RECOLLECTIONS OF SUZUKI ROSHI
MEMORIES OF SUZUKI Roshi FROM WIND BELL AND DC FILES - #18 - Durand Kiefer (all included below)
by Durand Kiefer
[I insert first a letter of 5/20/75 which accompanied these stories written by Durand Kiefer to Richard Baker Roshi at the SFZC. Durand was an early member of the Los Altos Zendo, a ship captain, I guess a navel commander, and, as you'll see, an eccentric character (which I guess a lot of us were). His is the only letter I know of in this archive written in the third person.-DC]
Please excuse all the last-minute corrections, and edit it as you will. If you use any of it I hope you can correct Roshi's sayings for better conformity to his style. My recollection of his vocabulary is not very confident -- only of his sense.
Yours, in your teisho, is so much like his that in the one sermon of yours that I heard one weekend at Zen Center, I could close my eyes and hear Roshi still talking.
Thank you, congratulations, and gassho,
Once Roshi went to Carmel, California, to speak to a small group there: only ten or twelve strangers.
"I have been told that my subject is the history of Zen Buddhism," he began, "but I can see that none of you would be interested in such a dull subject. So I will just talk, and we'll see what comes out."
He stood talking for about an hour in his usual leisurely teisho style, very slowly and deliberately circling the ineffable void at the center of his subject. All the while he passed the beads of ojuzu between thumb and fingers of his right hand held in front of him. At last, without ever really finishing, he fell silent and sat down at the side of the room, while the program chairman asked for questions.
There were none - the sophisticated audience was completely entranced; that is, confused beyond words. But after the chairman dismissed the meeting an elderly retired naval officer approached Roshi, alone, and noticing the ojuzu still rotating in Roshi's hand, he pointed and asked "What is that for?"
Roshi held up ojuzu. "This?" he asked lightly, "Oh, this is to give my hand something to do."
The commander's wholehearted laughter startled the people filing out. Roshi chuckled happily. It was the beginning of an affectionate friendship that endured all vicissitude, including the Roshi's death about five years later.
A major vicissitude was the commander's compulsive traveling. Once when he apologized to Roshi for this, marveling that Roshi continued, after each lengthy journey, to accept him back as student, Roshi replied, "Our first meeting was kind of special. It isn't easy to forget things like that." At another time, with the same feeling, Roshi said, "American Zen students are just like smoke." And again he said, "American's are very strange; so many have no shadows." He meant not only that they were transparent, but that they were intentionally so, an unheard of behavior in an Oriental.
Roshi's new student was soon a member of Haiku Zendo, in Los Altos, and was always there for early morning zazen whenever Roshi was there. As a former student of Yasutani Roshi for several years, he asked Roshi in private, at the first opportunity, "I notice that all your other students here call you Sensei. I hope you don't mind my calling you Roshi."
Roshi looked even more solemn than usual. "Thank you very much" he said. Within a couple of months all of his students were calling him Roshi and the title was used in the next issue of the Wind Bell. [There were other factors contributing to Suzuki being called Roshi that Durand may not have been aware of.-DC]
Leaving the house at Haiku Zendo one winter morning after breakfast, Roshi and two students, one a young woman, were putting on their coats in the entrance hall. Examining a small Mona Lisa-like painting of a medieval cavalier hanging on the wall, the lady said, "He looks like he just got enlightened."
The other student looked closely, "No, he's uncertain about something," he said.
"Ha," said Roshi softly, "Zen master!"
The woman spun around, "What did you say?" she gasped.
Roshi found himself with a koan. He seemed lost in the picture on the wall. "He's not a Zen master," he said.
Both students seemed satisfied.
Roshi's new student was an inveterate daydreamer, always involved in some bizarre scheme of his own to rescue humanity from its original sin, the thinking habit. "You have too many good ideas," Roshi told him solemnly.
One of these, in the days when it was still wholly unheard of, was the use of alpha brainwave audio feedback to make zazen easier. This student arranged with a well known psychophysiology researcher to wire up his brain for several hours a day for several weeks in a laboratory while he did zazen, and then he went to Roshi and proposed this program as an alternative to his scheduled attendance at his third Tassajara training period Roshi listened carefully to the long, involved, passionate proposal of his heretical friend, who argued that the experiment would be a great boon to Buddhism. The more Roshi listened the farther his face fell. Finally, after a long, sad pause, he said, "I don't understand anything at all about that kind of thing." The student took this for acquiescence, if not approval, and started his next zazen training period in a University of California psychophysiology lab, with electrodes glued to his scalp twice a day for three weeks.
But it didn't make zazen any easier for him, so he went off and hastily bought a large old sailing yacht to escape to an island off the coast of Mexico. Then he went to Roshi and invited him and his wife to go for a sail on The Bay the following weekend, in the middle of winter. "I'll ask Okasan", Roshi said. "Call me Friday and I'll tell you what she says."
On Friday, Roshi told him, "I asked Okasan, but I'm sorry, she got sick."
"Oh, that's too bad. What's the trouble?"
"I don't know; maybe it's seasickness."
An awkward polite silence. Then, "Well, maybe you can come without her?"
"I can't," said Roshi quickly, "I have to stay home and take care of her."
Roshi had an infallible way of guiding a student who asked for it in dokusan. When the student had stated his problem and asked what he should do about it, Roshi would ask him to name some of the alternatives that appeared open to him. When the student had named several Roshi seemed to consider them solemnly for quite a while in silence. Finally he'd ask, "What do you think you should do?"
When he'd coaxed out a positive answer to that one, Roshi would consider it in silence for another stretch. Then he'd ask brightly, 'Why don't you do that?" as if it was a brilliant solution that he'd just arrived at. It never failed to solve the problem,- at least temporarily, and sometimes, permanently.
Once a student asked Roshi, "Why do you have 40 minute zazen periods when most Roshi's have only 30 minutes? Won't you consider having 30 minute periods also, at least in sesshin?"
Roshi replied "That's very interesting. I've been thinking that we should have 50 minute periods." After a pregnant pause, he added, "But maybe we can compromise. Let's make it 40 minutes."
Occasionally toward the end of his teisho during sesshin at Tassajara, Roshi would pause and look around at all of his students. "Do you understand?" he'd ask earnestly, and wait patiently for an answer that never came. Only once he answered himself, "If you think you do, you don't!" he announced, and chuckled softly to himself.
A student of Roshi's who was only four years younger than he was had been at
Tassajara for several months of the training center's first year when he had his head shaved.
But he didn't keep it that way. A few weeks later he was passing Roshi on the bridge, and gasshoed. Roshi stopped him. "You look like a sage," Roshi said, apropos of nothing. The student smiled ruefully, "Appearances are deceiving," he replied. "Not always", said Roshi,
and passed on.
Sometime later this same student came to Roshi privately in his cabin at Tassajara. Over a second cup of tea, the aging student said, "When you prescribed a year at this place for me, you told me I would find great joy."
Roshi nodded solemnly.
"I have been here about four months since then", the student continued, "and I'm beginning to suspect that you omitted to tell me the full price of that great joy you promised."
Roshi returned his gaze expectantly.
"To find that great joy, I will first have to lose the will to live, won't I, Roshi?"
Roshi took a long time to answer. "Yes," he said finally, "but without gaining a will to die."
On another occasion, this student invited Roshi for tea in his room. When Roshi arrived he found the student wearing a splendid striped silk hapi coat with a gray woolen hakama. On the black satin lapels of the coat were woven several handsome Japanese characters in white.
After tea, in taking his leave, Roshi said, "Please don't wear that coat here anymore, it is too elegant for this place."
"I bought it only for special occasions like this," the student assured him.
"Yes, I understand," said Roshi, "but it would be better if you don't wear it at all." Roshi did not tell him that the Japanese characters on the lapel spelled out Tokyo Kabuki Za. No one told him until he tried to give it to a Japanese friend.
Once Roshi was riding in the back of a truck with some of his few male students on their way to collect big rocks from the Tassajara stream bed for Roshi's garden there. It was a choice work assignment because Roshi was usually along. Halfway to the site the oldest student, who was near Roshi's age and not much larger, noticing that the other men were all young and big and strong, had a change of heart. "You'd better let me out here to work in the berry patch," he told the work boss.
"I thought you wanted to wrestle rocks," the young man laughed.
"Perfection knows no obstacle but preference" the older student smiled. Roshi, sitting next to him, studied him closely for several minutes, then looked away, disappointed.
Several times in 1966 Roshi visited the Santa Cruz mountain top cabin of this elder student of his, who was then trying to interest Roshi in helping to establish a retreat house, (An, in Japanese), at or near that place. Roshi scrambled up and down two or three of the mountain tops in the vicinity brushing through the thick poison oak in his kimono, tabi and zori. He escaped oak poisoning, but had to throw away at least one pair of torn and hopelessly mud-stained tabi. He finally gave up the search in those mountains, but not until he had made a great confession. "You have given me a big koan," he told his ambitious friend. He didn't say what the koan was, so his friend, as puzzled as ever, went off to the Black Forest of Germany to try to interest another teacher, Count Durckheim, author of Hara, in building a zazen retreat at Todtmoos Rutte there. When he returned to his mountain cabin several months later, disappointed again, Roshi came to visit him and informed him that he had found an ideal mountain site for a Zen monastery at Tassajara Hot Springs, and that Zen Center was buying it. Roshi's old student knew the place well, including the asking price for the ancient resort. He thought he could begin to see the shape of Roshi's big koan. "How will they ever pay three hundred thousand dollars?" he asked. Roshi reached out and took his friend's hand in both of his. "Please help me" he said simply. Many of his students asked Roshi for help regularly, but few ever expected that he would feel the need to ask them.
The student he appealed to was still trying to convert his cabin to a zazen retreat of his own, not very successfully. He sometimes called the place Shanti , and sometimes Yugen An. Once Roshi and Marian Derby tried to help him by holding a zazen meeting there. After Roshi's teisho, when the group was having tea, his host handed Roshi a card and said, "Here is my understanding of your lecture. On the card was written " 0 = 1 = [infinity]". "That's good," Roshi told him, "The last figure is usually overlooked."
Several times the owner of Yugen An offered it to Roshi as a retreat house for the teachers and students of Zen Center. But he had previously invited the Chinese Taoist, Giafu Feng, to live and teach there. So every few months when the owner would ask Roshi, "What will I do with Yugen An?" Roshi would ask, "Is that Chinese still there?" As the answer was always affirmative, Roshi would say bluntly, "Wait." This went on for two years, until the owner finally moved away and left the place to the Chinese, who soon afterward wrote a book. In a preface to it, Alan Watts said of Giafu what Roshi's "wait" was saying all along: "He is a marvelous example of the Chinese ideal of the old rogue."