Memories of Shunryu Suzuki by Rene Pettit
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Rene Pettit on Suzuki Roshi
Around 1966 I saw Suzuki Roshi for the first time at the Human Be-in, an early rock concert held in Golden Gate Park just past Speedway Meadows in the Polo Fields.
Beneath the billowing skydiver's chute he seemed an elfin, compact, Oriental, sitting quietly near the front edge of an impromptu stage created with a flatbed truck trailer, with one giant exception: he was surrounded by 10,000 dancing hippies tripping on LSD!
I had seen my share of robes while working at the Big Sur Hot springs (Esalen) and was only slightly curious about him. Later that night at Rod and Martha Freebairn Smith's party in Sausalito, Yvonne Rand trumpeted his wondrousness, but until 1968 I saw him again only as a name on posters.
Laurie (a beautiful dancer friend from Las Vegas who moonlighted as a five hundred dollar a night call girl for club owners and their special clients) and I had been making love for two days at the Villa Roma on MDA. She was hot to go to Soko Hardware on Post Street to score the latest Oriental kitchen imports for her dessert home in Red Rock Canyon. Afterwards she bought me an expensive Japanese shakuhachi with a detachable, dark, root joint from old man Honami in Nihon Machi [Japantown]. Then she wanted to show me this rundown Buddhist temple she'd discovered on her last trip to San Francisco.
Katagiri Sensei was potting plants at the top of the stairs when we entered Sokoji and seemed to have met Laurie before, so I tripped out onto the balcony playing shakuhachi to the darkened theatre below. Suzuki Roshi appeared and, he too, recognized Laurie as they began oohing and aahing and bowing to each other like old friends.
After the formalities were observed, Suzuki Roshi encouraged me to acoustically serenade the empty zendo a la theatre while Laurie did a brief performance piece using an exotic fan she'd just bought.
Slightly embarrassed, Katagiri bowed politely and returned to his plants, though Suzuki Roshi clapped delightedly, giggling and imitating Laurie's movements as he escorted us on a diminutive tour of the Buddha Hall or Shrine Room. Afterwards we three bowed, Suzuki Roshi disappeared into his small apartment, and bowing to Katagiri on the way down the stairs, so ended a vintage sixties happening.
Needless to say, I was quite taken with the friendly little Zen master in his white tabis [Jp. Socks], and returned from North Beach a few days later with my black friend Carlos. We sat down on the tan next to each other for evening zazen, but when Katagiri Sensei's kyosaku carrying shadow passed in front of us on the wall, Carlos said, "Later. Ain't no Jap gonna whack me, man! See you on the beach!"
The following Saturday morning Bill Kwong gave me meditation instruction and I began jogging to 5:00 a.m. zazen through the Broadway tunnel from my room in the Hotel Dante. Thus began the agony and ecstasy of my endless apprenticeship to the mysterious aesthetic and ritual surrounding zazen practice.
My main connection to Suzuki Roshi remained the shakuhachi as he would sometimes stop at my room to check on my playing progress, or stand and listen nearby as I played in the halls of Page Street. Several years later, his sudden demise and death were shockingly tragic and brought many hard questions of value to the surface of the community:
1. What is enlightenment, if you must die an ordinary, mundane death of cancer?
2. What is Buddha's practice?
3. What does it all mean?
4. Is Richard Baker enlightened? was Suzuki Roshi?
5. Is Richard Baker a teacher?
6. Is he our teacher, etc. etc. etc., ad nauseum?
Since he died just before sesshin, it was very confusing and eerie going to his room and making my final vows/bows as part of the intense sesshin practice. Bowing at the room's threshold to his body, laid out perpendicular to the doorway on the floor like an Egyptian mummy, is unforgettable, as he was the first dead person I had ever seen, and symbolized such an irreplaceable loss in our sangha. Tears prevailed in my heart, in my throat. Everyone was crying. Incense. Candles. The specter of death throughout the halls and building. The early morning darkness. Brown robes, brown jaundiced skin, a tiny birdlike man, shriveled even smaller by the wave of life the reaper reaped.
Like Huang Po, he would not walk on water, and yet to separate the man, the myth, and the mountain is not easily done by anyone embraced in the concentric circles of his ever rippling mandala.
My most serious dokusan with Suzuki Roshi was frustrating and its ramifications remain so to this day. In the early 60s I had begun working on what I perceived as an internal world of blocking fear, a chief fault discovered through the Gurdjieff work, Yoga asanas with my root guru Shivarani, and subsequent psychopharmacology experiments with peyote, yage, ibogaine, and LSD at the Big Sur Hot Springs. As an internal holding pattern it could be revealed and unlocked, and temporarily assuaged only through a strict diet regimen and a private and concentrated eight hour posture routine; and then, within hours, my neurotic condition would reform, undaunted, only to be reassaulted again the next day. Mine was a temporary upaya at best, a counterfeit high of the counterculture, perhaps, with its attendant low-grade psychonaut samadhi which dispelled the "neurotic speed" of acculturated personal creating a "Sanforized" but fleeting respite. In hindsight, it seems an antisocial, egocentric routine bent on exterminating the self clinging ego root using self-medication techniques (yoga, drugs) in an acquiring, goal oriented way. In short the warrior becomes his own victim, or the moth reluctantly attempts to fly willingly into the candle flame: an oxymoronic farce like Giant Shrimp! Needles to say, when the flame became too "hot" ("Whoa! Not me, Big Dude!") courage waned, and I ran as ardently the other way.
I explained my dilemma to Suzuki Roshi, demonstrating the most crucial postures and techniques in my sacrificial rite, and explained that all this internal work precluded my full participation in Zen Center's schedule. Suzuki Roshi's advice was to follow the schedule as much as I could, as he felt I would not achieve my aim of eliminating my weak point through isolation, or in group practice either, for that matter, but that group practice would make me more human and compassionate, and would honor the Bodhisattva vow to all sentient beings. Thus the Zen Master quietly yanked the rug out from under my elaborate, self-centered, Yoga practice.
He did hold out the "carrot" that "something" might occur within this humane context, but to just "let" it happen, not to "look" for it. He served me coffee without caffeine, tea without tannin. Stubborn and idealistic, I couldn't see his point, and still, many years later, balk at its passive simplicity. To use his own metaphor, it has been "like swallowing a stick!"
Contrariwise, rather than my thus far achieved psychosomatic "high," I felt that my true enlightenment would involve dissolving this weak self clinging into a spatial freedom absent any technique or communal practice ritual, a world-class moksha found beyond culture and duty, thesis and antithesis.
Was it a timeless, transubstantiational allusion fired in the privacy of my own intellect and romantically ritualized into a truth figured in absence; a deluded finger pointing at the moon of fantasized utopia; a boondoggle? Suzuki Roshi seemed to think so. He wasn't buying it. Just sitting. Froglike. Soto Zen. That was his teaching. Plain and simple. The little guy just sat there patiently leaning on his curved ceremonial stick disclaiming any notion of "something special" to achieve, pooh-poohing the koan "one step beyond the flagpole's top" of Rinzai Zen. And whatever else my own dream machine was projecting. He said the weak point was necessary for the strong point to work on, that they would interpolate, always, keeping me from dissolution and oblivion. His exact words were: "The weak part will keep the strong park working on it. That is life. That is the Buddha's way."
He retold the old story of the tiny bird who wet its wings and repeatedly flew over a raging forest fire, sprinkling a few drops until it was itself consumed.
"That is right effort. That is our practice," he said. "There is nothing extra."
Of course I loved the man and hated his advice. He held out little promise, few whispers of immortality. I saw his view as placebo, a Zen sugar pill, and tried every cure and indulgence I could ensnare to untie the Gordian knot, and have thus far failed miserably for nigh unto 30 years.
My struggle runs parallel to the raging yogic debate from millennia of whether the ego (necessary to human life) is rightfully subjugated to the absolute, or forever annihilated and permanently swallowed as "when the dewdrop returns to the shining sea." The results of my own practice would appear to support the subjugation view. I.e., that the ego is a necessary and functional construct which must be micromanaged to a greater good. After all, one must be somebody!
Of course, there is a not so hidden subtext here: What if grace had intervened (as in "many are called but few are chosen") and my warrior moth had flown into the flame of Buddhahood?
Absent this vast cosmic pool of fulfillment, I can only toothlessly look back and speculate on my failed dream of hole-in-one enlightenment.
Several years after Suzuki Roshi's death, I weighed this question again with Suzuki's disciple Bill Kwong Sensei when he visited Trungpa's Naropa Institute in the late 1970s. His answer was seemingly different from Roshi's as he said, "Who's going to do it if you don't?"
I took this to mean crossing to the other shore however one met that test, wherever one found the water, as metaphorically, at least, the water would be delusional in any case. His offering would appear stimulating, militant even, sounding Rinzai's bugle charge to completion, but essentially it is not different from Suzuki Roshi's rendering, though it holds out the promise and excitement of aggression. Both postulates must ultimate be settled within one's own life and practice, whether illusory or not, and truthfully, I was no more successful under Sensei Kwong's tutelage than Shunryu Suzuki's The Big E Eluded MEEE, but seemed everywhere about MEEE! Looking back, one cannot fault the lineage for one's own shortcomings, as ultimately the purity of effort determines success, and conscience knows how fully one did or didn't make the ultimate sacrifice in the secret garden of the self's transcendence.
Katagiri was one tough priest. Long lectures, huge silences, he made few apologies for his English shortfall, or the time spent invoking his muse. As student Bill Shaw said: "That Kat has a mean sit, man. He can really go the distance!"
His commitment to Zazen, his family, and the dharma, was awesome to behold as a novice student or as a seasoned practitioner; a mean machine, but warm like a summer day without fog. His message was often cryptic and hard to discern because of his tendency to wind his syntax in dragonish swirls between two languages, always geeking that hidden gleaning to clarify the flowering Buddha dharma.
"Just say good morning," he used to say. "That is enough. Then move on with your life. Don't get stuck."
As a member of the Zen Center druggie underground I received a call late one night from a fellow alchemist who said a rich sangha member had overdosed and had left nearly a quarter of a million dollars to Katagiri Roshi. Would I inform him? A meeting was set up and I dropped my bomb. He seemed vaguely impressed with the amount, but was very distressed over the loss of a favorite student through such a vagary of fate. When all the details were hashed out, he found the man's wife was executor of the estate and would contest the will. Instead of hiring a shark attorney and ripping out his fair share of the carcass as modern saints are wont to do, he dropped his claim in favor of a priestly decorum and an acquisitional sense of right livelihood.
He said "Good morning" but didn't get stuck. He moved on, concentrated on his life and practice. It can be said that he lived what he preached; he took his own advice when at the mountain's peak or down in its internecine valleys, in concert with an ancient cellular drum beat nurtured in the home islands by centuries of ardent practitioners.
Remember when cops, fire fighters, teachers, other public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes?
Yeah, me neither.
Just got this forwarded by Rene. - dc - 4-19-11
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