cuke.com - an archival site on the life and world of Shunryu Suzuki and those who knew him and anything else DC feels like - originally a site for Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki - not crookedcuke.com

| home| what was new | table of contents | Shunryu Suzuki Index | donate | |DC Writings

Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 11

Crooked Cucumber home page    Notes on CC index page   Notes on Notes on CC   Next: Chapter Twelve

 

          Chapter Eleven

 

            Bowing

 

                             1960

 

 

 

 

a

 

When there is freedom from self, you have absolute freedom.

 

Bill Kwong was a mailman who lived in San Francisco with his wife, Laura. They were both second-generation Chinese-Americans who were part of the Beat scene. They had one child, and Laura was pregnant with another. Bill and Laura had gone to Sokoji in Tobase's time to hear a lecture that was translated by a distinguished-looking gentleman. They didn't get much out of it and figured you had to hear it in the original.

 One day while delivering mail, Kwong saw a front-page story on Sokoji in the *Nichibei Times, a newspaper for Japanese-Americans printed in both Japanese and English. It was about the new priest there, Reverend Suzuki, who had some zazen students and a pet bird. One student, a young artist named Bill McNeil, had confronted Suzuki in his office one day, asking why, if he believed in absolute freedom, he kept a bird in a cage. Suzuki had walked right over to the cage, opened the little door, and let the bird fly out. It was a tra-


 

dition in China and Japan to let birds go at temples as a symbol of liberation. Ironically, birds were sold in front of temples for that purpose. But this was a spontaneous act. Kwong thought he should check this guy out--he must be a great Zen master.

 When Bill Kwong walked up to the second floor of Sokoji, went into the zendo, and saw the black zafus all lined up straight and neat like soldiers in a row, nothing there spoke to him and his values. The altar was stacked with oranges in front of the Buddha statue. The room smelled of incense and was filled with paraphernalia--bells, drum, gong, flowers, high red-lacquered seat, black-lacquered memorial plaques with the names of the deceased in gold Chinese characters. It was too much like an old Chinese temple, full of superstition, empty ceremonies, prayers for money and ancestors. "This really is for the birds," thought Kwong, as he chuckled with derision. This didn't look like freedom to him. Freedom was his goatee, his black shirt, dirty jeans, and black boots--freedom from bourgeois grooming and grey flannel suits.

 The door to the office opened. A little man in robes came into the room, ignoring Kwong, and started fixing the flowers on the altar. Kwong snickered. "How square," he thought.

 Walking up Pine Street toward Van Ness Avenue, Kwong passed a store called the Bazaar which was offering a free poster, a photo of the Kamakura Buddha seated in meditation. He took it home, tacked it to the wall, and told Laura his disappointing experience at Sokoji. He liked Alan Watts's inspiring talks on the radio, but all this guy Suzuki seemed to have was a hall for ceremonies and meditation. Kwong was not into that old stuff. He was into liberation and seeing that this was it, as Watts said. That wasn't it. Kwong was listening to the hippest people, and nobody was talking about meditation. But he kept looking at that buddha on the wall. Then he met Bill McNeil at the Art Institute and was taken with McNeil's confident energy. McNeil talked about sitting zazen with Suzuki as if it were pretty cool. Kwong went home and the buddha on the wall was still looking at him, so he decided to go back to Sokoji and try zazen.

 He arrived in the early morning darkness and followed McNeil


 

into the shrine room. Kwong sat down like the others, watching for cues. Nobody told him what to do. After the service McNeil asked him to have some tea in the kitchen, where he introduced him to Suzuki. Suzuki stared at Kwong's face for what seemed like a long time before saying hello. What a curious person, Kwong thought. Suzuki made tea as the temple cat walked back and forth against his ankles. Della asked Kwong how he had heard about Sensei. He mentioned the newspaper article and asked if the bird was still in the building or had flown off. Everyone looked down. Had he said something wrong?

 "The cat," Suzuki said softly.

 "The cat?" Kwong asked, looking at the cat curled up now on Della's lap.

 McNeil leaned over to Kwong and said, "The cat ate the bird."

 "Sensei felt so bad about it," said Della with sympathy in her voice.

Suzuki said nothing. They drank their tea.

 

Kwong started going to Sokoji regularly. He and Laura were used to doing everything together. The first time she came to Sokoji she was dizzy with pain after not moving the entire zazen period. Her husband had told her this was the rule. Then she stood up too quickly and fainted to the floor. At breakfast she broke a raw egg over her dress, because she thought it was hard boiled, not being familiar with the Japanese custom of mixing a raw egg with hot rice for breakfast.

 Laura was trying to be a good Zen student and a good mother. On most days she was busy taking care of their boys, a toddler and a baby, but she'd bring them along on Sundays. Sometimes she'd find friends to help, so she could go to zazen and Wednesday evening lectures. One day in a lecture she heard Suzuki say, "Your practice can be at home." Laura talked to Suzuki about it later and told him she was feeling guilty about not taking care of her children well enough. "You don't have to come here just because your husband does," he said. From that point on Laura stopped feeling like her husband's shadow and devoted herself to finding Buddha at home.


 

 

 Bill Kwong's life reversed direction. For one thing, his apartment lost a heavy layer of dust, mainly as a result of Suzuki's visiting for dinner one evening. Suzuki hadn't been inside long before his robes started to acquire dust and cat hair. So instead of sitting and talking, he started cleaning up. Bill and Laura joined him. Dinner had to wait.

 One day Suzuki talked to the students about the importance of coming to the zendo clean and neatly dressed. Kwong started to wear freshly laundered clothes and shaved his goatee. But he didn't feel criticized by his new teacher. On the contrary, he felt Suzuki was the first person ever who accepted him unconditionally. He was willing to sit zazen day after day without moving his aching legs, at an hour when he used to be just going to bed. He was willing to change his life, because he felt that Suzuki had total confidence in him--more than he had in himself. Rather than being required to have faith in Suzuki, he found Suzuki demonstrating faith in him. This encouraged Kwong to follow Suzuki down a path, even though he couldn't see where it was leading.

 

a

 

The most important point is to accept yourself

and stand on your two feet.

 

The morning zazen began with a greeting. People would come into the zendo and sit on their zafus facing the wall--men on the right side and women on the left, beneath the arched windows. Suzuki would walk to the altar, offer incense, and bow down on his bowing cloth. Then he would walk around the room bent in a bow, holding his teacher's staff. As he passed behind people they would put their hands together in gassho. If a person was new and didn't know about it, he'd lean over and whisper "Greeting." It was the traditional morning greeting, done in training temples in Japan.


 

 

 The morning schedule concluded with a standing bow to Suzuki as each person left the zendo following service. It was a little ritual that gave a moment of private contact with every person who came, every day. He would stand inside the door to his office, and as people filed out they would stop and bow with him. It was never perfunctory. He gave his full attention to each bow, to each person. Some felt that Suzuki was looking straight through them. The bow at the door was a farewell, a greeting, a meeting. It was an intimate affair, new each day.

 "Suzuki-sensei always is encouraging us and thanking us," said Jean Ross. "When I stand across from him and bow, I am reminded he is totally on the level, without a speck of pretension."

 A member of the congregation who was a florist would sometimes leave flower arrangements in Suzuki's office. One day he dropped by during zazen and left a magnificent arrangement of cymbidium orchids with hundreds of blossoms. As each person filed by that day, there was Suzuki among the flowers.

 Curiously, people would follow this practice of bowing with Suzuki whether he was there or not. The old caretaker would often sit on the couch reading a Japanese newspaper and smoking a cigarette. Every now and then when Suzuki wasn't there, someone who had been sitting in the zendo for the first time would bow on the way out like the others, and would leave thinking that the old man in baggy pants and suspenders, who'd been sitting on the couch and ignoring them, was the Zen master.

 

a

 

We put more emphasis on a physical point

rather than on an intellectual one.

 

Phillip Wilson was an artist. He was also a tough guy and a teddy bear with a thick neck and massive thighs, who had been feared as a right tackle for the offense of the Stanford Univer-


 

sity football team. No one wanted to be on the other side of him on the playing field, where he was truly a man possessed. He also had a delicate side, which came out when he picked up a brush. Phillip had transcendent experiences both playing football and painting, but it was modeling for other artists that first gave him the calm, subtle state of mind that led to his interest in meditation. Everyone in life drawing class at the San Francisco Art Institute wanted to draw his big, muscular body. It exploded with energy, and when he modeled, he found his energy becoming focused in stillness rather than in the fierceness of combat sport. He felt at home in that state of mind. It wasn't fixed, it flowed, and it was devoid of the complications of social life.

 Early one Sunday morning while walking in Chinatown, Phillip met an old drunk with a crazy eye. He took him to an AA meeting and then decided on a whim to go to a lecture at the Zen temple. Phillip hadn't been to Sokoji before, but he'd heard about it from students at the Art Institute. He and his newfound buddy missed the lecture for the zazen students, arriving in time for Suzuki's talk to the congregation. Unfamiliar non-Japanese were usually asked to leave before this talk, but no one said a word to Phillip the gladiator and the smelly bum.

 The tiny man on the platform looked to Phillip like a samurai. He was golden. He started talking in Japanese and smiling. As Phillip stared at him, he entered a time-free zone. (This was not a new experience for Phillip. He had been involved in early LSD experimentation with Ken Kesey.)

 Afterward, he turned to his companion and said, "I don't know why, but I sure like this guy. I'm not going to say anything to him, though. He's too important to talk to." Suddenly Suzuki was in front of them saying hello. The old guy said, "Oh, I think your lecture was wonderful. I liked everything about it."

 Phillip said nothing. Suzuki said nothing. The old guy asked Suzuki for some money. Suzuki laughed as if he'd been told a good joke and said, "No. You'd just go buy alcohol with it."


 

 

The next day Phillip phoned Sokoji. Suzuki answered, and Phillip's words got all tangled up. Finally Suzuki said, "Please come." Phillip went over prepared to ask a lot of questions, but as soon as he saw Suzuki, he was tongue-tied again. Suzuki said, "Zazen?" "Yes," Phillip managed to say. "Oh, please come," replied Suzuki.

 For the next two months Phillip sat at the temple, but Suzuki didn't talk to him, give him any instruction, hit him with the stick, or adjust his posture. At the door after the morning service, bowing to each student who walked out, Suzuki would only look to the side when Phillip stood before him.

 One morning Betty said to Phillip, "Ah, you're still here." It was common for people to try zazen for a while and then quit. But each person who stayed added something, figured out something about how to be there, what the possibilities were for working with Suzuki or working on themselves within Suzuki's sphere. Phillip wasn't sure if he'd ever be capable of doing zazen correctly. Still, he was drawn there, and the idea of not going back didn't occur to him.

 Phillip went to his first Wednesday evening lecture thinking that finally he'd find out what it was all about. But it was so complicated. Or was it so simple? He couldn't get a grip on it. Suzuki's accent was hard to understand, and there was all the new terminology to deal with. His metaphors were puzzling. Phillip would get the gist of a story but then had no idea what it applied to. Suzuki was smiling all the time, very confident. "Do you understand?" he would ask. And Phillip was unable to say no, he was so amazed by the beauty and confusion and perfection of the story.

 Phillip went back again and again, trying to understand. He was sure he couldn't fool this man. Like an opposing left guard on the field, Suzuki demanded absolute honesty. Suzuki wasn't treating him like somebody who had failed a test--more like somebody who wasn't in the room. What did this behavior mean? Go away? No, the door was open to anyone. Maybe this was an initiation.

 He couldn't figure out this beautiful swordless samurai, so he gave up. But he didn't leave. He began to watch, rather than analyze, everything Suzuki did. He thought, maybe I can understand


 

his stories by the way he picks up his stick. He watched how Suzuki walked, with no part rushing ahead of the others or lagging behind, how he sat down with his whole body, how he picked up a teacup with both hands and held it like a baby bird. He watched and imitated. Then one day Phillip bowed at the office door after zazen and Suzuki didn't turn away, but looked squarely at him. Phillip had found a way to work with his new teacher.

If something is learned just by your thinking mind, it tends to be very superficial. When a mother bird teaches a baby bird how to fly, the mother tries like a baby. She can fly very well, but she imitates the baby. The mother bird becomes like a baby bird and does something that it is possible for a baby bird to do, so the baby bird will study how to fly. That is also practice. We should practice with a beginner's real innocence, devoid of ideas of good or bad, gain or loss.

 

a

 

"Someone gave me a nice *manju, my favorite Japanese confection." It was the beginning of Suzuki's talk to the congregation one Sunday morning. Kato's five-year-old daughter, Kazumi, perked up at the subject of the lecture. "It was so good. I like sweet things too much, but I thought, this too is the taste of Buddha. And Buddha's teaching is like candy. So I ate it slowly and fully appreciated it. You may think that Buddha's teaching is something very grave. But it is also candy."

 Kato liked Suzuki's low-key, warm talks to the Japanese congregation even though they were delivered very slowly and a bit simply for a priest and scholar such as he. The zazen group was composed of intellectuals, and Suzuki gave more sophisticated talks to them. He appeared comfortable in both roles.

 A lot of the older members of the congregation resented the


 

growing presence of the non-Japanese in their temple. The young ones especially were so awkward and talkative, frequently disheveled and dirty, and often unintentionally disrespectful. And they were always talking about zazen, which was not a toy but a serious practice for monks in monasteries. Did they think they could sit on those cushions and understand Buddhism, which the Japanese had nurtured for one and a half millennia?

 Kato understood the resentment. The middle-aged Western women students of Suzuki got along fairly well with the congregation, especially with some of the younger Japanese-American women, but there would always be a gap. These Japanese-Americans had been rounded up and put in camps during the war. They were Americans too, who had worked hard in a new country, but they were still looked down upon as inferiors. They had farmed and built new lives, bought land, and saved money so their children's lives would be easier. They had lost almost everything because of the color of their skin and the country they'd come from. After the war they had scrubbed the floors of the whites for a dollar and a half an hour; women earned even less. Many members were still laborers.

 

In 1952 when discrimination was still strong, Kato had arrived in the Bay Area. When he and his wife were married, they couldn't find an apartment in Berkeley near the university. Doors would be slammed in their faces. "We don't rent to Japs!" they'd hear again and again. They had to take a place surrounded by winos and hookers in downtown Oakland. The discrimination wasn't nearly as bad now, fifteen years after the war, but deep resentments lingered on both sides.

 Like Suzuki, Kato hoped that if the zazen students joined the congregation's holiday feasts and the promenades around Japantown on Buddha's birthday, the two groups would get to know and understand each other better. Kato and Hagiwara knew these seekers could see beyond the war and stereotypes. Suzuki thought the children might solve these problems in the future. The McNeil chil-


 

dren were spending time with the Japanese-American children in the Sunday school.

 Soon after he arrived, Suzuki had asked Emi Kato to teach Sunday school. She noticed the way Suzuki played with the children, treating them with great affection and respect, and how all the children loved him. Kazumi always wanted to bring Suzuki a gift because, as Emi said, he had such a warm personality. One day in February when the Bay Area had a freak snowfall, Kazumi made a snowball and put it in a box. She and her mother took a bus to Sokoji, and she gave the box to Suzuki. He opened it excitedly. Of course, the snow had melted. As she cried and tried to explain, Suzuki just said, "My, what a beautiful snowball." He gave her a piece of chocolate, and everything was all right.

 

a

 

Instead of criticizing, find out how to help.

 

Whenever the Katos would invite Suzuki over to dinner, after a while he'd say that he'd better get back. He didn't want to miss meeting a possible new student or someone with a question. The office and kitchen continued to be the principal places where Suzuki met socially with the congregation and students. But he was careful not to get involved in the sort of socializing he had done in his last years in Japan, when it had become a diversion from his unsatisfying temple responsibilities. He wouldn't play go anymore. He had walked over to the Go Club on the other side of the building one day, reached for the doorknob, paused, then had backed away and gone home.

 If he dropped by Sokoji, Kato knew there would always be food in the refrigerator, often cantaloupe and honeydew melons, his favorites. He and some of the other Japanese-Americans and students were often broke, and Suzuki didn't seem to mind the freeloading. Kato admired the indiscriminate way Suzuki accepted


 

people--even the disturbed wanderers who showed up with interminable questions.

 One day a young woman came by whose mother had just died, and Suzuki asked her to help him cook lunch. He spent the whole morning with her in the kitchen, not saying anything, just naturally assuming the role of mother and being with her in her grief.

 Kato always remarked how nothing ever bothered Suzuki, but there were exceptions. Tobase's nephew used to come to Sokoji frequently to raid the kitchen, smoke, and chat in Japanese. As is common with people living abroad, he complained about his new country. Suzuki didn't like to hear petty complaints. One day in the office with Suzuki, Kato, and their good friend and temple elder George Hagiwara, the young Tobase was sitting on the couch going on about all the things that irritated him about America. Suddenly Suzuki leaped up from his chair and slapped Tobase's face five times, rapid-fire. Kato and Hagiwara were astounded. "There--that's what you get!" he said, "and if you complain more you'll get more!" Tobase was humiliated. He left and stopped coming. Two weeks later Suzuki called him up. "Hey, Tobase-san, why don't you come over? We have too much food here, and we miss you." So he started coming again.

 

a

 

The forms change, but not just to new forms that people are
comfortable with. Dogen said that the best teaching makes people
feel like something is being forced on them.

 

Shunryu Suzuki's zendo continued to take form. The upstairs pews were getting broken up from being moved back and forth every week between the zendo and the balcony. Betty came up with some money to buy twenty folding chairs, and the congregation's budget covered the cost for more, so the pews were hauled down to the auditorium for good.


 

 

 Suzuki had expected some trouble getting Western students to sit on zafus, rather than in chairs, but even those who had difficulty, like Jean, usually didn't ask to sit in chairs. A few had to use chairs because of special problems or advanced age. Suzuki was careful not to make those who used chairs feel second-class. Asked the difference between sitting on the floor and in a chair, he said, "The only difference is the legs."

 One day after service Suzuki announced that he was adding another period of zazen--at 5:30 pm so people could come after work. It was forty minutes long like the morning period, and was followed by a briefer service in which the Heart Sutra was recited once between two sets of three full bows. Some people came in the morning, some in the evening, and some joined Suzuki for both. Immediately the practice at Sokoji shifted into a rhythm that seemed to enclose the whole day.

 

In February of 1960 Suzuki and his students had a three-day sesshin, the first such extended zazen retreat he had held in America. He never had a sitting group get that far in Japan. People came prepared to sit from early morning till six in the evening, Saturday through Monday. It was a monumental step for the small group and for each individual. They started sitting an hour earlier than usual. There were two periods of zazen in a row with a walking period called kinhin in between. Suzuki demonstrated, walking slowly with hands held together at the solar plexus. Aside from meals and an afternoon lecture, the day was a continuous cycle of zazen and kinhin.

 Six months later Suzuki conducted the first weeklong sesshin. Eight people attended most of it. On weekday mornings people stayed as long as they could, went off to work, came back after work, and sat until nine at night. On Saturday they sat all day.

 The feeling was strict. Suzuki growled at people if they moved. Jean's temper got the best of her. Suzuki had told her to use more pillows if she got uncomfortable, but sitting there hour after hour, nothing worked. Finally she stood up and said, "These things aren't


 

doing a damned bit of good!" She exhaled angrily and then sat back down. After a few moments Suzuki got up and brought her another pillow.

 During sesshin, everyone would have a private interview with Suzuki called *dokusan. He gave dokusan in the congregation's office at the bottom of the stairs. When it was Betty's turn for dokusan, she sat zazen in the hall until she heard Suzuki's handbell ringing to announce that it was her turn. She fluffed her cushion, bowed, and slowly walked into the office. There Suzuki sat on a zafu facing an empty zafu a few feet in front of him. Behind him was a little altar that had been set up for the dokusan, with a candle that provided most of the light in the room. Following the procedure Suzuki had taught them, Betty bowed upon entering the room and did three full bows before Suzuki. Then she sat on the cushion facing him. They sat there breathing together for a moment. It was terribly intimate. At first she was uncomfortable, feeling in awe of Suzuki, within his undeniable presence. Then she sank into it and relaxed. She asked him a question about a problem she was having in zazen, and he answered her softly. When Suzuki was satisfied with the exchange he rang his bell, Betty bowed and departed, and the next person entered.

 People were not encouraged to talk about what happened to them in dokusan. It was private. Betty felt that the less formal exchanges she had with Suzuki were often just as memorable. One day in the hallway as she put on her coat to go home, she said to him, "The more I try to control my breath the worse it gets. It gets too fast, or too slow. I become preoccupied with trying to make it right."

 "Oh, just sit," he casually answered, knocking her thoughts away.

 

In later years, the hours of sesshin were longer and the schedule more demanding, but for some this was the most powerful event of their lives. In the prolonged stillness the students noticed their chattering minds grow calm, their sense of identity shift and expand.

 At this first sesshin Bill was the cook (as he would continue to be


 

for years on Saturday mornings and during sesshins). Betty helped him prepare breakfast and was surprised to find that all he planned to serve was leftover rice crusts from the previous day with hot water. The sesshin participants came into the kitchen and sat in chairs at the long wooden table. As Betty poured hot water over her rice crusts, she was overcome with a feeling of gratitude, and tears flowed down her cheeks. She realized she could trust the universe to fill her every need.

 On the last day of sesshin, Suzuki told his students in lecture that the more they practiced the more they would refine themselves. Every now and then, within a life of daily sitting, it was good to sit all day or all week, to push oneself a little harder. That would help to make their zazen "more beautiful." "But don't be in any hurry," he said. "It takes a long time to master zazen."

 During these sesshins Suzuki was particularly demanding of Bill McNeil and Bob Hense, his first two American students, who still wanted to go to Japan to experience the source.

 

a

 

Bowing is a very important practice for diminishing our arrogance
and egotism. It is not to demonstrate complete surrender to Buddha,
but to help get rid of our own selfishness.

 

The people coming to Suzuki weren't seeking devotional religion. They might become devoted to Suzuki, but they still asked more questions every day than he'd been asked in thirty years as a priest in Japan. They passionately wanted to understand Buddhism, Zen, themselves, life, death, enlightenment, truth. They wanted to know the meaning of everything. Suzuki was not quick to define things. "If I give you an answer, you'll think you understand," he said more than once. Why were four-and-nine days taken off? "It's a mystery," Suzuki answered. What is the meaning of the sutra? "Love." Why do we use that particular hand position


 

in zazen? "It's a secret." Why do you shave your head? "It's the ultimate in hairstyling." At times of his own choosing, Suzuki would give reasons and meanings--but they tended to change each time he answered. He wanted people to learn things for themselves in their own time.

 

Then there was the matter of prostrations, or full bows. Many students weren't prepared to bow down to the floor without asking why. Some complained it was too Japanese and, like begging, not appropriate for American Zen. Suzuki had tried takuhatsu in Japantown, but had given it up.

 Suzuki told them how his masters had taught bowing as a central practice of Zen. It was Buddhist, not Japanese. The Japanese secular bow is from the waist, with the head lowered. Buddhist bows are either the gassho with palms together, or full bows which begin with a gassho and end with knees, head, elbows, and hands on the floor. Morning service began and ended with three full bows. Suzuki explained that when the forehead goes down, the extended palms are raised three times to lift the feet of Buddha. "Bowing is second only to zazen," he said before the morning service one day. "It is Buddha bowing to Buddha. If you cannot bow to Buddha, you cannot be Buddha. It is arrogance. So from now on we will start the morning service with nine bows instead of three. In Japan three is enough, but here in America we are so stubborn, it is better to do nine bows."

 There were some groans.

 "Don't complain," he said. "You want more practice than Japanese want anyway. It may be hard for you to understand why it is so important, but you will come to understand by bowing. Bowing is a very good practice, and after sitting we feel very good when we bow."

 

a

 


 

Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about

to sail out to sea and sink.

 

Late in 1960 Bill McNeil and Bob Hense flew to Japan. Bill Kwong had become quite close to McNeil and was sorry to see his friend go. It made him sad to think of the Sokoji zendo without him. He stood by as Suzuki saw his first students off. It should have been a joyous occasion, but something didn't feel right to Kwong. Suzuki seemed awfully serious. McNeil, always so positive, did not look happy. His wife and children, who were staying behind, were sad to see him go. Hense was especially nervous. Kwong didn't know why, but they seemed like condemned men on their way to the gallows. Maybe they were realizing what they'd gotten themselves into.

 It was a loss to the zendo. McNeil had been the live wire of the group, the charismatic artist-philosopher. He had spread the word about zazen from North Beach to the East-West House. He had rallied the troops in the zendo when no one knew what they were doing or why. He had helped to bring Suzuki's group together for a year and a half. And now he was gone. He and Hense had gone off to the source and to the unknown. There had been no farewell party. It was almost a secret.

 Suzuki didn't want others to know about their departure, because people had such an unrealistic idea about Zen training in Japan. Many students wanted to go, but Suzuki was not eager for them to do so until they were ready. He did want to exchange students with Japan, but in the fullness of time. He always said something like, "Maybe better to study here first." Since McNeil and Hense had come to Sokoji on their way to Japan, and since their enthusiasm had been sustained, Suzuki had arranged for them to go to his temple and from there to Rinso-in's head temple, Sekiun-in, where there was a teacher who could train them. Suzuki had no idea how it would go, and he knew his students had no idea what they were getting into, but he yielded to their wishes and sent them off with some hope.


 

 

Suzuki was alone in the kitchen cleaning teacups. Downstairs on the stage of the auditorium a few young Japanese-American musicians were rehearsing, as they did late every Wednesday night. It was raining, and the falling drops lent a background to the drums, guitars, and horns. Tomorrow there would be zazen, service, cleaning, laundry, shopping, a memorial service, visitors in the afternoon. The music echoed through the halls and floor. Soon he would go downstairs, lock up, take a bath, then climb up the steps to sleep alone in his small niche in that big, empty building.

 Things weren't working out well at all for his students in Japan. Lou McNeil had talked to her husband, and Suzuki had received a letter from his son, Hoitsu, who was now a monk at Eiheiji. Hoitsu had met McNeil and Hense when they arrived and had spent time with them at Rinso-in helping them get ready to go to Sekiun-in. There they had their heads shaved and received robes and precepts in Japanese. The abbot, acting for Suzuki, ordained them as monks, and they thus became, in Suzuki's eyes, his first Western disciples. They lasted only about a month at Sekiun-in, and had finally been expelled from the temple.

 Americans, Suzuki was learning, were quick to commit but undependable on the follow-through. They had wanted so badly to get ordained and go to Japan, but they had no idea what it entailed. McNeil had gotten interested in the walking practice of Buddhists on *Mt. Hiei. Now he and Hense were living in Kyoto, teaching English and studying Rinzai Zen at Ruth Fuller Sasaki's temple in the *Daitokuji temple complex. They seemed to be doing a lot of running around. It turned out that one reason they had to leave Sekiun-in was that they were involved in sexual escapades--with other men. McNeil said he had to get out of there, because he was seeing ghosts in the temple.

 

The band in the basement started to play a familiar melody, one of Suzuki's favorites and one of Japan's most cherished: "Sakura," cherry blossoms. It was a favorite of Mitsu's too--a sweet, sad, simple yet elegant tune. They were playing it over and over. What was Mitsu doing now so far away in Japan? She too would be sleeping


 

alone at the kindergarten. She was still angry at him for not postponing his trip to America, leaving her there to die.

 Every week when the boys' band played this song, he thought of Mitsu. Rain blew against the windowpanes. Suzuki sat in a hard wooden chair in the kitchen, looking into the darkness toward the balcony over the auditorium, tears running down his cheeks.


 

 
 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   




Crooked Cucumber home page   Notes on CC index page  Notes on Notes on CC

Next: Chapter Twelve

contact DC at <dchad@cuke.com>