Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch.3
Even a mistaken approach is not a waste of time.
In April 1924 Shunryu Suzuki was almost twenty. Having skipped his last year at Kaisei, he was now a junior at the Soto preparatory school in Tokyo, living in the dorm and studying hard. In terms of age, he was still way behind because of all the time he'd spent serving So-on and helping with the two temples. But that was not considered a handicap. This school was attached to the Soto college, where Soto Zen monks from all over Japan came to get the degrees now required by the government.
Shoganji wasn't far away. One Sunday on the way back to school after visiting home, Shunryu got off the train in Yokohama to see a section of the bustling port city that was said to have a few fine shops selling antique ceramics. Dressed in his quasimilitary-style
school uniform he ambled about, following his fancy and eating an occasional sweet. One shop led to another and one street to the next; by and by he found himself among storefronts exhibiting all kinds of imports: clothes, shoes, jewelry, records, and books. He looked long at a magazine that had photographs of San Francisco and carefully made out the captions below. He wandered on past sidewalk tables full of Japanese items bound for export: cups, paintings, umbrellas, toys, and tables, and all of it junk--tasteless, gaudy junk. He felt a profound embarrassment that this was what Japan was offering to the world. It wasn't really Japanese; it was superficial, pseudo-Japanese.
Shunryu thought about what he considered really Japanese: handmade crafts, furniture, scrolls, and ceramics that embodied the culture and traditions and would add to the harmony of the house they went to. Then he had a little epiphany: if only he could go abroad and bring to foreign people not the worst of Japan but the best--something truly Japanese that could be applied to another culture. The best way to do this would be to completely understand Zen first and then bring Zen to others. Maybe, he thought, maybe I could do that.
In early July Shunryu was hanging out on a sweltering, muggy Sunday afternoon with his friends *Kundo and *Araki, playing go, sweating and fanning himself. He was a man now, over twenty, the age of majority in Japan. But they were still kids in school, with less responsibility than they had had before they arrived. Now they had only to concentrate on their studies. Shunryu suggested that he go liberate a melon from the cold-storage room in the basement off the kitchen. His fellow monks heartily agreed.
Shunryu switched on the light for the basement, then for the storage room. He went in, closing the door behind him. Beneath the low ceiling were shelves filled with tubs of tofu, barrels of pickles, boxes of vegetables, fish, meat, and fruit. He picked a nice ripe melon by the wall at the end. Then he froze: footsteps were coming down the stairs. There was no place to hide. A voice called out. Si-
lence. Then a click and another click, and Shunryu was holding a melon in total darkness. He waited a moment, then started walking back toward the door. Suddenly there was a piercing pain above his left eye. He jerked and screamed, dropped the melon, quickly got his balance and reached up. He felt sharp, cold steel and blood. He had snared himself on a hook hanging from the ceiling. He couldn't extricate himself, and every move he made worsened the situation. Finally his breathing slowed down and he stood there in pain like a statue, unable to budge, blood dripping down his uniform. He waited for over an hour till he heard someone coming down the steps again and called out for help.
No one was angry at him for his escapade. Like him, they were worried that he'd blinded his left eye. He hadn't. The hook had gone in through the eyelid and out over the eyebrow. He lay in his bed that evening, stitched up and bandaged like a pirate, and reflected on the events of the day. He ached, but something wonderful had happened. All that he would say later in his life is that he had had an important awakening experience. He wanted to return to the clear, inexpressible, and timeless calm he had felt as he stood there, dripping blood. At the time he thought it was the great enlightenment. He would learn later that it was just a little one, and he would find that he could not re-create it: that was then and this is now. For the rest of his life he would have a nifty little arch above his left eye.
From mid-November 1925 to mid-February 1926 Shunryu was in training at *Kenko-in in Shizuoka City. So-on had sent him to be initiated as head monk under the guidance of Dojun Kato-roshi. Kenko-in offered the formal hundred-day practice period that is the heart of Zen training. One of the milestones of the training is the head monk ceremony. It wasn't like being head monk at one of the major training centers, where there would be many monks and teachers. At Kenko-in there were only Kato-roshi and a few novices, and Shunryu had to continue going to school during the day.
Many monks merely went through the motions of the cere-
mony for a few days at their home temple, an abbreviated formality to move a son closer to inheriting his father's temple. But Shunryu was head monk for the full one hundred days. Nine older priests came to the culminating ceremony, some arriving a few days early to participate in the practice and help build momentum for his rite of passage. Sogaku and So-on, with a few of his disciples, were among them.
On February 18, the day of the ceremony, Shunryu walked before them all, head bowed and arms raised, holding a staff. He recited a traditional poem, saying he felt unworthy to be there. "Dragons and elephants," he concluded, "give me your questions!" He thumped the staff on a block of wood. It was time to be grilled by his peers and elders in the traditional dharma-combat ceremony. The answers were classical, memorized by the head monk for his ceremony. But the timing, the delivery, how he held himself, the quality of his voice--All would add up to what sort of ceremony this would be. It was his day. He set the tone.
Afterward there were high-sounding congratulatory statements. No longer considered a novice, Shunryu was welcomed into the society of priests as their new young friend.
We have to study with our warm heart, not just with our brain.
In April of 1926, at the age of twenty-one, Shunryu Suzuki had graduated from prep school and moved up to the Soto college, which had just been renamed *Komazawa Daigakurin, and was now a university offering a wide range of study. Mainly he was studying, but he commuted regularly to spend time with So-on in Yaizu, and he could not ignore the vast and fascinating world that was springing up around him in Tokyo.
Shunryu watched movies with his friends, played tennis and go, and went rowing in the bay. He studied Chinese astrology but finally
gave it up, deciding it was unnecessary to know so much about oneself. Even if it were true, he felt it was not a Buddhist practice. He went to the coffee shops and attended school in an atmosphere of "dangerous ideas." He was in Tokyo at just the right time to have his curiosity and humanity fertilized.
Tokyo in the twenties was an uneasy mix of the traditional, the foreign, and the experimental--the scene of a tug-of-war between old and new, with each side pulling hard since Japan's sudden emergence from isolation. Businessmen wearing Western suits and women in dresses mixed with those in traditional costume. Foreign tourists were no longer a complete oddity. There were trolleys, taxis, and private cars among the jinrikishas, coffeehouses, and *pachinko game parlors next to the noodle shops. Art and literature were breaking into new territory. Occasionally one would see a *moga and *mobo (modern girl and boy) in their ostentatious London and New York clothes. Some older folks called it the era of ero guro nansensu (eroticism, grotesquery, and nonsense), but to the intellectual elite it was a new age cracking out of the shell of the repressive past.
The emperor was an invalid and mentally feeble, but his son, Crown Prince Hirohito, who had been regent since 1921, was perceived as one of the new liberal breed. He had gone to England and France and been photographed in stylish English clothes and a tweed cap. He was a marine biologist and, with his friend the Prince of Wales, had helped to introduce golf to Japan.
Traditionalists feared the "*dangerous ideas" that had crept in from the West: internationalism, socialism, communal living, pacifism, democracy, anarchy, even women's rights. It wasn't quite legal to have organizations promoting radical causes, and the police discouraged them as they could, but there wasn't popular support for too much control. Fifty years prior, Tokyo had been Edo, the capital of a feudal, closed Japan. Now it was the hub of the industrial giant of the East, and there were possibly more college students there than in any city on earth.
Japan was now a global power that had successfully prevailed
against China and Russia in previous decades, had forged a dominant role among the imperialist nations in China, had made virtual colonies of Korea and Formosa, and had supported its Western allies in defeating the kaiser in World War I. Japanese nationalism had mellowed; there was less support for Japan's aggressive foreign interventions, which had been a little too successful in the eyes of the West.
Some Japanese hadn't forgotten the humiliation of the *Triple Intervention of 1895, when Japan was forced by the West to return possessions and concessions won from China, and Emperor Meiji had urged the nation to "endure the unendurable" and do as they were told. The ultranationalists and reactionaries in the military continued to wield strong influence; there was now compulsory military training in the schools. But the prime minister and cabinet had the upper hand and were holding the right-wingers in check. Even in the face of insulting racist policies abroad, such as America's ban on Asian immigration and the League of Nations' refusal to acknowledge the principle of racial equality, there was pride in Japan's international role. The national self-confidence that was lost when Commodore Perry's ships caused Japan to come out of its cocoon had been largely regained.
This was an exciting time for Japan not only socially, but in terms of Buddhism as well. Most Japanese Buddhist priests saw Buddhism only in reference to their own culture and the past, but Shunryu was being reminded at the university that Buddhism was a universal religion that had already adapted to many different Asian cultures and subcultures, that it was not the sole property of priests but could be understood by laypeople as well.
A number of professors at Komazawa were taking a new look at the teaching of their sect and how it might be presented to a wider audience. The president of Komazawa, *Nukariya Kaiten, had just published a book on Buddhism for laypeople which created some controversy because of its simple explanation of Soto Zen and its popular appeal. Nukariya had been to Europe and America and had
also written the first popular book on Zen in English, *The Religion of the Samurai. Also at Komazawa, Shunryu met a professor of Pali named *Shundo Tachibana, who published *The Ethics of Buddhism in English that year. The first book on Dogen's thought for the general public, *Dogen Shamon =(Dogen the Monk) by *Watsuji Tetsuro, was also published in 1926 in Japan. It was hard enough to bring actual Zen practice to Japanese; Shunryu could not imagine how one could communicate the subtleties of Buddhism to Americans and Europeans. But he was listening.
When you can laugh at yourself, there is enlightenment.
In his college dorm Shunryu awoke before the sun was up, quietly slipped on some loose work clothes, and tiptoed out of the sleeping quarters in the dark. He entered the latrine, which was lined on one side with squat toilets and a long urinal and on the other with a continuous sink with faucets every couple of feet. He crossed the room to a cabinet, took out bucket and rags, and there under the dim light of a kerosene lamp he began to clean. The room was always a stinking mess, not like those in the temples he'd lived in. Public toilets in Japan at that time were notorious for being undertended.
As a freshman at Komazawa University, Shunryu had taken it upon himself to do this onerous task before his classmates arose. As head monk at Kenko-in, one of his responsibilities had been to clean the toilets and sinks, and he was determined that in the midst of his studies and activities in Tokyo he would not forget that he was a monk. "I wanted to practice true practice, and I wanted to know what the way-seeking mind is in its true sense. I thought that to do something good might be the way-seeking mind."
It was especially important to him not to be seen. He was con-
vinced that if others knew what he was up to, he would no longer be involved in pure practice. He'd listen for sounds of stirring and stick his head out in the hall periodically to see if a light was on. He particularly didn't want to be found out by Nukariya-sensei, the president of the school and his most important role model during this period. Nukariya stayed in a private room in the dorm during the week to be near his students, only seeing his family on Saturday evening and Sunday. He had impeccable humility and dignity. Visitors would often think he was a janitor. His presence had further inspired Shunryu to take on this lowly duty. But if his light was on, Shunryu would get flustered and make an escape.
At first he felt good about what he was doing, but more and more he analyzed the purity of his intention. He obsessed: Why am I doing this? Do I really like doing it without being noticed? Do I actually wish to be found out?
I was mixed up, and my mind was always wandering, trying to get things straight. I was not so sure of the purity of my way-seeking mind. Should I continue or not? I didn't want to have this type of silly problem, but my nature was pretty stubborn, and I didn't want to give up on something so easily.
One day in a psychology lecture the professor =[*Yoshitaka Iriya] started talking about the impossibility of repeating experience. "You might think you can do so," his professor said, "but that's just thinking, and thinking about an experience and the experience itself are not the same." He added that it was impossible to catch the mind of the past, to know what we have done, or even to know the mind that is acting right now.
So I was enlightened, you know! [laughing] Okay! I understood that what it is not possible to think about, forget about. No wonder it was so difficult to understand my mind. I had this kind of realization. Since then I have given up trying to be sure of my way-seeking mind. I have done things just because they were good, without analyzing them. Whether or not people saw me was not my problem anymore.
Shunryu kept up his early morning cleaning of the lavatory with a more lighthearted approach. And he continued learning about the way-seeking mind from his college teachers. His years of Zen practice had opened his ears. It was necessary, he realized, to have what Dogen called "enlightenment after enlightenment with no trace of enlightenment."
Zen is the teaching of accepting "things-as-it-is" and of raising things as they go. [Suzuki often used the phase "things-as-it-is" on purpose.] This is the fundamental purpose of our practice, but it is difficult to see things-as-it-is. I don't mean that there is a distortion of sight, but that as soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw.
In education class, a professor said something that further inspired Shunryu to drop his hindsight and foresight and live directly in each moment. He couldn't believe what the professor had said, but he checked his notes against those of a fellow student, and they were the same. "Formal education is to explain what is and what it means. Actual education is to let it be, whatever it is, without explanation." He couldn't accept that at first, but he came to see the connection Ð that one had to begin practice without knowing the way-seeking mind and for "a long, long time go round and round in the same area until you get tired of trying to understand."
To do something without thinking is the most important point in understanding ourselves. When you want to see, or be sure of your mind, you cannot catch it. But when you just do something, and when your mind is just acting as it is, that is how you catch your mind in the true sense.
On August 21, 1926, in a private ceremony at Rinso-in, Shunryu Suzuki received *shiho, dharma transmission, from So-on. He was twenty-two. In shiho the disciple receives his master's robe and his place in the lineage. It symbolizes the passing of Buddha's mind from generation to generation. Buddha meets buddha. Shunryu knew that it was just a formality and that he had a long way to go to understand the teaching of Buddha. So-on wanted Shunryu and his family to be responsible for Zoun-in, and the ceremony authorized the transfer.
Though Shunryu could now wear the brown robes instead of the monk's black, he would not yet change colors. That would be presumptuous. And though he was now his own man, he was still called Crooked Cucumber by So-on, who would continue to be in charge of his life for many years to come.
This was a big event for Sogaku as well. He retired as abbot of Shoganji, leaving it to a priest from Shizuoka, and finally moved with his wife, Yone, and daughter Aiko back to Zoun-in to be *inkyo, retired master. So-on was still the abbot of Zoun-in in name, but Shunryu's family resided there and was in charge.
Fall arrived and Shunryu's fortunes took a change for the worse. He had always had a weak constitution and was especially susceptible to respiratory illness. He'd been coughing constantly for weeks and had missed a lot of classes. Dr. Yoshikawa, his patron, was now living with his family in their Tokyo home. He visited Shunryu in the dorm and immediately had him hospitalized. He had tuberculosis, a mild case, but any case of TB was taken very seriously. It was career-threatening and life-threatening. He needed total rest and hospital care. Fortunately, the disease did not progress, and after a while Shunryu was well enough to leave. He moved out of the dorm and into Dr. Yoshikawa's house, remaining there after he had recovered, until the doctor said he could start attending classes again.
In 1926 Shunryu had completed his head monk training, entered the university, received transmission from So-on, and developed tu-
berculosis. One last important event in his life and in the lives of all Japanese would transpire at the end of that year. On December 25 the invalid emperor died, and his son Hirohito became the new emperor. The imperial year was no longer Taisho 12, but Showa 1, a year that would last for ten days and usher in a new era of hope: Showa, "enlightened peace."
Whatever the teaching may be, the teaching confronts each in accordance with the circumstances.
On a hot, muggy day in mid-July 1927, during summer vacation in his second year at college, Shunryu was on his way back to Dr. Yoshikawa's after doing some errands, when he realized he was not far from Miss Ransom's house. Nona Ransom, a striking forty-year-old woman from England, was his English teacher at Komazawa. His friend and fellow student Kundo, who lived with her, had pointed out the building to Shunryu and urged him to drop by sometime, saying she always had something cold for the intolerable afternoons. Shunryu wanted to get out of the heat, so he gathered his courage and went to Miss Ransom's. It was a formidable place, a traditional wooden house with white stucco between the beams and around the shoji, enclosed within a solid wall, and in a wealthy neighborhood in the *Shibuya section of Tokyo.
He entered the gate and decided to go to the back door, having never before approached a foreigner's house. Japanese slide open the door and make themselves known with a formal greeting from the entryway. He knew the English didn't do that--they knock or ring something--so he just called out from the back door without opening it. In a moment she appeared and most graciously invited him in to a sitting room near the kitchen. It was a fine home on the inside as well. There were chairs and a high table, a Turkish rug in the hall, and it was neat and clean--more so than many Japanese
homes and temples. She asked if he'd like something to drink. Shunryu said water would be fine. She went to the kitchen and came back with cold watermelon.
Shunryu had been Miss Ransom's best student right from the start of his classes with her, having studied English hard for some years, and he was eager to make the most of this precious chance to learn conversation with a native speaker. There was almost no emphasis on conversation in the study of any foreign language in Japan. The main point of such learning since the gates had opened was to read technical books in order to copy foreign technology. When the political winds blew to the right, any other interest was considered almost unpatriotic. Of course there was always the need for diplomats and translators, and there was that handful of students like Shunryu who had their own goals.
Over watermelon, Miss Ransom asked Shunryu if he might be available to assist her. She said she needed help with shopping and communicating with Japanese guests and private students. She didn't speak any Japanese and had great difficulty in communication. Shunryu tactfully pointed out that she already had Kundo and another boy living there, and they were both her English students. She said that the other boy would leave soon and that she'd like Shunryu to consider taking his place.
Shunryu started helping Miss Ransom right away. On the first of August he moved into the room with the other boys, and soon there were only Kundo and Shunryu. Dr. Yoshikawa was sorry to see him go but knew this was an important opportunity. He would continue his support, and Shunryu would likewise keep in touch and help his sons with their English studies. After a while Kundo moved out too, leaving Shunryu alone with Miss Ransom. This meant that he was busy indeed, with his schoolwork as well as her translating and various personal needs. It had soon become clear to him why the other boys didn't stay long. She was not an easy person to be with.
She was quite strict and stubborn and she tried to force her English ways on us and on Japanese people in general. And she always had some complaint. Mostly what I had to do was listen to her complaints about Japanese people--what happened at school, what happened in the car. She was always complaining about Japan. I was the only person who would listen. But I also complained a lot to her.
After Shunryu's many years of study with So-on, Miss Ransom was really not so hard to take. Shunryu was enthusiastic; he and Miss Ransom were close and worked well together, despite their squabbles. At first he felt his English was not adequate, but his ability to communicate progressed rapidly, especially since there was so much talking going on, much more than he was used to in Japanese company. She had an active social life, so Shunryu not only got to translate but to speak English with other foreigners from England, America, Europe, and even China.
In that era, when a man and a woman went down the street together, it was almost always a husband with his wife walking behind him. Miss Ransom and Shunryu made a sight going down the street side by side, talking and even laughing at times. He was twenty-three that fall and she was forty. Shunryu, short among his countrymen, was four feet eleven. At almost six feet Miss Ransom was lean yet shapely, beautiful and stately, and her bowl-shaped grey hat made her seem even taller. Her nose was long and straight, her eyes round and wide, her eyebrows thick and expressive. They both walked erect, energetically, Shunryu in his uniform and she in her subdued dresses and heavy overcoat as winter set in. At first the neighbors said she had a new houseboy, but in time people said she had a live-in interpreter.
As they returned home, Shunryu would often be carrying her packages, just as he had done for So-on. In fact, Shunryu's relationship with Miss Ransom had a number of parallels to his early apprenticeship to So-on. They were both demanding, eccentric, ornery, and dignified; his life revolved around theirs; they had knowledge he wanted; and, despite their faults, he loved them. But
there were differences. Miss Ransom treated Shunryu much more like an equal. She was direct and opinionated but let him speak his mind as well. She was still his teacher, landlady, and employer, and he treated her with a level of respect that satisfied her proper British standards. But he could never have talked back to So-on the way he did to her.
Shunryu was incurably curious, and Miss Ransom was quite forthcoming about her life. He learned a great deal more about her than he ever had about anyone else. She was the ninth child, born in Bedford, England, on October 5, 1887. Before coming to Japan she had spent three years in Tientsin in northern China, teaching at the grammar school for the British concession. She also tutored privately. Among her students were the children of the president of China, Li Yua Hung, and those of *Shigeru Yoshida, the Japanese consul. It was through Yoshida that further doors began to open for Miss Ransom. When the former emperor of China, Pu Yi, and his wife, Wan Jung, fled the Japanese legation in Peking in 1925 and escaped to Tientsin, Yoshida arranged for Miss Ransom to be companion and English teacher to the former empress and subsequently to the former emperor as well.
Through Yoshida, Miss Ransom came to Japan in 1927 and moved into a house that his parents owned. There she taught at three colleges. She was also the "Teacher of the English Language and Foreign Etiquette under the Imperial Household." Among her students was *Jiro Kano, the founder of modern judo and president of the school attended by members of the royal family.
One day Miss Ransom asked Shunryu to buy some large daffodil bulbs. When she saw what he got, she said, "These are too small, get me some big ones." So he looked all over the Shibuya section of Tokyo, going to several florists, and buying the biggest bulbs he could find. Still she wasn't satisfied. That got him angry. He came back later with a bag and told her, "I got some very big daffodil bulbs, here they are." Then he got scared and sneaked away. She was quite pleased until she opened the bag and smelled them. "These are onions!" He knew she detested onions. She started
shouting and searching the large house for him. Then he burst out laughing in his hiding place, and she came at him with the onions held high. He ran up the stairs with her chasing after him, but he was faster and went to the roof and hid.
One kind word can turn over all of heaven and earth.
On days when Shunryu's classes were over early enough and Miss Ransom was not busy, they would have high tea in her sitting room. He learned about her youth and studies in England, Belgium, and France, of her graduate work in education at the Bedford Froebel Training College, where she became head of the Preparatory School, of her ten years as form mistress at the Edinburgh Institute in Scotland, and of her decision to go to China at the age of thirty-seven.
She was particularly fond of her memories of the young empress, Wan Jung, Beautiful Countenance, a lovely though tragic figure. She had married Pu Yi at fourteen, just one year older than his second wife, and when only sixteen she had latched onto Miss Ransom as a pillar of sanity in her bizarre and treacherous circumstances. A picture of the empress stood atop a chest in the corner of the sitting room.
Shunryu was curious about Miss Ransom's approach to Christianity, a subject which he knew little about. Christianity was said to be like Amida Buddhism, more faith oriented Ð relying on "other power" as opposed to the "self power" of Zen. Christians were generally respected in Japan as sincere and devoted to good works. Jesuits in Tokyo had founded the first university in Japan, and some of them had a keen interest in Rinzai Zen. Japanese Christians had known periods of persecution and favor, but they never made as much progress as Christians in China and Korea. Miss Ransom had no respect for Catholicism or Buddhism.
She had been born into a Quaker family. Theirs was a simple, straightforward approach to truth without many of the common forms of religion, since Quakers use no statues or images of God or Jesus and refuse to recognize any tie between state and religious authority, such as the taking of oaths.
Quakers are pacifists, and though Miss Ransom taught the children of generals, she was not fond of the militaristic trappings of governments in the East or West. She did not like the increasing role of the Japanese military that she had seen in northern China, where they had ostensibly come to guard the train lines. She especially resented suggestions by certain high officials that she might be able to use her sway with ex-emperor Pu Yi to Japan's benefit. But she said little about all this; she merely rose above it and set out to do what good she could.
After her years in China and Japan, Miss Ransom was convinced that Buddhism was a cult of idol worship, worthy of no more than a passing glance for the sake of a better understanding of history and culture. She visited sacred buildings and was quite taken by the architecture and art, the gardens and sculpture, but she shook her head when she saw believers bowing and making offerings before statues. It bothered her slightly that her houseboy was to be a priest of one of these temples. It created an uncomfortable gap between them. And then there was her statue of the Buddha.
In Japan, outdoor shoes customarily go on a wooden rack just inside the front door, before the step up into the house proper, where the indoor slippers are. Shoes or zori never touch the floors of the interior. The surface outside is dirty, outside shoes are dirty. Inside floors and slippers are clean. The two do not mix.
The statue was in the sitting room, a small attractive space with tatami floors and smooth clay walls between dark brown wooden posts. Extending half the length of the wall opposite the entrance was an alcove called the *tokonoma. The statue sat in the tokonoma. The tokonoma is in some ways the center of a Japanese home; it is
not an altar, but a nook on the floor for a flower arrangement in a treasured vase, possibly a special stone or an antique, and a hanging scroll. The tokonoma is the family's aesthetic altar to nature, art, and wisdom. Miss Ransom hung no scroll in her tokonoma, nor did she include any vase of flowers. Instead, on a stone pedestal, there was a beautiful foot-high carved Buddha statue. She made clear to Shunryu that this sitting Buddha figure was there solely for its aesthetic and sentimental values and not for any religious purposes. It had been a gift to her from Pu Yi.
Miss Ransom kept her shoes in the tokonoma as well--right next to the statue. Shunryu told himself that she was not a Buddhist and it didn't matter, but still it was hard for him to take. It embarrassed him when she'd come home from school and slip off her shoes and put them right next to the Buddha.
One morning, before he went to school, Shunryu quietly entered the sitting room where Miss Ransom sat drinking her black tea and cream. He had some tea too, hot green tea in a small Japanese cup. He held it carefully with both hands but did not sit down with Miss Ransom to drink it. Instead, he lifted it above his eyes and then placed it softly before the Buddha, bowed in *gassho--a standing bow with palms together--and left the room as quietly as he'd entered. This is what he would later call the beginning of the cold war.
Weeks passed, and every morning Shunryu would offer tea and bow to the statue of Buddha. Miss Ransom at first just watched him, but increasingly she expressed amusement and began to tease him. He didn't try to explain himself, and she didn't ask him to. They were getting along fine in terms of shopping and meals, but the cold war persisted.
Miss Ransom would tell her guests about her houseboy's strange behavior toward the Buddha statue and the shoes next to it. The shoes were always straight, as they were in Japanese entryways, and he lined them up from the left so that they'd be as far from the Buddha as space would allow. "Shunryu's being a very naughty little boy," she said, pointing out a cup of tea before the statue. Her
guests would join in the ridicule, not realizing how much he understood. Often he would find newly placed cigarette butts, burned matches, and used toothpicks lying in the Buddha's hands. He did not remove them but continued his practice of offering tea and, at times, incense.
Meanwhile, he also prepared for the hot war, the war of words, which he knew was to come. He pondered skillful means and took to studying English in his room with increased concentration. He sought help from a professor of Buddhism at Komazawa, with whom he worked out translations of basic technical terms. He made a list. In particular, he studied the vocabulary that might explain to a Westerner what Buddhism was and why Buddhists make offerings to statues.
For the first three hundred or so years, Buddhism had had no physical representation of Buddha. The Greek-influenced artisans who stayed behind at Gandhara in present-day Afghanistan after Alexander's push into India made some of the first known Buddhist icons with a human image. The idea caught on.
It might seem easier to explain Buddhism without having to justify any particular forms or practices. Dogen wrote that offering incense is a good practice but not necessary, that only zazen is necessary to follow the way. But instead of saying something like, "Oh it's just a piece of wood," as some early masters had said, Shunryu would not deny the statue, but included it as part of his practice and as a way to get through to Miss Ransom. He savored the opportunity to communicate but didn't make a move.
Miss Ransom and her friends continued to tease him; he ignored them. He knew that her curiosity was mounting and that eventually there would come a chance to explain what Buddhism is. One rainy morning in the sitting room, after several weeks of cold war, the moment he had waited for arrived. Shunryu and Miss Ransom had no classes or appointments and no desire to leave the comfortable protection of her roof and walls. As she sat sipping her tea, a silence came over her and she sighed, lost in thought.
"Tell me something please, Shunryu. Please tell me why on
earth you worship that Buddha statue. You seem like a reasonable young man and you are obviously sincere, but I just cannot understand what you find so compelling in this superstitious nonsense."
So he told her why he related to the statue with such respect, and he told her about *Shakyamuni Buddha and buddhahood. He said that such a statue reminds us that the way is everywhere, and that we ourselves are buddha, so that when we offer incense to the statue we are recognizing our own true nature, the true nature of all that is. The nature of our existence is not something we can know or remember so easily. Buddha is not a god or a being who can be easily described.
You can't put your finger on what buddha is, but Buddhism does have various teachings. There is, for instance, the teaching about the three bodies of buddha: the sublime, indescribable *Dharmakaya Buddha, beyond any particular experience, the first principle of religion; the *Sambhogakaya Buddha, the subtle body of rapture or grace, the fruit of practice; and the *Nirmanakaya Buddha, the historical person who
awakened under the bodhi tree. He was a person just like everyone else, who attained something wonderful that is possible for others to attain--women and men.
Maybe these aspects of buddha have something in common with the Christian concepts of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, he explained. But to understand these bodies of buddha, or to deeply know ourselves, it isn't helpful to think about it too much. That's why Buddhists apply themselves wholeheartedly to experience direct insight of the truth through meditation and other mindful practices like chanting and offering incense or tea to a statue of a buddha.
Miss Ransom was amazed. It was not at all what she had expected. She thanked him for his explanation and praised his command of English. She said she'd had no idea that there was such profundity in Buddhism, such realization of the divinity of the individual. She was not only affected by Shunryu's explanation, but was also impressed with his composure in the delivery.
After that there was no more teasing. Miss Ransom became very
quiet for a few days. Then one afternoon, Shunryu walked into the sitting room and saw that the shoes were gone from the tokonoma, and there was a fine arrangement of flowers by the wooden Buddha statue. She asked if he would tell her more about Buddhism and explain Buddhist practice. He showed her how he would clean the tokonoma, and together they went out and got some candles, incense, and an incense bowl, even a little bell, and they turned the tokonoma into an altar. He taught her how to sit zazen. She made the acquaintance of Buddhist professors at Komazawa who could speak some English and she set about studying Buddhism. Shunryu studied English all the harder and was pleased at what had happened. They were freely trading in the knowledge of their respective religious traditions. The wall between them had fallen, and she'd come walking through the opening.
This affair of the Buddha statue was momentous for Suzuki, literally changing the course of his life. He would later call it the turning point of his life. He had seen that Miss Ransom's total ignorance of Buddhism, her beginner's mind, was not an obstacle, but had made it possible for her to understand more clearly. He talked to Miss Ransom about his dream to go abroad, admitting that he had become fairly disgusted with the state of Buddhism and the attitude of many priests in Japan.
I felt very good. I developed some confidence in our teaching and in the thought that I could help Western people understand Buddhism. For Japanese people it is pretty difficult to study Buddhism in its true sense, because the tradition has been so often mistaken and misunderstood. It is difficult to change misunderstandings once we have them. But for people who don't know anything about Buddhism, it's like painting on white paper. It is much easier to give them the right understanding. I think that the experience I had with Miss Ransom resulted in my coming to America.
Moment after moment, completely devote yourself
to listening to your inner voice.
There was a Western-style rattan bed and chair at Zoun-in especially purchased for Miss Ransom's visits. Shunryu would take her to Rinso-in as well. The monks got to know the English lady, as did all the people in the villages of Mori below Zoun-in and Takakusa below Rinso-in. A foreigner in those parts was a distinct oddity. Their relationship was the first thing people would mention when Shunryu-san's name came up. The second was his absentmindedness. Sometimes the two qualities came together. The first time Shunryu took Miss Ransom to Rinso-in he left her luggage at the Yaizu station and had to take the commercial horse-drawn buggy back five miles to get it. As Shunryu rode off, So-on called out to him as he had so often in the past, "Oh, this forgetful boy! What can we do about him?"
So-on knew just what to do about Shunryu. He gave him a lot more to keep track of by passing Zoun-in on to him, this time officially. On January 22, 1929, at the age of twenty-four, Shunryu was installed by So-on as the twenty-eighth abbot of Zoun-in in the *Mountain Seat Ceremony. The evening before there was a ceremony in which So-on stepped down, and the next day Shunryu ascended the mountain seat and assumed the title of jushoku, abbot. Sogaku would continue to run the temple, now for his son rather than for So-on. Through years of effort, Shunryu had regained for his father his lost temple. It had been possible only because that wasn't Shunryu's main goal.
In Tokyo, Shunryu continued to be immersed in his dual life as a college student and Miss Ransom's companion. Her interest in Buddhism continued, but not to the exclusion of her many other pursuits such as art, socializing, and arguing with Shunryu. Then one April day while the cherry trees were blooming, something happened to Shunryu that made him decide to move back into the dorm.
This was brought home to me the day I went to the Turkish embassy on some business for Miss Ransom. I was speaking in English with an assistant to the ambassador, and as I looked at him the thought came: Maybe someday I shall be like you. This scared me. If I stay with Miss Ransom, will I become an ambassador and not a priest?
He went home and told Miss Ransom that it would be best for his studies if he moved out for his last year at Komazawa University. Miss Ransom sadly acquiesced. On May 30, 1929, Shunryu moved into a Komazawa dorm.
One day Shunryu and several other monk students went to the docks of Yokohama harbor to see off a priest named *Daito Suzuki, who was leaving for Los Angeles. There he would assist *Hosen Isobe-roshi=, the founder of Zenshuji, a temple for Japanese-Americans. Isobe had plans to start another temple in San Francisco, and Daito would eventually take charge of Zenshuji. Most Japanese could not understand why anyone, especially a Buddhist priest, would want to leave Japan, but Shunryu and his friends greeted Daito with enthusiasm. To this little group of Komazawa students, his departure was heroic. When the ship pulled out, the young monks on the dock cheered, and tears streamed down Shunryu's face. Thirty years later Shunryu and Daito's paths would cross again, and again memorably, though their roles at the time would be quite different.
On January 14, 1930, an important public ceremony for Shunryu at Zoun-in, called *ten'e, acknowledged Shunryu Suzuki's *dharma transmission from So-on. For Miss Ransom he defined it as "public determination and consent from the Soto-shu to be a chief priest and to teach Zen." A special brown robe was handed down to him by So-on in the incense- and flower-filled main hall. Short recitations were interspersed with longer recitations chanted and mumbled by attending priests and punctuated by bells and drums.
This final ten'e ceremony gave Shunryu-san institutional creden-
tials. The whole community turned out for this big occasion, as did Miss Ransom, Dr. Yoshikawa's family, friends from school, and various priests and teachers he'd studied with. The next day he left by train for the two head temples of the Soto school, Eiheiji and Sojiji, for ceremonies in which he was honorary abbot of each for a day. This was the last of the ceremonies between So-on and Shunryu. His father would continue to be acting abbot =while Shunryu finished his studies. That could go on indefinitely as far as Shunryu was concerned; he had other things in mind. Sogaku was old but still in good health, and his dharma brothers and fellow disciples of So-on, Kendo and Soko, would occasionally come from Rinso-in to help him.
At the late age of twenty-five, on April 10, 1930, Shunryu graduated from Komazawa University, second in his class, in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, with a minor in English. His graduate thesis, written under his academic advisor and the school's president, Nukariya Kaiten, focused on the relationship between master and disciple, as discussed by Dogen in an essay of the Shobogenzo emphasizing submission to the master. (It is called the *Raihai tokozui,= a chapter in which Dogen also forcefully asserts the equality of women.) In his thesis Shunryu leaned toward Nukariya's "religious experience" point of view rather than Buddhism as philosophy. Another key professor whose instruction influenced Shunryu's thesis was *Sokuo Eto, an eminent Shobogenzo scholar who emphasized an open-minded approach to study integrated with zazen and Buddhist practice. Eto had been a classmate of So-on's, and they had studied together with Oka Sotan. Like many of Shunryu's professors, he was also a priest with a temple back home, and, like Nukariya, he emphasized religion over philosophy, direct experience over systemization.
Not long after he graduated from college, Shunryu was honored with another credential that he greatly valued. On the recommendation of *Shundo Tachibana, a dean of the school, he received government certification to be, as he translated it, "a Teacher of the
English Language and Ethical Conduct for High School Boys," a respected and almost professorial status, since high schools then were roughly equivalent to today's junior colleges.
Shunryu, now finished with his formal education, had moved his books and wardrobe from the Komazawa dorm to Zoun-in. But he did not want to settle down there. He had bigger ideas. When So-on came to Zoun-in, Shunryu asked if they could speak. He'd been building up his courage for this encounter. Shunryu described his experience with Miss Ransom and what it had meant to him. He described seeing Daito Suzuki off at Yokohama harbor. So-on listened silently. Then Shunryu got to the point. He suggested that he too go abroad to teach Buddhism. Anywhere, it didn't matter where--say, America.
"No!" So-on replied.
"How about Hawaii?"
"*Hokkaido?" The northern island of Japan was a kind of frontier, and there were a lot of foreigners in Sapporo who wouldn't know about Buddhism.
Shunryu persevered for too long. So-on became infuriated. "Here!" he yelled, smashing his fist on the table. It was just one word, with some percussion, but his anger filled volumes.
He was so furious. I knew there must be some reason why. And I knew that he loved me very much, so I gave up my notion of going abroad. I completely gave up my idea of going to America.
Next: Chapter Four
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