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DC's Brief Memories
of Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Center back then, etc.
photo by Lisa Law
DC on Suzuki - first thoughts
DC Brief Memories of Shunryu Suzuki
American not so afraid of death
11-11-14 - When Shunryu Suzuki would arrive at Tassajara, he'd go straight to the zendo and offer incense. Once when I drove him in from the city, we walked into the zendo and up to the altar, I lit a stick of incense and held it vertical before him. He took it and, before he placed it in the bowl of ash, turned to me and said, "Many temple have burned down from one stick of incense." Then he offered it, bowed three times to the floor on the bowing mat, and we departed that building that burned down a decade later - though probably not from a single stick of incense.
8-28-14 - A number of times I heard Shunryu Suzuki say that everyone is doing their best. - DC
Once Okusan, Suzuki's wife Mitsu, wasn't at home in the City Center and I was in from Tassajara and Bob Halpern and I and some others invited him to go to a movie, a rare opportunity. She wouldn't have let him go probably. Nothing special was happening so he got ready and we zipped off to see 2001, a Space Odyssey. I was sitting next to him all excited that he was going to see this great movie and I remember starting to explain something to him and him just saying "Shutup." No kidding. I hate any talking in movies. When it was over we asked him how he liked it and he said, "Is that what LSD is like?"
6-01-12 - Dr. John Phillips, director of the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, used to come to Tassajara as a guest. He'd been instrumental in getting DDT banned and told me of legislators lambasting him with accusations of devious intent when "all I was trying to do was protect the poor pelicans." He and his students continued to test for pollution, finding the average mothers' milk so contaminated that he said they should use formula instead. I asked him what should we do to reverse the course of contaminating the world before we destroy ourselves. He said, "It's already too late." That was in the late sixties. We let him come to Tassajara for a retreat there during the bleak Winter interim after his wife died.
Dr. Phillips and his wife loved to eat crayfish, touting it as the most savory of the shellfish. I told him I'd gone to the creek by the tracks and caught them as a kid - we called them crawdads. Brought them home and put them in a tub. Our maid Rosa would take them home. I'd never eaten them.
One day I was walking with Suzuki Roshi down toward the pool and we ran into Dr. Phillips and his wife. I introduced them. He proudly showed Suzuki a bucket of crayfish he'd caught. Suzuki looked at the bucket half filled with the crustaceans resembling squirming little lobsters, let out a distressed sigh of sadness, and walked away.
Maybe that's when we started telling guests that the fauna on land and creek at Tassajara were our friends and not to be bothered or eaten.
Dissing the Moon Landing
5-24-12 - In July 1969 just after the historic moon landing, Suzuki Roshi gave a lecture in which he poo-pooed the whole thing and said, as I remember, "I'm not interested in anyone who's interested in going to the moon." At the time I was taking a break from the Tassajara guest season, living in Pacific Grove, and studying Japanese at the Monterey Inst. of Foreign Studies, now of International Studies. I had an interesting neighbor named Ed who had a PHD in one of the sciences. Ed had a scale model of the moon landing rocket that he'd put together. I asked him if I could borrow it and he generously complied. The next weekend I drove back up to San Francisco for the Saturday morning practice and lecture at Sokoji. After the lecture I asked Suzuki if I could see him. I brought the rocket model into his office and showed it to him, pulling the first stage off, then the second, then the moon landing vehicle, explaining what I knew about the flight, landing, and return. He was genuinely interested, fascinated, playful in response, curious - not a shred of negativity. I put the rocket back together, said goodbye and drove back to PG, occasionally laughing.
5-23-12 - I remember once talking to Suzuki Roshi and Okusan, his wife, about dying or death, something in that area. Don't remember how we got into it. What I remember is them both making the point that they've found Americans to be quite open about discussing death, not so afraid of it, that Japanese aren't like that at all, are in general very afraid of death and don't want to discuss it. I was really surprised to hear them say that. I still think, really? - also posted in Death and Dying.
Today's brief memory is an image of Shunryu Suzuki's constancy. He was always there. He had remarkable presence as recorded over and over in this oral history. Integral to that presence was his lack of distraction. We can't copy his presence but we can think about how to apply constancy.
I sit now and then at the City Center of the SFZC, less at Green Gulch, at Tassajara for some days every year except for last. Sit with groups in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage or visit their centers. Dharma Sangha in Germany and Crestone, Genjoji, Russian River Zendos, Back Yard Zendo in Sonoma County where I was living. Aside from Green Gulch in Marin there's the Mt. Source Sangha sittings, Ed Brown, more. All over America. A little bit elsewhere. I'll try to get a complete list of Suzuki lineage groups and teachers on cuke. I'm especially impressed with the age spread at the SFZC centers. Some will say that it's all inferior or heretical from one point or another, but it seems to me, for what it's worth, it's thriving. Why? Sitting this morning I had a little flash on why.
I saw the shrine room at Sokoji, the Soto Zen temple that Suzuki came to be the priest of in 1959. He arrived and started sitting there. Word got out a new Zen master was in town and right away some people came to him and asked questions and his constant answer was that he sat early in the morning and that they were welcome to join him. Little by little people joined him, a zendo was put together, he started giving talks, there was a Saturday program with a meal and cleaning. Nothing interesting really. Just sitting, a little chanting, sweeping. Not much in terms of promises. Why did it catch on? The main reason it seems to me is that he was always there. He was there when people went to zazen, when they came by the temple in the afternoon to ask a question. It doesn't have to be that way. It's usually not that way in Japan. But Suzuki knew he was planting his practice in new soil and it was a long shot it would take hold. In his 1994 cuke interview, Taizan Maezumi said the great thing about Suzuki is what happened as a result of his coming to the US. We don't know why, he says, but just look what happened. I agree we can't say why, but today I reflected on how critical his single-minded constancy was. Doesn't seem he'd been that way in Japan, maybe because he didn't have a situation that inspired him to be inspiring. What I see is him inspiring his students by always being there for him and them inspiring him by coming back. Perceiving the situation as fragile, he focused on encouraging people with his presence. That's how I see it. I think it worked.
One of the talks in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is titled Constancy. In this lecture, one of his last, Suzuki speaks again of constancy.
The first time I went back to Fort Worth after coming to the Zen Center in the late summer of 1966 was for the Xmas of 1967 I think. I remember I didn't go for '66 because I'd only been practicing for a few months and didn't want to break the spell. But as the '67 holiday season approached I had no qualms about leaving the Zen nest for a while. I came in from Tassajara to San Francisco and, before leaving, went over to Sokoji to say goodbye to Suzuki Roshi. It was in the afternoon. He wasn't in his office so I went into the zendo and called up to him - his second floor apartment had a window over the zendo on the right side and a balcony on the left. He stuck his head out and I told him I was going to Texas and just came by to say goodbye. I said I really appreciated what I'd learned from him and I said something about how he'd been like a father to me, a spiritual father. He told me he was coming down. He made tea and we talked. I said that my father had been like my first spiritual teacher but that he'd died when I was eleven. I learned a lot from my mother too, music, leads to more subtle states of mind, playfulness, humility, and being thoughtful with others. Hadn't seen her since a trip home from San Francisco to deal with the draft board in the early summer of '66 - before I first came to the Zen Center. It was time to visit home again. I had regularly written her but was eager to tell her in person what I'd learned about Zen and life at the Zen Center with Suzuki and Katagiri. The last thing Suzuki said to me was, "Be kind to your mother."
Suzuki's words stayed with me. It's like the Dali Lama's reducing Buddhism to, "Be kind." Reminds me of Suzuki's interpretation of the precept not to sell intoxicants as don't sell Buddhism.
Peter Schneider had given the same advice in another way. At Tassajara I'd asked him what book on Zen I should give mother for Xmas and he said he used to give his parents what he thought they should read but now gave them what they wanted to read.
You know how politicians sometimes say things they regret and then say "I didn't say that" and then someone like Jon Stewart plays the videos of them saying both. I had that type of experience with Suzuki Roshi once. I think it was early 67 (I'll get a more exact chronology done at some point) he went to the East Coast with Richard Baker to give some talks, meet with groups, and individuals, and to help raise money to pay for Tassajara which we'd already put the down payment on. The first talk he gave after he got back he talked about going to the East Coast and seeing New York City for the first time and he expressed how amazed he was by it, how tall the buildings were and how far they stretched in every direction and so on and he said, "I could not accept it as part of my mind." Or he said something close to that. Not long after that he and i were talking in his office and I asked him some question that led to him saying something about acceptance indicating that we should accept things as they are. I then pointed out that he said that he said he could not accept New York City as part of his mind.
"I didn't say that," he said.
"Oh yes you did," I said. "You said it in the lecture you gave when you first came back."
"No, I didn't say that."
We went back and forth a few more times and finally I realized that he might have said that then, but he didn't say that then now. Mainly I realized that I couldn't hold him to it.
He could have explained that he was joking or making a point or that was a relative can't accept and this is an absolute must accept. Hmm. Come to think of it. Maybe everything he said he didn't say. He said it that then but not this one. But no formula will work. There are statements that are meant to carry forward like promises and vows and dates. Maybe we can deal with all the complexities of what's being communicated best if we minimize the stopping to think about it.
I also don't think it's fair to hold politicians to everything they've said in the past. It's sort of silly.
And if anyone asks, I didn't write that.
12-15-09 - "Every great Zen master had an unhappy childhood." – Shunryu Suzuki. I heard him say that but of course I don't think he meant it literally. It's the way he said things. It goes into the Not Always So box with everything else he said.
A lecture series Suzuki didn't give
11-26-09 - With him and on my own I was studying the subject of Shunryu Suzuki's talks the next to last year of his life - talks on the Sandokai [book on Suzuki lectures on Sandokai] and the Eko (the dedications of the merit of the sutra chanting at services). Next he was planning to lecture on the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra which he indicated to me was about as good as it gets - I can't remember his words, just my impression. Not that he might not have said the same thing about another text the next day. He never did give those lectures though. He went to Japan after that summer of '70 and got sick pretty soon after he came back and I think he knew he was dying the next summer and so gave lectures of another sort. You can see Suzuki's last lectures on cuke here. Or of course you can go to shunryusuzuki.com. I don't think it matters that he didn't give them - just knowing he pointed to this great text is enough. We can study it and give our own lectures.
"Don't Go on Any Trips."
9-30-09 - Leave tomorrow for 18 days in Northern Germany. First to Hanover and Kassel with Baker Roshi for a couple of seminars he's doing. Then to Frankfurt for a few days then Berlin for a week. Have enormously enjoyed the last month here at Johanneshof. This is a great place to practice. I didn't expect it to be so mellow here.
Suzuki Roshi used to try to gently nudge us from being too serious, from taking ourselves too seriously, from taking our practice or Zen or whatever too seriously. Sort of like when he warned us about getting on trips. "Don't go on any trips," he said more than once. Trungpa Rimpoche used to say that too. I remember Rimpoche saying that once in a lecture over and over and over. On the other hand, when Ryuho Yamada first came to the SFZC, Suzuki told him not to goof off like he might in Japan, that his students were serious. See Ryuho's interview. So there's serious that's a trip and serious that's on track.
And there are no heavy trips here that I've seen. Kudos to Baker Roshi and Dharma Sangha. - dc