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12-09-05 - Gary Snyder on Shunryu Suzuki and the social scene around the ZC forty years ago - as told to DC about ten years ago.
I was lying in a bathtub this morning and I thought of a couple of things I could have put in Crooked Cucumber that I didn't.
I remember that in the LA Times review of Crooked Cucumber, the reviewer mentioned that he wanted to hear more about famous people like Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsberg. I feel like Ginsberg was fully covered, but, he's right, I should have put something in about Gary Snyder though there's not much to say. I have some notes somewhere on a phone conversation I had with him about his memories of Suzuki but I don't need to find them. I think I remember everything he said and so I'll put it down here now.
Gary was studying Zen in Japan when Suzuki came to San Francisco - that was 1959. Gary moved back to SF in 1968 (according to a letter from David Schneider). I was talking to Grahame Petchey this morning and he remembers the first time he saw Gary was at a Sokoji funeral for a member of the Japanese congregation. He remembers seeing him now and then and having him over to dinner with his wife Pauline and mother in law and he thinks that was '64. I can get the correct date later. Maybe Gary was visiting. According to Schneider, who's working on a book on Philip Whalen and is reading Snyder's letters to Whalen, Snyder went to Japan in 56, came back for a while in 58 and returned, and stayed there till 68 with some visits now and then.
Gary and Joanne (I'm pretty sure he was still with her - maybe I'll call her up about this - she'll know) got an apartment on Pine Street just a few blocks from Sokoji. Gary went there to sit some but he didn't like the social scene. He liked Suzuki and Suzuki liked him and went over to Gary's apartment sometimes to eat and speak Japanese - poor guy had to speak English all the time with his students. Gary had been studying Rinzai Zen which of course concentrates on working with koans and is much more dynamic than Suzuki's just sit, just etc. scene. I got the feeling he saw Suzuki more as a nice man than a teacher. And I imagine that for Gary to get involved with Sokoji at that time would sort of be like a college student going back to elementary school.
The way I imagine it, Suzuki's students hadn't lived in Japan and tended to idealize him and see everything he did and said as transcendent and special, whereas Gary had been living in Japan for maybe five years and could experience Suzuki as being a normal, genial, and quiet Japanese priest. There are priests like that in Japan and there are more assertive ones.
I think Suzuki had a number of remarkable qualities but I don't think, from what I remember of our conversation, that Gary necessarily had time to see them. On the other hand, Gary might never have thought Suzuki was remarkable. So I'd say that my memory of Gary's take on Suzuki is sort of like what Japanese people have tended to say - with a few exceptions. (See interviews with Noiri Roshi and neighbor Yamamura San and Eido Roshi but there are more) - that he was kind, friendly Soto priest.
Gary's wife is dying of stomach cancer so I don't want to bother him now, but I'd like to do a more in-depth interview with him and get more background on him and try to squeeze a little bit more out of him than this. I rarely ruminate over what others think in this work because I generally have enough from them that they can speak for themselves. So I'll try to get to that.
The second thing I thought about this morning in the bathtub that I hadn't mentioned in Crooked Cucumber - I don't think I did - was touched on by Gary when he said he didn't like the social scene around the zazen group at Sokoji. I've heard some other people from back then mention this - people who perceived a clique that sort of dominated the Zen Center part of Sokoji. A lot of people didn't notice it because they just came and sat zazen and left. But some people who got involved in socializing or in meetings and decisions did. And Gary would certainly notice it because the people he knew best in the ZC were in this clique. My take on our conversation is that he didn't feel comfortable with it. Pauline Petchey mentions it in her interview herein and maybe Grahame Petchey does - at least he's mentioned it to me. He says that when he became president that he felt it was more proper for him to relate equally with everyone and that he sort of fell from grace with the clique.
Was there a clique and if so, who was in it? Sure there was for some while, but there always is something like that going on in any group of people. I'm sure there was at Daitokuji where Gary Snyder studied - I've heard gossip about that scene too. Those who want to practice somewhere or just be anywhere with other people have just got to decide whether it's worth it for some sort of irritating social dynamics are always at play. As for who it was back at the ZC, it was an arty, literary group. They were in their twenties then and are closer to seventy now and they're all good people who don't need to be pigeon-holed by making too big a deal out of their social lives forty years ago.
But I wanted to bring this up anyway - just a little manure to help the flowers grow.
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