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An Article on Elsie Mitchell
Elsie Mitchell, Cambridge Buddhist Trailblazer
by DC - November 2002
Elsie Mitchell is one of the quiet pioneers of American Buddhism. I heard about her and the Cambridge Buddhist Association from the time that I came to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1966. I've talked with her many times on the phone since 1995 while doing research for Crooked Cucumber and regularly since then and have visited her once, in 1999. This article on Elsie is based on the conversations we've had and a bit on a book she wrote called Sun Buddhas, Moon Buddhas: a Zen Quest (Weatherhill, 1973).
In 1976 she came out with Our Own Day, 168 pages Publisher: Branden Press. She has contributed to the anthology Ways People Grow and to Studies in Comparative Religion, Young East, Zaike Bukkyo (Lay Buddhism), and Monk's Pond, a magazine edited by the late Thomas Merton, and other journals.
In recent years Elsie has concentrated on reducing the suffering of our animal friends. In this capacity, she is the founder of the Ahimsa Foundation, which supports humane societies, wildlife sanctuaries and shelters for pets, farm animals, primates and other forms of wildlife.
There is a touching poem of hers in the summer, 1999 Tricycle, p.50 called Dogs of Buddha, and her most recent book is The Lion-Dog of Buddhist Asia, (Fugaisha, 1991).
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and she were close and he dearly loved to visit her in Cambridge. I wrote a couple of pieces about her which, alas, didn't make it into Crooked Cucumber, though she was mentioned. She has done zazen with and known most of the first wave of Zen teachers, Soto and Rinzai, who came to the West, as well as many of the East Coasters, such as Huston Smith, Nancy Wilson Ross, and Mary Farkas of the First Zen Institute in NYC who helped Buddhism to take its first steps in America. Feeling Elsie's story was important and somewhat neglected and that making it available in the archive is the sort of work I want to do, I have gone over the material I have on Elsie, spoken to her on the phone recently with lists of questions which she kindly answered, and come up with this report on her life stressing the Buddhist angle with some links to other relevant material. And Elsie kindly and thoroughly went over the whole piece. I thank her for that and also thank Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis Flemings for proofreading. Read on and meet this American Buddhist trailblazer. - DC
Born Elsie Johnson in Boston in 1926, Elsie "grew up among Unitarians who regarded the Christian saints as masochists and Buddha as a ‘noble hero and reformer.’" At a young age she was fascinated with books in her paternal grandfather's library on mythology and the religions of Egypt and India. She attended Farmington, a boarding school in Connecticut (also attended by Jacqueline Kennedy). There, she continued to pursue her interest in Asian thought and religion, consuming everything she could find on Buddhism. Boarding school was a restrictive environment and she lived for the day when she would no longer be "incarcerated." Her father, Edward C. Johnson 2nd, who founded Fidelity Management and Research Company, was not at all pleased when she told him she had no interest in going to college. So, after graduation from Farmington, on her father's insistence, she joined the Junior League and attended lengthy lectures on socially beneficial work. "All the speakers were overwhelmingly boring," she remembers. However, in 1950, after 3 years of marriage, it was through the Junior League placement service that she became a volunteer English tutor for the International Institute in Boston, and thereafter an English tutor for the Harvard University Yenching Institute.
In the fall of 1944, she moved into a friend’s apartment and worked first for the Boston Dispensary and then for the Boston Music Company. After about a year, she enrolled in a Berlitz school which offered (during and just after WWII) a special interpreter's course in French which she had studied for years in school. Upon completion of the course, she was interviewed at the FBI where she thought she could use her language skills (French and German) and they were ready to hire her. She was ready too, until she learned she'd have to move to Washington, DC and live in a dorm with other unmarried women under the age of 25.
In 1947, Elsie met and married her mate for life, John Mitchell, an Englishman born in Austria where he spent most of his childhood. John was an investment analyst and researcher who shared Elsie's interest in Buddhism and Asia. After about three years of European travel and sojourns, the Mitchells moved from an apartment on Beacon Hill across the river to Cambridge where Elsie began some years as English tutor to mostly elderly people from Poland and Russia, and finally to young Iranians interning at the Forsyth Infirmary. Then she was assigned to a Korean professor, one of the first visiting professors of the Harvard Yenching’s Visiting Scholars Program. He was adequately impressed with her teaching ability (and surely charm) to recommend her to the Yenching Institute. It was assumed she had a college degree and she was hired. Wonderful karma brought her many Asian friends, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, during the ten years she worked for the Yenching Program.
The friends that the Mitchells made through the Yenching Institute opened new doors of Buddhist study. Shoren Ihara, a Shingon Buddhist and Sanskrit scholar, was the first Asian Buddhist whom Elsie knew well. She tutored him in English and he, in turn, taught her a lot about Buddhism. One way they went about it, she remembers, is that he would carefully write a Sanskrit Buddhist term, and then the equivalent Sino-Sanskrit character followed by lengthy historical and philosophical explanations in English.
In 1957, Elsie and John "began to think of spending a month or two in Japan in order to stay in a Japanese temple or temples." This interest was encouraged by a Yenching scholar who offered an introduction to a friend and classmate from Tokyo University, then living at Eiheiji, the Temple of Eternal Peace, one of the two large head temples of Soto Zen. His friend's name was Tetsuya Inoue and he spoke English. The professor wrote a letter, received a positive response from his friend, and plans were made.
In the fall of 1957 Elsie and John traveled to Japan, carrying with them boxes of tapes and a small but high-tech tape recorder encased in stainless steel. Within this case was a sturdy battery powered tape recorder specially built to withstand the demands of field recordings. They had been told that most of the buildings at Eiheiji had no electricity. The Mitchells were accompanied to Eiheiji by Dainin Katagiri as guide and translator. He was thin, friendly, energetic, and smoked continuously, always having a cigarette hanging from his mouth. The Mitchells called him "Mr. Katagiri" because he wasn't wearing monk’s garb. He'd been ordained and had spent three years at Eiheiji but he was doing various jobs for Komazawa, the Soto University, in regular civilian clothes. Katagiri did zazen, not with the monks in the zendo, but in the outside sitting area called gaitan. He did zazen in western clothes and his pants were baggy which was convenient because he sat on the floor most the time.
Katagiri went everywhere with the Mitchells and usually kept his portable typewriter with him. The Mitchells’ bedroom was turned into a sort of general sitting room during the daytime and Katagiri was always there typing away. It was a Western typewriter, a little Olivetti. "He typed some things for us including various translations and he made out daily schedules for us. He was so busy," Elsie said, "and though he was our translator, his English was lousy. He was enormously helpful, however. I have a picture of him on the roof of the hondo holding a microphone." She remembers taking Katagiri to dine at the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto. It seemed he had never used a knife and fork, couldn't really manage them. It didn't embarrass him at all. He told them, "I want to go to America." He was avid about it, Elsie remembers. Tetsuya Inoue, their original contact at Eiheiji, wanted to go too, but, being from a traditional temple family, he was too bound by responsibilities. Katagiri wasn't from a temple family, his own temple was a tiny one by the sea not far from Eiheiji and he wasn't there much. Seven years later, Dainin Katagiri went to San Francisco where he took on the role of Shunryu Suzuki's loyal and loved assistant teacher.
Elsie and John stayed in Japan for almost three months, one of which was spent at Eiheiji. They arrived in the high humidity and searing heat of mid August, but by the time they left in early November it was getting terribly cold. During that time they recorded not only the chanting of the monks, but also the sounds of the bells, drums, and other ceremonial instruments. When they recorded the bells in the rain Elsie especially appreciated the stainless steel box that housed the recorder. Though this recorder had batteries, it also had "a heavy iron flywheel and had to be wound every five minutes." John took care of the mike and the settings and Elsie kept an eye on the machine and wound it up so that recording could continue uninterrupted.
The Mitchells became friends with Tetsuya Inoue, the monk who had arranged for their recording project. "He was then in his third year at Eiheiji which was rather unusual, and was the oldest of the novice monks, being well into his thirties. He did a great number of jobs for the Kanin, the administrative head of the temple," so he was too busy to translate much for them though his English was good.
Elsie says that the Eiheiji she saw was probably the Eiheiji that Shunryu Suzuki knew because very little would have changed, adding that "change was not something that the Japanese Buddhist training system went in for until fairly recently." She says that some of the changes which have crept into temple life with the advent of modernity, I talk about in Thank You and OK!, which she, to her credit, found fascinating.
One thing she noticed at Eiheiji was the importance of obedience and doing what was expected. "Novices in the zendo were farm boys and as long as they were inside the temple gates there were no arguments. They were all smokers. After tea, as they sat at long low tables outside the kitchen, you almost couldn't see them for the smoke and they all had packs of cigarettes in their sleeves. There were great clouds of smoke around them during their breaks out in the woods behind the zendo. They smoked very strong cigarettes, Players among other brands. There were three strengths, the strongest of which was almost black." I told her I bet they smoked a lot of Peace cigarettes as well. "And in the temple courtyard," she said, "nearly all male visitors smoked." She liked it when she and John were looking about on their own because "In those days the Japanese countryside was so fragrant that we wanted only the natural smells of the woods and wild flowers."
Elsie says you could usually smell incense as you walked by the wide open doors of certain buildings in the temple compound which "had a tranquil charm. There was a dirt road that led to the main gate and very bad dirt roads for miles beyond. It took a full day to get there from Kyoto by car and the roads were full of large ruts and stones." However, Elsie was glad she saw Eiheiji in the old Japan. "There were many visitors, little old people in Japanese dress who came for memorial days or for special services. They talked in quiet gentle voices."
Several weeks after the Mitchells returned to Cambridge from Japan, they met Dr. Shinichi Hisamatsu (Professor Emeritus of Kyoto University) and Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki at a lecture at the Andover-Newton School of Theology. That school’s Museum of Religion had a rather bizarre ambiance. In the entrance hall were displays of trophies that missionaries had brought back from Africa and Asia. There was a woman mannequin with lipstick, no wig and a saffron robe, a monk's robe. Dr. Suzuki and Dr. Hisamatsu were lined up beside this tasteless display at the end of Dr. Hisamatsu’s lecture, and a reception line filed past to be introduced to the "guests of honor."
Professor Hisamatsu was the first Buddhist lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School. He came to Cambridge with Daisetsu Suzuki and Richard DiMartino, his translator, to deliver a series of lectures. The two old Japanese gentlemen lived in adjoining apartments at the Continental Hotel in Cambridge. Mihoko Okamura, a Japanese-American from New York who was Dr. Suzuki’s secretary and caretaker, stayed there too.
In November of 1957, the Cambridge Buddhist Association was formed. The first board was made up of Dr. Hisamatsu, Dr. Suzuki, Professor Shoren Ihara (a Harvard Yenching Scholar), Stewart Holmes (an editor of educational books), Chimyo Horioka (a Shingon Buddhist priest who worked in the Asian Art section of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and the Mitchells. Dr. Suzuki was the first president.
A zendo was created in the large library of the Italianate house, (built in the 1850s), into which the Mitchells had recently moved. Dr. Hisamatsu created the zazenkai (zazen group) of the C.B.A. rather to the distress of his sponsors at the Harvard Divinity School. Not a lot of people came to meditate at the C.B.A. in the first year of operation, but his Harvard hosts had never invited Dr. Suzuki to speak because they thought he might be a Buddhist proselytizer looking for converts, a projection of their own mindset. Harvard wanted a scholar.
A well-known lay Zen teacher in Japan, Dr. Hisamatsu lived in a teahouse at Myoshinji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto, where he conducted his own zazenkai for Kyoto University students and scholars. His field of study was Japanese art and aesthetics. He was also au courant with German philosophy then in favor with Japanese intellectuals. German philosophy and theology (particularly Paul Tillich) were also included in the curriculum of the Divinity School, probably an important reason why Dr. Hisamatsu was considered an excellent choice for visiting lecturer for the school.
In the winter of 1957, Folkways Records expressed an interest in the Mitchells’ recordings of the sounds of Eiheiji. Elsie worked with an engineer named Steve Fasset who did the mixing and mastering of their recordings in preparation for cutting records. There were at least twenty hours of tape and they went through them all to get the best final product. "We'd put in a piece and splice in the sound of water and take out something else. It was a very long business. While recording, John had set the volume low and Steve said that was good because it meant there was very little distortion."
Elsie decided to return to Japan, to Eiheiji, alone in the spring of 1959 to do some final recording. While there she also participated in a one-week Jukai ceremony in which she was ordained as a lay Buddhist. She also visited her old friend, Tetsuya Inoue, and the impressive old master, Rindo Fujimoto.
Folkways put out a boxed multi record set including an explanatory pamphlet with pictures in December, 1959. "The Way of Eiheiji: Zen Buddhist Ceremony" was, in the sixties, a fairly common item to see in the record collections of Zen students and those interested in Asian culture and religion. "Moe Asch who ran Folkways died in 1986 and then all the Folkways collections went to the Smithsonian where they are in good hands. A CD and cassette version, made from the master record, are available from the Smithsonian today."
The first time Elsie Mitchell met Shunryu Suzuki was in the fall of 1959. She was staying with her aunt in San Francisco on her way home from Japan. She had the address and phone number of Sokoji with her. Chimyo Horioka, who knew a good deal about Japanese and American Buddhist affairs, had provided an introduction and a telephone number. Reverend Suzuki, as he was called back then, answered the phone when Elsie called the temple. She told him she was from Cambridge, Massachusetts, mentioned the C.B.A., and said that she would like to see him and sit with his group. She says his response was "quite hospitable." So she went the next morning. They did zazen and then there was an informal meeting with a very small group of six or so, more than half of whom were women. Afterwards they had tea and talked. It was a "very friendly atmosphere." Suzuki's students were excited about meeting Elsie. East Coast Zen had been established decades earlier than in the West - though Nyogen Senzaki's LA and the San Francisco "floating zendo" should not be forgotten. They knew of the Cambridge Buddhist Association and that D.T. Suzuki and Dr. Hisamatsu had been there. Also, Elsie wore a rakusu, the bib-like garment of ordination that she'd received after her Jukai at Eiheiji. Only Suzuki wore that at Sokoji.
Elsie was interested in everything about their group, the nature of their organization. Suzuki let the students talk. They told her of the schedule but they had nothing organized - no president, no dues, not even a name. Their group had just begun and Suzuki was letting it grow at its own unhurried rate.
She says she liked Suzuki Roshi very much when she met him and felt "very comfortable with him. Reverend Suzuki had an approachable, appealing personality."
Shunryu Suzuki had just arrived from Japan. She says his English wasn't as good then as it later became. She was pretty used to that, having spent a good deal of time with Japanese people. He didn't understand her awfully well either, but she added that, being a Bostonian, she talked rather faster than people from California. However, she'd learned to make an effort to slow down for her pupils. Still, her pronunciation simply didn't sound like California and he mentioned this. He knew people who hadn't lived all their lives in California but he had become accustomed to a Western accent. Elsie and Suzuki were happy to have met, and a bond was formed that would last.
A couple of years later Elsie received a letter from a former C.B.A. member mentioning a student in San Francisco named Richard Baker who wanted a new zendo in the mountains and who had big plans for Sokoji. According to the letter, Baker thought it was important for Western people who wanted to sit to have a separate group from the Japanese community. The group in Cambridge had Japanese members and they were all very comfortable together, so she wondered what this was all about. She didn't realize at that time how much distance there was between Suzuki's Japanese-American congregation and his zazen group, and how much the Japanese-American congregation wanted their own temple. They finally asked him to choose between the two. Some of the Japanese-Americans did zazen and some of the zazen students joined in the festivities of the host group, but in November of 1969, Suzuki Roshi left the temple, taking Katagiri Sensei with him, and he founded the Zen Center's City Center on Page Street.
Every year Elsie and John went to Lausanne, in Switzerland, near Geneva. They were there around Christmas of 1961 and made a world trip of it, going on to such locations as Bangkok, Singapore, Australia, and finally, in March, to the San Francisco Bay Area. They stayed with Elsie’s aunt in Oakland. Sally Unger, a former member of the C.B.A., had written to her that Shunryu Suzuki's group had developed nicely and that she should visit them. Also, Suzuki had let her know that it would be nice to see her again, and she felt the same. She showed up at Sokoji for the second sitting on the first morning after her arrival in San Francisco.
Of Suzuki's students, there were a few women who had met Elsie on her prior visit, but there were, naturally, a number of new people. They were all eager to meet with this woman who had made the recordings of the ceremonies at Eiheiji. Most of them had never met anyone except Suzuki who'd been to Eiheiji of which Suzuki spoke so much and so often. Suzuki felt that Eiheiji, and Zen in Japan in general, had lost some of the spirit of Zen. He said that the branches of Buddhism in Japan had gotten covered with moss, but he also spoke about Eiheiji with gratitude and nostalgia and his students tended to think of it as a high and distant goal to be able to go there and practice zazen as Dogen had eight hundred years before.
Also, as in her earlier visit, Suzuki's students wanted to know about the C.B.A., about D.T. Suzuki, Shinichi Hisamatsu, and Holmes Welch, author of several voluminous studies on Chinese Buddhism, and vice president of the C.B.A. for many years. Elsie was interested in finding out how things were done at Sokoji. She was interested in useful details about their California zazenkai, what sort of organizational challenges they might share. Suzuki's zazen students were just in the process of establishing their group officially - one of them was anyway. A student from England, Grahame Petchey, would soon submit papers to the Secretary of State and by the end of the summer they would be incorporated as Zen Center. But there was hardly any noticeable form or formality to their group at all - except that they met regularly to do zazen and chant the Heart Sutra. They had lectures and sesshin, one day, three, five, and week long sittings. It did seem that, as a group, they had no idea of supporting this meditation program, activity, and they didn't even realize that three of the original members were giving money monthly to cover expenses. They didn't know that members of the Japanese congregation brought envelopes with money to put on the altar every Sunday. The zazen students were mostly young and without a lot of extra cash. They just didn't think about this. It all seemed to happen on its own. As she had experienced on her first visit, Suzuki was letting his group find its way in its own good time.
One thing Elsie wondered about was whether the group was planning to keep its small, intimate form, or wished to expand. Everyone was talking about Suzuki's student Richard Baker and he seemed to be of a mind to make the group expand. Others seemed inclined to keep it small. Most of the members of the C.B.A., Stewart Holmes in particular, were against expansion. His wife was an avid Episcopalian and he' been to that church for years and didn't want the C.B.A. to become institutional. He liked the intimacy of a small group.
Elsie says it's amazing that Shunryu Suzuki adapted to California life as well as he did, "really quite extraordinary." On the other hand, when he wasn't with the German-trained theologians at the divinity school, Dr. Hisamatsu found it hard to communicate with some of the younger people, and not only because he refused to speak English. Elsie thinks he just found the American mind-set quite foreign.
When their conversation turned to Fujimoto Roshi, Elsie learned that he was one of the few Soto Zen teachers that Suzuki Roshi revered at the time. He was ten years Suzuki's senior and had been tanto, training leader, in Yokohama at Sojiji, the other large Soto Zen head temple. Elsie was told that he was too strict. He left Sojiji and went to take over a very run down, small village temple. She says that it's amazing he even survived his time there because he was elderly and had a lot of health problems.
He also had poor eyesight though he still could read. "He was a voracious reader," she says. He had a large library and the interest in German philosophy that she had noted in other educated Japanese Buddhists. Shunryu Suzuki's student, Jean Ross, who was to be close to Fuijimoto some years later said that he liked to read detective novels. He was very deaf. He showed Elsie a collection of hearing aids and said that none of them worked. But she noticed that when she spoke to him through Inoue, as interpreter, that Fujimoto looked closely at Inoue's lips and seemed to be able to read them.
Elsie doesn't remember how Suzuki and Fujimoto Roshi knew each other but she remembers that they did. She says that since Suzuki's temple was near Tokyo he may have known Fujimoto when he was at Sojiji. Suzuki visited Fujimoto a year later on a 1963 trip to Japan as well. Fujimoto was one of the few people Suzuki corresponded with though no letters remain. Elsie was another. She doesn't remember what Suzuki said about Fujimoto but though he didn't say much he managed to convey his respect and admiration for him. "It isn't the Japanese way. One could tell by the warmth in his tone of voice that he thought highly of him. There's a circumlocution at times in the way the older Japanese speak of each other. They tend not to say very much about other people, and if they don't like somebody you can tell by their tone of voice or when they say something oblique like, 'he used to spend a great deal of time reading magazines in the subway.'"
In 1962, after her visit to Sokoji, Elsie again returned alone to Japan. She went first to Ryutakuji not far from Suzuki Roshi's Japanese temple, Rinsoin. She went to sit at a seven-day sesshin with Soen Nakagawa Roshi, and arrived the day before the sesshin. She says the sesshin was very hard. After that she went by train to Inoue's temple, Eitenji. She knew some basic Japanese and asked someone at the station where she should go to find the train. On the platform she checked with a Japanese man to see if she was in the right place and she showed him a note that Nakagawa Roshi had written for her. It had the Chinese characters for the station she was going to. The man looked at the piece of paper she showed him, checked with the schedule posted inside the station, then grabbed her bags, and ran with them across the tracks. She followed him, hoping she wouldn't get run over by a train, ended up on a platform far from where she had been, and in an instant was boarding a train to her destination, Eitenji in Yokawa, Hyogo Prefecture.
Once at Eitenji, she again met with her friend Tetsuya Inoue. And there she also was reunited with her teacher Rindo Fujimoto Roshi who had moved to Eitenji from his tiny temple near Kyoto. A festival with lots of people was to be held in the main hall, the Shinsanshiki, Mountain Seat Ceremony, that would install Inoue as abbot of the temple. Two days later Elsie was to receive tokudo from Fujimoto. She was ordained by him into the monk's order. In an hour-long ceremony, she chanted the precepts and officially became his disciple. A year earlier, Inoue had written a transliteration and translation of the whole ceremony for her. Fujimoto told Elsie he thought it best for her not to shave her head as her husband would be upset if she returned to Cambridge without hair. That wasn't the only problem. She'd been away for close to two months, the longest Elsie and John had ever been, or ever would be separated, until his death in 1994. She says that when she did return she found many not so subtle hints from her husband that he had missed her - dozens of shirts to be washed on the banisters and all the dishes unwashed and set about the kitchen.
In Cambridge Elsie continued her relationship with Fujimoto and Inoue through correspondence translated by Inoue. It occurred to her that it would be good to bring out a simple, basic booklet on Soto Zen and zazen. They agreed with her and work on a book was begun. "It was all done through the mail." It was to be a translation of a lecture that Fujimoto had once given and was sent to Boston in English and Japanese. Inoue told her to transpose his Japanese English and make it idiomatic which she did. Thanks to the tutoring of Professor Ihara as well as the Buddhist courses she sat in on while with the Yenching Institute at Harvard, she knew Buddhist terminology. Yoshihiko Tanigawa, a Yenching scholar who lived in the Mitchells’ house, painstakingly went over the manuscript with her. This version was then sent back to Eitenji to Inoue who translated it back into Japanese so Fujimoto could make sure nothing was being misunderstood or badly translated. Inoue's comprehension of English was very good, Elsie says "and every sentence was gone over with a fine tooth comb." Through this process the final version was finally arrived at. Fujimoto asked Elsie to do an introduction. She wrote one. It too was translated into Japanese and he approved it. The Way of Zazen came out in 1966. The handwritten Japanese version was put in the C.B.A. library. It was the only book on Soto Zen meditation available at the time in America other than Reiho Masunaga's Soto Approach to Zen [I think]. Everyone at Zen Center read it. In addition to being available from Shunryu Suzuki's office, it was sold at Field's Metaphysical Bookstore on Polk Street in San Francisco and, a block away from Sokoji, at the Buddhist Book Store located inside the Jodo Shin Shu temple and headquarters for that sect in the US, the Buddhist Churches of America.
[Letter of 9/9/64 from Shunryu Suzuki to Elsie]
Suzuki said he wanted to see New England and to find out about Zen in Boston. The Mitchells and C.B.A. members were eager to have him visit. In 1964 there were not many Buddhist groups in the United States that catered to Caucasians, and just a few small Zen groups where zazen was practiced (the oldest being the First Zen Institute of America in New York City). Elsie says, "Yasutani's peregrinations came later." The Cambridge Buddhist Association wasn’t a temple but a friendly Buddhist group with a zendo and Elsie’s Soto ties in Japan. Shunryu Suzuki had actually joined the C.B.A. - an unusual act for him. I asked Elsie if he paid dues and she didn't recall but she said they were only a dollar a year.
It wasn't just the group Suzuki was going to visit. He and Elsie had made a personal connection. He appreciated the non-fanatical, mature way she committed herself to Buddhism and to helping to establish it in America, step by step, without making a big deal of herself. She admired his low key, open-minded style, the fact that he had worked so hard on his English, and had adapted to American life. He was less culture-bound than many other Japanese priests she had known. She had been "greatly impressed with his integrity, his goodness, and particularly his willingness to work out ways of traditional Buddhist practice suitable for contemporary Westerners." Her favorite story about Suzuki was about the evening she and other C.B.A. members were preparing for his arrival in Cambridge.
She had enlisted the help of a few C.B.A. members in order to prepare for Suzuki who was scheduled to fly in on the following evening. They were cleaning up the library cum meditation hall. On a table in the entryway, there was a recently received card from the soon-to-be honored guest giving his time of arrival, and flight number. "Since I bought the ticket, I have started to feel excited - I can hardly imagine how I’ll feel when I meet you at the Boston Airport, at the other end of this continent."
Everyone was wet with sweat or mop water in old work clothes, feeling rather unpresentable, when the doorbell rang. Elsie’s husband John stopped his dusting, stepped down from his ladder, opened the door, and who should be standing there with traveling bag and grin as a taxi behind him sped away, but the Reverend Shunryu Suzuki. They had been so sure he was coming the following evening.
"Oh, we didn’t think you were coming till tomorrow!" said Elsie.
Oops. He’d obviously written the wrong date on the card, Suzuki told her and laughed unashamedly, most amused at the situation. "Well, let me help you prepare," he said, tying his koromo robe sleeves up behind his neck, "for the important day of my arrival."
Everyone protested "No no no no you can’t work!" and efforts were made to persuade him to rest after his trip, but of course there was nothing he would rather have done than join with them in cleaning. And they cleaned and cleaned until it was late and past bedtime. Suzuki was completely at home in his new surroundings and everyone was charmed by him. Elsie says that the main thing that endeared him to those who met him was how, "he just walked into the house, made himself at home, and immediately joined in whatever others were doing, really charming of him we thought."
The next morning after zazen and breakfast, Elsie told Suzuki to take it easy for a while, that she had to go out and do some shopping. When she got back with her groceries she found him outside the house on a tall ladder cleaning windows in his white long-underwear - in plain view of her very conventional neighbors and passers-by on the sidewalk whose customs were different from those of rural Japan.
The Mitchells took Suzuki to their country place on Cape Cod. They had eight acres on a little peninsula called Wing's Neck. It was quiet, especially in the morning, though one could hear the buoy bells from miles away. There they let Suzuki be alone whenever he wanted. He did zazen in the morning on a large rock on the beach, chanted with the waves, and walked back to the house as the sun came up. He called this his secret hobby and said his wife wouldn’t have let him do it because it was too cold and wet. He weeded around the house, adjusted a few stones in the rock garden, raked leaves, and trimmed their bushes. There were large boulders in the garden and Suzuki worried his hosts when he climbed up onto these big stones and jumped from one to another. He made a miniature garden of moss, berries, and sand in a large shell so he could "take a bit of New England back to California with me." John put it sideways into a wide mouth jar to protect it.
They also had time to chat. They talked about Buddhism and Christianity, Japan and America. Elsie told him about her tokudo with Fujimoto Roshi in Japan. And they talked about her good friend, Dom Aelred Graham, the Zen Catholic prior, as she called him. He was the author of: Zen Catholicism and Conversations Christian and Buddhist. I met him when he came to Zen Center and I appreciated reading about him in Elsie’s book, Sun Buddhas, Moon Buddhas, a Zen Quest.
Walking around outdoors, Suzuki got down on the ground for a close look at what little bugs and rocks and plants were there and then he rolled over and peered up at the trees. He was almost giddy. Elsie had to keep him from wandering into poison ivy. He wanted to plant a sprig of it in his garden-in-a-jar. He kept remarking at the beautiful colors of the fall leaves on the deciduous trees. Not much of that near San Francisco. So much reminded him of Japan - especially the pines. And parts of old Boston were like areas of Tokyo. All in all he felt at home. She thought he appreciated New England because he missed the change of seasons in California. Suzuki said he’d come back to New England as soon as he could.
"Another nice thing about Suzuki Roshi" Elsie told me, "was that I never thought about him in terms of practice. He was a supremely likeable, wonderful example of the human race and had a simplicity and friendliness and a splendid sense of humor. There was nothing pretentious about him. I’m sure he talked about practice in lectures but with me he never talked about his practice or anybody else's. He was just very natural and easygoing."
Later that month, Elsie received another card from Suzuki Roshi.
John found Suzuki's coat on the rock he'd done zazen upon at the beach on Cape Cod. It was a big boulder. John couldn't figure out how Suzuki, only 4'11", got up there. John was six feet tall and a climber and it was not an easy task for him to retrieve it. Elsie sent the coat back in a wooden box with a donation which Suzuki set aside for his next trip to Boston.
Shunryu Suzuki made a few other visits to the East Coast with Richard Baker or Silas Hoadley. On some of these trips he'd return to Cambridge to see Elsie and John Mitchell. Elsie says that Dorothy Shalk, who would be in her nineties if still around, "wanted Reverend Suzuki to found a zendo in Vermont where she had some land and when he visited he'd also go up there and stay with her." He always called her Mrs. Chalk or "Chalk-san." Elsie says that Jeannie Schroeder wrote her recently. Jeannie had found a little note in the back of a file drawer. It was from Suzuki saying, "I'm so sorry I can't come to see you this time so I'm sending you a stone I hope you like." He was referring to his '66 visit.
Elsie says that on subsequent visits Suzuki came with Dick Baker. They'd all go out to eat and "Dick would tend to talk a lot. Rev. Suzuki would go to sleep." Elsie says that older Japanese can just go to sleep sitting upright, while appearing awake, when their company isn't needed. They were at one Japanese restaurant for four hours and she was sure Suzuki slept through at least half the evening. The times she saw him with Dick she says that Suzuki was very subdued. "He was an older man and at night he'd be tired." She said, "Dick had too much energy." She thought it "would have been better if Reverend Suzuki had gotten more sleep. Especially the last time I saw him. He just looked very tired and drawn. He didn't look well." I told her I thought it just had to be that way, that the combination of Richard's and Suzuki's energy is what made Tassajara possible.
I asked Elsie if she remembered Suzuki saying anything about his life in Japan. She said that he was quite reticent about talking about Japan. A lot of Japanese of his generation are like that, she said, and that unless something comes up to remind them of a specific custom, it can be hard to pry much out of them. She suspected that Suzuki Roshi in his last years had become quite Americanized in some ways. His English was better and he knew people better and it's possible that the people he spent a lot of time with, talked about Japan or the war with him.
Elsie thinks she last saw Shunryu Suzuki in '66 in Boston. She said he didn't write long letters but she received some little notes [reproduced herein]. She says that once he left a whole pile of stuff there - "some flannel cloth or woolen things that warmed his stomach." Those were haramaki which he almost always wore. Elsie says there was a pile of them, some incense and a couple of brushes that she put in a package and sent back to him. She got a note thanking her for sending them and saying how glad he was to have the haramaki because he couldn't find them in America. Actually, he could have. I know, because some of my fellow students and I were copying him at the time and bought them - at SK Ueda department store in LA.
Elsie's husband John died in 1994. They had been married for forty-seven years. "It was a big adjustment. I've never met anyone like him. We were so lucky and had wonderful karma together. But that's the way things happen."
The C.B.A. continued to meet in the Mitchells’ house through the 60’s and 70’s, but didn't have sesshin at her home in Cambridge because of the lack of space. So she arranged for sesshins to be at her Cape Cod house. In the mid sixties they had several there led by Yasutani Roshi, who honored Mr. Horioka’s request for a quiet shikantaza and no kyosaku. He was assisted by Tai san, later to be known as Eido Tai Shimano Roshi of the New York City Zen Studies Society. And there were people such as Dr. Huston Smith (then teaching at MIT) and Dr. Mickey Stunkard who were interested in attending sesshin though they were not involved in the weekly sittings in Cambridge. With the surge of interest in zazen all over the U.S. many Zen teachers came to America during the sixties and early seventies. "They were on the prowl looking for students." She says that Yasutani made many trips to the States but he had a hard time. The chest x-ray he was required to take by the INS showed TB scars. She remembers that once she mentioned to Fujimoto Roshi that the students of Yasutani didn't do shikantaza. Fujimoto, when questioned about the differences between the traditional Soto zazen and the samurai-like agitations of the Yasutani (Harada School) teaching style said, through Inoue’s excellent translation, "there's the traditional Soto way (which he followed) and there is the Yasutani way. I find the traditional way the more gracious."
In a letter of 1965, Suzuki had told Elsie about visiting her teacher Fujimoto when he was in Japan in 1963. Yasutani and Fujimoto were Dharma brothers, both having studied under the renegade Harada who taught with koans. Fujimoto had gone on to become a traditional teacher of shikantaza, Dogen's zazen, just sitting, whereas Yasutani had continued and developed Harada's forceful way. His sesshin was full of yelling, kyosaku smashing on shoulders, with high spirited Yasutani urging people ever onward to attain kensho. Suzuki told her he would never forget Fujimoto's "noble silence" as he listened to Inoue talk about Yasutani's sesshin, a silence that conveyed volumes.
Elsie says that some of the people who are doing zazen now don't seem to be Buddhists. "They do it more in the spirit of "working out" or jogging. People today are fixated on zazen, she says. "If there's no zazen, they think there's no Buddhism. There are no feelings of tariki (other power). It's all jiriki (self power)." As he got older, D.T. Suzuki also put emphasis on tariki (and the Jodo Shin Shu) as an integral aspect of Zen. Elsie says that many in the West have been critical of Japan and of the influence of the samurai spirit which they see as the epitome of jiriki. It is ironic that many of these same Westerners are drawn to only this jiriki part of Zen themselves.
Elsie doesn't like the use of the word "train" as in, "I'm going to the monastery to train." She prefers, "to be in training." Another pet peeve of hers is the use of the words "practice" and "practitioner." To her a practitioner is someone who's doing something to create an impression or who is selling snake oil, something without much use. And there is a preoccupation with "practice." She says maybe when Suzuki's students talked about their practice, he went along with it and said, "Well, okay, your practice is this or that," but she says that in the years she knew him she never heard him use the word. Nor did she hear Dr. Suzuki, Dr. Hisamatsu, or even Yasutani Roshi use it.
On the nineteenth of April, 1966, Suzuki spoke at the University of Massachusetts. From there he wrote to Elsie Mitchell thanking her for paying for his trip. He was sorry she was ill. "I have come at a bad time for you but I am anxious to see you."
They did see each other briefly on that trip. He wrote to her later in the summer and told her about the Brundage Collection of Oriental art opening at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. He expressed his sincere respect for the late D.T. Suzuki, and underlined it. He had conducted a memorial for the big Suzuki as he called him, for the great communicator who had more than anyone made the West aware of Zen, at Sokoji on the 24th of July, 1966. D.T. Suzuki had died on the twelfth at the age of 94, saying "Thank you, thank you," expressing the grateful mind of the Jodo-shin sect he had grown up with. Shunryu Suzuki had hoped they would meet but they never did. "It is a great loss for us, isn’t it, Elsie! Now I realize it when it is too late."
In a letter of January 16, 1967 Suzuki wrote:
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