Sachico Ohanks, SFZC Program Communications Coordinator
Listening to Sojun
Mel Weitsman recall
his experience as Suzuki Roshi�s student is the closest
I will ever get to meeting Suzuki Roshi himself. And,
perhaps had I met him in person, I might have been one
of the ones who wandered off after morning zazen and
didn’t return, too agitated to stay put, too eager to
pour my bustling energy into worldly pursuits. But Mel,
he was one of the ones who returned again and again to
morning zazen with this unknown teacher of a strange
practice. He returned until his ankles stopped hurting
in zazen and�his thoughts emptied out and�he knew that
his constant search for a spiritual practice was over.
What was it like to study with Suzuki Roshi in the early
When I arrived in 1964, there was only Zen Center at Sokoji
Temple at 1881 Bush Street. Suzuki Roshi had arrived in
1959. He sat zazen every morning at 5:45 am. The Japanese
congregation had given him the upstairs room for zazen. It�s
a very nice room. It had half-round windows starting from
the floor that came up to about your waist and really nice
light. There were no zabutons. So, we would sit zazen on
tatamis and sometimes just on the floor on goza mats. That�s
what we would bow on and sometimes sit zazen on. We would
lay out the goza mats and later put them back.
None of us could sit zazen very well. It was hard on our
ankle bones (laughs). At that time there were very few
people who could sit well. So we all had a very difficult
time sitting and that was very much the feeling, that it was
really hard to do zazen, because we didn’t have the
experience. Suzuki Roshi used to urge us on: “Don�t
move.”�Sometimes we�d be sitting and after 40 minutes, just
before it was time to ring the bell, he would say, �We will
sit ten minutes longer� (laughs). And so it was a wonderful
Sometimes people remember him walking out and then coming
back an hour later (laughs). He was trying to help everybody
let go of their attachments to their physical condition,
like pain. Zazen was a lot about how to be one with the
pain, so that you are not creating an opposition.� As long
as there is no opposition there is no problem. When you
want something different, I want it to change, I want to get
out of there or
escape�then it becomes a problem. �So
that�s what he was silently teaching us.
He would give a talk once a week. I remember he gave a talk
from the Blue
Cliff Record once
a week.� He went through the whole Blue
Cliff Record. He would have Wednesday night discussion,
and Mrs. Suzuki would serve tea.
What kind of things would come up in the discussion?
All kinds of questions that people had. I once asked him,
“What is nirvana?”
And he said, �Seeing one thing through to the end.�
His whole teaching centered around just doing. Not doing
something for some other reason.� Not doing zazen to get
something out of it. Just to do the practice for the sake of
the practice. The practice just continued forever. There�s
no end to the practice.
The practice you describe would seem to require a lot of
patience from a teacher. And yet, a teacher with extensive
training, like Suzuki Roshi, might have preferred to teach
more advanced topics to more developed students.
Patience was what he was teaching us. Sesshin was big
patience (laughs). Zazen, small patience. Everyday practice,
small patience. But sesshin,
big patience. Patience doesn�t mean waiting for something.
It simply means being where you are without trying to
The way that Suzuki Roshi taught, was it different than how
he was taught in Japan?
Oh no. He would say, �The only thing I have to give you is
my Zen spirit. I am giving you what I know and what I was
taught. Then you have to find your own way.�
Were there many students who did not stick with it?
Well, you know, there are always students who don�t stick
with it. The thing about practice is that every Saturday you
give zazen instruction to new people, and every once and a
while someone will stay (laughs).
What kind of student were you back in those early days of
Well, I was an artist.
Were you a painter?
Yes, but I was always looking for some spiritual practice.
So when I came to sit, it wasn’t very long before I realized
that this is exactly what I was looking for.
How did you know?
Oh, I just knew. It just felt right.
When you met Suzuki Roshi did you recognize something in
Well, you know, he was a nice man (laughs).
But, you didn’t say to yourself, �Wow!�
No, there was nothing like that. He was Reverend Suzuki. It
would always take a little while before people recognized
who he was because his teaching, his presence, was subtle.
He wasn�t dynamic. Matter of fact, he was very slow and easy
going. You wouldn’t ordinarily be astonished by him or
anything like that.
We just observed the way he was. The way he sat down and
stood up; it was all very easy, very smooth, and he was
always right in time. He would never get ahead of himself or
behind.� He was always right present, in time. And that was
pretty remarkable [to observe] because he didn�t have
anything that was driving him, and he didn�t have anything
that was holding him back.
It�s interesting that you say he�didn’t�have anything
driving him, and yet he opened three centers.
He didn’t do anything. He didn�t open anything. He was just
there. He was just the inspiration. The students did
everything. He didn’t open a center. He didn’t write a book.
The students did all of that.
It was difficult for Suzuki Roshi at Sokoji.� Because people
wanted to sit with him, the Sokoji congregation gave him the
room to do zazen but the congregation didn�t sit zazen. The
Japanese didn�t do any zazen. They just did a kind of Sunday
But people heard that there was a Zen priest in town. So
they called him up and he said, “Well, you can come over and
sit with me. I sit every day at 5:45 am.” Of course, he also
sat in the afternoon. Little by little Americans would come
and that�s how Zen Center started. So, there were two
different congregations, the Japanese and the American.
Then people wanted to find a place that was their own. So
they did that; he didn’t do it. And that was Page Street.
And then they wanted a monastery, so Richard Baker and some
people, we found a place called Tassajara. And Suzuki went
along with all of that. He was not assertive in that way. He
was just present (chuckles). It�s amazing, actually.
What Suzuki Roshi did was always sit zazen twice a day.
Katagiri Roshi was there at the time. He was Suzuki Roshi�s
assistant. So Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi kind of acted
out these roles of teacher and student, even though Katagiri
already had dharma transmission. But, Suzuki Roshi was the
leader and Katagiri Roshi did the bells and worked the
mokugyo�and did the chanting. So we could see the way they
interacted and that was a teaching for us.
You have dedicated your life to teaching Zen Buddhism. You
have been the abbot of Berkeley Zen Center since 1985, you
were co-abbot at San Francisco Zen Center for almost a
decade, and you have ordained an entire generation of
people. Looking back over the years would you say that your
relationship to Suzuki Roshi�s teachings has changed over
No (laughs). Nothing�s changed. It�s always been the same.
But I think it has matured in some way, but I can�t tell you
I have always used Suzuki Roshi as an example. And, I never
changed anything. I have never introduced anything new or
some outside source.
Have you ever found that something he said to you comes to
you now with a deeper understanding?
He walked up to me one day and said, �Just being alive is
enough.� That has always been a touchstone for me. To keep
the practice as simple as possible and not add things to it
and not try to expand it in some way. �To take the simplest
practice and let it mature.
I read that Suzuki Roshi said something to the effect that
it�s hard to keep your practice pure.
Purity. Yes, it�s in Zen
Mind, Beginner�s Mind in
the introduction. Practice is hard, but not because of the
pain in your leg. It�s hard keeping your practice pure, and
keeping your practice pure means not falling into duality.
Purity means non-duality in that sense, even though we live
in a dualistic world.
One of the things I marvel at is the impact of mass shifts,
such as a social movement or something like gentrification,
and the challenge of being an individual trying to relate to
the mass effect of the many other individuals.
He always talked about the discriminating mind. Not giving
way to the discriminating mind. And zazen is the teacher.
Everyone receives Buddha�s teaching through zazen; that�s
why zazen is so important. And the teaching we receive
through zazen is the teaching of non-duality. As soon as you
fall into duality, you can�t sit very long (chuckles). So
that�s discriminating mind. Discriminating mind is divisive;
it divides. �Discrimination means to divide, to separate.
Zazen is unity, within diversity. Diversity within unity.
It�s a simple Mahayana teaching.
I wonder about concerns like national heritage, or a
preference, like a political preference, and how asserting
these concerns can be viewed as creating duality.
Yes. We live in a dualistic world, no doubt about it. It is
very unusual to have a practice that is no discrimination.
So, Suzuki Roshi would talk about “Big Mind,” which is the
mind that is free from discrimination but includes
everything. The main thing is, what is proper
discrimination? How to discriminate on the basis of
nondiscrimination (chuckles). He just kept to this very
simple principle and that�s our practice.
Most Japanese teachers have some connection with Japan.
Suzuki Roshi never mentioned his connection with Japan. He
didn’t have that kind of connection. He was a temple priest
and he was here on his own. The congregation extended an
invitation for a priest, and he said, I�d like to do that.
He didn’t try to make us be Japanese students.
You mention national identity. Suzuki Roshi was not
nationalistic; he became a US citizen. At first he wanted to
send his students to Japan to experience Eihei-ji monastery.
But it was always a disaster (laughs). So he stopped doing
that; he lost too many students. He appreciated us because
we didn’t know anything. We didn’t have any ties. We didn’t
have any ideas. We didn’t have any baggage that was Buddhist
or Japanese. So he could let us form ourselves from scratch.
That was the asset that we had. We didn’t know anything, and
he could just give us the pure teaching, without any
cultural background�even though we were practicing in a
tradition that comes from Japan with formalities and the
customary way things are done. But that in itself is a
You mean, within the forms or formalities there is freedom.
Yes. Freedom from, rather than freedom to do what you want.
Freedom from the bondage of your own chains.
I understand that Suzuki Roshi liked to move the rocks at
Tassajara. It�s interesting because this is one of the few
activities I have heard of which sounds like a personal
pastime that he enjoyed.
always moved rocks at that time because we were making
rock walls and stuff. We had a Dodge Power Wagon, which
was kind of like a dump truck, and Paul Discoe built a
winch on the back. And we had the cut-off top of a car,
which we turned upside down and turned it into a sled.
Then we hauled these rocks up on the sled and carried
them wherever we needed them. So, that was everybody.
For whoever worked on rocks, that was our recreational
I wondered if Suzuki Roshi moved the rocks by the Kaisando
as a form of aesthetics.
No. He said he thought about moving things around
aesthetically but said, �This place has its own aesthetics�
(laughs). �There�s nothing I can do to improve it.�
On the wall of Sojun�s office is a framed photo of Sojun and
Suzuki Roshi. Suzuki Roshi stands over Sojun�s clean-shaven
head with a razor, and although the photo is in black and
white, their robes look rich with graceful folds of fabric
against the stark walls of the zendo. Sojun�s smooth young
profile is lowered, completely absorbed in the moment, being
right present, right in time.
Sojun Mel Weitsman will
Roshi’s Teachings from
Friday,�August 29, through Monday, September 1, at Tassajara
Zen Mountain Center.
(Watercolor silhouette of Suzuki Roshi by�Narcissus
parts of the interview
He didn’t do
anything. He didn’t open anything. He was just there. He was just the
inspiration. The students did everything. He didn’t open a center. He
didn’t write a book. The students did all of that.
Q: I wondered
if Suzuki Roshi moved the rocks by the Kaisando as a form of aesthetics.
A: No. He said
he thought about moving things around aesthetically but said, “This place
has its own aesthetics” (laughs). “There’s nothing I can do to improve
A few comments
Mel knows we got
Tassajara first (Dec. 66) and then Page Street (1969) - not the other way
mention national identity. Suzuki Roshi was not nationalistic; he became a
DC: I don't
think so but will double check.
Mel: At first
he wanted to send his students to Japan to experience Eihei-ji monastery.
But it was always a disaster (laughs). So he stopped doing that; he lost
too many students.
DC: Partly yes,
but not always. And Shunryu Suzuki never gave up on his idea of mutual
exchange with Japan. He didn't want any control of the SFZC from Japan or
reliance on it, but he thought we had a lot to learn and a lot to learn
from Japan and Japanese Soto Zen. But Eiheiji was not the best and only
place on their end for that exchange to happen. And he thought that they
could learn from us too.
The winch was, as
I recall, on the front of the Power Wagon, not the back.