Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 15
goal of Buddhism is to bring about right human life, not to
The opening ceremony for Tassajara as Zenshinji, Zen Mountain Center, was held on a sizzling July 3, 1967. Over 150 people attended the opening ceremony, including members of the Sokoji congregation, old students and friends of Suzuki's, and a smiling old priest called *Bishop Sumi, who in 1965 had replaced Yamada at Zenshuji in L.A. Wako Kato also came up from L.A., as did Maezumi. Kato was amazed at the beauty of the place and the large number of students. A few already had simple grey robes, and some of the men had shaved their heads, following the example of their teacher.
Although in Japan it might have gone on for days, the California ceremony lasted just over an hour. It was a day of great joy, high expectations, and collective gratitude. It was certainly a big day for Suzuki--a milestone in his life.
Kobun Chino had arrived from Japan to be a priest for the Los Altos zendo; but for the foreseeable future he would be needed at Tassajara. He was friendly, spoke English well if slowly, and was cherubic. He knew the details of Eiheiji life and ceremony and would be the students' Zen friend and Suzuki's technical advisor. Zen Center had no formal affiliation with Soto Zen in Japan, and no one from Soto headquarters was there to officially recognize the opening of this pioneering Buddhist monastery in the Western Hemisphere. But they had sent Kobun with the generous gifts of a taiko, a huge standing drum, and some other necessary ceremonial instruments: a wide bowl bell, and a mokugyo, giant and hollow, made from one piece of wood, with dragons carved on the side. It was hit with a padded mallet to keep rhythm during chanting. Mokugyo means "wooden fish," but it looked more like a snail.
The night before, Richard Baker had been ordained as a priest in a full ceremony. For the first time, Suzuki did a priest ordination that wasn't private and extremely brief. Richard looked awkward in his heavy black robes, sweating before his family, his fellow students, and a crowd of close associates. Suzuki was standing before him, chanting, ceremoniously sprinkling water on him with a fern. Suzuki gave Richard the Buddhist name *Zentatsu Myoyu (Penetrating Zen, Mysteriously Dissolving). He was also installed as head monk of the Tassajara practice period, which would begin in this season of blazing sun. Normally there would be some years before a newly ordained priest became head monk, but Suzuki considered that Richard had done the work between the two initiation ceremonies already. Suzuki was also ignoring seniority in choosing his first head monk. Jean, Phillip, and Claude were at the ceremony, and all three had been ordained as priests years before Richard.
Richard was a busy man with a lot of work ahead of him. He was still the president of Zen Center and editor of Wind Bell, and now the head monk, too. To many of those who had been practicing zazen every morning and evening as they got the place into shape, Richard had seemed like a busy outsider who didn't fit in. Those who had been around long enough to have some perspective appreciated what he was doing and knew he was making a sort of sacrifice so others could have this opportunity. But more than half of the students at Tassajara were rather new. Time slowed down and the whole world tended to shrink to the size of that valley after you had been there for a while.
On the day of the opening it all came together. Suzuki gave a talk in which he made clear how much they all owed to Richard. "I am so grateful to Zentatsu Richard Baker for all he's done to establish Buddhism in America." After that, Richard moved from behind the scenes of Tassajara to the forefront, not only as organizer but also as primary disciple.
Richard and Suzuki had been going over every aspect of student life at Tassajara. Richard always spoke his mind with Suzuki and had a great deal of influence in deciding what sort of place it was going to be. Suzuki respected his opinion and his insight and often seemed to defer to him. He conferred with others, of course, like Claude, Silas, Bill, Jean, and Mel. But while many people had been working hard to make this day a reality, Richard's role in establishing Tassajara was close to that of cofounder. He was defining Zen Center and Tassajara, but he ran everything through Suzuki. They had become a team.
Before anyone had gone down to Tassajara, Suzuki and Richard had considered the prospect of having a monastery with men and women living and practicing together. There had been some talk of having separate practice periods for men and women, but it never got very far. Many of Suzuki's students were couples who both practiced, and some of his strongest students were women. Richard said he wanted his wife and daughter to be able to spend time with him there, at least in the summer. He also thought it would be harder to raise money to buy Tassajara if it wasn't coed. Suzuki had no experience with women in a monastic setting, but he was willing to try. "No women, no Tassajara," Richard summed it up, and Suzuki threw out a twenty-five-hundred-year-old tradition.
Suzuki had wanted to have a tangaryo that was five to seven days long, but Richard thought that three days of constant sitting would be enough of an initiation for the eighty or so students who were signed up. Some had never even sat zazen before. Suzuki deferred. He had doubts about doing the chants in English, but Richard urged that they start chanting something in English right away. They agreed that the long meal chant would be translated and chanted in English during lunch, which, like most meals during the practice period, would be eaten in the zendo while sitting on zafus--an extension of zazen.
In Richard's ordination ceremony, Suzuki gave him the precepts, the Buddhist ethical guidelines. Suzuki read them and Richard agreed to follow them. He wouldn't kill, steal, misuse the senses, elevate himself above others, slander the teachings, and so forth. Suzuki had talked about precepts a little in lectures, but on that day he gave them in public for the first time since the lay ordination of fifteen people in 1962. Precepts had always seemed like something far off: strictures that Indian and Chinese monks were involved with. As in the lay ordination of 1962, the ceremony was to be in Japanese. Richard asked if it should be translated, and said he didn't want to make promises that would be impossible to live up to.
"Just say yes," Suzuki told him.
The most important point is to follow the schedule
and to do things together.
In the cool dark of early morning, at 4:30 am, a student offered incense, took the handbell from the altar of the Tassajara stone zendo, and ran around the cabins ringing the wake-up bell. Glass kerosene lamps were lit in rooms, and students washed their faces, brushed their teeth, and donned robes or loose clothing. In front of the zendo hung a thick board with Chinese characters on it. A woman in a grey robe picked up a mallet and hit the board, called the han, one strike per minute. Its sound pierced the whole valley, calling all to the zendo for morning zazen. Students walked silently with their hands held together just below the chest, a position called *shashu, used for zendo activities.
Fifteen minutes later, when Shunryu Suzuki walked in, students were to be on their zafus, with a few in chairs, seated erect, chins in, eyes half-open. Suzuki offered incense and sat on his zafu, tucking his robes under his crossed legs, then swung left to right in diminishing arcs until he was still. Suzuki and Kobun sat facing out; everyone else sat facing the century-old walls built of mountain stone. The large new drum at the back of the zendo was hit in tandem with the new hanging bell outside, creating deep, rich sounds. After ten minutes there was only the sound of Tassajara creek, an occasional pot banging in the kitchen, someone clearing their throat. Now they were all in harmony--Suzuki, Richard, Phillip, Bill, Silas, a number of older students, and many new ones: following their breaths, counting their breaths, just sitting, looking, with no props and no beliefs, some sleepy, some with chattering minds, some with legs already aching. No hurry. Sit zazen, and compulsive thinking and dominating emotions will be eroded, as a mountain is smoothed over in time by wind and rain.
After forty minutes a small bell rang and there followed ten minutes of kinhin. Suzuki walked around observing and correcting, spacing people evenly apart, showing with his fist between their ankles how far apart the feet should be.
The morning schedule continued with another zazen period, then morning service as at Sokoji, beginning with nine full bows and featuring the Heart Sutra recited three times in the old Sino-Japanese. Anyone who had been around knew the Heart Sutra. With the punctuating bells and the rhythmic thump of the mokugyo, it got the blood going, bringing everyone together in a choral, multitonal, quasimusical experience of dynamic harmony and energy.
Everything at Tassajara was unusual compared to any other version of American life, but the most exotic part of the schedule for a newcomer was the oryoki style of eating. Oryoki are cloth-wrapped eating bowls. The Soto Zen way of using them is a simple yet elegant ceremony that includes chanting, unwrapping and setting out bowls and utensils, eating, and cleaning up--all without leaving your zafu. The oryoki meal at Tassajara was a type of active, concentrated zazen that took almost an hour, less than half of which was spent actually eating. Clackers were hit signaling servers to enter, bow, and ladle out food from large pots. At the end of the meal, servers brought hot water; the bowls were washed and wiped clean. Wash water was collected in buckets and later poured on the garden. Bowls were wrapped, and after the final chant, the students fluffed their cushions and stood. Everyone bowed with Suzuki at each of three rings of a small bell. Then he walked out, followed by Kobun and Richard. Another bell was hit, and people walked slowly in shashu to greet the light of day after three hours in the zendo.
A short break after the meal was followed by a study period, then morning work, which ended in sweltering heat. By eleven o'clock they were back in the zendo for a sauna-like zazen, a brief service, and lunch. An afternoon work period was broken by a tea break, blessed bath time, evening service, dinner, and two hours of zazen or a lecture in the evening. At the end of the day most students fell asleep as soon as they lay down--at about 9:30. Up to seven hours of the day would have been spent in the zendo. Four-and-nine days were almost days off; then there were only two zazen periods, one in the morning and one in the evening. Between breakfast and dinner people could sleep, hike, do laundry, read, or talk.
This was the Tassajara schedule, the heart of Tassajara life. It was formidable, and no one could do it without earnest intent. Some men who had been in the army likened it to boot camp, without the harshness. But a slight person could practice this discipline as well as a strong one. Suzuki did it all, morning to night, day after day, setting the tone and the pace, unhurried, at home, just being himself.
Through the years the schedule would be the first teacher that new students would have at Tassajara. "Just follow the schedule," they'd be told when they arrived. That would be enough. People who didn't necessarily get along nevertheless supported each other and respected each other for continuing with the schedule, day in day out. It was climbing a mountain, trekking through a jungle, crossing a desert. It was waiting patiently like a hunter, not moving for hours. It was sitting with pain or with subtle feelings of deep pleasure. Bubbling up from people's minds came anxiety, confusion, fear, joy, giggling. In time, moments of clarity and satisfaction started to appear in the hearts and minds of Suzuki's diverse students as they followed the schedule together, taking the first step in establishing Dogen's way in the California wilderness.
Just to be there in the corner of the garden is enough.
August at Tassajara was dry and hot. The clean air carried the smells of sun-baked sycamore leaves and fresh bread from the ovens in the kitchen. Tassajara Creek was low but still gurgling, a host to dragonflies, turtles, and tiny flies called no-see-ums that buzz around the eyes at dusk. At eleven in the morning Suzuki was in his baggy black monk's work clothes, using an iron bar to shift a big stone with Phillip.
All around him Tassajara was finding its rhythm. The generator purred, and a table saw whined at the shop. The beat-up 1953 Chevy pickup bounced on the bumpy road to Grasshopper Flats to get some two-by-fours, kitchen workers chopped vegetables and kneaded bread, the person in charge of the zendo for the day filled lamps with kerosene and trimmed the wicks. Students in jeans or black robes walked past the cabins on the dusty road and glanced at Suzuki making his new garden. It had been a long time since he'd had a garden to work in.
Undistracted, sweating, ignoring flies, Suzuki worked quietly, steadily, and with obvious satisfaction. Whatever he did, he did it completely, with his whole body and mind. Once he said, "A tiger catches a mouse with all its strength." There was nothing Suzuki liked more than working in his garden at Tassajara, just quietly moving in the midst of his students, close to the earth and what grows out of it.
I think most of us study Buddhism like something already given to us. We think what we should do is preserve the Buddha's teaching, like putting food in the refrigerator. We think that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. If you look at the empty garden you won't see anything, but if you take care of the seed it will come up. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden.
Louise Pryor was Suzuki's first personal attendant. Having no predecessor to learn from, she had to figure out for herself what the job was all about. She liked the way he set up his cabin, simply and with muted colors. Everything had a place. Things were beautifully spaced. Nothing was new or specially purchased for the cabin. On the first morning of her new position, Suzuki washed his feet on the doorstep after working in the garden. Louise, who was standing just inside the door, handed him a towel. She then reached down and pinched one of his toes. He smiled and said, "That is one of the powers of Buddha."
"To see what someone needs and give it to them."
Another time Louise said to him, "I compare myself to other students and feel inadequate. I haven't read anything about Buddhism."
"Oh! That's the best way to come to practice," Suzuki answered.
Louise loved to walk him to the baths. He was never in a hurry. When he met people along the way, he'd stop and bow, looking directly in their faces. Louise saw how his face would change to reflect the person he met. Sometimes he would stand on the arched bridge over the stream, looking down for a long, long time.
She'd seen him in vulnerable situations. Once, as she drove him into Tassajara from San Francisco, he asked her to pull over. He got out to take a leak off the side of the road. Louise called out that maybe he shouldn't have had that second cup of coffee at the Thunderbird, the bookstore cafe in Carmel Valley. As she stretched her legs beside the car, she heard a sound like a small rock tumbling down the steep incline past manzanita, madrone, and oak. "Oh!" Suzuki called. "My teef!" Louise went over and discovered that his false teeth had fallen out. He looked pathetic and comical, like a skid-row bum. Suzuki scooted down the bank, getting his robes all dirty. They looked and looked but couldn't find the teeth. At Tassajara he had her drive straight to his cabin and refused to see anyone till another set of teeth arrived from San Francisco.
Our rules are based on a warm, kind mind.
It is not so important to follow the rules literally.
Before Tassajara, rules didn't seem so important. One might think about how the precepts applied to one's everyday life in the city, but the main thing people did together was zazen, and Suzuki always emphasized that zazen included all the precepts. If he pushed your back in with his stick when you were slumping, you'd no more argue with him than with your tennis coach about the proper grip on the racket. But outside the Tassajara zendo lurked trouble, especially now that men and women were living and working together closely in a monastic situation. The rules took on more gravity. Within the context of that demanding life, however, Suzuki's way was easygoing; he liked to keep rules to a minimum and would suggest new ones only as problems occurred.
In April of 1967, before the official opening, a crew was preparing Tassajara for the first practice period, and Suzuki came down from San Francisco for a week to join his young, hard-working students. He followed the schedule, sitting zazen early, doing physical labor during the days--stonework, sweeping, and cleaning. In the evenings he'd lecture, and there would be questions. A lot of the discussion had to do with the demands of the new round-the-clock communal situation.
Bob Halpern's hand shot up at the end of Suzuki's first lecture. Bob had been coming up from L.A. to the August sesshins at Sokoji for a couple of years, and now he was at Tassajara. Bob was always trying to be a model student, fanatically attempting to do everything right, and tripping over himself in the process. Suzuki had a soft spot for him because of his enthusiasm and mischievousness.
Bob asked if it might not be good for Tassajara to have more rules, like monasteries in Japan. For instance, people were using the baths outside the scheduled time, and there was a lot of talking going on there. Like an amoeba dividing, the room polarized. There were serious nods and exasperated exhalations.
"Yes, rules are important," Suzuki said. "And if there are rules you should just follow them. But if there is no rule you don't necessarily have to make one." He paused. "Hmmm … yes … rules … good … we need some rules." Then he looked around with a twinkle in his eye and fixed on the corner of the room. "Ah, see that broom over there? It's standing on its bristles. That's not so good for the broom. The bristles will bend, and it won't work so well or last so long. It's better to rest the broom on the handle. There--that's a good rule."
I was there that evening, and I've always thought of this as the first rule of Tassajara.
The next evening during his lecture Suzuki talked about the baths. He said he appreciated people's youthful sense of freedom and was glad to see how comfortable they were with each other in the baths. On the other hand, he said that in a Zen monastery the baths are one of the three silent places, along with the zendo and the toilet. The atmosphere of the baths should be more like that of the zendo than the courtyard, where we say hi to each other and drink tea and coffee. In a monastery, he said, the baths are second only to the zendo as a place for zazen, and it would be best to reduce the distractions there by being silent and having men and women bathe separately. At the time there was mixed nude bathing, which nearly everyone thought was natural and good. He was cutting it off. There are two plunges, large tubs, he pointed out, so we can keep the same schedule and have the men on one side and the women on the other.
There were a lot of questions after the lecture. Don't Japanese families bathe together in community spas? Doesn't this support guilt-ridden American Puritanism? Suzuki said that men and women rarely bathe together in Japan, and that Japanese are very modest about their bodies. He sighed, adding that they were not Japanese, so that was no argument one way or another. "Anyway, this is the best way for us--it has nothing to do with Japan or America or good and bad. It will just be our rule and we should do it."
Most people accepted what he said, but some argued further. Two couples who had been at Tassajara before Zen Center bought it, and who had been told they could stay, left partially because of the new bath rules.
A couple of days later the guys were quietly soaking in the men's plunge after a hard day's work when tiny, naked, practically hairless Suzuki slowly entered the deep, hot sulfur water, holding a washcloth-size towel over his genitals, as they do in Japan, a practice no one else copied. Bob was there, audibly taking deep breaths, keeping an obvious silence, staring straight ahead, showing his teacher he was doing meditation in the baths as he was supposed to. Suzuki sidled up to him nonchalantly and said, "Oh, the water's very hot. How hot do you think it is?" Bob didn't know what to do.
If we feel too close, it doesn't make any sense, we cannot help each other. So we need some distance. The rules will give some distance between teacher and disciple. Because of the distance, the student may have some freedom in his activity, and the teacher will find out how to help him. When you play a game, if you are too close, you cannot play. Only when you have some distance between you can you play something.
Suzuki told an old Chinese folk tale about the difference between heaven and hell. In hell everyone has very short arms. They sit around tables full of sumptuous food, trying to eat with very long chopsticks, but they can't get the food in their mouths because the chopsticks are too long and their arms too short. They try in agony to feed themselves, to no avail. In heaven everyone also has short arms, but everyone is feeding each other across the table and having a lovely time.
He said the beings in hell are driven by greed and selfishness, always wanting more, just repeating their bad habits in confusion. So how do creatures of habit come to act naturally, like the beings in that Chinese heaven, when they're so lost to begin with? First he said, "We must establish our practice in our delusion." The way to do this is to have some rules, which we receive from those who have gone before us and whom we respect. He likened it to putting a snake in a bamboo tube. He'd had plenty of such straightening out in his life from childhood on, more difficulty and effort than his students could imagine.
What I want to talk about now is how to orient your mind in practice. For the beginner it is inevitable that there will be hard discipline, the observation of some rules. Rigid rules are not our point. But if you want to acquire vital freedom, it is necessary to have some strength, some discipline, in order to be free from one-sided dualistic ideas. So our training begins in the realm of duality or rules: what we should or should not do.
As always, his students would ask why. Suzuki said in Japan no one would even think of asking why. He admired the sincerity and honesty of his students but cautioned that it would be hard to establish a practice if they had to think about things so much. He said he wasn't asking anything unreasonable and that most questions would answer themselves in time. Phillip told them of a saying at Eiheiji: "Don't say no for the first five years." Suzuki often said, "Just do it!"
With rules, sometimes Suzuki would emphasize kindness and sometimes he would emphasize strictness.
When we practice our way, we should forget everything and try to find ourself in our everyday life. That is why we must be strict, we must have strict rules. Our human nature is very sneaky. Without some strict way we will go this way and that way.
The countercultural credo of the times was "Do your own thing," and vague yet passionately held ideas of love and freedom were in the air. Many of Suzuki's students had ridden the waves of hippiedom into the Zen Center, rejecting to various degrees the mores of middle America. Others had resisted the authority of government in civil disobedience or had broken the law by taking psychedelics. They had thrown off some of the shackles of their society and were looking for liberation. They were a striking mix of individualists and eccentrics who would never have ended up together, following that disciplined life, if not for Suzuki. Now they were getting up in the dark, practicing zazen in full or half lotus, chanting together in an ancient, unfamiliar language, wearing robes, eating in silence, working hard, and making every attempt to follow a life far more structured than the ones they'd rejected.
These kinds of rules are necessary, because before you start practice or realize the necessity of a religious life, before you adore something holy, you are bound in the realm of necessity, controlled completely by your surroundings. When you see something beautiful, you will stay there as long as possible. When you are tired of it, you will go to another place. You may think that is freedom, but it is not freedom, it's being enslaved by your surroundings, that is all. Not at all free! That kind of life is just material and superficial.
Some people took to discipline easier than others, and some worried more about their fellow students' adherence to the rules than about their own. Some wanted less structure, and some wanted more; frequently those who wanted more had the hardest time keeping to it. A woman who had lived in a hippie commune for a year called this tug-of-war the Nazis versus the Gypsies, but of course there were more shades of grey than that. It all worked because Suzuki was there to moderate, point the way, and knock people off the position they were attached to. The path he indicated was often not in the direction that was expected. And before long he'd be there pointing in another direction that wasn't expected. He often stressed that what's important is to follow the spirit of the rules, not the letter of the law. He said that fundamentally people knew what they were doing, and their development was up to them.
Within the rules, you should try to break one. You should do something like that, on and off. Then you will know what is wrong with you.
There was a morning tea called *chosan=, held in Suzuki-roshi's cabin after breakfast and before work period, in which Suzuki would meet with his senior disciples and the officers of the monastery. They would start by prostrating together before his altar. Then the students would bow to Suzuki and he to them, everyone saying good morning. They sat in seiza on the tatami in silence while Suzuki's attendant made tea. After sipping and munching for a while, Suzuki would say something. He would comment on the quality of the morning chanting or the change of season, and when he was finished, others were free to speak. Then the everyday workings of the monastery would be discussed--meals, changes in the schedule, an upcoming ceremony, or a special problem that had arisen. It might be mentioned that someone had left Tassajara without permission, or Suzuki might clarify some temple etiquette, like a fine point on how to enter the zendo. For the officers it was the high point of the day, because they got to be with Suzuki for thirty minutes in a fairly intimate setting.
As head of the dining room during summer guest season, I generally attended the morning tea. One morning I woke up late. I'd missed zazen, service, and breakfast, looked terrible, and reeked of alcohol, having stayed up the previous night with some guests. This was not the first time I'd slept in. At tea, one of the officers looked at me, fuming. As soon as Suzuki had made his remarks and there was an opening, the officer spoke up loudly.
"Suzuki-roshi, what do you think of a student who flagrantly violates the rules of the monastery?" It was obvious whom he was talking about.
Suzuki took a sip of his tea and said, "Mmmmm." He frequently made a sound like that to give some space. Then he said, "Everyone is doing their best. This practice is not so easy."
"Yes, but, Roshi, flagrant. Breaking rules all the time so that everyone can see."
"Better that we see it than that they hide it."
"Yes, but shouldn't he follow the rules?"
"Of course, but you can break the rules sometimes and still follow the spirit of the rules."
The others were listening attentively. I kept my eyes down, and my occasional winces must have seemed more the result of my headache than what anyone was saying. The poor fellow wasn't getting what he wanted, but he tried again. "Yes, but, Roshi, can't you keep the rules and the spirit too?"
"Of course," said Suzuki brightly. "That's the best way."
Don't kill" is a dead precept.
"Excuse me" is an actual working precept.
Suzuki was lecturing on the precepts. When he got to the third one, he said:
Do not commit adultery [laughing]. That means attachment, you know, extreme attachment. This precept emphasizes especially our attachment to some particular thing. But it does not mean not to attach to the other sex [laughing more].
Generally sex was not as big a deal in students' lives as it had been before they'd gotten involved with Zen. Suzuki's tactic was to focus on the practice, the Tassajara schedule. That didn't leave much time or energy for anything else. Almost everyone was so exhausted from following the schedule that they'd go to sleep before the fire watch went around with the good-night clackers at ten. But there would often be one or two people up late reading, sneaking into the baths, stealing food from the kitchen, or slipping into someone else's sleeping bag.
There was more interest in the topic of sex in the city. One student had been involved in a free love scene before coming to the Zen Center. After some time at Zen Center he decided to become celibate and shaved his head. "Is it necessary to have sex in order to have a complete understanding?" he asked Suzuki.
"Maybe you shouldn't have too much sex," Suzuki said and paused. "But maybe you shouldn't have too little either," he added, to howls of laughter.
On another day a student asked: "Roshi, I have a lot of sexual desire. When I sit I just get more. I'm trying to concentrate on my practice, so I'm thinking of becoming celibate. Should I try to limit myself in this way?"
"Sex is like brushing your teeth," Suzuki answered. "It's a good thing to do, but not so good to do it all day long."
A girl wearing many strings of beads raised her hand when Suzuki asked for questions. "Suzuki-roshi, what is sex?"
"Once you say sex, everything is sex."
With his students Suzuki mainly avoided the subject, feeling there were cultural differences he just didn't understand. Sometimes he'd back off when familiar monastic forms ran headlong into sixties sexuality.
"Since you're going to be ordained, it would be better if you didn't have a girlfriend for five years," Suzuki said to me in his cabin at Tassajara.
"Oh gosh, Roshi, I don't think I can do that. I have a girlfriend here now! Didn't you know that?"
"Don't tell me," he said, averting his eyes.
How do you like zazen? How do you like brown rice?
I think this is a better question. Zazen is too much. Brown rice,
I think, is just right. But actually, there is not much difference.
As is common in communal situations, there was often wrangling at Tassajara over food. There were raw-food proponents and eat-anything proponents, but the most fanatic were those expounding the glories of brown rice. They were influenced by the macrobiotic diet, a Japanese vegetarian movement that associated itself with Zen. It was often called the Zen macrobiotic diet. Some people came to Zen Center with the idea that eating brown rice and soybean products was integral to Zen. Others insisted there was no connection at all.
Suzuki would neither accept nor reject macrobiotics. "There is some overlap," he said once when pressed to reject it. But, in general, he had a distaste for food fanaticism. "We eat what we're served." The macrobiotic movement was reminiscent of the Brown Rice Movement in Japan during the war, zealously promoted by his old friends Kozo Kato and his wife. A good deal of brown rice was eaten at Tassajara, and Suzuki did want Tassajara's diet to be based on grains and not serve d in some fancy way--but he didn't want ideology served as food.
Suzuki did have trouble with the Tassajara dietary regimen, though. He got thinner at Tassajara, and some said it was because the diet was hard on him. He'd eaten white rice all his life and had trouble chewing the brown rice and a lot of the other food because of his false teeth. Ed Brown was head of the kitchen, and when there was a dish that Suzuki couldn't eat, Ed would serve him something else. But he just wanted to eat the same as others. One day Suzuki broke a tooth, and he was put on a diet of soft food. "You have no idea how humiliating it is to be served mashed bananas," he told Ed.
Ed had worked in the Tassajara kitchen during the previous summer, before Zen Center had purchased the resort, and had learned a lot from the chefs--especially how to make the great bread that would become the acclaimed staple for Tassajara lunches. Ed conferred with Suzuki regularly about food and factions, emotions and Zen practice.
One day Ed came to Suzuki distraught and told him he was being besieged by people with strong ideas about how he should cook--no salt, more salt; no sugar, more sugar; no dairy, more cheese. Some people were accusing him of poisoning them if he didn't accommodate their preferences. Suzuki told Ed he was the head cook and he should decide. Pressed for further advice, Suzuki told him, "When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup."
Suzuki was primarily vegetarian, and he insisted that student food at Tassajara not include meat or fish, but he did not advocate strict adherence to any food regimen outside the monastery. His wife frequently served him small amounts of meat and fish at Sokoji. Even though the food at Tassajara was vegetarian, Suzuki would remind his students that in order to live we had to kill, and that we shouldn't feel morally superior because we didn't eat meat. "You have to kill vegetables, too," he said. Sometimes he'd use a meal to make a point that Buddhism wasn't the captive of any trips, especially food trips.
Suzuki had again crushed a finger while resetting stones, this time at the base of a wall at Tassajara. It swelled up and turned purple. Bob Halpern drove him into Carmel, making a special effort to sit up straight and not to talk for the first few miles, but then he started asking Suzuki about Buddhism and vegetarianism. Suzuki promptly went to sleep.
The finger wasn't broken. The doctor drilled into the nail to relieve the pressure, wrapped it up, and told him to keep it high.
Walking past the Carmel boutiques, Suzuki said to Bob, "Let's eat, I'm hungry." Bob started looking for a restaurant where they could get a vegetarian meal. "Let's eat here," said Suzuki, going into a little hamburger joint while Bob mumbled, "But, but …" Bob studied the menu with horror.
"You haven't had any meat in a long time, have you?" Suzuki said to him.
"No, Roshi, not in two years. No animal food. No dairy or eggs."
"That's very good," Suzuki said, as the waitress walked up. "You order first."
"I'll take a grilled cheese sandwich." It was the best he could do with that menu.
"Hamburger please," said Suzuki, "with double meat."
Their food arrived and they each took a bite. "How is it?" asked Suzuki.
Our practice will not take you away to somewhere better. Just
stay here and follow the schedule with others, not trying to be too
good or to understand Buddhism too well. The most important
point is not to go on any trips. Don't go on any trips.
Paul Discoe, Tassajara's master builder, was moving a cabin. It was one of those occasional projects that turned the monastery upside down; people were excited, immersed in the action. The study period was canceled. Lunch was informal so people didn't have to change into robes. Suzuki energetically threw himself into the project. There were trucks, jacks, chains, rope, pulleys, boards, and a two-wheel trailer. It took a lot of hands and backs to get the job done, and there was an enjoyable drama to the proceedings.
At the height of the energy, sweat, and excitement, Suzuki and Bob were watching the cabin slowly creak over the bridge. No one was enjoying it more than Suzuki. He turned to Bob. "I love work trips," he said, wiping his brow. "I hate food trips, but I love work trips."
"She is too serious," Suzuki whispered to me, discreetly pointing to another student. We stood at the base of the grand old oak tree by the central sandstone steps. I didn't know what to make of it. I wanted to think that he was talking to me about her, but I had the uneasy feeling that he was talking to me about me. I saw myself as sort of a cutup who should probably be more serious, so why was he saying that?
Suzuki frequently used an indirect approach. In lecture he said that if he scolded you in front of others, not to feel too bad, because it might be intended for someone else who isn't ready to hear it. "If I hit you with the stick, it's because I trust you, because you're a good student. Sometimes it's for you, sometimes it's for the person next to you."
I went to Suzuki's cabin unannounced after dinner one night and was invited in. Never known for moderation, I was, at this time in my life, alternating between periods of austerity and indulgence. I felt guilty. I told him I couldn't stop snacking in the kitchen. Sometimes I'd sneak into the kitchen at night, eat leftover guest desserts, and drink their half-and-half.
Suzuki reached under his desk conspiratorially. "Here, have some jelly beans," he said.
Suzuki had great respect for the difficulty of changing one's course, for the tenacity of habit, the addictiveness of thoughts and beliefs, the power of delusion. He was always teaching the importance of developing good habits so as not to become lost and confused, the importance of not wanting too much--this was called following the precepts. "Make your best effort," he said. But still he cautioned not to try too hard, saying that we would naturally follow the precepts if we just relaxed within our practice.
In zazen it was the same. Try hard, but don't try too hard. Thoughts were easier to deal with than emotions, but the approach was the same. "In zazen leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don't serve them tea."
One day Suzuki asked me to bring him some wheelbarrow loads of dirt, so I hauled one after another from way down the road past the baths. We made a little mountain with it in his garden, working quietly, as was the rule. While we were working I asked him a question about Zen. He didn't say a thing, just kept on working. Later, when the bell rang to end work and begin bath time, he offered me some tea. While we were drinking it outside his cabin he said, "You know, I don't want to teach anything so much. I'd rather not even give lectures. I'd just like to sit zazen with everyone, take a bath, eat simple food, and work. That should be enough."
Dogen says, people like what is not true
Only the first practice period was in the summer. After that Tassajara settled into the traditional pattern of having two ninety-day practice periods a year, one that started in early fall and one that started in winter. Phillip was the head monk for the second practice period, which began in February 1968. Suzuki had a terrible flu that winter and spent a lot of time at Sokoji in bed. One day in late April, Suzuki joined his students on a walk to the Horse Pasture for a picnic. He danced while I sang a song I'd written called "I Wanna Be a Bodhisattva Baby." It was an especially enjoyable day. During his evening lecture, however, the mood changed.
There was a student who had a rather extreme reaction to the rigors of life there. He warded off the cold with a down jacket under his robe, and woolen socks and mittens, and he kept a huge stash of candy bars in his room to tide him over between meals. After Suzuki's lecture this student asked about austerity. Buddhism is the middle way, so aren't we off course if we're too hard on ourselves? Do we have to do all this Japanese stuff? Shouldn't we get more sleep?
"When you're tired, your ego is tired," Suzuki said. He agreed people shouldn't be too hard on themselves, but that Zen is hard and ignorance is deep. The bundled-up fellow kept questioning Suzuki's responses until he fumed. Then he exploded--at everyone.
"Spineless! You are spineless! All of you are spineless! You only want a sweet pill! You never want the bitter pill! Spineless!"
He stormed down to the zendo floor and began hitting the student with his short teacher's staff while shouting more. His stick couldn't penetrate the buoyant down, which made sounds like a pillow, and that made him madder. Then he went around and hit everybody two times on each shoulder. Back on his cushion he continued speaking with intense emotion.
"You say you want the truth. None of you want the truth! If I told you the truth I'd be left sitting here alone listening to the sounds of your cars driving up the road!"
Then Suzuki softened. He sat silently for a moment and sighed. "I understand you. You think that pain is bad, that suffering is bad. You think that our way is to go beyond suffering, but there is no end to suffering. When I was young I felt very bad for all the suffering that people have. But now I don't feel so bad. Now I see suffering as inescapable. Now I see that suffering is beautiful. You must suffer more."
It was a difficult point to understand and a terribly depressing ending to a lovely day. After trying long and hard, the students were being told that they refused to accept the teaching. The next morning after breakfast Suzuki spoke meekly, apologizing for having lost his temper. But he didn't take back what he had said.
Japan, a teacher doesn't like for other teachers, especially from
In the little world of American Zen there was a big event that summer of 1968. An entourage of senior Zen teachers came to Tassajara. This gathering of priests with strikingly different styles benefited from the fresh smell of the wilderness and the magic of Tassajara. Students were excited to learn suddenly that Soen Nakagawa-roshi and Yasutani-roshi were among eight teachers coming to visit. Nakagawa was the priest who, while visiting Suzuki at Sokoji in 1959, had dramatically torn up the non-Zen sutra book. They brought some of the ashes of Nyogen Senzaki, who had died in L.A. in 1958, to be scattered at Tassajara.
All eight teachers used koans with their students and were critical of Suzuki's less aggressive style of Soto Zen, calling it sleepy and unproductive. But it was an ecumenical three days, a time to recognize Nyogen Senzaki as a primary ancestor of American Buddhism, and an initiation for Suzuki's baby monastery. Nakagawa's disciple, *Eido Shimano of the New York Zen Studies Society, generously called Tassajara the hara, the center of gravity, of Zen Buddhism in America.
A number of students at Tassajara were former or even present students of one or more of the visiting teachers. Yasutani had been coming from Japan and conducting sesshins in America for six years. He was a dynamo who used the stick freely and often yelled exhortations such as, "What are you wasting your time for? Die! Die! Don't leave this zendo without having died!"
Suzuki led his guests from the baths to the steam room and then into a warm pool behind the little rock dam in the creek. They met in the fireplace room, talked and did calligraphy, exchanging their creations.
There were talks in the zendo. The wall-to-wall raised platform at the end of the zendo was crowded with the visiting priests, along with Suzuki, Kobun, and Richard. Yasutani, old, hollow-eyed and bent, spoke with vigor, scolding Soto Zen for abandoning koan practice and saying that the Japanese temple system was a weight hanging around Zen's neck. Only a return to the ancient Chinese basics would save Zen, he declared. That was one thing they all agreed on.
Nakagawa gave a dynamic lecture, strutting back and forth across the altar platform. The talks went on and on, but no one minded--it was such a treat. There were questions and answers. I asked what was the best way to establish Buddhism in America, and everyone had an answer: Yasutani, Nakagawa (both translated by Maezumi), Shimano, and then it was Suzuki's turn. "I have nothing to say," he said, getting up and going out the side door. Everyone roared in delight, and it was over.
In a talk that night Suzuki said Yasutani and Nakagawa had come to Tassajara and painted in the pupils of the eyes of the dragon that he had been drawing for years. "There's a lot for me to learn from them. Before, when I heard the word Rinzai, I always felt a little uncomfortable. It was because I felt a separateness. Now when I hear it I feel complete." (Yasutani was Soto but he used koans, like the Rinzai.)
In a ceremony with all students present, Suzuki received a portion of Senzaki's ashes from Nakagawa and placed them on the Tassajara altar. The only rain of the summer fell that morning, and a double rainbow met people as they walked out of the zendo into the early morning light. Two weeks later Suzuki, Kobun, and some students went up to the ridge and cast Senzaki's ashes to the wind.
On the last morning of the teachers' visit, everyone sat zazen. Bob was carrying the stick and sporting a down-turned samurai scowl to let his old teachers, Maezumi and Yasutani, know that he hadn't gotten soft, and that Soto Zen wasn't sleepy. He stopped before a dozing student, placed the wide stick on her shoulder, and gave her a whack on each side. They bowed together and he went on. Walking slowly down the maroon linoleum aisle, he lifted his gaze to see in the kerosene lamplight the historic cast of dharma transmitters on the platform: Suzuki, Yasutani, Nakagawa, Shimano, Maezumi, Aitken (from Hawaii), Richard, Kobun. Every one of them was nodding, sound asleep.
Next: Chapter Sixteen
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