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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 33

February 25, 1989   -   KATAGIRI

Isabel called from California from her place north of San Francisco near Zen Center's farm.  She's a buddy from way back.  We both started studying with Suzuki and Katagiri in the same year.  She's my Zen sister - keeps me in touch with what's happening in the States.  Isabel was worried about Katagiri.  He'd been sick since the past summer when he and I were at Hogoji.  She and Tomoe-san, his wife, had ganged up on him and made him go to the doctor.  They had to shame him, asking him what sort of example he thought he was being to his students when he didn't take care of his own health.  He was coughing a lot.  So he went to the doctor who said he had a cough.  He's been coughing since.

Last fall Isabel and Tomoe had also tried to encourage him to stay in the States and rest rather than return to Japan for a one month long gathering of Western and Japanese Zen teachers.  He did go and was sick the whole time.  He's really into the Japan connection these days.  Why's he trying so hard to connect us apples and oranges - this paternalistic hierarchical anachronism in Japan and the wild bunch of American Zen loonies back home?  I guess he thinks there's some hope for us all.


I met Katagiri at the San Francisco Zen Center back in sixty-six when I, an unkempt semi-hippie with curly long hair all frizzled out, first came to check it out.  The fellow who opened the door, a Caucasian like me, introduced me to Katagiri, calling him Sensei.  He and I talked in the small funky office on the second floor of Sokoji on Bush Street, an old synagogue which had been converted into a Soto Zen temple for the San Francisco Japanese-American community.  I'd looked around for a place to meditate in California and hadn't found anything I liked so I was on my way to the office of Icelandic Airlines to buy a ticket to Europe.  From there I planned to get to Asia where I would seek enlightenment.  But I had the thought that maybe I should see if there was a Zen temple in San Francisco.  Sure enough there was.  Like Norman, I'd just looked up "Zen" in the phone book.

There I was in that run down old place talking to this shaved headed, smiling and kindly seeming Zen priest.  He was thirty-eight at the time but looked younger.  Wow, I thought, I've finally met a Zen priest.  So this is what one looks like.

He was sitting on a couch.  "What can I do for you?" he said.

"I want to learn to meditate."  I wanted to find a group of people I could meditate with until I could do it on my own, I explained.

"You should have a teacher," he said.

"A teacher?" I asked, "Why do I need a teacher?"

While he answered me I looked him over.  He's got nice vibes but he's nervously tapping the pencil in his hand while he talks to me.  Hmm.  That doesn't seem to be what a Zen Master should be like.  They shouldn't have any nervous energy. Aren't they perfectly clear with no thoughts in their head?

"A teacher is beyond your judgment," he said making me wonder if he was reading my mind.

"Should you be my teacher?" I asked.

"No.  Suzuki Sensei should be your teacher.  He's in Japan now but he'll be back in a couple of weeks."

"Why can't you be my teacher?" I went on.  "Could you be my teacher?"

"I could be but Suzuki Sensei should be," he said with finality.  It was Suzuki's temple.  Katagiri played second fiddle there for years.  He gave me a brief zazen instruction and showed me the schedule.

I stayed for the evening zazen period, which started at five thirty, and sat on a raised platform in an area called the gaitan where Katagiri had given me the instruction.  The gaitan was for people who were late or had to leave early.  I sat there by mistake, not knowing that there was a zendo, or even what a zendo was.

After the period was over, as I walked out, someone opened the door to the zendo and I saw a room with maybe forty people in it and an altar full of esoteric religious objects.  It looked Oriental but I didn't notice any orientals.  They were mainly hippies.  Then I heard bells and saw that the people inside were bowing down to the floor.  What's that, I wondered?  I shuddered as a wave of creepy exotica went rippling through me.  Maybe I should get out of here and never come back.  Oh well, never mind.  Who knows what that is.  Maybe some yoga or judo exercises or something, I thought and I forgot about it.  I walked out onto the street, my first meditation experience under my belt, and, my first meeting with Katagiri on my mind.

It was another two weeks until I returned there and saw him, by accident, under quite different circumstances.  I was visiting a fellow whom I had met at a concert the night before (Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin had played at the Matrix, a small nightclub).  I bought some marijuana from him and was on my way back to my apartment, where my friends and I spent most of our time getting stoned, playing music, painting and rapping.  I ran into Katagiri on the street.

I said hello and he greeted me cordially and asked how I was doing.  I said that I had been sitting on my own to try to get accustomed to zazen because it hurt my back and I didn't feel as if I was ready to sit with a group yet.  He put his hand on my back, "Be sure to take good care of your back now."  He laughed and walked on.  For some reason I was embarrassed.        I decided not to fly off on Icelandic airlines for Europe to tread my way to the Orient in search of the deepest experience of meditation as had been my plan, but to start sitting every day at the Zen Center.  I would do so for one year without judging it and at the end of that year, if I didn't like it I would go to Europe and onward.  Thus, I found myself leaving my directionless friends and moving ever closer to the Zen Center and its teachers and students. 

[Isabel is Yvonne Rand]