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Interview With Sue Roberts

[A tape she made for me during the Stanford/Sati Center Suzuki-roshi conference at Palo Alto, May 30-31, 1998. Need more basic info on Sue. .--DC]

Psychotherapy and Zen by Sue Roberts

These are little vignettes that I have about Suzuki Roshi -- some of my favorite experiences or stories about him.

One is when we went to the Church Ranch – I think it was to pick pears or apples. The whole Tassajara bunch went. We were all trying to be really good Zen students, and work real hard, and put our shoulders to the wheel, and get the boxes out and pick the fruit. We were being far too serious, but only realized that when Suzuki Roshi climbed the tree and started throwing the fruit at us. The whole atmosphere broke. We got the work done and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and each other after that.

Somewhere I have a picture of him in the tree, looking very impish, about to throw an apple. It’s one of the few pictures I have of him. I could get you a copy of it. I think it’s black and white. It’s not too clear, but it’s sweet.

When I had my first interview, or meeting, with Suzuki Roshi he asked me what I did for work. I said I was a social worker. "Oh, good," he said. "You try to help people. You know, it’s not so easy to know when you’re helping someone." At the time I was a gung-ho social worker so I didn’t understand what he meant. I thought if you tried to help people, you actually helped them. It took me a long time to realize what he was saying. It was particularly poignant when years later I heard about his second wife being killed by a student he was trying to help. That’s one of my favorite stories.

The person who told me about his wife was a woman named Hedy. She cut my hair back them. She used to run Hedy’s Beauty Salon – I don’t know if it’s still in business. She took care of Suzuki Roshi when he first arrived here. (She’s Japanese.) She didn’t have the reverence that most of us had for him. She just thought he was a very nice man. She told me he ate old vegetables, and told the story about his second wife.

Another story is more personal. There was a sesshin where Suzuki Roshi told us not to talk about our personal problems but to only talk about issues with our practice. I went in for my meeting with him, truly desiring his approval, and wanting him to like me. That was my main purpose at the time. I told him what I had been doing in my practice; trying hard to do the right thing. He listened carefully and non-judgmentally. With nothing but sincere blessing in his voice he said, "You get a gold star." I was pleased that he seemed pleased and I bounced out of his cabin. But about halfway down the path I suddenly stopped in my tracks, stunned, because I asked myself the question was it a gold star I really wanted to get from my Zen teacher. It was such a wonderful lesson to have realized that halfway down the path. He had been quite willing to give me what I wanted for my next step.

This story is about a regular zazen at Tassajara. It was getting later into the session. All of a sudden Suzuki Roshi leaped off the dais and came down and whacked Niels on the shoulder – maybe the head – but he whacked him with his stick and said, "You kept looking at the clock!" Niels looked at Roshi and said, "But Roshi, I’m the bell-ringer for when zazen is over." It felt to me like the whole zendo was stunned by Suzuki making such a blooper and hitting Niels. Our teacher was making a big mistake. Roshi went up to Niels and said, "I made a mistake. I’m so sorry." He was one hundred percent behind it and the whole thing was taken care of. We saw him fall flat, and use the earth to pick himself back up. It was special to see that happen – to see him handle his mistake in such a wholehearted way.

My last story is during one incredibly moon-drenched night. At Tassajara, Roshi gave us a koan and said, "Two moons." We were sitting out in the moonlight. It could have been one of the rare times that we actually skipped zazen because the moon was beckoning us outdoors. I happened to rub my eye and look at the moon and sure enough there were two moons before I re-focused. I ran over and said, "Roshi, Roshi – two moons – I have the answer. You just stick your finger in your eye and you rub it." He laughed and laughed and chuckled and laughed.

That’s it, David. Your presence is always appreciated. I sometimes felt like I just couldn’t stand how rigid things got – except for your wonderful presence. I think it really broke the momentum of the rigidity way back when. I’ve always appreciated that and appreciated you.

Please use these stories any way that you like. Or ignore them. I’m sure your book is going to be wonderful. I so appreciated what you had to say today. It really touched my heart.

Oh – I just attended a workshop on attention deficit disorder. And Suzuki, with his absent-mindedness, his restlessness, his wider view, his pioneering spirit, his being a crooked cucumber – they’re all aspects of attention deficit disorder. These people are more the hunters of our society, or the soldiers versus the farmers and the gatherers. And genetically they reproduce each other. America is particularly full of the more restless adventurous types, so America has a whole lot more ADD – just genetically – because we have the restless folks here. They can also be very deeply focused, but hard to come out of that focus. And also they’re prone to blurting – or sometimes more easily angered than others. I thought that was pretty interesting. Some of the characteristics of ADD can also come through trauma. I was looking at it through my therapist eyes. My heart just hurt around all those stories about him being treated meanly, and sometimes identifying with the aggressor – Stockholm syndrome? Some of these things were ringing in my ears as you talked about how much he loved his abuser teacher. (Patty Hearst went through Stockholm syndrome, identifying with her captors and going along with them.)

And, again psychologically, thinking about co-dependence, putting other people before you. And how deeply many co-dependents have been tremendously punished if they just showed healthy self-concern when they were children.

Those are the three psychological things I heard in the stories today. Things I hadn’t ever thought of when I was his student.

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