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A reply to Stuart Lachs' article in darkzen.com on Shunryu Suzuki and Richard Baker and ZMBM and war and peace. - by DC

See Lachs' reply to my reply below as well a few comments from me to his reply to my reply to his article.

(Read the whole article on the Myth of the Zen Roshi from Dark Zen at darkzen.com)

Stuart Lachs cuke page


Here's what Lachs said in his article: 

Baker wrote an introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, an edited collection of Suzuki's talks, in which Baker said (p.17), "During the Second World War he [Suzuki] was the leader of a pacifist group in Japan." This is a very interesting piece of "history" which is no doubt destined to be repeated. In fact, David Chadwick, a student of both Suzuki and Baker, lent some credence to this assertion in his 1999 book about Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber.

Nevertheless, following extensive investigation, even Chadwick was forced to admit: "Anything Shunryu had done that could be considered remotely antiwar he had done before the Pacific war started" (p. 97).

Brian Victoria was so interested in the possibility of a public pacifist/anti-war Soto monk that he contacted Suzuki's son Hoitsu who told him: "I don't know where all of this antiwar talk comes from, but my father and the rest of the family supported Japan's war effort just like everyone else." (It should also be noted that Victoria is fluent in Japanese while Baker and Chadwick are not.)

Furthermore, Chadwick told Victoria that when he (Chadwick) had once asked Baker himself about the basis for the claim, Baker replied that he could not remember! Perhaps tellingly, Baker made this claim at the height of the Vietnam War, when virtually 100% of Zen followers were opposed to the war and hence having an anti-war/anti -government roshi in his lineage was good currency. This story appears to be an example of modern day creation of hagiography that will be repeated in the future. Furthermore this creation has to be ongoing. It will not do for future generations if there are gaps in the line of saintly figures.

You have to ask whether Suzuki was aware of the claims made by Baker and, if so, why he permitted them to stand without correction. (It should be noted that Suzuki could read English.)

 

DC's reply:

Well said. There was no peace movement in Japan during the war that I know of and Crooked Cucumber does not say so - in a number of places. It's true that this was a mistake printed in ZMBM but it has been corrected. After consulting with me on the matter, Richard Baker removed this sentence from the introduction to ZMBM for the new edition that came out in 1999. (There were also some (embarrassing) inaccurate attributions from Suzukiís lectures that were corrected. And the year that he came was corrected from 1958 to 1959.) In it's place was put the following: "Exceptional for Japan during the nineteen thirties and forties, he led discussion groups at Rinsoin that questioned the militaristic assumptions and actions of the times." That seems to me to accurately reflect what was said by Suzuki and some of the guys who were there back then. Of course now, so that this bit of nonsense gets stomped out, someone should go and find the million or so copies of ZMBM that had that sentence in it and put in the new one.

Hey, I wasnít forced to admit anything. I happily reported Suzuki wasn't doing any pacifist work during the war - okay, after Brian Victoria held me down and bent my arm behind my back till it hurt. I was trying to do a few things to promote Zen at War and Victoria (whom I'd heard about since the sixties and was dying to meet) came to Sonoma at my request and we had a dinner party for him and he gave a great talk to John Tarrantís group [Harada\Yasutani lineage which Victoria has been very, very critical of] in which he dressed up like a Japanese officer and gave us a spirited Imperial Buddhist rap where the Emperor is above Buddha and how great it is to die for the Emperor and all. And then he and I and Fred Harriman, a wonderful translator who has helped me a lot, stayed up till three in the morning - or maybe thatís when Fred left - and went over everything Iíd written about Suzuki and the war - I'd earlier sent it all to Brian and he'd kindly made zillions of notes - and Brian was very helpful and had a lot of critical things to say and I took what he said to heart and when the book came out he sent me a wonderful note saying how pleased he was with how it came out. And in the acknowledgments I thanked him for his help and tolerance of my non-academic approach (See the Suzuki War and Peace page). I'd love to do notes on Crooked Cucumber and bring out in this section a lot of what Brian had to say because he knows the subject well and has such interesting and insightful things to say and there's a little more doubt and background to be cast on some of the story the way I presented it.

Lachs is right - Victoriaís Japanese is excellent and mine is embarrassingly not. However, I'm a compulsive communicator and used to be conversational in Japanese and would sit up talking to Hoitsu at Rinsoin till four in the morning in Japanese drinking sake or tea depending on the night. Hoitsu and I have talked about this stuff at length many times - not just one little phone call - and heís brought in other older family members and some of his fatherís students and friends from the war time and Iíve interviewed them as did Fred Harriman (who also translated the tapes of these interviews). And I went out and talked to neighbors that Hoitsu didnít want me to talk to. Thereís oodles of pages on all this on my web site. Look at the interviews in Japan. Hoitsu hates to hear people glorifying his father. He says his father of course hated the military but couldn't do any more about it than bury his head in his hands and go aghhhh! But, Hoitsu wasn't there. The picture of what happened there that was presented in Crooked Cucumber came from people who were there, including Suzuki. I just repeated what they told me. I'm not a scholar. I take everyone at face value. What Suzuki said and the older folks seemed to come together. But even in the few times Suzuki talked about this stuff, if he exaggerated or lied, that doesn't bother me. I like James Hillman's approach to biography - that the highest essence of a person can be found in the lies they tell as well as the truth. At least it's who they wish they'd been. But as I see Shunryu San (as they call him over there), he wasn't real wrapped up in trying to change the past or be identified with it.

The way I see it, Baker honestly believed over three decades ago that was the way it was. Suzuki didnít talk about his past much and I think that Baker added things up wrong. We were all into the anti-war thing and I think we tended to see Suzuki's experience in terms of ours. And we were pretty naÔve. So I researched it later years and showed a more "nuanced" picture of it (as Brian kindly put it to me), but I talked to Suzuki about it back then and thereís a chapter in Crooked Cucumber (on the War and Peace page - beginning of Chapter 16) where I repeat (through a glass darkly) that conversation. Suzuki was in an anti-nuclear march after the war and he had made a few references to discussions at his temple and to printing things up that he handed out. We didnít really talk about these things much though and nobody was aware of the error till I started looking into it in the nineties. And it wasn't a big deal for people around ZC to change their view on this. Actually, people there don't think about Suzuki much or Baker or transmission either. They'd better not, in my humble view, because the only truth is what's right in front of us. All this historical stuff is just window dressing. It's just something to do for fun. It's all lies even when it's true because it's just a bunch of thoughts in our heads and symbols on paper. That's why I enjoy attacks on our precious attachments and misunderstandings - because we do tend to believe a lot of silly things - even when we've learned not to and should know better.

Lachs is right that Suzuki had a chance to change any errors in the introduction to ZMBM.  I would think that Baker read it to him and, if so, Suzuki didnít correct him. Baker thought he'd done that but isn't totally sure. But I wouldnít be surprised that, if he did, Suzuki didnít pay attention to everything. Heíd get bored at a lot of stuff like that that we were forcing him to listen to. I interpret it more as sloppiness than sinister intent. His English was good, but he's the last guy you'd have wanted to hire to do proof reading of something in English. And if Baker read it to him and he was paying attention, why didn't he correct the year he arrived in America from '58 to '59? What a klutz!


An email from Stuart Lachs in response to my response to his article on the Myth of the Zen Master (received 12/21/02 and put here on 1/08/03). Also included are my responses to his responses to my response. I'll put the old material in italics and indent it. - DC

Hi David,

Thank you again for posting a link to my paper 'Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi." Also, I am glad to see that you wrote a reply to a part of the paper. Below is my reply to you. Please feel free to post it, if you so desire.


DC's reply: Well said. There was no peace movement in Japan during the war that I know of and Crooked Cucumber does not say so - in a number of places.

SL replies: That is true, you do not say there was a peace movement in Japan during the war. I did not mean to say that you did.

DC: It's true that this was a mistake printed in ZMBM but it has been corrected. After consulting with me on the matter, Richard Baker removed this sentence from the introduction to ZMBM for the new edition that came out in 1999.

SL: We disagree here. I think what Baker wrote was more than a mistake. Baker seemed able to say whatever he thought was called for at the moment. I stand by my interpretation that "Perhaps tellingly, Baker made this claim at the height of the Vietnam War, when virtually 100% of Zen followers were opposed to the war and hence having an anti-war/anti -government roshi in his lineage was good currency."

DC - You know, Dick wasn't sure he was going to stay with Zen Center back then. He had other options. Looking at his life this way is okay and possibly true and he's cunning, but there's more to him than this sort of petty strategy. Dick's a dedicated Zen student and teacher and an artist. He creates fantastically interesting and dynamic things - like community and institutions and opportunities and resources for others to study and learn. But he's always been controversial.

SL: I find it odd that you so easily accept Baker's reply to your questioning the basis for his claim that "During the Second World War he [Suzuki] was the leader of a pacifist group in Japan." Baker replies to you that he could not remember. Could not remember? You accept this so easily and believingly. Doesn't this seem a bit too convenient or glib an answer? Does Baker have a guileless history, is he known for his straightforwardness and honesty? Did Baker not display a more than self serving nature? Baker is making a claim that is just about without precedent in the history of the WWII era in Japan and he replies that he cannot remember where he received the information. Baker is a very smart guy and seems fine at remembering all manner of other minor details. I think my conjecture/thinking stated above is a more likely explanation.

DC: There were also some (embarrassing) inaccurate attributions from Suzuki's lectures that were corrected. And the year that he came was corrected from 1958 to 1959.) In it's place was put the following: "Exceptional for Japan during the nineteen thirties and forties, he led discussion groups at Rinsoin that questioned the militaristic assumptions and actions of the times." That seems to me to accurately reflect what was said by Suzuki and some of the guys who were there back then. Of course now, so that this bit of nonsense gets stomped out, someone should go and find the million or so copies of ZMBM that had that sentence in it and put in the new one.

SL: Your last sentence is charming but is really smoke, distracting and making light of something that is a real issue in terms of Baker's motives and in the creation of modern day Zen hagiography.

DC: I like James Hillman's approach to biography - that the highest essence of a person can be found in the lies they tell as well as the truth. At least it's who they wish they'd been.

SL: Hillman has one view , but why call it "the highest essence of a person can be found in the lies they tell as well as the truth?" For instance, take the case of Mirceade Eliade. He was a rabid and active Nazi sympathizer/fellow traveler during the WWII, though he never admitted it. Are we to simply take his writing on mysticism and religion and say that is his highest essence and forget about what he thought and actually did when his actions effected many others in not so wonderful and elevating ways? Of course Eliade would like to be remembered as a scholar on mysticism and religion; too bad when a different set of cards served him , he took them and spent the rest of his life hiding his history.

DC: The way I see it, Baker honestly believed over three decades ago that was the way it was. Suzuki didn't talk about his past much and I think that Baker added things up wrong. We were all into the anti-war thing and I think we tended to see Suzuki's experience in terms of ours. And we were pretty naÔve. So I researched it later years and showed a more "nuanced" picture of it (as Brian kindly put it to me),

SL: I guess we have to agree to disagree here.

DC: All this historical stuff is just window dressing. It's just something to do for fun. It's all lies even when it's true because it's just a bunch of thoughts in our heads and symbols on paper. That's why I enjoy attacks on our precious attachments and misunderstandings - because we do tend to believe a lot of silly things - even when we've learned not to and should know better.

SL: "All this historical stuff" is a lot more than "window dressing" or "fun." It is the stuff of mythology for one thing and its control and dissemination is what instructs people to see the world in certain ways and not others. It is the stuff with which we construct our world view. Why do you think most people so accepted unquestioningly Suzuki's description of Baker's transmission as "real" in spite of what they were seeing in front of their eyes. Not only did they accept it, but the older , well socialized students had to convince the newer, less socialized students who still saw things without the lens of Zen mythology and history, that indeed, Baker had "real" transmission and was behaving accordingly. The world is socially constructed and religion and its history is a good part of that construction.

DC: Lachs is right that Suzuki was probably read the introduction to ZMBM by Baker and Suzuki didn't correct him. Baker thought he'd done that but isn't totally sure. But I wouldn't be surprised that, if he did, Suzuki didn't pay attention to everything. He'd get bored at a lot of stuff like that - stuff about him. I interpret it more as sloppiness than sinister intent. His English was good, but he's the last guy you'd have wanted to hire to do proof reading of something in English. And if he was read it and was paying attention, why didn't he correct the year he came from '58 to '59? What a klutz!

SL: Once again Baker has a memory lapse. Strange, he can't remember things that would call into question what he put into print and has sold over a million copies. Why doesn't Baker just take the 5th amendment rather than calling into question his memory?

In the introduction to ZMBM we have a description of Suzuki, generalized to include all roshi, that is extremely idealistic. Some people might be inclined to call it propaganda in that it is so far from reality.

DC - I certainly agree with you. I am uncomfortable with it - the one Trudy wrote anyway - and always have been. Sorry, Trudy.

SL: One wonders why Baker's description of Suzuki did not include some of his more mundane qualities such as the qualities you mention, "Suzuki didn't pay attention to everything. He'd get bored at a lot of stuff like that - stuff about him-or his 'sloppiness' ." But the description as Baker wrote it was not only about Suzuki, but all roshi ("a roshi is a person...").

Suzuki knew, unless he was too bored to listen, that Baker's description did not match himself and certainly did not match all roshi. Perhaps, Suzuki may even have had reasons or motives for not wanting to remove this idealistic clap trap that he knew was not true. Once one admits that he was not this idealized roshi, though a very fine person, then it is only reasonable to ask if he had motives or desires, as does every one else, that may have had something to do with what he did or did not do.

Perhaps he felt that leaving in this description of a roshi would give added authority to Baker who he tagged to be his heir? Perhaps he felt that Baker needed this imputation of qualities to make the center grow after his death, a long time concern in Soto Zen?

Perhaps he was repeating the standard Zen line and thought it was necessary for Americans? Perhaps he liked the description of himself? Perhaps he was bored and sloppy - a "klutz," as you jokingly say?

I do not mean to impute "sinister" intentions to Suzuki. That is not the point. Rather, that Suzuki was not this idealized person, neither is Baker and virtually 99.999999...% of other roshi who also do not fit the description in the introduction to ZMBM. It is this false idealizing of the role of roshi that Baker promoted, as did/do others, as well as the idealized history of Zen that leads to much of the trouble that the SFZC, as well as other Zen centers, went through from the mid 70's and 80's into the present. Not examining these elements or dismissing any question to "I can't remember" or to being a "klutz" is asking for trouble, at least to my mind.

Baker's unquestioned power and free wheeling life style was largely accepted by SFZC members because of the idealized descriptions of the role of roshi, Zen's history and the defining terms of Zen so common in popular Zen books.

DC - It was accepted until it wasn't. The people at ZC dealt with this at the time, twenty years ago. But it's good to point it out because people do tend to slip into endless varieties of  delusional behavior.

SL: Interestingly, this false description of the roshi has not been removed from the latest edition of ZMBM, at least you have not said so, if it has. Too bad!

DC - Yes, but also it's a bit of Zen history. It's not necessarily what would be written today - at least I hope not. It's not necessary to rewrite it. I think that only the historical errors needed to be changed. The rest just shows us what Trudy Dixon's and Richard Baker's understanding was thirty-three years ago. It's true it could be changed because the essence of the book is the Suzuki lectures, but maybe best to leave the intros so we can see those too. We build on what others did in the past. We can see now their flaws like a runner can see the missteps of the prior runners and the person who passes him the baton - but he'd better not dwell on them too long because he's got to grab that baton, forget about them, and run!


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