Dainin Katagiri Roshi on the fire circle Kevin McWilson and I built at Hokyoji, New Albin Iowa. At the first Ango there.I decided to become a potter at my zen teacher, Dainin Katagri Roshi’s funeral. It went something like this:
I assisted my Katagiri Roshi during his illness with lymphoma in the year before he died. I was one of a half dozen male students that attended him in his last months. We each took a different day of the week. I think one of his sons took the 7th day. We would help my teacher up to the 3rd floor, where he slept, when he couldn’t get about on his own. Helped him get dressed. What ever was required, including carrying him to the car for his doctors appointments.
About 6 months after his illness was diagnosed, he went into remission. I took this opportunity to ask him to let me to take priest vows. I had studied with him the total of about 6.5 years by then. He told me he would make me a zen priest, but wanted me to talk to my wife about it and think about it for one year. I told him that Jean and I had spoken about it many times and she supported my decision. But my teacher said that marriage was important and that every married student that he allowed to become a priest ended up getting divorced. So he said, “take care of your marriage, and in a year, I will give you the vows. ” I agreed to wait a year.
Six months later, he died. At the funeral, I decided that I didn’t want to start over with another teacher and also, I knew Zen Center would change with his departure. He had great hopes for Hokyoji, the monastery in Iowa, and I knew that focus would change when he was gone. And that because my teacher said he’d give me the vows, that was good enough for me, and if I lived my life as though I had taken the vows, that it was as good as taking them from him. The only reason you need the papers, is if you want to marry and bury people. I figured, because my teacher had 12 dharma heir priests, that this aspect would be taken care of by them. I decided I would take the vows later. After my next step was well underway.
I was fortunate to be able to attend my teacher’s body while the traditional 3 days before cremation was observed. Constant meditation periods were held during the 3 days and I took my turn at being one of the “bell ringers” during that time (the lead time keeper of the mediation period.) The person who came out from California, Yvonne Rand, to direct the funeral preparations was able
to find a traditional nailess casket, made by a Hasidic casket maker. Usually in America, what people do, is put the body in a disposable cardboard liner that is then put in a rental casket. For cremation, only the body and the cardboard box is put into the oven. But with a nailess traditional pine box like what the Hassidic craftsmen make, you can just put the whole casket in the crematory oven.
Mystical Kabala Tree Of Life.I was really taken by the craftsmanship that this plain pine casket represented. I decided, because of the craftsmanship of this casket, which was very similar to the craftsmanship of Shaker furniture, that I wanted to become a potter and make urns for people’s ashes, with the same spirit that this Hasidic casket maker did. That was March of 1990. In the fall, I enrolled in my first evening clay class at the UofMN. I didn’t make a very logical choice. I often follow my intuitions even though I might make a decision a year ahead of doing it.
I am currently studying traditional wood block printing with a teacher here in Mashiko. If you ever visit the Messe museum, you’ll see his illustrations in the covered bridge on the way to the museum buildings. He also made prints that are sort of charactures that you see everywhere, of Hamada, Leach and Yanagi. He is also a fine potter, but has not fired his noborigama in many years. He is a living, breathing, “Unknown Craftsman.”
One time, someone asked my teacher, Itoe Sensei, why he didn’t fire his noborigama any more. Itoe-san answered: “A family of cats made their home in the chimney of the noborigama. I didn’t think I should disturb them..
“With Humans it’s what’s here (he points to his heart) that makes the difference.If you don’t have it in the heart, nothing you make will make a difference.”
~~Bernard Leach~~ (As told to Dean Schwarz)
My Late Friend David Nystuen’s Urn.
Around the Firepit. 1983 Ango