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Shunryu Suzuki's English teacher, Miss Nona Ransom as found in Crooked Cucumber

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from Chapter Three - Higher Education

[pp 49-62]

Whatever the teaching may be, the teaching confronts each in accordance with the circumstances.

On a hot, muggy day in mid-July 1927, during summer vacation in his second year at college, Shunryu was on his way back to Dr. Yoshikawa's after doing some errands, when he realized he was not far from Miss Ransom's house. Nona Ransom, a striking forty-year-old woman from England, was his English teacher at Komazawa. His friend and fellow student Kundo, who lived with her, had pointed out the building to Shunryu and urged him to drop by sometime, saying she always had something cold for the intolerable afternoons. Shunryu wanted to get out of the heat, so he gathered his courage and went to Miss Ransom's. It was a formidable place, a traditional wooden house with white stucco between the beams and around the shoji, enclosed within a solid wall, and in a wealthy neighborhood in the Shibuya section of Tokyo.

     He entered the gate and decided to go to the back door, having never before approached a foreigner's house. Japanese slide open the door and make themselves known with a formal greeting from the entryway. He knew the English didn't do that—they knock or ring something—so he just called out from the back door without opening it. In a moment she appeared and most graciously invited him in to a sitting room near the kitchen. It was a fine home on the inside as well. There were chairs and a high table, a Turkish rug in the hall, and it was neat and clean—more so than many Japanese homes and temples. She asked if he'd like something to drink. Shunryu said water would be fine. She went to the kitchen and came back with cold watermelon. 

     Shunryu had been Miss Ransom's best student right from the start of his classes with her, having studied English hard for some years, and he was eager to make the most of this precious chance to learn conversation with a native speaker. There was almost no emphasis on conversation in the study of any foreign language in Japan. The main point of such learning since the gates had opened was to read technical books in order to copy foreign technology. When the political winds blew to the right, any other interest was considered almost unpatriotic. Of course there was always the need for diplomats and translators, and there was that handful of students like Shunryu who had their own goals.

     Over watermelon, Miss Ransom asked Shunryu if he might be available to assist her. She said she needed help with shopping and communicating with Japanese guests and private students. She didn't speak any Japanese and had great difficulty in communication. Shunryu tactfully pointed out that she already had Kundo and another boy living there, and they were both her English students. She said that the other boy would leave soon and that she'd like Shunryu to consider taking his place.

     Shunryu started helping Miss Ransom right away. On the first of August he moved into the room with the other boys, and soon there were only Kundo and Shunryu. Dr. Yoshikawa was sorry to see him go but knew this was an important opportunity. He would continue his support, and Shunryu would likewise keep in touch and help his sons with their English studies. After a while Kundo moved out too, leaving Shunryu alone with Miss Ransom. This meant that he was busy indeed, with his schoolwork as well as her translating and various personal needs. It had soon become clear to him why the other boys didn't stay long. She was not an easy person to be with.

She was quite strict and stubborn and she tried to force her English ways on us and on Japanese people in general. And she always had some complaint. Mostly what I had to do was listen to her complaints about Japanese people—what happened at school, what happened in the car. She was always complaining about Japan. I was the only person who would listen. But I also complained a lot to her.

     After Shunryu's many years of study with So-on, Miss Ransom was really not so hard to take. Shunryu was enthusiastic; he and Miss Ransom were close and worked well together, despite their squabbles. At first he felt his English was not adequate, but his ability to communicate progressed rapidly, especially since there was so much talking going on, much more than he was used to in Japanese company. She had an active social life, so Shunryu not only got to translate but to speak English with other foreigners from England, America, Europe, and even China.

     In that era, when a man and a woman went down the street together, it was almost always a husband with his wife walking behind him. Miss Ransom and Shunryu made a sight going down the street side by side, talking and even laughing at times. He was twenty-three that fall and she was forty. Shunryu, short among his countrymen, was four feet eleven. At almost six feet Miss Ransom was lean yet shapely, beautiful and stately, and her bowl-shaped grey hat made her seem even taller. Her nose was long and straight, her eyes round and wide, her eyebrows thick and expressive. They both walked erect, energetically, Shunryu in his uniform and she in her subdued dresses and heavy overcoat as winter set in. At first the neighbors said she had a new houseboy, but in time people said she had a live-in interpreter. 

     As they returned home, Shunryu would often be carrying her packages, just as he had done for So-on. In fact, Shunryu's relationship with Miss Ransom had a number of parallels to his early apprenticeship to So-on. They were both demanding, eccentric, ornery, and dignified; his life revolved around theirs; they had knowledge he wanted; and, despite their faults, he loved them. But there were differences. Miss Ransom treated Shunryu much more like an equal. She was direct and opinionated but let him speak his mind as well. She was still his teacher, landlady, and employer, and he treated her with a level of respect that satisfied her proper British standards. But he could never have talked back to So-on the way he did to her.

     Shunryu was incurably curious, and Miss Ransom was quite forthcoming about her life. He learned a great deal more about her than he ever had about anyone else. She was the ninth child, born in Bedford, England, on October 5, 1887. Before coming to Japan she had spent three years in Tientsin in northern China, teaching at the grammar school for the British concession. She also tutored privately. Among her students were the children of the president of China, Li Yua Hung, and those of Shigeru Yoshida, the Japanese consul. It was through Yoshida that further doors began to open for Miss Ransom. When the former emperor of China, Pu Yi, and his wife, Wan Jung, fled the Japanese legation in Peking in 1925 and escaped to Tientsin, Yoshida arranged for Miss Ransom to be companion and English teacher to the former empress and subsequently to the former emperor as well.

     Through Yoshida, Miss Ransom came to Japan in 1927 and moved into a house that his parents owned. There she taught at three colleges. She was also the "Teacher of the English Language and Foreign Etiquette under the Imperial Household." Among her students was Jiro Kano, the founder of modern judo and president of the school attended by members of the royal family.

     One day Miss Ransom asked Shunryu to buy some large daffodil bulbs. When she saw what he got, she said, "These are too small, get me some big ones." So he looked all over the Shibuya section of Tokyo, going to several florists, and buying the biggest bulbs he could find. Still she wasn't satisfied. That got him angry. He came back later with a bag and told her, "I got some very big daffodil bulbs, here they are." Then he got scared and sneaked away. She was quite pleased until she opened the bag and smelled them. "These are onions!" He knew she detested onions. She started shouting and searching the large house for him. Then he burst out laughing in his hiding place, and she came at him with the onions held high. He ran up the stairs with her chasing after him, but he was faster and went to the roof and hid.

One kind word can turn over all of heaven and earth.

On days when Shunryu's classes were over early enough and Miss Ransom was not busy, they would have high tea in her sitting room. He learned about her youth and studies in England, Belgium, and France, of her graduate work in education at the Bedford Froebel Training College, where she became head of the Preparatory School, of her ten years as form mistress at the Edinburgh Institute in Scotland, and of her decision to go to China at the age of thirty-seven.

     She was particularly fond of her memories of the young empress, Wan Jung, Beautiful Countenance, a lovely though tragic figure. She had married Pu Yi at fourteen, just one year older than his second wife, and when only sixteen she had latched onto Miss Ransom as a pillar of sanity in her bizarre and treacherous circumstances. A picture of the empress stood atop a chest in the corner of the sitting room.

     Shunryu was curious about Miss Ransom's approach to Christianity, a subject which he knew little about. Christianity was said to be like Amida Buddhism, more faith oriented relying on "other power" as opposed to the "self power" of Zen. Christians were generally respected in Japan as sincere and devoted to good works. Jesuits in Tokyo had founded the first university in Japan, and some of them had a keen interest in Rinzai Zen. Japanese Christians had known periods of persecution and favor, but they never made as much progress as Christians in China and Korea. Miss Ransom had no respect for Catholicism or Buddhism.

     She had been born into a Quaker family. Theirs was a simple, straightforward approach to truth without many of the common forms of religion, since Quakers use no statues or images of God or Jesus and refuse to recognize any tie between state and religious authority, such as the taking of oaths.

     Quakers are pacifists, and though Miss Ransom taught the children of generals, she was not fond of the militaristic trappings of governments in the East or West. She did not like the increasing role of the Japanese military that she had seen in northern China, where they had ostensibly come to guard the train lines. She especially resented suggestions by certain high officials that she might be able to use her sway with ex-emperor Pu Yi to Japan's benefit. But she said little about all this; she merely rose above it and set out to do what good she could.

After her years in China and Japan, Miss Ransom was convinced that Buddhism was a cult of idol worship, worthy of no more than a passing glance for the sake of a better understanding of history and culture. She visited sacred buildings and was quite taken by the architecture and art, the gardens and sculpture, but she shook her head when she saw believers bowing and making offerings before statues. It bothered her slightly that her houseboy was to be a priest of one of these temples. It created an uncomfortable gap between them. And then there was her statue of the Buddha.

     In Japan, outdoor shoes customarily go on a wooden rack just inside the front door, before the step up into the house proper, where the indoor slippers are. Shoes or zori never touch the floors of the interior. The surface outside is dirty, outside shoes are dirty. Inside floors and slippers are clean. The two do not mix.

     The statue was in the sitting room, a small attractive space with tatami floors and smooth clay walls between dark brown wooden posts. Extending half the length of the wall opposite the entrance was an alcove called the tokonoma. The statue sat in the tokonoma. The tokonoma is in some ways the center of a Japanese home; it is not an altar, but a nook on the floor for a flower arrangement in a treasured vase, possibly a special stone or an antique, and a hanging scroll. The tokonoma is the family's aesthetic altar to nature, art, and wisdom. Miss Ransom hung no scroll in her tokonoma, nor did she include any vase of flowers. Instead, on a stone pedestal, there was a beautiful foot-high carved Buddha statue. She made clear to Shunryu that this sitting Buddha figure was there solely for its aesthetic and sentimental values and not for any religious purposes. It had been a gift to her from Pu Yi.

     Miss Ransom kept her shoes in the tokonoma as well—right next to the statue. Shunryu told himself that she was not a Buddhist and it didn't matter, but still it was hard for him to take. It embarrassed him when she'd come home from school and slip off her shoes and put them right next to the Buddha.

     One morning, before he went to school, Shunryu quietly entered the sitting room where Miss Ransom sat drinking her black tea and cream. He had some tea too, hot green tea in a small Japanese cup. He held it carefully with both hands but did not sit down with Miss Ransom to drink it. Instead, he lifted it above his eyes and then placed it softly before the Buddha, bowed in gassho—a standing bow with palms together—and left the room as quietly as he'd entered. This is what he would later call the beginning of the cold war.

     Weeks passed, and every morning Shunryu would offer tea and bow to the statue of Buddha. Miss Ransom at first just watched him, but increasingly she expressed amusement and began to tease him. He didn't try to explain himself, and she didn't ask him to. They were getting along fine in terms of shopping and meals, but the cold war persisted.

     Miss Ransom would tell her guests about her houseboy's strange behavior toward the Buddha statue and the shoes next to it. The shoes were always straight, as they were in Japanese entryways, and he lined them up from the left so that they'd be as far from the Buddha as space would allow. "Shunryu's being a very naughty little boy," she said, pointing out a cup of tea before the statue. Her guests would join in the ridicule, not realizing how much he understood. Often he would find newly placed cigarette butts, burned matches, and used toothpicks lying in the Buddha's hands. He did not remove them but continued his practice of offering tea and, at times, incense.

     Meanwhile, he also prepared for the hot war, the war of words, which he knew was to come. He pondered skillful means and took to studying English in his room with increased concentration. He sought help from a professor of Buddhism at Komazawa, with whom he worked out translations of basic technical terms. He made a list. In particular, he studied the vocabulary that might explain to a Westerner what Buddhism was and why Buddhists make offerings to statues.

     For the first three hundred or so years, Buddhism had had no physical representation of Buddha. The Greek-influenced artisans who stayed behind at Gandhara in present-day Afghanistan after Alexander's push into India made some of the first known Buddhist icons with a human image. The idea caught on.

     It might seem easier to explain Buddhism without having to justify any particular forms or practices. Dogen wrote that offering incense is a good practice but not necessary, that only zazen is necessary to follow the way. But instead of saying something like, "Oh it's just a piece of wood," as some early masters had said, Shunryu would not deny the statue, but included it as part of his practice and as a way to get through to Miss Ransom. He savored the opportunity to communicate but didn't make a move.

     Miss Ransom and her friends continued to tease him; he ignored them. He knew that her curiosity was mounting and that eventually there would come a chance to explain what Buddhism is. One rainy morning in the sitting room, after several weeks of cold war, the moment he had waited for arrived. Shunryu and Miss Ransom had no classes or appointments and no desire to leave the comfortable protection of her roof and walls. As she sat sipping her tea, a silence came over her and she sighed, lost in thought.

     "Tell me something please, Shunryu. Please tell me why on earth you worship that Buddha statue. You seem like a reasonable young man and you are obviously sincere, but I just cannot understand what you find so compelling in this superstitious nonsense."

     So he told her why he related to the statue with such respect, and he told her about Shakyamuni Buddha and buddhahood. He said that such a statue reminds us that the way is everywhere, and that we ourselves are buddha, so that when we offer incense to the statue we are recognizing our own true nature, the true nature of all that is. The nature of our existence is not something we can know or remember so easily. Buddha is not a god or a being who can be easily described.

You can't put your finger on what buddha is, but Buddhism does have various teachings. There is, for instance, the teaching about the three bodies of buddha: the sublime, indescribable Dharmakaya Buddha, beyond any particular experience, the first principle of religion; the Sambhogakaya Buddha, the subtle body of rapture or grace, the fruit of practice; and the Nirmanakaya Buddha, the historical person who awakened under the bodhi tree. He was a person just like everyone else, who attained something wonderful that is possible for others to attain—women and men.

     Maybe these aspects of buddha have something in common with the Christian concepts of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, he explained. But to understand these bodies of buddha, or to deeply know ourselves, it isn't helpful to think about it too much. That's why Buddhists apply themselves wholeheartedly to experience direct insight of the truth through meditation and other mindful practices like chanting and offering incense or tea to a statue of a buddha.

     Miss Ransom was amazed. It was not at all what she had expected. She thanked him for his explanation and praised his command of English. She said she'd had no idea that there was such profundity in Buddhism, such realization of the divinity of the individual. She was not only affected by Shunryu's explanation, but was also impressed with his composure in the delivery.

     After that there was no more teasing. Miss Ransom became very quiet for a few days. Then one afternoon, Shunryu walked into the sitting room and saw that the shoes were gone from the tokonoma, and there was a fine arrangement of flowers by the wooden Buddha statue. She asked if he would tell her more about Buddhism and explain Buddhist practice. He showed her how he would clean the tokonoma, and together they went out and got some candles, incense, and an incense bowl, even a little bell, and they turned the tokonoma into an altar. He taught her how to sit zazen. She made the acquaintance of Buddhist professors at Komazawa who could speak some English and she set about studying Buddhism. Shunryu studied English all the harder and was pleased at what had happened. They were freely trading in the knowledge of their respective religious traditions. The wall between them had fallen, and she'd come walking through the opening.

     This affair of the Buddha statue was momentous for Suzuki, literally changing the course of his life. He would later call it the turning point of his life. He had seen that Miss Ransom's total ignorance of Buddhism, her beginner's mind, was not an obstacle, but had made it possible for her to understand more clearly. He talked to Miss Ransom about his dream to go abroad, admitting that he had become fairly disgusted with the state of Buddhism and the attitude of many priests in Japan.

I felt very good. I developed some confidence in our teaching and in the thought that I could help Western people understand Buddhism. For Japanese people it is pretty difficult to study Buddhism in its true sense, because the tradition has been so often mistaken and misunderstood. It is difficult to change misunderstandings once we have them. But for people who don't know anything about Buddhism, it's like painting on white paper. It is much easier to give them the right understanding. I think that the experience I had with Miss Ransom resulted in my coming to America.

Moment after moment, completely devote yourself
to listening to your inner voice.

There was a Western-style rattan bed and chair at Zoun-in especially purchased for Miss Ransom's visits. Shunryu would take her to Rinso-in as well. The monks got to know the English lady, as did all the people in the villages of Mori below Zoun-in and Takakusa below Rinso-in. A foreigner in those parts was a distinct oddity. Their relationship was the first thing people would mention when Shunryu-san's name came up. The second was his absentmindedness. Sometimes the two qualities came together. The first time Shunryu took Miss Ransom to Rinso-in he left her luggage at the Yaizu station and had to take the commercial horse-drawn buggy back five miles to get it. As Shunryu rode off, So-on called out to him as he had so often in the past, "Oh, this forgetful boy! What can we do about him?"

     So-on knew just what to do about Shunryu. He gave him a lot more to keep track of by passing Zoun-in on to him, this time officially. On January 22, 1929, at the age of twenty-four, Shunryu was installed by So-on as the twenty-eighth abbot of Zoun-in in the Mountain Seat Ceremony. The evening before there was a ceremony in which So-on stepped down, and the next day Shunryu ascended the mountain seat and assumed the title of jushoku, abbot. Sogaku would continue to run the temple, now for his son rather than for So-on. Through years of effort, Shunryu had regained for his father his lost temple. It had been possible only because that wasn't Shunryu's main goal.

In Tokyo, Shunryu continued to be immersed in his dual life as a college student and Miss Ransom's companion. Her interest in Buddhism continued, but not to the exclusion of her many other pursuits such as art, socializing, and arguing with Shunryu. Then one April day while the cherry trees were blooming, something happened to Shunryu that made him decide to move back into the dorm.  

This was brought home to me the day I went to the Turkish embassy on some business for Miss Ransom. I was speaking in English with an assistant to the ambassador, and as I looked at him the thought came: Maybe someday I shall be like you. This scared me. If I stay with Miss Ransom, will I become an ambassador and not a priest?

     He went home and told Miss Ransom that it would be best for his studies if he moved out for his last year at Komazawa University. Miss Ransom sadly acquiesced. On May 30, 1929, Shunryu moved into a Komazawa dorm.

One day Shunryu and several other monk students went to the docks of Yokohama harbor to see off a priest named Daito Suzuki, who was leaving for Los Angeles. There he would assist Hosen Isobe-roshi, the founder of Zenshuji, a temple for Japanese-Americans. Isobe had plans to start another temple in San Francisco, and Daito would eventually take charge of Zenshuji. Most Japanese could not understand why anyone, especially a Buddhist priest, would want to leave Japan, but Shunryu and his friends greeted Daito with enthusiasm. To this little group of Komazawa students, his departure was heroic. When the ship pulled out, the young monks on the dock cheered, and tears streamed down Shunryu's face. Thirty years later Shunryu and Daito's paths would cross again, and again memorably, though their roles at the time would be quite different.

On January 14, 1930, an important public ceremony for Shunryu at Zoun-in, called ten'e, acknowledged Shunryu Suzuki's dharma transmission from So-on. For Miss Ransom he defined it as "public determination and consent from the Soto-shu to be a chief priest and to teach Zen." A special brown robe was handed down to him by So-on in the incense- and flower-filled main hall. Short recitations were interspersed with longer recitations chanted and mumbled by attending priests and punctuated by bells and drums.

     This final ten'e ceremony gave Shunryu-san institutional credentials. The whole community turned out for this big occasion, as did Miss Ransom, Dr. Yoshikawa's family, friends from school, and various priests and teachers he'd studied with. The next day he left by train for the two head temples of the Soto school, Eiheiji and Sojiji, for ceremonies in which he was honorary abbot of each for a day. This was the last of the ceremonies between So-on and Shunryu. His father would continue to be acting abbot while Shunryu finished his studies. That could go on indefinitely as far as Shunryu was concerned; he had other things in mind. Sogaku was old but still in good health, and his dharma brothers and fellow disciples of So-on, Kendo and Soko, would occasionally come from Rinso-in to help him.

At the late age of twenty-five, on April 10, 1930, Shunryu graduated from Komazawa University, second in his class, in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, with a minor in English. His graduate thesis, written under his academic advisor and the school's president, Nukariya Kaiten, focused on the relationship between master and disciple, as discussed by Dogen in an essay of the Shobogenzo emphasizing submission to the master. (It is called the Raihai tokozui, a chapter in which Dogen also forcefully asserts the equality of women.) In his thesis Shunryu leaned toward Nukariya's "religious experience" point of view rather than Buddhism as philosophy. Another key professor whose instruction influenced Shunryu's thesis was Sokuo Eto, an eminent Shobogenzo scholar who emphasized an open-minded approach to study integrated with zazen and Buddhist practice. Eto had been a classmate of So-on's, and they had studied together with Oka Sotan. Like many of Shunryu's professors, he was also a priest with a temple back home, and, like Nukariya, he emphasized religion over philosophy, direct experience over systemization.

     Not long after he graduated from college, Shunryu was honored with another credential that he greatly valued. On the recommendation of Shundo Tachibana, a dean of the school, he received government certification to be, as he translated it, "a Teacher of the English Language and Ethical Conduct for High School Boys," a respected and almost professorial status, since high schools then were roughly equivalent to today's junior colleges.

     Shunryu, now finished with his formal education, had moved his books and wardrobe from the Komazawa dorm to Zoun-in. But he did not want to settle down there. He had bigger ideas. When So-on came to Zoun-in, Shunryu asked if they could speak. He'd been building up his courage for this encounter. Shunryu described his experience with Miss Ransom and what it had meant to him. He described seeing Daito Suzuki off at Yokohama harbor. So-on listened silently. Then Shunryu got to the point. He suggested that he too go abroad to teach Buddhism. Anywhere, it didn't matter where—say, America.

     "No!" So-on replied.

     "How about Hawaii?"


     "Hokkaido?" The northern island of Japan was a kind of frontier, and there were a lot of foreigners in Sapporo who wouldn't know about Buddhism.


     Shunryu persevered for too long. So-on became infuriated. "Here!" he yelled, smashing his fist on the table. It was just one word, with some percussion, but his anger filled volumes.

He was so furious. I knew there must be some reason why. And I knew that he loved me very much, so I gave up my notion of going abroad. I completely gave up my idea of going to America. 


Ch 4 Great Root Monasteries [1930-32]

Pp 73-4 

[Shunryu is at the large 800 year old monastery Eiheiji.]

In the spring Miss Ransom arrived to follow a modified program for lay practitioners. After initial resistance to her presence had subsided, she was accepted by the monks, who were impressed with her stamina and decorum. Shunryu was naturally put in charge of her, since no one else could speak English, and once again everyone was struck by the figures of the diminutive monk and his tall foreign lady friend. She brought photos from her visits to Korea, where she had stayed at temples with Shunryu's monk friend Sugioka, who had become her houseboy after Shunryu left. Shunryu showed her the trees he'd trimmed around the grounds and the gardens he'd worked in and brought her to tea with Kishizawa-roshi. In the summer Shunryu took off from Eiheiji and spent a month at Zoun-in. Miss Ransom joined him, staying mostly at a large nearby temple named Kasuisai. As always, wherever she went with Shunryu, it was usually everyone's first experience with a Westerner. And she made quite an impression.

     "Don't do that! You shouldn't do that!" Miss Ransom said to Shunryu's sister Aiko as she brought in bowls and platters of food stacked precariously upon one another. They wouldn't carry dishes that way in England or at Eiheiji. She disapproved of serving sake at the dinner table, and she chided Sogaku for smoking, saying that good Christian ministers neither smoked nor drank. Aiko did not know what to make of this domineering woman, but she had gotten used to her visits. She wondered if all foreign women were as bold as this. Shunryu respected Miss Ransom's opinions on these matters but not her righteousness. He didn't get into an argument with her, however, for she would soon return to China, and this was no time for tempers to flare up.

     When they parted, Shunryu gave Miss Ransom a scroll, and she gave him the old mah-jongg set with big tiles that they had so often played with in his college days. She said she would always keep what she had learned from him of Buddhism, and she admonished him to continue his study of English. He said that her bed with the long white silk futon and her rattan sofa would remain at his temple waiting for her return. He would miss her greatly.

After she went back to Tientsin she sent me a picture of the same Buddha who had caused trouble between us. She had enshrined the Buddha in the wall where there was an alcove, and she said she was offering incense every day.


Ch. 5 Temple Priest

p. 81

[probably 1932]


Things are always changing, so nothing can be yours.

Even though Buddhist priests had been getting married since the previous century, it was still controversial. When Shunryu's parents were married, it was legal for priests to do so, but the prohibition against women being lodged in temples was still part of the Soto regulations when he was born at Shoganji. The teachers in Shunryu's dharma lineage didn't get married: neither Nishiari, Oka, nor Kishizawa. Though So-on had not officially married, Shunryu considered Yoshi to be So-on's wife. So to Shunryu, both his father and his master were married. As the Japanese say, "The child of a frog is a frog." And so, soon after he had settled down in Zoun-in, it was arranged for Shunryu to get married. The young woman selected shared Shunryu's interest in English and had even studied with Miss Ransom before her return to China. It seemed likely to be a good union.

     Not long after they were married though, Shunryu's new wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was hospitalized, and it was hoped that she would recover as he had six years earlier. With the passage of time, though, it became clear that she was not improving and would not be able to fulfill her duties as temple wife, nor could she receive proper care at Zoun-in. There was a stigma attached to having had tuberculosis, even if one recovered, because people were afraid they'd catch it. With much sadness Shunryu and his wife agreed to an annulment. She went back to the home of her parents, where she could be well looked after. He wanted to take care of her but was bound by duty—as a priest first, a family man last. He would seldom speak of this wife. Her name and the dates of the marriage are forgotten.


p. 82 [brief mention of Ransom here just means she moved back to China and Suzuki missed her]

     The loss of Miss Ransom and his wife and the deaths of both his father and his master gave meaning to the age-old Buddhist teachings that everything changes and life is suffering.



In the Year of the Rabbit, 1939, a son was born. At Shunryu's request, the abbot of Bairin-in gave him a name—Hoitsu, Embracing Oneness. Later that year Chie and the children moved from Zoun-in in Mori to Yaizu, where they stayed with the Kogas. Soon Shunryu's family was living with him at Rinso-in, but getting them into the temple had taken more time than prevailing in the struggle for the abbot's position. The only things they brought with them were Miss Ransom's futon, rattan sofa, and chair—brought in hope that she might come back from China for a visit.


Chapter Six - Wartime


[All of chapter 6 also available on here]



We should know our tendencies.

In 1940 Miss Ransom wrote to Shunryu Suzuki that she could no longer stay in Tientsin. The Japanese army had taken control, the British were not on good terms with the new administration, and she would return to England. After Japan had occupied Manchuria and set up a government in 1932 with Pu Yi as the puppet emperor, the army had set its sights on the rest of China and Southeast Asia. They had methodically swept to victory on many fronts, although America, England, and Holland had established a boycott to try to force Japan to back down. Japanese airplanes had been bombing cities, and a Japanese newspaper, the Asahi Shinbun, reported on a massacre of civilians in Nanking. The war in Europe was raging; there was talk that Japan might break its neutrality and align itself with Germany. The political parties were dead, and totalitarians had taken almost complete charge in Tokyo. In the schools, imperial myths and propaganda were taking the place of literature and history.


Ch. 7 – The Occupation


On December 31, 1945, the temple was buzzing with enthusiastic preparation for the New Year. Tori's family was back in Tokyo. Chie's mother, Kinu Muramatsu, had moved in, and she, her daughter, and a group of danka wives were making the best meal they could come up with. In the buddha hall, cards were passed out for people to chant a chapter of the Prajna Paramita Sutra. All night mochi was pounded, sake was sipped, and songs were sung. All week long they had cleaned the temple and thrown away what was worn out and not of use—Miss Ransom's chair, which the children had jumped on till it was beyond repair, old newspapers, magazines, and some offensive wartime books.

     It was a time to pay debts, and with the help of the danka the family paid off what they could. They decorated and made offerings at the altar. This was New Year celebrated as it hadn't been for a long time. People were still depressed from the war, but Shunryu felt this week of rejuvenation would help lift them up together.


Ch 8 – Family and Death

p. 152

     In many ways Shunryu had a full and useful life, but it wasn't fulfilling enough for him. He could not be satisfied unless he was practicing and teaching the way of the many great teachers he had met and studied with. He had to pay his debt of gratitude to them, pass on the torch he had received, and engage with people in a deeper way. He started to get irritated at the way people would say "Hi Hojo-san!" when he rode by on his bicycle. It made him feel marginalized and meaningless, exchanging greetings with no real relationship. Just as when he lived with Miss Ransom, he again saw himself drifting off course. He had become the temple priest he didn't want to be—busy with many responsibilities yet coasting along, with life going by, stuck in Yaizu.

The idea of going abroad was always in my heart, even though I'd given up. I thought I'd given up, but I hadn't.


Ch. 12 – Sangha

pp. 223-4

Suzuki still had no particular plan, but he had high hopes for planting dharma seeds in America and for developing a mutually beneficial exchange with Japan. In March 1962 there had been a farewell party for Jean Ross, before she left for Japan. Jean was his second student to go to Eiheiji—the first being Nona Ransom.


Ch. 13 – Journeys

pp. 230-1

     In July of 1963 Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist, burned himself to death to protest the escalating war there. His death brought to light the horrors of the conflict in Vietnam. On July 28 there was a memorial service for Quang Duc at Sokoji. The Wind Bell reported: "A Vietnamese student addressed the congregation. A letter from Zen Center members is being sent urging the United States government to take action in preventing further persecution of Buddhists in South Vietnam." No one could forget the image of the monk sitting zazen, burning, falling over, and then righting himself while in flames to sit straight, then falling a final time.

     In October Rosen Takashina, abbot of Eiheiji, came to San Francisco as part of a worldwide tour for peace. He slept in Otohiro's apartment on Miss Ransom's silk futon, which Suzuki had brought  with him from Japan. At Sokoji Takashina-roshi conducted a service for world peace. Suzuki was happy to see that world peace was now part of Soto Zen's agenda. But it would have been even better, he said, if they had not supported the militarists so enthusiastically in the thirties and forties.


Ch. 14 – Taking Root

p. 279

Seeing the endless work that had to be done, Suzuki realized he needed the help of his senior disciples. Jean was already around. Claude came back from Rinso-in, and Philip would not go assist the Vermont group. He also wrote to Grahame in England praising him for his accomplishments in Japan, mentioning how highly he'd been spoken of at Eiheiji and Antaiji. Now Suzuki wanted him back.

     "When I returned I found San Francisco quite a different place, more active than before. It is so nice and warm here. Please tell your mother-in-law to come back here." He asked Grahame to write to the monk Kobun Chino in Japan to make sure he was coming over to help, as they had discussed. "I think we should concentrate on this project right now, because we have announced it all over America and Japan. In England some people know about it already too. Especially if we fail, Japanese people will not trust us anymore. So for me now the Tassajara Project is a matter of vital concern. I want you to come back to San Francisco as soon as possible."

     Suzuki further appealed to Grahame by writing out a quote from the first brochure, turning its intent toward Grahame:

The establishment of a Zen monastery in the wilderness area near Carmel Valley is an important event in the history of religion in America. You are urged to join this oldest of ventures—the establishment of a community for the cultivation of the spirit. Only your support will make it possible.

                 Paul Lee, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Santa Cruz

     Grahame couldn't come back right away. He had taken a year's lease on an apartment and had a job. Why hadn't Suzuki asked him when they were in Japan? He could have arranged for a one-month visit to England. Grahame now had a zendo, where people came and sat with him. A disciple of Soen Nakagawa was helping him. So he'd have to be there at least a year. Suzuki was disappointed. He wrote again to Grahame: "Please send my best regards to your wife and children and mother-in-law. Pauline's drawing of the rock garden at Rinso-in is so real to me that I hang it in my bedroom." He sent the name and address of an old friend to look up, "my old teacher of English when I was at Komazawa University, Miss Nona Ransom." 


Ch. 16 – The City

P. 332

[concerning Peter Schneider's interviews with Suzuki -see Shunryu on Shunryu]

Suzuki's omissions in recalling his life were notable. He hardly mentioned his family. He talked about how his second and third marriages were opposed by some Rinso-in members, referring to them as his first and second marriages. He never wanted to talk about his past unless he thought it would help in some way. It was unimportant, private, and sometimes embarrassing.

     What Suzuki enjoyed talking about most was Nona Ransom. When Peter asked about her, Suzuki started laughing and said, "I must tell you about Miss Ransom. She was my old, old girlfriend." He said she gave him the confidence to teach Westerners. She had died, and he was sad about it. He regretted that for the past few years he hadn't answered her letters.

I thought it might be all right not to write her, but that was my mistake. She passed away last year. I trusted her very much and she trusted me so much, so I thought whether I wrote to her or not didn't make much difference. But now I don't know. As long as she was alive it seemed all right. Now I regret a little not writing to her.


Ch. 17 – One and Many

pp. 348-351

Sometimes I'm the teacher and you're the student, and
sometimes you're the teacher and I'm the student.

A voice called from outside Suzuki's door in polished Japanese, "Ojama shimasu" (Excuse me for bothering you). Suzuki opened the door and sighed a delighted "ahhhh." Finally his old student Grahame Petchey had made it to Tassajara. Grahame entered the cabin and they talked as Suzuki poured hot water from a thermos into a teapot. Grahame congratulated Suzuki on the marvel of his American monastery and on the wonderful new building in San Francisco.

     It was June of 1970, and they hadn't met since the fall of 1966 at Rinso-in, before the Petcheys went to England. Grahame's life had continued to take its own course. He and Pauline had gone back to Japan after a year. In 1967 Suzuki had again tried to get him to come back to Zen Center, but again he was too late. Grahame had written back saying he'd come if Suzuki wanted him to break a two-year contract with a firm that had hired him to start an English-language school in Japan. The last correspondence Grahame received from Suzuki in England was a telegram that simply said, "I agree with your plan to go to Japan."

     Grahame had been living in Tokyo and running the school for over two years. He continued to have a relationship with Uchiyama in Kyoto, but his life was now that of a businessman. That night in the zendo Grahame gave a talk about the old days at Sokoji and studying Zen in Japan. Only a few of the oldest students had ever met him. To the rest it was a treat to see and hear the almost legendary first Westerner whom Suzuki had personally ordained, the one who first incorporated Zen Center, Richard's old dharma brother. People wondered why he'd stayed away and if there was a chance he would return.

     The next day Grahame and Suzuki talked about Miss Ransom. In 1967 Grahame had looked her up in England at Suzuki's suggestion, and he'd taken to visiting her every week or so. Pauline and the children also met her. Pauline said Miss Ransom reminded her of Katharine Hepburn—tall, thin, and elegant, with shoulder-length hair. She liked the way Miss Ransom teased Grahame for being so well-dressed and proper in his black suit—she said he looked like a Mormon missionary, except for his shaved head. Ransom had been amazed to see the fund-raising brochures for Tassajara and to hear about what her old English student had done. "That little monk has gone off and opened a monastery in the West?" she said to Grahame. "I just can't believe it." Often when Grahame visited, he would hear new stories about her times with that little monk in the late twenties. She told him about the Buddha statue and how that experience had led her to respect Buddhism. The statue had been damaged and was no more.

     In his letters to Suzuki, Grahame sent word of Miss Ransom, his zendo, and his family. In the fall of 1967, Suzuki had planned to
visit the Petcheys and Miss Ransom in England after a trip to the East Coast, but he got too busy with Tassajara and canceled at the last minute. It was a disappointment to all of them. Miss Ransom wrote to her former houseboy, translator, and mentor of Buddhism. Suzuki replied through Zen Center's secretary, Yvonne. Ransom was outraged by this, and Grahame sympathized. She sent an angry letter back telling Suzuki to write to her himself; she didn't care how bad his English or his handwriting was. He could put it on a postcard, but he must never write to her again through a secretary! Suzuki stopped answering her letters. It upset Miss Ransom a great deal and Grahame as well.

     In her old age she had become a more devout Quaker and regularly went to meetings at the local Friends' Hall. She was known in England not for her experiences in Japan but for her relationship with the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, and his wife, Wan Jung. She had been interviewed on the BBC about Pu Yi and Wan Jung, and there had been some newspaper articles about her. In 1969, her eighty-second year, she passed away of emphysema, going peacefully while holding on to a photograph of the young empress.

     Grahame had brought some things that Miss Ransom wanted passed on to Suzuki. There was some sixteen-millimeter motion picture footage that she took of him in the garden of Zoun-in in 1930, and a dark brown cup made from a special clay found in her native Somerset. With the cup was a card sending her greetings and asking him to please write. Suzuki put the card to his forehead and placed it carefully on the low table. He picked up the cup with two hands and examined it carefully, as is done in tea ceremony.

     "Please explain something to me," Grahame said earnestly. "Miss Ransom told me so much about the two of you, how close you were, and she always spoke of you with such affection. How could you have written to her through a secretary and then stopped writing her altogether? How could you not respond to her letters? By British standards, that was very rude, especially to a lady of her age and class. I cannot understand it."

     "The reason I didn't respond," Suzuki replied, "was that she asked me questions about our past and wanted to check on dates. I was afraid she wanted to write a book about the period of her life when I knew her."

     Grahame was flabbergasted. She had never even written a book about her experiences in China!

     Grahame said he had agreed to do some work and excused himself. He put on work clothes and joined a crew digging a ditch. Suzuki's attendant came to Grahame after about thirty minutes and said Suzuki would like to see him again. Grahame said that he had agreed to do this work and would continue to work. They never discussed Miss Ransom again.


Ch. 19 - Final Season: Autumn

p. 387

  And then Shunryu Suzuki, sipping water from the cup Miss Ransom gave him, concluded his last public lecture by saying:

To solve our human problem doesn't cover all of Buddhist practice, and we don't know how long it takes for us to make the buddha trip. We have many trips: work trips, space trips, the various trips we must have. The buddha trip is a very long trip. This is Buddhism. Thank you very much.


from Acknowledgements

p. 418

Harry Ransom Rose for generously answering so many questions about his adoptive mother, Nona Ransom; Grahame Petchey, Hideko Petchey, Mark Petchey, and Pauline Petchey for all sorts of help

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