|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
of Yasutani, Nakagawa, Eido, Maezumi, Aitken and others in 1968
from Chapter 15 - Tassajara, p. 303
See Les Kaye's brief memory from this event in which he says he asked the question that herein I say I asked. I bet he's right and I wrote that because someone told me I'd asked it. No, I see the problem in the notes I have of a brief talk with Les this story is based on. It says "and then you asked" and I thought in the notes he was saying it to me but I was saying it to him. And by the time a few years later when putting together the book I'd forgotten who did what and made that mistake. Sorry Les. Also - why do I write that all eight teachers used koans. I only count five who did now. Also - that was me, DC, carrying the stick in the last paragraph. I said Bob because I didn't want to mention myself again at that point. Doing this reminds me that I'd like to do Notes on Crooked Cucumber.- dc (3-05-11) This was entered into the errata section of cuke.com on 4-16-11.
In the little world of American Zen there was a big event that summer of 1968. An entourage of senior Zen teachers came to Tassajara. This gathering of priests with strikingly different styles benefited from the fresh smell of the wilderness and the magic of Tassajara. Students were excited to learn suddenly that Soen Nakagawa-roshi and Yasutani-roshi were among eight teachers coming to visit. Nakagawa was the priest who, while visiting Suzuki at Sokoji in 1959, had dramatically torn up the non-Zen sutra book. They brought some of the ashes of Nyogen Senzaki, who had died in L.A. in 1958, to be scattered at Tassajara.
All eight teachers used koans with their students and were critical of Suzuki's less aggressive style of Soto Zen, calling it sleepy and unproductive. But it was an ecumenical three days, a time to recognize Nyogen Senzaki as a primary ancestor of American Buddhism, and an initiation for Suzuki's baby monastery. Nakagawa's disciple, Eido Shimano of the New York Zen Studies Society, generously called Tassajara the hara, the center of gravity, of Zen Buddhism in America.
A number of students at Tassajara were former or even present students of one or more of the visiting teachers. Yasutani had been coming from Japan and conducting sesshins in America for six years. He was a dynamo who used the stick freely and often yelled exhortations such as, "What are you wasting your time for? Die! Die! Don't leave this zendo without having died!"
Suzuki led his guests from the baths to the steam room and then into a warm pool behind the little rock dam in the creek. They met in the fireplace room, talked and did calligraphy, exchanging their creations.
There were talks in the zendo. The wall-to-wall raised platform at the end of the zendo was crowded with the visiting priests, along with Suzuki, Kobun, and Richard. Yasutani, old, hollow-eyed and bent, spoke with vigor, scolding Soto Zen for abandoning koan practice and saying that the Japanese temple system was a weight hanging around Zen's neck. Only a return to the ancient Chinese basics would save Zen, he declared. That was one thing they all agreed on.
Nakagawa gave a dynamic lecture, strutting back and forth across the altar platform. The talks went on and on, but no one minded—it was such a treat. There were questions and answers. I asked what was the best way to establish Buddhism in America, and everyone had an answer: Yasutani, Nakagawa (both translated by Maezumi), Shimano, and then it was Suzuki's turn. "I have nothing to say," he said, getting up and going out the side door. Everyone roared in delight, and it was over.
In a talk that night Suzuki said Yasutani and Nakagawa had come to Tassajara and painted in the pupils of the eyes of the dragon that he had been drawing for years. "There's a lot for me to learn from them. Before, when I heard the word Rinzai, I always felt a little uncomfortable. It was because I felt a separateness. Now when I hear it I feel complete." (Yasutani was Soto but he used koans, like the Rinzai.)
In a ceremony with all students present, Suzuki received a portion of Senzaki's ashes from Nakagawa and placed them on the Tassajara altar. The only rain of the summer fell that morning, and a double rainbow met people as they walked out of the zendo into the early morning light. Two weeks later Suzuki, Kobun, and some students went up to the ridge and cast Senzaki's ashes to the wind.
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.
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