“Pushing the dripping hair from my face, the rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher. ‘I’m here. It took me a while, but I made it.’ Natalie Goldberg visits the tomb of her teacher Katagiri Roshi in Japan.
I just returned from Japan a week ago. I had never thought of going before. I had my own little Japan when I studied with Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen master, for six years in Minneapolis. But when he died I had a great desire to see where he came from and the country that produced him. I should say, that produced the Japanese Zen that I was studying, but I had a heart to heart connection with him, and that personal connection is really what carried me. So I wanted to go to Japan, but I was scared. They didn’t speak English, I didn’t know how to get around, and their signs were in kanji. I had bought airplane tickets two times in the eight years since he died and then I forfeited them. But this time I decided I had to go. I had a friend who is a good traveler and she said she’d come with me.
Right before we went, I visited Katagiri Roshi’s wife, Tomoe, in Minnesota. I asked her for exact directions to his old temple. When his teacher died it became his temple. No one since had been abbot there. When I studied with Roshi I’d heard stories about it all the time. Only he and his teacher practiced in this temple. There were no other students. And so I got the directions, and this is how precise Tomoe was: she not only told me where to get the bus after I took the train, but she then opened up a photo album and showed me photos of the train station, the bus stop where I should get off, the spot where I should turn at the corner. And I thought, oh, Tomoe, you’re being silly, I’m quite sophisticated.
And so I arrived in Japan on a Thursday and we went to Kyoto and the following Thursday I got up my courage to go out into the country. It was pouring rain. Pouring may be no big deal to someone who lives in San Francisco, but I live in New Mexico, where rain is an auspicious event. You might want to remember that, next time it rains, wherever you are. But the rain in Kyoto scared me—it was flooding the streets. I thought, should I go today? And then I thought, well, I planned to, okay, I’ll go. My friend came with me. We wore our green slickers. The Japanese only carry umbrellas, and they think it’s very American and cloddish to wear these big plastic things on public transportation where you have to sit all wet next to someone else.
We traveled first in Kyoto on the subway, climbing four deep flights down. You don’t realize how deep someone can dig. Really, when you think about it, it’s a tremendous thing—a subway under a city. We took that subway to the train station where we would catch the train to a town called Tsuruga. It was going to leave at 9:31. Well, you’d better believe in Japan it leaves at 9:31. And that was really the only way we knew that it was the right train. It showed up at 9:31 and we jumped on. Then I asked people sitting in their seats with newspapers and box lunches of pickles, rice, sushi and seaweed on their laps, “Tsuruga? Tsuruga?” To get their attention I called out, “Hey!” But it’s not “Hey”; it’s “Hai!” “Hai!” I corrected myself and tried to act Japanese. Then I’d forget and say “Hey!” again. And they’d say, “Hai! Hai!” “Tsuruga? Tsuruga!” “Hai.” Yes, we were on the right train and it was pouring hard and the clouds were dark gray.
In about half an hour we passed a big lake on the right and I heard the conductor announce, “Biwa.” I looked harder—that was Lake Biwa, where Ikkyu in a rowboat at twenty-seven years old in the sixteenth century heard a crow caw overhead and became fully enlightened. I touched the window glass for a moment. I knew that lake, and even in the storm it was icy blue.
The train ride was altogether an hour and ten minutes and we got off in a little town. I thought Tsuruga was going to be a big town. We went to the small tourist station, but they didn’t speak a drop of English and I didn’t speak a speck of Japanese. I had the name for the next destination. I said, “Kitada?” “Kitada,” they nodded. “Kitada?” “Kitada.” I wanted to ask, “Bus Two? Three? Where?” I held up fingers. They pointed to two. After ten minutes we figured out it was bus two, leaving at 12:25. They wrote down “Kitada” in kanji on a slip of paper for us, so we could match it with the sign on the front of the bus. The buses, unlike the trains, don’t leave exactly on time—we needed to check that the lettering was the same. We found the bus, but it was 11:25. We had about an hour to walk around.
Usually in the U.S. I don’t eat lunch at the Greyhound bus station. But when I’m in other countries I’m suddenly wide open and we were hungry, so after finding the bus, we went into a tiny—I mean tiny, one small table width—restaurant. The waiter stood by us, pen poised to take our order. We pointed to something on the menu—we didn’t know what it was. The waiter spoke quickly with hands jerking and we nodded, “Hai! Hai!”, and he shook his head and went in the back room. A few other people were there and they were being served noodles, vegetables, pieces of white fish. We weren’t served and the time was going by. I whispered to my friend, “I think he was trying to tell us something important and we didn’t get it.” We had 15 minutes till the bus left. I screwed up my courage and ran into the kitchen and pointed to my watch and held up my hand—I flashed five fingers three times—fifteen minutes till the bus leaves, but what my motions meant to the cook I had no idea. I went back to my seat, and Michele said, “So it’s going to come?” I said, “Oh, yeah, he understood.”
Ten minutes before the bus left he placed an omelet before us. We were thrilled it wasn’t octopus. We ate it up quickly and ran to the bus. I spoke to the bus driver, “Kitada?” He nodded “Kitada.” Again I said “Kitada?” I wanted him to tell us when we got to Kitada. How would we know? But he just said, “Kitada.” We sat down hoping that someone would motion when Kitada came, or that I would recognize the bus stop from Tomoe’s photo in the album. People on the bus were staring at us—we were further away from the city—these giants in green slickers with no umbrellas. And it was still pouring out, the kind of rain that hits and bounces. The bus was moving through the wet countryside and the road became narrow. People in the bus continued to gawk at us. Several times I ran up to the bus driver, “Kitada?” He nodded “Kitada.” Finally everyone on the bus knew, Kitada, so when we got there they yelled in unison, “Kitada!”
We stumbled out into the rain, the bus took off, and we were left on the edge of the road next to a Japanese version of a 7-11 and a car mechanic building. Kitada? I looked for the picture that Tomoe had shown me, but there was no picture. We were nervous and then we saw a road. As soon as we turned we were suddenly in the Japanese countryside of rice fields, reeds and ponds. In the distance we could see a village. No shops or bakeries, just little houses and farmed fields. It was beautiful through the slate gray of rain. A heavy, powerful bird swooped down in front of us—a cross between a feathered owl and the royal size of an eagle. I said to Michele, “What kind of bird is that?” It was the only bird out that day because it was raining so hard.
We trudged into the little town and everything was closed down. The intricate flower plots dripped with rain. Over a hill I saw the Japan Sea and I remembered Tomoe saying there was a sea. And so we kept going, and finally there was a marker in kanji. I took a chance, “This is it,” and I hoped I recalled it from one of Tomoe’s photos. Behind it we saw a mud path—the old entryway, Tomoe had told me. We both hesitated. Michele nodded, “Let’s follow it,” and we stepped off the pavement. The earth was soggy, and we squished with each footstep.
In the distance I see a red tiled roof—I know it is Tasoin temple. There’s one person in a paddy field in the rain, working with a hoe. He sees us walk by, and he turns and I wave, and he nods. Maybe other people have come over time to visit Roshi’s ashes. The temple is deserted, no one to practice here anymore, once Roshi left for America more than thirty years ago. So it’s closed down and the little village takes care of it. They open it, I guess, for burials. I see a little cemetery and I say to Michele, “Can I go by myself. I’ll meet you.” And it’s fine. It is a really ancient cemetery with stone buddhas and other things. I don’t know anything, but it is wonderful.
Then I panic. I came all the way to Japan. What if I don’t find his tombstone? I walk around lots of old stones and then in the distance I see a clutter of rounded tops. I know the rounded part signifies the gravestones of the teacher lineage for that temple. I hurry over and at the very end is a new tombstone. I know it is Roshi’s. It is still pouring but I push off my hood and then throw off my slicker. I prostrate myself three times on the wet earth and then I kneel in front of his stone. Pushing the dripping hair from my face, the rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher. “I’m here. It took me a while, but I made it,” and I cannot say how good I feel to finally be there with him.
I look around. Two rhododendron, then trees I cannot name, but I can see them even now, dark green, tall, with drooping needles. A camellia bush, rice paddies, the Japan Sea, and the village. For years with Roshi I’d hear about this place. It was just him and his teacher practicing together. As a young monk, he thought that it was silly to get up in the morning. Why bother? So his teacher kept a schedule, got up at five, sat zazen, made breakfast, and then he’d go and shake Katagiri. “C’mon, it’s time to eat.” And Katagiri would say, “Oh, I’ll just sleep late.” And his teacher would be quiet and say, “It’s good to follow the schedule even if no one else is here.”
Every day, or every few days, they’d walk into town to formally ask the villagers for food with their begging bowls. And every time it was just the two of them, the teacher in front and the student behind. When the student decided to come to America, he told his teacher. His teacher didn’t discourage him, but Roshi told us, “When we walked into town I could tell from his back that he felt lonely.”
I remember the two of them as I sit in the rain in the cemetery. I make a vow to him right then and I pick up a single black stone and put it in my pocket. I walk over to the temple, which I had been told was locked, but Michele has found a way to unlock it. We take our shoes off and go in. It is a really old temple with a brick oven for a stove. We slide open paper walls, discovering spaces with tatamis on the floor. The final place we find is formal, with a large altar and a faded picture across the room—it must be Katagiri’s teacher—and then a little photo is tucked into the bottom of the frame, very faded. I step closer. I can make out Roshi’s profile. He must have sent it from America. I stand in front of it a long time, as the rain thunders down on the roof. I’ve come a long way to see this, I think to myself.
When we leave, walking down the road, facing the Japan Sea, I know this is the path he took into the village, and suddenly that brown bird swoops down in front of me and flies right back to the eaves of the temple. I follow him with my eyes and turn and watch him open and close his wings, calling to me, as he clutches the edge of the roof with his claws. I swallow, lift my hand, wave good-bye and keep walking.
And that one afternoon was worth my entire trip to Japan, to go and do that.
This article is adapted from a lecture given in the “Buddhism at Millennium’s Edge” series, sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center, and was included in The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala 2016).