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About Suzuki Roshi
Cuts from Crooked Cucumber
A Visit to Massachusetts
- a story that was cut
[letter of 9\9\64 to Elsie Mitchell]
Elsie Mitchell had enlisted the help of a few members of her Cambridge Buddhist Association in order to prepare for Reverend Suzuki who was scheduled to fly in the following evening. They were cleaning up the library cum meditation hall, his bedroom, the kitchen, the living room.
On a table in the entryway, there was a recently received card from the soon-to-be honored guest giving his time of arrival, flight number, and revealing his inmost tinglings. "Since I bought the ticket, I have started to feel excited - I can hardly imagine how I’ll feel when I meet you at the Boston Airport, at the other end of this continent."
This would be their third meeting. Elsie had visited Sokoji in 1959 and again in 1963 both times when she was on her way back home after visiting Eiheiji and her teacher Fujimoto in Japan. There were not many Buddhist groups in the United States at that time that catered to Caucasians, and just a few small Zen groups (the oldest being the First Zen Institute of America in New York City). The Cambridge Buddhist Association wasn’t a temple and didn’t have a priest (Professor Hisamatsu lead the zazen), but it was a friendly Buddhist group with a zendo - and Elsie had the Soto ties in Japan. It was probably the only group outside of his own and Japantown that Suzuki ever joined in America. The main glue was that he and Elsie had made a personal connection. He appreciated the non-fanatical, mature way she committed herself to Buddhism and to helping to establish it in America - step by step - and without making a big deal of herself. She admired his low key, open-minded style, the fact that he had worked so hard on his English, and how well he had adapted to American life. He was less culture-bound than other Japanese priests she had known. She had 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." Her favorite story to tell about Suzuki was what happened next on the evening she and others were preparing for his arrival.
Everyone was wet with sweat or mop water in old work clothes, feeling rather dirty and unpresentable, when the doorbell rang. Elsie’s husband John stopped his dusting, stepped down from his ladder, opened the door, and who should be standing there with traveling bag and grin as a taxi behind him sped away, but the Reverend Shunryu Suzuki. They had been so sure he was coming the next evening and they were absolutely non-plussed by his arrival.
"Oh, we didn’t think you were coming till tomorrow!" said Elsie.
Oops. He’d obviously written the wrong date on the card, Suzuki told her and laughed unashamedly and most amused at the situation. "Well let me help you for the important day of my arrival," he said tying his koromo sleeves up behind his neck.
Everyone protested no no no no no you can’t work! and bid him to rest after his trip, but of course there was nothing he would rather have done than to join in with them in cleaning. And they cleaned and cleaned until it was late and past bedtime, Suzuki completely at home in his new surroundings and everyone charmed as could be.
The next morning after zazen and breakfast, Elsie told Suzuki to take it easy for a while, that she had to go out and do some shopping. When she got back with her groceries she found him outside on a tall ladder cleaning windows in his white long-underwear - in plane view of her most proper neighbors.
The Mitchell’s took him to their country place at Cape Cod and let him be alone whenever he wanted. He sat zazen in the morning on a large rock on the beach, chanted with the waves and walked back to the house as the sun came up. He called that his secret hobby and said his wife wouldn’t have let him do that because it was too cold and wet. He weeded around the house, adjusted a few stones in the rock garden, raked leaves, and trimmed their bushes. There were boulder-size stones in the garden and Suzuki worried his hosts the way he’d climb on the big stones and jump from one to another. He made a miniature garden of moss, berries and sand in a large shell so he could "take a bit of New England back to California with me." John put it sideways into a wide mouth jar to protect it.
They talked about Buddhism and Christianity and Japan and America, about Fujimoto Roshi and Fujimoto’s dharma brother and polar opposite, the spirited Yasutani Roshi who used koans and was conducting so many sesshin for lay people, including Westerners, in Japan.
Walking around outdoors Suzuki got down on the ground for a close look at what little bugs and rocks and plants were there and then he rolled over and peered up at the trees. He was almost giddy. Elsie had to keep pulling him back from wandering into poison ivy. He took some of it and planted it in his garden-in-a-jar. He kept remarking at the beautiful colors of the fall leaves on the deciduous trees. Not much of that near San Francisco - there were seasons here. So much reminded him of Japan - especially the pines. And parts of old Boston were like areas of Tokyo. He felt quite at home and said he’d be back as soon as he could.
That same month, Elsie received another card from Suzuki.
Elsie sent his coat back in a wooden box with a donation for the Zen Center which Suzuki set aside for his next trip to Boston.
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