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Interview with Seiyo Tsuji

[Breck Jones was kind enough to interview Mr. Tsuji this year (1999) for the oral history archive. I asked Breck to find out a little bit more about Mr. Tsuji for us and an E-mail report from him on that (10/25/99) is first. Thanks a lot Breck.--DC]

Hello David. It's been almost four months since you wrote me, asking for more information about Seiyo Tsuji, whom I interviewed on your behalf in the Spring. I just spoke with him tonight, and have some information to pass on.

You asked about his birth date and place. He was born in Fresno on December 10th, 1934 (he describes himself as a nisei). In February, 1942, he and his family were ordered to report to the Fresno Assembly Center. He said that he remembers the day clearly, because the family dog died the same day. They boarded trucks, and were taken to a camp in a swamp in Arkansas, where they lived for about a year. Next they were transferred to a camp in the "middle of nowhere" in Wyoming. The Arkansas camp was subsequently converted for use by German POWs.

He says that he thinks that he has some photos of Phillip Wilson, his roommate, during the Sokoji days. He's going to look for photos and call me when he has them rounded up. 

Seiyo's son has just graduated from college, and gave Seiyo a Macintosh. He is working on getting it set up for internet access, so he may have an email account before long. I told him I would pass on the cuke URL, so he could read your postings.

Earlier Interview

My name is Seiyo Tsuji, and we’ll talk about 1965. Got to know sensei pretty good driving back to Palo Alto, giving him a lift to lead a group of people in zazen, and that’d be real early, like about 5:30 we’d leave, so there’s very little traffic on Bayshore at the time.

Q: Five thirty in the morning?

Yes.

Another group was going to Los Altos, but we didn’t attend that one. And then he’d come back all by himself on the train.

But while driving, he would make sly comments, like, uh, posture. When you’re driving, you’re supposed to sit upright, because you’ll find out very quickly that when you slouch, you fall asleep. And so on page 28 of The Beginner’s Mind you’ll see a statement in there, one line that says you should keep your posture right and sit upright, even when you’re driving. And I’m sure he figured that one out by watching me drive slouched [chuckles].

Say, 1965 is three years before Tassajara took off. And so there were a couple of years there, 1965 and 1966, when I was attending as a student at Sokoji. I lived across the street from Sokoji on Bush Street with Phillip Wilson and his wife, JJ. And on Friday nights we’d slip across the street and watch the samurai movies, which was a fund-raiser for the church.

The big project at the time was to add more meditation space to Sokoji, so on weekends a lot of us would volunteer and help move the old pews out of the synagogue, which we were trying to convert Sokoji into, a meditation center.

And I remember sitting and watching the first few students that he had, namely Phillip, Bill Kwong, Richard Baker, and Jean Ross, Dixon. It’s as if I could see them right now. They were very, very, very, very rigid.

He repeatedly told me that what we’ve got to do is to establish an American Zen. He’s Japanese, and so am I, heritage, but he wanted to establish an American Zen, whatever that turned out to be.

The thing that was very enjoyable was after a hard day of work, or when you came in troubled, he’d invite you up to tea. He’d make the tea the same way, using utensils, like a clay pot, to cool the water off, and so on and so forth. But he would boil the water first, very carefully, and put all his body and mind into his tea, into water. Then he’d take the water and he’d cool it off in this little pot, and then he’d put the tealeaves, add a few tea leaves to the tea pot, and then pour the cool, hot water on the tea. And if you drink that, you’d find that it’s about the same as it was the previous time, and very delicious. It’s a good way to spend this afternoon with Reverend Suzuki.

At that time, 1965, he still didn’t have the big pressures put on him, to expand Zen Center, and so it was a good time. And, for example, his wife had time to teach Phillip and myself, and a few others, Japanese, conversational Japanese. But it was shortly after that they got so busy that they didn’t have time to do that kind of small things.

Q: When did you first meet him? How did you first meet him?

Oh, about a year or two before, 1964 or 3, I think, he married, myself, and during the first marriage.

Q: Oh, he performed your wedding ceremony?

Yep. Correct.

Q: Was it just coincidental that you were living across the street from Sokoji?

Ah, actually, not. The first marriage ended in a failure in 1964, I think, and in ’65 went to live there to {unintelligible}.

Q: So you met him when he performed your wedding ceremony in ’63?

Yes.

Q: So you just knew him because he was the priest at the Buddhist temple?

Right. But then I got to know him very well in 1965.

Q: So he didn’t start riding with you until you had already moved in across the street?

Correct.

Q: And how long a period did you commute with him like that?

Over a year’s span. And, actually I was sitting with him in the mornings, when we went to Palo Alto. I can’t remember the exact house any more, but it’s a large house and quite a few people came in to sit in the mornings.

Q: That was about 6:30 in the morning, about seven o’clock?

Yep. It took us about an hour to get there. Then I worked in Mountain View, and went home in the evening by myself. But when you drive with somebody very quietly, you get to know them pretty good.

Q: How many days a week was this?

Oh, about three, or two. Whenever he could find time to go down there and help them out.

Q: So this sitting group met daily, and he would come two or three times a week?

Right. Plus he’d go other times to Los Altos. I think it was about the same time period. But another family would drive him down there and drive him back, actually. In my case he came back by himself, on the train.

Q: Do you remember the name of the people, or the part of town where the sitting was?

No, I don’t. Not sure.

Q: Oregon Expressway, Embarcadero Road, University Avenue?

Um, not sure.

Q: And when you drove with him, was he usually quiet, or did you have a conversation most of the time?

Most of the time he was quiet, but then he’d talk a little bit about different things. I don’t remember them much, but he reminded me about the posture quite often. And much later in life I realized what he was doing. He was helping arrange my life, because at the time I was in my late twenties, early thirties, I guess, and he kept telling me, that when I’d complain about something, he’d tell me that I’m very young yet. And what he meant was that I’ve got a lot to learn.

Q: Did you ever talk with him at times other than when he was driving with you?

Yeah.

Q: Did you have dokusan with him?

Not official dokusan, but the equivalent of, uh, there’s time when we’d just meet afterwards, work on the synagogue, temple, rather. And we’d just take time out and have tea. Or, better yet, when there were a lot of people there, we’d have lunch together.

Q: Did you have tea in his office at the temple?

No, it was in the kitchen. Had a little, uh, long table, actually, for the cooks.

Q: So you’d work there on the weekends sometimes, and have tea afterwards?

Right.

Q: Who were the other people who were there helping him out at the time?

I remember Phillip was up there quite often.

Q: That was Phillip Wilson?

Yeah, Phillip Wilson. He was strong, and so we’d depend on him to do the real heavy work. But what was surprising was how strong Reverend Suzuki was even in those days. He lifted up, it was just amazing, he’d lift up one end of the pew by himself, and I could just barely nudge it.

Q: Do you remember any other specifics? Conversations you had with him? You mentioned sitting upright when you were talking with him in the car.

Really, that’s very important to him. And he mentioned to myself that if you breathed right, everything becomes very clear. It’s like your throat becomes a door, he said. It’s like air coming in, air going out, and this throat is like a door, just opens and closes. And if you do it right, you really can practice zazen as it should be.

Q: Was it something that he said to you in the car, or during a talk at Sokoji?

It was during the talks, having tea.

Q: Do you remember any other mannerisms or specifics of Reverend Suzuki?

When he gave his lectures, he would hold a book called the Shobogenzo] {uncertainty in Seiyo’s voice}, and he would flip the pages with his finger. Every third page or second page he’d have to wet his finger so he would have this habit of putting his index finger in his mouth, and then sliding the pages over. He wouldn’t read the book, he would look at it, think about it, and then lecture. It was written in Japanese, I guess, and he’d have to translate it. You don’t know what it was, do you?

Q: He studied Dogen a lot, was it the Shobogenzo?

Yeah, Shobogenzo.

Q: So he would sit during the lecture and flip the pages of the book. He wasn’t reading it, but using it as a reference or a stimulus?

Yeah. And he did that quite often with other written literature, too.

Q: Were his talks short or long?

They were generally short, very short.

Q: Five or ten minutes?

Yeah, fifteen minutes. Very seldom were they long lectures.

The main thing that I remember about Reverend Suzuki was that he was very simple, a very common person. It’s hard to think of him now as a roshi or whatever the titles are. I think of him in his brown robes, kind of stained, as a sensei {spells it out}, Japanese for teacher. Which at that time, to me, was about as high an honor as you can give somebody.

Q: Of course, now he’s referred to as roshi.

Q: Was he a very formal person in your interactions with him, or very casual?

Very casual at that time. With me, I think he used me as a handyman, like a driver at the last second. Or someone who could translate some of the slang that was being used in the American English at the time. So, he’d be listening to a group of American students and he wouldn’t understand what they were saying because they were spoken in such a heavy slang language. So he had a hard time understanding. Didn’t seem to bother him, though.

I thought it was an impossible task to make an American Zen work, knowing what the Japanese expected of their monks. Our students didn’t seem to have the discipline, but I’m proven wrong. I think they got all the early students ordained.

Q: What do you remember from the very first time you met him? You said that he performed your wedding, so you must have gone to see him before that. Your first meeting with him, do you remember anything of that?

Umm, uh-uh.

Q: As you remember, you just went to see him at the temple?

Right. Just to perform the wedding ceremony. My wife (first wife) insisted on that church, [she] really liked him.

Q: Oh, so she had been there before?

Right.

Q: So he performed your wedding ceremony, and you didn’t have any contact with him after that?

Nope.

Q: Until you got the Bush Street apartment?

Right. And that was after the first marriage had failed.

Q: Did you know Phillip and his wife before you moved in with them, or was it just an advertisement in the paper?

Uh, I don’t know how that happened. They were trying to clean up the building across the street, and make it so other students could live there. And Phillip and I took over the corner flat. The second floor.

Q: This was a building that Sokoji, or Zen Center, owned?

Right. We lived there a while, and eventually we cleared out this third flat. We had some other students living up there, who I don’t know. That was the idea, as a dorm or something.

Q: And then in 1967 you moved to the South Bay? …1966?

Yeah, towards the tail end of ’66.

Q: So your interactions with him spanned, what time of year in ’65?

Oh, I would say about the summer.

Q: So about 18 months?

Yeah, about 18 months.

Q: And then after you moved down here [South Bay], you lost touch?

Right. And after that, things started to pop. He started our little Center. That took a lot of energy, a lot of fund-raising. But it worked out!

Q: Any other little things, that you can remember about Reverend Suzuki?

[The following seems to be a him mistaking his memory of another priest with SR--DC]

Oh, yeah, he would say things like, uh, maybe we students should learn to be beggars. We thought he was kidding, but he said, why don’t you grab a bowl and go out there and beg for your day’s food? You ought to try it! [laughs] Kind of amazing….

Q: Was he encouraging people to do that?

Well, it made you humble.

Q: Did anyone take him up on that?

Yeah, I went out, went from door to door, asking for food.

Q: Did he prescribe a form for doing that?

No, he said, "Be back in a few minutes, don’t be too long." [laughs] But people were supposed to do, mimic, I guess, what it would be like to be a monk in Japan, you know, in the eastern countries. And I learned first hand that the ego is pretty big, when you go begging.

Q: Did you try just once, or was it something that he encouraged several times?

Just once. Kind of an experiment. There wasn’t too many of us that tried it. But just for kicks we went out.

Q: Do you remember who else in the group did it?

I’m not sure.

{David: Seiyo later told me that his current wife corrected his recollection, and that the begging experiment occurred with another reverend, not Suzuki.

Q: Did you know Dick Baker very well?

No, I didn’t know Dick too well. I knew Bill Kwong, but from a distance I could see that they were good leaders, and that they were going to develop into real good men.

One thing that I noticed was that he didn’t accept everybody to sit. He asked some of them to leave after a while. And later on I figured out that it must be some mental thing that was bothering him. Something mental and zazen don’t mix; got to be careful. So, he kept an eye on his students, that’s for sure.

[I never ever saw the slightest bit of this - he wanted everyone to stay when I was there - even if they were crazy or mental up the kazoo--DC]

Q: How would he go about asking people not to come back? Did you actually witness that?

All I know is that those students would be missing after he talked to them, for a while.

[Oh see - he says "for a while."

Q: Did you ever witness his temper?

[I] never saw him blow his stack. At least with me, anyway.

Q: How about his forgetfulness, did you ever see that, reflected in commuting with him or working on the temple?

Ah, all I’d see….but his wife let us know that he’d forget a lot, so we’d pick things up that had been forgotten.

Anyway, he tried to teach us some facts of life, some very simple things, but they were unique in the sense that when you stop to think about it, your mind was just stuck.

Q: Do you remember any examples?

I’m not sure. I can’t think of anything. But they were things that you’d stop and ponder and you’d go [laughs].

Q: Well, we can do this again, if things come to you, make a note.

Okay.

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