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About Suzuki Roshi
Cuts from Crooked Cucumber
Art & Bart - a chapter that was cut from CC
ART and BART
[This is a revised (9/21/02) chapter that was cut from CC. Originally it included Elsie Mitchell's story of meeting Suzuki because I thought that Elsie was the woman that Art had met that morning - but now I think maybe not because of discrepancies in the dates and facts that each gave me. So I've cut her out of this story and am working on one which just deals with her. I wonder if all this material was cut from the book. That's a shame - it's all pretty good.-DC]
Art Atkinson, a young, tall, thin truth-seeker dropped out of college not knowing quite what to do with himself, got the bug to come to San Francisco after he’d read the usual. He found Zen Temple in the phone book, went there, admired the building from the sidewalk, knocked on the door to the left, the Go Club. A man came out and sent him to the door on the other side. The caretaker told Art to come back the next morning at five thirty.
So he did. Turns out it was a four day when there’s no zazen. Normally Suzuki would have told him to come back the next day, but there was also a short, slight woman visiting Suzuki that morning. She was just passing through on her way back home from Japan and this was the only day she could visit so Art was in luck - Suzuki invited him to join them. And there he was, Art thought, a real Zen priest.
The woman obviously knew something about Zen, but Art needed to get a quick instruction on how to sit and how to get to his seat. First, Suzuki showed Art how to go back outside of the zendo and take his shoes off. Oops. Art noticed he wasn’t marched out to have his shoes snatched off. Suzuki actually went back toward the stairs and approached the shoe rack in a slow and deliberate manner. Art felt like he was actually being taught how to take his shoes off - and he watched how very gently Suzuki did it. He realized that he’d walked in there swaggering thinking he was the smartest person in the world, and that Zen had to do with what he called that hot shot artistic samurai stuff, Rinzai stuff - it was piercing insights and peak moments. But Art was a perceptive guy. All that fell away and he was learning how to take his shoes off as if nothing else in the universe were more important, and as if the way one treated ones shoes was the same as how one treated everything.
Suzuki demonstrated how to enter the zendo, do a standing bow, and how to unfold what looked to Art like a bamboo beach mat - such a gentle way to show them how to open the mat - there was artistry in how he unfolded that thing. Then he showed them how to address the cushion and sit on it. Next came posture. The visiting woman sat quite comfortably and Suzuki turned his attention to Art whom he showed how to sit up straight and to use an extra cushion till his legs dropped down. The main thing, he said, is to sit on the cushion for however long the period is. He told them about breathing, do it slowly but don’t push it - follow it or count it. Keep the eyes half open.
Art looked at Suzuki and thought, this guy is very human. He knows I’m screwed up and think I’m superior to everyone and he’s very gentle about it. Art thought he knew all about Zen masters, those guys in Japan that were enlightened. They’re tough. This guy is soft and touching. And this guy is over here, so he isn't one of those. But he was a nice guy, and he guessed Suzuki was more of a temple priest, but he’s still the real thing - he was in robes, he looked happy, he was Japanese and this was Zen, even though this was Soto, and he didn't know anything about Soto cause it wasn't in the books.
Art kept coming to sit in the beautiful old wooden building, the women on the window side, the men on the opposing wall, the sound of the traffic coming uphill toward town in waves with the timed lights on the one-way street, and the soft diffused light that came in with the sunrise. On Wednesday night, he'd come in and sit zazen, and then listen to the lecture which he never understood. The English wasn't that good, and it was all about Zen stuff he didn't understand, but he figured he knew something even if he didn't know the words - he'd just look at Suzuki’s hands and his body and that would teach everything he needed to know.
The first time Art was really sitting with some other folks, Suzuki had said to him before Zazen, "You must greet me." Okay, he was willing to do that. What he didn't know was it meant that at the very first of the period, when Suzuki would walk around after some bells were rung, circumambulating the zendo, people were supposed to lift their hands in gasho to bow to him. But Art didn't understand that till a month later someone explained it to him. Suzuki had never said anything more about that. So that’s his way, Art thought - to let us find out what to do on our own. Art found he couldn’t follow his breath or count it or keep his hands in the right position or his eyes half open, but there was one thing he could do - he could stay there on his cushion as best he could.
There was a woman named Lou, in her early thirties, and her husband was over there in Japan - he was doing the real thing, he was over there in a monastery. That must be what you have to do to get enlightened - go to Japan. She told Art, "One of these days one of these Americans that actually go over there, they're going to end up enlightened, they're going to come back here and become teachers for us." Then of course it was different over there. Like you got worms in your stomach. She was sending him charcoal or something like that for him to eat to kill the worms and get rid of the diarrhea.
There was a young woman, maybe 22 or something like that. She seemed crazy out of her mind to Art. She'd walk around during zazen making weird sounds and getting on everybody's case. Suzuki Roshi didn't seem to mind at all. Art kept waiting for Suzuki to say something to her, but he just let her be. There was a big honcho coming to visit and Art wondered if she was going to blow it for everyone by acting crazy.
Kato drove Suzuki to the airport to meet Chisan Kohu, the abbot of Eiheiji, who was arriving with six other priests from Hawaii. LA then Brazil were next. He was checking out Soto Zen in the outposts. This was a first. No big shot from the Soto-shu had ever come over before. Kato knew it was important to Suzuki for him to make a good impression, but he sure didn’t seem worried about anything. Carrying Suzuki’s bag of gifts, Kato walked behind him down the airport corridor. Kato was worried they were going to be late. When he’d arrived at the temple to pick Suzuki up, he wasn’t ready, and seemed to have forgotten the event entirely.
That was no surprise to Kato. He’d had ample opportunity to experience Suzuki’s absentmindedness. There had been a funeral he’d almost missed and sometimes he didn’t realize it was Sunday and had gone ahead and had morning zazen and service at the usual time by himself, thinking no one had arrived. Until he turned it over to Hagiwara, Kato also had to make sure all the bills were paid. That would have been too hard for Suzuki as he wasn’t used to doing business in America - and he was just too forgetful. If someone didn’t do it for him the electricity, gas and phone would surely all be cut off. He even forgot the Hannya Shingyo. He’d forget it at service or in the homes of members when he was reciting alone. He’d circle back around in the sutra and the next time he got to that place he’d remember. Or Kato would pause to take a breath and Suzuki would say the wrong sounds till Kato came back in. Not always, but it happened.
As they approached the gate, Suzuki walking casually with his arms swinging and his black robes swishing, a group of Japanese priests came toward them. Suzuki walked right by them. Kato couldn’t believe it. They were all monks with shaved heads - they were so visible. They all looked at him and he just didn’t notice them - and they were all wearing robes. Kato said to Suzuki, "Isn’t that Kohu-roshi and a group of monks with him?" Suzuki looked up at Kato. "Oh, did I miss them? Oh, I see, maybe that’s them." Oh, gosh, thought Kato, maybe he was thinking - or maybe he was not thinking.
Chisan Kohu was the head of the Soto sect in Japan and Art went to the event in the big room downstairs at Sokoji. It seemed to him like all of the Japanese-Americans in Japantown came to see him. He was heavy-set, looked to Art like a sumo wrestler, and he walked heavy and wore gold robes and his head looked like it was lacquered. He gave a talk and the bishop from LA gave a talk. It was the biggest public deal that had happened since Suzuki arrived.
The next day there was an afternoon zazen which Kohu attended. Suzuki had asked everyone to come and there were about twenty-five people in the zendo - the widest group of zazen students and lecture attendees. They were all interested in seeing the prelate because if he was head of the sect, he must be the most enlightened one of them all. He wore his golden robes and Suzuki just wore black and brown robes as usual. And he was on his toes and everyone was doing their best to look like they knew what they were doing on their zafus. The freaked-out girl wasn't messing up and no one was sleeping on their cushions.
Even though no one was sleeping that was whacking night. It shocked the heck ought of Art. Suzuki was walking around whacking everybody. They never got it during the regular zazen like this. Suzuki was whacking right and left and Art was sneaking looks and Suzuki looked glowing. He was very very pleased with that group of people that night, and tickled to death to show the Abbot of Eiheiji how many people were sitting with him. And they could take the stick - a sure sign to the old fat priest that they were disciplined and that Americans could study Zen. Suzuki had gotten an ocean of distance from the organization back in Japan, but he still wanted their approval and would be needing their support. And he still wasn’t even the official abbot and he had dreams. It was amazing that he could go around hitting his students on the shoulders, after resting the stick gently on them first and giving them time to bow, amazing that he’d created a situation of such trust and discipline that these white people would not only take it, they’d take it serenely like Japanese monks.
To Barton Stone Suzuki was just such a delightful person who seemed to take great pleasure in everything that was happening around him. He was often full of chuckles and Barton liked that. But he had trouble understanding him. Suzuki must have said the word "ahteetute" a thousand times in lectures before Barton realized it was "attitude." But Barton went to the lectures anyway. He loved Suzuki’s pleasure in the everyday, his earnestness, the way he’d sit there every morning if anyone came or not. Usually there were six or eight there but one morning Barton came late and Suzuki was sitting by himself on the altar. But that’s because he’d forgotten it was a nine day.
Barton had dropped out of college when he’d gotten more interested in Buddhism and poetry than the curriculum there. He’d read Dharma Bums, the Beat poets, and gone to San Francisco - a lot like Art who he became friends with. On the way he’d made the mistake of joining the National Guard but he’d just walked out on that and decided he was a pacifist. He’d gotten a room from a fellow named Lee Christianson who’d dropped out of the air force in Japan during the Korean war and had walked to India with a trunk load of books. And then Lee saw an article in the Japanese-American Citizen’s League Newspaper saying that a Reverend Suzuki was teaching at Sokoji and he checked it out and told Barton. The first time Barton went was in the middle of first attempt at a week long sesshin at Sokoji. It wasn’t a real sesshin, just extra zazen in the morning and at night and a work period for those who could stay. It was in August, 1960 and the zendo looked better than ever with the new mats in - real two inch thick tatami. Barton showed up on the third day and found out about the sesshin and jumped into it when Suzuki said he could.
He continued sitting there almost every morning, but his real passion was political action - the politics of peace. One morning he went to see off a group who were going to walk to Moscow via New York and Europe in a protest against nuclear weapons. They were called the Committee for Non-Violent Action and they included some Quakers and democratic socialists like A.J. Mustie. There were a dozen of them. A. Philip Randolph and David Dillenger were there. Barton started walking with them and he continued the day and then another and then he decided to go all they way. But first he had to go back to San Francisco, pack his room and get some clothes. And he had to say goodbye to Suzuki.
He sat the morning zazen at Sokoji and afterwards talked to him on the balcony overlooking the auditorium behind the kitchen. Barton showed Suzuki a couple of newspaper articles about the walk to Moscow and told him he was planning to go with them. He was surprised at Suzuki's response. He’d heard him discourage people from going to Japan to study Zen a number of times. Suzuki was always encouraging them to stay with him - to give him some time before they went off hitching their wagons to other stars. But he was enthusiastic about what Barton wanted to do. He was entirely supportive and gave him some green tea to take with him to give him energy when he got tired.
Art thought that it was interesting that Lee and Barton had both walked out on the Armed Forces and were still free men. Probably they just didn’t want anything to do with idealistic troublemakers. And he admired Barton for going on the peace walk. But Art was thinking of taking the opposite course. He decided he’d go into the army. He liked the Zen but he couldn’t find a job that interested him and there was no war and why not? Maybe he’d learn something. But Suzuki would surely think he was a doofus for doing so. Here Barton had received Suzuki’s blessing to make a statement for non-violence and Art was going to join the violence. But the Ruskies were bad and the Americans were good and they wouldn’t let their people walk over here. So he went to see Suzuki in his office one afternoon and told him he was thinking of joining the army.
"Oh wonderful," he said, "It’ll be good for you."
What? What about Barton? he mulled as he walked away from Sokoji on his way to the induction center. We’re going opposite directions and to him it’s like we’re the same dude - he’s so accepting. That’s his thing - acceptance. He just takes us all the way we are.
Art looked at Sokoji and recalled his fondest memory of Suzuki. It happened on a Saturday morning. Art didn’t like the work period on Saturday mornings. He was just interested in the Zen, the sitting or the lectures. He had things to do other than sweep and wipe woodwork. And he had a mixed feeling of shyness and superiority that made him uncomfortable to be with the others. He put a couple of dollars into the donation box at the top of the stairs to make another sort of contribution. People were bustling about getting their cleaning equipment together and Art sat down on the long, low padded bench to put his shoes back on. And then he saw Suzuki was sitting next to him. It gave him a strange sensation, as if Suzuki had just materialized, he’d been so silent in his approach. Just sitting next to Suzuki made Art embarrassed at his state of mind. He saw he’d been sitting on the bench feigning deep, heavy thought, but actually not knowing his tail from a hole in the ground, and then Suzuki-sensei had appeared next to him. Art still wanted to get away from the work period. And then Suzuki spoke.
"Please help, please join us. This is Buddhism too."
Right at the spot that Suzuki had first shown Art that Zen was not just sitting, but was in taking shoes off as well, he was reminding Art that it was everything he did. Art got to work.
Standing on the street corner waiting for the light to change he remembered going to the airport to see the high mucky-much abbot of Eiheiji and his entourage off. It seemed to Art like it was elegant Suzuki and a dozen scruffy beatniks and radicals not dressed at all like respectable people dressed those days. But it all seemed fine to Suzuki. They walked right out onto the blacktop and took Kohu, now in more informal traveling robes, right up to the stairs to the plane. Suzuki seemed to be totally comfortable seeing him off with a bunch of misfits - well, not all of them - Della was there and one guy had a suit on - but they were weird enough to make one wonder - and Suzuki seemed to be proud of all of them.
From the street looking down on Sokoji he pictured Suzuki inside holding the whole building up - a building filled with crazy, mixed-up people. And again, it was that quiet, strong gentleness, the inclusive presence, that non-judging, helping way of his that Art remembered. He looked down at the temple one last time and walked on.
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