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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 79


March 3, 1990   -   WORSHIP IN THE RUINS


I received a call from Isabel who had been with Katagiri the night before he died.  She and another disciple of his, a male nurse, had turned him over the night before.  One of his feet was cold.  They knew he didn't have long when they felt the cold foot.

Tomoe-san, his widow, was exhausted and grieving but surrounded by friends, fellow students and family.  Preparations for the funeral were underway.  Nishiki would fly over to conduct it.  Calls and cards were coming in from all over the Buddhist world. 

Norman had left our house early in the morning for Eiheiji to complete the ceremonies that would give him the irrelevant credentials he'd never need and which I wished Katagiri had left behind as he once seemed more prone to do.  That day fifteen or more years ago when the plaque came from Eiheiji stating that Tassajara was an official Soto Zen temple, he had thrown it in the firewood by the cast iron stove in his cabin.  Why hadn't he left it there?

All the disciples and both his grown sons gathered around Katagiri's body on the morning of his death.  Isabel guided the others in washing the body and preparing it so that fluids would not leak from his orifices.  Chanting at each transition, they dressed him in his best robes, carried him downstairs, put him in his coffin, and lit incense. 

She said that at the altar in her room she had offered him a tiny bowl of broken insence bits.  When Katagiri was five or six, she explained, he had admired the priest who used to come to his house to do services, and decided that he wanted to be a priest too.  He started sneaking all the broken and burnt-down stubs of incense sticks.  He kept them in his pockets and would snack on them during the day.

From a couple of weeks before he died people had been flying and driving in from all over and sitting zazen downstairs below his room.  His body remained there the standard three days before cremation.  Even though the winter was cold, the house was warm, and techniques of preservation were therefore especially important.  At that time of year in Minneapolis the demand for ice packs was nil.  The stores were out.  So Isabel had to improvise.  As a result, Katagiri's body which was covered with flowers and herbs, lay in state in his simple casket on a bed of frozen bags of Bird's Eye Tiny Tender Peas.


I left home groaning inside and walked onto the Daianji grounds.  I was alone for the first time since we'd received the news.  I crossed the back lot where the temple trash is burned, compost dumped on the wild edge without being properly covered, scrap wood stacked and bamboo cured by leaning it up on a frame, the poles punching high into the air.  A pile of logs waiting for the chain saw reminded me of cutting firewood with Katagiri at Tassajara and again at Hogoji where finally he didn't try too hard.


          Walking across the back road, up on a cement footpath behind a row of homes, I looked at their disarrayed backsides and into a mizo, a drainage ditch deep down to my right, full of mountain runoff and soap bubbles.  The air was crisp and smelled of burning oak from a potter's wood kiln.  Veering off on a dirt path into the woods, I stepped up through oaks and pines, past brush and high grass to a clearing cultivated into a potato garden, and next to the spuds, persimmon trees with interlocking branches.  It was winter.  There was no fruit save for some mangled and dried dark carcasses on the ground - skin, stem and seeds.


Katagiri once said people expect a Zen master to be like a perfect piece of ripe fruit hanging from a tree: firm, full, bright with color, ready to eat and looking delicious.  But that's not what it is, he said.  The fruit gets overripe and squishy and falls to the ground scattering its meat and seeds.  That is a Zen master: splattered fruit.

On the edge of a thick and untended bamboo grove, I came to the ruins of an old shrine or temple - some mix of the two.  I go by there sometimes and admire it returning to the earth.  There are weather worn stone Buddhist carvings propped up against the hillside.  The roof of the crumbling building has fallen to the dirt at one end - the tiles broken and dispersed.  I walked up over the rotting boards of a collapsed section, sat on a fallen beam.  In the hillside there is a tended niche, a shallow cave with a Jizo, the bodhisattva for those who died as infants or before birth.  Someone had recently offered a glass of sake, lit candles and incense and the pock marked Jizo wore a fresh red bib to catch the drool of the world's lost children.  A tiny brown leaf floated on the sake.


I thought of Katagiri's life, from the boy who ate incense, to the priest who died feeling he hadn't realized his dream of sinking his dharma roots deep in America.  He tried in Monterey, in Minneapolis, in San Francisco and in Marin County to have the sort of following and success that he'd seen bloom around Suzuki and Baker.

"How's it going in Minneapolis, Roshi?" I asked him on one of his visits to Green Gulch after he'd given a talk to several hundred people.

"Not so well," he said sadly.          "We don't have such a big group.  There's not so much interest in Minneapolis.  And people are mad at me for being too strict.  Ralph stopped wearing his robes.  He doesn't like me anymore."

"Oh I'm sure he likes you Roshi.  But do the numbers really matter?  That's not very Zen is it?" I ribbed him.  "Wasn't Suzuki Roshi the only student who didn't eventually leave his teacher?"

He nodded.

"And aren't you the only student who stuck with your teacher?"

"Yes, I was the only one.  Though eventually I left him too."

"Not till long after you'd completed your training.  You had to move on."


"And what of Suzuki's so-called success.  Look what's happened.  We've got fine buildings and many students but we're all a bunch of idiots.  Nothing to brag about here.  Just a lot of depressed dopes and infighting.  Who of us understands anything?  So didn't Suzuki fail?"

"He needed more time."  Katagiri smiled at the line of thought I was hitting him with.

"And didn't Dogen say that the life of a Zen master is one continuous mistake?"

"Something like that."

"Congratulations, Roshi, you're right on target."

"I never knew how hard it would be," he said shaking his head.


I continued on through the woods till the trail descended down to the nokyo, the farm co-op warehouse, filled with bags of rice.  I passed the single dirt tennis court where we could play for a thousand yen a year and continued on the asphalt path by an old farmhouse with black wrinkled walls of charcoaled wood, between gardens of giant cabbages, by a peach orchard and in front of a row of greenhouses to the busy street.  The sidewalk took me past a mechanic's shop and lot with piles of tires, junked cars and parts.  Miserable dogs in cages barked at me from the pet shop.   From the street I could see the hillside which revealed the stillness of an ohaka, a thousand white stones amidst dry yellow grass in the winter day's sun.


The post office door swung open before I could reach for it.  A departing housewife held it for me deferentially as I entered and she apologized politely in a singsong voice as I in turn held it for her.  I sat down, put my shoulder bag in my lap and pulled an envelope out of it.  It was neatly addressed to Tomoe-san.  She had been with Katagiri over thirty years - most of it in America.  She had been his partner, the mother of their two boys, his disciple and his fellow student as well.  And she had been a friend to so many of us.  I hadn't written the letter yet.

Two nights before when I'd called Suzuki's son in Yaizu and told him of Katagiri's death, he only said that no words came.  I knew just how he felt.  No words.  I also had no tears and I couldn't find my own feeling.  Am I callous?  Is it me who's dead?  I don't know.  I just wanted to get something on paper, get it off to Tomoe and then forget it all.


I'd known her for twenty-five years too.  She was always cheerful and ready to play around with words in her second language.  Once when she and her husband were staying in the guest house at Green Gulch, Kelly and I paid them a visit.  We had found a frog carved from green Mexican stone and brought it as a gift for Katagiri.  Like Suzuki, he was known to love frogs.  Katagiri was eyeing the box I brought but I wanted to drag the time out some for dramatic effect.  So the four of us had a most pleasant visit with the conversation centering around Kelly's school and how their two boys were doing.  I looked at them fondly and thought about what a dedicated team they were and how much she supported him.  People were always giving gifts to him but only rarely was she on the receiving end.

"I have a gift," I said, pulled the frog out of the bag and put it on the table.

"Oh, how wonderful, thank you," said Roshi delighted.  He reached for it.

"Now wait a minute," I said putting my hand on it.  "I didn't say it was for you.  I just said it was a gift."  I paused and looked at them with no further explanation.

He turned to Tomoe and together they said, "Janken!"

They put their right hands in fists and together went "One, two, three!" and threw their right hands down in the air, his ending up flat and hers with two fingers held wide.

"Scissors cut paper," she said in her sweet, high voice and proudly took the frog.  Katagiri looked at me with feigned heartbreak.


Selecting from the people doing business at the post office, I asked a kind-looking lady of fifty or so if she would help me write a note in Japanese to convey my sorrow.  That way I wouldn't have to be expressive - the phrase would do it for me.  She gave me several standard condolences to choose from.  We settled on something that could roughly be translated as:


From my heart I feel pain for your husband's death

and humbly extend to you these words of mourning.


She said that even if we were close friends that it would be enough.  "Don't go on and on," she said, "Just say that."  She wrote it out and then sat by me and made sure that I copied the kanji and kana correctly.  I sighed as I wrote the words, thanked her, sealed the envelope and went to the counter where a young lady who had helped me many times before was sitting.  As I handed her the letter the phone was ringing in the back.  The postmaster answered it.  I was seeing Katagiri in his samue, laughing with a group of us twenty years back as we walked through the woods near Tassajara, swinging our arms, feeling free and easy.  The clerk put the letter on the scales and asked me if I wanted air mail or sea mail.  Just then from the phone in the back came that tune - the Eddy Duchin theme.          Instantly I was flooded with grief.

"Air mail," I stammered as the first low-fi stanza played.

"Eighty yen, please."

I started making low gasping sounds and clutched the counter.  She looked up.  No, this can't be happening.  Get through it quickly.  She applied the stamp for me as I sniffed jerkily.

"Do you want to write your return address on it," she asked looking down again.

I responded with a cracking grunt.  And then I couldn't hold it back.  While Chopin in cheap electric notes from a one square inch speaker continued building, I stood up in the dark Saturday matinee theatre, moved over and sat down with the girls.

My hand could barely write the return address on the envelope.  I was sobbing, sobbing and then laughing at myself and then sobbing again as softly as I could manage in the middle of clerks and customers who were carefully pretending nothing was happening.  She took my thousand yen bill and while she was making change I whimpered and wiped my eyes.  Then, coins in shaking hand, I walked out of the post office crying for Eddy Duchin and Katagiri Roshi, people who lived their best and left this messy world like I would and like all our loved ones would and everyone would.