Later Hoitsu says he thinks it's "hebo kyuri," meaning "runt cucumber,"]
DC: Did you ever have a problem with Suzuki?
KK: Suzuki never got mad at me nor I at him.
DC: Was there a bathroom on the second floor of Sokoji?
KK: There was a bathroom on the second floor next to the stairway to the third floor.
DC: Do you remember Suzuki's earliest students?
KK: Bob Hense was short and bald.
DC: Aside from the Beats you've mentioned, did you meat any others?
KK: I met Kerouac and Ginsberg at the Asian Academy. Watts introduced us.
Like it says up top - for lots more on Dr. Kato, mainly by him, go to the website of Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission in LA. Some good stuff there on the history of Zen in America and about Zen in general.
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