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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 84

September 10, 1990   -   TRAIN REFLECTIONS


Looking out the window of the shinkansen as it flew down the unclicking tracks from Kyoto, I stared at the irregular rice fields that led to farmhouses, highways, industry and the sea below.  Every once in a while the train would enter a tunnel and my view would change to flashes of Katagiri's disciples pouring water on his granite stone at the ashes ceremony.  It was good to have been with them.  I hadn't yet seen him off in my mind's eye.  Now I felt some satisfaction from the low moaning sadness I heard as the train slowed and pulled into one of the few stations it would stop at before Maruyama.

 Maybe Katagiri didn't fail as much as he thought - or I thought.  Things could be cooking in subtle ways that we hadn't anticipated.  There are indications that he was pleased with the way he left it.  Maybe in the end he just sailed over the contradictions.

Take the priests he left behind.  For a while some years back he said he wanted his priests to be celibate, even thoughmost Japanese Soto priests get married.  That fell by the way along with other expectations.  I know that Isabel is really more of a lay priest than what Katagiri originally had in mind as a priest priest.  But like she told me, he had come to accept that his priests weren't going to be Nipponistically single minded and diligent like him.  Forget it.  He told Isabel there was no one way to be a priest in the States, that the very definition of what it means is in flux and can't be pinned down.  He accepted that that's the way it is and it's okay.  She said that in that last winter before he died, they were discussing relations between the Minneapolis group and Soto-shu headquarters in Japan, and he said that it was fine for U.S. priests to register with headquarters or not to, that there could be a connection or not.  Either way, that person could practice as a priest, the dharma was already flowing, already rooted beyond rules and regulations.


Katagiri once told me that Suzuki had never thanked him for his years of selfless service - showing he'd reacted to this typical closed-mouth Zen modus operandi much as I would have - hurt and still waiting for appreciation.  So before he died I wrote him a letter in which I said thank you about twenty times.  Thank you for coming to America and thank you for being such a good friend and thank you for being such a good teacher and on and on like that.  Isabel said that he got hundreds of letters along those lines - people thanking him for touching their lives in such pivotal ways.  She said he had no idea he'd affected people so strongly.  All us expressive American students left no doubt that he passed on realizing that he was appreciated.  And Isabel said it was from receiving this gratitude that he got a sense of how deeply he'd touched people, lots of people, lay and priest, and made a real difference in their lives.  And even though she is a priest he gave transmission to, she said that his lay students carry his flame just as brightly.

Transmission is mysterious.  I felt that at his ashes ceremony.  Maybe his true dharma heir is the whole sangha, everyone he got to - not like in the traditional stories with one or more of us realizing the true light, attaining a perfect understanding, and the rest just plodding along.  I think we're all just plodding along - and that is the true light.


So did Katagiri fail and am I a failure because I can't remember what Buddhism is and are all the rest of us failures as it seems when contrasted against our early pure and simple expectations and the clear-cut enlightenment of the story books?  The Shimboji monks would say so.  They'd just say we were all wallowing in delusion and that if we were enlightened we'd understand everything completely.  A couple of them came to Katagiri's nokotsu and they both mentioned afterwards that he was a nice man but not really enlightened like their teacher - Watanabe Roshi - not to be confused with the Watanabe that I study with whose monks would never say such a thing.  The Shimboji monks said that Zen had not come to America yet and that in Japan it only resided in their master and maybe a couple of others.

Isabel and I laughed and agreed.  "That's why we had to use the peas," she said.  "I'm sure that Watanabe Roshi will not decompose."  They had no more idea what she was talking about than those junior high kids who probably still think that Buddhism is some sort of toilet fetish cult.

Anyway, it seems to me that all our endless failures are adding up to a magnificent success.  It's just not what we had in mind.  It's real.

And Suzuki did thank Katagiri.  I was there and I remember it well.  Maybe Katagiri was expressing himself so completely that there was no room left to remember it, or maybe he just blocked it out.  But I admired him for what he did.  When the time came to grieve, he just grieved.  It was the last formal meeting between Suzuki and those disciples whom he had ordained as priests.  There were about a dozen of us.  We were sitting full of sadness around our tiny beloved teacher who had turned dark brown from the cancer and who was so weak.  He was encouraging us to practice forever and to let go of the teacher.  At one point Suzuki turned to Katagiri and thanked him for all he had done through the years.

Katagiri burst into tears and with a mournful voice he beseeched Suzuki, "Don't die."  He started to make his way across the tatami floor on his knees, treading awkwardly on his brown kesa, and repeating, "Don't die, don't die."  Throwing his arms around fragile Suzuki, he sobbed, expressing unreservedly the grief and love that the rest of us were trying so hard, like good little Zen soldiers, to keep inside.