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Brief Memories
of Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Center back then, etc. 

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4-29-08 - Jane Hirshfield sends the following brief but powerful memory of Shunryu Suzuki from someone she's in touch with who wishes to remain anonymous. Jane wrote:

Recently a man who I know only a little, through other circles, got in touch with me because I am the only person he knew of who has practiced Zen. He asked if we could perhaps meet sometime to talk (he lives in another state), and talked also about how he has never spoken about these things, as it seems almost impossible to him to do so. My friend had mentioned that he had had a powerful experience with Suzuki Roshi. I asked him if he could tell me those experiences, and for permission to send them on to the archive. After some hesitation, he gave me permission, but only with his name removed. No one at Zen Center would remember this man--his time in the Page Street zendo was very brief. But it has clearly changed his life. I also recommended Crooked Cucumber to him, you'll see.

See DC comment at the bottom.


Anonymous wrote:

I have put off responding until I had the time to give it some thought. I essentially never discuss this. The reason is difficult for me to articulate. It has to do with an underlying feeling that to even hint that I may understand a tiny fragment of the teaching would be to display gross hubris -- and would injure something precious. But you are in the circle -- I must trust someone not to misconstrue what I say. I'll try to express some of what I feel.

Regarding Suzuki Roshi. The intense emotional experience came upon me the first time I saw him at the SF Zen Center. It was not triggered by anything he said or did. I've thought about this many times. I am not one given to being overly emotional -- to put it mildly. Perhaps it had something to do with the setup. I had been up since maybe 3:30 A.M. We had done two 25 minutes meditation sessions, plus the "breakfast" and about 15 minutes of walking meditation. Then upstairs the chanting and prostrations. He entered the room slowly, turned and stood silently facing the group, and I was destroyed. (Even now, all these years later, I still weep trying to type this.) I struggled not to sob out loud. I had not a clue what was happening to me, but I knew it was important. That beaming face! I felt overwhelming gratitude. It was ecstatic weeping. I knew, with absolute certainty, that my life had changed.

I only saw him on three occasions. My memories of what he said are fragmentary. I'll recount one theme. He had some difficulty speaking, frequently clearing his throat. I think he was already ill with throat cancer. He spoke in a quiet, plain manner -- and always he was smiling.

"The Dharma is finding its path in the West. It is not the same here as it is in Japan. In Japan parents send their young sons to the monastery the way sons are sent to prep school in this country. It is a matter of prestige. The students come for a year, then they leave. I never see them again. They learn nothing of the teaching. A waste of time!

"But here. Here the students come in off the street, understand immediately, and I can never get rid of them! The Dharma comes here to find its students."

I'll recount another incident that shows a certain impish light-heartedness, both on his part and in his students. Again, he was entering the upstairs meeting room. He came into the room walking very slowly, as in walking meditation. Three or four senior students awaited him at the front of the room. He reached them and bowed slightly in their direction. Then he turned around and very slowly retraced his steps, back out of the room. The students in the front were amused and nonplussed. A couple of them giggled. Then someone came in and put a chair in place up front. Apparently they had forgotten to provide a chair for him. The students composed themselves and Suzuki Roshi did his slow entrance walk all over. Everyone was smiling -- but Suzuki most of all. When he spoke he often interrupted himself with a quiet, self-deprecating chuckle.

I have Zen Mind - Beginner's Mind. And I have Street Zen. But I don't know Crooked Cucumber.

I don't know the term streamwinner. But: "You entered practice, and it entered you. Inextricable now." Oh, yes.

I am 73 years old. My inner life has mainly been devoted to two quests -- which I originally thought were separate. I have tried to understand the underlying nature of physical reality. I expected to get there through science -- particularly physics. And indeed, this has been a gratifying effort. I have made some progress. And in this arena I don't hesitate to stand up and talk to people about my insights -- or what I take to be insights. Who the hell knows?!

And all the while I have also tried to understand what was behind this "religion" thing. This gradually led me to Zen Buddhism. As some of the philosophical aspects of Buddhism began to sink in, in particular the doctrine of interdependent originations, a curious thing happened. It dawned on me that my two quests were not separate at all. Each leads to the same vision of reality. But regarding any insights I may have into Buddhism I am struck dumb. I dare not speak. As I get older this is beginning to bother me. After all, I feel that I have come to appreciate something that has vastly enriched my life. It would be valuable to other people to know that this is possible. Why am I so reluctant to speak?

Enough for now.

Thanks for being my designated listener!


DC comment:

Terrific. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate that. Anonymous is fine. I understand his reluctance to speak about the ineffable and sometimes teachers say not to, but I say donít worry, feel free to share and express. Dogen said something I canít quite remember about only speak one out of ten times that you have the urge but our friend here seems to already have passed that mark. We have teaching stories today like the Blue Cliff Records because some students went against the admonitions of teachers not to talk about the dharma or write anything down. Maybe too much emptiness and we loose our way.

Bless you for thinking of the archive,

d

PS - Suzuki's chronic cough wasn't from throat cancer


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