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About Suzuki Roshi    

A letter from 
Rowena Pattee Kryder

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We at Zen Center will remember Rowena Kryder as Rowena Pattee. She wrote this letter to the SFZC on February 25, 1987. I used at least one of her stories in To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki. She was living in Point Reyes, California, at the time and now is living in Crestone, Colorado. You can check her out on her web site - http://www.creative-harmonics.org. - DC

Dear Zen Friends,

Recently being ill I have found it helpful to read over the old Wind Bells. I was reminded that further Suzuki-Roshi stories might be of interest. I include the following:

***

When I first met Suzuki-roshi (then called Sensei) I felt an illuminated nourishment in his presence. I had come to the Zen temple because I was told that a sumi-e master, was there and I was doing sumi-e paintings directly from the inspiration of nature and spirit. But the sumi-e master had left. I met Suzuki-roshi instead and I wanted to know how he could be so light, clear and refreshing. I asked to learn zazen since sitting meditation seemed to be the secret. But Suzuki would not teach me zazen. I frequently came to the Zen temple seeking to be taught zazen but for two months Suzuki refused to teach me.

One day Suzuki invited me to dinner. When I arrived, to my surprise there was a table with about a dozen Japanese people present. The best of Japanese food was served, along with sake to drink. I didnít know why I was there. The whole group was becoming loose in conversation, usually in Japanese, sometimes in English. Over and over I was offered sake, but alcohol has never served me well, so I refused with an emphatic "No!" Everyone laughed. The only part of the conversation I remember is that I said, "I feel land cannot be rightfully owned. It belongs to the earth and all beings." Suzuki said, "I think you are right."

After dinner Suzuki took me up to some remote part of the Bush street building and said, "Now would you like to learn zazen?" After teaching me attention to posture and breathing Suzuki gave me a book.

Many years later I asked Suzuki-roshi why he refused to teach me zazen when I first asked for it. He said, "I did not want to spoil what is naturally present."

***

In 1964, soon after meeting with Suzuki-roshi I had decided to marry which meant moving from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. Without his yet knowing I would be leaving the bay area or marrying, Suzuki invited me to stay at his temple in Japan as a sumi-e artist for a year. I felt very privileged to be asked, but told him that I would be moving to Portland soon. He said, "Maybe Portland is the same as Japan."

**

The day that I was preparing to leave San Francisco for Portland, I went to the Zen Temple to say good-bye to Suzuki-roshi. He bowed, smiled and said, "Come!"

He went outside and I nearly had to run to keep up with his long fast strides. I was so used to his slow, steady pace that it really astonished me. Quickening his pace, Suzuki-roshi, rushed through the streets with me trailing slightly behind. We went for perhaps a dozen street blocks in this manner, without looking to the right or the left. Finally we arrived at a shop where sumi-e ink, brushes and fine Japanese papers were sold. He bought me a whole collection of items for my work, refused my offer of payment and we raced back to the temple on Bush Street at the same quick pace.

In front of the Zen temple he looked at me, smiled and asked where my car was. I said it was five blocks away and he insisted on walking me all the way to my car. There were words exchanged and deep bows on both sides. How could I not return?

***

During the seven years of my marriage in Oregon I would fly to San Francisco for seven day sesshins. twice a year serving as my holidays. One time, during a sesshin in San Francisco, I experienced coming to the edge of the void where all self identity ceases. Panic propelled me off my cushion and down the halls. Though I had never thought of leaving in the middle of a session previously ,during the many I attended, such thoughts were now irresistible. I found myself running upstairs in tears to Suzuki Roshiís room to say good-bye. Fear of complete annihilation of identity permeated my whole existence. But I could not leave without saying good-bye to Suzuki-roshi. I knocked on his door. Immediately he opened the door his look was vast and all-encompassing with a penetrating silent question that I felt said, "What is this?" Held within the limitless quality of his compassion I was instantaneously released of my fear. Suzuki-roshi asked me to sit down and we sat face to face while he told me of stories of Japanese soldiers facing death during the war. Though I was grateful to hear these stories, they were unnecessary, for the total dissolving of the fear of the death of the self had occurred in Suzuki Roshiís one glance while opening the door.

The next three days that completed the session I experienced in an illuminated, easy, timeless state. After the session most students in the sesshin were talking in the entry hall. I sat down on one of the benches in the entry hall, silently. Suzuki Roshi came up to me, and sat down beside me for a while. After a few moments of living in total glow together he said, "Thatís pretty good" and left. There is no separation.

 

The first time I met Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was In May, 1964. I had happily found a small cottage in Inverness, California after doing research at the University of California and was practicing sumie-ink painting on my own. After such endeavors for a year, learning by empathetic attunement to nature and study of ancient paintings, I heard that there was a sumie-ink master at the Zen temple. So one day I decided to visit the Zen Temple and see this master

As I entered the building on Bush Street, a bright-eyed monk appeared and bowing, asked what was my wish. This was Katagiri-sensei at that time. I asked if there was a sumi-e ink master here, and he laughed and called in Japanese behind the curtains. At which time Suzuki-roshi appeared and bowing, looked at me quizzically. I showed him my sumi-e ink paintings . . .or photos of . . . and he asked me to sit down, ordering tea from Katagiri-sensei. Immediately I felt a refreshing rush of clarity in the presence of Suzuki-roshi. Like a refreshing clear mountain stream, his giggles and words and silence filled me with emptiness. He pointed to certain paintings and giggled, and we talked for over an hour, over green tea. I learned that the sumi-e ink teacher had left, but that I was welcome. He invited me to exhibit the sumi-e ink paintings at the Zen temple, and I left feeling that everything in my life was new and fresh. It was an unforgettable, instantaneous awakening.

Then began the effort. At first he would not teach me zazen, although I more or less followed him around for weeks. He had met my fiance, and I suspect he sensed some difficulty combining zazen with my potential husband. He is so sensitive to knowing the mind of each student and what is good for them. But I could not be dissuaded, I had been infused with new clarity at the first meeting. Nothing could erase that. I had to learn zazen.

Through the years, zazen deepened, and for me it has been always integrated with daily life. I had little opportunity to sit at Zen Center, except for sesshin, since I married right away and went to Oregon, where there were no Zen students until later.

There are several incidents that reveal the subtle power of Suzuki Roshi. One time I asked him if he did not feel any pressure, any difficulty with all the various ragged students who came off the street seeking enlightenment. He said, "I am very grateful for them. I will do all I can for them." He was so light and happy when he said it.

My children remember Suzuki-roshi very well. Although my youngest son was only three years old when we stayed at Tassajara in 1969, he remembers the orange Suzuki-roshi gave him. He still speaks of the "Man who gave me the orange" with joy in his eyes. One time, when this son fell from a ladder and hit his head against a rock, creating bloody gushes, and a mild concussion, I ran to him, and while I was picking him up he said: "I want to see Suzuki, the man who gave me the orange."

Years later, the spring before Suzuki-roshi's passing on, a group of Oregon students and I arranged a small sesshin beginning with a lecture at Reed College. There were hundreds of people at the lecture and Suzuki-roshi said that night that he felt very happy, felt that Portland was to be a place for Zen. The next day he had a gall-bladder attack that was so severe that he could scarcely sit, appeared green, and motioned for me to take him to my home to rest. Reb Anderson continued to conduct the sesshin, while Suzuki-roshi and I drove back to my home. He was amazingly cheerful despite what must have been very severe pains. My small son was at home and because he loved our white cat, Muff, greeted Suzuki-roshi with the cat. Suzuki-roshi, despite his painful condition, laughed while he took the cat in his arms. Muff appeared to suddenly go limp with the utmost relaxation in Suzuki-roshi's arms.

Much of what l remember about Suzuki Roshi has to do with silent expressions. There were looks of profound and abysmal depths, the extremity of earnestness which might quickly change to mirth. In one instant I felt the transformations of the universe In his face, from sublimity to open laughter, from a silent "being with you in your pain" compassion to cutting and penetrating locks that would slough one's old skins in one breath.

In one of my first meetings with him, he took off one of his inner-lining robes from underneath his outer robe-like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from his sleeves. All the while he is talking. I was so astounded at this subtle dexterity without so much as a thought, that I completely forgot anything he said.

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