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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 71


February 12, 1990   -   EDDY DUCHIN IN THE P.O.


It was a cold day in Maruyama.  I went into the post office carrying my shoulder bag.  The small interior area for the public was crowded with about ten customers.  There were two clerks behind the counter wearing thick glasses and methodically taking care of business.  The man on the left was weighing letters and packages and selling stamps and the short thin lady on the right was doing cash transactions such as sending money and banking.  A housewife was giving her an envelope full of ten thousand yen notes for deposit.  Mrs. Ishitaki says that postal savings interest is ridiculously low, but the tax people can't check accounts there which is surely why they have the most money on deposit of any savings institution in the world.  She says the rules aren't likely to be changed because the government depends on the funds.

There were four post cards in my bag.  I got them out and stood third in the left line.  They were unusual, made of paper-thin slices of cedar.  The messages were brief.  Even though my penmanship could qualify me for a special parking place, I wrote in sumi and with a thin brush.  The cards were addressed to my mother, sister, Kelly, and one to Katagiri in Minnesota.  He was very sick with cancer.

I never know what to say to someone who is terminally ill, even someone in the mind-beyond-birth-and-death business, but I'd taken a stab at it.  On Katagiri's card I'd written a message not rooted in Eastern tradition: Praying for your health, dear friend.  Love, and my signature.  I looked at it, sighed, and hurt.  I'd written him a half dozen times since I'd known he had cancer.  Mainly short encouraging notes.  He'd written me once.  It was a sweet, sad, shakily handwritten letter, that began by addressing me just like a lot of friends have: Dear Chadwick," and the rest was in Japanese.


Thanks for your letter.  Is it already warm in Japan where the uguisu calls?  Minnesota is full of snow, but right now the weather is good.  I feel like I'm getting better little by little.  The characters in this letter are really poorly written aren't they? Sayonara, Dainin Katagiri

I knew from Isabel's calls that he was pretty sick and getting the triple whammy: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy which caused him to throw up all the time.  I feel so bad about it and helpless.  Damn.  He deserves better.

I learned of his illness last winter.  I remember that Isabel had gotten the times confused and had called at two in the morning.  She should have known she said - first about the time and then about Katagiri.  The telltale signs were there.  The doctors hadn't figured it out either and it had already metastasized.  That's why he'd been coughing.  From the first his prognosis was poor.  I remember standing naked by the phone in the kitchen in below freezing weather waking up to Katagiri's cancer.  Lots of people recover I had reasoned to myself.  Isabel did.  She knows about standard Western treatment, alternative medicine, visualization and when to use what.  She's also well versed in the arts of being with the dying and helping them in the last transition.

He'd already had so much grief.  He'd had abdominal surgery toward the end of the war without the benefit of anesthetic.  The doctor had told him to shut up when he cried in pain.  In recent years there had been corrective surgery in that area.  I'd thought maybe his illness was related to that old problem - but no.  Another theory was that we'd broken his heart by not choosing him as the abbot of Zen Center in San Francisco a few years back.  We'd sucked him into a power

struggle he couldn't handle and found distasteful.  It had been a messy, complicated process - a real demolition derby of cultures and personalities.  We never should have talked to him about it before it was decided.  We were reminded he had feelings.  He was so angry and hurt.  Maybe that did it.  Who knows - nobody knows why.


An older man with glasses and thinning grey hair rose from his table in the back of the post office and came up to the counter to take care of the overflow.  He's the manager - he wore a brown suit and tie instead of the blue postal uniform that the others wore.  He doesn't speak as he takes care of people unless it's a point of information.  The post office is a quiet place like other public institutions, without all the enthusiastic and customary greetings and farewells of the private sector.  The service, however, is no less efficient or pleasant.  He stuck his hand out and a short old lady in front of me in a grey kimono moved over and thrust her package up to him.  I stared through them.


Katagiri's Buddhist name is Dainin, "great patience," and he shared that intangible quality with us in day to day life in the city and at Tassajara.  The first time he had a sesshin of his own at Tassajara, while Suzuki Roshi was dying in the city, the scheduled zazen went around the clock.  If I hadn't done it I'd never have known I could.  We all could.  We sat unmoving in silence without going to bed for a week.  Every forty minutes there would be a ten minute kinhin, the walking zazen, and there were lectures and services followed by meals and short breaks.  But most of that week was spent cross-legged, just finding out a hint of what we are beyond our little boxes of unfolding thought.  On the fourth night, during an unbroken two hour period, it seemed to me as if all fifty of us had lifted anchor together and were effortlessly moving in eternity, our luminous sails full of silver wind.


In the back a phone was ringing.  A little boy of maybe three who had been in the arms of a lady at the money window started crying and hitting her in the stomach with his fists when she put him down to conduct the transaction.  A trembling old man, awkwardly swabbing glue on an envelope at the work table, looked at the kid.  The fourth clerk, the only one without glasses or a customer, got up from his seat, went to the manager's desk and answered the phone.  I was now second in line.  A young woman in front of me was filling out a form with the help of the clerk who was patiently answering her questions.  I looked at the grain in Katagiri's card and polished it with finger oil.


Katagiri and Nishiki had studied with Hashimoto Roshi, a venerable and strict teacher at Eiheiji.  Hashimoto was their zuishin, the master who cultivates and refines your understanding after you've received transmission from your original teacher.  He was known for his emphasis on discipline and monastic rules.  Katagiri had the honor of being the man's anja, one of his attendants.  He said that when Hashimoto would ride in a train that he'd sit bolt upright doing zazen for the whole trip.  Katagiri deeply admired that example.  I'd heard him mention it several times.  I guess you had to be there.  What I thought was thank goodness he himself wasn't that sort of person at heart - always leaving the world behind for emptiness.  He was considerate and warm.  I've taken him into coffee shops on the way to Tassajara - he'd catch people's attention because of his robes and someone might ask him a question.  He wouldn't sit there like he was a statue in a zendo.  He'd loosen up and start talking with the person next to him.  There seemed to me to be a conflict between how he was taught he ought to be as a priest and his own natural way.  And his original teacher was no good-time Charlie.  Katagiri told me the guy never said a nice thing to him - only, "You are very stupid!"  Happily, Dainin's soft side, his kind friendly nature, survived all the strict Zen training and the grueling lessons of the war.


A tinny tune came from the post office phone's exterior speaker.  The clerk had put the caller on hold and was leafing through a large book.  One never gets the pleasure of silence when put on hold.  There's always a tune and always the cute toy notes.  Usually it's something like "Home on the Range" or "When the Saints Go Marching In."  Elin and I liked ours at home - a choice of "A Taste of Honey" or "Take Five."  But our local post office had more class.  The most compelling of telephone waiting music themes was playing, a classic schmaltzy piece which evoked memories from as far back as my infancy.  I think of it as the "Eddy Duchin Theme" because I remember it from the movie, "The Eddy Duchin Story."  My mother would occasionally play it on the piano or the victrola from the time when I was a baby, but I didn't start being a snob about it until the sixth grade when it became the movie theme.  It was one of those movies that made all the girls cry.  One time it had filled the postal air while I was waiting to buy some stamps and talking to one of my English students, a piano teacher.

"There's the Eddy Duchin theme," I said.

"The what?" she said.

"The Eddy Duchin theme," I repeated.  "That music, from the phone."

"Is that what you call it in America?  We call it Chopin's Opus Nine, Nocturne #2 in E Flat Major," she said.

"Oh yes, of course, that's the real name,"  I said.

I remembered the dark theater on Saturday, the noon matinee, snickering with the other boys at the sad parts of the movie, like when Eddy Duchin dies I guess, and waiting for the girls to stop sobbing so we could go back and try to make out again.


On one of his many visits to the Bay Area from Minneapolis Katagiri came to Green Gulch Farm for a week.  Elin was in Taiwan and I had been overwhelmed with missing her.  Katagiri and I took a walk and had a couple of friendly visits in his room, but when I saw him in dokusan the social world was left behind.  We sat in a small room lit by a candle and smelling of subtle Japanese incense.

"You have stopped running from your suffering," he said softly.  "You know now that we all suffer - you have become more compassionate which means you are including others in your practice.  Now deepen.  Buddhism is a two edged sword, wisdom and compassion.  Keep both edges sharp.  Take it with you wherever you go and there is nothing you can not meet with deep joy."  There was nothing new or clever or exciting in what he said.  I guess it was the timing.  In that moment I felt more than friendship - I felt something we don't' talk about much - a deep connection between us - love, a love that we all arise out of.


The clerk picked up the phone - the music stopped.  The postmaster called to me that it was my turn.

"Oh, excuse me," I said, stepped over and handed him the thin wooden post cards bound for the States.  He stuck out his bottom lip and looked them over.  "I got them in Kyoto," I told him.  "Interesting aren't they?"

"Interesting aren't they," he replied appropriately while accepting my money.  He handed me the change and waved me off, signifying that he'd mail them for me.  I thanked him quickly and walked out awash in nostalgic associations and gushy emotions I had not asked for.