|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
Taizan Maezumi Roshi in Crooked Cucumber
[based on the Interview of 4/7/95 with Maezumi and on the memory of conversations with him and others and experiences with him before and after that interview]
From chapter 10
Daiju Hosen Isobe had come to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 1933. On Buddha's Enlightenment Day, December 8, 1934, he founded Sokoji. The name he gave the abandoned synagogue had a simple meaning: Soko stood for San Francisco and the ji meant temple. Daito Suzuki, whom Shunryu Suzuki had seen off as a young man in Japan, moved from Zenshuji in L.A. to become the third head priest of Sokoji, again on December 8, Buddha's Enlightenment Day, 1941—the day after Pearl Harbor. He was abbot-in-absentia through the years of the Japanese internment and continued after the war, until 1948. Through great effort he and others had managed to keep the temple in the hands of the congregation. A Hindu temple had helped them by taking over the deed during the war, although a Christian group used it as a church. In 1948 Daito returned to L.A., where he became the abbot of Zenshuji and Soto Zen bishop of North America until he died on July 9, 1959. At that time Suzuki was asked by his friend Gido at Soto headquarters in Japan to become the bishop and to move the North American Soto headquarters to San Francisco. He refused.
Suzuki flew to L.A. to conduct Daito's funeral. A young Soto Zen priest named Taizan Maezumi joined him. Maezumi had been an assistant priest at Zenshuji, the Soto temple in L.A., since the early fifties. He had recently been studying at San Francisco State. In L.A.
Maezumi had sat zazen with Nyogen Senzaki, the pioneering Rinzai Zen priest who had taught Zen to Westerners for decades, and Maezumi said he too hoped to start a zazen group in America.
This was the first funeral Suzuki had performed in America. Daito would become American soil. In 1929, when Suzuki and a group of fellow college student-monks had seen Daito off at the docks in Yokohama, Suzuki had cheered him, wet-eyed, as the boat pulled away. How he had wished back then that he could be the one starting a new life in America. Now, thirty years later, he was.
from Chapter 14
Bob said that he had sat for a year with the Rinzai teacher Joshu Sasaki-roshi in L.A. He had just completed a sesshin in Mill Valley with Yasutani-roshi, at which Maezumi-sensei translated. Yasutani was the Soto priest who used koans in the Rinzai fashion and who emphasized pushing oneself hard in sesshin to have an awakening experience, whether concentrating on a koan or just sitting zazen. Yasutani was giving sesshins on the West Coast and had attracted a following, partly due to the success of Philip Kapleau's new book, The Three Pillars of Zen, which told a great deal about zazen, koan work, and Yasutani's brand of Zen. People at the sesshin had mentioned Suzuki, so Bob dropped by Sokoji.
Later, in L.A. for a meeting of Japanese Soto priests in America, Suzuki accepted a dinner invitation from Maezumi. Bob was there. He had sold his business, the Satori Bookshop on Sunset Strip, and was living with Maezumi and helping him establish a new center in his living room. Bob sat bolt upright and kept quiet, trying to make a good impression. Maezumi served a dish with rice, meat, and vegetables, and Bob was careful not to take any meat. He was a fanatic vegetarian and thought of it as an important part of Buddhism, both in terms of not killing animals and for encouraging a peaceful state of mind. Suzuki was running into this sort of thinking more and more.
"Oh, you don't eat meat?" said Suzuki to him.
"Sometimes I eat meat," said Bob.
"Sometimes I eat rice," said Suzuki.
This seemingly inconsequential exchange ate away at Bob. Suzuki had immediately seen his point of greatest attachment and poked him there. It would not be the last time.
from Chapter 15
The opening ceremony for Tassajara as Zenshinji, Zen Mountain Center, was held on a sizzling July 3, 1967. Over 150 people attended the opening ceremony, including members of the Sokoji congregation, old students and friends of Suzuki's, and a smiling old priest called Bishop Sumi, who in 1965 had replaced Yamada at Zenshuji in L.A. Wako Kato also came up from L.A., as did Maezumi. Kato was amazed at the beauty of the place and the large number of students. A few already had simple grey robes, and some of the men had shaved their heads, following the example of their teacher.
In the little world of American Zen there was a big event that summer of 1968. An entourage of senior Zen teachers came to Tassajara. This gathering of priests with strikingly different styles benefited from the fresh smell of the wilderness and the magic of Tassajara. Students were excited to learn suddenly that Soen Nakagawa-roshi and Yasutani-roshi were among eight teachers coming to visit. Nakagawa was the priest who, while visiting Suzuki at Sokoji in 1959, had dramatically torn up the non-Zen sutra book. They brought some of the ashes of Nyogen Senzaki, who had died in L.A. in 1958, to be scattered at Tassajara.
All eight teachers used koans with their students and were critical of Suzuki's less aggressive style of Soto Zen, calling it sleepy and unproductive. But it was an ecumenical three days, a time to recognize Nyogen Senzaki as a primary ancestor of American Buddhism, and an initiation for Suzuki's baby monastery. Nakagawa's disciple, Eido Shimano of the New York Zen Studies Society, generously called Tassajara the hara, the center of gravity, of Zen Buddhism in America.
A number of students at Tassajara were former or even present students of one or more of the visiting teachers. Yasutani had been coming from Japan and conducting sesshins in America for six years. He was a dynamo who used the stick freely and often yelled exhortations such as, "What are you wasting your time for? Die! Die! Don't leave this zendo without having died!"
Suzuki led his guests from the baths to the steam room and then into a warm pool behind the little rock dam in the creek. They met in the fireplace room, talked and did calligraphy, exchanging their creations.
There were talks in the zendo. The wall-to-wall raised platform at the end of the zendo was crowded with the visiting priests, along with Suzuki, Kobun, and Richard. Yasutani, old, hollow-eyed and bent, spoke with vigor, scolding Soto Zen for abandoning koan practice and saying that the Japanese temple system was a weight hanging around Zen's neck. Only a return to the ancient Chinese basics would save Zen, he declared. That was one thing they all agreed on.
Nakagawa gave a dynamic lecture, strutting back and forth across the altar platform. The talks went on and on, but no one minded—it was such a treat. There were questions and answers. I asked what was the best way to establish Buddhism in America, and everyone had an answer: Yasutani, Nakagawa (both translated by Maezumi), Shimano, and then it was Suzuki's turn. "I have nothing to say," he said, getting up and going out the side door. Everyone roared in delight, and it was over.
In a talk that night Suzuki said Yasutani and Nakagawa had come to Tassajara and painted in the pupils of the eyes of the dragon that he had been drawing for years. "There's a lot for me to learn from them. Before, when I heard the word Rinzai, I always felt a little uncomfortable. It was because I felt a separateness. Now when I hear it I feel complete." (Yasutani was Soto but he used koans, like the Rinzai.)
In a ceremony with all students present, Suzuki received a portion of Senzaki's ashes from Nakagawa and placed them on the Tassajara altar. The only rain of the summer fell that morning, and a double rainbow met people as they walked out of the zendo into the early morning light. Two weeks later Suzuki, Kobun, and some students went up to the ridge and cast Senzaki's ashes to the wind.
On the last morning of the teachers' visit, everyone sat zazen. Bob was carrying the stick and sporting a down-turned samurai scowl to let his old teachers, Maezumi and Yasutani, know that he hadn't gotten soft, and that Soto Zen wasn't sleepy. He stopped before a dozing student, placed the wide stick on her shoulder, and gave her a whack on each side. They bowed together and he went on. Walking slowly down the maroon linoleum aisle, he lifted his gaze to see in the kerosene lamplight the historic cast of dharma transmitters on the platform: Suzuki, Yasutani, Nakagawa, Shimano, Maezumi, Aitken (from Hawaii), Richard, Kobun. Every one of them was nodding, sound asleep.
[Actually that was me carrying the stick. I remember not wanting myself to be too much in the book so I said it was Bob Halpern. - DC]
from Chapter 17
Some students didn't think they were going to get enlightened with Suzuki, or felt they couldn't have enough contact with him, and went on to study with other teachers: Yasutani, Nakagawa, the Rinzai master Sasaki in L.A., Maezumi in L.A., Kapleau in Rochester, Aitken in Hawaii. All those teachers used koans as well as zazen, saw students frequently for private interviews, and were clearly encouraging people to have kensho, or enlightenment experiences. Often people wouldn't get to see Suzuki for dokusan more than once in a year. At Yasutani's sesshins there would be public recognition of students who attained kensho. Zen Center seemed to be short on enlightenment, indeed, a little sleepy compared to the other teachers with their vigorous styles.
from Chapter 19
Ryuho [Yamada who was tending to Suzuki as he was dying] was intrigued by the people who came to see Suzuki: disciples, students, friends, scholars, artists, teachers, priests, members of the Japanese congregation at Sokoji, other Buddhist teachers. There was Maezumi, the teacher of the L.A. Zen Center, who'd known Suzuki since 1959, and Bishop Sumi from Zenshuji in L.A. Eido Shimano, Nakagawa's disciple and the teacher at the Zen Studies Society in New York, dropped by to pay his respects one day.
from the Epilogue
Suzuki-roshi had wanted to start a Buddhist farm, and the year after he died the San Francisco Zen Center acquired one, just north of San Francisco. One day in April of 1995, I sat in the guesthouse of Green Gulch Farm in Marin County with Taizan Maezumi-roshi, founder of the Los Angeles Zen Center. Maezumi didn't tell me any anecdotes or stories about Suzuki, and he resisted historical analysis. What he did say, though, stuck with me. "Nobody can tell you about the past," Maezumi said. "What's important is not what happened or didn't happen back then. What's important is what we have here now—this wonderful farm with the big barn zendo and the conference center where we're all meeting, so many people coming here for lecture and zazen. There's Page Street in the city and Tassajara. So many people sitting zazen all over America, even Europe. When he came, there was none of this. Many priests came before him. Even before this century, all kinds of priests in the Zen tradition came to America. We don't really know why, but until he came, no one started anything that lasted. After him, so much happened. That's what I most appreciate."
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