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Bill Kwong in Crooked Cucumber

and a bit of Laura Kwong


Bill Kwong was a mailman who lived in San Francisco with his wife, Laura. They were both second-generation Chinese-Americans who were part of the Beat scene. They had one child, and Laura was pregnant with another. Bill and Laura had gone to Sokoji in Tobase's time to hear a lecture that was translated by a distinguished-looking gentleman. They didn't get much out of it and figured you had to hear it in the original.

     One day while delivering mail, Kwong saw a front-page story on Sokoji in the Nichibei Times, a newspaper for Japanese-Americans printed in both Japanese and English. It was about the new priest there, Reverend Suzuki, who had some zazen students and a pet bird. One student, a young artist named Bill McNeil, had confronted Suzuki in his office one day, asking why, if he believed in absolute freedom, he kept a bird in a cage. Suzuki had walked right over to the cage, opened the little door, and let the bird fly out. It was a tradition in China and Japan to let birds go at temples as a symbol of liberation. Ironically, birds were sold in front of temples for that purpose. But this was a spontaneous act. Kwong thought he should check this guy out—he must be a great Zen master.

     When Bill Kwong walked up to the second floor of Sokoji, went into the zendo, and saw the black zafus all lined up straight and neat like soldiers in a row, nothing there spoke to him and his values. The altar was stacked with oranges in front of the Buddha statue. The room smelled of incense and was filled with paraphernalia—bells, drum, gong, flowers, high red-lacquered seat, black-lacquered memorial plaques with the names of the deceased in gold Chinese characters. It was too much like an old Chinese temple, full of superstition, empty ceremonies, prayers for money and ancestors. "This really is for the birds," thought Kwong, as he chuckled with derision. This didn't look like freedom to him. Freedom was his goatee, his black shirt, dirty jeans, and black boots—freedom from bourgeois grooming and grey flannel suits.

     The door to the office opened. A little man in robes came into the room, ignoring Kwong, and started fixing the flowers on the altar. Kwong snickered. "How square," he thought.

     Walking up Pine Street toward Van Ness Avenue, Kwong passed a store called the Bazaar which was offering a free poster, a photo of the Kamakura Buddha seated in meditation. He took it home, tacked it to the wall, and told Laura his disappointing experience at Sokoji. He liked Alan Watts's inspiring talks on the radio, but all this guy Suzuki seemed to have was a hall for ceremonies and meditation. Kwong was not into that old stuff. He was into liberation and seeing that this was it, as Watts said. That wasn't it. Kwong was listening to the hippest people, and nobody was talking about meditation. But he kept looking at that buddha on the wall. Then he met Bill McNeil at the Art Institute and was taken with McNeil's confident energy. McNeil talked about sitting zazen with Suzuki as if it were pretty cool. Kwong went home and the buddha on the wall was still looking at him, so he decided to go back to Sokoji and try zazen.

     He arrived in the early morning darkness and followed McNeil into the shrine room. Kwong sat down like the others, watching for cues. Nobody told him what to do. After the service McNeil asked him to have some tea in the kitchen, where he introduced him to Suzuki. Suzuki stared at Kwong's face for what seemed like a long time before saying hello. What a curious person, Kwong thought. Suzuki made tea as the temple cat walked back and forth against his ankles. Della asked Kwong how he had heard about Sensei. He mentioned the newspaper article and asked if the bird was still in the building or had flown off. Everyone looked down. Had he said something wrong?

     "The cat," Suzuki said softly.

     "The cat?" Kwong asked, looking at the cat curled up now on Della's lap.

     McNeil leaned over to Kwong and said, "The cat ate the bird."

     "Sensei felt so bad about it," said Della with sympathy in her voice.

Suzuki said nothing. They drank their tea.

Kwong started going to Sokoji regularly. He and Laura were used to doing everything together. The first time she came to Sokoji she was dizzy with pain after not moving the entire zazen period. Her husband had told her this was the rule. Then she stood up too quickly and fainted to the floor. At breakfast she broke a raw egg over her dress, because she thought it was hard boiled, not being familiar with the Japanese custom of mixing a raw egg with hot rice for breakfast.

     Laura was trying to be a good Zen student and a good mother. On most days she was busy taking care of their boys, a toddler and a baby, but she'd bring them along on Sundays. Sometimes she'd find friends to help, so she could go to zazen and Wednesday evening lectures. One day in a lecture she heard Suzuki say, "Your practice can be at home." Laura talked to Suzuki about it later and told him she was feeling guilty about not taking care of her children well enough. "You don't have to come here just because your husband does," he said. From that point on Laura stopped feeling like her husband's shadow and devoted herself to finding Buddha at home.

     Bill Kwong's life reversed direction. For one thing, his apartment lost a heavy layer of dust, mainly as a result of Suzuki's visiting for dinner one evening. Suzuki hadn't been inside long before his robes started to acquire dust and cat hair. So instead of sitting and talking, he started cleaning up. Bill and Laura joined him. Dinner had to wait.

     One day Suzuki talked to the students about the importance of coming to the zendo clean and neatly dressed. Kwong started to wear freshly laundered clothes and shaved his goatee. But he didn't feel criticized by his new teacher. On the contrary, he felt Suzuki was the first person ever who accepted him unconditionally. He was willing to sit zazen day after day without moving his aching legs, at an hour when he used to be just going to bed. He was willing to change his life, because he felt that Suzuki had total confidence in him—more than he had in himself. Rather than being required to have faith in Suzuki, he found Suzuki demonstrating faith in him. This encouraged Kwong to follow Suzuki down a path, even though he couldn't see where it was leading.


     At this first sesshin Bill was the cook (as he would continue to be for years on Saturday mornings and during sesshins). Betty helped him prepare breakfast and was surprised to find that all he planned to serve was leftover rice crusts from the previous day with hot water. The sesshin participants came into the kitchen and sat in chairs at the long wooden table. As Betty poured hot water over her rice crusts, she was overcome with a feeling of gratitude, and tears flowed down her cheeks. She realized she could trust the universe to fill her every need.


Late in 1960 Bill McNeil and Bob Hense flew to Japan. Bill Kwong had become quite close to McNeil and was sorry to see his friend go. It made him sad to think of the Sopkoji zendo without him. He stood by as Suzuki saw his first students off. It should have been a joyous occasion, but something didn't feel right to Kwong. Suzuki seemed awfully serious. McNeil, always so positive, did not look happy. His wife and children, who were staying behind, were sad to see him go. Hense was especially nervous. Kwong didn't know why, but they seemed like condemned men on their way to the gallows. Maybe they were realizing what they'd gotten themselves into.

p206 - 1961

There were a dozen or so regulars at Sokoji, and they sat in order of seniority. Hense was now in the front seat on the men's side, with Bill Kwong and Philip Wilson. Della, Betty, and Jean were still the three loyal ladies in the first seats on their side.


Every once in a while Shunryu Suzuki would do something extreme to dislodge his students from ruts they were in, to knock them off their self-satisfied perches, out of their dreamy lives, and back into the arena of insecurity, where they could rededicate themselves to what he called "beginner's practice." One morning, in the midst of the collective and individual harmony that had accrued from their efforts in zazen and practice, when the confidence level was at its zenith, Suzuki made his morning greeting, walking in gassho around the room behind his students seated on their zafus. He bowed at the altar and assumed his position on the platform facing the room, just as he did every day. In the middle of the period he got up, straightened a few postures, and hit sleepy Bill Kwong on the shoulders, twice each—just as he did every day. He went back to his seat and resumed sitting. Then all of a sudden, from Suzuki's small frame roared out the guttural sound of an angry lion.

p231 - 1963

     Suzuki was pleased as well to have students who were supporters of world peace, but he wished they got along better with the Japanese congregation and in some cases with each other. Two of his most earnest students, Bill Kwong and Richard Baker, had had a falling out while he'd been in Japan. Bill couldn't deal with the conflict and stopped coming. He'd moved to Mill Valley and sat there in the mornings; once Suzuki was back, Bill started coming on Saturdays and for sesshins.

p266 - 1966

People went into action, overnight creating a fund-raising drive for $150,000, spearheaded by Richard. The entire Zen Center budget for the previous year in the city had been just eight thousand dollars. Richard quit his job putting on conferences at UC Berkeley. Suzuki was astounded at his commitment to getting this land and his obvious skill at going about it, but he wondered if it could really be done. Zen Center had never before asked for anything from people beyond its membership. Everyone got enthused and did what they could to help. The Kwongs held a fund-raising party; a benefit art sale was planned.

p267 - 1966

     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 Philip 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.


     One day after zazen at Bill Kwong's Mill Valley zendo, Betty Warren visited Trudy. She arrived wishing there was something she could do. Trudy burned away Betty's pity with one phrase, referring to her illness as "this blessed cancer."


     From Richard's ordination in 1967 to the fall of 1970, Suzuki had ordained nine students as priests. Mel Weitsman, the head of the Berkeley Zen Center, was ordained in 1969. Bill Kwong and Silas Hoadley received their robes early in 1970. Silas had given up his importing business and was involved full-time with Zen Center. Peter Schneider and Dan Welch took their vows together in 1970; Paul Discoe the builder and Reb Anderson came later that year. Reb was the newest of the bunch, exceedingly concentrated and devoted to Suzuki. Suzuki had also ordained a young couple early in 1970, before they went to Japan to study in monasteries—Ron and Joyce Browning. And on New Year's Day of 1971 he was going to ordain a longtime IBM employee named Les Kaye at the Los Altos zendo.


     Suzuki expressed great regret over his cancer. "Before my disciples are ready to come out of the oven, I will be going into it." Louise was surprised at his sadness, because she still had the idea that a Zen teacher wouldn't have that kind of feeling.

Suzuki told Bill Kwong the opposite, saying: "I've put my cookies in the oven, they've come out fine, and now I'm going to crawl in." He'd say different things at different times, but clearly he was thinking about his disciples and what to do for them before he died.


Richard Baker was coming back. There was going to be a ceremony to make him the new abbot. Page Street and Tassajara were abuzz with talk about it. How could this be? He'd received transmission, but still, how could he take on Suzuki's role? What about Katagiri? What about the other priests? What about Bill Kwong, who'd been with Suzuki almost from the first and who had a zendo in Mill Valley? What about Silas, who was giving lectures, Jean in Carmel Valley, Mel in Berkeley, and other disciples?

Suzuki told Claude that he wanted to give transmission to a number of his disciples before he died. Especially, he emphasized, he must complete Bill Kwong's transmission ceremony. But there were others. He was thinking of giving transmission to six to twelve disciples. He wanted to ask Noiri-roshi to come over from Japan to work with these students for several months in preparation for the ceremony. Claude asked what would be the difference between Richard's transmission and these, and Suzuki said, "They will be the same as Richard's—no difference."

p398 - just before Suzuki died

     Yasuko, Hoitsu, and godfather Amano arrived at Tassajara in time to attend Bill Kwong's head monk ceremony, at which Katagiri officiated. One after another the American students put their hands in gassho and asked the head monk questions about dharma and life. Hoitsu couldn't believe what he was seeing and got teary—they were doing the ceremony sincerely, spontaneously, and in good form.


In his last meeting with Hoitsu before his son returned to Japan, Suzuki implored, "Take care of Bill Kwong for me. Make sure Bill gets transmission—you can do it for me."


Crooked Cucumber Excerpts


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