Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber
Bob Halpern cuke page
More and more people were showing up at Sokoji who had prior experience with Zen practice. One such person was Bob Halpern, an intense young man with thick brown hair reaching down to his shoulders. Bob sat facing Suzuki in his office, cluttered with knickknacks, books, stones, and plants. A large, old-fashioned clock on a shelf chimed the hour. Suzuki patted the bronze heads on a statue of three monkeys. Their hands were covering their eyes, ears, and mouth. "They are my favorites," he said, imitating each monkey as he chuckled and recited, "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Then he added, "What can I do for you?"
Bob said that he had sat for a year with the Rinzai teacher Joshu Sasaki-roshi in L.A. He had just completed a sesshin in Mill Valley with Yasutani-roshi, at which Maezumi-sensei translated. Yasutani was the Soto priest who used koans in the Rinzai fashion and who emphasized pushing oneself hard in sesshin to have an awakening experience, whether concentrating on a koan or just sitting zazen. Yasutani was giving sesshins on the West Coast and had attracted a following, partly due to the success of Philip Kapleau's new book, The Three Pillars of Zen, which told a great deal about zazen, koan work, and Yasutani's brand of Zen. People at the sesshin had mentioned Suzuki, so Bob dropped by Sokoji. "What sort of practice do you have here?" he asked, self-consciously feeling the need to say something.
Suzuki explained the schedule at Sokoji—daily sitting, a weekend sesshin every other month, and the seven-day sesshin in August. He told Bob that some students, especially Richard Baker, were interested in finding a practice place in the countryside. "I think everything is just fine in the city the way it is going. People are practicing pretty well here, but if that is their wish, I'll do it. They want it to be a place for men and women to practice together," Suzuki told him. "We don't do it that way in Japan, but this is America."
Bob eyed Suzuki while he talked. He seemed to be the opposite of Yasutani, who was fierce and yelled a lot during sesshin. Suzuki was younger but seemed sedate, ordinary, even frail in comparison. He didn't have a gruff samurai-type voice, but was gentle and soft-spoken. He leaned back in the office chair, hands clasped behind his head and legs crossed like a woman. Bob thought he was a very nice man but didn't think he could be a real Zen teacher.
Later, in L.A. for a meeting of Japanese Soto priests in America, Suzuki accepted a dinner invitation from Maezumi. Bob was there. He had sold his business, the Satori Bookshop on Sunset Strip, and was living with Maezumi and helping him establish a new center in his living room. Bob sat bolt upright and kept quiet, trying to make a good impression. Maezumi served a dish with rice, meat, and vegetables, and Bob was careful not to take any meat. He was a fanatic vegetarian and thought of it as an important part of Buddhism, both in terms of not killing animals and for encouraging a peaceful state of mind. Suzuki was running into this sort of thinking more and more.
"Oh, you don't eat meat?" said Suzuki to him.
"Sometimes I eat meat," said Bob.
"Sometimes I eat rice," said Suzuki.
This seemingly inconsequential exchange ate away at Bob. Suzuki had immediately seen his point of greatest attachment and poked him there. It would not be the last time.
Tassajara for the first practice period, and Suzuki came down from San Francisco for a week to join his young, hard-working students. He followed the schedule, sitting zazen early, doing physical labor during the days—stonework, sweeping, and cleaning. In the evenings he'd lecture, and there would be questions. A lot of the discussion had to do with the demands of the new round-the-clock communal situation.
Bob Halpern's hand shot up at the end of Suzuki's first lecture. Bob had been coming up from L.A. to the August sesshins at Sokoji for a couple of years, and now he was at Tassajara. Bob was always trying to be a model student, fanatically attempting to do everything right, and tripping over himself in the process. Suzuki had a soft spot for him because of his enthusiasm and mischievousness.
Bob asked if it might not be good for Tassajara to have more rules, like monasteries in Japan. For instance, people were using the baths outside the scheduled time, and there was a lot of talking going on there. Like an amoeba dividing, the room polarized. There were serious nods and exasperated exhalations.
"Yes, rules are important," Suzuki said. "And if there are rules you should just follow them. But if there is no rule you don't necessarily have to make one." He paused. "Hmmm … yes … rules … good … we need some rules." Then he looked around with a twinkle in his eye and fixed on the corner of the room. "Ah, see that broom over there? It's standing on its bristles. That's not so good for the broom. The bristles will bend, and it won't work so well or last so long. It's better to rest the broom on the handle. There—that's a good rule."
I was there that evening, and I've always thought of this as the first rule of Tassajara.
The next evening during his lecture Suzuki talked about the baths. He said he appreciated people's youthful sense of freedom and was glad to see how comfortable they were with each other in the baths. On the other hand, he said that in a Zen monastery the baths are one of the three silent places, along with the zendo and the toilet. The atmosphere of the baths should be more like that of the zendo than the courtyard, where we say hi to each other and drink tea and coffee. In a monastery, he said, the baths are second only to the zendo as a place for zazen, and it would be best to reduce the distractions there by being silent and having men and women bathe separately. At the time there was mixed nude bathing, which nearly everyone thought was natural and good. He was cutting it off. There are two plunges, large tubs, he pointed out, so we can keep the same schedule and have the men on one side and the women on the other.
There were a lot of questions after the lecture. Don't Japanese families bathe together in community spas? Doesn't this support guilt-ridden American Puritanism? Suzuki said that men and women rarely bathe together in Japan, and that Japanese are very modest about their bodies. He sighed, adding that they were not Japanese, so that was no argument one way or another. "Anyway, this is the best way for us—it has nothing to do with Japan or America or good and bad. It will just be our rule and we should do it."
Most people accepted what he said, but some argued further. Two couples who had been at Tassajara before Zen Center bought it, and who had been told they could stay, left partially because of the new bath rules.
A couple of days later the guys were quietly soaking in the men's plunge after a hard day's work when tiny, naked, practically hairless Suzuki slowly entered the deep, hot sulfur water, holding a washcloth-size towel over his genitals, as they do in Japan, a practice no one else copied. Bob was there, audibly taking deep breaths, keeping an obvious silence, staring straight ahead, showing his teacher he was doing meditation in the baths as he was supposed
to. Suzuki sidled up to him nonchalantly and said, "Oh, the water's very hot. How hot do you think it is?" Bob didn't know what to do.
Suzuki had again crushed a finger while resetting stones, this time at the base of a wall at Tassajara. It swelled up and turned purple. Bob Halpern drove him into Carmel, making a special effort to sit up straight and not to talk for the first few miles, but then he started asking Suzuki about Buddhism and vegetarianism. Suzuki promptly went to sleep.
The finger wasn't broken. The doctor drilled into the nail to relieve the pressure, wrapped it up, and told him to keep it high.
Walking past the Carmel boutiques, Suzuki said to Bob, "Let's eat, I'm hungry." Bob started looking for a restaurant where they could get a vegetarian meal. "Let's eat here," said Suzuki, going into a little hamburger joint while Bob mumbled, "But, but …" Bob studied the menu with horror.
"You haven't had any meat in a long time, have you?" Suzuki said to him.
"No, Roshi, not in two years. No animal food. No dairy or eggs."
"That's very good," Suzuki said, as the waitress walked up. "You order first."
"I'll take a grilled cheese sandwich." It was the best he could do with that menu.
"Hamburger please," said Suzuki, "with double meat."
Their food arrived and they each took a bite. "How is it?" asked Suzuki.
"I don't like mine," Suzuki said, "let's trade." With that he picked up Bob's sandwich and replaced it with the double-meat hamburger. "Um good. This is good. I like grilled cheese."
Paul Discoe, Tassajara's master builder, was moving a cabin. It was one of those occasional projects that turned the monastery upside down; people were excited, immersed in the action. The study period was canceled. Lunch was informal so people didn't have to change into robes. Suzuki energetically threw himself into the project. There were trucks, jacks, chains, rope, pulleys, boards, and a two-wheel trailer. It took a lot of hands and backs to get the job done, and there was an enjoyable drama to the proceedings.
At the height of the energy, sweat, and excitement, Suzuki and Bob were watching the cabin slowly creak over the bridge. No one was enjoying it more than Suzuki. He turned to Bob. "I love work trips," he said, wiping his brow. "I hate food trips, but I love work trips."
On the last morning of the teachers' visit, everyone sat zazen. Bob was carrying the stick and sporting a down-turned samurai scowl to let his old teachers, Maezumi and Yasutani, know that he hadn't gotten soft, and that Soto Zen wasn't sleepy. He stopped before a dozing student, placed the wide stick on her shoulder, and gave her a whack on each side. They bowed together and he went on. Walking slowly down the maroon linoleum aisle, he lifted his gaze to see in the kerosene lamplight the historic cast of dharma transmitters on the platform: Suzuki, Yasutani, Nakagawa, Shimano, Maezumi, Aitken (from Hawaii), Richard, Kobun. Every one of them was nodding, sound asleep.
After the lecture everyone was fairly quiet. Bob Halpern came up to John and said, "Roshi told you to gassho. You didn't gassho when he hit you."
On Mondays Suzuki visited Trudy [Dixon] at her home after giving a talk to Bill's zazen group. One day after such a visit he returned to the car with Bob Halpern. Suzuki's eyes were wet. "Now there's a real Zen master," he said of Trudy, as he sank into his seat.
One evening after zazen, Bob made up some reason to stay and talk with Suzuki. Suzuki served Bob tea, confiding that he was having a hard time writing to his old supporter Gido at headquarters, the man who'd sent him over and one of the few who he felt understood what he was doing. He wanted to send a letter of resignation and didn't know what to say.
Bob suggested that Suzuki call him on the phone right then. It was a novel idea to Suzuki. He reached Gido, talked to him for a few minutes, and got his blessing. Afterward he got out some special manju and gave Bob all he wanted.
"I have some good news for you," Suzuki said, slapping his thighs. It was the fall of 1969, before the move to Page Street. Bob Halpern and I had gone over to Sokoji in the afternoon, and
Suzuki had welcomed us into the office. He'd been in bed with a flu, and his students hadn't seen him for a long time. Suzuki continued. "I'm going to Japan to give Richard transmission."
Suzuki looked as pleased as he could be. We froze, shocked. "Suzuki-roshi," Bob said after a thoughtful pause, "if you give Richard Baker transmission, everyone is going to think you've gone crazy."
"Oh, no no no," Suzuki said, unfazed. "This is good. You should be happy. Now, when he returns from Japan, you'll have an American teacher."
An American teacher? We didn't want an American teacher. We wanted a Japanese teacher, mainly Suzuki. The Japanese priests seemed to know what they were doing, were comfortable in their roles, and looked the way Zen priests were supposed to look. The peccadilloes and shortcomings of Americans were so easy to see. Bob and I both liked Richard, thought he had great energy and kept things lively, and we completely trusted Suzuki's judgment. But Bob knew this would be a tough adjustment to make and was warning Suzuki about what to expect. Bob knew the pulse of the place.
Later that day I ran into Kobun on the street and told him. Kobun recoiled with his hands held in front of him, like an actor in a horror movie, "No! no! Not Richard! It is a mistake! Maybe Phillip! Maybe Phillip!"
Bob and I were at his communal apartment across the street from Sokoji. Dianne dropped by and we told her about Suzuki's intention to give Richard transmission. "How could that be?" she gasped. "Richard's so arrogant and uptight. He seems to me to be the least spiritual of Suzuki's students."
"You know who thinks Richard will make a good Zen master?" Bob said.
Dianne looked at him. "No. Who on earth?"
Bob and I were among a half dozen others with whom Suzuki had been discussing priests' ordination. One day at the City Center he called Bob and me to his tatami room and told us that he wanted to ordain us together. It was a little hard to imagine. Neither of us had been very successful in learning to control our desires. We were definitely among the loose cannons that Suzuki kept on deck. We considered many of his other lay students to be much better examples to new students and deeper rudders for the community. But we didn't protest. We sat up straight and serious. I just nodded quietly, thinking that if I said anything he would realize his mistake. (He used to say, "I think you're all enlightened until you open your mouth.")
"Do you think we should sit extra zazen at night in order to deepen our zazen?" Bob asked.
"The most important point for both of you," Suzuki said, "is not to sit more but to develop patience. I had the same problem." Then he said, laughing, "To develop patience you need patience." He raised his left eyebrow and softly said, "The main thing is not to fight." Then he called in Okusan, and they measured us for robes, while laughing and teasing us.
"Okay, Roshi, then what does transmission mean?" I asked Suzuki in his office at Sokoji on that day in 1969 when he had told Bob and me of his plan. "Does it mean that Richard Baker is perfectly enlightened, and that his mind is the same as the mind of Buddha? Is his understanding complete?"
"Oh, no no no," Suzuki said. "Don't make too much of it. It means he has a good understanding. A good understanding and a complete commitment."
On March 12
Suzuki flew to Portland to visit a group associated with Zen Center.
Okusan worried about his health and asked Reb Anderson to accompany
him. Reb had studied with Suzuki since 1968, when he had driven up
to the front door of Sokoji in a grey Cadillac hearse to visit his
best childhood chum, Bob Halpern. Reb had been a championship
heavyweight Golden Gloves boxer and had studied psychology,
philosophy, and math at the University of Minnesota. Then he met
Suzuki and through steadiness and persistence became a close
disciple. He was ordained as a priest just two years later. In this
short time Reb had already read more about Bud-
One afternoon in May of 1971, Trungpa dropped by Page Street unannounced. He brought his newborn son to be blessed by Suzuki. Still recovering from his operation, Suzuki nonetheless put on a fancy yellow robe and high hat, quite appropriate for Tibetans, and performed a little ceremony in the buddha hall.Afterward they went to the courtyard for tea. Later a number of Suzuki's students started studying with Trungpa. Some, including Bob Halpern, went to Boulder, where Trungpa spent most of his time; others stayed at Zen Center and went to Trungpa's San Francisco place when he was in town.
Bob Halpern visited. He had been studying with the Tibetan teacher, Trungpa, in Boulder. On Suzuki's bedside table was a large postcard Bob had sent. Instead of a note, he had drawn a picture of Trungpa's altar, which had a Buddha in the center, Trungpa's Tibetan guru on the left, and Suzuki-roshi on the right. Trungpa came a few days later. Suzuki spoke to him optimistically about the future of Buddhism in America. Trungpa sat by Suzuki's bed, holding his hand for over an hour.