Interview with Dr. Albert J. Stunkard
Mickey was born in 1922. He was a doctor to DT Suzuki soon after the war with Japan. That was his introduction to Buddhism. He has been associated with the University of Pennsylvania Medical school for decades and is an ordained Zen priest and teacher.
Stunkard: The thing that struck me most of all about Suzuki Roshi was his incredible humility and humanity. It used to break me up. There was one episode that was enormously meaningful to me. It didn't amount to much but it was probably the first sesshin at Tassajara, or second, or something. I'd never been to a Soto sesshin before. I'd been to all these Rinzai ones where they ask you these questions and knock you around. So Roshi is giving these lectures, and finally there was one sanzen, or whatever it's called, [dokusan in Soto Zen, private interview with teacher] and then they said we have to ask him a question.
So I got in there and I thought, I couldn't think of any question, and he was just sitting there quietly. I just burst into tears with this overwhelming feeling, and I said "You're just like Daisetsu Suzuki." He was just sitting there calmly and he smiled and he said, "The big Suzuki and the little Suzuki." It broke me up. I don't know why that was so powerful. I started crying, and I cried the rest of the morning. It was so impressive.
I remember similarly, after that sesshin, I was going back up to the city, and a friend of mine, Alberta Segal, came down and picked me up. I was sitting around that morning, or the day before, with Suzuki Roshi, and we were making small talk. Then I said ‑‑ I was dying to see more of him, but I had to leave, and then I said, "Well what are you going to do?" And he said, "Well I'm going back to the city." I said, "Oh that's great. So am I. How are you getting back?" He said, "Well, I'm not quite sure." And I said, "Well, gosh I have a ride, would you come with me?" He didn't say it but the feeling was why did you take so long to ask. Here's this man and he wants to ride with me in a car. It just tore me up.
That used to happen with Daisetsu Suzuki, I'd get involved with him and just start crying, just blown away. On that trip it was kind of interesting. Alberta is a professor at Stanford and she's a very good teacher, and she had been to a couple of Suzuki Roshi's lectures at Zen Center, and she said this guy is a natural, he's just fabulous, the way he lectures, and looks as if he never thought about it. But if you analyze the lectures and go through them they're very well structured, they're really beautiful. She was very interested in this teacher.
She asked him a question (unclear) and he said, "Well we're both teachers then."
She said, "I'd like to find out something about your students and how you teach. For example, we're having a big problem at Stanford. All the students are on drugs and we don't know what to do about it. Have any of the students at Tassajara taken drugs?"
Suzuki Roshi said, "Oh yes."
"How many of them?"
"Oh, all of them I think."
"What do you do?"
"Well, it isn't a good idea to take drugs."
"But what do you do?"
"Well, I talk to these young people and I say it's not a good idea to take drugs."
"And what happens?"
"Well, then they stop taking drugs."
Her mind was just blown. She asked me, "Is that for real?"
And I said, "I don't know. He probably knows what he's talking about."
Another thing about this humility was that very soon after I met him ‑‑ I used to come out to San Francisco from Philadelphia quite a bit, and I had met him, and he knew what I did, that's about all. After some meeting, and he hardly knew me, he said, "Well, we're very lucky tonight because we have a great teacher here, Professor Stunkard. I'm going to ask him if he'll talk to us, teach us."
And I thought wait a second, who are you putting on? But he was absolutely sincere. He says, "You're a great teacher and I want you to teach these students."
So I talked some. I don't think the students liked it very much. But I couldn't get over it. Here's a guy that I was looking up to as the teacher, and he was doing that, and it was as if there were no ego there at all.
In fact, the thing I hadn't made a note of, which was also a wonderful example of that. During that sesshin, Maezumi came up, he was just a young monk from Los Angeles. Suzuki let him share the teaching in the sesshin.
DC: Do you remember what year this is?
Stunkard: '67, maybe. The first year Tassajara was open.
DC note: Summer of 67, the first sesshin midway through the first practice period was the one where Maezumi was there.
Anyway, one guy would lecture, and then the other would lecture. As the lecture went on, Suzuki Roshi was lecturing, and he was talking, and he sort of went over time, and all of a sudden Maezumi jammed him with his elbows, bang, bang, and Suzuki looks over, and Maezumi lifts up his hand and points to his watch and frowns. And I thought, given Japanese culture, a little pipsqueak of a monk talking to a Roshi like that, that's terrible. Suzuki Roshi was incredible. He gasshoed. "Oh, he said, I see, I've been talking too long. Thank you, Mr. Maezumi, I'll stop now." Incredible. That kind of egolessness, or whatever it was ‑‑ he hadn't been talking too long. And he recognized that. But there was actually not a trace of ego in that. He was thanking Maezumi for what I thought was terribly rude. In a Japanese culture I think it would be incredibly rude to do that.
DC: I was at that lecture. Dick gave Maezumi a very hard time back then. They get along fine now, but Dick gave him a very hard time then, and actually made him publicly apologize for something, maybe for that.
(Liz Tuomi whoís transcribing says: the above sounds exactly like koan stories in which the disciple makes demands of his teacher and even hits his teacher and the behavior is given as an example of how a student must, in his quest, be willing to ask stupid questions and even appear to be rude ‑‑ an example of the one‑pointed search for the Way.. See Aitken's book, The Practice of Perfection, page 68.)
DC: Maezumi was trying to become part of Zen Center at that time. His overtures were not accepted.
Stunkard: He was so different from Suzuki Roshi. One other reminiscence. When Dick Baker was installed. I think it was that time ‑‑ Suzuki Roshi was awfully sick when he was installed. Maybe it was another time. Dick had come back from Japan and had all these robes on, and he was getting all tangled up in these robes, and Suzuki Roshi was sitting there and he said (he was really laughing), "Look at Dick Baker. He's all tied up in his robes." He was laughing in this very generous, friendly kind of laugh that ‑‑ you know usually when somebody laughs at somebody there's some kind of mad aspect to it. But this was just so loving. It felt so lovely.
DC note: That would be early on when Dick was first ordained and wearing robes. Later when Suzuki was sick and Dick was installed as abbot, he was too sick to talk or laugh.
Stunkard: Then another thing that impressed me that same summer. Suzuki Roshi started to make a Japanese garden down there. He talked to a group of us about this. He said, "You know Iíve got an expert Japanese gardener here who said when you're in a place like Tassajara, you don't build a garden like a garden in a Japanese temple. You use the landscape. You use what's here, and that's your garden. It's artificial to do the kinds of things you do in a temple garden. What you have to do is to see the real nature of what's there. I was really all wrong ‑‑ moving rocks here and there, doing that. It's all wrong. That man was right. Here's Tassajara. It's a beautiful place. We really have to appreciate it as it is."
Boy, I thought, this guy's pretty old, but he can learn just like that. Cause, as people get older, they get sort of set in their way. It was like the world was re‑made for him every minute it came up.
I have to go now, but I have about comparable amounts of this to go. Particularly in relation to his illness when I saw a lot of him.
DC: We might have seen each other back then. I was mainly at Tassajara at that time.
(End of that interview)
Stunkard: Let me give you some general impressions of him. I wanted to talk now about his illness and death. I imagine I was the first person to realize what was wrong. I had moved out to Stanford in the summer of '73. A large part of that was to be near Suzuki Roshi, so I got a job out there and came up. The first time I saw him I think someone said, "Oh, you're going to see our yellow Roshi." "What's up?" "Oh, he has hepatitis." I went in to see him and he was a little bit yellow.
DC: This was like the summer of '71.
Stunkard: The summer of '73 I think.
DC: He died in December of '71.
Stunkard: Well it must have been ‑‑ when the hell did I get out there.
DC: It must have been August, September, October.
Stunkard: That's right, it was summer of '71.
DC: He was at Tassajara through August. He left Tassajara and went back to the city and went to bed and was up some after that but not much.
Stunkard: He wasn't really sick at that point when I first saw him. He had hepatitis and people didn't think too much about it. Except, that he was itching when I saw him. There are two kinds of jaundice. One is infectious. One is obstructive, when there's an obstruction to the outflow of bile. That kind of jaundice gives you itching. Clearly it wasn't just hepatitis. He had an obstruction, and the most common cause of obstruction is cancer. When I saw him itching a cold chill went up my spine. I thought Oh my god this guy's got cancer. It turned out that he had cancer from the gall bladder that had been removed, which is kind of bizarre. It's a very rare cancer and very unusual that that would have caused trouble after it was removed.
DC note: Dr. Rick Levine edited this for Crooked Cucumber to be:
Change to: Entering Suzuki's bedroom, Stunkard saw that Suzuki was scratching. A chill went down Stunkard's spine. He knew there were two types of jaundice - one infectious (hepatitis), the other obstructive. An obstruction to the outflow of bile causes itching. <The obstruction couldn't be gallstones because Suzuki's gall bladder had been removed. Stunkard> felt terrible but didn't say anything at the time. He just asked if he could confer with Suzuki's doctor.
Go Stunkard in Crooked Cucumber - starts with this link and once again later in this chapter his name is in bold type to be easier to find.
DC: They thought they'd gotten it. I don't know how many people knew he'd had cancer of the gall bladder. Were you told that at the time?
Stunkard: No, I was just told he had jaundice and hepatitis. I knew right away it wasn't hepatitis. It was obstructive jaundice, and probably cancer. I felt terrible. I didn't say anything and I kept in touch. After awhile they said that he had cancer. It was quite interesting. I was taking care of a lot of patients. It was interesting to me how he coped, which was enormous serenity. Sometimes you see people like that when they're sick and dying, but not very often. What he told me was kind of interesting. He said, "you know we often talked a lot about teaching in the past." I guess we sort of related as teachers. He said, "This is a wonderful opportunity to teach. So many of these young people are afraid of dying. I can show them that you don't need to be afraid of dying. It's a wonderful teaching opportunity."
Except, I said, I wish you were doing some other kind of teaching. And then when I saw him, he was remarkably concerned about putting me at ease. He would always have the latest medical tidbit: they're trying calamine lotion and that helps the itching. What do you think? Very soon after it was diagnosed as cancer, I asked about the doctor who was taking care of him, a nice young guy, a general practitioner.
I said, "I would love you to come down to Stanford and get seen by our cancer unit, which is very good, cutting edge."
"Thank you very much, I'd like to do that" he said. Then the next time he said, "You know I've been thinking over that idea of having a consultant and going someplace else. I've decided that I can't do that. This doctor is my doctor, and I have to respect him as my doctor, and respect his wishes. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to see another doctor."
DC: What did you think about that?
Stunkard: I said, well gee, I don't think he would mind at all. In fact I think he'd be delighted to have the opportunity of a consultation. Most doctors, particularly when they're dealing with a tough case, are always glad to get some help. He said, "Well, no, I don't think so."
DC: To me that is an example of his culture talking. In Japan you don't disagree with the teacher, with the doctor, with the authority. You do what they say and take it for better or worse.
Stunkard: I talked to people at Stanford. They said not to feel too badly, because what he's got is very unlikely to be helped very much.
DC: What he had was cancer that had spread to his liver?
Stunkard: It was all over. It's a solid tumor which is much harder to treat than lymphomas or leukemias. I said I'd like to mediate with the doctor. They said if that was his feeling, don't push it because what can be offered is so limited that it isn't worth upsetting him.
Then I remember he said, "I don't know what it's going to be like when I die. Nobody knows what that's going to be like. But when I die I'll still be a Buddha. I may be a Buddha in agony, or I may be a Buddha in serenity. But knowing that this is how it'll be." It was very impressive, the whole business of serenity. And I guess teaching me you don't have to be afraid of this. I don't think he was afraid at all. Those are the things I jotted down.
DC: When was the last time you saw him?
Stunkard: It must have been very shortly before he died. I remember I went up when he installed Dick Baker and he was pretty sick at that point. You probably have the dates of that.
DC: I'd say that was November 20, 1971. He died on December 4, 1971. Incidentally, he died during the first period of the first zazen of the Rohatsu sesshin. I don't know if he actually died at that point. I know that Okusan came down and told somebody to get Zentatsu. So the person got Dick and he went up and was with him when he died. Our sesshin started on the first, and I remember it was the fourth day of our sesshin. Of course we weren't surprised. It was announced at Tassajara during the morning sitting,
Stunkard: Those are most of the things I've jotted down.
DC: Did you mention to me earlier in the tape the first time you met him?
Stunkard: The first time I met him was when I was out visiting Stanford. It was in that old Japanese temple ‑‑ Sokoji. I went up there and sat one evening, and I was sitting full lotus which I don't think many people were doing at that time.
DC: What year?
Stunkard: I don't know. In the sixties I guess. I remember I came out of the place where we were sitting. It was sort of a great big room with a balcony on it or something. We came out and he was standing there.
DC: That's the gaitan, the outside sitting area was the balcony for the large room down below, but the zendo where we sat was upstairs, and the large room down below was used for lectures and for the Japanese congregation services. They had a whole different altar down there.
Stunkard: That's right. Anyway, we came out of the zendo, and he was standing there, and then he stuck his index finger up and pointed at me. Then he pushed it almost to touching my nose. That's what a neurologist does to see if your ocular muscles are functioning. I never did find out why he did that. But then he spoke something and said nice to see me and come back. Very early on he made a very strong impression of this tremendous humility that had no ego there at all.
DC: What was Zen Center's teaching under him? What sort of practice did it promote? And then how would that compare with what other groups were doing and what other teachers were teaching?
Stunkard: His command of English was excellent. The other person I was seeing about that time was Sasaki Roshi who's still going. In fact I'm going to sesshin with him in a couple of weeks. He's now 88. He's really never learned English, and we sort of muddle along in sanzen. I was very impressed with the quality of Suzukiís lectures then, and I know Alberta Segal was. By academic standards they would be considered very good academic lectures. There was that ‑‑ excellent kind of contact and organization which I don't think people realized because of the warmth and the quality of it. They're very well structured lectures. He knew what he was doing. At the time Sasaki lectured with an interpreter. And Edo Roshi lectured some. I heard Yasutani and some of the others.
DC: These are 2 Rinzai and 1 Harada line Yasutani ‑‑ who emphasized working with koans.
Stunkard: That's right. Although their lectures didn't necessarily reflect that. Those lectures (of Suzuki) were the public lectures. That wouldn't apply necessarily to my impression of how he spoke at Tassajara. It seems to me that in those public lectures he was performing very effectively as a gateway into Zen. In terms of the rest of the teaching, it was much more laid back than Yasutani or Soen Nakagawa, or ‑‑ Sasaki's a terror. Mumon ‑‑
DC: Mumon Yamada Roshi? You heard him lecture in Japan?
Stunkard: No in Hawaii. They were all koan people.
DC: Oh sure. I studied with Mumon Yamada's disciple Harada Shodo at Sogenji in Japan.
Stunkard: The atmosphere was quite different in the zendo and sesshin. Particularly Yasutani built up an enormous emotional tension in the sesshin. I remember the first sesshin I went to after about the second or third day he said ‑‑ Edo Roshi was interpreting, but this is what he was saying, "What are you wasting your time for. Die, die, don't leave this zendo without having died!"
DC: In contrast to that how was Suzuki's
Stunkard: Very gentle and sweet. None of that kind of pressure. I think there was real pressure built up, but it was much more gentle.
DC: You studied with Miura Roshi?
Stunkard: Yeah. That was the other one who didn't lecture much. I did ten years with Miura Roshi. He came a few times. When I first started with him I was in New York and he was ‑‑ actually it was kind of interesting. He didn't like women. The New York Zendo was full of women. He disliked it. I started this group down in Philadelphia maybe in 1960 or so. He got me some cushions from someplace and he used to come down once a month and just sit with us. He liked it very much, to not be around those women. Then he moved out of the First Zen Institute and moved into this apartment, and tried to set it up just with about five or six cushions. I don't think he was a very good teacher. Somebody said he was very good for advanced students.
DC: I know of him. They tried to get rid of him and they couldn't because of the way they were set up.
Stunkard: no, he moved out. They didn't like him, it was a terrible battle.
DC: I heard that the board tried to get him to leave and he wouldn't and that he actually, because of the way it was set up legally, he controlled the board, and he didn't leave until he wanted to. And Zen Center used that example to change somewhat its legal definition.
Stunkard: I didn't know that. He would give sanzen once a month and it wasn't much.
DC: Well with Suzuki Roshi you were lucky to get it once a year.
Stunkard: Yeah, that's true. That struck me.
End of interview
Mickey Stunkard - 7\6\97
When I saw Suzuki‑roshi and realized he had cancer, I didnít say anything to him, but called his doctor up and was a little shocked it hadnít occurred to him. He was an American just out of medical school, a family practitioner which was low status then whereas itís high now with managed care. He was inexperienced. That must be why they did the tests and found out it was cancer. Iíd gone to see Suzuki‑roshi within a few days of arriving in California - it must have been September of Ď71. I was so sorry to see Suzuki‑roshi's condition - it was a real blow. His doctor did know that there had been cancer in the gall bladder, but it was such a tiny amount that they thought theyíd gotten it all. After Suzuki‑roshi's diagnosis I went to see him and suggested he go to Stanford because I was not impressed with his doctorís oversight. I did talk to his doctor first though before I talked to Suzuki‑roshi.
In a lecture a year before he had said: ďA while back I had the flue and was sick and very tired and I thought, oh I must be dying, this must be what itís like when youíre dying, and then I got over it and I thought, oh, that was just the flue.Ē His point was how ones expectations determine how you experience things. I saw it as a foreshadowing of his death.
I was an army doctor working in Tokyo with Japanese prisoners for the war crimes trials and some of those people told me about DT Suzuki and I went to see him and thatís how I met him. He had a rash on his tongue - it was what do you call it? Not Beriberi, the other thing. I prescribed Thiamine. That was my introduction to Buddhism.
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