photo by Lisa Law

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


Wolf Büntig - sent 12/09/10

12-19-10 - Edgar Arnold forwarded your request to me. Karlfried Graf Dürckheim [author of Hara, an early book on Zen and Japan] was my mother's oldest brother. My father had disappeared in Berlin where we lived through the final bombing in the last days of the war. When, a few years later, Uncle Karlfried appeared in the village in Bavaria we had fled to, I rang his door-bell soon after he had moved in with the village veterinary, and adopted him as my father substitute. Since then I visited him regularly until he died. At age 14 he told me I could sense myself, and around 18 I started sitting with him off and on. He also seeded the wish to practice psychosomatic medicine one day.

1968–70, I lived in
San Francisco with my wife Christa and four children, working at day-time as a research physician at UCSF Medical Center on Parnassus Heights, and as a pot smoking silversmith at night-time. A day-dream ended my career, showing me that I found my work – perfusion of kidney tubules of anesthetized rats with nanoliters of all kinds of fluids to study the production of pee – irrelevant, and reminding me that originally I had set out to work with people. After meeting the decision that had fallen (in German decisions fall, we meet them, like in English where you arrive at a decision, or take a decision that is already there), for about a year, doors opened for me before I had knocked them. It was at that time that I ran into Suzuki Roshi.

Someone told me that there was an introduction to Zen to take place at the First Unitarian Church, so I went to see how they did it. There was this friendly little monk who to me looked like the cook of the monastery, telling us to sit cross-legged or on our heels, and speaking of friendly attention. I was so stiff at the time I was hanging in mid-air about four inches above my heels, hurting badly, and getting angrier and angrier the more often he used that term friendly attention, until finally I thought if you say friendly attention but once more, I'll kill you – only to discover that I was sitting on my heels, quite relaxed and peaceful.

Years later, during workshops I gave at Dürckheim's place in Todtmoos-Rütte, I realized I was repeatedly using the term friendly attention, and told the participants the story of the little monk and his miraculous influence on my burning muscles. I then visited a friend and told her the story. While I was speaking of the man who had taught me to pay friendly attention, I saw him smiling at me from the back of his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and burst into tears. Only then did I realize I had met Suzuki Roshi.

I've never been associated with the San Francisco Zen Center. Around 1980, I got to know Richard Baker at Esalen. Together with Joan Halifax, we drank plenty of California red wine and laughed our heads off, leaking stories about funny incidents one becomes part of when leading a center (SFZC, Ojai, and ZIST, the center for human competence I founded, and have been the director of since 1971). Richard and I sometimes run into each other at conferences, and have dinner together. I hold fond memories of those meetings.

That's all about Wolf Büntig in relation to Suzuki Roshi and the San Francisco Zen Center. May I digest properly all the good food I was presented on my bumpy road.

Be well!
Wolf Büntig

DC note: I don't recall ever having heard Suzuki use the phrase "friendly attention" and wonder if he was actually saying something else but I can't figure out what that would be. I guess it's just a phrased he was trying out.