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So apt to die

On Shunryu Suzuki's last days

José M. Prieto, Complutense University, Madrid, Spain. -  Fax +34,913510091

Dying is a psychological process where the dying person plays the role of leading character and very often still maintains initiative, imagination and common sense in personal or social areas of his or her daily life. There is an excessive use of the term "patient" among relatives and friends when they talk about the sick person. The word "patient" conveys an overtone accentuating that such a person is a sufferer, and somehow a passive invalid. The abrupt consequence happens to be that the initiative, common sense and decision-making are transferred, during the dying process, to physicians, nurses, family, and friends too often and too easily.

C.T. Onions, the main editor of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, derived the term "patient" from "patience". By the 14th century, the original meaning was "suffering or enduring without complaint" and four centuries later it started to mean "one under medical treatment". Formally the term "patient" does not stand for the idea of "absence of will power" or "inability to act decisively". So, in many instances, a dying person behaves as a proactive patient dealing with an incurable sickness and not as a merely reactive patient.

Crooked Cucumber is a book written during the 1990s by David Chadwick and considered, after its publication in 1999, the definitive biography of the Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), the founder and first abbot of the Tassajara Monastery and the San Francisco Zen Center. This book is a multi-layered portrait of this leading figure in the establishment of Soto-Zen in California and its development in the US. Chapter nineteen is an informal rendering of Suzuki-roshi's last months of life and brings together many loving testimonies. However, it is possible to read this material in a different way. It provides a good example of a dying person who does not act as a passive patient. Suzuki-roshi behaved in a rather proactive manner.

· Richard Baker was installed as the chief priest of the San Francisco Zen Center on November 21st, 1971 during a Mountain Seat Ceremony led by Suzuki-roshi, already consumed by the cancer. After the ceremony, he met with his direct disciples, among them, Dainin Katagiri (1928-1990) his assistant, and expressed feelings of gratitude and farewell.

· From November 21st to December 3rd he decided to rest in the hospital bed placed in a room at the second-floor of the SFZC. He let Okusan (his wife), Otohiro (his son) and Yvonne (his secretary) deal with practical matters, drawing his attention to dying with dignity. He was very weak; he refused painkillers and stopped eating and talking. Visitors just bowed and breathed together with him, listening in silence while overlooking the courtyard. They were aware of everything in the room and the surrounding as it happens in the zendo.

· During the evening of December 3rd Suzuki-roshi was moved to his own bed in his apartment. He decided this relocation without been prompted by others. Was it a premeditated move?.

· Later in the evening he whispered to Okusan, "tomorrow I must talk to Richard about Silas". It suggested that, again, he was back in action, planning for the next day.

· At 02:00 a.m. he said, "I want a bath". He asked for scented soap and afterwards he made a good lather. Okusan and Otohiro noticed that Suzuki-roshi had not been in a tub for a long time and that he rarely used anything scented. So, the rite of passage started in the bathroom pointing up that dying itself is a process of purification.

· At 05:00 a.m. he said, "please, get Baker". Once arrived, Richard held Suzuki-roshi’s hand until he realized that it was not so warm. He passed on during the first zazen of the Rohatsu sesshin scheduled to end on December 8th, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. The subtle message was: "I shall meditate with you as long as you live". Conventionally, Rohatsu sesshins start on the first day, and not the fourth day of December.

So, at the SFZC the death of Suzuki-roshi became associated with the first zazen period early in the morning and seen as a sangha-related event. Subsequently everyday a Zen priest pays a visit to the Founder Hall and stands before the altar offering prayers during the zazen scheduled for the dawn. Similar ceremonies are held periodically in Japanese’s homes where Zen priests are requested to offer prayers in the domestic altar in the understanding that such prayers reinforce the continuity between dead and living persons. Direct relatives are invited to delve into their own mental states and to feel awe for their ancestors. Such ceremonies enable the dead person to become a "hotoke ", "an already awakened being", that is, "Buddha". So, the deceased person begins a new, different non-existence as an ancestor, living close to lineal descents.

Conventionally, the Buddha Death Day has been associated with meditation and practice as it makes clear a well-known haiku of Basho’s translated by Jane Reichhold this way:

"Buddha's Death Day,

From wrinkled praying hands

The rosaries' sound".

The term "roshi" is a title given in Japan by disciples and general public to an "old and beloved Zen master". Death in Japanese is pronounced "shi" and very often it is combined with other words, constituting a formative element linking the death to the lifestyle and circumstances of the deceased person. Therefore, the expression "ro-shi" also means death from an old age, "shinju" alludes to a lover’s suicide, and "senshi" accentuates that a given person died in a battlefield.

The number "4" in Japanese is pronounced "shi" and suggests "death". "24" is "ni-shi" and hints at, "double death". "42" is "shi-ni" and gives the feeling of dying. "420" is pronounced "shi-ni-rei" and is associated with "a dead spirit". "43" is "shi-zan" and evokes "stillbirth". The consequence is that, time and again, hospitals or maternity wards refrain from using one or several of these numbers for a room.

The British Medical Journal, pages 1443-1446 in the issue dated 22-29 December 2001, published a research paper that corroborated such a strong and bizarre cultural phenomenon also among Chinese patients. They associate the number 4 with death because in Mandarin, Cantonese, "death" and "four" are pronounced almost identically. The authors, D. P. Phillips, G.C.Liu, K.Kwok, J.R. Jarvinen, W. Zhang and I.S. Abramson, studied the computerized death certificates from January 1973 to December 1998 in California of all Chinese, Japanese, and white Americans. They found that "cardiac mortality in Chinese and Japanese peaked on the fourth of the month", and such a peak was not endorsed among white controls matched on several idiosyncratic variables. The concomitance of such a date is fairly good to be a mere coincidence and it suggests that Suzuki-roshi most likely also did associate December 4th as a significant death day.

Follow up and case studies show large variations among sick persons diagnosed with the same type of cancer and classified by similar symptoms and severity evidences. The progressive jaundice of Suzuki-roshi started by 1969. The gallbladder was removed by mid March 1971. It corresponded to the "localized stage" of this type of tumor development. The gallbladder cancer was diagnosed in October 8th 1971 and the physicians stated that the tumor was in the second stage of development. On request they advanced that it would take "at most two years". The dying process accelerated, however. One month and a half afterwards the cancer had already spread to surrounding tissues. This fact was very much conspicuous for those who attended the Mountain Seat Ceremony held November 21st. The intended successor was installed and, all things considered, Shunryu Suzuki had passed on SFZC and Tassajara. In all likelihood he thought up, proactively and mindfully, that December 4th was the obvious death day for a terminally ill roshi.

Exactly one year before, that is, December 4th, 1970 Suzuki-roshi was in Japan at Rinso-in, the home-temple, and Richard Baker was also there copying the characters for the ancestors of Suzuki’s lineage. The formal ceremonies enacting the Transmission rites started precisely that same day and by December 8th the recognition of Richard Baker as a Zen master was announced. The concomitance of dates is too close to be considered mere coincidence. At first glance, several meanings and nuances did overlap in December 4th 1971, when Suzuki-roshi passed on.

Traditionally, many Japanese men and women prepare for death when they realize that their time is near. Yoel Hoffmann compiled in 1986 a long collection of "Japanese Death Poems" written by Zen masters and haiku poets on the verge of death. Conventionally many Zen practitioners about to die produce copies of sutras whereas Zen master’s disciples collect lectures and writings focusing attention on the omnipresence of vanishing and emptiness. Hoffman states "there is a trend in the ‘inner enlightenment’ sects toward voluntary death (p. 66)" and introduces several stories about dying at will evidenced among some notorious Zen masters. It seems that Suzuki-roshi did not write or make public a death poem as such. He acknowledged that Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was a book written by his disciples that allowed him "to see what the understanding of my disciples is". Many disciples still appreciate this book as his best farewell poem to life.

The ability to monitor the dying process is trivial in Zen practice. There is not soul that "goes out". What really matters is the state of mind and natural simplicity of the dying person disclosing even indifference to the prospects of what may come next. Buddha is always around here and somebody in the community finds himself or herself so apt to die.

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