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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 83



September 9, 1990   -   ASHES TO DUST


I stood under a pedestrian bridge in Kyoto at six thirty in the morning and waited for some friends to pick me up so we could go together to a nokotsu, an ashes ceremony for Katagiri Roshi at his home temple near Tsuruga, about an hour North by express train.  It was a warm morning on the northeast side of Kyoto and there was not yet much traffic.  It doesn't get busy around there till eight or even eight thirty.

That morning, eager taxis were out looking for business and I felt like a lone flower in a field, attracting much attention from the bees about.  They'd buzz by and slow down, come to a stop and pull open their back doors from the lever by the drivers seat, and they'd bid me to come in.  Several taxis started u-turns until I could convey to them that I didn't want a ride.  "This flower has no pollen - buzz on."  I just wanted to stand there and look at the sky and the mountains that rise up around the outskirts of town, look at the colored clouds and the sparrows on the wires going chin chin chin chin like Japanese sparrows do, but my simple morning reverie would continually be interrupted by these eagerly entreating taxis.  A raised hand intended to shoo them away would draw them nearer much as our wave goodby makes people here stop and come back to you.  So I tried crossed forearms held before me which I've seen Japanese use for various negations - "we're out of that," "don't enter."  But that just attracted their attention and made them check to be sure.  Thumbs down didn't work.  A businessman crossed the wide thoroughfare, the traffic being sparse, and a taxi slowed to check him out.  He waved his hands, palms downward, in a gesture I immediately recognized as a rebuff.  Ah, that's how it's done, I thought.  But the taxi only slowed further, the driver craning his neck and looking back.  The man continued to give various discouraging signals as he walked on his way and finally the cab pulled off.  So then I decided that no signal at all would be best and I looked off at the giant kanji for "great," the Daimonji.  It's in a grassy area way up on a mountainside to the east.  It looks like the form of a person standing with arms and legs stretched out.  Just a few weeks prior, the Daimonji's yearly blaze had lit the mountainside during the Bon festival.

A horn honked, pulling me away from the charred symbol.  There was a taxi in front of me with its door open.  I shook my head and looked away - the taxi went on.  Then I tried looking straight ahead as if alert and aware, but made no motions to encourage them and even though this meant that my object of meditation was the pedestrian bridge steps across the street, it worked and I was free as the occasional taxis passed me by.

Another taxi slowed in front of me and I heard my name being called.  My old friend Ann, a lay Buddhist who lives in Kyoto, and Ando, a woman priest disciple of Katagiri's, were waving at me from inside.  I hopped in.


On the platform at the Kyoto train station, I was surrounded by American and Japanese Zen priests, short and tall,  thick and thin, with black robes, shaved heads and big grins.  Only me and the wife and child of Okamoto Sensei, one of the priests, were in Western garb.  Okamoto was young, handsome, spoke fair English and had a relaxed and straightforward manner.  I'd always wanted to meet him.  He has a temple near Kyoto where he translates texts and practices with a few foreigners at a time.  Of the two ordained men and three ordained women from the States, disciples of Katagiri, the only one I knew well was Isabel.  She had been my strongest link to American Buddhism since I'd been in Japan.  She's about fifty, a young fifty, holds herself well, solid, bright, discriminating and spirited.  I was glad that I'd met everybody else first and had had a chance to talk to them before she got there, because once Isabel and I got together, we couldn't be stopped - at least this time we weren't running up the long distance bill.

We were about to pass an encyclopedia of words.  First she wanted to know all about the birth and the baby.  I produced pictures which temporarily diverted everyone's attention and brought forth a shower of congratulations.  But soon Isabel and I were jabbering together of other things.  We philosophized, politicized, talked about friends in America, the state of Zen and Buddhism in America and Japan, and what we liked and didn't like about Japan.  She'd been there for a month traveling from temple to temple with robes and a shaved head.

She had felt quite comfortable both inside temples and out.  She said that people accepted her and didn't look at her as if she were weird.  I told her she was doing pretty good because people look at me as if I'm weird when I'm just standing waiting for a train in my Sunday best.  I felt sure that her strictly positive attitude was still intact because of how recently she'd arrived and because of the independent nature of her visit - traveling around as a guest and observer.  But I didn't rain on her parade.  She reminded me of how vast and multidimensional the world of Japanese Buddhism is.  It's not all just furukusai, stinking of old, as my young English students regarded it.  Anyway, even if it is, we're both still interested in rummaging through old trunks to find antiques of interest.

In her travels her strongest focus had been on Jizo Bosatsu.  Jizo is the bodhisattva of the underworld whose job is to protect and nurture travelers, including those in transition between life and death.  Thus Jizo consoles those who have just died, been miscarried, stillborn and aborted.  It was a Jizo statue I'd sat with at the crumbling shrine in the Maruyama hills on the way to the post office.  Isabel had found that Jizo statues were all over Japan, on street corners as well as in temples, and she was coming to know Jizo as comfort to the guilty and grieving, and as cash flow to those who sell statues of stone, wood and plastic.  Like everything of depth, Jizo has two sides and infinite faces.


Isabel told me about the funeral.  It was held six weeks after Katagiri's death.  She'd wanted me to come but it was too far and too expensive.  Norman was there.  All sorts of high mucky-muck roshi from the Soto-shu in brocade robes came and there were endless testimonials to Katagiri's teaching from students and teachers alike.  I almost got the impression she liked it better when they'd written us off, but then she said she was moved by the ceremony - and she realized what a bridge he had been to help bring together two worlds so far apart.  She said that Katagiri's body hadn't been left untended for a moment since well before he died until he was cremated.  The funeral home was completely responsive and let Katagiri's disciple's tend to his body as they saw fit.  She took the ashes out of the oven and personally ground the bones as per law and divided them into five equal parts destined for the Minnesota monastery of Hokyoji, the Minneapolis Zen Meditation Center, Tassajara, his wife Tomoe, and his home temple of Taizoin in Japan.

Nishiki had given an eloquent and poetic talk at the funeral which Shuko translated.  I'm sure it was moving but I couldn't help but think how neat it would have been, in addition, to have played some of Katagiri's own talks back.


When the time comes for you to face death, you have to return to the very first moment of death...We should practice this again and again.  We have to return to the silent source of our life and stand up there.  We have to come back to the realm of oneness and make it alive, with a feeling of togetherness with all sentient beings and a deep understanding of human suffering.


I remember Katagiri's first lectures at Sokoji.  Suzuki had asked him to speak, so he did but we could barely understand him.  In fact, I couldn't catch enough of what he was saying to get the point.  He was horrified to be in such a position, but we all smiled and nodded, encouraging him on.  Little by little he learned how to say what he wanted to say - in lectures and dokusan.  Even years after those first talks I used to sit and take notes on his grammatical errors.  I'd mark every one so that he'd get a feel for his repeated mistakes.  There would sometimes be a hundred article errors.  A decade later Norman would do the same thing and he told me that others had done it too.  The guy did not learn easy - and he tried so hard.  But gradually he came along and developed his own style, full of far out metaphors and creative new Buddhist technical terms.


Let your heart become as soft and magnanimous

as if you were nestled in the bosom

of the grandeur of nature.


I took him to a junior high school once - he'd been invited to introduce that pubescent audience to Buddhism and Zen.  I couldn't believe what he said.  "Do you think God is far away?  Do you think Zen is far away?  Do you think it is hard to understand?  It's just toilet paper!  That's all it is.  You may not think so.  But that's what it is!  You may think Zen is something wonderful and in some heaven.  It is just toilet paper!"  And he went on into the stratosphere.  In the car on the way back he turned to me and said, "I don't think they understood."

We arrived in Tsuruga at nine in the morning and our unusual entourage filled three taxis that took us to Katagiri's temple, a twenty minute ride out of town into the country and by the sea.  It's a small old temple which is located up a rich green valley which comes from the forested mountains to the Japan Sea below.  A farming and fishing village of a few dozen people lies between the sea and the temple.  A narrow two lane road runs through the village to the main highway.  When Elin, Kelly and I had visited there in July on our way to the ferry for Hokkaido, this road had been bumper to bumper in families and gangs of young people in vans, cars, and big-tired four wheel drives coming home from the beach with snorkels and inner tubes.

In the rice fields that lead to the temple, various types of scarecrows had been put up.  There were black silhouettes of big birds dangling and flapping from strings that hung from poles and there were bright shiny balls that bobbed in the wind.  In some places, metallic tape, reflecting in various bright colors, was twisted between poles and glittering in the breeze.  But on that day there were no smiling old women unbending as best they could to wave at us.  For today was the nokotsu of their errant priest.

Almost thirty years before, he had left them and gone first to Zenshuji in LA and then in 1965 to help Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center.  What they had been told was that he was going to the States for a couple of years to be a priest for Japanese Americans.  That's why Suzuki was sent there too, to minister for a reasonable term to Japanese abroad in the land of the materialistic heathens.  They just didn't come back.  They didn't come back because they were both priests who were passionately absorbed in the core practice of their religions, and in California they were sought out by hippies, housewives and investors who desperately wanted to do what they did and know what they knew.  The traditional Japanese American Buddhists went to the temple on Sundays to hear a sermon and participate in a brief service and the rest of us newcomers went Monday through Saturday to practice zazen, chant the Heart Sutra and bug those two guys with questions till their English improved considerably.  So Katagiri was supposed to come back home but he had only visited a few times and, since he was never replaced as the head priest of Taizoin, the congregation had to make do with going to another temple further away or having another priest come there once a month.  It wouldn't have worked out anyway - because the village couldn't afford full-time help.  Taizoin was reduced to an occasional meeting hall for the locals and the two times that I had visited it before, it was dusty and musty inside and seemed lonely and empty.


The taxis managed the bending, elevated, one lane road through the soggy rice paddies.  Admiring the beauty of the fields I was also silently eyeing the near and sudden drop off into the paddy.

We unloaded our bags next to the old storage shed which on one end contained the time-stained outhouse.  Its exposed urinals in the entryway emptied into a trough which ran to the outhouse's receiving hole in the ground.  Camouflaged by only a few bushes, two men were peeing away as a woman edged by them to get to the squatter.  Later I would notice other old country women squatting out behind where the cars were parked, eliminating the morning's green tea and unconcerned that I was walking by.

The sliding doors outside the main hall were opened leaving the front left half of the building exposed.  Through this opening the entering priests stepped with clean white tabi and bessu up onto the new fresh smelling tatami, and prostrated themselves at the immaculately prepared altar and then to each other in greeting.  Communication between the Japanese and American priests and lay folk was quiet and consisted mainly of nodding heads and bending bodies - the priests wore similar robes but were of different worlds - only Okamoto was comfortable with the gaijin outside of the brief forms of convention.

I watched the Japanese priests and lay people greet each other.  All over Japan at that very moment others were bowing and apologizing and thanking: businessmen in the office and on the golf course, housewives on the street, athletes on the field and delivery people, vendors, teachers, students, politicians, Imperial family members, gangsters and miscellaneous.  These people have no doubt about what to do or say when they meet.  It's all worked out by millennia of culture.  Zen groups in America have got to have some sort of culture and many have taken on these "thank you, forgive me" forms to some extent because that's what their teachers did.  What is Japanese culture and what is Buddhist, I wondered, and thought we gaijin Zennies should be careful not to perpetuate unnecessarily foreign forms that isolate us from others back in our homelands.

The townsfolk were scattered around, inside the building and out.  Women were hurrying, getting things ready, while the men were milling about, smoking and talking.  Today their lost beloved priest who had forsaken them for outsiders, outsiders who should have been going to church, was coming home for good - at least a fifth of him was.  His wife, Tomoe, had brought this share of ashes and bone bits in a cloth wrapped box.  She brought it tense and straining, deep ridges of pain running vertically between her eyes.  She carried the box into the temple amidst the respectful and bowing farmers and fishermen and their wives.  By her side walked her younger son, born and raised in the States and just as out of place as any other American there.

Tomoe's husband was back in his temple, this meager building with exterior walls of mud and weathered wood and windows with wood-framed panes.  There was an addition on the right side of the front of the building made of fake plastic wood.  Next to this was a centuries old moss and lichen-rich rock garden and pool.  Surely at one time the water had flowed through thick bamboo, but now there was only a grey four inch plastic pipe with a trickle coming out of its broken and uneven end.  Inside the building hung a photograph of the temple as it used to look - the thick straw-thatched roof not yet covered by sheet metal, and no trace of modern tackiness.  But the clay-walled interior is probably about the same as back then.  There are some big old earthen wood burning stoves for cooking and a small iron wood-heated bath. 

I remember Elin commenting, when we visited Taizoin with Kelly, that she was glad we didn't move there.  Understatement of the year.  That had been the original plan, my naive original plan, that surely angels must have sabotaged.  Katagiri had told me about Taizoin and said it was empty if I was interested.  The temple as Elin saw it had been shockingly dilapidated with mouse turds on the old tatami which were rotting and caving in in places.  It would have been a terribly remote and difficult area to live and make a living in and it would have been a lot of work to fix up that place.  There's three feet of snow in the winter and the nearest town is the remarkably ugly Tsuruga, surrounded by a dozen nuclear power plants.  Katagiri Roshi got out of here as quick as possible.  None of this had occurred to me when I was romantically thinking of making it our rustic abode.


A breeze from the Japan Sea fanned away the heat that was still stifling further inland.  In this salt scented air and beneath a clear blue sky, I walked around outside and said hello to some of the old folks, which meant anyone not of the gaijin group and the Okamotos.  I was not surprised that almost everyone was over sixty - I'm used to it.  You don't see many younger people in the fields or in the temples.  I walked around the building and through it, talking to some smoking farmers out back and housewives within preparing lunch.  I walked to the deck and looked out toward the rice fields.  The stalks swayed in synchronized motion past the windbreak cyprus.  Rice - it's always in the news.  I wondered if the solution to the rice import problem would automatically come about when these elders retired to the hospitals and to the futons in their farmhouses, when their ashes entered the ground by the stones in the ohaka.  For when these old folks were gone, who would work in the fields?  The kids are in the cities in offices or shops or schools or they're driving trucks or they're anywhere but in the fields.  Mr. Shimizu of the MMC says that big business and government destroyed the small farm in America and will soon do so in Japan with no concern for those who till the soil.  This may be true but I wonder if the transition to the mega-farm has not all along been greatly abetted by the flight of the young seeking a better life than that of their bent parents.  I circulated and talked to these weathered old parents and grandparents but not to their kids and grandkids because the younger generations had no use for their elders' dead, tired, useless, old religion or life on the farm or in the fishing boat.  The kids were not there.

It must have been a strange day for the old folks.  They were getting their priest back in powdered form and they met relatively young Americans, more than half women, who had taken on the clothes and practice of this religion that these old folks had always assumed was strictly a Japanese thing dominated by men.  It's integrally tied in with Shinto, Japanese history, Japanese ceremonies, their secret language, and their spirits and ancestors.  So how could these pale foreigners have anything to do with it or understand it in the slightest?  They don't even speak Japanese - they hardly know how to say hello and goodby.

The farmers' and fisher folks' kids are out chasing after the toys of the materialistic conquerors and the conquerors' kids are chasing after Japanese Buddhism.  Were they thinking this or just putting on a polite show with blank minds?  They did seem to appreciate the sincerity of the gaijin.  Their own venerable Katagiri had dedicated his life to training foreign priests.  The locals were so polite and kind and smiling and they were shaking hands and giving themselves to us that day.  But surely they must have been nervously anxious for it to be over and for us all to leave - to leave them alone again to their simple disappearing lives that are hard and make sense and which would make a lot more sense once we had gone.


A half dozen more Americans had arrived from Kyoto by car - laypeople who had studied with Katagiri at one time or another.  I knew them all well and waved to those who caught my eye.  No time to talk anymore - a bell was ringing.  Nishiki had arrived and was ready to lead the service.  I hopped up on the tatami from the side entrance and sat with Okamoto's wife and daughter who I'd met at the station.  As the ceremony got going I looked across the open and airy room at the various colors of the robes of the priests and kimono and dresses of the country women and suits and ties of the country men - all those wrinkled faces so full of character, each distinct and strong.  The foreigners, priest and lay, were in front of me in three rows, chanting with the natives and randomly sucking in air.  Everyone was much more comfortable now that we were doing one of the few things we could do together.

With Isabel's camera I caught scenes of the ceremony: of her and the others from back home offering powdered incense, pinching and sprinkling, bowing and moving on.  Isabel had already taken pictures of just about everything else - the Jizo out front, the earthen ovens, ladies preparing lunch, and her favorite, a statue of a badger in robes in the memorial plaque lined hall behind the altar.

The old folks were watching and chanting or not, bowing or not, sleeping or fidgeting, and the little girl by me was making some delightful contributions of her own in a high, sweet voice while her mother tried to occupy the child's attention with trinkets.

I looked up directly above our heads in the alcove and was chilled by what was there.  In the midst of this gathering and recitation, tilting down in their high-hanging frames, were the faded, yellowed photographs of boys in military uniforms: teenagers, scared and fatalistically looking straight ahead into the camera lens, boys whose pictures were adorned recently, probably today, with fresh purple ribbons.  These boys were the children of the bent old folks in this room, people who'd seen hard times, very hard - like losing these boys whose sad photos attested to the fact that they died in the war.  After the ceremony, a local old-timer shocked me when she said, "Do you know where they died?"  "No," I said.  "Neither do we," she said.  "We only know who killed them - the Emperor Showa."  She was looking at one picture in particular.  "The Emperor Showa and the right-wing fanatics who said the Emperor Showa was a god killed these boys."  She smiled as I tensed up and swallowed, "The Americans only pulled the triggers," she added.

The priests were changing into less formal outer robes and people were dispersing.  I got one last picture for Isabel of a man sitting on the tatami in front of the altar and flicking the ashes of his cigarette into an ashtray.  He couldn't even wait for the echo of the last gong to fade before he lit up.  Nobody noticed or cared, but if it had been an American zendo, the gasps would have blown his match out before the cigarette was even lit.


A procession walked up to the ohaka out back.  It's a lovely little ashes yard on the side of a hill overlooking the valley.  From there I could see the temple enclosed on three sides by cyprus and ajisai - hydrangea.  The winding path from below entered the ohaka and, on the other side, continued up and disappeared into a thick wood - suggesting that death is not final.  Here were the stones and earth of local people who had passed on, fresh flowers offered before their proxies.  It didn't seem like there had been so many of them.  This is a tiny village and the diminutive size of this ohaka gave it a cozy quality.  It wouldn't frighten children or make adults nervous.  It made it look like maybe just important people die.

Katagiri's stone was in the back row with the markers of the prior priests of this temple and was a gleaming light grey marble peppered with black dots.  These memorial stones were about two and a half feet tall and looked like bombs on end.  They were smooth and round and tapered at the bottom, got wider near the top, then came in to a point like a soft ice cream cone.  On Katagiri's stone his Buddhist name was written vertically in black kanji.  On those of the prior generations, if the names had been written, they had worn off.  Those stones were darker and, as they stood for men of longer and longer ago, their rock was more and more worn and stubby and like the rough earth from which they came.

But today we concentrated on Katagiri's ice-cream-cone-bomb-stone, all fresh and new and shiny.  There was a hole at the base of it in front.  Nishiki's eyebrows looked particularly frosty that day as he gently placed the urn of Katagiri's ashes in the hole.  He took herbs that Isabel had brought from Green Gulch Farm and sprinkled them in the hole, put them on top of the stone and around it.  Having done so, he filled the opening with dirt.  Two metal buckets stood full of water at his side and he picked up one of two bamboo ladles that floated on the surface, dipped it in and poured the water over the stone two times and then with a third ladlefull he sprinkled water over the flowers that were placed in wide bamboo vases on either side of the stone.  We all silently watched his every move.  From a bowl he took a little ball of white, glutinous mochi and placed it tenderly on the base of the stone.  After that we started chanting the Heart Sutra and, one by one, each person did what he had done - including pouring water on the flowers - something which he had improvised to freshen them up without thinking that everyone else would copy him.  The flowers became flooded with water and were practically washed away.  I wondered if it would catch on and be done that way in future ceremonies at that temple or if some of the younger priests would henceforth include flower drenching in their ceremonies.  Esoteric reasons for such a practice might even develop.  Whole lectures could evolve:  Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva who hears the cries of all beings, rains tears of compassion upon the flowers and suffering of the earth.

Then a disturbing thing happened.  Something moving at the base of Katagiri's stone caught my eye.  The surface appeared to be covered with short squirming white worms.  They must be maggots, I thought as a shiver went down me.  How could this be?  His body isn't rotting down there - they didn't come with his ashes did they?  I stared longer and was sure they were moving.  There were a bunch of people crowded around it taking turns offering water - none of them seemed to notice.  Bending over, hoping not to be obvious, I inspected more closely and realized that what I was seeing was some of the Green Gulch herbs Isabel had brought floating on a thin film of water that covered the base of his memorial stone.

I straightened up and shook my head, then looked at Katagiri's wife and his students.  They had suffered so much with him during his illness and death and had been mourning his absence for six months already.  I looked at his long lost congregation.  Today they came together to say goodbye to a memory.  Today was just as much their day as his.  At last they got to do something with him - sort of.  It had been several months since he died.  None of us were overwhelmed with grief but we were all a little down.  Gradually the disparate group wandered back to the temple to have a modest feast and drink beer and sake in memory of a departed friend.


The gaijin and the locals were distributed much more equitably at this point around the long table.  The unifying ceremony followed by alcohol and a generous spread of sushi, tempura and local dishes loosened us all up considerably.  There were a few brief words before we ate.          What I remember best is when the tall, thin, reserved caretaker of the temple said, "Katagiri-san was a great priest who took on a big job in America and died twenty years too soon."  We toasted Katagiri.  How true, I thought, just like Suzuki, twenty years too soon.  It's a shame, a real shame, and nothing can be done about it.