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Interview with TAIZAN MAEZUMI

to interviews  ---  Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber with Maezumi

ZCLA Website brief bio etc on Maezumi  ---  Excerpt from 33 Fingers 

DC on Maezumi --- DC on Sumi

Here's a bio on Hakuun Yasutani, one of three teachers Maezumi received transmission from - and the other two are herein mentioned in a brief bio on Maezumi.


TAIZAN MAEZUMI-ROSHI interviewed by DC on 4\7\95 - at Green Gulch Farm. He died on May 15th of that year.


Nobody can tell you about the past. What's important is not what happened or didn't happen back then. What's important is what we have here now—this wonderful farm with the big barn zendo and the conference center where we're all meeting, so many people coming here for lecture and zazen. There's Page Street in the city and Tassajara. So many people sitting zazen all over America, even Europe. When he came, there was none of this. Many priests came before him. Even before this century, all kinds of priests in the Zen tradition came to America. We don't really know why, but until he came, no one started anything that lasted. After him, so much happened. That's what I most appreciate.

The prior summery of Taizan Maezumi's thoughts on Shunryu Suzuki is from the epilogue to Crooked Cucumber and is based on what Maezumi said in this interview and after the tape was turned off and at other times to me.

I first met Maezumi at his home and zendo in Los Angeles in the fall of 1966 back when we called him Maezumi Sensei.. I went back there a few times on shopping trips while setting up the kitchen and dining room at Tassajara and I'd stay with him and sit zazen and we'd talk. Through the years I'd visit him there or when he was at one of the SFZC's centers. He was tireless in his pursuit of establishing Zen in America. I was lucky to have this interview with him. There was a tokubetsu sesshin, special meditation week, at Green Gulch and he was very busy. Also, I got confused about our first appointment and missed it. Then he forgot the second one. But we both made it for the third. I interviewed him in his room in the Lindesfarne building. - DC


DC: What year did you come to America?

TM: I was sent by headquarters, with Moichi[?] - his name. We came so they could have a couple of young monks at Zenshuji [the Soto Zen temple in Japantown in LA]. And he and myself, kind of, came together. That was 1956. He went back.

There was also a woman, a nun, named Yoko Taichi, who'd been at the Soto Zen women's[?] college. [This is the best I could make out of this - DC]

DC: It's hard to believe. Next year is forty years. What was the atmosphere, what was the background, what was America like then in terms of Zen? Did anybody know anything?

TM: Oh sure. At that time already, some were practicing. I came in 1956 in May. May 12 was the day I landed in Long Beach harbor. I worked at Zenshuji for ten years. Sumi Roshi was there a lot.

You asked already if some people sat zazen or not. The first two years I knew Senzaki-sensei. He lived in Boyle Heights, not so far from Zenshuji.

DC: Oh - Nyogen Senzaki. He was Rinzai, and the first to have a zazen group on the West Coast. Did he have a group or anything in LA at that time?

TM: Yes, a small group. Aitken Roshi in Hawaii had been already sitting at that time. Not there but somewhere - Hawaii? At Kokoan. That's where he was practicing.

DC: I seem to recall that Aitken started off in LA. [More on Nyogen Senzaki and these early days of Zen in the US can be found in Rick Field's How the Swans Came to the Lake.]

TM: It was two years until Senzaki died in '58, Time to time I went to visit and sit with Senzaki.

DC: And how was that?

TM: It was very nice.

DC: How did he relate to people? Did he relate as a priest? wear robes?

TM: Yeah, he wore robes, but he wore robes on western clothes and wore rakusu.

DC: Do you remember when Suzuki came?

TM: Sure. I think it was in '59. I don't remember exactly which month [May]. I started to go to San Francisco State College to study English and one day I visited Sokoji and he was there.

But then before I went to Sokoji too, when there was Tobase Roshi and his wife.

DC: Tobase's wife? Tobase had a wife?

TM: I thought so. A lady was there.

DC: You sure? A Japanese woman?

TM: Yes but she was relative maybe, I don't know.

DC: The reason I say that, I didn't know if he did or didn't, but Sokoji asked for a married priest when Suzuki came. And Mitsu Suzuki says that's why he married her. He married her right before he came to America. She said that he had filled out that he's married on the visa application, and that Sokoji wanted a married priest because of some problem they had with the unmarried one. Suzuki and his wife Mitsu first lived together at Sokoji.

[That woman who Maezumi thought was Tobase's wife was a nun named Nazuka who helped in the temple and it seems from what I've gathered through the years that they were lovers and that some people in the congregation didn't approve and so, when he left, the congregation asked for headquarters in Japan to send a married priest to replace him so there wouldn't be that problem. - DC]

TM: And Mrs. Suzuki was there too. And she was a very charming lady, so kind.

DC: Did you get to know her much?

TM: Sure - from the first time I met her.

DC: She came in '61.

TM: Oh is that so. It's been so many years. I remember vaguely that she was there in the upper part of the temple.

DC: Yeah, in those small rooms. Do you remember your first impression of him when you met him?

TM: Yes. He was just a very gentle, so nice -

DC: You were much younger than him.

TM: I wonder. When was he born?

DC: 1904.

TM: 1904. I was born in 1931.

DC: 27 years difference. You came over when you were 25 years old. You met him soon after he came.

TM: I think so. I started to go to summer school in San Francisco and if he came in May, it was maybe just a few months later.

DC: Did he have any students then?

TM: Oh, gee, my memory is not so clear. Not clear means it was such a long time ago. I saw some Caucasian around the temple, so he must have had a student very soon after he arrived.

DC: Did you talk to him about that? Did he mention anything about that? About sitting, or practicing with Americans?

TM: Hmm, let's see - it's been so long. We might have talked about it because I knew Tobase-san before and had some zazenkai [zazen meeting] at Zenshuji too so it might have been - we might have talked about those things, too, but I was going to school and was very occupied by what I had to do so even though from time to time I went to visit him, my memory, the sequence of the memories, is not clear. It's kind of hard to say that anything is definite.

DC: Something that you and Suzuki have in common is that you were both interested in practice and in teaching the traditional practice of zazen.

TM: In my case I was still young and not very much into teaching as such, but I wanted to sit together with people in this country. That's what we started at Zenshuji, but the Japanese congregation didn't like the Caucasians to come, so finally I had to leave and start another place.

DC: Well Sumi didn't like most Caucasians to come there much either, I don't think. But he was always friendly with me. I used to see him when I was down there and I remember a lot about that. He'd get his eyes on certain guys whom he'd let stay at the temple, ostensibly to sit, but mainly he wasn't interested in it. It must have been very frustrating for you.

TM: That's one of the reasons I started to form our group. Not particularly that I didn't like Sumi Roshi. Before that I was with Yamada Reirin Roshi almost four years at Zenshuji. He was sent after Suzuki Daito died. Due to that I had to come back from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

DC: Wait a minute - you had to leave San Francisco to go back to Zenshuji because…

TM: To be assisting Yamada-roshi.

DC: So Yamada didn't come until '59?

TM: About '60, maybe even '61.

DC: So it was Suzuki Daito first?

TM: Yes.

DC: When did Sumi come?

TM: 1965.

DC: One thing I'd say, then, it seems that you and Nyogen Senzaki and Suzuki Shunryu had in common, was that you wanted to sit zazen and practice with other people. The others were satisfied to be temple priests for the danka [members].

TM: Yes.

DC: You're a very unusual case because you came so young.

TM: Not really. Yoko was about my age. We went to school together.

DC: But for a Japanese Buddhist priest who came to America and became a teacher.

TM: Not really teacher.

DC: You've become a teacher. You're a teacher now.

TM: No, not really.

DC: Well, you've got a lot of students. Is there anything that you remember about Suzuki Shunryu that you think might be good to know?

TM: As you can see yourself, I do most appreciate about him what he has done. A tremendous contribution.

DC: What did he do?

TM: Somehow whatever he did, however he did it, you have this marvelous place - this result of his existence in this country, despite the fact that the time wasn't so long.

DC: Yeah, 12 years. Was there anything unusual about him, or different about him.

TM: That is very unusual thing for me. Before him, we had many priests come. All kinds of priests from the top to like myself. And not only the Soto school, the Rinzai school. The first Zen teacher who came to this country was Soen Shaku at the end of last century, and from that time on, one after another, all kinds of priests in the Zen tradition came. They came and there was some zazen. Now look what happened when Suzuki Roshi came. Suzuki roshi created such wonderful effects. That's what I must appreciate and that's what the very unique thing about him.

DC: But in a sense didn't you do the same thing?

TM: I don't think so.

DC: You started a sitting center in Los Angeles. You have many disciples who started centers --

TM: -But I don't think that I did it, Not that I did it as a such. It's rather the opposite. The people that I sat with - they did it.

DC: But if Dick Baker hadn't been Suzuki's student, would there be the three centers?

TM: But still it was because of Suzuki Roshi. I appreciate Baker Roshi too and the fact that he still continues to practice. He has a place in Germany and also in Colorado. Even though the size cannot be compared to San Francisco, but he is doing something I appreciate, and we never know how things go.

DC: I'm very close with him. I've talked to him three times last week. I agree that what Suzuki did was remarkable, but some of it was the timing and the times. Also, in that same time a group developed around you. You can say you didn't do it but it happened.

TM: We started about five years later. I started the center in January 1 of 1967. He started in 62.

DC: There were people sitting zazen with him in 1959 at Sokoji --

TM: We are doing the same, we are doing the same thing. After he came we started to have Caucasians there. But my colleagues didn't have any interest in zazen. That's true.

DC: You mean your Japanese peers, those colleagues?

TM: Exactly. Even some of them said what's the use of doing zazen?

DC: This is why I'm saying that, to me, you're remarkable too.

TM: Not remarkable - unusual.

DC: Unusual. I think it's wonderful what Suzuki Roshi did and what you've done. Maybe I'm bending over backwards not to glorify Suzuki. If I'm going to collect this information I have to look at what did he do and what did the times do. I guess we won't know, we can't know.

TM: I think the time is always there. Whatever we do, that's what comes out. Even now we can say that the time is too late. Time is never too late and never too soon. And I'm sure that's what's happening. We are involved, seriously involved, and doing it and this is the result of what he did. In Suzuki Roshi's time it just happened in that way. Now it's happening in the way that now it's happening. It's a marvelous, a marvelous thing that's happening. Very unusual in a way and at the same time just inevitably it happened. That's how history goes.

DC: And you know there's a lot happening outside of the large centers. There are very small weekly groups all over America now.

TM: It's a marvelous happening.

DC: I'm sure you have a lot of small weekly groups associated with you.

TM: It depends on the group. Most of them are sitting more than once a week.

DC: Like, Steve Stucky has a group in San Rafael one block from my house. It sits on Monday night. Ed Brown has a once a week sitting in San Rafael on Thursday nights [no more]. He has a once a weekly sitting in Point Reyes some other night. Sometimes people will sit more, but there's only a meeting once a week. They have different individual practices.

TM: And people have started to take different forms of practice too. In Suzuki Roshi's time there were no other places sitting like that. So they have to come to the one place where they can sit. That's why maybe more people came. No comparison with today when many many more people are involved. We can say that, at least to some degree, he started it all and look at the results we have. It's just an incredibly important thing that he did - creating this Zen community. That's what I appreciate the most.

Another thing. He was just a nice person. Just about the right person to have come at that time.

DC: In what way?

TM: Representing a Soto type of teacher. Very gentle. In fact, his temple in Japan, Rinsoin, is a very nice temple, where monks used to practice together having ango [training] period. So these temples are called kakuji[?], specially classified temples.

DC: Do you know how long ago the last ango was at Rinsoin?

TM: I wonder. Just a guess, maybe, even in the Meiji era they might have had it. And even much later they might have had it.

DC: In looking into the history of Rinsoin and Suzuki in Japan, I see indications that there were ango while he was there, but I think maybe they were symbolic ango.

TM: That's what we do. You know, to established yourself as the priest you have to have that Shuso position. You know that having Shuso, there must be an ango taking place. So in Japan what they do instead of doing a 90 day ango, actually that's what they have been doing, they can just improvise. That is the way in the local temple. In the Soto-shu we have about 30 local monasteries -- chihoso - chiho means local - a semon sodo with a special group training in the sodo [monk's hall][semon - special].

DC: Like Zuiyoji?

TM: Zuiyoji's one.

DC: So Rinsoin?

TM: Rinsoin used to have that kind of gathering in times of old. Those who were classified as that type of temple can have that ango but it was not necessary. They held it like twice a year. Once a year in the summer, or every other year, or once every thirty years or something like that. These temples are called Zuieichi - not regularly held training period. We can have a few years in between. It just comes up and then we do it. You have to have that with a certain number of monks, otherwise you can't run it.

DC: I saw one note that said that in 1947 at Rinsoin there was a 90-day Ango with eight roshis.

TM: Could be. But that is already after the war.

DC: Do you think that what was reported was actually different from what happened?

TM: Around that time because Japan was bombed and the situation was very hard. The war just ended and there were very very hard times. So it is most unlikely they could have had so many people get together to have ango.

DC: I know that later he needed to have an ango and he needed to have a shuso to get some new rank.

TM: That's what's mostly done these days.

DC: Remember Ananda, remember Claude Dalenberg? Ananda was there in Japan at Rinsoin with Suzuki. Ananda said Suzuki couldn't find anybody to do an ango with him. I'm not sure what year this was - maybe '66 - but he used his nephew. And pretty much all they did was sign the papers.

DC: I imagine that he was studying with Kishizawa Roshi after the war.

TM: Kishizawa's temple is a sub-temple of Rinsoin. One of the top temples. I don't know how many temples are sub-temples.

DC: 200 or so.

TM: Could be.

DC: There's not much connection is there?

TM: There used to be.

DC: Right now there doesn't seem to be much. I've stayed at Rinsoin for weeks and it doesn't seem to me they have much responsibility over the other temples. Just a ceremony now and then.

TM: Not such daily things - more like an umbrella type of structure.

DC: What does it mean? Subtemple. When does it come into play?

TM: When you have Annual services, they would come and participate.

DC: Oh, I see. But there's no control is there?

TM: Not control physically like economically. But the head temple does have certain power. All kinds of heads and then mother temple. So that history is such a long time - there are certain ways to treat a branch temple. You very rarely establish that mother temple. They have angos and certain practices. A mother temple has certain responsibilities to the subtemples. Like when the branch temples have certain events the priest from the mother temple has to go and participate.

DC: Sounds like a friendly, family relationship.

TM: Exactly.

DC: Because when I've been around Hoitsu - I've stayed there a number of times - sometimes for two weeks. And it seems most of his responsibility is to the danka [members] of Rinsoin.

TM: The danka - that's one of the units of that temple. This is the work of the mother temple and a couple of hundred subtemples. The relationship is kind of similar. What we call honmatsu - honji and matsuji. The branch temple and the main temple.

DC: I know Suzuki said many times - and I've talked to neighbors who he said he this too, that he didn't want to spend his whole life taking care of danka, taking care of families, and doing services. He wanted to - he knew he wanted to leave and go somewhere and do something new, and sit zazen with other people. One neighbor told me Suzuki said he wanted to go teach peace. He seemed to have some urge to leave, to do something else. That seems to me to be something unusual.

TM: I think so.

DC: Did you see that sort of character in him?

TM: When I first met him I didn't have that kind of particular impression. Rather I felt he was a very gentle quiet person. When I think of him and recall, refresh my memory, being asked that kind of question, maybe I agree with you. He must have had a very strong kind of wish to do something. And anyway there's one thing obvious which is what he did - it is the thing most true - that the temple Sokoji which used to be a Jewish synagogue became a temple for the Japanese congregation and no more. His being there changed that. Look at what he has done - he moved out from that and he started to do zazen so he was the sort of person who had that sort of courage and determination. So that's what I mean and he could lead us from the situation as it was into practicing zazen and that's what he did. And then that he could leave Sokoji and do what he did like start the City Center.

DC: This is very interesting to me because Japanese have such a strong sense of duty. And Suzuki left his temple in Japan to come to America and then he left his temple in America to found another. His son Hoitsu is opposite from Shunryu - he feels that Shunryu left his responsibility too soon.

TM: For me it's nothing unusual. You're more unusual than Suzuki Roshi.

DC: He seemed to have some urge to get out and do something. He wanted to go to Hokkaido, he went to China and then to America.

TM: Everybody has some urge from time to time.

DC: Yeah, but some people stay and do what they're supposed to do.

TM: In a way, that's what he was doing here.

DC: He left Rinsoin without a priest in residence for seven years.

TM: In a way it's kind of important what he has done in this country. If he was there at that time then it wouldn't have happened here.

DC: I guess I want you to help me understand the context.

TM: Whatever the reasons were then it's best to see it in a positive way. He left his son in charge. And Hoitsu is doing okay in Rinsoin.

DC: I wonder what it looks like to a Japanese person.

TM: I'm American.

DC: Do you know anything about the purge against priests in Japan after the Pacific War? Suzuki started a kindergarten after the war and had to prove that he hadn't supported the war effort to get permission to do so.

TM: My brother started a kindergarten too. He has two kindergartens - 700 kids. This is the temple where I was raised in Tochimi[?]. You know Nikko? That prefecture. I was raised very close to Nikko. This is very common in Japan for a priest to start a kindergarten.

DC: I'm looking for whatever he gave them, something on paper which showed his position. He told me he brought the authorities things he'd written and passed out to members and so they let him open the school. What do you know about Zen temples during the war?

TM: Gee, it's hard to say. According to the priest they might have taken various positions. But generally they were going with the government Whether they wanted to or not.

DC: Not much choice.

TM: Yeah, that's right.

DC: Wasn't Buddhism suppressed from Meiji through the war?

TM: Yeah, that's true. Shinto was encouraged. The emperor had a very special position. The army officers wanted to concentrate the power in the emperor and they wanted to control the government. It's hard to say. When I was fourteen the war ended. Just about the borderline of age and I was not really too critical about it and yet sensing something and couldn't quite pin down what was good and what was not right. Still I didn't ask questions. When I was older I learned all kind of things but, what happened happened and I didn't know like Suzuki Roshi what happened then and I was more interested in what I was going to do. I wasn't interested in Shinto and how Shinto got the power. For me, I don't care.

DC: There are people who've written on all this.

TM: There are so many different stories. Between the Japanese writers there are so many differences.

DC: There are assumptions in America about what the atmosphere was there and it might be so far off that it might be good to present some picture of what Japan was like during the war.

TM: (laughing) Assumptions. Many Japanese writers are different depending on the their assumptions too.

DC: Do you think it's possible to reduce the level of ignorance just a little bit?

TM: You know that Japanese went so crazy and still many don't acknowledge it.

DC: The US has done terrible things and still most don't fully acknowledge it. Do you have any advice for me on the archiving I'm doing on Suzuki Roshi?

TM: You can mention what we're talking about and the reason why he left Japan along with what you have observed what kind of person he was and actually what he has done and what we have now.

DC: To me it's somewhat vague and uncertain. I like your attitude of look what he's done and this is so wonderful. What else can we say?

TM: That's enough. If we should do something more clear about what happened before, who knows exactly what happened? It's more assumptions. Nobody knows 100% what may have been going on. In one way or another there's not much there anyway. The important thing is what we have here. And if we have something that's not reliable, it's in the heart. We can't change it. There's the enormous result of his teaching and if we hear it, how he might effect us now. That kind of way to appreciate his present to the US. That's how I feel. And I appreciate him at service on memorial day. Tomorrow I'm going to officiate. And my father and my favorite teacher, like Suzuki Roshi, died also on the fourth. His was February and Suzuki Roshi was December. We're going to have a service for both. My father died 13 years ago.

Another thing that I remember is that Suzuki Roshi really cared about his wife. And she was nice to him. That was a kind of nice to see and I appreciated it the early days. I visited them after I had returned to LA. But I remember how she and I would go out and we'd drink together. Suzuki Roshi didn't drink so much and he was somehow always kind and he didn't say much.


 Go to Interviews   Go to What's New 
Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber with Maezumi
ZCLA Website brief bio etc on Maezumi
Excerpt from 33 Fingers             DC on Maezumi