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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 75


March 1, 1990   -   A VISIT AND A CALL


"What shall we have for dinner tonight?" said Norman from the kitchen.  He'd been staying with us for a week and was certainly making himself welcome by the meals he'd been cooking.

"Whatever you want," came my reply from the living room where I was playing with a pocket-sized computerized Japanese/English translator and sitting in my favorite chair, the high-backed, soft rocker.  Norman had been sprawled on the sofa just a moment before, reading some Chinese poetry in English translation.  The sofa was obviously not designed with somebody his size in mind, especially in the prone position.  Now he was looking in the fridge.  This was a good sign.  I was getting hungry too.

"How about noodles?" he said.

"Sounds great to me," said Elin coming in from the garden.  She looked at me and winked.  Norman always makes noodles for dinner: soba which are buckwheat noodles, udon which are thick white wheat noodles, or somen which are thin white wheat noodles.  He cooks them just like they do at Hogoji where they always eat noodles for dinner.  He prepares little dishes of condiments to go with them, like chopped scallions, a plate of crisp seaweed sheets to crush, raw egg or a special type of raw potato goo that's all whipped up.  This week he's our Japanese housewife.

After dinner Elin took a bike over to the convenience store and got some ice cream.  When she got back, I was cleaning the stove top and Norman was doing calligraphy.  My caligraphy teacher had flipped over his work when I brought him to calligraphy class.  Every time I go there now (and I've been skipping some this year which she is very understanding about) she looks at the first thing I do and asks me how Norman is.  She said his was the best calligraphy she'd ever seen by a Westerner.  He beamed with pride.  I bet no one ever praised him in the monastery like she did.


I hadn't seen Norman for almost two years, since I left Hogoji.  We'd been talking about everything that came to mind concerning ourselves, Buddhism and Katagiri.  When I was busy he would read, do calligraphy, watch TV or take walks in the hills behind the temple.  But I set aside my studies for the week he was there so we could spend time together.  We went cycling and saw the most interesting temples, gardens and shrines in the area, following a public bicycle path which led into the countryside through rice fields and by virgin woods.

The dark cloud over the week was the news that Katagiri's condition had deteriorated.  He was on his death bed now.  He had given Norman and eleven others transmission in America a few weeks back.  "Transmission" is a ceremony that signifies that the teaching has been passed mind to mind from teacher to student.  Katagiri asked Norman to go right back to Japan afterwards so he could go through with a few ceremonies that he needed to have under his belt in order to have the proper credentials to be a teacher and head of his own temple.  It wasn't imperative that he do so because those credentials only apply in Japan, but it was part of maintaining good relations with and further experiencing the source system for better or for worse.  He'd just finished off four years of practice at Suienji and Hogoji by leading the chanting of the Ryaku Fusatsu ceremony at the home temple.  He'd had a long late evening talk with Godo Roshi, the old priest who had been his confidant and advisor.  Godo told Norman to go back home, start his own temple and to forget about Japan for ten years.

The next morning, before Norman had left Suienji, he had met with Nishiki.  They discussed the future relationship between Soto Zen in Japan and America.  Nishiki implied the Minneapolis group wasn't mature enough to run itself without Katagiri.  Norman made it very clear that if he had anything to do with it, there would be no control at all on it from the Japanese end.  He said American Zen students didn't want all the Japanese baggage - they just wanted to sit and live sane lives.  Nishiki wouldn't understand this, Norman said, because he just teaches monks the ceremonies and forms that they need to get their certificates.  Norman said he got all worked up and was pacing and shaking a pointed finger at Nishiki who remained seated.  Assuming an elevated position over a person of higher status is specifically prohibited in Dogen's writings, and even without considering Dogen it's like breaking a taboo.  Norman said that Nishiki's attendants were horrified.  I wish I'd been a fly on the bull in that china shop.


After a scrumptious noodle dinner we enjoyed a congenial evening, sitting in the living room talking.  Elin left us to our shop talk and retired to the bedroom to read.  The conversation returned to Hogoji and Suienji and the difficulties that he'd had there.

"I know that it hurt Katagiri Roshi to see the way I fought them over here.  He just wanted me to look and learn, to absorb how they do things, how the priest and laity relate and to try to live in harmony with others.  I did my best and there was a lot of harmony at times - but at other times..."


Yes, those "other times."  I remembered the day of the big Spring Hoyo ceremony.  Norman had been energetically preparing altars for the ceremonies.  He knew just what to do.  But it seemed like every time he put a vase with flowers on the right side of an altar, there was Shuko moving it to the left.  After the ceremony he grabbed me and asked me to take a walk with him.  I could tell by his grip that it was imperative.  I was happy to get out of there and so we went way up above Hogoji and stood on a dirt road above a rice field looking down over the marvelous valley below.

"I am so furious and I am tired of being furious.  I am a monk, not a psychotic killer.  I try meditating on loving kindness.  I try letting the anger come and go.  And still sometimes I am overcome with rage.  What do you think it is like to go to zazen and to have incessant images of smashing someone's brains out with a baseball bat?"

"It must keep you awake," I said.

"Yeah, it does that and a hell of a lot more."

"How about Abhidharma?  There are specific practices for overcoming unwholesome passions.  What is it you hate?  A person is only an aggregate of elements and factors.  There's no being to hate.  Right?  There are no bad people, just bad acts."

"I try that too.  What is it that I hate?  Do I hate his fingernails or his hair, skin, bones and so forth.  It works for about two seconds and then I start thinking that yes, I hate his fingernails and his hair and his guts and his..."

"Oh, I'm sorry.  Maybe a vacation..."

"Yes, maybe a permanent vacation.  For him."

"No no Norman, that would interfere with Katagiri's plans for you."

"I know, I know.  Don't take me seriously.  I just need to blow off steam.  Don't worry about me.  I've never even hit anyone in my life."

"Have you ever been angry at anyone like this before?"

"Just my ex-wife."

"You see, it proves my theory that you were married to Shuko in a past life.  Except I guess it's more like you're married in this life, so to speak."

"Well I want a divorce.  It keeps me awake and it drives me crazy.  I want to grab him and scream in his face until his ears are bleeding.  I want to scream at him that I am not a baby!  I am a man!  I am a grown man!  I can do things!  I can decide things!  I can take responsibility!  He won't let me hang a picture without him moving it to another place!  If I do anything innovative in the kitchen he'll tell me not to make it again.  He denies every suggestion.  There is nothing I can offer!  He is not my teacher!  He has no right to do this!  I am tired of it and I am tired of wanting to smash his brains out!"

And with this, Norman began to scream at the top of his lungs out over the valley.  He screamed with the voice of a giant and with the passion of an angry titan.  He screamed until the distant mountains shook and until there was no anger but just pure sound and then he started crying and he sat down on the ground and grabbed my foot and sobbed.  I'm not so good at comforting people but I put my hand on his shoulder.  I hoped no one was rushing up from the temple.  After a minute his storm was over and his rain stopped.  He groaned.  Then he stood up and wiped his eyes.

"Thank you," he said.  "Now lets go steal some of that sake the guests are drinking."  We walked back down and did just that. 


Now Norman walked to the shoji, opened them and looked out on our garden, bare in winter and illuminated by the front porch light.  He had been saying how Katagiri must have been disappointed in him.

"We all have trouble, Norman.  Katagiri had a lot of grief with the system here too.  He wanted you to learn something from it but I doubt if he expected you to be an angel.  We all drag through the muck as best we can."

"But you're not angry.  You guys have a pretty harmonious life here and seem to have a good relationship with the temple," he answered.

I laughed.  "Yes, but Norman, we have distance.  We are living next door.  We have each other.  We are not trying to be one of them, or should I say, two of them.  It's pretty obvious that the extent to which foreigners suffer here is the extent to which they try to belong.  Japanese don't even accept their own who have been tainted by the West.  Ishitaki says that the standards of behavior here are so narrow and demanding that the greatest insecurity of Japanese people is that they're not Japanese enough.

"Poor Shuko.  He has it worse than you do.  Did you ever consider that?  He's been contaminated by too much contact with the West."  Japanese who get the smell of the West on them have trouble getting jobs - they get ridiculed in school.  The ones that have lived abroad are called "returnees" but "pariahs" might be more accurate from what I've heard.  Shuko is like a man without a country.  He's a  trailblazer in Japan's struggle to be less insular.

"And you know what's funny?  You were the only friend he had.  His problem was that he dumped on you like he'd been dumped on.  It's an old story.  Garbage in - garbage out.  He was more helpful in the States where he could forget the Japanese roles and rules."

"It was tough for us," Norman said.  "Our hassling always brought me face to face with my own defects and it ain't a pretty picture.  So much anger.  At Shuko and at the system and at... who knows?  The only redeeming aspect of the anger was to show me what elements of the Japanese system I don't want to see incorporated into American Buddhism.  Since I've been away, it's been easier to see the good points.  Even though I gripe a lot, if you just look at the faces of the guys who've been around you can see how the practice softens them.  I suppose even learning to absorb and deal with the macho b.s. can be helpful.  Sort of like meat tenderizer.  Brother, if you can come out of one of these places without getting your psyche twisted, the results can be quite desirable.  But it's the rare Westerner who can do that.  It's going to take me a long time to heal."


Late that evening we got a phone call from the States.  It brought the sad and inevitable news that we had been waiting for.  Katagiri Roshi had died.  A few days before, he had rejected any further treatment.  "The body has suffered enough," he had said.  Norman and I sat zazen and did a service.  Afterwards he cried for a while.  I felt callous that I didn't cry.  My dear friend and teacher of twenty-three years was dead and I just sat in my easy chair depressed and not knowing what to do.