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Suzuki Stories     Brief Memories of Shunryu Suzuki

Memories of Tara Treasurefield (Pat Lang)

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 At Sokoji Temple in 1965, I anxiously waited at the back of the hall after one of Suzuki Roshi’s Tuesday evening talks. When he was a couple of feet away, I stepped forward and asked what for me was a burning question: “If you’re really afraid to do something, should you go ahead and do it? Or should you just meditate until you’re not afraid anymore?”

 I hoped that he would say, “Yes, yes, just keep meditating.” But instead, he said with quiet intensity, “If you don’t act, you will always be afraid.”

 I still wonder if Roshi’s response would have been different had he known that I was contemplating spending the summer as a civil rights worker in the south and was relying on him to make up my mind for me. In any case, I trusted his guidance and prepared to spend the most terrifying summer of my life registering African Americans who lived in the south to vote.

I had met civil rights workers, listened to their firsthand accounts of the huge anger and violence of white southerners. I had seen photos of white policemen releasing vicious dogs into crowds of African Americans, turning fire hoses full blast onto men, women, and children who dared to stand up for equal treatment under the law. I had heard and read of lynchings, of busloads of “freedom fighters” set on fire.

With these images in mind, I attempted to become less sensitive to physical pain by bowing every time someone walked by with the kyosaku as I meditated. I was so filled with fear of pain that my whole body would shake every time.

One morning, Roshi was carrying the kyosaku. As he approached, I raised my hands in gassho, shaking as usual, and waited for the stinging pain of the stick. But it never came. Roshi lightly patted my shoulder, leaned over, and whispered, “It’s OK.” He walked on, and I burst into tears of gratitude for his sensitivity.

**

For as long as I knew him, I was in the habit of watching Suzuki Roshi very carefully, hoping to absorb the attitudes and behaviors of an enlightened being. One day at Tassajara, I was customarily vigilant as I approached Roshi on my way to the hot springs. To my great horror and amazement, he swatted a mosquito. My jaw dropped, Roshi lifted his shoulders and shrugged. Yes, it’s true! This enlightened being wasn’t above killing other creatures…at least, mosquitoes.

**

While I was at Tassajara, we studied The Diamond Sutra early in the morning by the light of kerosene lanterns. One such morning, I noticed a wall hanging that depicted what appeared to be huge boulders suspended in mid-air against a lovely background of hills, trees and sky. I asked Roshi what on earth it was about. He replied, “This scroll shows us that our problems are like rocks in the air. Do you understand?”

**

For several years after Zen Center moved to Page Street, neighborhood children often stopped by. Some of them came to steal purses, wallets, jackets, backpacks, and other belongings of Zen students as we meditated. Zen Center’s response was to post a guard at the street door to the basement zendo to keep watch while others meditated.

Upstairs, things were a bit more friendly and loose. Neighbors who visited out of curiosity would enter through the front door simply to look around. On one of these days, Roshi happened to be in the front hall. He was carrying his kyosaku, and three boys in their early teens approached him. One asked, “Do you hit people with that?” Roshi said “Yes,” and handed the kyosaku to the boy. “You can hit me,” he said invitingly. After a brief hesitation, the boy tapped Roshi lightly on the shoulder. Roshi promptly and playfully stuck out his hand to reclaim the stick. “My turn!” he said. At that, the boys turned around and headed for the door. Roshi sagged, the smile on his face faded, the twinkle in his eyes dimmed, as he watched them go.

***

It was desperation that brought me to Zen Center.

I was a student at U.C. Berkeley from 1962 to 1965. At that time, political awareness on campus was rampant. Every day at  noon, students and non-students alike crowded into Sproul Plaza to listen to, and participate in, passionate arguments over the war in Vietnam, Communism/Socialism/Capitalism, the Civil Rights movement, Apartheid, and more.

Fascinated, I couldn't resist showing up for my daily dose of horror, and before long, I began waking up screaming every night.

I am forever grateful to my roommate, and for the night she suggested that if I learned to meditate, I (and she, by the way) may sleep more soundly. Open to anything, I got up at 4:30 a.m. a few days later and caught a ride to San Francisco with a friend of my roommate. Our destination was Sokoji Temple and morning meditation with Suzuki Roshi.

The invigorating aroma of the incense, the palpable peace of the meditation hall--and the mysterious stirrings that the han, gongs, mokugyo, and chants awakened in my belly--changed everything.