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Brief Memories
of Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Center back then, etc. 

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Brief Memories

photo by Lisa Law


From Charlie Guilford

followed by a clarifying exchange between Charlie and DC about the Flop Room story

4-11-08 - Friday is a day off, and when I awoke to this beautiful sunny morning I saw that on the night stand was To Shine One Corner. I read some of the little anecdotes again for the first time in a long time, and was reminded that you have asked several times for a couple of my own stories about Suzuki Roshi. I remember the first time you asked me over the phone if I had any stories of my own, and my immediate reaction was well, no. And then I realized that of course I did. These are among the anchor points which have been with me for a long time. It has taken years to realize what they are and for them to bite in and deepen. But since they have been with me for so long, they come back to me through these forty years with attachments: jpegs and pdfs, details and digressions and pictures and people. In your book these stories would have taken three sentences, but for me, there are volumes in them. I send bits of a couple of them to you in gratitude for those little gems in your collection.


Back in the day, the Flop Room was off the kitchen and had a wonderful patchwork carpet made by Van Voorhees, who installed carpet for a living. He had pieced it together from scraps left over from various jobs. There was a large low table in there for which I had made some legs. Whoever asked me to do that also told me that some legendary character from Zen Centerís past had once smuggled dope inside the hollow top. Part of the heritage. People could lie around the Flop Room and relax and have a cup of tea, but there was a rule that food was not allowed in there because they tended to leave a mess which got in the carpet and someone else had to clean it up. Neatening up the Flop Room was one of the regular chores. Difficult rule. It was so close to where the food was, after all.

During question time after one of Suzuki Roshiís lectures, Craig Boyan raised his hand. Craigís head was shaved, I remember. Lots of people did that then. It was in the era before Katagiri declared that because we had to be able to tell the feces from the miso, only priests should shave their heads. Personally, I found an interesting ambiguity in that: as I heard it, it was an open question which was which. Craig had an interesting head.

He said to Suzuki Roshi, "I have a problem. There is a rule that people are not supposed to eat in the Flop Room, but I often go in there and there are people eating anyway. I want to say something to them, but I feel funny about doing that because who am I to be telling other people what to do? I donít feel quite right about saying something, but it also bothers me that I donít."

Suzuki Roshi said, "Why donít you do it anyway and see what happens?"

Among other things, give your cow a big pasture.


Another one:

Someone asked Suzuki Roshi Why are there so few good teachers?

He paused a moment and said, "I think a more interesting question is, why are there so few good students?"


To me, it had seemed at the time like one of those softball sucky questions which we throw out to make nice with the teacher. And it could be understood as a pointed answer. As I now see it, that tells more about my own perception at the time than anything else. Such was his understanding and respect for the beginnerís mind, Suzuki Roshi had a way of taking these and bouncing them back as something that could change your life. This exchange, for me, contains the key to how that happened. The seed planted here has over time sent deep roots down through my understanding of what it means to be a teacher and to be a student.

Nice day. Saw Norman and Paula last night, and Norman mentioned that he had seen Blanche Hartman on the news, marching across the Golden Gate Bridge in support of the Tibetans. Susan and I had watched, but missed her in the crowd.

Some earlier observations from Charlie - notes from a phone conversation in August, 2007:

I remember Issan always had that photo of Ramana Maharshi on his wall.

I used to eat at the Sincere Cafe, a Chinese family place. Claude said, "That's my favorite restaurant."

The stories about Suzuki Roshi were for the moment. They fit the person and the situation and might not apply to anything else.

On 4th Dec sitting Rohatsu [sesshin] and Dan Welch said SR died (dragon day as Walter says0 and I remember the rock I was looking at when I heard that and I want to go back and see that rock.

I have these little stories like a crow collecting shiny things to put in its nest and doesn't know why.

April 08 Exchange between Charlie and DC on the Craig Boyan story which I think is interesting in that it shows something about the process of collecting stories.

In response to Charlie's note above, I, DC, remembered Charlie having told me those stories over the phone. I was in bed in a motel . Clay and I were on the way to Tassajara and had stayed overnight in Santa Cruz because he'd had a late drum lesson there. I'd gotten hold of Charlie about the Early Tassajara Alumni Reunion and he'd called me about that and to say hi. We hadn't talked since the early seventies I don't think. He'd gone off to Maine to study with Walter Nowick and he's still there. I asked Charlie to please email me his stories and any memories he had of the Suzuki era and anything else he wanted to add. I also wrote down some notes on what he'd said and included above the parts he hadn't reiterated in his recent email.

Here's what I had written back then on the Craig story:

I remember being in the flop room at the City Center with Suzuki Roshi and some others. Craig Boyan was there and he said to Suzuki, "I see people eating in the flop room and it has this nice carpet and I think they shouldn't and I don't know what to do. Suzuki said, "Why don't you try it for yourself and see what you think?"

So I took it that Suzuki was telling Craig to try eating something in the Flop Room.

From what I wrote to Charlie in response to his email:

I'm going to integrate the notes I took from our talk last summer. Here they are. I'm going to think about how to word the Craig story so that it's clear that Suzuki is saying why don't you try eating there rather than why don't you try pointing out to people that they're breaking the rule.

Charlie responded:

Actually, it was clear at the time that this is what Suzuki meant, perhaps because Craig had phrased his question differently. He may well have said "should I say something or not?" , which might work better, since I'm pretty sure Roshi said it just as simply and directly as I put it down. That was part of the power of it. I think the sprit of the exchange would be better preserved by changing the question than the answer.

Charlie soon followed that up with:

I have reread your response closely and see that my reply to you may still be ambiguous. I definitely understood him to be suggesting that Craig try saying something in support of the rule. Sorry about the misunderstanding.

DC wrote:

This is interesting to me. I misunderstood when you first told me over the phone last August. I canít help but wonder if Suzuki Roshi meant to try eating in there and see what thatís like that would be more in line with his usual way of dealing with people who were hung up on rules however, he was unpredictable and would tend to hop to the opposite side of where one was stuck so if Craig was stuck on an idea that he shouldnít say anything more than the idea of the rule then it would be natural for Suzuki Roshi to knock that idea away.

The Sixth Patriarch said to his assembled disciples when he was dying (according to one report) to remember that everythingís divided up into pairs of opposites and that all they had to do to teach was to knock their students off of the side of whichever pair they were stuck to at the moment.

I get this humorous picture of a tormented student bouncing back and forth between whether they should uphold the rule or keep quiet and a teacher giving them an ambiguous answer of "try it and see what happens," and later the student wondering which heís supposed to try upholding the rule or keeping quiet.

But this is your story so I take it the way you do.

Charlie wrote:

Interesting indeed. Apparently there was enough ambiguity in what I said or what you heard over the phone as well as in what I just wrote that the meaning flipped over the other way for you. That is what I picked up when I carefully reread your first reply, and it surprised me. Hadn't even occurred to me. Not as clear as I thought I was being.

In any case, at the time it was quite clear to me that what Craig was asking was not "should I eat there" (that was already happening, and would not have helped his dilemma) but "should I say something," which is what Roshi replied to. There was a tendency among some of us at that time to be very critical of others for "not following the rules" (you may have noticed this?) but also an awareness that taking it upon yourself to make a pompous point was counterproductive.

In any case, I have definitely remembered and treasured this exchange and applied it to my life as a suggestion to do the thing you think is probably right but hesitate to do and then see what happens, rather than overthink it and do nothing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but if you "see what happens" you always learn something. That was the message , to me. One thing I have seen is that the real trick is not should I say something but what is the effect of how I say it. There are many more ways to say it than I was aware of at the time, and much of that I learned from Walter. Difficult process.

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