Tassajara Stories


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last edit 3-3-18


Togen Sumi arrived in 1965 and became the chief priest at Zenshuji in LA and the Bishop of Soto Zen in America, filling the vacancy left by Reirin Yamada. That didn't mean anything special to us zazen students who hadn't yet learned the meaning of respecting our elders. To us the whole Japanese Soto Zen establishment was just some sort of church trip like had been left behind. Just another formality that Suzuki had to deal with. But it was sort of fun having Sumi visit. Sumi being bishop, he'd come to officiate some ceremonies in San Francisco - mainly with the Japanese-American congregation but he'd lead the services for us too when he was there. Suzuki, who had declined the time-consuming role of bishop from the time he'd arrived in America, always treated Sumi with deference. We all liked Sumi. He was friendly and smiled a lot. Well, I don't think that Katagiri liked him. He'd grimace when he heard Sumi was coming. But he didn’t seem to like any Japanese Zen bigshots. Yes, I sigh and reflect, Togen Sumi. Dare I tell what I remember of him?

At Tassajara I quickly became someone who dealt with guests. I went beyond the call of duty however. Since I was an overly friendly and talkative Texan, I tended to meet just about anyone who came down the road and Sumi was no exception. In the late spring of 1967 when we were getting Tassajara going, he brought his nephew with him and they stayed in one of the stone rooms. Suzuki would ask Sumi to give a talk when he came and would introduce him with respect, treating him like some great Zen master.

I remember taking Sumi on a walk up the hogback and showing him the waterfall across the ravine. He taught me then one of my first Japanese words: taki, waterfall. Sumi was nice enough but he was a smarmy guy with a big toothy smile who gave some people the creeps. He was thin, tall for a Japanese and gangly. I kept thinking he looked like Dracula. He'd invite me to his room. Being alone with him gave me a little tingling fear that soon he'd have his fangs in my neck. Ominous feelings of danger have always had a certain allure for me though.

Sumi had years of training and discipline in the Soto Zen realm and I think that anyone who can put up with all the demands of that training and that outfit deserves some respect. I learned from being around him and listening to the few lectures I heard him give. I remember a lecture Sumi gave about the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra where he said that the bad guy in that story, Shen Hsiu (Chinese reading), wasn't all wrong. He was the main disciple of the Fifth Patriarch and when the Fifth said it was time to choose a successor and asked for poems from his students to show their understanding, Shen Hsiu posted the following [from <> - scholars reject a lot of older translations, the story, and interpretations on this subject and this is just a superficial pass so reader beware and if interested in deep study of this subject please dig deeper elsewhere]:

The body is the wisdom-tree,
The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;
Take care to wipe it all the time,
And allow no dust to cling.

Hui Neng, who was illiterate, was read the poem and posted the following with the help of a fellow monk:

Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is empty from the beginning,
Where can the dust alight

The rest is legend. The Fifth Patriarch gave Hui Neng his robe and bowl and told him to run off so he wouldn’t' get mugged by Shen Hsiu.

The point of the lecture that Sumi gave was that Shen Hsiu's understanding was also good - that the practice of wiping the mind clean is also important, that purification and transcendence are not mutually exclusive. Good point I thought.

At Tassajara Sumi was extremely friendly with me. Later he sent me letters and gifts such as a sheet of stamps, some of which I could use to write him letters. He asked me to visit him when I came to LA. I really liked meeting Japanese priests, and non priests for that matter, was curious about this culture and its inhabitants. I also enjoyed meeting his nephew who was an artist and who complained to me on a walk to Grasshopper Flats about what a tyrant Sumi was over him, making him sit zazen and follow the schedule at Tassajara which he wasn't interested in. He also told me he wasn't really Sumi's nephew.

While doing research on food and materials sources for the Tassajara kitchen and dining room, I visited Sumi in LA a few times at Zenshuji. He was always most kind and generous. I'd call Sumi from Maezumi's home and zendo where I stayed and he would invite me to lunch. The first such date we met at a Japanese restaurant and he brought two young American students whom he introduced as his disciples. We gorged and talked and had a charming time, spent a couple of hours together. He asked me if I'd like to stay at Zenshuji and, when I said I had a place to stay, invited me over for the evening, but I said my schedule was full. When he went to the bathroom his students immediately grabbed me and begged me to ask if they could come shopping with me. I did and Sumi said okay. He went off and they joined me driving here and there. The first thing we did was to get some ice cream. Both these guys were in their early twenties and had come to Zenshuji independently just because it was a Zen temple and they'd read about Zen and enlightenment and wanted to get enlightened. No one had recommended it.

John, had studied in Stockton with MacDonough whom he called MacDonough Roshi. He'd stayed with MacDonough for far too long he said and had found it to be a bizarre and unrewarding experience. I asked why he stayed so long if his experience was so bad. He said that he thought that the problem must be his and kept at it till he finally got physically ill and had to leave. So then he went to LA and discovered Zenshuji and Sumi. John had been there a while when the other fellow came to the door. He said that Sumi normally shoed away enlightenment-seeking Westerners but, since they were both insistent, he had accepted them. This seemed to be in accordance with the Zen tradition of telling prospective monks to go away till they'd sit steadily outside the temple gate for some days or weeks. That's the origin of the tangaryo practice.

I asked them what their schedule was like and they said that Sumi made them get up early in the dark and sit zazen for a couple of hours and that he'd have them join him for a morning service and he made them eat mainly white rice and miso soup alone and told them not to talk and would have them clean the temple and copy Chinese characters for hours in a small dark room. They had no idea what the characters meant or how to write them. He gave them only a moment's instruction and they didn't know about stroke order or much of anything.

A few weeks later I returned and, after lunch he let them go with me again and they were like crazed hermits come down from the mountain, ravenous for sweets and conversation. They said that they hadn't been out since I was last there, that I was the only person that Sumi would let them be with or talk to. They said he'd put them through a grueling seven day sesshin with zazen morning to night and never joined them except to come in and hit them with the stick. They implored me to return soon when we parted. The next time I returned was some months later and there was only John. The other fellow had left. John was a bit crazed and said that Sumi had given him a koan.

Koans are not typically given by Soto Zen priests but there is a long tradition in Soto Zen of studying them. Dogen, Soto Zen’s founder, had completed koan study when he was a Rinzai monk and he wrote tons about them. Suzuki frequently gave lectures on koans, mainly from the Blue Cliff Records. But I was most intrigued that Togen Sumi had actually given John a koan to practice with. I urged him to tell me more.

He said that he had accompanied Sumi to the home of a wealthy lay family in order to assist in a memorial service. This is one of the principal tasks of Japanese priests. The home was a good hour drive from Zenshuji so Sumi suggested that they stay in a motel for the evening. John thought that was great because it would give him more time to be with his teacher and maybe he could glean some insight that had, up to then, eluded him. That night when it was time for bed, Sumi confirmed John's assumption and said that it was good for master and disciple to be close to each other but John was a little taken aback when Sumi said, as he pulled back the covers of one of the queen beds, that this meant that they should sleep in the same bed. John said he really slept better by himself but Sumi insisted on leaving no blanket unturned in pursuing the course of being mind to mind and body to body. Maybe this does make sense, John thought. Sumi then said that they should have no clothing between them and, as he disrobed, told John to do the same. John felt resistance arising within him but labeled that as a barrier between him and the enlightenment he sought. Don't resist, he thought. Say yes to the master. If you don't obey you'll never break through to a realization of buddha mind.

"What a dedicated student you are," I said. "Please go on."

Alone and naked they stood in the motel room facing each other. Sumi told John that he was going to give him a koan.

"A koan?" John asked with eager anticipation.

"Yes, a koan. And this is the greatest of all koans. This koan," he said, "is called the diamond koan." He told John that if he penetrated this great koan that he would know the mind of the buddhas and patriarchs. "Are you ready," he asked?

"Yes, I am ready," John answered, trembling with excitement and awe that his long months of torturous Zen practice had brought him to this moment with the promise of breaking through his ego to the infinite.

With that, Sumi reached forward and grabbed John's penis and testicles. John took it as a classic example of the unexpected act from an enlightened master and sloughed off an instinctive quiver of revulsion. He breathed heavily and called out bravely, "It's Buddha!" No, he thought, as Sumi fondled his privates, not good enough. "It's no-mind! Mu! The oak tree in the garden!" He kept trying to give incisive non-conceptual, intuitive Zen answers to the koan but nothing seemed to work. Finally he realized that he'd failed and he didn't want Sumi to be touching him any more so he pulled back.

"Don't give up," said Sumi.

"I give up," said John, and he went to the other bed, crawled in, and pulled the covers over his head.

I asked John what his take on it all was now. "I mean," I said, "Don't you think that maybe he was just horny?"

"Yes, sure. I guess so." He told me that that wasn't the first indication he'd had of Sumi's predilections. He said that the reason his fellow student had left was what had happened to another Westerner that Sumi had taken in. I said I thought that Sumi sent them all away and John said that was true but that this fellow had come to him saying that he was plagued by fears that he had homosexual tendencies and that Sumi had taken him in and seduced him and that the guy had gone berserk and had to be taken to a mental hospital.

So I told John a story that I knew about Sumi, one that had been told to me by Maezumi.

Maezumi didn't get along with Sumi or with Yamada, the bishop before him. The main reason was that Maezumi didn't want to spend his life being a temple priest for family ceremonies and all and wanted to offer daily zazen to Zenshuji members and Westerners and neither Yamada nor Sumi were interested in that and wanted him to do lots of ceremonies and temple duties. And they wanted to lord it over him. Maezumi really got sick of the scene there and had been on his own for a few years. He told me that he nevertheless helped Sumi out with important ceremonies and events and that they had to deal with each other about various issues. The most divisive he said was that he wanted a zendo to be sanctioned as an official temple by the Soto sect. He told me that he and Sumi used to have yelling, screaming arguments with each other in which Sumi would threaten him with one thing or another - expelling him from America or whatever. Maezumi said that he'd yell back at Sumi that his connections were more powerful in Japan than Sumi's and that he could get Sumi on some sort of shit list. He said it was all a bunch of stupid, empty, petty threats, but that the main thing was that they had a very unpleasant relationship and that he couldn't get what he wanted from Sumi or get Sumi out of his hairlessness. Then one night he got a call.

It was very late. So late you'd call it early. Sumi was breathing heavily and his voice was shaky. He asked Maezumi if he would come to the police station to bail him out. He couldn't get out on his own. Maezumi drove straight to the station and soon Sumi appeared before him - in drag.

It's hard to believe but the police all over America used to bust gay bars. I really don't understand how they could do that or what they were taking these guys in for. I think they were mainly after gay men and tended to leave lesbians more alone. Queen Victoria did. When she was laying out the laws against sodomy she was asked what to do about women with women and she said, taken aback, that there was simply nothing that they could do. I remember cretin macho guys in high school talking about "rolling queers."  I found that so offensive. I came from a uniquely anti-homophobic family. I never heard anything about lesbians being attacked but I'm sure they've got their stories of persecution too. Yeah, sure - they'd lose their jobs if they were discovered. I can remember that happening to a really nice PE teacher in my high school. Anyway, Sumi had been arrested with a whole gaggle of other guys in one of these homosexual busts.

As Maezumi drove back to Zenshuji, Sumi clutched his dress and sobbed loudly and so wetly that his mascara ran down blending with his pancake makeup and his lipstick was all smeared. He ran into the temple crying and holding his high heels. He was probably worried that Maezumi would tell on him - to Zenshuji's Japanese American congregation. Regular old Americans are puritanical enough, but Japanese-Americans back then were a very conservative group, not puritanical like Americans but more conservative in many ways than our fellow-country-folk and, according to my sources, more so than Japanese in Japan. .

I've had gay friends tell me that Japanese aren't homophobic and I've told them that Japanese don't snoop but that they can only continue to believe the average Japanese isn't homophobic as long as they don't let on that they're gay. In my adult English conversation class in Okayama back in the early nineties, I brought up the topic of AIDS and safe sex. A housewife said, "We won't have AIDS in Japan because we don't have homosexuals."

It's too bad that Sumi had to be worried about his reputation. Lots of transvestites aren't even gay but I of course being a transvestite itself wouldn't go over well with his congregation. Maezumi didn't tell anyone, he said, till he told me. For years I didn't mention it either. I don't think Sumi should have seduced that poor guy who went crazy, but, if someone likes to cross-dress and kiss and hug men, why not? As long as it's consenting adults as they say, we should be able to have fun and do whatever gets us off that doesn't hurt others. I don't see why it would get in the way of understanding fundamental reality or doing a job. To me we're all nuts in one way or another and we should be nice to each other. Like remember that US senator who got busted for coming onto an undercover vice squad officer in an airport men’s room? Why? My thoughts were that airports should provide rooms for people with such urges.

Sumi's predilections weren't totally unknown to others. Once Richard Baker accompanied Shunryu Suzuki to a meeting of Soto Zen priests in LA. At some point they were walking by a window on a staircase landing and caught sight of Sumi passionately making out with another man in a car below. Suzuki quickly turned his head while saying, "Too much, too much."

After John and I had traded Sumi stories, I asked him why he hadn't left, did he still think that everything his heart told him was just his naughty ego getting in the way? He said that no, he was getting ready to leave. I suggested, as I gently had every time I'd seen him, that he consider going to sit with Maezumi or coming up to San Francisco to sit and study with Suzuki and Katagiri. He agreed and said he'd go see Maezumi soon. He did. Ah, but I lost track of him soon after that. John, if you're out there and hear me, please email and say hi and fill me in on the facts and feel free to correct the errors in my memories.

Years later, when I lived in Japan, I called Sumi up. That was '89. He had a temple for families in Nagoya but was the abbot of Sojiji Betsuin, a very important and beautiful training temple for monks on the Noto Peninsula. An interesting note is that Sojiji Betsuin was near the town of Wajima. Wajima is famous for being the home of the finest lacquer work in Japan. It is also the word that my first wife Dianne used for penis. She and her dear friend Margaret decided that penis and vagina weren't poetic enough terms for such noble body parts and called them Wajima and Jinki. And Sumi was near Wajima. Coincidence? You decide.

In Japan when I mentioned to Soto priests I knew Togen Sumi Roshi, the abbot of Sojiji Betsuin in Noto Hanto, they were impressed. Good. More points. He'd become a big shot. All through the years I've heard from Japanese and Americans who know Zen in Japan that any priest who comes to America is doing so because he was running from something or being exiled. I've heard this about Shunryu Suzuki - that he came because he'd been disgraced by the murder of his wife. Shohaku Okamura said that Kosho Uchiyama of Antaiji in Kyoto told him that. I've heard it about the late Joshu Sasaki, the Rinzai priest in LA. I heard it about Sumi. There's a strain of thought there that suspects anyone who leaves for long of being somehow damaged. But I don't buy it. Reirin Yamada went from his three years at Zenshuji to become the president of Komazawa, the Soto Zen university in Tokyo, and then the abbot of Eiheiji, the great Soto Zen training monastery, the highest honor in the sect. All the monks I know who came to America were diligent with good reputations and were either interested in the West or wanted to teach zazen to Westerners and had way more than the minimum years of training necessary. They all could have taken over temples in Japan and done that thing. I think they all came for good reasons and those that have gone back have, almost without exception, distinguished themselves. Sumi was now just a step away from being an abbot, kanshu, of one of the two great Soto training monasteries, Sojiji. And he was more than eighty years old.

He who signed his letters Archbishop Togen Sumi, was delighted to hear from me, especially when I told him that my fifteen year old son would be coming for the summer. We made a date for the three of us to get together for a few days in his temple. Peter and Jane Schneider who lived in Japan something like twenty years had met him there by accident when visiting the temple and they said they had a great time and that he was, as always, a generous and pleasant host. Sumi called me back several times to make sure that me and "your boy" (said in a way that reminded me of Bela Lugosi again) would be able to come. He offered to pay our transportation. I found his repeated emphasis on my son to be humorous. I could almost hear him drooling on the other side of the line. I understand. I drool too - just about different people than him. Second wife Elin asked me if I had some sort of bizarre scenario in mind to sacrifice Kelly, my son. I assured her I'd never let him out of my sight if we were there. But he could take care of himself anyway.

Then the day before we were to leave, Sumi called and said that we had to reschedule because the Crown Prince, now the Emperor, of Japan was coming to the temple on that day and, of course it would be a very big deal and he couldn't have any other visitors. There was no more time that summer to see him so we said we'd do it the following year. I called him in the spring to make a date and he told me to call back in a month. When I did I was told, by his wife that he had passed away.

I was sad not to see Togen Sumi again and was a little mad at myself for not making a bigger effort to get to the Noto Peninsula or to his Nagoya temple to see him. What a character. I hope he is frolicking in fields of delight, unobstructed by societal judgment, and I imagine brushing up next to him in some future life in which we have different urges and karmic fruit to savor its earthly sweetness and taste of emptiness.


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