Notes (by DC) on Crooked Cucumber - Ch.1
Our mind should be free from traces of the past, just like the flowers of spring.
High winds blew across the green hillside, driving rain into the storm doors of *Shoganji, an obscure Japanese country temple, when on May 18, 1904, *Yone Suzuki gave birth to a baby boy. Her husband, *Sogaku, the priest of the temple, gave his first-born son the name Shunryu, using the written characters for Excellent and Emerging, a rather formal Buddhist name full of high expectations. [Notes 1 & 2]
It was the year of the dragon, the thirty-seventh year of the reign of *Emperor Meiji. Fierce battles were being fought on the plains of Manchuria between Imperial Japan and Czarist Russia, and Sogaku was preparing the main hall of Shoganji for yet another young soldier's funeral, as Shunryu had his first taste of life in a small *tatami room.
Cherry trees interspersed with shrub bamboo lined the steep road up to Shoganji, a small four-hundred-year-old temple on a hill above the village of *Tsuchisawa, on the edge of the city of *Hiratsuka in *Kanagawa Prefecture. From the temple *ohaka--a peaceful sanctuary where the ashes of local families and prior abbots were interred below weather-worn stone markers--there was a commanding view of *Sagami Bay, which opens into the Pacific with Tokyo Bay to the northeast. *Kamakura, the ancient political and Buddhist center, lay at the edge of the green and blue vista. Shoganji's handsome grass thatch roof could be seen from afar, surrounded by forested mountainsides, just beyond the smoke of *Yokohama's burgeoning industries.
As a child, Shunryu Suzuki was called *Toshitaka--Toshi for short. Toshitaka is the old Japanese way of pronouncing the characters that make up Shunryu, with a softer and more casual feeling. Toshi grew up playing around the temple with his older half brother from his mother's first marriage, *Yoshinami Shima. When he was three his sister *Tori was born, and at six he acquired another sister, *Aiko. Toshi was small yet strong, eager to learn, impatient to do things before he was old enough, sensitive, and kind but prone to quick bursts of anger. And he couldn't keep track of anything. Schoolwork and books, caps and coins--whatever it was, he'd leave it at home or at school, wherever he wasn't.
Toshi began his six years of compulsory education in April 1910, when he was almost six. It was at school that he became aware that his family was uncommonly poor. Most people wore *zori, straw sandals with a dividing cord between the first two toes. When the cord broke on one, children would throw away both. Toshi would take the good ones home and make new pairs. Unwilling to spend money on a set of hair clippers, his father would shave Toshi's head like his own. All the boys at school had short-clipped hair, but not shaved heads.
Lean and proper, approaching fifty, *Butsumon Sogaku Suzuki was old to be having his first son. Priests of the Soto school of Zen had only begun taking wives a few decades earlier, encouraged strongly by a government bent on diminishing the power of the *Buddhist clergy. The practice was easing in, though it was not yet permitted by the Soto school. At first families had to live outside the temples apart from the priests, but by 1904 it was beginning to be acceptable for families to live in. There were no family quarters at Shoganji; they slept in the buddha hall, the room used for daily services, and shared their home every day with neighbors and temple members.
Shoganji didn't have a large or a wealthy *danka, the community of supporting members, nor did it have extensive temple lands that would bring in a sizable rice tax. Sogaku and Yone had to augment the temple income with outside work and practice meticulous thrift.
Yone was short and plain, with the tough look of a hard worker, and a softness that had withstood the rigors of a difficult life. She taught teenage girls at a vocational high school how to make clothing. She knew a good deal about sewing and would study till late at night from books to make herself a better teacher. As her reputation grew, she began sewing classes at the temple, eventually acquiring many students. Yone was the stricter of the parents. Her children were taught to be proper and respectful and to do well at school so as to make a good impression on temple guests and not to bring shame to the family.
People came to Shoganji for seasonal Buddhist holidays, for funerals, advice, or neighborly greetings. If Sogaku had guests, Yone would serve them tea and rice cakes. If he was out, she'd sit with them herself. This was in addition to tending to the children, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and other labor-intensive, pre-electric tasks.
Sogaku made candles for the temple from an iron mold. He would pour extras, and when he had a good load he would walk five miles to *Oiso City to sell them. On the way back he would pick up discarded vegetables from the roadside, storing them in a bag he carried. It wasn't just because he was poor that Sogaku did this. It was his way. His son would talk about it half a century later.
Sogaku also raised pigs to supplement the family income, a rather shocking thing for a priest to do, but Japanese Buddhism in general and Soto Zen in particular have not been known for strict vegetarianism. In a 1971 talk, Shunryu Suzuki remembered the pigs.
Born in *Kakegawa near *Hamamatsu in *Shizuoka prefecture, Sogaku was from a poor farming family that for generations had also made bamboo stretchers for dyeing cloth. Despite being the eldest son, he left home as a young teenager to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and to become the disciple of a Soto Zen priest named *Gyakushitsu Sojun. Sogaku left the responsibility of providing for the family to his younger brother. Not that he was leaving home for an easier or more prestigious life. He must have been dedicated and determined, because by the time he was ordained, the Meiji Era (18681912) had begun, the old order was out, and Buddhism was no longer in favor with the planners of Japan's future.
Yone Shima, daughter of a priest from Hamamatsu, had been divorced by her first husband for being too independent. She married Sogaku Suzuki just after the turn of the century. When they met, Sogaku was living not far to the north in the town of *Mori, in a fine old temple named *Zoun-in, where he had been abbot since April 1891.
Not long after the wedding he got into a squabble with some of the temple elders over a matter concerning temple lands. A layman who helped conduct the affairs of the temple had sold off a tract of land without consulting with Sogaku or the temple elders. There was disharmony. Sogaku was embarrassed. Feeling compelled to take responsibility for the discord, he resigned and moved with his wife back to a lesser temple where he'd been before. That temple was Shoganji, and that is where he and his family would live in a sort of exile for twenty-six years.
Before Toshi was born, Sogaku had planted plum trees on the temple grounds. The boys, Yoshinami and Toshi, would help care for the vegetable gardens, prune the ornamental trees, and tend to the plants around the temple. They would sweep the leaves from the walks around the temple and clear the pathways of the mortuary ohaka, full of memorial stones standing behind offerings of flowers, burnt-down incense sticks, and cups of evaporating sake.
Toshi especially liked to help his father move stones into place around the temple and in the rock garden. He was friend to stones, rivulets, plants, beetles, worms, and butterflies. He'd sit beyond the oak trees on the low stone fence around the ohaka at dusk waiting for foxes, *tanuki (Japanese raccoons), deer, and rodents. Massaging his mother's back in the evening, he told her and his siblings of his plans to build a zoo next to the temple; he wanted a train from the town below to run up to it, so that many people could come to visit the animals.
In spring when the rice fields were flooded and the frogs' ubiquitous croaking filled the air, children would dally and play on their way home from school. Some of the boys liked to catch frogs, insert straws into their anuses, and blow them up till they popped. When he first saw this Toshi flew into a rage, but that didn't help--the other boys were all bigger than he. So he devised a scheme. As soon as school was out Toshi would be off and running ahead with a long stick, knocking at the banks of the rice paddies, yelling and trying to scare his amphibious friends into hiding.
*"Tadaima kaerimashita!" I'm back now! Sogaku would put his bag down, tip his body forward politely, and call this out when he returned home in the evening. *"O kaeri nasai!" Welcome home! everyone within earshot would call back. His wife and children would come to the entryway. Sometimes he brought sweets, which Toshi was particularly fond of, and occasionally there was a special surprise, like ribbons for the girls.
Every little treat the children got, every piece of clothing they had to wear, they cherished. They appreciated it when, after a heavy winter snow, their father went down to school to walk them home. They loved it on a hot summer afternoon when he filled the outdoor iron bathtub with cold water for them to play in. And sometimes he would have a special gift for Toshi.
The skirtlike garment of the samurai is called a *hakama. Boys wore hakama for special ceremonies at school. Toshi's mother hadn't found time to make him one, so he felt left out on ceremonial days. In December of 1912 there was to be a very important ceremony which marked the most significant historical event of Toshi's life up to that point. Emperor Meiji had died, and there would be a ceremony at Toshi's school to welcome in the new emperor and his era, *Taisho, Great Righteousness.
The day before the ceremony Sogaku came home with a new hakama for his son. Excited, Toshi put it on, just as he'd seen his friends do. Sogaku insisted he'd done it incorrectly and retied the *sash in a formal and old-fashioned way. None of the boys did it that way. Next morning, as soon as he passed through the temple gate, Toshi stopped and rearranged his hakama. Then he heard something behind him. Turning, he saw his father furiously running toward him waving a stick. Toshi ran away as fast as he could.
Toshi grew up in an atmosphere rich in ceremony, custom, and lore that defined the rules of life. Buddhist temples, *Shinto shrines, schools, and families preserved and passed on stabilizing rituals that punctuated the year. Shoganji was alive with activity during the week of the *Obon ceremony in late summer, when the spirits of the departed are said to return to earth. New Year was a special delight to Shunryu; he spoke of it with great fondness in his later years.
On New Year's Eve temple members and neighbors would come to strike the *large bell. Sogaku would greet them, reciting with a robust voice a poem he had written for the occasion in classical Chinese style. And they'd make glutinous rice *mochi. Children and parents took their turns with mallets, pounding the mochi in a hollowed tree stump till late at night. The next day the children put mochi rice balls on tree branches, and at the main altar Sogaku and Yone offered mochi balls stacked in pyramids on red and black lacquer trays. Inside, the oil lamps and a wood fire in the kitchen made the air taste smoky.
The children helped in the rite of renewal by collecting old decorations, small shrines, offerings, paper lanterns, and unneeded temple records. With their parents they took these old things to the neighborhood Shinto shrine on January first; there everything was piled high and mixed with what others had brought from their homes. Then on the night of the fourteenth they went to the shrine for a bonfire--burning last year's memories away and baking rice balls near the flames.
At bedtime, Yone enriched the celebrations by telling the children folktales and Buddhist legends from Japan, China, and India.
As the time of the New Year's bonfire approached she'd have their wide-eyed attention as she told of the deity who came to check up on everyone. He looked over the records of the past year, intending to turn his wrath on those who had broken the rules. But he could find no proof of any wrongdoing--the old had been burned away, and the people couldn't be punished for what they'd done.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Yone would say to the wrathful deity. "We burned it all so you can't check up on us. We'll try to be good this year. We'll be very careful! Come back next year!"
Snuggled up in the evening with his brother and sisters, Toshi often asked his mother to repeat a story about a famous mythical Japanese warrior, a story he would pass on to his students, his dharma children, sixty years later.
My life at school was not so happy, so I preferred staying in the classroom rather than playing in the schoolyard.
Sogaku knew that Toshi was having a hard time at school. The other boys slapped him on top of his bald head whenever his father shaved it, and they made jokes about his being the son of a priest. So Sogaku sat him down and told him about the *Haibutsu Kishaku--the persecution of Buddhism during the *Meiji Restoration. Haibutsu Kishaku means "throwing out Buddha, breaking Shakyamuni" (Buddha's given name).
In 1858, about the time Sogaku was born, Japanese crowds were overwhelmed by the sight of Commodore Perry's "black ships" in Tokyo Bay. Within a few years the ruling elite had made radical changes in policy. They decided to make Japan into a modern industrial nation-state along the lines of a European constitutional monarchy. A new all-Japanese state religion was needed. Shinto, their omnipresent, mythical, ancient animism, was the only candidate. Thus a nouveau Shintoism was created, with the emperor at the human apex of creation, regarded far more seriously as a living god than ever before. Buddhist influence was largely squeezed out. In addition to being the titular heads of Shinto, the emperors had been Buddhist for thirteen hundred years. Now the emperor was elevated to a position that was far higher and exclusively Shinto. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines had had a close relationship for most of that period, but suddenly Buddhism was represented as foreign and contemptible, and there was a period of heavy persecution. It was an attack on the heart of Japanese culture.
Buddhist priests, however, weren't totally innocent victims. Buddhist temples had been an integral part of the shogunate government apparatus, involved with the education of the *samurai and nobles. The priests had been the census takers. If anyone wanted to know about a family's background, to learn, for instance, if they were *eta (untouchables), their records could be checked at the Buddhist temple. So Buddhism was associated with the old order. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration declared that the old class system--in fact, a castelike system--would be eliminated, to be replaced by social equality. The result was not equality but a shift in power, and Buddhist priests and temples bore the brunt of this shift. In ancient India, Buddha had rejected the caste system, and now ironically Buddhism would suffer because it had supported a caste system in Japan. Temples lost land to shrines, and during the worst year, 1868, thugs roamed around burning temples and killing priests. To this day, decapitated stone buddhas populate cemeteries as relics of the violent anti-Buddhist rages of that year. Soto Zen, one of the largest sects, although associated more with farmers than aristocrats, didn't escape this purge.
Buddhism in Japan had been subject to the designs of political leaders for centuries. Priests had been living luxurious lives in the *Edo (Tokugawa) Era (16001867). Buddhism needed a housecleaning, and the Meiji Era provided a harsh one. It produced strong, noble Buddhist priests; because there was no status in the position, they had to be firmly committed and ready to endure suffering. The tremors of the Haibutsu Kishaku were still being felt during Toshi's boyhood. His father's historical explanation of the disrespect for Buddhism helped him to understand why he was treated badly by some of his friends.
One of the stories his father told was about a temple near his own former temple in Mori. It had a large Shinto shrine on its grounds. The Buddhist gate was burned along with the ancient guardian deity statues, and the title to the land was given to the shrine. The caretaker-priest of the shrine, who had been caretaker of both the temple and the shrine, was ordered by the government to make a bathhouse where the temple had been. He did so, and the governor came to take a bath. As he departed, the priest said to him, "Isn't it refreshing to bathe in a Buddhist-Shinto bathhouse? Buddha is so kind to make this unusual bath for you. I am amazed at his mercy." This frightened the governor, and when he went blind a week later everyone said it was because he had treated Buddhists so severely. He went to the Buddhist temple of *Aburayama, known for its healing hot springs, and bathed in the waters and prayed for forgiveness and the return of his sight.
At elementary school Toshi had a teacher he greatly admired, who encouraged him to be strong and to rise above sentimentalism. Toshi had doubts about being ordained by his father, who had no monks in training anymore. His father, though very dear to him, seemed a little weak. He often complained about losing his temple, saying he never should have left. And he was too attached to his son. Toshi just couldn't see him as a teacher.
Shunryu was always at the top of his class. His teacher told him that he should grow up to be a great man and that the way to be a great man was not to avoid difficulties but to use them to develop one's greatness.
Toshi had made the first two critical decisions of his life by age eleven: to become a monk and to leave Kanagawa. "My ambition at that time was directed toward a narrow idea of attainment, but I made up my mind to leave my home and to practice under a strict teacher." He had been impressed by a popular Buddhist belief that by being ordained one saves one's ancestors for nine generations back. But where should he go? With whom should he study? It was March 1916 and he had just graduated from elementary school.
This was the time when a boy's career was often decided, when he became an apprentice in a trade, began military school or some other training, or started working with his father in the fields. Very few went on to higher education, especially in that region. While it was normal for Toshi to follow in his father's profession, it was unusual that he decided to go far away before his parents were ready to let him go, not even choosing to start with his father and move on later.
While Toshi was considering these matters, Shoganji had a visitor, a priest who came several times a year to pay his respects to his master, Sogaku. *Gyokujun So-on Suzuki, Sogaku's adopted son, had just become the abbot of Zoun-in, Sogaku's former temple. He was like an imposing uncle to Toshi--tall, tough, exuding confidence. Toshi was enamored with him.
Toshi was actually eleven, almost twelve, at the time. He calculated thirteen by the prewar counting method, wherein a person was one at birth and two on the following New Year's Day.
Although Toshi felt he was making these decisions on his own, discussions had been going on behind the scenes for quite some time. His intentions and those of his parents were in accord except for the timing. They thought he was too young to go and suggested he wait till the next year. But Toshi wanted to go right away. He pointed out that his father, Sogaku himself, had chosen to begin apprenticeship with his master at a young age. Toshi wanted to do the same.
It all happened so quickly that, to his sisters and half brother, it seemed he was being whisked away from the family. Sogaku and Yone did not want to spend the rest of their lives at Shoganji. It was right that So-on, as the first disciple, would inherit Zoun-in from Sogaku. If Toshi did well with him, he could inherit Zoun-in from So-on, and then Sogaku and Yone could retire there. If Toshi's father ordained him and became his principal master before he left, then So-on would become his second teacher and Toshi wouldn't be in line to get Zoun-in. Sogaku was too old to train Toshi anyway, and many believed that a father could not properly train his son. As the proverb went, "If you love your child, send him on a journey." So Toshi went off with his first master, Gyokujun So-on, at the age of eleven.
Note 1: Shoganji page on Shunryu Suzuki dot com
Note 2: Weather report for Chigasaki, a small area, which I understand to be or include the hill where the temple was located. On the 18th of May, for three four hour blocks there was rain and strong wind giving the opening line a 50 % chance of being correct. Thanks to Toshikazu Yasui for obtaining this information and sending it to Grahame Petchey seventeen years ago.
Next: Chapter Two
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