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About Suzuki Roshi
Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber
On peace and war
From Crooked Cucumber, chapter
sixteen, The City - 1968-69, page 314-319.
There will always be war, but we must always work to oppose it.
One day in late summer of 1968, Suzuki-roshi and I sat eating hot dogs in front of the student union at the University of California at Berkeley. Before us a colorful street scene unfoldedóstudents of every race, jocks and hippies, professors, businessmen and women, and singing, dancing Hare Krishna devotees, with backpacks and briefcases, suits and sarongs, long hair abounding. Suzuki was comfortable amidst the ragged, revolutionary youth, and they responded well to him. In his brown robes with drooping sleeves he was immediately identifiable as an ally, not part of the establishment, and people passing him would smile, nod, or sometimes bow.
Earlier that day, I had driven Suzuki in predawn darkness to the
Berkeley zendo so he could join the morning schedule and give a talk. Mel Weitsman now lived there and was in charge. We sat around talking till midmorning when, at Suzuki's request, I had taken him to Telegraph Avenue to visit the bookstores and walk around.
People were handing out leaflets promoting Scientology and opposing the war in Vietnam. From the distance the echoes of an amplified voice approached, blasting out a message from loudspeakers mounted on a van's roof. They were calling for the overthrow of the "racist, imperialist, war-mongering United States government, by any means necessary."
"What do you think of that, Roshi?" I said. "Most people aren't even paying attention to it. Quite a country you've come to, huh?"
Suzuki kept chewing noncommittally.
I told Suzuki how almost every guy I knew had avoided the draft, some by pretending to be homosexual or crazy. Many of Suzuki's own students, including Richard and myself, had used their wiles to escape the draft.
"Roshi, I heard that you opposed the war when you were in Japan. Is that true?" I asked him.
"Yes, in a way, but there was not much I could do. We tried to look at the root cause."
"Did many priests do that?"
"No, not till after the war. Then they all did."
"What was it like then?"
"Japan was under the spell of some strange idea. There was a lot of confusion."
"How did you get away with it? How come you weren't arrested?"
"I didn't oppose the government. I just expressed ideasólike if there were peace, that the country and also the government would be stronger. And I encouraged others to think about careless assumptions."
"I heard you printed things."
"Yes, before the waróbut if you saw what I wrote, you wouldn't understand. Not so direct. It was different from your situation here." He sighed. "It would be very hard to explain. You would have to know so much background."
A number of Zen students had applied for status as conscientious objectors to military service. Some were doing alternative service in the fire department at Tassajara. As a result, two FBI agents showed up at Sokoji one day and interviewed Suzuki. He didn't speak about war and peace in the clear-cut terms that they were used to hearing from Quakers and other pacifist Christians, but he did say that Buddhism sought accommodation rather than conflict, was fundamentally pacifist, and that it was better for monks not to become soldiers.
Ironically, in Japan Buddhism had never been pacifist, and all Buddhists supported the government's wars. When they asked what he thought about the Vietnam War, he startled them by saying offhandedly, "Oh yes, I have a son in Vietnam. He's a barber and a mechanic in the U.S. Army. He enlisted. My wife's worried about him, but I think he needed to get out and do something." He showed them a letter he'd just received from Otohiro. The agents finally gave up trying to understand his position. Zen Center continued to provide support for and be host to conscientious objectors.
Suzuki was impossible to pin down on most issues and wouldn't support his students' positions if they were simplistic and one-sided, especially if they carelessly threw Buddhism into the mix. He encouraged people to take responsibility for their own actions and not use good deeds as an excuse to avoid facing themselves, or as a substitute for practice. Suzuki didn't like hearing the name of Buddhism hastily invoked for noble purposes any more than he liked Buddhist teachings to be twisted to serve greed, hate, and delusion, as had happened in Japan during his lifetime. If students were clear about their motives, he would be supportive.
"Roshi, can't I consider my practice to be helping people?" said a woman student after a lecture. "There are so many people who need help, and there is so much to be done. I don't have much time left over to sit zazen or go to Tassajara."
"It is very difficult to help people," Suzuki answered. "You may think you're helping them and end up hurting them."
He was interested in establishing a way of life that created peace, working on the root cause of war rather than railing against the symptoms. Talking about karma, he said:
You may foolishly try to ignore karma, but this will never work, and if you fight it too much, you will invite destruction that is worse than war. We are actually creating war through our everyday activities. You talk about peace in some angry mood, when actually you are creating war with that angry mood. Ughhh! That is war! We should know. We should open our dharma eyes, and together we should help each other forever.
In the early fifties Suzuki had told his young neighbor Yamamura that he longed to go to America to teach about peace and internationalism. But his American students were already politically conscious, some of them active, and he was clearly sympathetic with the peace movement.
In 1960 Suzuki had enthusiastically supported the decision of a student named Barton Stone to join a yearlong peace march from San Francisco to Moscow. In 1964, in response to a letter from Barton, Suzuki visited him twice in prison, where he was serving a year for trying to obstruct nuclear testing in the Pacific. Later, when Barton got out of jail and visited Suzuki at Sokoji, Okusan showed him a newspaper clipping from Japan with a photo of her husband marching with other Buddhist priests. There were banners and a large crowd. She said it was a march against nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Suzuki joined Richard Baker and some other Zen students for a
large demonstration in the fall of 1968, walking up Market Street in peaceful opposition to the war. His decision to go may have been influenced by an emotional exchange he had had with students a few hours earlier.
Suzuki was back in town from Tassajara. People in the city missed him, and attendance was high for his Saturday lecture at Sokoji. A young man named John Steiner, who had studied with Suzuki for two years, was among those who sat near the front on goza mats. John had been involved in some of the original protests against the war at UC Berkeley two years earlier and, like a number of people at the lecture, was planning to attend the protest march that day. Minds buzzed with thoughts of life and death, peace and horror, helplessness and hope.
After his talk, Suzuki asked if there were any questions.
A woman said, "What is war?"
Suzuki pointed to the goza mats. They are about three by six feet, big enough for two cushions. He said that sometimes there are ripples on the rows of straw, and people put their hands down to push the ripples out after they sit down. This works okay on the sides, but when there's a ripple between two people, it won't smooth out; it just moves toward the other person. Without noticing it, people sometimes push these ripples back and forth toward each other. "That is the cause of war. Karma starts with small things, then it accelerates. You should know how to deal with those small difficulties."
A fellow in the back spoke up with irritation in his voice. "How come we're meeting here when there's a war going on out there?"
Suzuki didn't understand him. John repeated the young man's question more slowly and clearly: "He said, 'Roshi, how come we're meeting here when there's a war going on out there?'" Suzuki smiled. John smiled.
Then, as fast as a cat leaping on its prey, Suzuki jumped off the altar platform and was behind John with the stick on his shoulder,
loudly saying, "Gassho!" He started hitting him over and over shouting, "You fools! You fools! You're wasting your time!" He continued to hit him until John fell forward on the floor. "Dreamer! Dreamer! What are you dreaming about?"
He got back on the platform and faced the totally stunned audience, most of whom had never heard him raise his voice. The normally tannish skin of his face was white, as he said unconvincingly in a barely audible voice, "I'm not angry." He caught his breath and continued. "How can you expect to do anything in the world when you can't even tie your own shoes?"
After the lecture everyone was fairly quiet. Bob Halpern came up to John and said, "Roshi told you to gassho. You didn't gassho when he hit you."
Being hit with the stick isn't a punishment; it's a particular form of communication, and part of the formality is to bow when one receives the stick. To gassho shows respect, expresses the unity of shoulder, stick, and hand, and puts the person in the best position to receive the stick. John had been so shocked he hadn't done his part in this exchange, even though Suzuki had yelled at him to gassho.
John went to Suzuki in his office to apologize for not gasshoing. Suzuki in return apologized to John very sweetly for being so fierce. John had not expected anything from Suzuki. He saw what had happened only in terms of his teacher trying to enlighten him.
"The reason I got so Ö" Suzuki said, his sentence trailing off, "is that I was reminded of what I went through in Japan during the war. It brought up that old frustration." John saw in his teacher's eyes a glint of pain. Then Suzuki put his hand on John's shoulder, an unusual gesture for him. The wide sleeves of Suzuki's robe exposed loose skin hanging down from his thin arm. John was struck with Suzuki's age and fragility and could feel his teacher's compassion and suffering.
Suzuki's explosive answer page for more on this story
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