Jean Ross - Surpassing the Clouds -Unedited version of article written for Wind Bell 97-2 p46 by DC.
Photo - Shunryu Suzuki with Jean Ross at Sokoji, mid 1960s.
Jean Ross in the Wind Bells
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Jean Ross in Crooked Cucumber
Suzuki to join his class on Buddhism at the Academy. It was located in a
fine old rambling mansion in the fashionable
the books of Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki. A Zen master was said to be someone who had had satori--a flash of insight that changed one's life forever. There didn't seem to be any satori that night, but there was a lot of smiling between Kato's students and Suzuki, who was comfortable being quiet and listening. In the latter part of the class Kato asked Suzuki if he'd like to say something.
"Let's do zazen," he replied.
little zazen that had been taught by Japanese priests in
etty, Della, and Jean Ross met each other in Kato's class, and for many years their spiritual paths would run parallel.
The three women decided to continue their Buddhist study with Suzuki at Sokoji. Jean would join them after a trip to Europe. All three felt an attraction to Suzuki as a teacher. Della said that as soon as she met him she wanted to be with him--regardless of what he was teaching. Betty agreed. "There was something about his bearing, a look in his eye that made me feel that whatever he said was something I could trust. He was a rare person."
In September Jean Ross returned from Europe. Her classmates from the Academy, Betty and Della, were already pillars of the zendo, and from then on Jean joined them three times a week, when she wasn't working as a nurse. She took the bus over from Berkeley for the Wednesday night sitting and lecture, spent the night, and stayed for Thursday morning zazen. She came back for the Saturday sitting, breakfast, and work period, and for the Sunday lecture that preceded Suzuki's lecture to the Japanese congregation.
Jean was from a middle-class Detroit family with strong ties to the Methodist Church. At fifteen she became curious about Asia and started reading all the books she could find on China and Japan. In college she pursued Christian studies and started to read about Buddhism. She fit right in with Suzuki temperamentally: she was independent and sharp-eyed, with no time for nonsense. She was heavy and had a hard time sitting on a cushion on the floor, but she could accept the difficult regimen when it came from Suzuki. Jean had a constancy and determination that impressed Suzuki. "The harder it is for you to sit, the deeper your realization," he always said.
"Suzuki-sensei always is encouraging us and thanking us," said Jean Ross. "When I stand across from him and bow, I am reminded he is totally on the level, without a speck of pretension."
A meeting was held, and Grahame Petchey was elected president, even though he'd been there for only two months. Jean Ross, the most outspoken of the old-timers and the obvious choice to succeed Hense, was planning to leave at some point for Japan to study Zen. She nominated Grahame. He proved to be as efficient and thorough as expected. Six weeks later he submitted incorporation papers to the California secretary of state.
Suzuki still had no particular plan, but he had high hopes for planting dharma seeds in America and for developing a mutually beneficial exchange with Japan. In March 1962 there had been a farewell party for Jean Ross, before she left for Japan. Jean was his second student to go to Eiheiji--the first being Nona Ransom. Jean had had her mind set on going to what she called "the source" for quite some time. He knew she would be challenging for Eiheiji, so set in its ways. The experience with McNeill and Hense had made Suzuki more cautious, but he had confidence that Jean would do better than they had. She wasn't naively idealistic. She had a pragmatic doggedness, and Suzuki was convinced that her conservative, sincere style would put her hosts more at ease. She was still coming to Sokoji only three days a week, but she had persevered through a number of weekend sesshins and passed the initiation of the weeklong sesshin in August 1961. That type of tenacity can't be faked.
In May,1962, Wind Bell printed Jean's first letter from Eiheiji. She was working and practicing with the monks. She had her own room and was getting up at 3:00 am to be out of the washroom before they came in at 3:30. She was not complaining about the hours of chanting every day and climbing ninety-five steps daily to Dogen's memorial hall. She was withstanding the culture shock and making friends despite the language barrier.
"These priests from the country are men, not saints. Their faces express a high degree of individualism tempered by much discipline," she wrote. And later, more poignantly: "As for me, I stood on the Eiheiji earth, and for the first time I felt planted in earth. I began to recognize buddha nature not only in man but in all forms of life. Such expansion eased the pressure of adjustment."
Jean Ross came to Rinso-in, bringing her priest's robes. *Takashina-roshi, the abbot of Eiheiji whom Suzuki had helped when he was abbot of Kasuisai, had ordained her, not as his own disciple but as Suzuki's. He performed the ceremony so she could sit in the zendo with the other monks. Jean said it seemed that they regarded it as a rite that turned her into a man.
As a woman she still hadn't been allowed to practice fully with the monks, but that probably would have been too trying for all concerned anyway. She had had to stick up for her rights--refusing, for instance, to shave her head. But she was a steady, clear-eyed woman who gained the respect of the monks.
Jean had warm relationships with her Japanese teachers. "In fact, I feel they know me better than my friends and even my family in the States, because there is such vital life at Eiheiji."
She'd been at Sojiji as well and had lived at the venerable *Fujimoto Rindo's temple, studying zazen with him. Fujimoto was the teacher of Suzuki's friend Elsie Mitchell, who founded the Cambridge Buddhist Society. Fujimoto and Mitchell had translated and published a small book of his, The Way of Zazen, which was the only book on Soto Zen available at the time in America other than *Masunaga's Soto Approach to Zen. Everyone at Zen Center had read it. Suzuki visited with Fujimoto on that trip as well; he was one of the few people Suzuki corresponded with.
While sitting zazen with Fujimoto, Jean had an experience in which she lost the distinction between herself and everything else. She was so overwhelmed she couldn't speak. After a couple of days Fujimoto had her write a report on what she was experiencing in her zazen. "Thank you for showing me your buddha nature," he said to her in farewell.
Jean and Suzuki talked about the monks she'd met who might be suitable to come to America. Her teacher at Eiheiji, *Sotan Tatsugami-roshi, was open to Westerners, and there was *Dainin Katagiri in the international division of Soto headquarters who'd been helpful to her. He spoke some English and was interested in going to the States. On July 3, 1963, Suzuki and Jean flew back to San Francisco, and on the sixth there was a party to celebrate their return.
Dainin Katagiri zoomed up the street to Sokoji on the back of a motor scooter, the tail and sleeves of his work robes flying in the air. He held on tightly and grinned in the wind. Suzuki finally had an assistant--the Eiheiji-trained priest that Jean Ross had found to be so eager to come to the U.S. Now there was a new shiny-headed, olive-skinned, black-and-brown-robed, friendly, industrious dharma-heir of Buddha serving the zazen students and the congregation.
Among his closest and most senior students, there were others whom Suzuki saw as having the commitment, potential, and inclination to develop into teachers. Of these the most prominent were Grahame and Phillip in Japan, Bill Kwong in Mill Valley, and Jean Ross. Then there were Mel Weitsman (whom Suzuki had asked to take over the Berkeley zendo), Claude, Silas, and Marian of the Los Altos zendo.
By now the six original priests ordained before Richard were gone or on the periphery of Zen Center. Very few people had heard of Bill McNeil or Bob Hense, whom Suzuki considered his first two ordained disciples. Jean Ross was living in Carmel; a small sitting group met in her apartment. (These first three were ordained as Suzuki's disciples in Japan by other priests.)
Yvonne came to Tassajara to drive Suzuki to a doctor's appointment in San Francisco. Okusan came along. As Yvonne was now president of Zen Center, she mentioned Jean Ross's recent resignation from the board. Zen Center had gotten too big and institutional for Jean, who felt she didn't get enough support for her little Carmel zendo. But the main reason she had quit the board was because Richard, who was living in Japan, still seemed to be running things at Zen Center in absentia. Jean had always admired Richard's energy and intelligence; indeed, it was she who had nominated him for president back in 1965, but everything had gotten to be too much for her. Suzuki nodded, not saying much.