Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch.10
A New Leaf
I came to America, I was determined
May 23, 1959, the day of Shunryu Suzuki's arrival in America, a dozen elderly, conservatively dressed Japanese-Americans waited at the gate of the San Francisco airport. They represented the sixty or so families that were members of Sokoji, the only Soto Zen temple in the Bay Area and one of a few in the United States. With the group was a young man named *Wako Kazumitsu Kato, who had been filling in as their part-time temple priest. Kato wondered what sort of person this Suzuki would be and why he came to America at his age.
Then there he was. Bodies tilted forward in formal bows and polite, enthusiastic greetings. He was friendly yet obviously a traditional priest, nothing Western about him. He was not intimidating, neither fat nor thin, not much taller than a child--short even for an elderly Japanese. And there was a glow of anticipation about him.
No one was more pleased than Kato that Suzuki had finally arrived. Kato was twenty-eight and had been in charge of Sokoji for a year and a half by default, since Hodo Tobase had gone back to Japan. Kato had arrived in 1952 at the age of twenty-two to be Tobase's assistant. He had gone to San Francisco State University to study English so he could communicate better with the younger members of the congregation, then had fallen in love with the Western academic scene and had never stopped studying. After the spirited and stubborn Tobase had left, Kato had spent as much time as possible at Sokoji, but now he found himself overextended. He was busy finishing his Ph.D. in comparative philosophy. Because the congregation couldn't afford to pay him anything, at times he had to do menial labor to support himself and his family. Yet the duties at Sokoji could not be ignored, and Kato had been taking care of Sunday services, funerals, and everything else for a long time. He respected the older Japanese-Americans, but to him the situation was an artifact of the past, lifeless and stale. Being at Sokoji was too much like being back in Japan--stuck with obligations that didn't interest him. He preferred being with his friends--poets and artists--and in the stimulating atmosphere of the university.
Kato drove Suzuki from the airport north toward San Francisco. The wealth of this country was apparent in everything Suzuki saw--warehouses, new suburban neighborhoods, distribution centers lined with trucks, and the foundations of Candlestick Park stadium rising on landfill that once was marshland. Then the handsome, low, white skyline of the city came into view, along with glimpses of the bay bordered by shipyards and piers, and on the water sailboats and cargo ships.
Most of the cars were large, and there were so many of them, of such varied colors and makes. There were hardly any bicycles. In San Francisco the streets were wide, lined with large Victorian houses. Everywhere were billboards and store signs in English to decipher.
As Kato drove on, a fog crept over the city from the ocean and obscured the sunlight. On the sidewalks were whites, Asians, Hispanics, and blacks. Soon they were passing more Asians on the sidewalks, storefront signs in Japanese, bonsai on fire escapes. They came to a stop before a deeply inset arched doorway.
Suzuki got out and looked up at the curious building--wooden, time-weathered, three stories high, with a mock-Moorish tower on each side and a wide balcony in the middle with fancy columns. The facade was full of Romanesque decorative detail. It was an old synagogue, Kato explained, something of a landmark to students of architecture. There were three arched doorways, the central one the largest. The paint had dulled and lost its intended Venetian marble effect. It looked a bit shabby, though it must have been impressive in its day. A wooden plaque read: Sokoji, Soto Zen Mission, 1881 Bush Street. Entering through the small, high-ceilinged lobby, they went up a stairway with a mahogany railing, from which one could look down on a dark, funky hallway, empty except for a plain wooden bench.
Kato knew that the old building with faded plaster walls bore no resemblance to any temple Suzuki had ever seen, and he sympathized with Suzuki's obvious shock. There were no tatami, no shoji, no Japanese woodwork, and no sign of a garden. Kato and some of the members had cleaned it up in preparation for Suzuki's arrival, but he still was not proud of its appearance. At the top of the stairs they walked through double doors into a large room filled with about seventy middle-aged and older Japanese-Americans sitting on high-backed pews, waiting to greet the new priest.
Suzuki followed Kato along the worn wood floor under cylindrical paper lanterns. They stepped onto a wide platform cluttered with flower arrangements, cushions, and ritual instruments. Suzuki followed slowly behind Kato and stood at a wide altar before a two-foot-high statue of Kannon flanked by pyramids of fruit, vases of flowers, and three lit candles. Then Kato kneeled before the wide bronze bell and watched for the cue of two hands joining to bow in gassho. Suzuki paused. The room was hushed. He stood as unhurried as the flowers around him. He raised his hands. The deep, rich sound of the bell echoed through the high-ceilinged room.
After three prostrations he and all present chanted the Heart Sutra. Then Suzuki turned and bowed again in gassho, palms together, to those assembled--expressing his sincerity, warmth, and also his authority through the expression on his face, the way he wore his robes, how he used his hands. He said he was grateful to have arrived safely in America and thanked them for coming to greet him. These older Japanese, still close to the culture of their homeland, bowed solemnly in return.
Suzuki had just flown for the first time, crossing the widest expanse of water on earth. He had left one set of obligations for another, gone from the known to the unknown, to this musty old building and this expectant crowd. The limbo between the old life and the new, the unique meditation of the flight and arrival, was over. Life had shifted, and Suzuki assumed his new role without the slightest hesitation or resistance. He settled comfortably into the shrine room in the midst of his congregation, like a vase that was made for its altar.
After lunch with the temple elders and a tour of Japantown, Kato, carrying two bags of gifts from local stores, accompanied Suzuki to his office adjoining the shrine room. Then he took him up a narrow flight of stairs to two clean, characterless rooms above the office. One was for storage and the other was a small bedroom holding a single bed and desk. Neither room had a window to the outside. No one had lived up there for decades. Back in the office Kato noticed a small potted orchid sitting on the desk. "Where did that come from?" he asked. "I sneaked it in through customs," Suzuki said. It was his first act of mischief in the United States.
Later, Suzuki walked around his new temple, turning lights on and off, peeking into back rooms full of cardboard boxes, folding chairs, and tables, inspecting the cavernous auditorium with rows of pews, a stage, a large organ in back, and balconies along both sides. There was no plumbing in his private area, so he brushed his teeth in the rest room next to the office, took his customary evening bath in the deep old basement tub, and climbed back up the three flights to sleep on his first night in America.
The following morning, Kato arrived in a coat and tie, carrying his priest robes in a bag. His wife followed holding a package of *rice balls wrapped in a silk cloth for the new priest, their young daughter at her side.
They found Suzuki in the shrine room upstairs. He had rearranged the flowers and was cleaning the memorial plaques in a dark wooden recess, reaching in and wiping the surfaces with a damp cloth. The whole place looked and smelled as if he'd been cleaning for hours. Kato was pleased to see this early sign of industriousness. Suzuki's predecessor, Tobase, had many fine qualities, but keeping the temple clean wasn't one of them.
Kato introduced Suzuki to his wife, *Emi; their three-year-old daughter, *Kazumi, hid behind her mother's dress and peeked out at the new priest. Then she reached into a paper bag, pulled out an apple, and handed it to Suzuki. He accepted it with delight, and she retreated once more.
People began to arrive. By quarter to ten, many were sitting in the pews. Men were smoking and talking in the hallway and in the office, standing by the desk and sitting on the green vinyl couch. Suzuki was upstairs getting ready for his first Sunday service, changing into his more formal brown robes. Looking down from his quarters through a sliding window onto the shrine room below, he recognized a few people already.
A short time later Suzuki stood facing his new congregation. Kato had explained to him that the custom in America was for ministers to give a sermon at the conclusion of Sunday services. He cleared his throat, placed his hands together with his short carved staff held between his palms, and bowed. "Ohayo gozaimasu" (good morning), he said in his gentle yet penetrating voice. "Ohayo gozaimasu," they responded. Then he gave his first lecture in America, in Japanese.
When Shakyamuni Buddha first started to teach twenty-five hundred years ago in India, he lived in the forest and would at times give talks to all who came: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Many, many people came to hear him, since he was so great and his talks were so wonderful and liberating. When he stepped up on his dais, a monk would hit a tree stump with a mallet and his disciple *Ananda would say, "We are now going to hear Buddha's talk, so please listen carefully." And Buddha would deliver his lecture. When he was finished the monk would pound the stump again, and Ananda would say, "The Buddha's gracious talk is finished."
Kato looked at the spotless surface of the bell stand in front of him. Suzuki spoke so slowly. The members of the congregation sat impassively. A few looked at their watches. Children squirmed in the pews. From the kitchen behind the altar came occasional sounds of food preparation--the clinking of pots and lids, women's voices, a chair being moved, footsteps. Suzuki continued.
One day the people came, Buddha arrived, and a monk hit the tree stump and Ananda said, "We are now going to hear Buddha's talk, so please listen carefully." But that day the Buddha just sat, and didn't say a word. Then he stood up.
Kato listened to Suzuki's delivery. He did not speak in the usual theatrical style of lecturing priests, with dramatic rising and falling pitches. Suzuki wasn't trying to impress them with his knowledge and use of esoteric terms. He spoke simply, directly, almost informally.
Ananda said, "Excuse me, oh honorable one, but are you not giving a talk today?" "Oh, but I just did," Buddha answered, and he descended his dais and walked away.
Suzuki stood silently for a moment. Then with stick in hand he put his palms together, gasshoed, and thanked the congregation.
Kato smiled. A good story and a very short story. Now there
would be more time for refreshments and socializing. How ordinary their new priest was, Kato thought, yet what a gracious style he had. He was off to a good start.
You may say that things happen just by chance,
but I don't feel that way.
After a few days at Sokoji, Suzuki received his first Western visitor. Lou McNeil was an Irish-American in her early twenties and a student of opera. Except for a few exchanges on the trip, Suzuki hadn't used his English in a long time, but he made himself understood and caught the gist of what his guest was saying. Her husband wished to go to Japan to study with a Zen master; she asked Suzuki what he thought about that. She was concerned for him and for their marriage. Suzuki said that he did zazen at 5:45 in the morning and suggested that it might be good for her husband to try Zen in San Francisco first.
Bill McNeil arrived a few days later. A handsome man about five foot eight, with buttery blond hair combed over his ears, he was alert and spirited yet awkward in the unfamiliar surroundings of the shrine room. His wife had made a few comments about Suzuki without letting on that she'd met him. Bill had eagerly taken the bait. He asked Suzuki if this was a Zen temple and if he was a Zen master. There was that term again. He told Suzuki about his plans to go to Japan. He'd read some books about Zen and enlightenment, and now he wanted to go meet the real thing. But was this the real thing right in front of him? Suzuki told him what he'd told Lou--that it might be good to have some experience with Zen practice in America first. He got a cushion from the altar, placed it in the aisle, and showed Bill how to sit. He corrected his posture, pushing the small of his back in, pulling his shoulders back and his chin in. He pushed his knees down gently, showing him how to put his hands together with the left palm on the right palm and the thumbs touching just enough to hold a piece of paper between them. He told him to keep his eyes half open, and to place his attention on the in and out of his breath. He advised him in the future to wear looser pants, so his legs would cross more easily.
This was not at all what Bill had expected. The books on Zen were full of stories of dramatic interchanges between monks. But there was something about this priest that made him want to return. Beneath the charm, Bill sensed authority and humility. Early the next morning and each morning thereafter, Bill McNeil showed up and joined Suzuki for zazen.
In 1959 the Cold War was as icy as ever. The Eisenhower era had a lame-duck year and a half to go before the Kennedy era would begin. Japan was still poor, and America was enjoying seemingly endless affluence. American Christianity and Judaism were generally supportive of society and its materialism. Only a few voices were pointing out the dangers of nuclear weapons, the narcotic effect of pop culture, and the soullessness of assembly-line products, but there was a concentration of these voices in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Suzuki had arrived at the height of what Kato called the "Alan Watts Zen boom." His early students came to him from the loose subculture of artists, nonconformists, and beatniks in the Bay Area, where interest in Asian thought was high. They heard about Suzuki at the American Academy of Asian Studies (the Academy), at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Bill McNeil studied, and in the coffeehouses of North Beach and Berkeley.
Kato had been associated with the Academy from the mid-fifties, ever since the former director, Alan Watts, had asked him to join the faculty. The staff included distinguished teachers from India, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, and Tibet, who imparted first-hand instruction in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sanskrit and other languages, and the arts and histories of Asia.
D. T. Suzuki lectured at the Academy when traveling between Japan and the East Coast. The highly respected avant-garde *sumi artist and printmaker *Saburo Hasegawa taught calligraphy and *tea ceremony there and had been a sort of informal resident therapist, encouraging Watts to slow down and smell the *powdered green tea, which he called "*the froth of jade." Tobase, Suzuki's predecessor at Sokoji, had taught calligraphy at the Academy and at Sokoji as well, and was well loved by his students.
It was at the American Academy of Asian Studies, earlier in the decade, that the poet Gary Snyder and the whole student body had been captivated by Ruth Fuller *Sasaki's formal exposition of the Rinzai Zen method of working with koans. The matriarch of American Zen, she had married Shigetsu Sasaki, her Zen teacher and the teacher of the First Zen Institute in New York City. After his death she had moved to Kyoto to study and help foreigners who wanted to study Zen. She subsequently helped Snyder get a grant to go to Japan to study Rinzai Zen and work with her translation team.
The three-story Victorian East-West House was near Sokoji on California Street. An early attempt at communal living organized by poets, artists, and students of Asian studies, it was set up after Alan Watts was asked to leave the Academy because of philosophical conflicts with the administration, and because they objected to his libertine lifestyle. The East-West House was so popular that in 1958 the Hyphen House was started a few blocks away, a big grey building informally named for the hyphen between East and West. Many of the best-known characters from the San Francisco Beat scene lived in or visited these houses, including the poets Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Philip Whalen.
Whalen was about to publish his first book of poetry. He'd caught the Zen bug and was aware of Suzuki, having seen him walk by on the street wearing his priest's cap. He later met him at a wedding Suzuki performed. Whalen thought he was a delightful person, but was on his way to Japan to study the real thing, Rinzai Zen.
Everyone seemed to be going to Japan or wishing they could. Watts criticized the old-fashioned Japanese monastic way as "square Zen." He also put down "Beat Zen" and made a case for what he dubbed "Zen Zen." Whalen called Beat Zen a hallucination but wondered if there could be any Zen Zen without checking out the "squares" in Japan. Just before he left for Japan he ran into McNeil and his wife. McNeil said he'd see Whalen over there before long, but he loved studying with Suzuki and was going to continue that for a while until Suzuki thought he was ready to go.
There was definitely a buzz about the new priest at Sokoji. A few of the hip crowd, like McNeil and Joanne Kyger, had joined the morning zazen. But it seemed awfully early in the morning to most of them.
Suzuki was surprised by all this interest in Zen. He had never experienced anything like it in Japan. He enjoyed the lively, hip, intellectual milieu, but he didn't venture out much into its world; he just tended to his temple. When people asked about Zen he always said, "I sit at 5:45 in the morning. Please join me." It was his calling card. There didn't seem to be any hook. But to the few who were joining in and getting to know him, Suzuki himself was the hook.
Seeking for something in the dark is not like usual activity,
which is based on an idea of gaining something.
Kato invited Suzuki to join his class on Buddhism at the Academy. It was located in a fine old rambling mansion in the fashionable Pacific Heights section of San Francisco. Twelve students sat at a round oak table. Among them were three women in their forties: Betty Warren, Della Goertz, and Jean Ross. Kato introduced the class to "Reverend Suzuki." Suzuki was reserved and they were shy with him, as he was surely a Zen master and therefore enlightened--something they'd all been reading a lot about in the books of Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki. A Zen master was said to be someone who had had satori--a flash of insight that changed one's life forever. There didn't seem to be any satori that night, but there was a lot of smiling between Kato's students and Suzuki, who was comfortable being quiet and listening. In the latter part of the class Kato asked Suzuki if he'd like to say something.
"Let's do zazen," he replied.
The little zazen that had been taught by Japanese priests in America had been done in chairs, but Suzuki suggested they get down on the floor and face the wall. It was awkward, because there were no cushions. Suzuki's English was a bit garbled, but soon he had everyone sitting on the floor, where they remained for twenty minutes.
Before they parted Suzuki told them he sat zazen for forty minutes every morning except for days with the numbers four or nine in the dates (the traditional days for an abbreviated schedule and doing personal chores in Zen monasteries). "Please come join me if you wish."
Betty Warren and Della Goertz were both native Californians who came to the Bay Area in the thirties to go to college and become teachers. After taking a college semantics class with the noted linguist *S. I. Hayakawa, Della saw things in a new light, took some comparative religion classes, and began studying at the Academy in the early fifties. After hearing Alan Watts on KPFA radio, Betty decided to take a course on Zen Buddhism at the Academy. Betty, Della, and Jean Ross met each other in Kato's class, and for many years their spiritual paths would run parallel.
The three women decided to continue their Buddhist study with Suzuki at Sokoji. Jean would join them after a trip to Europe. All three felt an attraction to Suzuki as a teacher. Della said that as soon as she met him she wanted to be with him--regardless of what he was teaching. Betty agreed. "There was something about his bearing, a look in his eye that made me feel that whatever he said was something I could trust. He was a rare person."
Betty picked up Della on her way in from Sausalito and the two joined the few others at Sokoji. After zazen they were invited to tea with Suzuki at a long wooden table in the kitchen, just behind the shrine room altar. Bill and Lou McNeil were also there. Lou had started sitting with Suzuki, too. The first day she came, her husband was surprised to find out that she and Suzuki already knew each other. "We tricked you," Suzuki told him. An architect named Bob Hense had been sitting every morning with Bill. Hense was friendly, short, and prematurely balding, and had a lot of nervous energy. Like Bill, he'd originally come to Sokoji to ask about studying Zen in a monastery in Japan, and he was sitting with Suzuki in preparation for that. Like Bill McNeil, he had become enamored with the man, his simple lifestyle, and the experience of sitting zazen with him.
Day after day these few returned in the dark mornings, and soon a few more regulars joined them for zazen. Traffic sounds and softly flashing headlights came and went in waves with the timed signal lights, merging with the flickering candlelight and wisps of incense smoke in the shrine room. The room slowly glowed brighter as the sun rose on the bay. Sometimes before or after they sat, Suzuki would offer a few words on zazen: just sit, follow your breath, count your breaths, or keep yourself centered on your *hara (the lower abdomen).
At first there was no proper place to sit on the floor, so with some effort they joined the heavy pews together in pairs and placed them lengthwise along the walls, running from the altar, two sets on each side. Facing each other, the pews formed a sort of boat, wide enough for people to sit cross-legged, two or three to a boat. The fledgling meditators climbed over the armrests and plopped themselves on cushions they had brought from sofas and chairs at home. They faced the walls, with Suzuki watching from his place on the altar platform. In the dimly lit room the pew-vessels floated on a dark ocean, with torsos and heads sticking up and occasionally bobbing with sleepiness--strange cargo on a shadowy voyage.
Zazen was physically difficult, and toward the end of the period most people's legs were in pain. But day after day the stillness of Suzuki's sitting filled the room with confidence and encouraged the others to persist.
is important to work for future generations, for our descendants.
*Daiju Hosen Isobe had come to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 1933. On Buddha's Enlightenment Day, December 8, 1934, he founded Sokoji. The name he gave the abandoned synagogue had a simple meaning: Soko stood for San Francisco and the ji meant temple. Daito Suzuki, whom Shunryu Suzuki had seen off as a young man in Japan, moved from Zenshuji in L.A. to become the third head priest of Sokoji, again on December 8, Buddha's Enlightenment Day, 1941--the day after Pearl Harbor. He was abbot-in-absentia through the years of the Japanese internment and continued after the war, until 1948. Through great effort he and others had managed to keep the temple in the hands of the congregation. A Hindu temple had helped them by taking over the deed during the war, although a Christian group used it as a church. In 1948 Daito returned to L.A., where he became the abbot of Zenshuji and Soto Zen bishop of North America until he died on July 9, 1959. At that time Suzuki was asked by his friend Gido at Soto headquarters in Japan to become the *bishop and to move the North American Soto headquarters to San Francisco. He refused.
Suzuki flew to L.A. to conduct Daito's funeral. A young Soto Zen priest named *Taizan Maezumi joined him. Maezumi had been an assistant priest at Zenshuji, the Soto temple in L.A., since the early fifties. He had recently been studying at San Francisco State. In L.A.
Maezumi had sat zazen with *Nyogen Senzaki, the pioneering Rinzai Zen priest who had taught Zen to Westerners for decades, and Maezumi said he too hoped to start a zazen group in America.
This was the first funeral Suzuki had performed in America. Daito would become American soil. In 1929, when Suzuki and a group of fellow college student-monks had seen Daito off at the docks in Yokohama, Suzuki had cheered him, wet-eyed, as the boat pulled away. How he had wished back then that he could be the one starting a new life in America. Now, thirty years later, he was.
Buddhism has many annual layers, like a big tree. It is our tradition to respect those efforts that our ancestors have made for more than twenty-five hundred years. When this temple was founded, there were not many priests in America, and the founder worked so hard to collect donations to buy this building. He was able to raise only part of the cost, and the Japanese members year after year paid on the mortgage. Even in detention camps during the war, they collected money for the mortgage. This was an important effort, but it is nothing compared to the effort and devotion of our ancestors in India, China, and Japan in preserving and developing Buddhism. We should continue these efforts generation after generation forever.
When I came to American I had no idea, no particular plan.
Gradually, and with the help of others, Suzuki started to introduce certain traditional elements of Japanese form and practice to his San Francisco zendo.
George *Hagiwara was among the few members of the congregation who were friendly with the zazen students. When he greeted them at the temple on Sundays or weekday afternoons, he always smiled and made them feel welcome. The Hagiwara family had founded and been caretakers of the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park and had lived in the house there till World War II. Though he had lost a fortune during the war, he still was better off than most of the Japanese-American members, who were recovering from the terrible losses suffered during internment.
Having heard from Suzuki how cumbersome it was to sit zazen on the pews, Hagiwara talked to other members and took up a collection. They ordered tatami mats from Japan to go around the edge of the room and also bought grass goza mats to bow on and black cloth to make round *zafu cushions. In six weeks the new materials arrived.
On Saturdays Betty and Della stayed for breakfast and afterward sewed and stuffed kapok into the zafus. Bill McNeil and some of the other men cleaned the floor and moved the pews back in from the balcony for the Japanese congregation's service on Sunday. Thus started the tradition of an extended Saturday morning schedule that included a work period.
The shrine room took on a radically different look and from then on was called the zendo. Suzuki guarded the appearance of the newly appointed zendo and kept a watchful eye out to see that people fluffed their zafus back into a round shape after zazen and placed them in the center of the tatami, lining them all up straight. Betty's first reaction to the zafu was that it felt as hard as the tatami underneath. "Next," she said, "Sensei's going to give us a nice rock and tell us that's what they sit on at Eiheiji in Japan."
Another ingredient that Suzuki carefully introduced at this time was sutra chanting. After the first month he started reciting the Heart Sutra each morning after zazen, accompanying himself by thumping on the mokugyo and ringing the low and high bowl-shaped bells, while the others stood and listened. Then one morning he passed out cards to the seven people present with the romanized sutra printed on them. They chanted the Heart Sutra three times as Suzuki hit the bells and drums. He made no comment on their efforts, which sounded like an orchestra tuning up. Soon they were developing their own style of chanting. Suzuki put up a sign on the altar that read, "Chant the sutra with your ears."
An element in the zendo environment that attracted particular attention was the kyosaku, which came to be called "the stick." The kyosaku is an integral part of Japanese Zen, used primarily to awaken a practitioner who has become drowsy while sitting on the cushion. Suzuki's stick was about two feet long and an inch and a half wide, oval at the handle end and flat at the other. During the zazen period he would walk around the zendo with the stick held vertically in front of him. When students appeared to be sleepy or unfocused, Suzuki would stand behind them and rest the flat end of the stick on their right shoulder. They would put their palms together in gassho and bend over to the left. He'd hit each student twice on the muscles between the shoulder blade and the backbone, then repeat the procedure on the left shoulder. It made a penetrating sound that caused the others in the room to open their closed eyes and straighten their backs. But it was more invigorating than painful and frightened only newcomers. There is no record of Dogen's having used the stick, but Dogen's master Nyojo, in China, would hit his monks on their shoulders with his sandal if they were nodding.
Now that the pews were out of the room during the week, Suzuki would walk around during zazen. He would adjust people's posture, especially if they were new to the zendo, and would occasionally whisper advice like, "Please keep the eyes half open." He emphasized other details, like how to hold the hands together in the proper position, or *mudra: an oval shape held at the lower abdomen, but not resting on the feet, thumbs together at the navel with a tissue paper's breadth between them. He tended to pay more attention to students on their first day, usually touching them in some way, as if to say hello--straightening posture or even briefly massaging someone nervous or stiff. But mostly he left his students alone, and there was stillness. People came and sat with Suzuki and each other in candlelight and silence, chanted a sutra, maybe stayed for tea afterward, and then went on about their lives. Those who continued day after day, week after week, began to feel a change in themselves. Suzuki did, too. He was no longer frustrated with how his life was going.
should forget what I say, but be sure you know
Kato helped translate at times, but Suzuki didn't want more assistance than absolutely necessary. His English was taking off. At adult school, which he attended every day, he'd done so well on tests that his English teacher had accused him of cheating.
Suzuki bravely began giving talks in English on Wednesday nights. They were brief--fifteen to thirty minutes. He spent hours preparing for them, but many listeners, especially those hearing him for the first time, had trouble understanding his English and went away scratching their heads.
After one of his talks when he and Kato were alone together in the office, Suzuki took off his okesa, folded and draped it over a chair, then sighed and said to Kato, "Such a chore. I have to think of what to say."
"Yes, in English as well as Japanese," Kato said, looking at the Japanese-English dictionary on his desk--the cover worn and the corners curled up.
But Suzuki's efforts were appreciated. Della understood him right away. To her he was clearly saying what she already believed: we have what we seek, and the way to find it is just to be ourselves.
Betty noticed how much he contradicted himself, coming back around to the opposite of what he'd just said in the same lecture, sometimes even in the same sentence. He just didn't think in a way she was used to. "One week he says we have to put our entire effort into it," she said to Della, "and the next week he says there's no use trying, give up and the answer will come. No use trying, and you've got to do your damnedest!"
Even though you expect some answer, you know, sometimes my answer will go in another direction. Even though my answer is something you didn't expect, you should be able to follow the direction. You shouldn't be lost. Of course, sometimes your teacher will give you some answer you do expect. A teacher will always try to put you in confusion. Back and forth in this way, we will help each other.
To Kato, Suzuki's progress had been astounding: "Amazingly, with his sort of calm, slow pace," he said to Hagiwara one day, "Suzuki-sensei has communicated with his students within a short time. To many he is a fascinating person when he speaks English. His character communicates to them as well; nothing excites or angers him. He is a kind and gentle priest, yet with backbone. He actually has stern zazen in the zendo, but after zazen he is a warm person."
Kato liked to hear Suzuki's English-language version of classic Zen stories--some about the great old masters of China, others about the life of Dogen. In one story Suzuki told during a Wednesday evening lecture, Dogen met an old monk in China who was drying mushrooms by a monastery wall on a hot summer day. "Why are you out here in the heat? Why not go in and rest until the sun is lower in the sky?" Dogen asked. "This is what I'm doing now," answered the monk. "It's my job and no one else's job. Why would I try to be somewhere else?"
"The time is now," Suzuki said after he told the story. "What we are doing is now. There is no other time. This is reality. I am here now. You are here now. That incident with the old monk taught Dogen what a Buddhist life is, what reality is. It is not for another time or another place or another person."
single piece of thread is not useful until we make a beautiful
One morning after breakfast in the fall of 1959, a Japanese Rinzai Zen priest in robes showed up unexpectedly at Sokoji. His name was *Soen Nakagawa. He had heard that Shunryu Suzuki was sitting zazen with Westerners, and for that reason he had come by to pay his respects. Kato, who answered the door, led him upstairs. Nakagawa offered incense at the altar and the three of them chanted the Heart Sutra. Kato and Suzuki had heard of Nakagawa and were impressed that this priest from the Rinzai sect would visit them. Kato did not like the Japanese sectarian tradition in which priests from different sects avoided fraternizing, but he was used to it. These two, however, were quite open with each other. They had in common that they wished to transmit their way to Westerners.
Nakagawa had also sat zazen with Westerners in America and in Japan, where he had become involved with the Soto Zen maverick *Sogaku Harada and Harada's heir, *Hakuun Yasutani, who used koans extensively with their Japanese and Western students. Nakagawa had several times gone to L.A. to visit and sit zazen with Nyogen Senzaki. Senzaki had taught his low-key, anti-institutional brand of Rinzai Zen for decades--first in his Bush Street San Francisco apartment and then in L.A. Suzuki knew of Senzaki, respected him for having concentrated on teaching laypeople, and admired Senzaki's concept of the floating zendo: he had no temple.
They presented a nice contrast--Suzuki, the short, slight, modest one, and Nakagawa, taller, thicker, more assertive, and animated. Suzuki chanted quietly, Nakagawa strongly. After the service Kato blew out the candle and tended to the altar. At that moment he feared the harmony between the priests was over.
Nakagawa asked to see a sutra book that was on the altar. He looked at it, then suddenly exploded, stamping his foot on the floor and shouting, "This is not Zen!" He tore the book in two and threw it on the floor. Kato froze with shock.
Suzuki calmly squatted down and picked up the pieces. "Oh, that's a sutra book that was donated to the temple on the occasion of a memorial service for an old woman from a different sect not represented in this area," he said. "We accept everything here. We chant everything. We eat everything." For a moment Nakagawa still looked angry, but Suzuki put him at ease. "Let's go have some tea."
Buddhism is not any special teaching. It's our human way.
In September Jean Ross returned from Europe. Her classmates from the Academy, Betty and Della, were already pillars of the zendo, and from then on Jean joined them three times a week, when she wasn't working as a nurse. She took the bus over from Berkeley for the Wednesday night sitting and lecture, spent the night, and stayed for Thursday morning zazen. She came back for the Saturday sitting, breakfast, and work period, and for the Sunday lecture that preceded Suzuki's lecture to the Japanese congregation.
Jean was from a middle-class Detroit family with strong ties to the Methodist Church. At fifteen she became curious about Asia and started reading all the books she could find on China and Japan. In college she pursued Christian studies and started to read about Buddhism. She fit right in with Suzuki temperamentally: she was independent and sharp-eyed, with no time for nonsense. She was heavy and had a hard time sitting on a cushion on the floor, but she could accept the difficult regimen when it came from Suzuki. Jean had a constancy and determination that impressed Suzuki. "The harder it is for you to sit, the deeper your realization," he always said.
Della was accustomed to coming by in the afternoons when her kindergarten class was over to see if she could be of use. She drove Suzuki to visit Alan Watts and to the homes of Japanese-Americans so he could perform memorial services for their departed ancestors. He would call and ask for a ride to the airport to greet a visitor or to go to the newspaper for an interview. One day Suzuki went to Della's house and met her husband, who was afflicted with advanced Parkinson's disease. Suzuki was deeply touched and wondered how she managed to take care of her husband, teach kindergarten, practice zazen, and do so much for him.
"Are there real bodhisattvas on earth?" Bill McNeil once asked Suzuki.
"Yes," he answered, "Della."
One day Della took him to Sears, where he bought a dozen potted plants and a three-foot potted tree. He put the tree in the main entryway and the plants on a table at the top of the stairs, where everyone passed on their way to and from the zendo.
The temple now had a brighter, cared-for look. The cleaning, decorating, and rearranging that Suzuki started the day he arrived had made the place much more inviting. His own room was brighter too, thanks to a window, installed as a gift from the temple's board. The Saturday work period also made a big difference. Even a few people could get a lot done in an hour cleaning the zendo, halls and stairway, bathrooms, steps, and the sidewalk out front.
Kato assisted with Sunday service and visited once or twice during the week. A cantankerous old caretaker took care of maintenance, changing lightbulbs and fixing leaks. Students and congregation women would sometimes bring food over or invite Suzuki to their houses for dinner. Della brought him casseroles and cookies. He often ate lunch and dinner in Japantown, but mainly he cooked for himself and whomever dropped by. Della's favorite was his ginger tofu.
Although students and congregation members helped in their spare time, Suzuki expressed frustration at all he had to do. He told Kato he wished his wife, Mitsu, could join him. He'd always had women to help him run a temple. He wrote asking Mitsu to come, but she refused, saying she was needed at the two kindergartens and would wait for him to return to Japan when his three-year stint in America was up. Mitsu was no longer ill. A doctor had finally diagnosed her with thyroiditis, and a simple operation had corrected her problem, but she was still angry at her husband for abandoning her when she was sick.
Next: Chapter Eleven
contact DC at <email@example.com>