|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
Excerpt from Sun Buddhas Moon Buddhas: a
by Elsie Mitchell
Chapter 13, SEPARATE VESSELS P. 189
The following October the Cambridge Buddhist Association received a visit from the Venerable Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi was in charge of a Buddhist temple, as well as a Zen center for Westerners, in San Francisco. He had been living in the United States for about six years and had learned English and gathered together a large group of people seriously interested in meditation. I had met him in San Francisco after one of my journeys to Japan and been greatly impressed with his integrity, his goodness, and particularly his willingness to work out ways of traditional Buddhist practice really suitable for contemporary Westerners. He wrote that he would he arriving on a Wednesday night, and we planned to meet him at the airport.
Tuesday afternoon we returned to Cambridge from Cape Cod, and several of us set to work housecleaning. That evening the library cum meditation room was in the process of being scrubbed down when the doorbell rang. My husband climbed down a ladder and opened the front door. Suzuki Roshi was on the doorstep with a smile on his face. He was amused to find us amid preparations for his arrival. In spite of our protests, he immediately tied back his long kimono sleeves and insisted on joining in "all these preparations for the important day of my coming." The following morning, after breakfast and a meditation session, and after I had left the house for shopping, he found himself a tall ladder, sponges, and pails. He then set to work scrubbing Cambridge grease, grime, and general pollution from the outside of the windows in the meditation room. When I returned with the groceries, I discovered him on the ladder, polishing with such undivided attention that he did not even hear my approach. He had removed his black silk kimono and was dressed only in his Japanese union suit. This is quite acceptable attire in Japan. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering how the sedate Cambridge ladies in the adjoining apartment house would react to the sight of a shaven-headed man in long underwear at work just outside their windows.
The roshi loved his first visit to Cape Cod when we took him there for a weekend. Early each morning he sat on a large rock on the beach and chanted his sutras. He was delighted with our rock garden and set about weeding and trimming our bushes with enthusiasm and skill. He made himself a miniature garden inside a large mussel shell with moss, berries, and a little sand. He said that he wanted to take a bit of New England back to California with him.
Before the roshi left, I asked him if he thought it possible for a person to be both Buddhist and Christian. "Well," he said, "I know very little about Christianity, and I have always thought the best thing about it is some of the music. The great music, that is, not what you hear in ordinary churches. Some Christians, some Christian ministers come to Zen Center, but I don't think they can become Buddhists." Later he remarked that the people he had observed wandering through one religion after another didn't seem to be able to find any peace or understanding. "But," he said, "maybe there are some individuals who can do it." I explained to him that New England had no Japanese or other traditional community where Buddhism could develop naturally and organically as in California or Hawaii. I told him that quite a few people would surely practice meditation, but possibly not as Buddhists. Then I read to him a few quotations from Zen Catholicism [a book by Dom Aelred Grahame, a Catholic priest, a close friend of Elsie's, and a central character of her book--DC].
"Of course," he said, "from one point of view, perhaps even the most important one, a label such as Christian or Buddhist has no meaning. However, actually there is Buddhism and there is Christianity; they are both living traditions, living communities." Then he asked me: "Could you become a Christian? To me it does not seem that it would be possible. You do not seem to me like any Christian I have ever known. You seem to live quite naturally in the Buddhist manner, with the Buddhist, especially Japanese Buddhist, feeling about all nature, about the Great Nature."
"I agree," I replied, "about the labels, but also there seem to me to be certain aspects of a Westerner's psychic experience, mostly intangible, that are tied up in Christianity. The Western Buddhists I know who really seem to live their Buddhism often find that they can read some Christian mystics and feel close to them in a way that was not possible before they became Buddhists. For example, Mother Juliana of Norwich or the book The Cloud of Unknowing holds consider-able interest for some Western Buddhists. As for me, except for The Cloud of Unknowing, Zen Catholicism, and some of the books of Thomas Merton, I cannot usually read about Christianity with much benefit. However, I can feel a sense of transcendence, I suppose it is, in a contemplatively sung or even spoken Mass. There is something very strong and profound if one makes an 'empty' mind during this ritual; and while I am participating I forget all about Buddhism or Christianity or anything except a kind of communion, a communion with all creation. Then afterwards, of course, I cannot help remembering that Christians, influenced by centuries of Platonism, do not understand how much all manifestations of creation need and depend on one another. It seems to me that Christian orthodoxy has created a sort of fetish out of humanity. A fetish and a leviathan. No sacrifice, no destruction or slaughter is too great if it is done in the name of humanity, if it leads to the 'glorification' of man or what one theologian calls the 'hominization' of the world. That is what I cannot accept in Christianity. However, when one takes part in the Mass mushin, egolessly, such intellectual problems do not arise."
"Well," said Roshi, "there must be many things in the spirit of man and it is impossible, maybe, for one person to understand them all. But you have the tokudo [ordination] of a wonderful teacher, you are living and practicing in a Buddhist way. Some questions are interesting theoretically, but they have no sure answers and one may do harm to oneself and even to others if one puts too much or the wrong kind of attention on them. Just remember your Buddha nature, my Buddha nature, the Prior's Buddha nature, and the Buddha nature in all people, in the dogs and cats and other beings everywhere. That's what is really important."
The Western insight set in the tradition of the East--, I thought and wondered if, in a shrinking world, East and West would long retain much meaning. Now it is possible to travel eastward rapidly enough to land in the West more quickly than if one proceeded by a slower conveyance in a westerly direction in the first place. Presently Buddhism and Christianity seem like two separate vessels with sails set for separate ports, if one approaches them intellectually, socially, or institutionally. But all institutions are in the throes of change: tomorrow's Buddhism, tomorrow's Christianity could well be seen as clearly headed for the same destination, though leaving port in separate directions.
I wrote a description of these conversations with Suzuki Roshi to the Prior, who was out of the country for some weeks. He replied: "Your recent guest, Suzuki Roshi, appears to be rather a wise and wonderful person and I feel that under his guidance you are in good hands." On the subject of being a Catholic or Buddhist, he added: "One of my private little 'heresies' is that people are often not improved but rather 'disimproved' by becoming card-carrying Roman Catholics. The 'naturals' for conversion are emotionally disturbed youngsters, who are obviously meant to flop into the arms of 'Sancta Mater Ecclesia,' or liturgically minded laymen (or Anglican parsons) who won't be happy until they are ecclesiastically 'with it.' Now and again there is someone like Newman, who was a true seeker, but my observation is that it is for other reasons besides the truth of things that many people become Catholics.
"That is why I'm not particularly happy about this 'Ecumenism.' I don't see it amounting to much more than a sincere effort at ecclesiastical togetherness with the view to forming a common front against contemporary 'Godlessness' (whatever precisely that is)."
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