Interview with Lew Richmond
by DC

Lew Richmond links page for much more on Lew


There was something about his face when you were talking to him or looking at him that was different than anybody else's. There was a quality about it that was incredibly relaxed.


LR: About will, conviction and accomplishment, Suzuki Roshi said in one of the few interviews I had with him, "What do you want to do? Do you want to be a musician or a priest?" Clearly a leading question. I banged the tatami mat and said I want to be here, I want to be with you. Shortly after that he suggested that I be ordained. It was his idea. I never said I want to be a priest, just, I want to be with you. That was a very true statement of my intentions at that moment. I didn't care in what form it was but I was very committed to him personally. I also didn't say I want to be here at Zen Center, I said I want to be here with you. And then when I stood up to do my three bows after that interview he stood up and he did three bows to me to the floor. He never did that any other time. I got the distinct impression that there was something about that interchange that was very important to him and that it was bigger than me and so he bowed to it. Not like he was bowing to me personally but like there was something that came through me that was why he was here and that was very important to him.

DC: He would do that sometimes. I wonder if there's any precedent for that.

LR: I don't know. I think the Japaneseness of that response impressed him. I had conviction, I was dedicated, had devotion. Sincerity is a big big thing for a Japanese person. Far more than for us. We can have conviction about something one week and then the next week about something else and that's fine. For a Japanese person that's not only a sign of weakness but a real kind of breach. If you say you're gonna do something you'd better do it.

What I think attracted Suzuki Roshi to stick around is he saw that kind of sincerity in people and for him that was the most important thing. He felt that however long it took, if that were there then eventually it would work out.

And I also feel that in the long run that getting back to the issue of Dick [Baker] that he may have felt that he was going to die to soon and things were not going to go the way that he thought and Katagiri didn't do what he wanted him to do and all that but that he started something and that if it was right it would continue in some way and would eventually flower however long it took and I think that's still true. It may take, who knows, a few hundred years?

DC: In an article on Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia in the Atlantic it quoted someone in saying that an institution is the extension of one man. The extension of Suzuki Roshi doesn't have to include the San Francisco Zen Center. It could be his book or his students doing something else, and it could be the Zen Center.

LR: What Dick did, which shouldn't be underestimated, is he landed some real estate. In our culture, in a religious context, it's forever. The land he got will probably be dharma centers forever.

But the fruition of Suzuki Roshi coming here may not be revealed in our lifetime or our children's lifetime.

DC: Or in ways that we expect.

LR: We had a model at Zen Center that it would all be like this with Tassajara and everything - and that's just a youthful dream. And it is sad that so much of what we started has been frittered away like Tassajara - no teacher up to the measure of the place.

DC: Maybe it can continue without the great enlightened teacher.

LR: Well it can because that's the way Buddhism has probably survived all these centuries.

There's a person who hasn't done much sitting but who is very involved in the Buddhist scene and has done a lot of organizing for the Tibetans and the Dali Lama and he was feeling bad because he hadn't done much sitting and feels like his life is a mess and it seems to me that the important thing for a Buddhist is to have conviction or faith and will and if you have those things then the others will come one way or another. Serenity is really a meditation skill but Buddha rejected all his early teachers - he was an accomplished yoga and could do amazing things but he didn't see that that was ultimately the point and in the same way this person and all of us have to shift our convictions from the old visions of personal accomplishment and enlightenment and more toward service to the dharma or to the vision of Buddhism which might not take a Buddhist form. I think Buddhism is dying and will die shortly in its present form - it's just about run its coarse. Maybe its role in the rest of this century is to infuse the newer religions like Christianity and Islam with the practices of Buddhism. The forms of Buddhism haven't really changed much in a thousand years.

DC: What's your strongest impression of Suzuki.

LR: His face. I still dream about him and mostly when I dream it's an image of his face. He's looking at me. Sometimes he starts talking but mostly he's just looking at me. There was something about his face when you were talking to him or looking at him that was different than anybody else's. There was a quality about it that was incredibly relaxed. I can't describe it in words but the picture on the back of the book captured it. There was a quality about his visage which expresses everything that you need to know about him. I've met a lot of other Zen teachers and religious people and the only other person I can think of who had the same quality was Kalu Rimpoche.

Only a few people spent a lot of time with him and I wasn't one of them but I'll throw some things into the hopper.

I was having dinner at the Berkeley Zendo with Mel and a couple of the Berkeley students and Okusan and Suzuki Roshi were there because he'd come to give the lecture and you know that sukoshi means a little bit in Japanese and we had zucchini as one of the courses and Mel said, Okusan do you want some more squash, and she said sukoshi (sounds like "skosh") and he said yeah, squash, and they went back and forth - it was sort of confusing and Suzuki Roshi looked up and said very distinctly to Mel, "Zucchini," a little bit critically.

One time at Page street I was in the courtyard and he came out and there were just the two of us out there and I thought great a chance for me to spend time with the master so I ambled over to him to get his attention and just then one of these crazy people who were always around came out and stood on the side and Suzuki Roshi walked toward me and then intentionally whirled around and turned away from me and walked over to this woman and sat down next to her and talked to her for the longest time while I was there watching and basically just blew me off. I got the distinct sense that he knew what I was up to and didn't think it was very neat and he wanted to show me something.

I had very little contact with him. I was his anja or jisha (attendants) or something one summer at Tassajara and I took care of him and got his firewood but I don't really have any neat master stories. I was very devoted to him. I cried miserably at his funeral. I was despondent that I'd lost him and I had no comprehension at the time what was going on. I was too young. I don't think I began to figure out what had happened in my fifteen years at Zen Center till I left and began to have a life.

I think if you're going to have any success at understanding what Buddhism is about as an American you have to have a life. You have to have an ego identity that is grounded in ordinary living, that is, making a living, paying the rent, having normal relationships and interactions with people who aren't Buddhists. Having to survive and thrive just like everybody else. And whatever you're doing in your spiritual life is a piece of that life, it's not the life. If you loose that life and your life is screwed up you should be a monk - cause to be a monk is a normal part of society.

DC: There has to be a place for the monk to be. There has to be a role and a support system for the monk.

LR: Exactly. If you're a monk in this situation you're kind of a proto cult member in a way simple because you're divorced from any kind of ground societally and psychically you have no ground. You're basically floating in the clouds. I think that the people who have the most success both institutionally and individually in practice, even if they did go become a monk somewhere they didn't do it for a long time and fundamentally they integrated it into some kind of a life, a regular life. I think that the two greatest mistakes that Zen Center made in its existence are residential community and priesthood. Those things have a lot of good features but the residential community meant that the community was controlled by people who had a dependency and a real need for that kind of a life. To this day the legal structure of the organization is still dominated by these people. The lay community has never been a dominant force in the way that almost every other religious community is controlled by people who don't live there.

DC: Yeah, it would be nice to be supported by Zen Center but I decided not to do that which is a hard decision to make cause you've got to have confidence in yourself and leap out into the void. If I don't have a lifestyle or way of making money after all those years in Zen Center, then what am I going to do for money? But I didn't worry about that because I was a fringe person to begin with but that has been a difficult thing for so many of us to do.

LR: Yes, and we've forgotten that the sixties and seventies were a very flush time for this country. And now if you got your MA in literature and dropped out twenty years ago, you're dog meat unless you get real lucky.

DC: It demands a level of cleverness or resourcefulness that you can't expect everyone to have. I wouldn't necessarily suggest other people try it.

LR: Baker Roshi's insatiable need for money also didn't work very well for a lot of people and my guess is that Suzuki Roshi was very ambivalent about us setting up that kind of system.

DC: He didn't create it.

LR: I think he was extremely happy that some sort of a monastic system was developed because you need that for the few people that are really gonna go all the way and be your kind of professors and that's the traditional training. But the rest of it - Page Street and Green Gulch - those aren't really his ideas I don't think exactly. They were ideas that people had which he didn't oppose.

DC: It was an experiment that he at least went along with - he at least co-operated.

LR: It was important to him to have a place where we could go so he could spend full time with us because the responsibilities of Sokoji was a big drain on his ability to be with us.

I think in retrospect that Sokoji was a great untapped resource for all of us that we never really tuned into. They live lives. they were that community of people who had faith in Buddhism, it was an integrated part of their life as Japanese people in America. They worked very hard to keep that place going financially during the war while they were in interment camps and we just kind of pooh-poohed them because they didn't sit. They didn't sit because they were busy making a life. They were a little bit further along in the life cycle than most of us kids were. I think they were the other half of what Buddhism is about. We were like one half and they were the other. We were suspicious of them and they were of us. We didn't respect them.

[see Ananda Claude Dalenberg’s article in the Wind Bell on Sokoji]

DC: And they didn't respect us and we didn't care.

LR: Exactly - things got off on the wrong foot right from the start because why should we respect each other? We had a very specific idea of what we wanted Zen to be for ourselves and a lot of it came from the books of DT Suzuki and Alan Watts and didn't come from what was right in front of our eyes which was real living Buddhists who were living a real traditional Buddhist life with a real traditional priest and their relationship was traditional and we could learn a lot from that like you can learn from going to Japan where you can see the context for all of this. It may not be what we wanted to do but the context for somebody sitting a lot of zazen and exploring themselves in an interior way was there. That's what a priest would do to serve a congregation like that traditionally - they would have to train in such a way that they had some interior knowledge of themselves and that would be a resource that would serve that lay community and they would work out in the world to support you and one priest could be supported by fifty or sixty families. That's a model that is world wide. And the model we created is kind of weird. If you were being supported today by Zen Center you'd have to worry long and hard at where that money was coming from. Particularly in the early days when people were being paid slave wages or no wages. It was a forced donation.

DC: I had a great time though. Somewhat I guess I was working the system. I didn't totally buy the whole trip but it was fun and there were great people and I felt that I was paying dues to hang out and play that game and if I wanted to make money I'd have to live out. Which I eventually did.

LR: I think that Suzuki Roshi in the early days which I came at the tail end of - I was there in the summer after the first [Tassajara practice period]. There was a great spirit in those days and it was a great feeling and a lot of it was that none of us knew what was happening and what was gonna happen and it was all very fresh. He just died before a lot of it could really come to pass.

DC: Yes, that was a tragedy, his dying so young. What do you think his weaknesses, shortcomings were?

LR: I think he was very naive about the world. He had no experience of how people lived out there. I heard it once said that he never went to Kyoto in his life. Which meant he was pretty parochial.

DC: He went to Eiheiji so I would think he went through Kyoto.

LR: Maybe he went through. But he had a lot of naiveté.

DC: That's the way Japanese are and that's how they get foreigners who go there to study Zen to be. They go straight from the airport to the temple and if they go to Korea to get new visas they don't sightsee and that's what the abbot expects and I'd talk to them and I couldn't understand and Elin and I would stay away as long as we could and the Roshi would ask why are you staying so long? He couldn't understand. They wouldn't see they whole continent of Asia if they had to miss one zazen.

LR: I think that Suzuki Roshi was very single-minded and fanatical in a way.

DC: That's the tradition.

LR: Underneath all that I think he only had one thing he wanted to do in his life and that was to somehow pass on or create what he considered to be authentic real dharma. And he was willing to be real flexible and relaxed and had a tremendous command of the language and all that and he was a sweetheart to all of us but underneath all of that he was doing that as a kind of skillful means to get what he wanted.

DC: I think he wanted to pass on the best of what he'd learned from his training and Kishizawa and there was no way he could do that in Japan. As far as I can see he had not one student though he once told me that he did have one in Japan who understood his teaching who died and he said that was the only one who had fully understood his teaching. But I don't know what to think about that. Maybe he was putting me on.

LR: I think that he badly misjudged both Katagiri and Dick. In his last year it was very critical that he figure out some kind of transition. He knew that he was ill. When he had his gall bladder out they found some cancer and they got it out but there was a potential that he might develop cancer again and he did. And in September of ‘71 when he was told he had cancer he had some very big decisions to make as far as I can remember looking back - three big decision. One was who was going to succeed him as the leader of the community, the spiritual leader of the community? Who was going to take care of the secular affairs of the community which might or might not be the same person? And was he going to leave any written instructions as a kind of testament for the community to refer to in the future? On the first score it's very unclear what was in his mind and I only have bits and pieces and I wasn't there in the room for all the different things but one theory I've heard which I think is probably right is that he definitely wanted Katagiri to be in the picture big time but he also didn't want Katagiri to take over because he didn't want it to be a Japanese thing and Katagiri was not his dharma heir and Katagiri came from a different scene.

DC: And Katagiri has a different lineage. They both had connections to Kishizawa - Katagiri through Hashimoto. Katagiri was more Japanese - Suzuki Roshi even said that he was too Japanese.

LR: And very stubborn and not as bright. Suzuki’s mastery of the language was incredible.

DC: Extremely rare. They have the hardest time with English of any people on earth according to a number of sources I read when I was teaching ESL.

LR: It's not just the sounds either. It's the way they are. Anyway, he wanted Katagiri to stay and be a senior spiritual person and he wanted Dick as his dharma heir to take over. That could mean a bunch of different things but one thing is the there could be one person in front and another behind the scenes who is a kind of power behind the throne. I think he didn't trust Dick completely and was concerned about Dick's lack of maturity and weirdness and all of that and he needed someone to control him and if Katagiri stayed he could have been a resource for the community but Dick would have gotten the nod and the title and could used all of his organizational skills and fundraised and kept things going and other students would rise up and become the next generation of leadership but Katagiri clearly didn't want to have anything to do with Dick and may have felt that he wasn't asked in the right way or at the right time or with enough sincerity and that Suzuki Roshi didn't show complete confidence in him. The same problem came up when he was asked to be abbot a second time with the board - they had no idea how to ask him. You had to ask him twenty times saying if you don't do it I'll kill myself right now. And then Reb got it through his machinations.

So on the first and second score Suzuki Roshi messed up because Katagiri didn't do what Suzuki Roshi wanted him to do and I think on the third score Suzuki Roshi utterly failed to do one of the things that I think could have saved the situation to some extent which is a written spiritual will. He could have left us something so that when Dick started to get out of control with the drug of power there could have been something to refer to that would not have been mediated by Dick - it would have been direct from Suzuki Roshi. I don't think he was sophisticated about the dynamics of the community and an institution in such a way that he would have thought of doing something like that or thought that it was necessary. I think he wasn't thinking about it but that he should have. I think that considering the complexity of what he built and that he was dying way too soon to leave some kind of testament would have been insurance that things would have gone his way.

DC: Dogen sure wrote a lot down. I wonder if there's a precedent or example from him.

LR: I don't think Suzuki Roshi was real practical. You hear those stories he told about being so absent minded - he sounded like someone who was a little dreamy and not real practical. He spent all his life in temples. It was as much a weakness as a shortcoming. He lacked all that practical experience and he relied heavily on his American students to supply a lot of that and that was dangerous. He was not directive enough in practical ways in guiding the formation of the community or in thinking about how the community could go on after his demise. It left an awful lot to the imagination. Some people have said to me that he just kind of gave up. I don't know if that's really true or if he just did the best he could and ultimately that faith and conviction that he had that in the long run he did the best he could and now it was time for him to die and he was going to die.

But his death was a marvelous thing. Just to watch the way that he handled dying is one of the greatest things I've ever seen in my life. One of the things that was just utterly amazing to me is that nothing changed. He didn't act any different the day after he knew he was going to die as the day before. He just went on with his life. I understood something much more deeply about what he was really trying to do when I saw that transition. He was green and purple from his liver failure and he could barely walk and was just amazing. He didn't do anything differently and he tried to come down to zazen when he could and he just clearly was prepared to die.

DC: He exemplified Saint Frances's answer when hoeing to what would you do if you were told the world would end tomorrow and he said keep hoeing.

LR: Exactly - he clearly had trained his whole life for that moment and when it came it was a non event. He knew exactly what to do. And also, I don't know how he did it but he managed to die at a very opportune time - right at the very first hour of the sesshin. When Okusan came down it was five in the morning and I was right next to the door and she said, "Get Zentatsu!" and I knew immediately what was going on and I leaped up and I got Dick and he left. He very clearly choose to go out when everybody was looking forward to five days in the zendo.

DC: It's traditional. You can look back at the history and see that some Zen masters consciously die and choose their time of death. Other people do that too.

LR: When I knew he was going to die - I was very sentimental about it and grieving and upset and there was an olive tree that grew outside Paul's cabin at Tassajara and it had been cut down and all these little sprouts had grown out from it and so I had some wood that I'd brought up that was from that tree and the tree to me symbolized that the trunk might be cut down but there would be all those shoots so I took some of that wood and I carved a walking stick to support him and I worked so hard on it in the Page Street shop because he couldn't walk very well and I gave it to him and he wasn't using it very much. Then he saw when he came out in the hallway once that I was looking for it so the next time he came out he was using it for a little while - to make me use it. After he died Okusan gave that stick to Trungpa and it sat on his alter for the rest of his life.

At the meeting when he told us about his cancer, we all went in there, Okusan looked terrible. You and I had just been ordained like a couple of weeks before with Katagiri acting in Suzuki Roshi's place in proxy. He was sick but he thought he had hepatitis, he didn't think he was dying. We all sat around the bed and he had a tape recorder and he turned it on because he said he wanted Dick who was in Japan to hear it. Ryuho was there. All the ordained disciples that were in town. Ananda. Yvonne was there. Bill Kwong. He started to talk and he said, "Well the doctors were concerned with what was going on with my health and they thought it might be cancer and it is cancer and I may not live so long and I said how long do you think (and this is important cause it tells you about his state of mind)? Do you think I could live as long as two years? And they said, 'At the most.'" He wasn't thinking that in three months he'd be dead. And Ryuho kind of fell apart and said something in Japanese and Suzuki Roshi said chogan (intestinal cancer) but it was really gall bladder cancer. We were all kind of in shock. He said some other things and then he talked into the tape recorder and he said, "You should do what people want you to do." And that was the message for Dick because Dick had been saying he didn't want to be abbot, he didn't want to come back or whatever. We have to remember that Dick didn't angle for the job of abbot. That was not his idea of what he wanted to do with his life at all. When he got into it he realized there were a lot of things he wanted to do of course. Anyway Suzuki Roshi looked at me and saw that I was decimated and he peered into my eyes and said, "Hi." I couldn't say anything. I was kind of a mess. All my ideas about what my practice would be like went out the window.

Another story that happened nearer to the time that he died that illustrates the kind of lack of attention to the details of what would happen next is I went to see him the only time I was able to see him before he died from the prior incident. He was very weak and lying in bed and he went, "Ah, Chikudo." And he looked ghastly and what I really wanted to ask him was what am I supposed to do? Be Dick Baker's disciple? What? What's gonna happen? I just got ordained under your jurisdiction and now you're dying on me. What am I supposed to do? I thought in Zen you're supposed to ask him metaphorically so I started talking about this new bell that we'd just gotten and I said there's a new bell in Zen Center and it really unclear whether the sound is good and what do you think about that? I was asking him about Dick you know. He didn't answer me I don't think - I mean he just answered me literally - "I think the new bell's pretty good." It was very unsatisfying and then I tried to ask him more stuff and he had to go to sleep - he wasn't up to it. It was like a week before he died. I realized later on that I'd been very angry with him for a certain period of time for not giving me some instruction.

DC: Typical.

LR: What was I supposed to do? I went to Katagiri and I said, Katagiri, what am I supposed to do? Should I be your student? It was beyond comprehension to me that someone could be Dick Baker's student at that point. And Katagiri said, I don't want to talk to you about that now, I'll talk to you about that in a few weeks and he never did. He never got back to me or followed through. So I kind of just went on the merry-go-round for the next twelve years and went long with everything. It seems to me that Suzuki Roshi didn't deal with anything.

I'd made a tremendous sacrifice to follow my conviction to be with him - not to be a priest - that was his idea - and it had all been swept away and I was at sea and I had a lot of talent and I very seriously thought about leaving - Amy and I went to look for land. What got me to stay more than anything was that Dick made me treasurer of Zen Center. That's were I got my first skills in entrepreneurship. One reason a lot of us stayed was that we learned stuff and engaged practically speaking with managing stuff and I became the director of the city and went to meetings and it was all very exciting and it was a kind of career of a sort of a Zen manager and when after twelve years I went off and worked in a business I had a lot of skills. It was very beneficial to me in my life. I wasn't slave labor. It was a good payoff for me because I was high enough in the hierarchy to be getting a lot of benefits. A lot of other people were learning how to wash dishes at Greens.

Anyway, his quality of not dealing with anything was a weakness from my point of view. It really was bad, his allowing the community to drift off without much guidance and Katagiri played into that because he couldn't wait to get out of there. I think he ran off because of grief - it was a real blow to him when Suzuki Roshi died and I also think he had his own ambitions to do something on his own and I also think he didn't want to be around when Dick was.

DC: He wanted his own place.

LR: I give Katagiri a lot of credit for being able to see Dick better than Suzuki Roshi did. And Suzuki Roshi should have been able to anticipate Katagiri's response and if he really wanted him to stay he should have been able to figure out a way to do it. They were both Zen priests and spoke the same language and he had such persuasive powers. There's something mysterious about that - that he wasn't able to keep him.

DC: When they talked they were very formal. They would bow down to each other and obviously be saying all sorts of polite phrases to each other.

LR: The whole thing about Zen discourse is to go beyond the formal - let's talk about the truth. I was disappointed and I was angry and frustrated because I don't think that Suzuki Roshi took care of me and I gave my life to him - the only time in my life that I've really done that and I'm unlikely to do it again.

DC: That's an important point, almost betrayal.

LR: I think a very valuable book would be a book that tells it like it is. All the spiritual communities are screwed up on issues like this. And all of Suzuki Roshi's lectures should be published. I made a go of it. I edited all of them or the ones that I thought should be in a book, a bunch of them and sent them off to Weatherhill and I wouldn't be surprised if it's still there. It was pretty minimal what I sent them actually - it was just a proposal - not a real editing job. Anyway I tried to put it together into a book. ZMBM is successful because it's a translation of what he said into what he meant.

Trudy died too. Supposed she had lived. There would have been a different mix of power. Her hand in that book shows that there was an important element of discipleship in their relationship. Anyway there's a lot of unfinished business and one thing we should all do is to finish that business. There's a difference between the spiritual heirs of Suzuki Roshi and the institutional heirs. He had official heirs and unofficial heirs. All the people who read his book are his heirs in a sense. Far too much attention can be paid to the institutional legacy which in some ways seems irrelevant to the spiritual legacy. I think the project [biography] is very important and the lectures is another part of it. And the fourteen worst lectures he ever gave were the San Do Kai lectures. The only time they came alive was when he allowed himself to digress from the text.

DC: I was working with him on it. I think he not only rejected the mold of Japanese Zen but Kishizawa's way. Maybe he didn't know it. His San Do Kai lectures must be him giving us Kishizawa's trip on the San Do Kai. Kishizawa gave many lectures on it that Suzuki heard.

LR: He didn't have his heart in that stuff. I think the most vivid thing about Suzuki Roshi was his sheer physical presence. Everybody I've talked to who knew him, when you really talk about what it was about him that was so wonderful, it was just his physical being.

I can talk about it in high fallootin yogic terms. I sensed a field around him that I think is palpable - you could feel it. And there was also a coloration and a quality to that field which you could see in his face and also feel when you were near him which was a very pleasant thing. You can read about it in the traditional literature. It is Avlokiteshvara energy, compassionate energy. And that is what made him a master as far as I'm concerned. He had that as much as he had hair. It was just an attribute of who he had become. I don't know how he got there - he wasn't a monkish sort.

DC: Betty feels he had it when he arrived. One of my theories has been that he developed it while he was here, but maybe it was something that he couldn't express until he came here.

LR: I think he had it when he was very young. Speaking in artistic terms, he was a talent. Deep deep inside. His generation of Soto people knew he was a talent. But in Japan just cause you were a talent doesn't mean you get to express it cause you had a duty and his duty was to Rinsoin and all of that.

DC: Noiri Roshi wouldn't say much about him but he mentioned passing him in a train station and bowing and watching him walk up the stairs as an impressive event. And Noiri is mister impressive Zen master who sleeps with a wooden pillow, he wouldn't even stay at Eiheiji cause they've lost the letter and the spirit but from what I’ve heard he's into a type of Zen that couldn't have taken hold here. Like I said about Katagiri, thank god he couldn't really teach the type of Zen that he respected, Hashimoto Zen which was Kishizawa Zen which was straight back, serious, not a second off the true way completely pure. But Katagiri was a nice guy like Suzuki. To me Suzuki has that sort of field that you talked about and he brought the practice and the zazen but he also had a wonderful compassionate softness that was so much more appropriate and benevolent a thing to happen to us.

LR: It was impressive that he was that kind of a person but what was really impressive and made him the rarest of the rare is that he didn't possess it. He didn't make it into something that he had. He didn't ever talk about it. If you tried to make him into something special he would brush it away. He was trained well enough that unlike almost every other spiritual poohbah I can think of that's come to the West including some that have a lot of Yogic juice, Suzuki Roshi had the rarest of the rare - true humility and I don't think I'll ever meet it again. I think it's sufficiently rare that if you meet it once in your life your lucky. It's a Saint Frances kind of energy and that's what made him really special. He was highly accomplished and also ordinary and would never acknowledge directly in any way that he was or make anything of it. I mean the minute that you have it you loose it.

DC: The minute that we tried to pin him down, he wouldn't be there.

LR: That was what made him totally unique. Some people have parts of the puzzle but like I said only Kalu Rimpoche seemed to me to have that sort of feeling.

DC: Jonathon Altman said that since he's been with Suzuki Roshi he's been searching for him and he's only found the like in some old Tibetan teachers and he really didn't want to do their practice.

LR: I certainly don't want your book to do what Suzuki Roshi never permitted himself to do anytime in his life with us which is to make himself into a person of attainment.

DC: And also he never wanted a book to be written about him. (Nona Ransom story)

LR: I think that Suzuki Roshi would be furious at you and at me for what you've done and are doing and what I'm done and am doing and that's just the way it is.

DC: Yeah, I really don't care.

LR: And I was furious at him. Tit for tat. He did things that were wrong for my life and made it very difficult for me to know what to do.

DC: I just disagree.

LR: I think that significant pieces of Buddhist teaching are simply lost - at least for today. Anyway I have no regrets.

Anyway, getting back to this thing of Suzuki Roshi's Sambogakaiya body or whatever - he wasn't like a regular human being.

DC: That's what Paul Disco says too. He says he wasn't male or female or Japanese or American.

LR: I think that perhaps in earlier centuries there were more people like him but I think he was probably one of the last of the real ones and I had a distinct sense when he died that it was kind of the end of an era or close to it.

DC: He thought Fujimoto and some others were the real thing. (Grahame Petchey's story)

LR: It's like Kurosawa when he was given a lifetime academy award he said, "I am so sorry that in my whole life I have never understood cinema. I am continuing to try to understand cinema. Maybe someday if I continue to work very hard and dedicate myself I will understand cinema." We're talking about Japanese people. He probably wasn't the greatest of the great but he was good enough for me.

DC: People emphasize this idea of enlightenment but there are some other kinds of development that are important or at least it seems there's no one thing called enlightenment.

LR: Enlightenment is not a Buddhist word. It's an American word. Buddhism has a whole vocabulary for this stuff. Bodhi is the closest but it isn't used to describe a person's spiritual accomplishment. Naroda means cessation. Nirvana means going out. Mahayana has terms for each of the ten stages of the Bodhisattva's path. The names are highly descriptive. One of the things I feel is that scholars who can give us access to the primary texts are the key for us to resuscitate the real teaching. The height of Buddhist understanding was like the fifth, sixth, seventh century ad. There are lots of texts that describe various exalted states of consciousness in very precise detail. They don't talk about enlightenment. DT Suzuki invented that. It's harmful. There's a state where you can see clearly that the self is a construct but you have no ability to actualize it in your behavior. In the Hinayana tradition that's called stream winnership. It's kensho. The distance between the initial insight that the self is an illusion, a convenience to being able to have comportment which is in accord with that which is what we would say Suzuki Roshi had accomplished is vast. The word enlightenment kind of blurs it all.

DC: Ken Wilber writes about different levels of attainment that are recognized in the perennial philosophy, the teaching of great saints and sages throughout history.

LR: The whole Dogen strain that I think actually goes back through China into some Indian school is that it's so important that you actualize it and so unimportant really that you have some insight that insight becomes almost irrelevant. It's so important that if you just follow the rules and pretend to act in accordance with the dharma, you're almost there. Like Soto saying that practice is enlightenment and that to practice you just take the forms and then the whole thing falls apart. Yasutani used to say that the highest stage becomes the lowest and it's sort of a circle. It's in three pillars. Ultimately what counts is behavior. If enlightenment means anything useful in the world, it means what we do. And that's so because there's no self so there's no enlightened person at all because it implies a soul, a being, all the things that the Diamond Sutra says don't exist. All you really have are a moment of enlightened action of a moment or unenlightened action. Your task as a human being is to craft your life in such a way that it's one enlightened action after another.

Suzuki Roshi is the only guy I can actually point to and say there's a guy who actually lived that way. For whatever reason: talent, teachers, being touched by the right person at the right time, I don't know, former lives. He seemed to have something that matches my sense of what Buddhism is really about which is not bombastic macho thug masters who basically are into power sex and money and lying to everybody, but the real work.

DC: Not intimidation, lording it over others, dramatic action, bravado.

LR: The Buddhist scene in the West is a pretty sorry mess as far as I'm concerned. When I was around Suzuki Roshi I thought hey neat, Zen master, I'll bet there are a lot of people like this and now I'm realizing it was a rare time we had and there aren't a lot of people like that around. A lot of the leaders, especially the Asian leaders seem to be pathologically disturbed in one way or another - their emotional development seems to be on the fourteen or fifteen year old level and they're basically here for gain whether it's a stable of nubile young girls or money or power. There are a lot of people who think this is what Buddhism is. These are enlightened masters - you can't question what they do.

DC: You said that the important teachers that Suzuki Roshi talked about were Joshu, Bassho, and the tenzo (cook) Issan and he [?who] said that another weakness of Suzuki Roshi was his love of Dogen.

LR: There was this lecture that he was giving at Sokoji downstairs and there was this guy who used to hang out who was really crazy or stoned on LSD or whatever and he would do things like shout in the middle of zazen and say, don't hit me with that stick, I will destroy this building with my mind! He would bang on the bells. Suzuki Roshi just let him do his thing and didn't kick him out or anything. There were two spaces down in front of the alter in front of the pews where you could sit on the floor and Suzuki Roshi would sit in a special chair in front of the alter which was all set up with the candles and incense so he was giving a lecture and this crazy guy was mocking us all with his hands up like this and he got into this thing where he was trying to blow out the candle. He got into this whole thing with his mouth and I remember having this fantasy that this guy might attack Suzuki Roshi and Suzuki Roshi paid him no mind and gave his lecture and a lot of people were pretty nervous. Suzuki Roshi would lift his hand and this guy would mock him lifting his hand. Suzuki Roshi would turn his head and this guy would turn his head. Anyway the lecture was over and Suzuki Roshi did his bows and he got up and then he whirled around really fast because he was physically pretty agile and he blew out the candle and he just cracked up. It was a real performance. He was so convulsed with laughter that he could barely walk. He was staggering up the isle having the greatest time. We were all hippies and had gotten stoned and this guy was acting like we acted in our parties and Suzuki Roshi was beyond all that. He didn't let it bother him. We didn't know how to deal with it. He had a very playful side and it sure came out that day. He made me realize that I was awfully uptight and not terribly courageous.

At another time on the phone:

LR: I still think about him a lot. Suzuki Roshi actually comes in my dreams and tells me stuff. In a sense he still functions as a teacher for me. One of the things it's made me realize is that the teacher in a relationship like that is really yourself and your physical teacher kind of stands in that place and if you get that awake in you it functions for your whole life. There's some kind of archetype inside people that already knows something and the teacher helps it to come out.

How do we all feel about the fact that we all peeled off? I have some periods when I have some guilt or sadness about leaving Zen Center in the lurch. I don't regret that I did it because I had to but there's a certain sadness that I feel about what's become of Suzuki Roshi's work. I don't really have anyone to talk to it about. What became of Zen Center isn't quite what I think we all hoped for. In some ways I think of Suzuki Roshi as one of the greatest Buddhist teachers that came to the west and what I consider to be much lesser lights have in an exterior sense been more successful and they have actual students out there teaching, not necessarily good ones, but they have groups and they're doing it and I don't feel that Zen Center has done that.

Suzuki Roshi used to say that his master, Gyakujun So-on, said he would have weak students - that's us.

DC: It all remains to be seen, or maybe it won't be seen, it might just go on organically beyond our observation. But the fact that Zen Center isn't such a great institution might not be the worst thing in the world.

LR: A lot of people can't pay the price, they don't have the psychic wealth to admit that they've made a mistake as with Baker Roshi. If you were devoted to Baker or Edo, you gotta pay a price to admit that and a lot of people don't want to pay it. Ten years of your life goes down the drain.

DC: But there's a fuzzy area. good and bad, So-on had a lover. Love affairs are just human - that's not sexual addiction like a lot of teachers had. It's a matter of our culture not preparing us to deal with the down side of these things - these guys came from outside of the culture and of course we are the first generation to have to start to figure out how to discriminate

LR: Trungpa was a multiply addicted person - sex, booze, power, to looking better than others but he was genuinely loved.

DC: Yes - he was brilliant and a good teacher for the hippies of that time who basically felt comfortable with his kind of lifestyle.


DC notes talking to Lew.

At the cancer announcement were Bill K, Ryuho sitting on the floor, Claude, Yvonne, Okusan, Angie, Silas, Reb, Lew and Mel. He doesn’t remember Les Kaye being there. It was in the very small bedroom. The impact was attenuated because he couched it in his cheery lighthearted way - people were numb. Ryuho asked what type of cancer it was and he said chogan - intestinal cancer but in English he clarified it was liver cancer. He leaned into the tape when he said something about you should do what people ask you to - it was clearly intended for Dick - he was making the tape for Dick - to get him to come back. (was it sent?) The idea was that Dick had already been asked to come back and it wasn’t clear he wanted to. He had other things in mind. But when he agreed to do it he took it on completely.

DC adds – He also pointedly asked Claude Dalenberg "When I’m gone, will you stay?" and replayed the tape to make sure that part was on it with Claude saying yes.

LR: Suzuki-roshi got up to walk around some before and after the cancer announcement.

When Suzuki-roshi thought he had hepatitis he had to eat liver with soy sauce which he hated. Afterwards he got to have cake which I remember something about him eating one day in the kitchen.

The meeting where Katagiri cried and crawled to Suzuki was after the Mt. Seat ceremony and was a larger group of people who had been in the procession and maybe more than that - everyone went into the dokusan room with Suzuki and Dick sitting at his right and not much was said. The enormity of the situation hit Katagiri - it is done - Baker is abbot and Suzuki will die.

DC: He went on his knees across the floor crying "don’t die don’t die" and hugged poor frail brown Suzuki

LR: who said something like, "Daijobu," which meant it’s okay. Then everyone started to cry - I especially remember Bill Kwong getting emotional.

Suzuki’s plan was to live longer and be around to see how it’s going. He’d said on the tape he might have two years at the most. A few weeks later the end was nigh. He had metastasized liver cancer and his color indicated that his liver wasn’t functioning.

We’d been sitting with him at the funeral home with Suzuki’s body.

Cremation - Dick and Hoitsu officiated - plastic American place - organ music - plastic? flowers. Dick and Hoitsu pried Suzuki Roshi’s juzu beads from his fingers and folded his rakusu. We watched the casket go into the furnace and it flared up. There was a lot of crying - I remember Angie and me. We waited a while and left.

DC: I missed the cremation. I was stupid. No one told me about it. I should have been more alert. I know that Yvonne got the ashes and she ground the bones and divided them in three - for the rock and peak at Tassajara and for Rinsoin from which Bill Kwong later got some to Hoitsu’s irritation. The man at the funeral home and at the crematorium said they’d never experienced anything like the sort of attention Suzuki-roshi’s corpse got in their establishments.

LR: Several months later there was an ashes ceremony at Tassajara - one part at the stone and another on the high peak [name?]. It was windy up there and dramatic – Dick Baker did the ceremony - it was rough, dramatic and wild.

DC: The ashes flew in my face. I think I fainted. I remember doing that there. It was either then or at Nyogen Senzaki’s ashes ceremony on that spot. No, I think it was when Suzuki’s ashes blew in my face. Something happened and I just fell down. I got up pretty soon. Hardly anyone noticed I think.

LR: There’s some story about a boss man in Yaizu who wanted Suzuki-roshi's resignation and for another guy to be abbot - something about Suzuki giving it to him in such a way that he couldn’t accept it. He said to wait until Obon and met him at his home with Amano? and said let’s put it on the altar of the Butsuden until Obon is over and that would have exposed the man’s questionable conduct to his ancestors so he said never mind.

DC: There were those in the temple when he first became abbot who wanted another older priest to take over. I’ve heard various things about this. I’d like to understand that story better.

Authentic Life - an interview with Lew from June 2010 issue of Tricycle. Here below are a couple of brief excerpts from that interview where Lew says some things about Suzuki Roshi's teaching and intention that ring quite true to me, DC. Below that see three photos of Lew from that interview.

Tricycle: In addition to authenticity, do you discern any other themes that have provided continuity as your practice has assumed different forms?

Lew: Yes, I can think of two. One has been a search for a universal and nonsectarian form of wisdom that can be made widely accessible and available to all people—priest and layperson, young and old, rich and poor, Asian and Western. I think this was Suzuki Roshi’s vision in coming to America. He saw Buddhism as an innate human treasure and as fundamental as breathing. He was curious, broad-minded, and willing to try new things in order to make Buddhism most approachable. But he only started a process that I believe he fully expected us, his disciples, to carry forward in ways he could not have foreseen.

..... Suzuki Roshi used to say that Zen in the West would fit neither the traditional categories of priest nor lay practice, which is an idea that originated with Shinran. I think in coming to this country, Suzuki Roshi wanted to plant the seeds of dharma in fresh ground, so that something new could develop. Of course, it can’t all be about innovation; there has to be a real relationship to one’s tradition as well, which he also emphasized. You need a kind of dynamic tension between the traditional way and trying new things. I think that most of us who have been at this for a while are working with what that means. Neither priest nor layperson is simply where we are, and I’m just trying to express that in the particular flavor of the Suzuki Roshi lineage.

Three photos lifted from Authentic Life - an interview with Lew Richmond from June 2010 Tricycle magazine

this one's a thumbnail - click on it to enlarge



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