Interview with  Dr. LEWIS LANCASTER
May 28, 1996

Lewis Lancaster page


It was almost as if he [Suzuki] didn't have to say anything, because of the way he came in, the silence he always elicited from the students.


DC: It's the 28th of May, 1996 . When were you first aware of Shunryu Suzuki over at Sokoji? When did you first meet him?

LL: I came to Berkeley in 1967. That was when I started offering classes in Buddhism on campus. We had not had classes in Buddhism for some time because Ferdinand Lessing who had come in the '30s had retired . . . before I arrived. There had been a break of about 10 years when no courses were offered. There were language courses. And we had the highest ranking lama of Mongolia as an instructor. He was the Mongolian equivalent of the Dalai Lama. Da Lama is the Mongolian term. He was on the faculty. He didn't speak English so he just talked Mongolian to a very small select group. He had been the Buddhist presence theoretically, then I came and started teaching in English.

Part of that time was that people from Zen Center came over to take the classes or sit in on them. A lot of the people from Zen Center were coming over to Berkeley to take these classes. It was fairly new thing to have university classes dealing with the history and development of Buddhism.

I tried to make visits to the various Buddhist groups. In those days it was possible to do that. I went over to the Zen Center, on Bush Street.

I believe, I can't recall exactly, that my first meeting with him was when I went to hear him give a lecture. It wasn't a private interview. I was just one of the group. It was a Sunday morning lecture, if I remember.

For awhile I was the only person on the campus offering a course in Asian religion so my classes were very large. It was a unique time. I decided that I wanted to meet Buddhists, so I set up a weekend retreat at the La Honda "Y" camp in the Santa Cruz mountains. For some years I had this seminar -- weekend -- and I invited 8 or 9 Buddhist leaders, and gave them each 2 hours to do anything they wanted: lecture, or ritual. I invited Zen Center from the beginning to come and be part of that. I'm not sure of the years. I think I started the La Honda thing -- maybe '69 was the first one -- maybe '68. I took about 100 students for these weekends. Some Berkeley faculty would join in, out of interest. We had cabins to stay in; we cooked food. People had to pay for it, we had no money for funding it. Students had to pay. The people who came had to come on their own. Suzuki Roshi was always one of the stars. Students responded to him. I would also have Tartang Tulku, and the lama here in Kensington, the Gold Mountain master Hsuan Hua.

It was an interesting experience and fun for the students. One after another they got to see these people, who brought along with them some of their disciples. Most of them would prepare their own setting.

The time was during the main term. I would just go on a weekend, Friday night to Sunday night. It was basically for the course members. Suzuki Roshi came maybe 4 times. I think he came every time. Some people recorded it, but I don't have any recordings. Each group could give some chanting. Rustic.

My memories of Suzuki Roshi at that time were that of all the people who came, when he put on his robes, he was formal about it. He was not informal. In that rustic setting, the formal was quite nice. I have a slide of him taken down there. I've shown it several times at lectures to groups -- at the Asian Art Museum just last fall I showed that slide of him. We had a whole lecture series of what we've made visible. I said that I feel sometimes that a Buddhist monk becomes an icon just by the way they look. He's an image, as he sits there in that picture, with his robes.. It is like a living image. You have images of the Buddha, or bodhisattvas, or masters. I think he was -- the way he sat , the whole setting for him in this picture -- like an image there. Within his person he was a kind of personification of a monk, teacher, bodhisattva. It was almost as if he didn't have to say anything, because of the way he came in, the silence he always elicited from the students. Then he would sometimes sit for quite a bit before he said anything. . . . Probably very similar to some of the recordings you have -- he had a certain way of teaching. He usually brought people to that place where we were. Very present. Of sitting in this place. He was present. Then he reminded people to be present there. I can't tell you exactly how he did that, but he could do it. He usually joked about himself. Sometimes talking about the way he looked, or the strangeness of his dress. I don't think he was making fun of himself, rather he amused himself, genuinely. He looked at all this stuff and it tickled him. And since it did, he would bring it to everybody.

DC: I've used a quote like that -- at my agent's suggestion -- . Suzuki says, I took on this burden, or this attachment, as ... I'll find it and tell you next time.

LL: At some of the lectures he would lose control and he would start laughing. He would make a little observation -- about brown rice -- and he would start laughing and completely lose himself laughing. The students weren't laughing. They didn't get it.

DC: This is an important aspect of reading the lectures. How lightly he took himself. And what a wonderful sense of humor, and how charming he was. Sometimes just reading them you just get into a grey, somber mode.

LL: He was never somber. . . .Then he had the ability to spin a tale. He would tell a story. It almost didn't matter what the story was. People would listen and hang on to see what was going to happen with the story because you never knew where it was going to go. There was a certain surprise element. I remember he once talked about anger. He said that he had had to be angry at one of his disciples. And he showed us how he was angry. He turned on anger and glared for about 10 seconds. Then turned it off. . . . Sometimes in the anger. It was a little scary because he really did -- I felt it was the first time I had seen somebody do what the old texts talk about of the dharma, where you turn on the dharma, and you turn it off. You just bring up this little stage . . . you felt he could do that. Probably if he wanted to he could have sat there and turned -- he could have been free enough to let these things rise in him, and then just let them go.

DC: In one of his talks he said that -- he was talking about precepts -- which is really one of the most interesting subjects that he talked about, he had such a humorous, wide way of dealing with it -- don't be angry. This is what you can't apply to Zen teachers, because they couldn't teach without getting angry. He said you need to be telling Zen teachers all the time, don't be angry.

LL: I remember him telling this story about somebody who was so proud of being a vegetarian. He pulled off the...[meat from his own hamburger and put it on that person's vegetarian sandwich]

DC: I know the person. So he told that story.

LL: It was really interesting. Because many of the students were vegetarian and there was . . . trying to figure out who is this person who was . . .

DC: This person had had no animal food for 2 years prior to that.

LL: He was too proud of it. [He had so much] attachment. Then students could ask him questions. Of course his answers were not what they were accustomed to either. Because he would either turn the question back on people, or would try to jolt them, I felt. But in a kind way. He wasn't playing with them. It was the kind of teaching where -- in a sense he was saying to students, just don't take yourselves so seriously.

DC: Definitely, that is a repeated thing.

LL: He showed that he didn't take himself so seriously, so in a sense he had a right to say -- and he had also shown it in his talk before, he had displayed this to people. It was always interesting to see how the students reacted. Everybody tended to have a favorite teacher. It always surprised me. I would think sometimes that one was just absolutely magnificent. You'd think they would all -- and it was the case that they wouldn't all choose the same one. They chose a great variety. A number of them chose Suzuki Roshi. I'd ask a question of them, a questionnaire about the event: which one of the teachers did you find the most interesting? Every single teacher had some following. Which indicated that -- what I learned from them was, why there is such variety in Buddhist experience. Nobody is the favorite of everybody.

DC: There's one place where he talks about ecumenicalism, which I'm glad we have. He says, some people have this idea that all religions are moving toward one. He says, actually it's the opposite direction. You started off with Buddhism or Christianity and then it starts branching out into different teachings, because there are different types of people, different psychologies, different histories. This sect emphasizes this, that sect, that. His main thing which he said over and over through the years about different sects was that they weren't right or wrong, just a different emphasis, and they all include each other. Mega-ecumenicalism.

LL: Not everybody chose him as the number 1 person. A lot did, but not everybody. I felt that some people were uncomfortable with the joking. They wanted to be serious. My feeling from him was that he worried about that. There was something too serious. He hooked them a little bit.

DC: You remember Peter Schneider? He was Suzuki Roshi's biographer for a long time. I just read in 1967, the cho-san ceremony where the students go up before the teacher to ask a question. Peter's question was: Suzuki Roshi, I'm very grateful for your teaching. Please ask me a question. Suzuki says, "Why are you so serious?" Then there was a long pause. Peter breaks out laughing. And everyone breaks out laughing.

LL: I guess there always are young people who take themselves very seriously. There's a certain wisdom to what he could do which a young person can't do, because they're not that secure. Speaking about that -- the movie "Moonlighting", the character played by Dukakis says to somebody, "I know who I am." That's a fantastic thing to be able to say. I thought that about Suzuki Roshi. He always knew who he was. So it gave him a lot of ability to roam, because he knew he didn't have to have some kind of barrier to keep himself . . . I met him other times. I was invited to speak occasionally at Zen Center. A few times he sat in. He would always greet me with affection. I looked forward to seeing him whenever I was there.

DC: We didn't invite many people. He told that to me once. He said, because this is the States, and you are like you are, we invite other teachers sometimes. In Japan we never do that. Zen teachers over there are very jealous. Students don't want anybody else to talk to them.

LL: We had a conference at Zen Center which resulted in "Early Chan in China and Tibet." In the '80s. We stayed in the guest house. We had it in the main hall at Page Street. We had . . . it was a big book that came out of that. It was a kind of pioneering effort to have a practice community sponsor an academic conference. I don't think there had been much of that. Nowadays it happens a bit more. Certainly in Asia -- Taiwan -- they sponsor such things. It had his approval. It was interesting that he approved it.

DC: Suzuki couldn't have approved anything that happened in the '80s.

LL: That's true. Was it Baker? Reb? . . . It may have been late in the '70s. It would be after he died.

DC: He was quite interested in Zen Center having more academic activity.

LL: . . . maybe Dick Baker was the one that approved that.

DC: And Dick, too was open to more of that.

What was your first impression, when you first heard Suzuki speak at Sokoji? in the big room? downstairs?

LL: I liked him. I can't tell you exact feelings at that moment after all these years. I had studied with Nyogen Senzaki way back in LA. That was my first contact with a Zen master. That was in '56, '57. Whatever year Maezumi Roshi first came. I was a young kid. I was taking classes at USC and got interested in Buddhist studies. I went to Floyd Ross who was a professor who wrote The Meaning of Life in Hinduism and Buddhism, paperback, sold for years. He told me to go see the Zen monastery which was in downtown LA. Maezumi had just arrived. . . . so he took me to Senzaki's house on Third Street. Incredible old duplex. He lived on one side, and somebody who played awful television at night on the other. They were sitting in Senzaki's house. Ross went with me. He invited us to tea. He was dressed in a kind of Japanese-at-home coat. Asked what we were studying. . . . He said, just remember not to only study the (?) (get inaudible here) . . . is red, is white, 6 inches long, and 9 inches this way, 340 pages. That's external . . . [Lew - can you fix this?-dc]

LL (2-29-08): Senzaki took up a book with a red cover and gave me the advice to forget the external characteristics of red covers and titles and concentrate always on the meaning of the content.

DC: So he picked up a book and he said, don't forget that the book . . .

LL: . . . he said, you could study the book by just looking at the externals. But forget that. It doesn't matter what its color is, its size, who wrote it. It's the meaning.

DC: Like the story of being shot with the arrow -- figure out the velocity, direction, -- or do you just pull the arrow out.

LL: One night Senzaki -- somebody gave him a goony bird (one of those things that go dip, dip) -- he usually read a little portion of a sutra and comments about it. Great times. Sit for 45 minutes and give a talk -- and he had this box, put it together, put down a cup of tea, and watched the goony bird drinking tea. He looked up and smiled and said this is better than a koan any day. There was no lesson that night. The lesson of the goony bird. In age, he was right up there -- he died in '58 or '59.

DC: We put his ashes at Tassajara years after that. How was his English?

LL: Excellent. He used to give lectures at Stanford. Spielberg had him give lectures at Stanford. Spielberg is the one that started what is now the California Institute of Integral Studies. He was before Watts [at the American Academy of Asian Studies]. He was right at the beginning, starting to set up some center to study Asian religion. He was a professor at Stanford. He would invite Senzaki up from LA to speak to his classes. His lectures are probably archived at Stanford. They have an enormous audio archive.

DC: I run into a lot of people who, in talking about Suzuki, studied with Senzaki. Ananda, Claude Dalenberg, studied with him.

LL: I had had that experience. After that I went to Hawaii for 2 years. I finished my MA at USC. Then to Hawaii. I actually went to the first meeting to establish Kokoan. First session for that. I had some background. Kokoan was about '59. I had just gone to Hawaii. . . . were going to do this, so called up, and went out there for quite awhile. So I decided to go ahead and be a student and came back to the mainland. Went to Wisconsin. With Robbinson [Richard]. I was the first one to finish that program.

I had quite a good background in Zen tradition when I first met him. I felt at home with him, and the way he taught. Even though he and Senzaki were very different in some ways. Senzaki tended to be very diffident. Quiet. I always felt that Suzuki Roshi was more out there, more gutsy. In formal talks. Senzaki was kindness personified and very gentle. Suzuki Roshi was not always gentle. There were times when he had his rib(?). He could be sharp, even. Like you were talking about asking why someone was so serious?

DC: I've seen him jump off stage and whack people. Not much.

LL: He also sort of beat up a fellow who said, Suzuki Roshi, should I go to a peace demonstration? And Suzuki Roshi, according to a story, leaped off the platform, and beat him about the head and shoulders for a long period of time, saying, (there are 3 different versions of what he said), something like, "Learn how to tie your shoes first." Really roughed him up. He was a huge guy, . . .

DC: No, no, not huge. it was John Steiner. He's 5'8". [How did I know that?-dc] But John Steiner was totally into peace. . . . Suzuki had a lot of sympathy with that, but that day he just leaped off -- it's one of the most remembered stories -- . So we were talking about Suzuki not always being just kind.

LL: He wasn't always gentle. Whereas I never saw Senzaki being anything other than gentle in my experience of him. Senzaki was small. but he didn't strike you as being small.

DC: Do you know how tall Suzuki was? 4'11". Tiny feet.

LL: He struck me as being smaller than Senzaki. If that's true or not -- impressions. Throughout the time I saw several Japanese Zen masters, in Hawaii in particular. Some of them did not move me at all. They were arrogant. I didn't feel enlightened.

DC: Seems to me to be a rather common technique used by Japanese teachers.

LL: I'm not criticizing it. That was just my experience. That was one of the differences I experienced from them. I always felt that Suzuki Roshi was kind . . . a different style. I think he had very different types of experience, too. Senzaki had really been a marginal person. Marginalized by his role in the Japanese community. He lived through World War II (in a camp). Wyoming. I think those experiences for him, he had to figure out how to think about himself. He got enormous criticism from the Japanese Zen community in Japan, and from his family, his town. They all wanted him to come back. To stay in the United States was being a traitor. . . . His opposition to what was going on in Japan got lots of attacks.

DC: How do you know about that?

LL: Part of it was through Maezumi. A lot of stories came through Maezumi. For awhile Maezumi had just come to LA, so he used to come over to our house. Then we lost track of each other. We never did re-establish contact. I was always sorry. I felt that we should have. but at the time we were young, just married. . . . somebody . . contact with . . . was lonely (?). I don't think he felt at home in the Nisei community.

DC: No. And then Sumi came in as the bishop. And Maezumi and Sumi really became enemies.

LL: I always appreciated that he made the introduction for Senzaki.

DC: . . . one thing -- this thing that happened at La Honda. He would come in just for one day, or would it be an overnight?

LL: He'd just drive down for his 2-hour session. Usually he came down on Saturday afternoon.

DC: He would only go to speak if there was some tie, some reason, if it was appropriate. Do you remember when Conze came?

LL: I arranged it. I have lots of Conze stories. In many ways Conze was my teacher. I studied with him at Wisconsin and Washington. I used to go -- 2 summers I went to England and worked with him.

DC: He had some comments about Suzuki in his autobiography which I think Zen Center published, or helped him get published. He said nice things about Suzuki. but he said terribly critical things about some of the other people at Zen Center. At La Honda, what did Suzuki do in his two hours?

LL: Occasionally some of the people would show the basic sitting posture. . . . (mentions names of people who came with him, inaudible).

DC: Well, if Dick Baker came, it would have had to have been '68.

LL: I had him also come over later and speak in the classroom. Anyway, some of it would be to show how to sit, and the daily schedule, and that sort of thing. They would maybe do some chanting. Sitting for some short period. Then a lecture. He didn't speak the whole time. I asked each group to show a little bit about their practice.

DC: Were there any shortcomings, or short-sightedness in terms of how Suzuki dealt with America? was he naive about anything? in the development of Zen Center? any weaknesses?

LL: I never knew that side of it in terms of administration and structure.

DC: What about teaching? Was there any way he was one-sided?

LL: I think his decision, which must have been controversial among the Japanese community, to leave the Japanese community and just teach westerners was a remarkable decision, given the status and the role which he normally would have played in the Japanese community, which would be not to leave it. I know there was a lot of resentment what I knew happened to Senzaki. Senzaki was criticized for this too, for teaching westerners, without having much contact with the Japanese community of L.A. There were almost no Japanese at his sesshins. Very few.

DC: But Senzaki wasn't a priest of a temple in Japantown in LA.

LL: . . . He never organized anything. There was no structure. If you wanted to leave him a gift you had to put it in an envelope and stick it under the writing pad on his desk. That's the only place for funds that ever occurred to him.

DC: There was a long period in America when he was washing dishes. At first when he came here, in the '20s.

LL: He came as such a marginal person. Although in Japan he came from a family of some status. It was really a drop for him. That's why he was known in Japan, and people criticized him.

DC: D.T. Suzuki went back for the war.

LL: He only came out by going to Hawaii for his teaching. Those were just visiting appointments.

DC: Wasn't he living in the west, like New York, before the war?

LL: I think those were always visits. He just carried a lot of baggage with him. He brought his books. It cost him a fortune to take them to Hawaii every year. He'd bring crates of books on the ship.

DC: Wasn't he in Europe some before the war?

LL: I'm sure he was. He was unusual in that up to the age of 60 he was just a traditional Japanese Buddhist scholar. He started writing in his 60s the books that you're familiar with. Those were the books of an old man. I was in Hawaii the last time he came. I found him hard to take. I felt that he really did not believe that a westerner could ever understand (Buddhism). His patronizing aspect which was a little hard to take. I got that from his lectures. And the questions that people would ask him. He was very elderly at that point. That was my strong impression.

DC: That's a dominant theme of how Japanese Buddhists feel about westerners. There are individuals who depart from that, but that's one of the lines of thinking, one of the prejudices of mainstream Japanese Buddhism. If you just talk to individuals on the street, people who have studied it somewhat, say, well, Americans can understand with their heads. Japanese understand it with their heart. You hear that all the time. I got very used to all their prejudices. Suzuki, Shunryu -- he was almost the opposite. He had come to feel that Japanese were so programmed that it was impossible for them to understand Buddhism. He came to America. He couldn't believe how enthusiastic and open-minded people were here. There were shortcomings he talked about, but he'd go back to Japan and tell people there -- those people are unbelievable, they don't have all the preconceptions, they're so devoted, they'll jump off a cliff if I told them to.

LL: Both Suzuki and Senzaki seemed to have that feeling, that their role was to teach westerners. I never knew how Senzaki talked about it. It was hard to know whether he felt that we really could get it.

DC: I think Suzuki and Katagiri both struggled with how to get it across and had doubts about what they were doing. Both of them made trips back to Japan, or would write letters trying to get Japanese teachers to come, and would wonder about sending students back to Japan. Wondered if Americans could get it without -- and they both disliked intensely certain aspects of what Japanese Buddhism had come to. But they both were drawn back to it. Especially as they neared their deaths. Wondering if they could leave these people on their own. Suzuki primarily came to feel that totally we had to be on our own. He said we shouldn't have any Japanese teachers, or have any Japanese come over unless they're students. But he did, the last time he went to Japan, go to temples and look for places where Americans could study. Every time he'd just find out they were totally involved in money and ceremonies. It was inappropriate for Americans.

LL: I . . . . . . any contact with organized Buddhism. [don't have? don't have much?]

DC: There is a certain tradition. This isn't totally iconoclastic, but a certain tradition in both Rinzai and Soto Zen of rejecting the mainstream trip. Rejecting the training monasteries, rejecting positions, even robes. I think Sensaki's teacher might have stopped wearing robes. [Why do I say that?-dc]

LL: He never wore any of the official kind of robes. Do you think anyone recorded any of the La Honda lectures? Ruskin? said if we go on like this we are going to just turn into caretakers of the past. . . .

[That's a good way to end it.-dc]