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MEMORIES OF SUZUKI Roshi FROM WIND BELL AND DC FILES
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Gerald W. McFarland
sent June 15, 2011.
Brief Memoir of Shunryu Suzuki and New England
I met Suzuki Roshi on two occasions in the mid-1960s. His presence and his teaching made a lasting impression on me. Let me explain.
Suzuki Roshi had a student who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. This was Dorothy Schalk, the founder of the Northampton Zen Center. Mrs. Schalk had studied Zen in Japan with Ruth Fuller Sasaki, and after her sojourn in Japan she went to San Francisco to meet with Suzuki Roshi, at that time one of the few Japanese roshis living in the U.S. He agreed to be her teacher, and she returned home to Northampton to found a small Zen meditation group that met at her house on Lyman Road.
My wife (another Dorothy) and I heard about Dorothy Schalk’s sitting group through Teresina and Joe Havens, and, encouraged by Terry’s insistence that we should put down the book (my wife had been reading Alan Watts) and practice sitting meditation, we went to Dorothy Schalk’s for our first experience of zazen. Although that’s more than forty-five years ago, I still have a vivid memory of the occasion. It was mid-winter, but Dorothy Schalk raised several windows in the zendo to bring the temperature down to a level consistent with the training she’d done in Japan. We then sat for twenty minutes, or perhaps it was less, but it seemed like an eternity to a young history professor whose head was full of thoughts about his research and teaching.
Only a few weeks after our first meditation experience, Suzuki Roshi visited Dorothy Schalk and held a two-day sesshin in Dummerston, Vermont. My wife and I couldn’t attend the whole sesshin, but we showed up for the last half day. That was my first glimpse of Suzuki Roshi, and something about him convinced me that he was a very special person, unlike any I’d known in my twenty-seven years. He seemed to genuinely enjoy himself and laughed with a hearty, infectious laugh that was so powerful that I thought he might fall off his cushion.
Later in his visit, I attended a talk he gave to the students of a residential college with which I was associated as a Faculty Fellow. The talk had been arranged by Professor Lee Varley, the Master of the Orchard Hill Residential College at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I recall that the one hundred or more students in attendance seemed uncertain what Suzuki Roshi was describing, but they listened respectfully. An account of Roshi’s 1966 visit may be found in the Wind Bell, vol. 5, no. 2 (March-April 1966): 2, “Reverend Suzuki Visits New England.”
In February 1967, Suzuki Roshi visited the Northampton area again. An account of this visit may be found in the Wind Bell, vol. 6, nos. 2-4 (Fall 1967): 43, “Northampton Zen Center.” Looking back, I realize what a great privilege it was to meet Suzuki Roshi in the intimate setting of Dorothy Schalk’s little zendo on Lyman Road in Northampton. On the night I recall most clearly, there were no more than eight of us seated in a small room as Suzuki Roshi gave a talk. I was struck by the down-to-earth nature of many of his statements—how when seated on one’s zafu one needed the alertness of a frog sitting on a lily pad waiting for a fly, or how there was no such thing as an inch in nature; inches, feet, and yards were artificial constructs, useful but not representative of the deep wisdom. As someone raised in an evangelical Protestant church, I was astonished by his statement that he hadn’t come to try to convert us to Buddhism, only to help open our eyes and minds to the full reality of our daily lives. And, toward the very end of the question period, he made a statement that both amazed and encouraged me, which was that zazen was essential to bringing change in our lives, and if we would sit for even as little as five minutes every day for a year, he would be able, he said, “to see the difference when he next came to Northampton.”
I’m pretty sure Suzuki Roshi came to New England at least once more before he became too ill to travel. I seem to recall an occasion in which he was accompanied by Richard Baker and Philip Wilson (who was from the Northampton area), but I can’t place the date. In later years Dainin Katagiri, Sensei (later Roshi) visited us from San Francisco Zen Center. My wife and I also went to Tassajara during the summer of 1969.
Words are inadequate to capture fully the qualities that so impressed me about Suzuki Roshi, and perhaps it’s not necessary to say much, since older students will have formed their own impressions and conveyed them to younger students. However, the words that come to mind are genuine (a formal presence but an informal expressiveness), a lightness of spirit (manifested in his full-body laugh), and depth (a sense that he wasn’t just talking about the teachings but that he had experienced their truth first-hand). He was also said to love stones. Indeed, Dorothy Schalk told me that one reason he liked to visit Vermont was because the stony ground and forests reminded him of the part of Japan where he’d lived as a boy. I have no idea whether that was true, but as someone who’s always been drawn to stones and rock walls (I’ve built several) I felt an instant kinship with him.
Postscript: After Roshi’s death Dorothy Schalk felt she needed on-going support from a Zen community. She had once asked Suzuki Roshi whether he could send a senior student to live in Northampton and help her organize and lead her small center. He told her that he couldn’t provide such a person, but he recommended that she contact Kōsho Uchiyama, the abbot of Antaiji. Uchiyama Roshi sent one of his senior students to Massachusetts. This sensei soon founded a Zen Center separate from Dorothy Schalk’s. The new group named itself Valley Zendo and occupied a variety of temporary quarters in the Northampton area until the mid-1970s when the resident members bought land and built a residence and zendo in Charlemont, Massachusetts. Valley Zendo remains active today, its resident monks (recently Issho Fujita and presently Eishin Ikeda) all drawn from the Uchiyama Roshi lineage. The same is true of most Valley Zendo members, including myself (having received the Precepts in 1999), but we are, either directly in my case or indirectly for the rest, inheritors of a Zen Buddhist practice in the Pioneer Valley that Suzuki Roshi encouraged through his visits to the area in the mid- and late 1960s.
We have these excellent memories thanks to Dennis McNally who wrote to me (DC) in 2009:
I wrote Dennis back and asked him to please get hold of Gerald McFarland and ask him if he’d send us his memories of Shunryu Suzuki. The prior memoir is what he wrote. I asked him some questions including if the monk whom Uchiyama sent was Shohaku Okamura and he responded:
Roshi led a sesshin at Smith College and he visited Elsie Mitchell's Cambridge center. I'm pretty sure Elsie and Dorothy Schalk paid most of his travel expenses. Do you know Arthur Braverman's "Living and Dying in Zazen"? He mentions Uchiyama Roshi's students who came to the U.S. in the 1970s. Shohaku Okamura was not the first of his students to come. The first was a monk name Shojo. I always called him Shojo-san, but I believe he's the Shojo Karako pictured on the sixth page of the photo folio following page 96. During Shojo-san's stay in the mid-1970s, Valley Zendo moved from place to place in the Northampton area. But Shojo's back began to bother him a lot (he had been doing 100-day sesshins!) and he returned to Japan. The next monk to come was Koshi (mentioned by Braverman, page 115) who bought the land in Charlemont and started construction on the present house and zendo there. He was joined very soon, if not from the first, by Shohaku and Eishin Ikeda (the present resident monk in Charlemont). They cleared the land, moved stones, built the original structures, and were joined by some American Zen fanatics who sat the Uchiyama five-day sesshins (14 fifty-minute sittings daily) every month. I believe Joko Beck wrote an introduction to one of Uchiyama Roshi's books in which she described the practice at Charlemont as "elegant" and welcoming. [She lived for a time only one valley away from the zendo's location.]
In his note to Dennis McNally there was a bit more detail I include here:
Dorothy established a connection with Uchiyama Roshi of Antaiji. He sent a senior student to Northampton and this monk, Shojo-san, founded Valley Zendo, which met in Haydenville and later on River Road in Northampton. In the mid-1970s, three monks from Antaiji moved to Charlemont and built a small cabin there. Later, they added an attractive little zendo; and finally in the 1990s, when Issho Fujita came to Charlemont to be head monk and brought a wife also, a family residence was added to the old cabin. Issho is now an administrator for the larger Soto sangha in the U.S. and splits his time between 300 Page Street and Japan. Please give him my warm regards, if your path crosses his. After Dorothy Schalk died in the mid-1980s, I reestablished ties with the Charlemont group and, after many years of hesitation, in 1999 took vows (jukai). The Antaiji style of sesshin is quite strenous, as Issho can tell you, and that fact, together with the relatively remote location of Valley Zendo in a valley with dozens of Buddhist meditation groups, keeps Valley Zendo's numbers small. As you can tell, I never "got over" my meetings with Suzuki Roshi.
Gerald McFarland is a historian. He taught for forty-four years (1964-2008) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His field is U.S. history. He now lives in Leverett, MA and follows Suzuki Roshi's injunction to sit, even if it's only a little while, every day.
DC note: I plan to include relevant Wind Bell articles in this archive. Stay tuned.
contact DC at <firstname.lastname@example.org>