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Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 9

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Chapter Nine

An Opening

19561959

 

In your life, if you come to a great difficulty,

like a big mountain in Nepal that looks like it has no passageway,

you know there is a way to get through.

From time to time Shunryu saw his friend Gido from Soto headquarters. In 1956 Gido asked offhandedly if Shunryu might like to go to San Francisco for a year or so to be an assistant to *Hodo Tobase, the priest there. He didn't expect a senior priest like Shunryu to be interested in the assignment, but considering Shunryu's long-term study of English and interest in America, it was natural for Gido to bring it up. He couldn't find a priest who would go; there was no money or status in it. Shunryu said he wouldn't mind being an assistant and being poor, but that he couldn't consider going anywhere till he had finished the ambitious restoration work that So-on had started in 1918.

In September 1958 Gido was at Rinso-in telling Shunryu about his continuing difficulty in filling the vacancy in America. Tobase,

still nominally in charge, had come back six months before, leaving a semiretired nun and a part-time monk who was working on his doctoral thesis in charge of the San Francisco temple. Gido wanted an assistant to Tobase who could go right away. He had even appointed a couple of priests, who had refused to go. There were problems in San Francisco, and headquarters didn't want Tobase to go back, though they were still pretending he would. So whoever took the position would end up being the de facto abbot of the temple.

"Why don't you go?" Gido asked Shunryu, half-joking, "It's sort of a mess there, but maybe you could help."

"Since I didn't cause their problems, they would understand if I failed to make things better," Shunryu said. He would have more freedom there--he was sure of it.

A month later Gido stopped by Rinso-in again. The bright leaves of fall were covering the hillsides and roadways. It was a comfortable, breezy day. "How is it going in America?" Shunryu asked him over tea. "Surely you've found someone by now."

"No," said Gido. "I get letters every few weeks from *Komiya-san, the head of the board there, asking me to send someone. I feel so bad. He's been writing for years."

"I'll do it," Shunryu said.

"Yes, you know English. You would be perfect. Too bad you can't get away. I would miss you though."

"I'll do it," said Shunryu, and this time Gido heard him.

He was truly amazed. "You mean really do it? You're joking, right?"

"No, I'm serious. I've thought about it a lot these last few weeks. I can do it. If Rinso-in and my family will let me go, I can leave in six months."

"Would it be all right with you if I went to America?" Shunryu was on the train with Hoitsu, who was in his second year at Komazawa University. Shunryu was going to Tokyo to meet with Gido, but first he wanted to spend some time with his oldest boy.

He said it would be for three years. Hoitsu would be at Eiheiji by the time he came back.

Hoitsu knew he couldn't influence his father's decision, but he appreciated being asked anyway. He wasn't completely surprised. But what about his obligations to the danka?

"Who will take care of Rinso-in?"

"Our friends have offered their support."

"What about your other obligations at other temples and at the kindergartens?"

"I'm fifty-four, a year short of retirement age. Someone else should have the chance."

Hoitsu thought his father should wait until his son was through with his college and monastic training and was ready to succeed him. He should run the temple until Hoitsu was installed as abbot. Only then would he have fulfilled his responsibility. Three years was a long time. But if that was what Shunryu wanted, Hoitsu knew he couldn't be stopped.

"If you need to go, please go."

"Study English," Shunryu said. "Maybe you could come help me."

Shunryu had already talked with Yasuko. She was living at Rinso-in and teaching at the original kindergarten. She told her father that she knew this was his lifelong desire, and of course she would support his decision, but before he went she wanted to get married. He agreed. She had someone in mind. Shunryu said he would ask Amano to arrange a meeting to see if she and her prospective husband could come to an agreement.

Otohiro, in junior high school, was being raised mostly by Obaa-san. Still, he was not happy about the idea of his father leaving, and he was afraid to go with him. He didn't know what to do. He would prefer that his father got stung again by a *suzumebachi, a giant sparrow-bee. When that had happened, Shunryu had been in bed for a week. They had never before spent so much time together. Obaa-san told Shunryu that if he had to go, please go, but take Otohiro.

She didn't think the boy should be left with her alone, with no father at all. It was too much responsibility. Shunryu said Yasuko would help, that he couldn't take Otohiro right away, but maybe later--when his wife came.

"Wife?" Obaa-san was taken by surprise.

Shunryu explained that he had to find a woman to marry. The temple in America had requested that a married priest be sent, and Gido had told them that's what they were getting. Shunryu had applied for a visa as a married man, so now he needed to get married. He asked Obaa-san for a suggestion as to who his bride should be. "You can only marry Mitsu," she said.

"Oh, of course," he answered.

It wasn't the first time her name had come up. A year after his wife died, some of the danka had suggested he find a new wife, and Kinu Obaa-san had said then that it could only be Mitsu. Rumors spread, but the couple kept putting off the decision, until finally they dropped the matter, each saying it was because of the other's stubbornness.

Of course. Mitsu.

They had been a team for years, and there was affection between them. She was tough enough to stand up to him, and he could accept her independence. Their eccentricities seemed to match well, and it was thought that neither of them should be with an ordinary person. It wouldn't be fair. They were perfect for each other.

Obaa-san talked with Mitsu, who accepted without hesitation. She said there was no thought about whether she wanted to or not, that Obaa-san had asked her and she would do it. On the other hand, Mitsu was a strong-willed woman who wasn't easy to push around. And Shunryu, though even smaller than she, was a handsome man.

Amano had his hands full. The danka were divided. Some supported Shunryu's plan to go to America and understood how important it was to him. Others didn't mind as long as there were priests to conduct the ceremonies. But most were against it, and

some were absolutely opposed. Why did he want to go there and abandon us? There were those who said he was leaving because of shame over his wife's murder, which was known throughout Japan via the Zen grapevine. There was gossip in Yaizu that he was escaping criticism from the danka for being away and socializing too much. But the real problem was that the danka did not want Shunryu to leave because he was popular, and it was also a matter of principle. "This is where he should be! This is his duty!" members said in meetings. Some thought he should just go for one year. Amano said that three years would go by quickly, and there were good priests who would cover his duties.

Kozo, the irascible old anarchist, predicted that Shunryu wouldn't return. "What do you think about that?" he said. "My friend Hojo-san is going to become American soil!"

There was another problem. Just as Shunryu had sprung on them that he was marrying Chie right after they had accepted him as abbot back in 1936, Amano told the board that Shunryu wanted to get married again. A number of danka strongly objected to Shunryu's marrying Mitsu. But after another round of discussions, Amano persuaded them to go along with Shunryu's request.

In early December Yasuko got married. A week later Shunryu and Mitsu were married in a private ceremony. They had a small party in the evening to celebrate. Yasuko's husband moved into the temple with her. They agreed to stay till Shunryu came back. Obaa-san would need her help.

Mitsu continued to live at the school. She and Shunryu maintained their normal work schedules except for necessary preparations. She wouldn't go with him right away. He wanted to get situated first and prepare for her and Otohiro. He really wasn't thinking much about them. He assumed it would work out. There was a lot to do, and the day of departure was only months away.

 

 

Do not say too late.

Shunryu had been gradually restoring Rinso-in for decades, but without a major effort it would have taken forever. After Gido's offer of the post in America, Shunryu sought more contributions, and with help from Amano, the board allocated enough money for the completion of the work.

I restored many buildings as they were in ancient times. That was the difficult part. It cost more money to do it that way and didn't look good to some people, so no one agreed with me. It seemed crazy, but I felt I had to do it. It took many years to rebuild Rinso-in. I worked on it the whole time I was there, constantly studying the architecture of the time when it was built, and making an effort to get it all done.

The grass thatch roof he had insisted on, redone at great expense, had not proved durable. Every year it got more expensive to maintain. They would redo one side every five years or so, storing thatch for the next time in the rafters. But now Shunryu gave in to modern convention, agreeing on tile. The main building was over three hundred years old. Most of the large beams could stay, but there was a lot of repair and replacement left to do, as well as detail work. Shunryu insisted on the most traditional and expensive temple carpentry techniques and materials, even though many danka wanted a more contemporary look. Members and neighbors joined in the big push to complete the job, and often Shunryu was up there with them, doing the hard work.

The purpose of restoring a building is not just to have a facility. The most important thing is to continue the practice and to have a successor who will share our responsibility. The point is where you don't expect it to be.

In the spring of 1958 the work on the main building--the *founders', ancestors', and sutra halls--and the bell tower was finally com-

pleted. Ceremonies were held in March and May to commemorate the restoration, a job Shunryu had been involved with for forty years, a task he felt So-on had left for him to finish. So-on had restored only the *family quarters and the zendo, the two wings off the *buddha hall. "I could do the whole thing if I wanted to," So-on had told Shunryu, "but I must leave something for my disciples to do." Shunryu hadn't understood him at the time. Why not fix it all up now? he had wondered. Later he realized it was part of what So-on had transmitted to him.

When I made up my mind to go to America, I said to one of the members of my temple that if I could have gone ten years earlier, I might have been able to do many things. Maybe it was too late. I had forgotten almost all my English, and I regretted that I probably wouldn't be able to accomplish much. But then I thought, ten years before I didn't have so much understanding of Buddhism. So maybe it was a good thing for me to stay in Japan, finishing the work my master left for me.

It was May 18, 1959, Shunryu's fifty-fifth birthday and his forty-second year of priesthood. With Hoitsu at his side Shunryu offered incense to his father, Sogaku, and his master, So-on, at the ohaka behind Zoun-in--the temple where he and So-on had lived so intensely, so intimately. How about me going to America? he had asked his teacher. So-on was adamant. No!

Twenty-nine years had passed. Now the answer was yes. How right So-on had been. How much Shunryu had learned. So-on had made him who he was, had guided him. Now he appreciated it. So-on had died, leaving those decaying beams still there, and Shunryu felt it was no accident. As he recited the Heart Sutra, his heart filled with gratitude. His appreciation for So-on had continually deepened over the decades. "When I offer incense to my father, I feel sad," he later said, "but when I offer incense to my master, tears stream down my cheeks."

Shunryu and Hoitsu visited the ashes site of the one Shunryu called So-on's wife, Yoshi Marushichi. They cleaned the area and

made an offering. She'd been gone for six years now. While she was alive Shunryu had taken Hoitsu and the other children to visit her whenever they went to Zoun-in. She had lived to an old age and eventually was nearly blind. They always left her gifts of fruit and candy.

Meanwhile, Mitsu had become ill. Her energy was low and she had a bad cough. She had been to several doctors, but they didn't know what it was. She didn't want Shunryu to go to America until she was better or at least until they knew what was wrong with her. She thought she might die. Shunryu visited her frequently but wouldn't postpone his trip. Her medical problem was chronic, and she still didn't know what it was. At the going-away banquet for Shunryu she kept her complaints to herself.

Shunryu's sisters and half-brother, Shima, came to the banquet, as did Dr. Ozawa's family, and Seison's family. The Amanos and Katos were there. Taro, his guide and companion in Manchuria, was now twenty-six. "Here's to another adventure!" he toasted Shunryu.

Many of Shunryu's fellow priests came to say farewell: Gido, who had found his priest for America; Kishizawa's heirs Noiri and *Niwa; his helper, Sugiyama from Zuioji; Kendo Okamoto from Zoun-in; and others, none of whom would want to trade places with him. Members of the High Grass Mountain Group came to Rinso-in to wish Shunryu a successful journey. They felt Shunryu's excitement and were proud of their old teacher, who had been such a guiding light and good friend in the days of the country's madness.

"We were the wild ones!" said Suetsune in a toast. Later he reminded Shunryu that he was ready to help with any books he might write. Suetsune was in publishing, and Shunryu had suggested in a letter that he might want his friend's assistance in that regard some day. Sadly, the most vibrant of them all, Masao Nishinakama, was not there. After the war he continued his search for truth, but turned more toward philosophy than Buddhist practice. He com-

mitted suicide in 1955 after a long period of mental anguish. On the way to the airport the next day, Shunryu visited with Masao's brother, Shigeo Nishinakama.

As the western sky turned pink in Yaizu on May 21, Shunryu stood by his pond in the chilly morning. He had concluded his last morning service at Rinso-in. Carp swam in murky water as tadpoles darted about. Goodbye to the big living stone, now covered with moss. Goodbye to the frogs. As the rays of the sun struck the bamboo on the hill, the air heated quickly, and the stalks expanded, emitting sharp, pinging noises of different pitches, a strange little song of farewell in the still morning.

The cars were leaving for the train station. Shunryu brought only a few bags. The rest had been sent ahead by boat. He was wearing his priest's traveling robes with a rakusu hanging around his neck, zori, and white tabi socks.

"Shouldn't you wear shoes and a suit to go to America?" asked Yasuko's husband half in jest.

"Gido-san tells me the other priests have gone with new suits and shiny shoes. I will go in an old robe with a shiny head."

He bid farewell to Obaa-san and thanked her for her help. They stood with each other a moment. "Be careful," she said, and tilted her upper body in respect as they drove off to the station.

That night at Haneda airport, Yasuko and her husband; Hoitsu and Otohiro; Mitsu and her daughter Harumi; Godfather Amano; and members of the High Grass Mountain Group all bid farewell to Shunryu Suzuki.

"Study hard. Behave yourself, and listen to Obaa-san--she's a great woman," Shunryu said to Otohiro at the gate.

The call came for the passengers to board the plane. Shunryu and his family and friends bowed and waved and called out Goodbye! Take care! Shunryu kept turning around and looking up through the glass as he walked down the hallway bowing, waving, and smiling broadly. Everyone continued to bow and wave in return.

Holding in one hand a large, flat package wrapped in brown paper, a gift from the old temple for the new one, and waving a bouquet of flowers held high in the other, Suzuki laughed and clowned as he approached the airplane parked on the tarmac. A happy man, dancing and laughing, was off to America.

 
 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   




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