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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 30


May, 1988   -   A WALK WITH FATHER SAM


A Catholic priest walked into the courtyard during morning samu.  Shuko suggested we have the morning tea break early.  While Shuko prepared the tea and coffee tray, I hit the clackers calling all monks to the kuin steps.  His name was Father Sam.  "Just call me Sam," he said.  He was originally from New Jersey and had been with the Jesuit order in Tokyo for twenty-two years.  He was of medium height with a neat grey beard and wore loose brown trousers and a soft brown shirt with clerical collar.  Everyone was impressed with his Japanese and enjoyed talking with him during the tea break.  He spoke briefly with each of the Japanese monks, asking where they were from and how long each had practiced.  He was surprised to find out that only Koji was the son of a priest and that Katagiri's family had been Jodo Shin Shu which he said was the closest to Catholicism of the Japanese Buddhist sects.  Sam had a good way with the Japanese.  He didn't assert himself too much and he made each person feel special.  He talked for a while with Katagiri in Japanese and English.

After tea Katagiri suggested that Norman and I show him around.  The first thing he did in the hatto was to offer incense and bow, obviously an ecumenicalist at heart.  It turned out to be a tour for Norman and me as he was well versed in iconography, Japanese and Buddhist history and temple architecture.  He especially appreciated the Medicine Buddha and suggested that it was made in another part of Japan.

The single item that interested him the most at Hogoji was a suzumebachi nest that was sitting under the walkway between the hatto and the kuin.  He'd never seen one before.  It looked like a hornet's nest except it was as big as a beach ball, about two feet in diameter.  He touched it.

"It's like a type of heavy brown paper," he said.  "And look at the design, the layers, like overlapping curtains with these circular dips accented in darker brown.  Masterful.  Fantastic."

"It was retrieved from the rafters of the hatto when the roof tile was replaced last year," Norman informed him.

"And just how big are the suzumebachi here?" Sam asked, unconsciously fingering his crucifix.

"Big enough to be called sparrow bees," replied Norman.

It didn't take long to exhaust the possibilities in our small temple so we went out for a walk.

Norman and I took him up the narrow asphalt road.  Sam only had a light shoulder bag with him and he took it along.  The three of us walked slowly and quietly enjoying the mountain beauty.  On the way up we surveyed a gully of trash that the farmers had dumped in a ravine.  There amidst the cedars and pines and the call of the nightingale were old bicycles and cans, futon, tires, toys, a refrigerator and plastic containers.  A tricycle had been thrown too far and was lodged in the crotch of an oak.  "Ho ho ke kyo!  Ho ho ke kyo!" sang the uguisu from a branch of a plum tree beyond the trash.

At the road's end we climbed down the bank and continued up the creek bed to where there were two short waterfalls.  Sam said he didn't often get to a spot that remote, that he envied the Hogoji monks living in such a magnificent location.  Norman said that Daigyo Zenji had known the mountains well but that only Yoshiko knew them now.  He said that probably none of the Japanese monks had ever seen those falls.

With some difficulty we went over a ridge and down to another road lined with logs draped with cedar branches growing shiitake underneath in the shade.  On the road was an empty box that had contained the short dowels of wood with a mushroom spore in each.  There was sawdust on the road indicating that not long before a farmer had drilled holes in the lengths of log, pushed in the plugs and discarded the box.

A dirt trough was flowing with runoff water.  Boards were blocking openings to branching irrigation troughs awaiting the time to fill the rice paddies.  Little green frogs were jumping out of our way as we walked by.  We passed an occasional old farmer.  Continuing around the edges of the rice fields, shaped by the contours of the hillside, we came to an undisturbed virgin oak grove.  Norman explained that for hundreds and hundreds of years the farmers had never cut down this grove to make more room for growing rice because within the grove there is an ohaka for nuns who had practiced at Hogoji.  The three of us walked in under the shade of the oak trees.  It was cool and dark and there was lichen on the mottled stones that had long ago fallen and been collected and put in a neat pile in the center as is the custom with toppled and scattered grave markers.  Norman said this ohaka was off by itself because the nun's remains couldn't be with those of the monks.

Sam nodded, "Can women come to practice at Hogoji now?"

Norman squatted by the stones.  "Hogoji will be undergoing a major transformation in the next few years.  There will be full facilities for fifteen monks.  Nishiki says the groundwork is being laid for the formal admission of women as students in the near future.  Right now they can come as guests like David, but there's only room for one or two guests.  So it's happening, slowly as might be expected, but it's definitely happening."

"The only places where women and men practice together in Japanese Zen dojo are where there are foreigners," Sam commented.

"Nishiki got the idea to make this into an international temple that accepts women when he came to Minnesota to visit Katagiri.  Until then he didn't think it was possible.  He's a very traditional priest.  It's a big move for him."

"The Catholic hierarchy is even more intransigent than the Zen hierarchy is.  We've got no motion going in that direction.  I wish we did.  I'm familiar with some of the co-ed Zen temples in Japan, in the US and in Europe and I wish we would follow suit.  There are, of course, problems that come up when men and women are together but I think that it causes even more trouble when they are apart."

"How so," I asked.

"People tend to get petty when isolated with only their own sex.  Men get immature and women get vicious.  At least that's what I've seen in our monasteries."


We left the nun's ohaka and walked between rice paddies down to the road that led back up to Hogoji and stopped to sit by a bamboo grove where we drank cold mountain water that was flowing down a rivulet.

"I was just here a couple of hours ago on my way up to the temple," said the priest waving his hand before his face to chase off a fly.  "We've come full circle.  I didn't know where I was."  He peered into the shadowed recesses of the segmented forest.  "This is what a bamboo groove looks like when it's left alone.  It always surprises me.  In the tended gardens there are only vertical shafts and the feeling is controlled.  A wild take-yabu has many fallen stalks and all sorts of angled lines breaking the up and down.  Sam pointed into the chaotic thicket.

"It looks like a Kandinsky painting," Norman said.

"Or a giant pickup-sticks game," I added.

Norman drank some more water and dried his hand on his grey samue.  "You seem pretty familiar with Zen.  Are you with the group of Jesuit's that sit zazen in Tokyo?"

"Yes.  There are a few Catholic zazenkai in Japan.  I sit with a group at Sophia, the Jesuit University where I teach, and I go to Kamakura once a week to sit and have dokusan with Koryu Roshi who I do sesshin with twice a year."

"And how long have you been sitting?" Norman asked.

"Eighteen years."

"What do you teach at Sophia?" I asked.


"Do you get any heat for all this?"

"The head of the Jesuits has a zafu in his office in the Vatican.  We have to be careful but as long as we don't go preaching heretical doctrines it's no problem.  The Catholic church is probably the most diverse religious organization on earth.  Buddhism hasn't had a doctrinal influence on it but Buddhist practices, especially zazen, have influenced the practice of priests and nuns all over the world.  Thomas Merton helped to rekindle interest in meditation in Catholic monasteries and he was greatly moved by Buddhist practices.  There are a couple of Jesuits teaching Zen in Europe now."

"What's the difference between Catholic meditation and zazen," asked Norman.

"Zazen has no object.  There have been some disputes in the order about the appropriateness of a form of worship that doesn't focus on Christ or Mary or something sacred to the Church.  I also had a problem at first with letting go of an object of devotion in meditation."

"What did you do about it," I asked.

"Some people, like some nuns I know, combine zazen with devotional concentration.  I came to believe that true faith needs no form to support it and that a mere mental symbolic representation of a sacred object in one's imagination is not the holy object itself, and so I sit still and wait, which is an invitation for God to enter.  It seems to me that's at least as appropriate as carrying a mental picture into the vastness of meditation.  In the end, I cannot hold on anyway and am left naked to face God on His own terms, not on mine."

Sam looked at his watch and said that he'd better get going.  He gave us each a card and asked us to look him up when we were in Tokyo.  We shook hands and he walked down the road, around a bend and out of sight.

Norman and I were of no mind to go back to work and terminate this idyllic repose and so we sat back down.

"Another fellow being on the path," Norman said.