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Notes (by DC) on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 5

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Chapter Five

Temple Priest



When a tree stands up by itself, we call that tree a buddha.

On the first day of April 1932, Shunryu Suzuki reluctantly left Sojiji and moved into Zoun-in with his family. He was twenty-seven, finished with his formal training and, for the first time since childhood, not visiting but living at the country temple where he would be the priest. Shunryu's sisters Tori and Aiko had finished their schooling but were still living at home.

His mother had been sickly for years. So Shunryu's sister Aiko took care of him. She did so well that visitors to the temple would mistake her for Shunryu's wife. She would serve him and his guests, do his laundry, and prepare his clothes in the morning. She had to keep his robes in perfect shape because he was a careful dresser for a priest, though he never wore Western clothes or shoes. Like her mother before her, Aiko taught sewing to local girls and had become the family seamstress. Shunryu would often find her sitting on the tatami sewing his robes, with a cat on her lap. Over time her own kimono became tattered where the cat sharpened its claws.

At Eiheiji Shunryu had cultivated a refined but austere taste in robes. He didn't want to wear the more colorful robes for ceremonies, and he especially didn't want to wear a fancy okesa, the outer robe that drapes over the others. Kesa was originally a Sanskrit word meaning subdued color, and for his okesa he preferred black, indigo, and brown, as worn by the monks at Eiheiji. The kesa is the patchwork robe of ordination that dates back to India. Originally it was made from rags, to symbolize the voluntary poverty of the monk. Dogen was known for having twice refused to take a purple kesa from the emperor. People might expect something fancy, but Shunryu didn't want to feel like one of the actors from the city who came walking down the streets in their gorgeous costumes, hitting drums and bells to announce their performance.

The first funeral Shunryu did at Zoun-in was for a wealthy, venerable old man. In keeping with his philosophy, Shunryu wore a black robe with a brown okesa. He thought everything had gone just fine, but later he learned that the family was angry with him. "Why didn't you wear more beautiful robes as your master does?" asked the widow. He had brought attention to himself and insulted the family, they thought. He was dealing with laypeople regularly now and had a significant position in the community for such a young man. It was essential he conduct himself in a manner that fostered harmony. Eventually he realized that it was not good to upset people at such important times in their lives by stubbornly adhering to his own idea of right dress. It was the same as cherishing elegant robes, but in reverse.


I think we should not be attached to the material or to the look of robes. A gorgeous one is all right, a shabby one is all right. That is my attitude now, but at that time I was very concerned about what I wore.

Sogaku continued to play a major role at Zoun-in. Shunryu was often away helping So-on at Rinso-in and had taken over So-on's positions in two large, well-known temples, Kasuisai and *Daito-in, where his responsibility was to give lectures to unsui and lead them in zazen.† Shunryu brought to his duties a youthful enthusiasm and an almost zealous devotion to the teachings and practice he had learned at Eiheiji and Sojiji. *Tatsuzo Uchiyama , a priest who was to marry Aiko, thought Shunryu was a terribly sincere priest, since he led *zazenkai, the lay sitting groups, and said in his soft-spoken way, "We must keep Dogen's practice and encourage it so it will prosper." Uchiyama said it was rare for a priest to talk like that. Shunryu's style of speech was largely inspired by his continuing association with Kishizawa.

See Nona Ransom film from the 30s with Suzuki leading monks in takuhatsu begging at Kasuisai


My master Kishizawa-roshi used to say that we had to have a vow or aim to accomplish. The aim we have may not be perfect, but even so it is necessary for us to have it. It is like the precepts. Even though it is almost impossible to observe them, we must have them. Without an aim or the precepts we cannot be good Buddhists, we cannot actualize our way.

He had not wanted his relationship with Kishizawa to end when he left Eiheiji. Fortuitously, the great master's home temple had changed in recent years to *Gyokuden-in, a small branch temple of Rinso-in located about three miles from Rinso-in. On May 1, 1932, Shunryu visited Kishizawa and, with So-on's blessing, requested permission to continue studying with him. Kishizawa accepted and Shunryu became his *zuishin (follower), a name given to the relationship with one's second teacher. He would always be So-on's *deshi (disciple), but he would later attribute most of his understanding of Buddhism to Kishizawa.=

Kishizawa had become one of the best-known Buddhist lecturers in the land, and Shunryu went to hear his talks on Dogen's seminal work, the Shobogenzo. Shunryu visited Gyokuden-in for private instruction and to consult with Kishizawa when he had some crisis or turning point in his practice.

Kishizawa did not forsake the central practice of zazen. Most temple priests did not sit zazen after their training, except perhaps for a weekly or monthly zazenkai. Kishizawa admonished his student Shunryu through his example not to forsake formal practice. There was no zendo at Zoun-in, but zazen doesn't depend on having a zendo, just a body.

*Seison Suzuki, a local potter in Mori, liked to tell a story about Shunryu, a little girl, and a train ticket. Shunryu had just arrived at the station in Mori on his bicycle when the girl's crying caught his attention. She said her mother had no money to buy her any candy.

"Don't cry," he said. "I'll buy you some candy." He let her choose what she wanted from the stall and paid for it. When he went to get his ticket he discovered he was short, so he talked to the stationmaster, who said he'd call up the station in Yaizu and arrange to have the ticket paid for later. When Shunryu reached Yaizu, an employee told him that the stationmaster was waiting for him in his office. He served Shunryu tea and they talked for a while; finally the stationmaster said he'd never made an arrangement like this before and Shunryu remembered he hadn't bought a ticket. He apologized and promised to pay the next day on his way back to Mori. When he returned the next day he met the stationmaster again, who was dumbfounded when Shunryu once more forgot about paying for the ticket. Finally with a little nudging he remembered and paid his debt. Soon people in Yaizu and Mori were laughing about Shunryu's shocking behavior. Seison the potter said to Shunryu, "How did you like the taste of ride-now-pay-later?"

Shunryu's dharma brothers Kendo and Soko were in charge of Rinso-in most of the time, because So-on was leading a practice period at a temple in neighboring Shizuoka. Shunryu arrived at Rinso-in early one evening to find that Kendo and Soko had gone out to a movie. He knew that So-on wouldn't like that and that his dharma brothers would not want to get caught relaxing by their fierce master. He lined up his geta, wooden platform sandals, at the bottom of the steps in the entryway in the spot where So-on, and only So-on, left his. When Kendo and Soko got back they were filled with terror at the sight of the geta until they heard Shunryu laughing from behind the shoji.


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.†

He was quite unhappy about his wife's illness and departure.

In November of 1933, after a number of months of deteriorating health, Shunryu's father, Sogaku, died in his sleep. He had been a good husband and father. He was proud of his son, who had made it possible for him to spend the last seven years of his long life back at Zoun-in. His body was laid out in the buddha hall. Shunryu and his mother greeted neighbors and danka as they arrived to pay their respects and offer incense. Tori and Aiko gave people cushions and took care of tea and food. At twenty-nine Shunryu became the head of the family and was now truly in charge of the temple.

In late April 1934 So-on arrived at Eiheiji to assume the position of assistant director. He would be involved both with administration and with the training of monks. On his third day at Eiheiji, after lunch, he said, "I'm going to the toilet," then had a stroke and collapsed in the hall. From the Fukui hospital he was moved to Rinso-in for recovery, but his condition deteriorated. A week later, on May third, So-on passed away at the age of fifty-seven.

So-on had always walked with his head up and greeted people without looking at them, yet hundreds of laypeople and priests attended his funeral. His ashes were interred at both of the temples that he had run. Shunryu conducted the ashes ceremony at Zoun-in. So-on's new teardrop-shaped granite stone was placed next to Sogaku's in the abbots' line. During the ashes ceremony, chanting the *Heart Sutra, Shunryu picked up some of So-on's bone bits with chopsticks and placed them in an opening at the base, then picked up a bamboo ladle and poured water over the stone. How many times he'd watched So-on do this--for eighteen years starting right here and ending right here. Shunryu had many memories of the man who, more than anyone, had molded his character. Never again would he be called Crooked Cucumber. He could not help noticing that he did not feel much at the passing of his master.

Yoshi did not attend the funeral. For a time she stayed at Rinso-in helping out and doing ikebana flower arranging. Once when Shunryu's mother visited, Yoshi went upstairs and hid. Then one day she had Soko deliver So-on's robes to Shunryu at Zoun-in. She moved out of Rinso-in and returned to her family in Mori.

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. It was not just his own suffering and transience that he felt, but that of others as well, of all beings--there was no difference. Reflecting on his years with So-on and his time at Komazawa, Eiheiji, and Sojiji, Shunryu saw two big mistakes he had made. First, he wished he'd made a stronger effort. He could hear So-on's frequent admonitions to realize how precious the opportunity to practice was: "You should not waste your time!" At first he'd thought that meant he had to work all day and all night or, since he couldn't work all night, at least behave well all night. Later So-on had explained, "To understand Buddhism is not to waste your time. If you do not understand Buddhism, you are wasting your time." When he was a boy, it had seemed like some convenient logic and he had not felt encouraged, just confused. Now he was beginning to appreciate his master's words, if not his personality.

The other mistake he saw was his practice of "stepladder Zen," a systematic approach.


Actually, what we are talking about is that enlightenment and practice is one. But my practice was stepladder practice: "I understand this much now, and next year I will understand a little bit more, and a little bit more." That kind of practice doesn't make much sense. Maybe after you try stepladder practice, you will realize that it was a mistake.

He was beginning to see that he couldn't organize his practice, his life, the teachings he was receiving, and the lessons he was learning. He had to let go of all that and leave it to ripen on its own. He had to adjust minute by minute. He was getting a glimpse of the way is to have "a complete experience with full feeling in every moment," not to use each moment to think about the past or future, trying to make sense of it all. What he was coming to was not some mushy all-is-one-let-it-be approach. It included a view of oneness, but it also included the opposite--that each moment, each thing, is distinct and must be addressed mindfully, not with some vague idea of universal significance.

When he had first returned to Zoun-in to live, Shunryu discussed this point with So-on. He explained that he could accept that all things are one, but not that they are different. Yet in his studies he had learned that both were true. So-on had simply said, "*Emptiness and existence--if you stick to either one you are not a Buddhist."

It is only because our life is so habitually and so firmly based on a mechanical understanding that we think that our everyday life is repetitious. But it is not so. No one can repeat the same thing. Whatever you do, it will be different from what you do in the next moment. That is why we should not waste our time.

Now that he had lost so much and been so changed, it was easier for Shunryu to give up his systems and beliefs and just be in the world, walking step by step with no person, thing, or idea that he could depend on permanently. He had his duties, his relationship with Kishizawa, his mother, his fellow monks, and some friends--especially Kendo and the potter Seison. But he wasn't so attached to anyone or so sad at his aloneness. His life would go on, and So-on's passing would lead to the next big step--and to a lot of trouble.



Because things don't actually go as you expect, there is suffering.

So-on's sudden death created a vacuum at Rinso-in. He had appeared to be grooming his nephew *Soko to be abbot, possibly so that So-on could comfortably retire there, but surely also because Soko seemed to have So-on's administrative ability. So-on could have remained the abbot in absentia for years while at Eiheiji, without anyone worrying too much about who was running it in his stead. In that way he could have eased Soko into the position and slowly built consensus within the danka. But now the decision would be made by the board, which represented various factions in the membership.

An old priest named *Ryoen Risan was trying to take over Rinso-in. He was a dharma brother of the former abbot, the one So-on had been asked to replace because the temple had been going downhill. Ryoen had strong backing among the danka, especially among a clique of local priests. At first there was no one to oppose him, so he started handling some of Rinso-in's affairs.

There were many danka who did not like the idea of Ryoen getting the temple back for his lineage. Some of these backed Soko to be the abbot. But he was still in Komazawa, hadn't received transmission from So-on, and was quite young. Also, Yoshi didn't like him, and she had some influence. She wanted Shunryu.

Before I took over my master's temple, I didn't cause any trouble. I was just trying to study. But after I determined to take over my master's temple, I caused various problems for myself and for others. There was confusion in my life, a lot of confusion. I knew that if I didn't take over his temple, Rinso-in, I would have to remain at Zoun-in. That would be more calm, and I would be able to study more, but I determined to take it over, and there were two years of confusion and fighting.

Shunryu had mixed feelings about his own qualifications. On the one hand, there were many prominent older priests in the two hundred branch temples associated with Rinso-in. The abbot of Rinso-in wouldn't have any authority over them but would be required to serve a central function at occasional important ceremonies. At that time any slip in his demeanor would call into question his eligibility for the position. But he also felt, as So-on's number-one disciple, that he knew what So-on would want. He felt that Soko wasn't ready and would be used by others for their own ambitions, and that Ryoen and those whom he represented were definitely not good for Rinso-in. Shunryu did not want to see So-on's sixteen years of hard work go to waste. He was determined that Rinso-in not fall into the hands of greedy and ambitious priests. Keeping a low profile while strengthening his ties to important danka, especially *Koga-san, the head of the temple board of directors, Shunryu patiently participated in ongoing discussions. He actually felt quite impatient and angry but kept these emotions in control.

Some saw him as the candidate who represented So-on's high standards. Others felt he was too young. He was thirty, and Rinso-in had an unbroken tradition of having abbots over fifty.† Some felt he was not qualified. He was fine for a lesser temple like Zoun-in, a man of excellent character, good at leading services, but not the type to run a large temple like Rinso-in. He couldn't even keep track of his cap!

Not true that they had an unbroken tradition of abbots over 50. So-on was 41 or 42 when he became abbot in 1918. Changed to

Rinso-in had a tradition of having abbots over fifty, reputed to be unbroken until So-on had become abbot at 42.

Months passed with small meetings and large meetings. Koga-san, previously a backer of Ryoen, now inclined toward Shunryu. Soko pulled out of the running, became a disciple of another master, and lent his support to Shunryu. Kishizawa had discreetly indicated that he, too, preferred Shunryu. While Koga-san was considering all this, Shunryu made an offer. Give him three years to prove himself, and if it didn't work out he'd resign. The usual trial period, if there was one at all, was ten years. Shunryu's suggestion reduced the weight of the decision. Finally, a venerable elder of the Soto school, *Shunko Tettsu-roshi, put his stamp of approval on Shunryu's three-year trial. The board agreed.

This all took a good deal of time. While the slow beast of consensus had been crawling along, Shunryu was already living at Rinso-in and doing the job, commuting between there and Zoun-in. No sooner had he gotten approval than he gave the board and membership another major piece of news to consider. He was planning to get married.

Near Zoun-in was a temple named *Bairin-in. The abbot there was an old friend of So-on's and had been a close advisor to Shunryu, especially in practical matters. Seison the potter and Shunryu had originally met at Bairin-in and now frequently visited and played go. One day the abbot told Shunryu that it was time for him to get married again and that he had someone in mind. Shunryu said he had confidence in being a priest but wasn't so sure about his ability to be a family man. But Shunryu agreed, she agreed, then they met. *Chie Muramatsu was twenty-two and the daughter of a priest. Her father was the treasurer of Kasuisai, a large temple, where Shunryu had been instructing young monks since he'd taken over Zoun-in. Chie knew Shunryu had recovered from tuberculosis. He would always be grateful to her for marrying him in spite of this stigma.

Some of the danka at Rinso-in were not happy with the prospect of having a married priest. They had accepted Yoshi, the Daikoku-sama, as long as she was unofficial and kept a low profile. A wife would mean children, and there had never been a family at the temple. Many older people remembered the time when almost no priests had wives or families. One member suggested that Shunryu's family could live elsewhere. Another offered his house. Shunryu thought they were being extreme, especially as So-on had established a precedent by living with Yoshi there. But there was a difference between Yoshi's low-profile role and that of a wife. When Shunryu and Chie were married in February 1935, she moved into Zoun-in instead of Rinso-in. On November 11 of that year, the Year of the Boar, their first child was born, a girl named *Yasuko.

*Gen'ichi Amano, a prominent member of Rinso-in, was one of those rare laypeople who actually saw Buddhism as a way of liberation in addition to its role as caretaker of deceased ancestors. One day some representatives of the Rinso-in board asked him to be Shunryu's new *gishin (parent of duty), a sort of godfather. Amano was reluctant to take on such responsibility, but when assured that it wouldn't cost anything, he agreed. From such dubious beginnings a lifelong relationship of trust and friendship began.

On April 23, 1936, Shunryu Suzuki ceremonially entered the home of Gen'ichi Amano, making it his home and Amano his godfather. From then on he would address Amano as father and would be considered a son of that house, while not erasing his birth-family history in any way. Then he formally entered Rinso-in and climbed the mountain seat, to take the position of chief priest as the thirty-sixth abbot. As part of the compromise, the much older Ryoen, who had been his rival for the job, was symbolically recorded as the thirty-fifth abbot; in the ceremony he stepped down from the mountain seat and turned the temple over to Shogaku Shunryu.

Now that Shunryu had two temples, he resigned from his considerable duties of guiding monks at Kasuisai and Daito-in. He had his hands full. The power struggle over Rinso-in had caused great dissension within the danka. It was an extraordinary time for Shunryu. Soon after he took over, eighty families changed to other temples. He did nothing to discourage them. At monthly meetings with the board and general membership, Shunryu was roundly criticized for not encouraging people to stay. He was accused of being irresponsible, of not asking for help in trying to keep these families in the fold. "If Rinso-in is such a poor example, how will we be able to restore harmony? This is your responsibility," he was told. Shunryu worked to control his impatience and temper. Rather than argue, he just asked them to let him do his job and not to criticize for three years, and so it was agreed.

Founded in 1493, Rinso-in had a long history. More important to Shunryu, it had a zendo, having been a training temple with a number of monks in residence in the Meiji Era. He wanted to return Rinso-in to those days of glory, to develop it as a temple where both monks and laypeople could practice. He had helped So-on get the temple in shape and complete the refurbishing of the living quarters, but there was still a lot to do.

During the first three years of Shunryu's leadership, the congregation, buildings, and gardens of Rinso-in were put in good order. Almost all the families who had left returned. Shunryu gained a reputation as a friendly, gentle priest of good character and traditional values. So-on had been respected, but people were afraid to go to the temple when he was there. That changed when Shunryu took over. Rinso-in became a kind of community center where various groups met to study Buddhism, practice the arts, discuss politics, solve neighborhood problems, and have small banquets and celebrations.

In 1939, when he had been abbot for three years, Shunryu paid a visit to board chair Koga's home. Over tea Shunryu said that according to their agreement his time was up, and he offered his resignation. "What agreement?" said Koga. "I don't know what you're talking about."



The only way you can endure your pain is to let it be painful.

Yasuko was nearly two and a half and her father was almost like a stranger--to her he didn't belong in Zoun-in, but at Rinso-in, where he lived. When he was at Zoun-in, he didn't hold her much, so that even if he called her she wouldn't come. She would tiptoe up behind him though, as he sat on his cushion reading, and try to snatch the newspaper away saying, "No, it's grandma's!"

*Yone =was like another parent to little Yasuko. The girl would watch with fascination as her grandmother applied acupuncture needles to her mother's back. She would sit playing by Yone as she mended the family clothing, while Chie made dinner. Monks, neighbors, workers, danka, and Shunryu came and went. The caretaker worked part-time. Kendo was supposed to cover for Shunryu, but he too was often away with other obligations; so the three Suzuki females were often the only ones at Zoun-in.

One late afternoon in April 1938 Yone had gone out to the fields to collect grass for her rabbits. By dark she had not come back, so Chie went to look for her. Time passed. Yasuko was feeling lonely by herself; she heard an owl hooting from the hill up behind the temple and got scared. Then she heard her mother's voice crying out from below. Yone's body was brought in and laid on the floor in front of the family altar. Yasuko tried and tried to awaken her grandmother, but she couldn't.

The word spread and people started to arrive. Someone had gone to town to get a message to Shunryu at Rinso-in. When he had not arrived after four hours, people got concerned. Finally he showed up after midnight. He'd fallen asleep on the train, passed Mori station, and gone way up into the mountains. The word would get around: he fell asleep on the day of his mother's death, on the way to join his family in crisis. His mind was in the clouds.

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. Shunryu passed Zoun-in on to Kendo Okamoto, who moved in with his family, though Shunryu retained some responsibility to keep it in his father's lineage. Kendo promised that the next abbot of Zoun-in would be Shunryu's disciple--maybe Kendo's own son *Shoko.

Shunryu had no disciples, only monks sent to train with him by other priests, and a few lay students. They would sit in the buddha hall. The old zendo at Rinso-in was still just a room for storage, rats, and a ghost.

Shunryu didn't believe in the ghost, but the old caretaker of Rinso-in had scared him as a boy with the story of a shape-shifter fox from the mountains who sat zazen in the zendo to attain enlightenment and be reborn as a monk. When he takes the form of a ghost you can sometimes see a white flash go by, the caretaker had told him. The frequent scurrying sounds from that wing had given young Shunryu the chills. Now twenty years later the old caretaker still teased him about the ghost in the zendo.

One summer night the caretaker was sitting with some friends smoking and talking in the room directly opposite the zendo. The shoji windows and doors were open to cool things down. Mentioning to the old men that some funny things had been going on in the zendo, Shunryu said he was afraid the ghost of the fox had come back. Then he slipped back through the buddha hall, hung a paper lantern in the back of the zendo, and waved a white cloth from a bamboo pole so that it could barely be seen in the flickering light.

"Mmmm?" The caretaker squinted, looking toward the zendo. His eyes opened wide when he saw the wisp of white go by, and he froze with fear. Shunryu came back to find him still petrified. After that he didn't tease Shunryu anymore, because everyone was now teasing him. Shunryu was called the priest who scared away superstitions.

Shunryu was even more interested in dispelling another type of superstition--the ugly specter of Japanese ultranationalistic militarism that was bent on conquering Asia. It was based on theories such as that of the Showa Restoration, which aimed to restore the emperor to what they claimed was his rightful place over a Japan whose supremacy was guaranteed by the sun goddess, *Amaterasu, from whom the Japanese had descended. The thirties have been called the dark valley of modern Japanese history. Throughout the decade hot-blooded zealots would move two steps forward for each step back, while the progressive factions that promoted democracy and openness in Japan and constructive engagement with an independent China continued to lose ground.


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