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Suzuki Stories           Lew Richmond links page

Remembering a Man of Wisdom
Lewis Richmond
Version 10.24.96

This was originally an article published in Interbeing Magazine

Shunryu Suzuki, my first Buddhist teacher, came to the United States in 1958 and died in 1972 [sic: 1959 and 1971]. My time with him was relatively brief, and for all his students, his death came far too soon. Nevertheless, he remains the best example I know of a person of wisdom. He was the real thing.

Suzuki Roshi left his large temple in Japan and came to this country as the visiting temple priest for Japanese-Americans, at a time when there were few Buddhist meditation teachers in America. Modest and unassuming in his appearance and behavior, he continued his "temporary" stay for the next fourteen years until dying of cancer at the age of 67. The fact that the meditation center that formed around him became one of the largest in the country, or that the single book [no more] that exists of his lectures, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, remains, after thirty years, one of the best selling books on Buddhism, was not because he was powerful or charismatic in appearance.

No, what made Suzuki Roshi an inspirational teacher and profound spiritual leader was something more subtle and hard to articulate, but it had something to do with his extraordinary openness of mind. He liked to use the term "big mind," meaning a mind able to reflect all sides of a situation without preconception or judgment, the way a mirror reflects whatever is before it. It is one thing to talk about big mind, and quite another to experience it. I have since met many other spiritual teachers of various traditions, but very few who had, to the same degree, the quality of openness demonstrated by Suzuki Roshi every day. It was one of the reasons, I think, he was able to be so successful translating the teaching of Buddhism to Western students.

If you were with Suzuki Roshi, you had the sense of someone who was deeply quiet within, but also engaged and interested in everything going on around him, especially you. If you looked into his eyes it was like looking at the face of a three year old child. Or into a mirror. Suzuki Roshi, we found out later, had had much tragedy in his life. But none of that showed. He was not what I expected. In some ways I was disappointed. It took me quite a while to appreciate the way in which he was better than I expected.

Although at one level Suzuki Roshi was single minded in his dedication to recreate Buddhism from scratch in the West, that intensity rarely showed. Stories of his life in Japan led us to understand that there he was a strict teacher and father, but here he was outwardly gentle, patient, and kind. I think that he turned himself into the person that he thought we needed him to be.

During the sixties many unusual people came to Suzuki Roshi's meditation hall. Some were under the influence of drugs; others were mentally unstable. Suzuki Roshi accepted all of them without reservation. One such fellow, whom I will call Thomas, use to break the rules and talk during the meditation, mumbling or shouting things. Occasionally he would go up to the altar at odd times and strike the gongs. Suzuki Roshi let him do that.

Once, during a lecture, Thomas seated himself on the floor near Suzuki Roshi's seat. As the lecture proceeded, Thomas began to mimic Suzuki Roshi. When Suzuki Roshi raised his hand, Thomas did too. When Suzuki Roshi cleared his throat, Thomas followed suit, twice as loudly. We were all acutely aware of Thomas, and annoyed with him, but Suzuki Roshi appeared not to notice.

There was a lit candle on the altar behind Suzuki Roshi's head, and Thomas began trying to blow it out from his seat some distance away. While Suzuki Roshi spoke, Thomas' rude noises became louder and louder, continuing until the conclusion of the lecture. Suzuki Roshi, apparently oblivious to it all, made his customary bows and turned to leave. Suddenly, he whirled around in his long robes and blew out the candle with a single loud puff. As he walked up the aisle to leave the hall, he was laughing so hard he nearly fell over.

Once, after another lecture, a student asked, "What is laughing and crying in emptiness?" I think this was a phrase that she had heard Suzuki Roshi say sometime previously. Suzuki Roshi started to laugh, in his throaty, breathless way. His laugh became infectious; we started to laugh too. Then he said, "You are laughing. That is laughing in emptiness."

Then he told a traditional Buddhist story about a female monkey and her child to demonstrate crying in emptiness. It was a beautiful story, but I was not really listening. I was consumed at that time with concern for the war in Vietnam. Out of college and facing the military draft, I did not know what to do, and was curious to know how a Buddhist master would address this question. So a bit later I asked, "Suzuki Roshi, what is war?"

He pointed to the mat I was sitting on, a bamboo rectangle big enough for two people. "When you sit on the mat, you want your side not to have any wrinkles," he said. "The other person sitting with you wants his side to be smooth too, and so you both push the wrinkles to the middle. That is war." Suzuki Roshi had lived through World War II, in which millions of his countrymen died. Once, when we asked him about his thoughts on World War II, he only said, "Japan went crazy."

The wrinkled mat is also our human mind. Wisdom means to have a mind big enough to be clear about the problem of the wrinkles in the mat.

We were all fascinated with the notion of enlightenment, but it was not a topic Suzuki Roshi talked about much, directly. "It is not the point that needs to be emphasized," he said. Once, in an interview, I decided to address the matter directly. "I am here to be enlightened," I said. He shot me a piercing glance, and then quietly replied, "If your practice continues, enlightenment will come. But even if it does not, if your practice is good, it is almost the same." It took me many years to understand what he meant, as at first his reply disappointed me. Now I understand that he was encouraging me not to wait for some great anticipated moment in the future, but to concentrate on the present situation. Suppose I only had one day to live? What would my question be then? That was the spirit of his reply. For him, enlightenment was not something to be attained, as much as something to be lived. The time to start living enlightenment is the only time available to us, which is now.

His most characteristic statement about enlightenment, one that he repeated frequently, was, "To be enlightened is perhaps not so difficult. What is difficult is to rediscover that enlightenment, moment after moment." Whenever he walked through a doorway, he stepped through with his right foot. When he sat with someone for a private interview, he closed his eyes and opened them slowly again, as though the world had just begun.

He had a rock garden at our Tassajara monastery, and he greatly enjoyed moving large stones around. For a man barely five feet tall, weighing around 100 pounds and seemingly without much muscle, he was quite strong. He could push huge boulders into place with his bare hands that two large Americans needed pry bars to move. "The stones are my friends," he liked to say.

Once, when I was attending him at Tassajara, I served tea to him and a visiting priest. With the tea, I put out green olives, which I knew he liked. He and the guest ate their olives and I ate mine. A little later he glanced over and noticed that my olives had not been entirely eaten clean. He reached over, picked up my pits one by one, popped them in his mouth with relish and cleaned them off. It was not just that he was pointing something out to me (though he was doing that!). It also seemed that he felt sorry for the olives.

One day, he called all the senior disciples into his bedroom to tell us that he had cancer and would "not live so long." We were all filled with grief, but Suzuki Roshi didn't change. During the months until he died he talked and acted exactly as he had before. Having lived his whole life as though death might come at any time, there was nothing special for him to do. One by one, the luminaries of American Zen came to visit him, to pay their final respects. Asked by one of them how he was doing, Suzuki Roshi replied, Cancer is my friend.

These days, a quarter century after his death, at the center he founded, Suzuki Roshi is the great founder, a distant legend. A wooden statue of him stands in the Founder's Hall, where ceremonies are performed monthly in his honor. But for me he still lives; I still learn from his example. He was not perfect, but he was complete. Throughout his career in America, his behavior with his students was impeccable. Nevertheless, he was also human; he made mistakes. He did not always read Americans' character correctly, for example. After he died I was angry with him about certain things.

And yet he remains a powerful force in my life. The face of someone we love reflects their soul and their feeling for you. Suzuki Roshi's face was of someone who had deeply accepted things just as they are, and who deeply accepted me. Love is not really the right word for this. Beneath even love, there is a calm center that is beyond any kind of preference or disturbance. That is what I always felt from him when I was with him.

These are some recollections of a man of wisdom, which I share with you in the hope that you will be inspired to learn more about the path that he tread. He was both the most extraordinary, and the most ordinary, person I have ever met.

A note from Lew Richmond to DC:

David, here is the text of my article. I cannot remember the story about the female monkey, but Alex, Interbeing editor, would really like to know. The only person (besides Janet Sturgeon, who asked the question and is in China) I can remember who I know was there is John Steiner (this is also the lecture where SR beat him up). DO you know how I can reach him? Or maybe you know the story. It does not seem to be in the Pali suttas or a Jataka tale. I have checked.

Lew wrote that in 1996. Here's my answer in 2011. - DC

From Sue Satermo (see more from this lecture which is not in the archive):

Question period after lecture, Sokoji. Various questions, I remember Janet asking about "laughing and crying in emptiness". Roshi repeated the phrase a couple of times, as though not understanding, and started to laugh. He laughed, and then the audience started to laugh. Still laughing, Roshi said, "you are laughing. That is laughing in emptiness." Then he told a beautiful story about a pregnant female monkey, confronted by a hunter, who cried "in emptiness" for the hunter to spare her young.

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