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Interview with Bill Shurtleff

Bill's cuke page

Interviewed by DC
9/ 30/1995

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Bill Shurtleff was part of Joan Baez's community in East Palo Alto before he came to Zen Center. He made a recipe book in a binder called The Tassajara Food Trip that is a great record of what we ate there back in the sixties. For some reason Bill threw it away, but someone got it out of the trash and made copies. The Tassajara Food Trip is now published on cuke.

As you'll see in the brief interview below, Bill studied a lot of Zen in Japan and he really got into the soy products, starting of with books on the traditional ways of making tofu and miso. His The Book of Tofu has been credited with putting tofu on the forefront in the seventies and has sold over a half million copies. Now he's got what I understand is the largest database on soybeans in the world. He's a fanatic like me. Shunryu Suzuki's widow told me that Suzuki would have been very happy with the work that Bill has done, that he wanted someone to bring the soy dharma to the West [not her wording]. Others, like Paul Hawken who founded Erewon, have done a lot of work in this field too. But no one has done as much for as long as Bill. If you search Google for Bill Shurtleff you'll find a lot about him and his monumental work on soy products. He has also written about the dangers to people who were raised on dairy products of not getting the calcium they need when they go the solo soy trip. As I remember it, he wrote that after he broke an arm and found that his bones had gotten weak. Go to to see the website of the Soyfoods Center. From that site: 

A Special Message to You From Bill Shurtleff and The Soyfoods Center- December 2002

Dear friends of soyfoods:

This, has been a red-letter year for Soyfoods Center. In August, the one millionth copy of our books on soyfoods was sold. That month we also entered the 65,000th record into SoyaScan, our bibliographic database. In October we celebrated our 30th anniversary of research on soy.

Here's the whole message.

Thanks Bill - DC

And here's the interview:

DC: I'm collecting people's memories about Suzuki Roshi and plan to do a book. You've done a number of books on tofu and soybeans. Got any advice?

BS: Two things are really important in a book on Suzuki Roshi. The first is to have an accurate story of his life on all the points that are indisputable. The basic chronological story of his life. The other thing is the highlights of his teaching. The things that are beautiful examples of the way that he taught. So there should be no need to be comprehensive. You could say, in the summer of 70, Suzuki Roshi gave 13 lectures on the San Do Kai at Tassajara, then you might follow that with three or four things he said in those lectures.

The real interesting question here is what kind of man was he and how do you become a Japanese Zen Master and transmit Zen to people in the West like us, and how did it sink in, how did we get it? What stuck?

DC: Yes. Those are difficult questions to answer.

BS: Out of this archiving you want to get those two basic things - the story of his life and the highlights of his teachings.

DC: I'll try. What do you remember about Suzuki Roshi?

BS: One important quality that struck me about Suzuki Roshi was his manner of speaking when he gave lectures. Just as there is a preacher style in America that you could stand up and imitate if you wanted to, and that preacher style has slight differences among the different Christian religions. For example, the Southern Baptist preacher style is different from the Northern Presbyterian preacher style. In Zen in Japan, there is a style that I would imitate like this: [dramatic, Noh play like deep voice drawing the words out, starting slowly and ending each phrase with an umph. Very stylized and formal.]

DC: Like Tatsugami Roshi

BS: Exactly. Suzuki Roshi didn't use that style - at all. He used his own style which might be called the Crooked Cucumber style or the humble person style or the how do I teach Zen to Americans style. The typical style of Zen lecture wouldn't have worked very well on us for a long time. People would have thought, what's this guy doing up there? I don't mean to say Tatsugami wasn't effective - he did it in the more authentic Zen way. And Suzuki Roshi had his own unique style. I've listened to quite a few Zen masters in Japan and they had pretty much the same style. I heard Noiri speak many times and Uchiyama - Uchiyama was more like Suzuki, a style of his own and not typical. I don't know what Suzuki Roshi was like when he came over, but by the time I got to know him in the late sixties, he had developed a style that was very unlike the standard style that I would later hear in Japan.

DC: What else?

BS: I was living at page street. Suzuki Roshi had just gotten back from trip to Japan. It was at the end of 1970. My grandmother gave me this brocade robe before she died and I showed it to Suzuki Roshi and he looked at it and said, Bill this is a Soto Zen priest’s robe. So I gave it to him. At the same meeting I told Suzuki Roshi I want to go to Japan, and he said good I want someone go learn Japanese and study Japanese culture. I want to start a practice center for Westerners - probably at Rinsoin so you can do that. So I was studying for that. So I went to Japan with that in mind. I left for Japan a few weeks later and arrived on the first of January, 1971.

Later, in December, Paul Disco told me that Suzuki Roshi had died and I thought what am I supposed to do now? He called me and said there was going to be a ceremony for him at Rinsoin to scatter his ashes - months after he’d died - and we went there and the hall was full of people in seiza [sitting on shins] - over a hundred. There was a reading of something Suzuki Roshi had written at the ceremony or they passed something out that had his words and I remember that it said something like at the end of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind - like in the spring we eat cucumbers, in the fall we eat persimmons in the winter we eat so and so - a very strong feeling about the connection between food and seasons and what we eat.

Afterwards I met Hoitsu and told him that I admired his father so much and he showed me a scrapbook of photos of him and I used up all my money making copies of them and interviewing him about Suzuki Roshi's history and made up two books and sent them to Zen Center. I thought people would be overwhelmed to get them but I never heard a thing from them about it.

DC: Well, I appreciated them and so did others. A lot of time people in spiritual practice forget to say thank you. So thank you very much. What else happened in Japan?

BS: I studied Japanese and sat zazen and did sesshin with many teachers. Yoshida Roshi had wonderful sesshins - just like at Zen Center and there was the tall thin priest there who was so serious with Ryu in his name. [Yoshida Roshi was a woman priest who had been at Zen Center in 1970 teaching the traditional method of sewing monk's robes called kesa and also rakusu, the bib-like miniature of the kesa] [Wonder who the Ryu monk was. Ryuho Yamada? I doubt that.]

I studied with Noiri and he was wonderful. My wife and I were living in a home near the temple - that was after we’d been there a year - after I’d finished my Japanese language studies and before I got into tofu. Noiri asked us to leave - he said his health had taken a turn for the worse and he couldn’t take another student. [Noiri was Suzuki's junior but was one of the Soto teachers he respected the most. His temple is near Rinsoin and he's still alive. (June, 2004)]

I loved Yamada Mumon - he was the most like a great Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind but his scene at Kobe was so strict, cold, tough, and military - I couldn’t take it. I studied with some master in Sendai and had to quit the seven day sesshin - it was just too much. [Yamada Mumon was the abbot of Myoshinji, a great Rinzai temple in Kyoto.]

I liked Uchiyama the best and studied with him more than anyone but I was at a Christian university in Tokyo and got into tofu. [Uchiyama was abbot of Antaiji in Kyoto, a disciple of Kodo Sawaki. Suzuki greatly respected his simple and no nonsense style.]

I remember a westerner hanged himself in a temple in central Japan and the other fellow went crazy and ran up into the hills from Eiheiji (Ron Browning) - there were some other suicides and it made me think this is not for me.

DC: Tell me more about the book you put together of photos with some notes. That was the first thing I ever saw about Suzuki's past. Most people aren't aware of it. I don't even know where it is. But I had a copy of it in my archives. And I made high quality copies of all the photos I could find at Rinsoin.

BS: Yes. At Rinsoin, his son Hoitsu, pulled out this box filled with photographs, there must have been three hundred, all disorganized if I remember correctly and he said I thought you might like to see what Suzuki Roshi was like as a young man and I went through the box very carefully and selected about thirty of what I thought were the best photographs going back to his childhood, right up to the time that he left for America. I tried to select ones that showed his Buddhist side but not only that and I bought a scrapbook - I didn't have much money but I spent the last that I had on a scrapbook and I mounted the whole thing and sent it by registered mail by Zen Center - I think I even sent two copies and they never even said thank you - I think I sent it to Baker Roshi's personal attention. At one time when I visited there I asked Baker Roshi if they'd gotten what I considered a precious gift and he said, oh yeah we got it. It's up in the founder's hall.

I had written down everything that Hoitsu could remember about Suzuki Roshi's life and wrote it all down and sent it with the photo book. The one thing that remains most clear was the incident with the hatchet. Suzuki Roshi had taken in an unstable monk who one day quite unexpectedly killed his wife. Hoitsu said that Suzuki Roshi forgave him quite quickly. I wrote his whole life out as a story. I did that in 1971. I made quite a big project out of it.

DC: Is there anything that you remember from the days with Suzuki Roshi that you'd like to tell?

BS: Two memories stand out. Once in a lecture you said David, "I've been listening to your lectures as best I can for all these years, and I don't get it, it's really hard for me to understand what you're talking about. Could you just say it in one sentence," and everyone just burst out laughing, and Suzuki Roshi said, "Everything changes." It's the same thing that Henry Ford had carved in stone above his headquarters in Dearborn Michigan - "Of all things only one is sure - that everything changes." It was such a beautiful statement on his part in terms of my understanding of what Zen is all about.

At the end of a summer sesshin in shosan [a question and answer ceremony with, in this case, Suzuki], Dan Welch walked the full length of the zendo absolutely quietly - most people would be asking their questions as they walked - and there was this loud silence. He looked at Suzuki Roshi and finally said, "Suzuki Roshi, listen! Quick! Crickets!" and then all of a sudden your ears shifted into a new gear and you could hear all these crickets chirping all over the place. It was the strangest sensation because before that it seemed like everything was absolutely silent.

Suzuki Roshi attracted a great variety of students to a difficult practice. It was cold, hard, the most unlikely people you'd ever expect like Lucille Harris, Stanley White, you, Bob Halpern, but not me or Richard Baker or Dan - austere monastic types who like rarified atmosphere - that's something unique, the way he attracted the unlikely ones.

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