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Email from Pat McMahon

 

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Sent January 2008. Posted 10-18-11


GREAT DISILLUSIONMENTS AND EXPECTATIONS

Remembering Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Patrick McMahon

For many years I assumed, against mounting evidence, that Zen masters had method to their teaching, that whatever they did or said was deliberately for the purpose of enlightening their students. That assumption has led me on some occasions to excuse the inexcusable, on others to give credit where no credit was due. In reviewing my early encounters with Suzuki Roshi, I see otherwise: Zen master or not, he did what he did, in relation or in no relation to me, and I responded as I responded. In doing so he conducted himself fundamentally no different than anyone else, and our encounters were inherently nothing special. Having said that, my memories of him are keen. Itís been almost four decades since first meeting him and he continues to enlighten me. But itís not at all been the kind of enlightenment I once expected. Disillusionment might be the more accurate term.

Roshi defeated my expectations from beginning to end. In 1968 he was scheduled to come to Reed College, where I was a student, for a weekend seminar. Iíd been making do with the likes of Eugene Herrigelís Zen and the Art of Archery, and Alan Wattsí The Spirit of Zen, while garnering what meditation instruction I could from the meager resources then available. The promise of encountering a real Zen master - at the time there were so few in the U.S. - was a thrill. I was all the more disappointed then, when arriving at the introductory lecture I found standing at the lectern - not the diminutive, exotic sage speaking wisdom in broken English - but a tall, articulate, 30-something Anglo, talking about the benefits of meditation to academic study. I walked out after a few minutes, persuaded that Iíd come to the wrong room. Later I learned that Suzuki Roshi, not in good health, had sent a senior student in his place, that being Richard Baker. The next day I attended Bakerís zazen instruction, a consolation prize, as I took it, for having missed the real McCoy.

Itís the zazen that turned out to be real, more real than the mind road Iíd been traveling so long, and in my graduating year at Reed I found myself unexpectedly veering away from graduate school toward something I could get my hands on. Iíd long had a fascination with stone, which now struck me as the element most congruent with my newly discovered Zen life. The prospect of becoming a Zen rock gardener appealed. When I learned that the elusive Suzuki Roshi had a knack for effortlessly moving boulders around in his garden at the newly founded Tassajara Zen Monastery, my course was clear. In the summer of 1969 I made my pilgrimage there with the goal of apprenticing myself to him. When, in my first interview I presented my case, he told me that, yes, rock gardens were all very well, but that first Iíd best focus on zazen. I proceeded to do just that, and have been doing so ever since. Somewhere along the line I did manage to move a few boulders around. (At present I operate a landscaping company by the name of Rocksolid.) [Article mentioning Pat and Rocksolid]

In spite of my disappointment at not being immediately taken on as Roshiís right-hand rock man, I stayed on that summer at Tassajara, watching him in his garden from afar while washing dishes at my assigned job in the kitchen. Meanwhile I still craved some special attention, some recognition of my potential as an apprentice, and I watched for my chance to come at him from a different angle. One afternoon I found myself at the baths outside the scheduled student bathing time. Roshi was also there. We floated about in the hot water for a while, not seeming to notice each other, when he waded over to me and pointed at my head. At last, the Zen encounter Iíd been so long expecting! He laughed and laughed as he pointed - a good sign, I thought, that the Master was about to enlighten his disciple. Did I have a head above my head? Was I like the woman who searched all over the world for a precious gem, only to have it pointed out as residing all the while on her own forehead? He looked at my skull this way and that, touching various spots. Slowly it dawned on me that, in shaving my head without a mirror, I had missed patches of hair. Now, if Iím lucky, when my present teacher and domestic partner, Nancy, points out the stubble under my jaw where my razorís missed, I hear that laugh.

From Tassajara I returned to Portland, joining friends from Reed who had also gone south and come back, where we set up the Portland Zendo. That winter Roshi came our way to lead us in a weekend sesshin. It was quickly apparent, however, that he was once again not in good health, and a masseuse was sought among us to soothe his discomfort. I was hardly qualified but wasnít going to let that stop me, and I volunteered. Under my hands, and through his robe, his body seemed frail, but otherwise not much different than any other human being, only smaller, finer boned, than that of the average adult Caucasian man. I canít think he got much out of the massage, but I came away from that session sobered by the evidence of a Zen masterís physical vulnerability. He might have extraordinary powers to move stone, but he, too, was mortal, as would soon become even more clear.

In December of 1970, I and my girl friend of the time asked Roshi if he would marry us. How romantic, how fortuitous, how Zen! A date was set, but on the way to the wedding we got in a terrible fight and showed up at Zen Center, her in tears and me mortified. Roshi took one look at us and sat us down for zazen instruction. The ceremony was never mentioned. Iíve thought about the episode in various ways, supposing, for example, that he was pointing out zazen as the foundation of the marriage vow; predicting, perhaps, that although the two of us might separate (and did, a year later), weíd have zazen to return to. But in the end I think he just didnít know what else to do with us and fell back on what he knew best.

When, in the spring of 1971 the word came our way that Roshiís health was further deteriorating, my wife and I settled our affairs in Portland and went to the City Center, determined to make the most of our dwindling opportunity to get what the Master had to give. Soon after arriving, I made an appointment with Roshi and asked him to recommend a course of study, perhaps hoping he would personally escort me through the sutras. He didnít seem particularly interested in my query Ė I remember him carrying on a side conversation with his wife Okusan - but after a little tea and inconsequential conversation he suggested D.T. Suzukiís Essays on Zen, First Series. I was disappointed when I later took them up to find them dry, philosophical, somewhat stilted. I went back to zazen. No rocks, no books. Again, the Master was pointing me back to the fundamental. Get off that mind road! Forget the big ambitions. Just sit!

Later that fall, Roshi disappeared from public view and we at last understood that he was dying. Yet Ė curiously - it hardly seemed to register with me. I had come to Zen Center because of him, and here he was leaving, but I was there to stay. Katagiri Roshi was taking up the slack, there were a number of fine senior students around, and I found myself among some very smart, hip people. Anyway, zazen Ė as Iíd found by now Ė was the main thing. The morning of December 4th, the first day of the Rohatsu Sesshin, it was announced in the zendo that he had passed. My wife and her friends were crying; I didnít know what to feel. I had to leave the building that morning for my day job, and I remember the streets being bright and cold, swept clean by the morning wind. Far from sad, I found myself joyful, as though someone had been born, not died. Not at all what I would have expected.

-- Which is exactly, in retrospect, what Iíd expect from my Zen master. In consistently thwarting my assumptions, he has slowly, surely nudged me toward accepting the inconceivable and unpredictable fact of things as they are. Did he put me off as a rock garden disciple, knowing I would find that direction in my own good time? Did he put himself in my hands to teach me a lesson in mortality? Did he know what he was up to when he gave my fiancť and me zazen instruction instead of a wedding ceremony? Was he pointing out the stubble on my poorly shaved head as a method of deflating it? I donít think so. I think he was responding to the obvious. If there was something special about him, it was that he was so simple minded.

Perhaps Iíve become a little simple minded myself over time. Whether thatís due to Roshiís influence, the slow wearing away of zazen, or the process of aging itself, who can say? At any rate, 40 years after I first failed to meet him, and 35 years after he passed away on a winter breeze, he seems to have become much like many others Iíve encountered in the course of practice: teachers not necessarily intending to teach. For my part, as a Zen student and a student of life, Iíve learned what I have, not necessarily with intention to learn. Enlightenment happens, disillusionment is inevitable.


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