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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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 Chapter 7     HOGOJI 

April 29, 1988   -   MEETING OLD FRIENDS  


 "You must be the ugliest thing standing."

"The only exception is before me," Norman rebutted in his deep soft voice.

It was good to see Norman, Katagiri's American disciple.  He'd been at Hogoji for a year and a half already with Shuko-san, a Japanese monk who had practiced at several Zen Centers in the States.  It had been about five years since Norman and I had last met.  He approached the deck outside Katagiri's room where Shuko had just cut and shaved my unruly head of hair and was now drawing a straight razor over Katagiri's five days of growth.  Norman stepped up and around my clumps of hair fallen on spread newspaper, grabbed me and gave me a bear hug.  I'm pretty big but he easily lifted me up and squeezed the air out of me.  I could see Katagiri over Norman's shoulder as I turned blue and he was grinning wide, obviously enjoying the good ol' boy greeting from back home.  Norman is six four.  He put me down.  I groaned and felt my lower back.

"Did I hurt you," he said.

"No, quite the opposite.  I think it's better now."

We stood there for a moment smiling, and I wondered, am I really uglier than he is?  Heaven forbid.  His bald head is lumpy and makes him look like he'd come to the monastery because he fled an angry wife who beat him continually with a rolling pin.  A blood stained bandage covered a place where he'd nicked himself shaving.  His face was white with large, slightly misshapen features, as if his head was a partially completed clay bust.

He's not called Norman at the temple.  He goes by Ganko, a Japanese Buddhist name.  Everyone calls him Ganko-san but I first knew him as Norman and still call him that most of the time.  I have a Buddhist name too that was given to me by Suzuki when I was ordained twenty years ago.  I don't use it.  In fact, Suzuki never used it and neither did Katagiri, Baker or anyone else.  It didn't take.  With Norman it's the opposite.  I'm the only person who calls him by his Christian name.  Most people don't even know his name is Norman, or was.  If he asks me to call him Ganko I will, but until then he's Norman to me.

So there he was in his samue, monks' work clothes: loose grey pants and hippari which are like waist-length kimono-like jackets, overlapping and secured with cloth ties.  His was half open, revealing a white v-neck tee shirt.  Big feet.  I'm a size eleven.  He must be a thirteen.  He looked over fifty though he wasn't out of his forties yet.  Too much studying and sitting and not enough exercise or fun, I thought.  He should get out in the sun more.  I didn't let on what I was thinking though.  I never like to hassle people about their appearance - especially after I've told them they're the ugliest thing standing.

"You've put on weight," he said looking me over.  "We'll take care of that here.  Just stick to the food that we eat and that ugly fat will melt away."

I tried to act nonchalant and unaffected by the blow.  I plastered a smile on my face as best I could.  "Good.  I just came here because it's cheaper than a fat farm," I answered, already regretting my discretion.


He showed me my nook, a corner of his side of a room he shared with Jakushin who I had not yet met.  Norman had cleaned the area out for me and thoughtfully put a low table against the wall.  I was quite used to sitting on the floor, having hung out in the midst of Nippophiles for over twenty years in the States.  Norman had fixed up a rack that I could drape my robes on and had put a board across the wall with hooks in it to hang my work clothes.  He'd also set aside some room in the closet where I could put the rest of my paraphernalia.  I could slide the paper door open from where I sat at the desk and reach in.  I felt welcome.

We spent a couple of hours catching up with each other, sitting in a relaxed cross-legged position on the zabuton, the thick black square cotton cushions that are softer than the tatami.  His shoji door was partially open to the outside deck so that the warm spring breeze could join us.

"You came on a good day.  I'm glad we have time to talk."

"Yeah, I did it on purpose.  It's the twenty-ninth, and I assumed four-and-nine days would be days off."

          "How long you gonna be here?" he asked.

"About six weeks."

"Just here for a tune up, eh?" he smiled but not in envy.

"Something like that."

"Good.  That'll give us plenty of time to get tired of each other.  What brings you here now?"

"I knew Katagiri was here, and of course you and Shuko.  I figured it would be good to practice with friends for a while at the beginning of my stay in Japan.  I just arrived two weeks ago."

"So where are you gonna go then?" he asked me, lighting a stick of incense.

"I want to look around and find a place to live and a teacher if I can.  I don't know yet.  I'll poke around for a while.  I know I don't want to live in a temple."

"Live outside the gate?" he asked.  "Layman's practice?"

"Yeah."  I looked around at his possessions.  Not many.  Mainly robes and books.  His entire fortune was all within a few feet of us.

"So how's it feel being in Japan?" he asked.

"A little scary," I answered, "Starting from zero - again.  But exciting - full of juicy possibilities.  We'll see.  I've been more nervous about being cooped up inside here than anything.  Seeing old friends right off the bat helps."

"You won't have any trouble here."

"I just have a thing about institutions - monasteries, classrooms, jobs, jails.  But give me three days - I'll adjust."

"Yeah, you'll get in the groove - once we break your spirit."  He grinned and snapped a seaweed covered tea cracker in two and handed me half.


I studied Norman's imposing figure.  Elin says that when she first saw him at Zen Center, the sight of him intimidated her.  She says he lumbers about like Chewbacca from Star Wars.  I wondered what impression he must make on Japanese people.

All Norman had been doing for the prior two years was living at Hogoji and the head temple of Suienji and he was fairly out of touch with everything else.  He said he was there because Katagiri wanted him to train in a Japanese temple for a few years under the guidance of Nishiki Roshi.  Katagiri and Nishiki had studied under the same teacher after World War II and were thus dharma brothers.  Nishiki is the abbot of Suienji and of Hogoji, one of its subtemples.  He visits at least every six months when there is a memorial ceremony called Hoyo.

Norman had been studying with Katagiri since the ripe age of thirty-six.  He's got a little age on most folks in the American Zen scene.  Lots of us were born at the end of World War II.  The Japanese surrendered about the time he entered kindergarten.  He was out of college before the war in Vietnam was going strong and the draft missed him.  He was post-Korean War too, so his schooling was of the fifties and early, pre-radical sixties.  He was teaching history in a junior college when the antiwar and hippie movements got going.  He caught up quickly and before the school administration could say "counterculture" he was demonstrating with his students and then dropped out.

Norman got up and slid the shoji open more to allow additional sunlight in.  He continued.  "Anyway, I got tired of teaching kids who couldn't read and write, and with the war and all, things started losing their meaning."

So he left the academic environment and became a welder.  "Better money and not without human interest," as he put it.  He made a bundle welding in nuclear power plants.  He used to work at one site till his exposure to radiation had gone over the limit and then he'd go to another till he was over the limit there and by the time he'd used them all up he could go back to the first one.  He said that was standard practice.  I feigned backing off.  He told me how they'd cut corners on the job.  For instance, he said they were always having to attach pipes to the walls for one reason or another and the pipes would be mounted on to steel plates which had to be connected with four deeply set bolts each.  The trouble was that they were always hitting rebar, which meant that the plate would have to be reset.  But the rebar was all over because the structures are so overbuilt.  "What we'd do in a case like that," he said, "Is cut the head off the bolt and just weld the head to the plate.  Then the inspectors would come along and check everything, which included pulling out some of the bolts to make sure we were putting them in right.  Well, we'd sit there praying and having conniption fits, especially the foreman.  I never saw them hit a bad one but I dreamed of it."


 Norman's a city boy from Milwaukee.  He said that his parents were racists and this was an embarrassment to him.  In 1970 he was living in Minneapolis and got involved with the Weathermen, not in violent acts, but in harboring refugees who were running from the law.  As a result of this he would, years later, be denied a security clearance to teach Zen at the nearby federal prison.

For a while he was making money by playing lead guitar in a rock band.  He spent a lot of time hanging out with black friends from the music scene which led to meeting politicized blacks.  He was getting angrier and angrier about racism and the plight of the poor.  The Weathermen in the basement added to the paranoia of the situation.  One day he was reading Zen Mind Beginner's Mind and decided he needed a change and would give Zen a try.

"So, you know how I found the Zen Center?" he said.

"No," I said, "How?"

"I looked it up in the phone book.  I just opened the phone book and turned to "Z" and there was "Zen Center."  I went there, met Katagiri Roshi and here I am."

"That's funny," I said.  "That's just what happened to me, except it was a different part of the country and a different decade.  Found it in the phone book and met Katagiri.  Suzuki was visiting Japan at the time.  And here we are."

"And you were into civil rights and SDS in the sixties too."

"Yeah, we're practically twins.  Are you still committed to racial and economic justice?" I asked him.

"Absolutely," he answered.

"Me too," I said.  "What are you doing about it?"


"Me either."

"Well, let me think," he said in a voice of reason, "I'm poor and I'm a priest.  Buddhism has been a gentle but powerful revolutionary force for the poor, not always, not much in Japan, recently at least, but it can be.  I'm doing what I can.  It's not enough but it's hard to help anyone."

"Like they say: you can spend your whole life trying to do just one kind act."

"Ah, well, I guess we're just a couple of frustrated guilty liberals," Norman added.  "But keep in mind that most of us ended up in these ridiculous robes as a result of frustration from desperately wanting to help others and failing miserably.  Remember?"

     "Yeah." I nodded, "I guess so."

"Katagiri never gives his blessing easily to people wanting to run around helping everyone.  But he takes it seriously.  Just look at the number of students of his who are nurses or therapists or in one helping field or another.  Japanese don't respect dabbling.  But if you throw yourself into something and stick with it, then they respect it.  Katagiri just wants people to know who they are first."

"Yeah," I said, "That's his job.  I remember during the Vietnam war when Katagiri told some of us to stop demonstrating and not to interfere with the government.  We jumped all over him and he backed off when he saw we meant it.  Later he was more supportive.  I asked him if we should be like Zen monks were in Japan during the war, just going along with it.  He kept quiet then."

"Usually no one here challenges the contradictions like that," Norman said.  "Especially they don't challenge authority.  But there were some Japanese monks who went to jail because they wouldn't go into the army."

"Yeah, and Katagiri was just a kid being swept along - he didn't like it.  He admired a friend of his in the army who shot into the air because he didn't want to hurt anyone.  Katagiri never saw any action, right?"


"The whole country was on one fanatic trip.  I asked Katagiri what did the Zen world do during Japan's recent militaristic period and he said, 'Rinzai went crazy and Soto went to sleep.'"


Norman seemed well and I was glad to have him there to advise me and keep me out of trouble.  We went on like this - going in circles and philosophizing, talking about one thing and forgetting the other, mentioning this side and ignoring that, trying to understand the conflicting passions inside us.  Eventually we were all talked out and sat there silently basking in the afternoon sun coming through the open shoji.