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Suzuki Stories     Brief Memories of Shunryu Suzuki

Email bio from Dale McKenzie

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SHORT ZEN BIO OF DALE MCKENZIE

He said that we stand on the edge of society if we are true Zen students


It was the fall of 1967. My wife Gail and our three year old son Bradon had just moved to San Francisco from the Midwest. Society seemed to be evolving fast and it was exciting for a farm boy recently out of law school to come to all the happenings in the Bay Area. Shortly after our arrival, my wife attended a free Japanese film and met an elderly Chinese man there who taught religious philosophy. He suggested two places that newcomers might find interesting -- Winterland in the Fillmore District where rock concerts were held and the Zen Center on Bush Street. We both went to Winterland and I attended occasional lectures and sittings at Sokoji on Bush Street. I recall Suzuki Roshi standing in the hallway after zazen and bowing to each person individually as they left. I felt he was taking stock of each individual with penetrating yet kind eyes. One Saturday morning Bill Kwong instructed a group of us on zazen form and practice; Bill seemed quite serious and dedicated and let us know that this would require some genuine effort. I did not have any further contact with Bill until I moved to Mill Valley in 1972 and started sitting with his group there. Shortly thereafter he moved his sangha to Sonoma Mountain, and I was involved with Genjo-ji for a number of years. Bill remains a treasured dharma friend. I fondly remember the good times we had up in Calistoga taking the hot mineral waters and the lunches we had in Japantown.

 I recall after one morning zazen in 1969 when the zendo was only half full and Suzuki Roshi was quite angry. It would have been in the new Page Street location and it was the morning after a sesshin -- the time to see how serious everyone was about zazen. He was quite concerned that so many did not show up. He spoke during zazen and I had never heard him do that before. He said that we stand on the edge of society if we are true Zen students -- we must see our true self apart from all societal trappings. He then jumped up from his cushion and applied the wakeup stick (kyosaku) with great vigor. He did not wait for polite bows from the students -- he just warned with double smacks on each shoulder. I felt his intentions were good and trusted his actions. I miss the kyosaku and feel that it can be an extremely useful tool. But I understand as a lawyer how its use can lead to all kinds of problems in our current society. Although I never had a formal relationship with Suzuki Roshi, he did touch me deeply. His teachings still resonate with me, but I never developed the devotion to him that so many have.

One story about Suzuki Roshi that I always remember involved a young student who had just carried up groceries for Mrs. Suzuki. The student saw Suzuki Roshi preparing a cup of Liptonʼs tea and apparently could not hide his astonishment that a Zen master would prepare and drink such an ordinary brew. Suzuki Roshi immediately saw that the young fellow was quite taken aback. The older man then gracefully lifted up his cup and said, “Good to the very last drop.” Tea ceremonies take various forms.

In July 1975 I went on a temple tour in Japan with Herman Aiharaʼs macrobiotic group. Eihei-ji was one of the destinations that I was most looking forward to. Shortly before we were to arrive, we were informed that our visit had been cancelled. Apparently a large government group was coming and Herman thought we were being bumped out by more “important” guests -- something that was not unusual. I was not willing to accept this without making an effort to stay there. So I went with our tour guide to Eihei-ji to plead for admission. I wore a tie and sport jacket and was determined to get in. I did not speak Japanese so the young tour guide had to translate my English -- he was quite nervous. First we met a novice monk, then his superior, then another superior who told us to wait. Which we did for about two hours sitting seiza -- the pain in my legs was intense. Finally an older roshi casually entered the room smoking a cigarette with a somewhat arrogant, annoyed demeanor. I had told the guide to tell them how influential Suzuki Roshi had been for me and many other Americans and that I was going to visit his son Hoitsu Suzuki at Rinsoin in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture later on my trip. By the tone of the conversation I was not too optimistic. We were told to wait some more. Then another attendant came in and told us we could arrive as originally planned. We got in, had a hot bath, sat zazen, ate white rice and sweet tofu, attended morning service (what a show) and had a hell of a good time.

Several days later I hired a driver to take me to Rinsoin. I was only there about four hours and had tea and sweet bean pudding with Hoitsu Suzuki, his wife and the driver. I thought the son looked like his father. Hoitsu was very warm and asked me to stay overnight, but I had to get back to our tour group. He offered incense at the temple altar and I offered some powder incense Bill Kwong had given me. Hoitsu struck a large bell while I did three prostrations. Then we climbed up a hill over a small stream to see Suzuki Roshiʼs tomb. Hoitsu kicked a rock out of the way and cleaned the tomb stone off. We offered more incense and he chanted the Dai Hi Shin Darani. We went back to his house and he stamped my temple tour book. What impressed me so much was the sense of accumulated sadness, no urgency, just funerals, weddings and older folks getting together, torn rice paper, dust, kidsʼ toys scattered around, food wrappers, zafus piled in a corner. This place had been around a long time -- it wasnʼt like San Francisco Zen Center.

I started sitting with Taigen Dan Leightonʼs Mountain Source Sangha in 2002 in San Rafael and continue sitting with that group today. Taigen left the group in 2007 for the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago. He remains one of my close dharma friends and I still remind him to wear clean, warm underwear and not to let the snow get in his boots. I know we were old friends from the past, and I want to be sure he doesn't freeze there on Lake Michigan. I recall very clearly one time when Suzuki Roshi said in a Q &A session that we are all old friends from past lives. Taigen and I, along with Andy Fergusonʼs tour group, went on a pilgrimage to Northern China in June, 2007, visiting monasteries and other important sites in the history of Chan Buddhism -- one highlight being a three day stay at Cypress Grove Monastery where Zhaozhou practiced during the last 40 years of his long 120 year life.

After Taigen left Mountain Source Sangha, Kiku Christina Lehnherr became teacher for the San Rafael branch. I regard her also as a dear dharma friend who has helped me open my heart more to the suffering of others and myself. When Christina left in early 2012 to become Abiding Abbess of City Center, Shinko Rick Sloan took over. He is now the teacher for all three of the Mountain Source Sanghaʼs locations (San Rafael, San Francisco and Bolinas). Rick is doing a fine job, and I feel fortunate to have the closeness of all three of them in my life. They represent some of the very best of the “new generation” of Zen teachers.