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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 76


March 2, 1990   -   WE REMEMBER KATAGIRI


"I've come to understand him a lot better since I've been over here in Japan," Norman said to me the day after Katagiri's death as we walked around the pond behind Daianji, its water chilly and still.  "Katagiri came from a place where the hallmarks of education are conformity and control and where initiative is discouraged, where the sense of adventure is null, where there's no questioning and you have to follow the teacher to the letter and where there's only one correct answer for any question.  He came to a place where initiative and nonconformity are valued, where people having control over one's life is not ideal.  He came to a place where he needed pioneer spirit and he didn't know what it was.  It must have been extremely difficult for him to go to the States and to try to do what he wanted to do there, given where he came from.  He moved from the predictable to the unpredictable.  He left Japan to get away from the rigidity of the inbred Zen scene.  It was fresh in America but we were like a bunch of puppies cavorting around, undisciplined, unencumbered and uncouth."

"Enthusiastic and crazy," I agreed.

"That we were.  So I've come to appreciate his troubles there a lot more.  Unfortunately he got cancer and died and his death seems to me to have been caused at least in part by the difficulties he had in adjusting.  I think that's the inescapable consequence of having your guts wrenched all the time by being ill-prepared for your mission in life and not knowing what to do.  But the fact that he didn't know what to do caused him to open up a lot more and to drop away a lot of the crap that goes with being a roshi in Japan.  That's why we loved him so much, not only because he was so kind and gentle but because he was informal and willing to be a true spiritual friend.

"Do you remember when we were at Hogoji how he'd come out on the porch and have tea with us in his kimono?  The Japanese monks wouldn't know what to do with him.  Nishiki would never have been so informal.  The status distinction between the teacher and the taught was always primary with him.  There was no such gap with Katagiri Roshi.

"Before Katagiri Roshi came to Hogoji, Nishiki Roshi told me he was going to be different over here in Japan.  So I said, 'Do you mean he's going to be like a Japanese roshi?' and Nishiki said 'Yes, he'll have to be.'  After his arrival, when I offered him a stick of incense at the hatto altar, he looked at me and smiled and I realized right then that he'd changed too much in his time in America.  He would meet people just where they were and love them for who they were, and not for something he could make them into.  He would suggest things but he wouldn't put on any pressure.  He knew that to have profound changes come about, you have to willingly do them by yourself."


We had walked around the pond slowly.  I hadn't said much of anything.  I also had memories of Katagiri but I let them lie.  Norman was his disciple and needed to talk.  I was numb and sad and needed to listen.  We sat on a large rock at pond's edge and broke twigs for a while and then walked up where the local royalty is entombed.  We moped around going "duh" and "uh" and kicking the dirt with our zoris.  Katagiri was gone and we had been left only with ourselves and the practice of being a light unto ourselves and our batteries were low.  His answer to so many questions had been silence or "I don't know."  His teaching was simply to continue practicing and to find things out for ourselves.

Just like when Suzuki Roshi died, some of the little lies and games we played with ourselves were exposed.  The myths we perpetuated and nourished without examining: fairy tales about our teachers.  Like the child makes super beings out of parents, the student of the Way makes an idol of the teacher.  If this phase is not grown out of, the disciple suffers, for this idol is not clay, but flesh.  Flesh which dies and decomposes and leaves you completely.


"I'll tell you a funny story about Katagiri Roshi," said Norman.  "Setting up the altar correctly and straight is considered important, and it's the first thing you notice when you're doshi.  Katagiri used to say, 'Don't be cricket.  Line up straight, don't be cricket.'  One day at Tassajara when I was jisha, I couldn't help but notice as I handed Katagiri Roshi the incense, that the altar had been horribly set up.  The chiden (who tends to the altar) was an older fellow who wasn't so good at those sorts of details.  The side sticks of incense were at forty-five degree angles, the flowers looked like they'd been put together by Attila the Hun, and the ashes were a mess.  After service, after he had made his final bows at the altar, Katagiri Roshi stood looking at the altar rather than going to his seat for lunch.  He turned around to the students who were standing in gassho to make the final bow of the service and he unexpectedly launched into a stern lecture about the importance of attending to details, going on and on about making things neat and straight, about preciseness and clarity.  The sloppy altar had brought it to his mind but it was more than that, he said.  It meant being aware of what you were doing at all times.  'If you can't line up everything straight on the altar then your life won't be straight.  Your life comes out of your practice.  When we set up the altar, we set up the dharma world.  And it is this way with every detail of our lives.  If the details of each moment are not attended to then you are not practicing the Buddha's way.  What are you here for?  Are you here to be careless and mindless?'  He went on like that for about five or ten minutes and everybody was standing and waiting to get started with lunch.  When he finished talking, the final bell was rung to end service and then he stepped down, turned around and walked out, completely forgetting that it was time to eat lunch.  I followed him out and asked him if he intended to eat in his cabin.  With an 'Oh,' Katagiri Roshi started to walk back.  I suggested that his prior point might have more impact if he let me bring his lunch to him."


At the point when the guru is dead we may try to bring him or her back in one way or another, talking to her, seeing him as watching over us or whatnot.  I suppose it's a way to look for them in ourselves.  But I have heard people talk about various situations that came about after a guru's death as if that teacher had known all along exactly what was going to happen.  This is a way to try to resurrect the teacher.  To talk about how great the teacher was is another way.  The "Oh my teacher was so great" talk puts us in a musty room filled with cobwebs.  I too, of course, am guilty of it because my teachers have impressed me, but I know I've got to leave them behind.  It's like saying, "I'm great because they were great and I was with them."  Innocence by association.  But I am great and you are great.  Forget about them.

There's an old warning against confusing the great wonderful Absolute Truth with the teacher which goes, "Don't confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon."  It's as if a fellow came along who pointed to the moon and we just stared at this gentle, kind Oriental man in his brown robe and went, "Wow, far out!" and then he fell over dead and we cried and said words of praise about him and walked off talking about him and never noticed the moon.  So here we are all walking around in the moonlight, mumbling and grumbling and bumping into each other.  We are a silly lot.

Another thing we do when we go on babbling about how great our teacher's understanding was, is we imply that we are qualified to appraise their understanding.  This seems arrogant.  When I first met Katagiri and watched him fiddling with his pencil and wondered if an enlightened person would do that and he told me that a teacher was beyond the students judgement, he wasn't telling me that he and Suzuki were beyond karma or making mistakes.  He didn't mean that they could have a burglary ring going that I should ignore because their every act was perfect buddha dharma.  To me, what he was saying was, "Don't look at me, look at the moon."

We do not know what their understanding was.  There is no reason to say they were enlightened, whatever that means, or that they were anything other than our spiritual friends or good friends.

What Suzuki and Katagiri learned and knew, I do not know.  I learned from them to have confidence in zazen while sitting, standing and walking, as it is traditionally said.  I am thinking and commenting on these people because that is the subject now, but in my life today, I am just as encouraged by family members and my mutually irritating fellow students and by living peers who have all sorts of ways and practices as by the memory of the Japanese teachers whom I have known and loved.


     "Katagiri Roshi used to love to mow the grass at Hokyoji, our monastery in the country," Norman said as we walked back home, "It's one of my fondest memories of him.  There were acres of it and he loved to hop up on that tractor and mow it all.  I remember that when Nishiki Roshi came to Hokyoji with Shuko-san, Katagiri Roshi was out there mowing the lawn so I ran out into the field and stopped him and said that they were waiting up at the cabin and Katagiri said, 'Well I'm busy right now, I'll talk to them later.'  I was shocked.  He revered Nishiki Roshi.  But he'd forgotten everything - he'd lost himself in the mowing.  That's where he is in my memory - on that tractor - too busy for us now.  He's done what he had to do, met whom he had to meet and said what he had to say.  He's just mowing away out in those fields and we should let him be."