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Notes (by DC) on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 17

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Chapter Seventeen


            One and Many








One purpose of our practice is to enjoy our old age. But we 
can't fool ourselves. Only sincere practice will work.


One day at Tassajara in late April of 1969, after the spring practice period was over and just before the guest season was to begin, Shunryu Suzuki walked downstream with some students to eat bag lunches and enjoy the water in the hot afternoon. Tassajara Creek was fairly high, and they had to cross it in one place over a fallen sycamore trunk. They hopped on stones across the little stream feeding into the creek at the base of the trail to the Horse Pasture. Then they came to a waterworn granite passage called the Narrows. There they sat on stream-polished ledges near the gushing water and ate their cheese sandwiches, cookies, and apples, reaching down to get handfuls of the creek water.

 Once the guest season started, the smooth, sloping rock sides and pools would usually be adorned with a half-dozen naked bodies. There was a rule against skinny-dipping at the Narrows, which most students ignored unless in larger mixed groups. That day everyone had on swimsuits or shorts. After eating, everyone but Suzuki jumped in the cold mountain water. He watched them freely sliding over the waterfall into the deep pool. Dan Welch went down the wet sloping face next to the waterfall in full lotus and others followed. Suzuki saw some good places to sit on the opposite bank in the direct sun and decided to go there via the deep pool where his students were enjoying themselves. He entered the water. The current was fast. It carried him into the whirlpool bowl and quickly down the falls into the deep water. Then he kept going down--straight down. He couldn't swim.

 He reached his arms out but no one noticed or thought anything of it as he went under. He thought to walk out but couldn't touch bottom. He found himself at the clear bottom with the crayfish and trout. He looked up at the legs moving in the water. They were too far away to grab. He became frightened and started to take in water.

 Up top someone asked, "Where's Roshi?"

 They quickly fished Suzuki out, coughing up water and gasping.

 Suzuki recovered and walked back upstream the mile to Tassajara. In his lecture that evening he mentioned what had happened and said that not being able to breathe had shown him how deeply he was attached to life and air. It had made him realize how poor his practice and understanding were. He had to be more sincere and diligent in his efforts to concentrate on "the great matter."


A few weeks after he almost drowned, on his sixty-fifth birthday in a lecture at Sokoji, Suzuki appealed to his students to join him in a rededication to sincere practice. He said he was on one hand happy to be getting older, but on the other hand regretful of the shortcomings of his past practice. Maybe it would be better for everyone, he said, if he went off to seek the truth. He had mentioned at times, almost wistfully, that he'd like to go to India, Thailand, and Burma--wherever he heard there was someone who could give him instruction.

 He said that he felt a great responsibility as a teacher and was always thinking about what to do with so many students. While in bed recovering from a cold, he had thought about these things and decided, "It might be better for us to concentrate on a simpler practice. I think the most simple practice is counting the breath."

 Whatever their problems in zazen--pain, confusion, sleepiness, frightening or seductive images--the students were to join Suzuki in counting their exhalations from one to ten, over and over. "We're not advanced enough students for koans or *shikantaza.† We need more of a beginner's practice." And he admonished, "If you count your breathing, you will easily notice when you are not taking care of your everyday life. I have many difficulties in my practice, so I think you too will find it very difficult to sit in good zazen."

Shikantaza is Dogen's term for just sitting




Enlightenment is not a complete remedy.


Okusan came down to Tassajara from San Francisco. She stayed in a one-room cabin with tatami and shoji screens next to her husband's. There she practiced tea ceremony. Suzuki talked about her in a lecture. He said she was always trying to teach him not to be so introverted and thoughtless with her. He used the American phrase, "Can't live with her, can't live without her."

 During the spring practice period Suzuki had declared in a lecture that Okusan had experienced some sort of breakthrough. Some students took this to mean that she'd attained permanent, perfect, cosmic consciousness, and others thought it meant she'd had an epiphany.

 "Really," he said, "she got enlightened. I never thought it would happen," and he kept laughing and explaining. He said that her enlightenment came about because she couldn't find a priest to do a funeral for a member of the Sokoji congregation. Suzuki was always having to leave Tassajara to do funerals; many members wanted him for their funeral even if another priest was available. This is the most important thing that Zen priests do, as far as Japanese laypeople are concerned.

 On his way from Tassajara to Sokoji, Suzuki asked the student driving him, Jane Runk, to make numerous stops. She didn't know he had to do a funeral and he had forgotten all about it. They went to the beach, to shops, and had an unusually carefree time. Meanwhile, Okusan was frantically searching for another priest. Katagiri was at Los Altos. Kobun was in Japan. Her sense of responsibility was so strong that she practically had a nervous breakdown. Then she realized that the world would keep turning if there were no priest. In an instant she gave up, let it go, decided just to do her best. Bang. Something happened.


Suzuki knew that when he talked too much about enlightenment, people tended to get fixed ideas about what the word meant, and got obsessed with it as a goal. Students would sometimes talk about it, but there was no agreed-upon definition. Most thought of Suzuki as enlightened, but he wouldn't say he was. If asked, he would usually deny it. But whatever he had, his students wanted to have too; whatever he knew, they wanted to know. Some, like Claude, said Suzuki wasn't enlightened and had clearly said so through the years. Mike Dixon said he obviously was, pointing out that in earlier years Suzuki would occasionally start a story by locating it, for instance, after his second enlightenment experience. But mostly such talk was avoided. Suzuki did not promote enlightenment as a final resting place.

 Some students didn't think they were going to get enlightened with Suzuki, or felt they couldn't have enough contact with him, and went on to study with other teachers: Yasutani, Nakagawa, the Rinzai master Sasaki in L.A., Maezumi in L.A., Kapleau in Rochester, Aitken in Hawaii. All those teachers used koans as well as zazen, saw students frequently for private interviews, and were clearly encouraging people to have kensho, or enlightenment experiences. Often people wouldn't get to see Suzuki for dokusan more than once in a year. At Yasutani's sesshins there would be public recognition of students who attained kensho. Zen Center seemed to be short on enlightenment, indeed, a little sleepy compared to the other teachers with their vigorous styles.

 Suzuki didn't talk about enlightenment as something that could be controlled. He said that most priests weren't enlightened and some laypeople were. He spoke of a farmer near Rinso-in who was enlightened, even though he'd never been a practicing Buddhist. Of his students he once said that maybe only one in ten would get enlightened, but that it wasn't really necessary; to do the practice was itself enlightenment, even if people didn't realize it. Things did happen to his students, though.


Ken Sawyer, a carpenter from Canada, had been at Zen Center for a couple of years. During a sesshin in San Francisco, while sitting in afternoon zazen, he dissolved into an amazing spaciousness. He kept it to himself at the time, but later told Suzuki of his experience in dokusan at Tassajara.

 "Yes, you could call that enlightenment," Suzuki said. They sat there for a moment in Suzuki's cabin, facing each other. "And how's your work coming?"

 Later that summer at Tassajara Ken was carrying incense for Suzuki on the way to zazen. Suzuki crossed the bridge, and Ken followed with the green incense held high, trailing a pleasant thin wisp of smoke behind him. Suzuki went to the edge of the bridge and stood looking at the creek below. Periodically the echoing sound of the mallet on the wooden board would pierce the air--the third and final round. While Suzuki looked down at the creek, Ken saw him disappear, blending totally with the water, wood, and air. A moment later they were walking down the dirt and cobble path and toward the zendo. Ken didn't know what had happened, or if it had happened to him, to Suzuki, or both. But he had learned one thing: Suzuki's way was not to latch on to the highs but to accept every moment of life as it comes, step after step. So he walked on and made nothing of it.



If you are enlightened, the whole universe tells the truth to the whole universe.




If your practice doesn't include every one of us, it is not true practice.


Bombers were pounding Hanoi. Four students at Kent State had died protesting Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. The first nuclear-tipped MIRVs were placed in underground silos. It was the year of the first Earth Day. Reagan was running for his second term as governor of California, and Salvador Allende was running for president of Chile. Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature. Patton won the Oscar for best film. Bertrand Russell died.

 At Tassajara in May of 1970, all this news seemed remote. Tatsugami-roshi, who had kept Jean, Grahame, and Phillip under his wing at Eiheiji, had come to lead the spring practice period at Tassajara. He was back in Japan for the summer but was scheduled to return to lead the fall practice period. While Tatsugami was at Tassajara, Suzuki had been concentrating on Page Street, but now he was back in his briar patch. Now the last of the winter's heavy snowfall was melting away on the ridge.

 In the year when the Pope declared priestly celibacy to be a fundamental teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Suzuki acknowledged the success of women and men practicing together at Tassajara. Most students were single, but there were some married couples, a few unmarried couples, and lots of children. Buddhism had hardly ever seen anything like it. The disparate group of former students of Asian culture, longhairs, and individualistic seekers who had gathered around Suzuki had managed to get along and get on with the practice and study of Zen with far greater cooperation than had seemed possible at the outset.

 Suzuki was no longer calling Tassajara a "baby monastery." From May first till after Labor Day weekend in September, Tassajara's tradition of welcoming guests continued; the guests were enthusiastic about the quiet and efficient way the place was run and were full of praise for the food. There had been less meat and fish served each summer, and by the following year† the guest fare was totally vegetarian, due to Tatsugami's insistence that it was improper to serve meat or fish in a Buddhist monastery. He said that the guests would understand. He was right--the food just got better. Tatsugami, as well as Katagiri, had told the men who weren't monks not to shave their heads but just to cut it short. As a result they looked a little more normal to the guests.

Some say we stopped in 1970 and some in 1971. Ed Brown who was the tenzo or head cook again in 70 thinks that was the year and that's how I remember it and I was running the dining room. Even from the first there wasn't a lot of meat and fish and each year it got less, like just a little in a stir fry.

 Because Tatsugami had spent so much time teaching chanting and ceremony, there was a great deal of catch-up work to do on the buildings during that guest season. While most students took care of the guests, a crew of carpenters was finishing the ambitious stone-and-beam kitchen and the adjoining entryway and library. Suzuki's cabin was moved to make way for the stone foundation for a new, more substantial cabin for the abbot. The crew had to interrupt their work briefly when they discovered that Suzuki and Mel, exhausted from moving stones, were taking a catnap on the cabin floor when it started to move.

 That summer a segment of a film on gurus called Sunseed was shot at Tassajara, and Suzuki played with a yo-yo for the camera. Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks held another Sensory Awareness workshop in the dining room. A psychotherapist and naturalist named Sterling Bunnell gave a talk about the geological history of the land, and said that Tassajara was a meeting place of three major California ecological zones. Robert Bly read his poetry.


Suzuki frequently gave lectures in the evening. Eager students on cushions squeezed up front on the tatami and on the time-darkened linoleum aisles. There was a brief chant at the prompt of a small bell, then a pause that would magnify the sounds of the creek, frogs, crickets, and guests walking by on the road.

 He was lecturing on the *Sandokai (Unity of One and Many), a thousand-year-old Zen poem that Tatsugami had included in the morning service. In this and other ways Suzuki was giving his blessing to the new forms that Tatsugami had instituted, and giving them more life and relevance as well. He had attended years of lectures by Kishizawa on the Sandokai; now he was undertaking to shed some light on that scripture. (He would use the phrases "things-as-they-are" or "things-as-it-is," depending on whether he was speaking from the viewpoint of multiplicity or oneness, form or emptiness.)

Usually, even though we say "to observe things-as-they-are," or more accurately "as-it-is," actually we are not observing things-as-they-are, because we think, "Here is my friend; there is the mountain; there is the moon." That is a dualistic way of observing things, not actually the Buddhist way. We find the mountain, or San Francisco, or the moon, within ourselves right here. That is our understanding, the so-called big mind.

 Suzuki explained how the Sandokai was written in China to clarify then-current misunderstandings and to elevate the dialogue among bickering factions. There was a parallel at Tassajara, in that Suzuki and Tatsugami had quite different approaches, and there had to be room in students' minds to include them both.

I studied the Sandokai with Suzuki that summer and prepared the blackboard for him every day, writing out the Chinese characters from the ancient poem so he could point to them as he lectured. One day I told him that I'd often stay up all night studying, sometimes even going to bed when the wake-up bell came around and not getting up till after breakfast. It was the complete opposite of the way he had told us to follow the schedule and to do each thing at its proper time with everyone else. He nodded his head and held his curved teaching stick. "Keep it up," he said. "Everyone will think you're crazy, but keep it up. It's pretty good."


Dianne Goldschlag worked in the dining room and was a favorite with the guests because of her warm, outgoing personality. She was from an old-fashioned Jewish section of the Bronx. An adventurous, free-spirited child of the sixties, she'd been arrested protesting the Vietnam War and had hitchhiked around the Middle East, fibbing about her Jewish heritage in Arab countries. She first came to Tassajara in 1968. She and her close friend Margaret were not textbook Zen students. They followed the schedule pretty closely and worked as hard as anyone else, but they were always getting into mischief and breaking the serious quiet with giggles and singing. Once during dokusan with Suzuki, Dianne reached into the sleeve of her robe and brought out a drawing of a fantasy creature with three legs and stars for eyes. They crouched over the picture, talking about it like two little children. Sometimes he'd call Dianne and Margaret into his cabin and give them candy, saying, "You don't need candy, you need salt. I should be giving you salt. I'm not a good teacher for you. I treat you too much like granddaughters, not like students."

 Once, taking a walk by the creek with a group of students, Suzuki came upon Dianne and Margaret skinny-dipping. Dianne called out that the day was so hot and the creek looked so cool that they just had to jump in. Suzuki shook his finger at them and said, "Remember, you're two fishes, not one."

 Later that day, about to leave for San Francisco, Suzuki was in his cabin talking over last-minute details with two officers when there was a knock on the door. It was Dianne. She said she and Margaret had found a beautiful rock and put it in his changing room at the baths. She wanted him to see it and say whether he liked it or not before he left. The two officers, visibly upset, said there was no time for that now. Suzuki told them to wait at the gate, and off he went with Dianne to see the rock. She had worked with him in his garden and had a good feel for stones. The rock she had placed in the corner of the narrow room was tall and squarish with white ripples of quartz. Suzuki said, "Ohhhh," inspected it closely, and asked if he could keep it. They walked together to the gate where a number of students were waiting to see him off. Margaret came running up to say goodbye. "Remember--you're two fishes, not one," he said, getting into the car.




When you become a stone, that is our zazen practice.


As usual, Suzuki-roshi spent a lot of time working with plants and stones in his garden that summer. During his life he'd come to understand a good deal about stones--their balance points and breaking points. He said that some stones were alive and others were dead. One day Suzuki and his attendant, Alan Marlowe, were trying to rotate a large stone in Suzuki's garden. Alan was six-four and muscular, but the two of them could not move the stone, even with the help of a long steel bar. Finally Suzuki told Alan to go to the baths, the customary end to everyone's workday. Alan went and was surprised half an hour later to find that the rock was reset. He called out at Suzuki's cabin door, opening it when there was no answer. Inside he found Suzuki asleep. There was vomit around the edge of the toilet. Alan cleaned it off and left. Suzuki stayed in bed for three days.


Another student, Steve Tipton, was trying to do the hardest job imaginable in the summer heat. There was only one appropriate spot for a septic tank for the new toilets near the baths, and in that spot the Tassajara soil held an enormous granite boulder. There was no room for a crew, so Steve was working by himself. Every day after his bath, Suzuki would stop to check on his progress. Steve had dug a three-foot-wide, six-foot-deep trench around the seven-foot boulder. He was trying to break it up by drilling, placing spikes in the holes, and then driving them in with a sledgehammer. After a week he had broken off only a few shards.

 Finally Suzuki said, "Are you trying to break up that rock?"

 "I'm trying to," Steve answered. "You got any ideas?"

 Suzuki motioned for Steve to get off as he tied back his robe sleeves and leaped to the top of the boulder. He carefully looked at the rock, patted it, and chuckled. He called Steve back and pointed to the surface: "Here and here and here." Steve drilled and drove in spikes where Suzuki had indicated, and the stone broke into pieces that could easily be winched out.


 That summer was a high point in Suzuki's life--a hard-working, early-rising season of energy and harmony. Tassajara was good, the city was good. Suzuki seemed healthy and strong, and his dream was tangibly unfolding before him.

See Tassajara in the Time of the Sandokai



The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: not always so.


"Not always so" was never far away in Shunryu Suzuki's teaching. He prefaced much of what he said with the word "maybe," and yet he did not seem at all unsure of himself. When he said this sort of thing, it seemed to come from a deeply rooted strength. He did speak of the absolute, but in enigmatic terms. "There is nothing absolute for us, but when nothing is absolute, that is absolute."

 He talked about the Buddha's teaching as something fluid and living. "To accord with circumstances, the teaching should have an infinite number of forms."

 He talked about enlightenment, but said, "Enlightenment is not any particular stage that you attain."

Not always so. In Japanese it's two words, three words in English. This is the secret of our teaching. If you understand things in this way, without being caught by words or rules, without too much of a preconceived idea, then you can actually do something, and in doing something, you can apply this teaching which has been handed down from the ancient masters. When you apply it, it will help.

 It couldn't be grasped. It was a paradox, he said, that could only be understood through sincere practice and zazen. The point of his talks wasn't to tell the truth as he saw it, but to free minds from obstacles so they might include contradictions.

 Suzuki thought it was a frequent weakness of Buddhist teachers to cling to a fixed understanding; it was not a weakness of Dogen.

Usually a Zen master will give you: "Practice zazen so that you will attain enlightenment. If you attain enlightenment, you will be detached from everything and you will see 'things as it is.'" But our way is not always so. What the Zen master says is of course true. But what Dogen-zenji told us was how to adjust the flame of our lamp back and forth. The point of Dogen's zazen is to live each moment in total combustion, like a kerosene lamp or a candle.

 "Buddhism is a two-edged sword," Suzuki said, pretending to swing a sword, turning his wrist, a mischievous smile on his face. "Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes I strike you with this side and sometimes with that." He often spoke of the dual nature of reality, but what the two sides were was not so easy to understand. It wasn't just oneness and duality, but "the duality of oneness and the oneness of duality." He said one couldn't speak the whole truth, that there was always another side created by whatever was said, and if his students didn't get it on their own, they'd get it by the sword that cuts away the side they're attached to.

We should understand everything both ways, not just from one standpoint. We call someone who understands things from just one side a *tambankan. This means a "man who carries a board on his shoulder." Because he carries a big board on his shoulder, he cannot see the other side.

 Often he said, "Just keep sitting." Very often. Sitting would loosen the grip of what seemed to be reality. But then the idea of sitting or zazen might grip the sitter. Zazen was the first thing he taught, but if it became something too special he'd pull out the rug. Someone would ask for more periods of zazen, and he'd say the schedule was fine as it was. Someone would speak of pain in their legs, and he'd say sit more.


Even "not always so" was not always so. It wasn't offered as a formula to cling to.

 "There is no question," a student said, "because there is no answer. Whatever you say will not always be so. So I will just sit."

 Suzuki shook his head.

 "No?" the student said. "But you said . . ."

 "When I said it, it was true. When you said it, it was false."†

Stan White


If there is always another side in Suzuki's teaching, what's the other side of "not always so"? To look for that, you must take the board off your shoulder.

Almost all people are carrying a big board, so they cannot see the other side. They think they are just the ordinary mind, but if they take the board off they will understand, "Oh, I am Buddha, too. How can I be both Buddha and ordinary mind? It is amazing!" That is enlightenment.

 Suzuki talked about the first principle and the second principle from his early days in San Francisco. He said the first principle had many names: buddha nature, emptiness, reality, truth, the Tao, the absolute, God. The second principle is what is said about the first and the way to realize it--rules, teaching, morality, forms. All those things change according to the person, time, and place--and they are not always so. Suzuki said that talking about Buddhism was not truth, but mercy, skillful means, encouragement. "There is no particular teaching or way, but the buddha-nature of all is the same, what we find is the same."


The first principle is not something that Buddha or other people came up with. Suzuki spoke about Buddha's sermons in the woods, where he "proclaimed the first principle, the Royal Law." And he added, "If you think what Buddha proclaimed is the Royal Law, that is not right. The Royal Law was already there before he was on the pulpit."

 Suzuki taught that Buddhism is not the first principle, but is a way to know and express the first principle. Buddha's teaching can only be thought of as the first principle in "its pure and formless form."

If you have a preconceived idea of the first principle, that idea is topsy-turvy, and as long as you seek a first principle that is something to be 
applied in one way to every occasion, you will have topsy-turvy ideas. Such ideas are not necessary. Buddha's great light shines forth from everything, each moment.

 Suzuki-roshi always made clear that the first principle is beyond discrimination or knowing in the ordinary sense, in the way that relative truth is known.

Bodhidharma said, "I don't know." "I don't know" is the first principle. Do you understand? The first principle cannot be known in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, because it is both right and wrong.

 Once Suzuki divided up the zendo: those on the right were to ask questions about the first principle and those on the left about the second. If someone asked about the wrong principle, they'd have to move to the other side of the zendo. Nobody actually changed sides, though they had a good time trying to present their understanding of the first principle. In the end it seemed like there was nothing at all to say.




Sometimes I'm the teacher and you're the student, and 
sometimes you're the teacher and I'm the student.


A voice called from outside Suzuki's door in polished Japanese, "Ojama shimasu" (Excuse me for bothering you)=. Suzuki opened the door and sighed a delighted "ahhhh." Finally his old student Grahame Petchey had made it to Tassajara. Grahame entered the cabin and they talked as Suzuki poured hot water from a thermos into a teapot. Grahame congratulated Suzuki on the marvel of his American monastery and on the wonderful new building in San Francisco.

 It was June of 1970, and they hadn't met since the fall of 1966 at Rinso-in, before the Petcheys went to England. Grahame's life had continued to take its own course. He and Pauline had gone back to Japan after a year. In 1967 Suzuki had again tried to get him to come back to Zen Center, but again he was too late. Grahame had written back saying he'd come if Suzuki wanted him to break a two-year contract with a firm that had hired him to start an English-language school in Japan. The last correspondence Grahame received from Suzuki in England was a telegram that simply said, "I agree with your plan to go to Japan."

 Grahame had been living in Tokyo and running the school for over two years. He continued to have a relationship with Uchiyama in Kyoto, but his life was now that of a businessman. That night in the zendo Grahame gave a talk about the old days at Sokoji and studying Zen in Japan. Only a few of the oldest students had ever met him. To the rest it was a treat to see and hear the almost legendary first Westerner whom Suzuki had personally ordained, the one who first incorporated Zen Center, Richard's old dharma brother. People wondered why he'd stayed away and if there was a chance he would return.

 The next day Grahame and Suzuki talked about Miss Ransom. In 1967 Grahame had looked her up in England at Suzuki's suggestion, and he'd taken to visiting her every week or so. Pauline and the children also met her. Pauline said Miss Ransom reminded her of Katharine Hepburn--tall, thin, and elegant, with shoulder-length hair. She liked the way Miss Ransom teased Grahame for being so well-dressed and proper in his black suit--she said he looked like a Mormon missionary, except for his shaved head. Ransom had been amazed to see the fund-raising brochures for Tassajara and to hear about what her old English student had done. "That little monk has gone off and opened a monastery in the West?" she said to Grahame. "I just can't believe it." Often when Grahame visited, he would hear new stories about her times with that little monk in the late twenties. She told him about the Buddha statue and how that experience had led her to respect Buddhism. The statue had been damaged and was no more.

 In his letters to Suzuki, Grahame sent word of Miss Ransom, his zendo, and his family. In the fall of 1967, Suzuki had planned to visit the Petcheys and Miss Ransom in England after a trip to the East Coast, but he got too busy with Tassajara and canceled at the last minute. It was a disappointment to all of them. Miss Ransom wrote to her former houseboy, translator, and mentor of Buddhism. Suzuki replied through Zen Center's secretary, Yvonne. Ransom was outraged by this, and Grahame sympathized. She sent an angry letter back telling Suzuki to write to her himself; she didn't care how bad his English or his handwriting was. He could put it on a postcard, but he must never write to her again through a secretary! Suzuki stopped answering her letters. It upset Miss Ransom a great deal and Grahame as well.

 In her old age she had become a more devout Quaker and regularly went to meetings at the local Friends' Hall. She was known in England not for her experiences in Japan but for her relationship with the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, and his wife, Wan Jung. She had been interviewed on the BBC about Pu Yi and Wan Jung, and there had been some newspaper articles about her. In 1969, her eighty-second year, she passed away of emphysema, going peacefully while holding on to a photograph of the young empress.

 Grahame had brought some things that Miss Ransom wanted passed on to Suzuki. There was some sixteen-millimeter motion picture footage that she took of him in the garden of Zoun-in in 1930,† and a dark brown cup made from a special clay found in her native Somerset. With the cup was a card sending her greetings and asking him to please write. Suzuki put the card to his forehead and placed it carefully on the low table. He picked up the cup with two hands and examined it carefully, as is done in tea ceremony.

Nona Ransom films

 "Please explain something to me," Grahame said earnestly. "Miss Ransom told me so much about the two of you, how close you were, and she always spoke of you with such affection. How could you have written to her through a secretary and then stopped writing her altogether? How could you not respond to her letters? By British standards, that was very rude, especially to a lady of her age and class. I cannot understand it."

 "The reason I didn't respond," Suzuki replied, "was that she asked me questions about our past and wanted to check on dates. I was afraid she wanted to write a book about the period of her life when I knew her."

 Grahame was flabbergasted. She had never even written a book about her experiences in China!

 Grahame said he had agreed to do some work and excused himself. He put on work clothes and joined a crew digging a ditch. Suzuki's attendant came to Grahame after about thirty minutes and said Suzuki would like to see him again. Grahame said that he had agreed to do this work and would continue to work. They never discussed Miss Ransom again.




We get no letters from the world of emptiness, but when you 
see the plant flower, when you hear the sound of bamboo hit by 
the small stone, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.


A shipment arrived at Page Street one morning in the summer of 1970: several boxes of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It was the second book to come out of Zen Center, after Ed Brown's wildly popular Tassajara Bread Book. Students stood around the front hall picking up copies. On the grey dust jacket in black and white was calligraphy done by Suzuki in his cabin at Tassajara using a yucca leaf for a brush. It was the Japanese characters nyorai, or tathagata in Sanskrit, "thus come," one of the ten traditional names for Buddha. Between the red-lettered title and author's name was the subtitle, Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice. It was a thin hardcover, only 134 pages, with short chapters. Each chapter started with a quote from the text. The prologue, titled "Beginner's Mind," carried the quote: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."†

Prologue to ZMBM with links to prior drafts.

 There wasn't much thought about the impact the book might have on the Buddhist world or any other world. It was nice to have a little book of Roshi's lectures that could be sent to friends and family. The Wind Bell usually carried only one lecture, and was published infrequently.

 Suzuki and Okusan came downstairs and joined the handful of students. He looked at the book with comic amazement. Okusan was irritated at the picture on the back cover, a black-and-white close-up of Suzuki's head and shoulders, a picture taken at Tassajara shortly before he shaved his head and face (done once every five days, on four-and-nine days, in a Zen monastery). He wore his stark black Japanese work clothes, his ever-changing face settled into a penetrating, clear gaze, a pleasant hint of a smile, those black eyes with crow's-feet like bookends, the slightly raised eyebrow adding a suggestion.†

See photo by Bob Boni on the ZMBM main page.

 "In Japan we would never do this," she said. "Why not a nice formal picture of Hojo-san in his best robes?" People teased her, and she gave up.

 Someone showed Suzuki the two textless pages in the center of the book, empty except for a small fly on the right side, drawn by his old student Mike Dixon. People left him alone as he looked at the book, which reflected his teaching through the work of Marian Derby, Richard Baker, and Trudy Dixon.

 After a moment he moved up next to me and chuckled. "Good book," he said, thumping the cover with an index finger. "I didn't write it, but it looks like a good book."

 Later he said, "I read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind to see what the understanding of my students is."†

Due to questions from Victor Sergeyev, conferred with Peter Schneider and now this has been changed from "understanding of my disciples" to "understanding of my students".




Buddhism is transmitted from warm hand to warm hand.


"I have some good news for you," Suzuki said, slapping his thighs. It was the fall of 1969, before the move to Page Street. Bob Halpern and I had gone over to Sokoji in the afternoon, and Suzuki had welcomed us into the office. He'd been in bed with a flu, and his students hadn't seen him for a long time. Suzuki continued. "I'm going to Japan to give Richard transmission."

 Suzuki looked as pleased as he could be. We froze, shocked. "Suzuki-roshi," Bob said after a thoughtful pause, "if you give Richard Baker transmission, everyone is going to think you've gone crazy."

 "Oh, no no no," Suzuki said, unfazed. "This is good. You should be happy. Now, when he returns from Japan, you'll have an American teacher."

 An American teacher? We didn't want an American teacher. We wanted a Japanese teacher, mainly Suzuki. The Japanese priests seemed to know what they were doing, were comfortable in their roles, and looked the way Zen priests were supposed to look. The peccadilloes and shortcomings of Americans were so easy to see. Bob and I both liked Richard, thought he had great energy and kept things lively, and we completely trusted Suzuki's judgment. But Bob knew this would be a tough adjustment to make and was warning Suzuki about what to expect. Bob knew the pulse of the place.

 Later that day I ran into Kobun on the street and told him. Kobun recoiled with his hands held in front of him, like an actor in a horror movie, "No! no! Not Richard! It is a mistake! Maybe Phillip! Maybe Phillip!"

 Bob and I were at his communal apartment across the street from Sokoji. Dianne dropped by and we told her about Suzuki's intention to give Richard transmission. "How could that be?" she gasped. "Richard's so arrogant and uptight. He seems to me to be the least spiritual of Suzuki's students."

 "You know who thinks Richard will make a good Zen master?" Bob said.

 Dianne looked at him. "No. Who on earth?"



Transmission is the final stage of ordination, in which a priest receives the master's blessing to be an independent teacher in the lineage started by Shakyamuni Buddha. Richard called it the passing on of signless states of mind. At that time no one at Zen Center knew of any Westerner who had received transmission in the Japanese Zen tradition.† There were no examples to observe first hand, so Suzuki's students tended to see transmission in idealistic terms, as they'd read about it in Buddhist books, where it was referred to as "mind-to-mind transmission." Nobody paid much attention to Claude, who said it was the equivalent of getting a teacher's certificate. Suzuki had said in lectures, "Transmission is nothing special," or "Actually, there is nothing to transmit." As always, he spent more time knocking away his students' assumptions than creating definitions for them to cling to. But regardless of the contradictory things he'd said about transmission through the years, Suzuki had also talked about his way as "transmission Zen" since he arrived, and he insisted on the importance of the master-disciple relationship.

Were there any Westerners with transmission in the early or mid sixties? Looking into it.

My lecture for tonight will be very short, especially after having a good dinner of noodles, which were very long. Our transmission should be a very long, long one. And our transmission is a special noodle. Dogen-zenji says, "When you realize buddha nature, you are the teacher." You are the teacher of your master too, and you will be even the teacher of Shakyamuni Buddha."

 Transmission might be "nothing special," but to Suzuki it was indispensable, the living heart of his practice, passing on Buddha's way. He said he was always looking for successors who would share his responsibility.

 While I was driving Suzuki to Tassajara he told me of his plans to send students out to teach. "You can go to Texas and others will go to the East Coast, Portland, all over America, even beyond America." I told him I had no interest in going to Texas to start a group. I felt completely unworthy and couldn't imagine I ever would be qualified to do that. I wondered if many students were ready for that. Suzuki said it would take time, but at some point, like baby birds, we'd just be kicked out of the nest and be teachers whether we were ready or not. Surprised, I was quiet for a minute. Then I asked, "You mean your disciples will get transmission before they completely understand your teaching?" "Yes," he said.

 "Well, tell me, Roshi," I went on, "have you ever had a student who completely understood your teaching?"


 "How many?"


 "Man or woman?"

 "A man."

 "Was he American?"




 "What happened to him?"

 "He died." After that, as usual, Suzuki fell asleep.

I've wondered about this enlightened student who died. After the time I'd spent in Japan talking with people I wondered if it was his brilliant student Nishinakama.

American students had always treated Japanese priests with the yellow and brown robes of transmission as if they were semi-celestial beings. It irritated Richard when, as soon as Kobun arrived, Suzuki's students treated him with immense respect and asked him questions about the dharma. Richard would point out that many of Suzuki's students had been studying longer than Kobun.

 From Richard's ordination in 1967 to the fall of 1970, Suzuki had ordained nine students as priests. Mel Weitsman, the head of the Berkeley Zen Center, was ordained in 1969. Bill Kwong and Silas Hoadley received their robes early in 1970. Silas had given up his importing business and was involved full-time with Zen Center. Peter Schneider and Dan Welch took their vows together in 1970; Paul Discoe the builder and Reb Anderson came later that year. Reb was the newest of the bunch, exceedingly concentrated and devoted to Suzuki. Suzuki had also ordained a young couple early in 1970, before they went to Japan to study in monasteries--Ron and Joyce Browning. And on New Year's Day of 1971 he was going to ordain a longtime IBM employee named Les Kaye at the Los Altos zendo.

Bob and I were among a half dozen others with whom Suzuki had been discussing priests' ordination. One day at the City Center he called Bob and me to his tatami room and told us that he wanted to ordain us together. It was a little hard to imagine. Neither of us had been very successful in learning to control our desires. We were definitely among the loose cannons that Suzuki kept on deck. We considered many of his other lay students to be much better examples to new students and deeper rudders for the community. But we didn't protest. We sat up straight and serious. I just nodded quietly, thinking that if I said anything he would realize his mistake. He once said, "I think you're all enlightened until you open your mouth."

 "Do you think we should sit extra zazen at night in order to deepen our zazen?" Bob asked.

 "The most important point for both of you," Suzuki said, "is not to sit more but to develop patience. I had the same problem." Then he said, laughing, "To develop patience you need patience." He raised his left eyebrow and softly said, "The main thing is not to fight." Then he called in Okusan, and they measured us for robes, while laughing and teasing us.


By now the six original priests ordained before Richard were gone or on the periphery of Zen Center. Very few people had heard of Bill McNeil or Bob Hense, whom Suzuki considered his first two ordained disciples. Jean Ross was living in Carmel; a small sitting group met in her apartment. (These first three were ordained as Suzuki's disciples in Japan by other priests.) Grahame Petchey was still in Japan and seemed to have drifted away. Phillip Wilson had moved north to Santa Rosa with his wife in 1969 before the move to Page Street. He wasn't comfortable with all the new people and hierarchy, and there didn't seem to be any role for him. Claude Dalenberg was involved in the practice at the City Center, but he too wasn't happy with the new, bigger Zen Center. He remembered the days when Suzuki talked about getting a large house where ten or so of them could live communally--like the East-West House. Claude felt that Suzuki had reneged on a commitment to support a basically lay practice at Zen Center.


By the summer of 1970, six priests had been head monks at Tassajara: Richard Baker, Phillip Wilson, Claude Dalenberg, Jean Ross, Silas Hoadley, and Mel Weitsman. Peter Schneider, Bill Kwong, Les Kaye, Dan Welch, Paul Discoe, Ed Brown, and I would follow. The presence of more and more American priests at Tassajara and at the City Center made a great difference in the atmosphere. Students were considering whether they wanted to receive ordination as priests--mainly those who'd come since Tassajara started. Most of the old-timers who were still around were satisfied with the lay practice they'd developed.

 Lay practice and lay ordination had not been neglected. In late August of 1970, thirty-six students took the precepts in the first lay ordination since 1962. Suzuki said he waited that long because he'd been discouraged by the number of people who had quit after ordination. One or two students  had even given back their rakusus. Suzuki felt confident in the commitment of the 1970 ordination group. They'd all been with him at least three years.

 Suzuki and his sangha were discovering and redefining for themselves what it meant to be a lay Buddhist or a priest in America. They were figuring out what it meant by living with it, learning from their elders, and giving it whatever meaning was in their hearts. They hardly knew what terms to use. "Monk" was too austere, and "priest" seemed too advanced. Both were used at times, but perhaps "priest" was more suitable for someone who had received transmission or at least had gone through the head monk initiation. It was suggested that the new ordainees be called novices, but it didn't catch on.†

Suzuki didn't like the word priest either.

 Suzuki emphasized that being a priest was in no way superior to being a layperson. It was just a different role. And what was the difference between these so-called priests and the laypeople? All the priests except Jean were married or dating. Suzuki had asked Mel not to have any girlfriends for a year, but at the end of the year he told Mel casually he knew he'd failed. At Tassajara and in the city nearly everyone, priest and lay, got up early, sat zazen, recited sutras, studied Buddhist texts, and worked hard living semi-monastic lives. In the city, people were more free, however, to have private lives and go out together. Many were involved intimately. Some had outside jobs. In several lectures Suzuki had said, "We are neither priest nor lay, but something in between." Something new was being created at Zen Center. He was willing to let it take its course.

 One day Mel asked Suzuki, "What does it mean to be a priest?"

 "I don't know," Suzuki answered. Mel would have to find out for himself.

 For almost a year Suzuki had been informing people of his decision to give Richard transmission in Japan, and little by little he got their feedback, much of it negative. He asked Silas what he thought, and Silas said that maybe Richard was too smart for the community. "Maybe the rest of you aren't smart enough," Suzuki answered. At a meeting at Tassajara, he finally said that the community was going to have to trust him on this one.


"Okay, Roshi, then what does transmission mean?" I asked Suzuki in his office at Sokoji on that day in 1969 when he had told Bob and me of his plan. "Does it mean that Richard Baker is perfectly enlightened, and that his mind is the same as the mind of Buddha? Is his understanding complete?"

 "Oh, no no no," Suzuki said. "Don't make too much of it. It means he has a good understanding. A good understanding and a complete commitment."




Zen practice is to get to our True Mind, the mind not accessible 
to thinking. This mind cannot be consciously known by ordinary 
efforts. An unusual effort is necessary. This effort is zazen.


Suzuki left for Japan in August 1970, planning to stay for four months. Aside from performing Richard's transmission ceremony and visiting with family and old friends, he wanted to look for places where he could send students.

 Okusan convinced him to leave a month early so he could join her and some friends from the Sokoji congregation for a pottery tour on the southern island of Kyushu. She had to beg him repeatedly to go to Kyushu and not to bring any disciples with him. She knew it would be the only real vacation of their lives. Just before they were to leave, he got ill and asked her to go without him. She pleaded, saying he wouldn't have to do anything but rest. And so they went.

 In old-fashioned Japanese style, Okusan carried his and her luggage, and he carried only a handkerchief. In the hot muggy early autumn they went from town to town and kiln to kiln. He kept up as well as he could. In the evenings she massaged him and applied acupuncture. He got worse; the second week of the tour she stayed with him at hotels while the others were out sightseeing. After the tour, back at Rinso-in, he finally recovered.


Grahame came to visit his old teacher at Rinso-in, and Suzuki talked with him about the problem of finding a place to send his students in Japan. Noiri's health wasn't good enough to permit him to take on more students. After visiting some other training temples, Suzuki had concluded that they were not suitable for his students. Eiheiji was clearly too big and weighed down by elaborate traditions. Richard was there and couldn't stand it. He said it was a total waste of his time--a magnificent place, but not for foreigners to study Zen. It was more of a seminary for Japanese priests to learn priestcraft. In Kyoto, Richard practiced a year at Antaiji, then sat at Daitokuji with a Rinzai teacher.† Suzuki wasn't entirely pleased with this choice and didn't want to send people to study koans, but he let Richard decide for himself.

At Antaiji with abbot Kosho Uchiyama. At Daitokuji with Kobori Nanrei Sohaku.

 "You clearly need to see Antaiji," Grahame told Suzuki. The zazen-only approach appealed to Grahame, and so did the abbot, Uchiyama. He didn't try to accommodate the hierarchy as Suzuki did, and he scoffed at the state of Zen in Japan. Grahame had been displeased with the growing formality he'd experienced during his visit to Tassajara and hoped that a little of Antaiji's way would rub off on Suzuki, bringing him back to the approach they'd had in San Francisco in the early days.

 They went to Kyoto and met Uchiyama. In the afternoon Suzuki gave a brief talk in Japanese to Uchiyama's Japanese zazen students. In the evening he met with Uchiyama's Western students, and there was a lively, three-hour question-and-answer session. Some of the Japanese students who went to the English discussion as well said it was only then, when they heard Suzuki speak in English, that they realized why he had so many students. In Japanese he just bored them.†

Uchiyama's student Tom Wright was there and said this.


At Rinso-in Richard Baker sat on tatami in a room in the far wing off the main hall. With a brush he was carefully copying the characters for the names of Suzuki's lineage. It was a part of his transmission, a private ceremony between the two of them that would take weeks. Suzuki was on the other side of the main hall meeting old friends and members of the temple congregation. There was almost always someone dropping by. Richard had left Eiheiji before the end of the practice period. He was completely fed up with the hollowness of the practice, which was, for the most part, aimed at getting a temple license. He detested the show of practice put on daily for hundreds of visiting lay Buddhists and busloads of tourists. As had happened with Grahame, there was even a particular monk who was out to get Richard. Suzuki tried to get him to complete the practice period. He asked Grahame what to do, and Grahame told him to insist that Richard stay, even though he himself had experienced enormous difficulty at Eiheiji and understood Richard's feelings. Richard was adamant. Suzuki gave in. It was a big embarrassment to Suzuki, but he cared more about Richard than about Eiheiji, and accepted his decision.

 At Rinso-in Richard got frustrated because Suzuki just kept meeting with people and ignoring him, leaving him by himself in the back wing. Finally Richard went into the family quarters and told Suzuki that if he didn't have any time for him, he'd go back to Kyoto where his wife and daughter were. Suzuki started spending more time with him, Richard stayed, and on Buddha's Enlightenment Day, December 8, 1970, the ceremony of transmission from master to disciple was completed.


Before heading back to the States, Suzuki went to headquarters in Tokyo and tried to register Richard and his other priests with the Soto organization. He had tried the same in 1966 and gotten nowhere. Suzuki was too much of a maverick, and his disciples hadn't followed the prescribed path. Japanese monks were routinely registered with pretend ceremonies and qualifications, but there was no leniency for him and his barbarians.

 Richard wasn't aware of Suzuki's efforts to register his disciples. He remembered Suzuki saying that Zen Center shouldn't have any official relationship with Japanese Soto Zen, just a friendly one. For instance, after receiving transmission, there is a ceremony in Japan called ten'e, wherein a priest receives recognition of transmission from the Soto school. In this ceremony the priest is "abbot for a day" of both Eiheiji and Sojiji and carries an ox-hair whisk. Suzuki told Richard, "But I think you should go to the White House in Washington, D.C., and wave your whisk there."†

Later, priests at the ZC did this ceremony starting with Bill, Mel, and Les who were given transmission by Hoitsu for his father because doing it with Baker didn't seem to be so promising and each of them had centers.

 While still in Yaizu Suzuki went to see his family doctor. Suzuki said he felt fine, but Dr. Ozawa said his liver was weak.

 "See," Okusan said, responding to this news, "you should let Richard take over Zen Center. Stay here. I'll go to San Francisco to get your stuff and come back to take care of you."

 "No," he said. "It's time for us to return. I want to celebrate the New Year with my students at Page Street."



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