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MEMORIES OF SUZUKI Roshi FROM WIND BELL AND DC FILES
Letters on Suzuki Index - with more on these letters
It was the spring of 1966 when my sister called to invite me on a new adventure. I was 19 and a student at U.C. Berkeley; she was 21 and at S.F. State. My sister explained that our mutual friend, Leslie in L.A., was learning how to get high without drugs, and that Leslie had given her the name of a guy in San Francisco who could teach us how. She explained that "it" was called meditation, but that we could truly get high so who cared what they said it was? I was curious and not to be outdone by my sister's or Leslie's new exploration and so I agreed to meet the "guy." My sister, Candace, said she'd set up a time on the weekend so I could join her for our usual city activities as part of the adventure.
It was a foggy Saturday when I traveled to San Francisco. Although our dresses were psychedelic enough, we felt our total costumes needed to be more far‑out. Before our appointment we stopped at Takahashi for the necessary finishing touches to our "look." By the time we arrived at the Buddhist Church on Bush Street we were outfitted in our complete hippie regalia. I remember that I had on a bright orange large‑brimmed floppy straw hat, purple aviator glasses, enormous hoop earrings, beads with bells, flowers, feathers, and shoes straight out of the Wizard of Oz. My sister was similarly attired and we exchanged quizzical looks over the dark and serious Church where we were to meet this guy. I had my doubts about whether we were in the right place, and I hoped this guy wasn’t going to be a total bummer.
When Suzuki Roshi saw us his face lit up with a grin. He showed us into the meditation hall and gave us instructions in sitting. I particularly remember his explanation of the bowing. He said, "We bow to the cushion in order to apologize to the spirits we may be displacing when we sit down." I remember thinking, "he really believes this way‑out stuff about spirits, he's not just saying this; but he seems so straight." We sat with him for ten minutes after the instruction. When we were finished, he looked at us, and with his biggest grin yet said, “When you continue meditating, the more you come to understand life, the more you will see that life is suffering." We nodded, as if to say that we understood and hurried out to the street (because we didn't). I remember looking at my sister for reassurance and uttering the wise words, "Boy, he sure is on a heavy bummer with suffering.” She nodded her agreement and we said no more.
In fact, I was mildly disturbed by that meeting, especially his last words. If life was suffering, why would I want to meditate and come to understand that? If life was suffering, and he understood it through his own meditation, why was he smiling about it? It was an experience I couldn't fit into my understanding of the world, and I certainly believed at that time that my world view was totally correct and complete. I considered many possibilities and conclusions to untangle this paradox. For example, maybe he didn't really believe life was suffering, and he was just putting us on. Or maybe life was suffering and he didn't care. But none of the combinations worked to explain what was going on with him because my deeper awareness was telling me several things. First of all, I knew he meant what he said. Second, I knew his smile was genuine, not an imitation of some holy attitude. And finally the worst thing was I quite suspected that life was suffering; hence the bells, beads, and psychedelics to cover up the pain. Although I was in a deep fog of confusion, some clarity was disturbing my world; in a sense he had slipped me a koan and I was struggling with it.
I wasn't ready to begin meditating for another year. When I had fought and embraced the suffering more completely, and I felt that I couldn't face another day, I remembered that I could meditate. Eventually I attended his lectures in San Francisco, and I began sitting mornings at the Zendo in Berkeley. Two years after my first meeting with Suzuki Roshi my fiancé and I asked him if he would marry us at Bush Street. He agreed to the ceremony if we would be ordained as Buddhists. On June 1, 1968 during our wedding ceremony, he told us we had chosen appropriate partners. Through 18 years of marriage we have struggled (and continue to), ever mindful of his words. He told us that our marriage was possible and in fact, appropriate.
After our wedding, my husband and I left for Canada where we lived as landed immigrants during the Vietnam war and for several years after. Upon our return to the Bay area (18 years and 2 children later) I have gratefully resumed my practice with the Berkeley Zen Center. In remembering Suzuki Roshi, what strikes me is that his few words were so powerful, and that he knew what I could hear. And even though his teaching was powerful, it was not at all intrusive. My sister, who had forgotten our meeting with Suzuki Roshi until I reminded her 20 years later, recalled the meeting only vaguely with a smile. Yet he met us exactly where we were and in just those few words he transmitted truth that was penetrating, substantive, and would affect me dramatically. His words were like a heavy stone thrown in a deep pond. The message reached the depths, stayed with me, and created ripples that changed my life.
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