Shunryu Suzuki and the Beats
Did this for a Japanese magazine published by Samgha which put out the new
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and Zen Is Right Here. They
asked me so I thought it would be a good exercise. They had a word limit
that I exceeded by double and I have lots more unique material that's
almost all on cuke so I plan to expand on it. But here it is for now.
You can search for more on cuke on people mentioned herein by going to
the Home or What's New Page and using the site search box. - DC
Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese Soto Zen priest with a temple named Rinsoin in Yaizu in Shizuoka province. He came to San Francisco in May of 1959 to be the priest at Sokoji with a membership of Japanese-Americans. People, almost entirely from outside that congregation, began joining Suzuki for early morning zazen at Sokoji. He emphasized not just zazen on the cushion but putting it into practice in daily life. In 1962 he and his students incorporated the Zen Center later to be the San Francisco Zen Center. In July, 1967, he founded Zenshinji, Zen Mountain Center, considered the first Buddhist monastery in the Western world, at Tassajara, a hot springs resort deep in the mountains south of San Francisco. There, men and women would practice together as equals, another first. He continued ministering to the two congregations until November of 1969 when he resigned from his duties at Sokoji and moved with his wife Mitsu into a nearby residential center and temple the Zen Center bought. He died in December, 1971, in his bedroom at that City Center.
Suzuki’s legacy is immense. The San Francisco Zen Center is thriving and with hundreds of other temples, centers, and sitting groups in America, Europe, and beyond. His lineage is passed on by priests and lay people, men and women. Many others read popular books of his lectures, study his teaching online, meditate at home.
Suzuki’s success in planting the practice and enlightenment of Soto Zen’s founder Kigen Dogen in America and beyond was possible in part because the ground had been made fertile by many others. Key among them was the great scholar Daisetsu T. Suzuki whose many books on Zen and Buddhism had received wide readership in the West. Shunryu called himself the small Suzuki and Daisetsu the big Suzuki. One loose assortment of vital contributors to the openness of so many in the West to Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Asian wisdom and culture are those associated with what is called the Beat Generation.
Allen Ginsberg is the most famous of the Beat poets. His first reading of the poem Howl at poet Kenneth Rexroth’s studio in October 1955, not far from Sokoji, is often considered a seminal date of the Beat era. He was a free-floating, intense soul who at times would show up at the Zen Center in the early sixties to sit zazen.
It was a little restrictive for Ginsberg; he liked to hit cymbals and spontaneously chant and sing Hindu songs during his meditation, but he was always appreciative of Zen Center practice and Shunryu Suzuki. And he was enamored with the sound of the Heart Sutra, the Hannya Shingyo, chanted after zazen – three times in the morning and once in the early evening. We’d hold up the sutra cards with the Japanese kanji, the Romani which we’d chant, and Suzuki’s translation of the words in English. We didn’t chant the English which Suzuki included just to give an idea of the meaning, but Ginsberg thought it was a great poetic translation.
Heart Sutra page with links to two versions of the chant cards
From the time he was a teenager, Gary Snyder had been a lover and student of nature and American Indian culture. He published his first poetry as a student at Reed College in Oregon where he was close to other poets including Lew Welch and his roommate Philip Whalen. There his interest in the East and Buddhism was kindled. In the mid fifties he pursued Asian studies at the University of California and lived with Jack Kerouac in a little cabin zendo in the woods north of San Francisco he dubbed Marin-an.
When Snyder returned from some years of Zen study and translation work in Kyoto, he lived for a while just a few blocks from Sokoji. He sat zazen there some but it wasn’t his style either socially or Zen-wise, having always favored the Rinzai Zen of his teachers. Still, he and Suzuki were on good terms. Suzuki always spoke in English with his zazen students so it was a treat for him to be able to speak Japanese with Snyder and Snyder’s second wife, Masa. Snyder recalls a 1959 letter:
The hippie phenomena is associated with marijuana and LSD which is true, but it also had roots in the Beat Generation, the civil rights an anti war movements, environmentalism, and general dissatisfaction with the values of a materialistic society. The pivotal event of this flower-power revolution was the Human Be-in in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on January 14, 1967. Gary Snyder was there, back from Japan for a while. Suzuki was there too. Ginsberg remembers:
Many people from the Zen Center attended. We had to pull Suzuki away from his wife. She thought it would be too much for him and maybe too controversial. She usually got her way, but he was curious. So many of his students had come from at least some contact with that free-wheeling sub-culture. He found them to be sincere seekers who tended to leave behind the ways of the past once they got into zazen and practice. He didn't say much about how he felt about that day of the Be-in, but he was not a man of many words. I think he was glad to have been part of such an auspicious event. Ginsberg:
From street theater to stage and film [140 films including ET], actor Peter Coyote was a Digger like di Prima. He’s an environmentalist, progressive political activist, a song and book writer who was turned on to Zen by Gary Snyder. He wrote about that day in his book, Sleeping Where I Fall:
From Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki:
Of all the poets whose path met with that of Shunryu Suzuki, none was closer than Diane di Prima, author of Diary of a Beatnik and one of the Diggers, a radical anarchist group that gave away free food and organized free concerts and events. Di Prima, who received lay ordination from Suzuki in 1971, first met him in 1962. She wrote:
Suzuki’s contact with the so-called Beat Generation actually started on May 23, 1959, the day he arrived and was met at the airport by members of the Japanese-American congregation of Sokoji. There were some very good people in that congregation though none that I recall could be classified as beat or hip. But I’m not counting Kazumitsu Wako Kato as a member of the congregation. Kato was a young Soto Zen priest doing graduate work at UC Berkeley who’d been responsible for the priestly duties at Sokoji for the year and a half since the prior resident priest, Hodo Tobase, had returned to Japan. Kato was most happy to welcome Suzuki and be relieved of that primary responsibility, but he continued to assist Suzuki at Sokoji for a few years. He also opened many doors for the diminutive new priest. Right away he took Suzuki to one of his classes at the American Academy of Asian Studies (AAAS) and turned the class over to him for the evening. Suzuki got everyone sitting zazen on the floor and three women in that class became his lifelong students. Kato knew Gary Snyder, by now in Japan, who’d studied there along with notable others, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen among them. A close colleague of them and himself a counter-culture icon, former director of the AAAS was Alan Watts, the great popularizer of Zen through many books including The Way of Zen. Kato had been hired by Watts to assist him with that book. Watts wrote, "The American Academy of Asian Studies was one of the principal roots of what later came to be known, in the early sixties, as the San Francisco Renaissance." Kato introduced Suzuki to Watts and they got along wonderfully. Watts continued to be a friend of the Zen Center and confidant of Suzuki in whose direction he often steered seekers.
Suzuki said his first student was Bill McNeill, a dynamic young artist well known in counter-culture circles. McNeill brought many others to Sokoji to sit zazen. One of them was Joanne Kyger, a poet who wrote Gary Snyder about Suzuki and who soon would join Snyder in Japan as his wife. Kyger recalled:
Suzuki had fortuitously been invited to be the priest at a temple in the United States that put him right in the center of what Watts called the American Renaissance. At no other spot in the world would there have been such a concentration of people, especially influential intellectuals and artists, interested in practicing with him or supporting and encouraging the flourishing of his way. Of those Kyger mentioned, Claude Dalenberg (who was the character Bud Diefendorf in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums) had followed Watts to San Francisco from Chicago and had been associated with Sokoji for years, having studied with the prior priest, Tobase. Dalenberg was ordained as a priest by Suzuki in 1966. Don Allen, as an editor, had helped to put the Beats on the map. Philip Whalen, many people’s favorite Beat poet, recalls:
Whalen said that Saijo introduced him to Suzuki at the zendo and that at another time he’d met Suzuki at a wedding he’d performed in 1960. Whalen went there one morning with Claude Dalenberg to sit zazen before they went to Nevada City to look at some property in the woods with Richard Baker. Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder bought parcels there, but Ginsberg was a city boy and sold his. Snyder built a home and a zendo and still lives there. Whalen said he went another time with Snyder or Dalenberg, sat zazen, and bowed with Suzuki after service like everyone else, but Suzuki just seemed like a nice quiet person to him. He wasn’t interested in Suzuki’s Soto Zen. He went to Japan for a few years. He recalls in early 1969 after he’d returned:
Still, Whalen followed his plan to return to Japan. A couple of months after Suzuki’s death, Whalen moved into the Zen Center’s City Center – across the hall from me – and became an ordained disciple of Suzuki’s successor, Richard Baker. Ginsberg would drop by to say hello and sometimes Diane di Prima would join them for a walk and I’d tag along. With Baker the flow of poets and artists through the Zen Center which was well established, increased, if anything, and added a marvelous ingredient.
Richard Baker first came to Sokoji in 1961 and moved in with Don Allen, his friend from Groove Press in New York City which published many Beat writers as well as Henry Miller. In 1965 he orchestrated the landmark Berkeley Poetry Conference for the University of California, working closely with Don Allen and poet Robert Duncan. After that he managed a major conference on LSD for the university. He took Suzuki to see Tassajara in early 1966 and by the fall a fundraising drive had begun. Gary Snyder joined him and a dozen or so others to take the four hour drive into the mountains to check it and surrounding wilderness out.
Snyder, Watts, other well known poets, artists, and musical groups including the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service contributed their time and skill to helping the Zen Center raise money toward the purchase of Tassajara. Ginsberg talked with Bob Dylan and said he offered to buy the whole place for us if he could build a home there. At Tassajara we had traditional practice periods and guest seasons. The Jefferson Airplane band was there as soon as we opened for guests. Author Herb Gold drove a Jaguar in and left it with us a gift. Poet Richard Brodigan was one of the first to visit and enjoy the natural setting and hot springs water. I took Michael McClure on a walk downstream and he became the guide, teaching me about some of the plants including those that could be eaten or used in tea.
Michael first came with friend Dave Haselwood to California from a counter-culture poetry scene in Kansas. They soon were close friends with like-minded people in the Bay Area. Haselwood started a press named Auerhahn and published finely made books of poetry by McClure, Whalen, and Lew Welch. He knew Richard Baker through his publishing and was a student of Shunryu Suzuki in 1963 and 64.
In later years Haselwood became a Soto Zen priest and had a small group in a town named Cotati north of San Francisco. McClure remained a close friend and praised Haselwood’s lectures.
Gary Snyder was a friend of pre-eminent Japanese hippie poet, Nanao Sakaki. Together they went on long hikes in the mountains of Japan and the Western United States. Nanao spent a lot of time around the Zen Center in the years after Suzuki died. I asked him if he'd ever met Suzuki.
When I asked Philip Whalen one day just whom the Beat Generation included, he responded, “The Beat Generation was an hallucination.” Using that as a guideline, I just looked at connections and the people mentioned in this article came to mind. Some institutions as well. The AAAS became the California Institute of Integral Studies and is a well-respected accredited school.
There were far more artists at Zen Center than poets. So many Suzuki students had studied and taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was located on the edge of the North Beach section and no place is associated with the Beats more than North Beach. Flamboyant poet, musician, painter Daniel Moore was a friend of Michael McClure and brought to Zen Center in the early sixties by Norman Steiglmeyer who taught at the Art Institute.
Daniel went on to create, write for, and direct the Floating Lotus Opera Company which enlivened the Bay Area scene in the late sixties. Later he went to Tassajara with Allen Ginsberg to read poetry.
Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights book store was in the center of North Beach. He’d been arrested for obscenity for publishing Ginsberg’s Howl and won the important court case that followed. I’d greet him at Zen Center functions and saw him at the Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm a few years back walking alone in the meditation garden. A few doors down from City Lights was Fred Roscoe’s Discovery Books. Fred Roscoe had been an owner of Tassajara and was one of the people who had suggested it to Richard Baker as a site for a Zen Center monastery.
Some of the early students at Zen Center had been part of the North Beach scene. Stan White had a long beard and was called Sebastian. He had salacious stories of the goings-on there, including about Janis Joplin and breakthrough comedian Lenny Bruce. Tommy Dorsey roomed with Lenny Bruce when Dorsey ran the floor at the Condor Club, kitty-corner from City Lights, where the head act was Art Institute student turned famed busty stripper Carol Doda. Mel Weitsman was an artist and musician and played flute with Terry Riley on Riley’s classic “On C.” White and Dorsey became Suzuki students and later, temple priests. Weitsman was ordained by Suzuki as a priest for the Berkeley Zen Center and is still the abbot there.
Gregory Corso was the youngest of the poets to hang out with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. He’d done time in prison and been close to Mafiosos there in order to survive. But his Italian smarts went awry when he drunkenly verbally assaulted Enrico Banducci in front of customers at the latter’s famous Enrico’s on Broadway. As a result, on his way staggering home, Corso was taken into a dark alley by a few policemen and beaten so badly he had to be hospitalized. From the hospital he went to the Zen Center’s City Center and then Green Gulch Farm to recuperate.
Reed college has many threads running through this story. It was not only a source for leading poets and artists, but for students of Shunryu Suzuki. A professor at that school that each of those threads runs through was Lloyd Reynolds who taught creative writing and art and then joined them together with western calligraphy. Snyder, Whalen, Welch, and others enthusiastically absorbed his wisdom and artistry with letters. Reynolds met Suzuki a couple of times at the City Center and gave a lecture at Tassajara. His calligraphy was used for a 1968 documentary on Tassajara. Suzuki went to Reed in early 1971 for a short sesshin with a couple of lectures but had to leave in the middle due to illness.
Steve Jobs studied calligraphy with Reynolds’ successor, Robert Palladino, who included in his curriculum a thirty minute instructive video with Reynolds. Jobs took that passion to heart when he included a vast array of fonts for word processing in his first Mac. The PC followed suit. Jobs began sitting zazen at the Los Altos Haiku Zendo where Shunryu Suzuki had delivered the lectures that comprise the book that most people know him through – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Job’s favorite spiritual book. Job’s Zen teacher was Kobun Chino Otogawa who came to America from years at Eiheiji to be the priest at Haiku Zendo though he spent more time instructing and helping us at Tassajara for the first couple of years.
Chogyam Trungpa was a Rinpoche and tulku who’d fled Tibet in 1959. No other Buddhist teacher outside of the Soto school was closer to Suzuki than Trungpa who called Suzuki his American father and the first sane person he’d met in the West. Many of Suzuki’s students became Trungpa students after Suzuki died. And many of the Beats studied with him. Allen Ginsberg took him on as a teacher and spent years with him. Diane di Prima studied with him as did William Burrows who wrote Naked Lunch. Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics as part of Trungpa’s Naropa University in 1974 and attracted poets from many quarters. Gary Snyder went once but was not comfortable with the scene there which included a good deal of bacchanalia in the evening.
Jack Kerouac and Shunryu Suzuki’s paths never crossed but a lot of Zen Center students credited Kerouac’s books, principally On the Road and Dharma Bums with kindling their first interest in Zen and in seeking a more meaningful life. A few of them knew him as well – and his outrageous friend Neil Cassidy. Bob Walter was a psychologist who became a close friend of Kerouac while the two of them were living in New York. They played baseball, had a running dialogue about a spiritual world new to Walter - and went to bars at night. Kerouac called Bob his therapist and Bob called Kerouac his Zen master and within a few years had graduated from reading and talking about Zen to sitting zazen first in New York with Rinzai priest Edo Tai Shimano and then for a few years with Shunryu Suzuki.
Most people mentioned herein have passed on but Snyder, McClure, di Prima. Kato, Baker, and Weitsman are all in their eighties and still practicing, each in their own way. Coyote is still writing and acting and is committed to his practice of Zen as a priest. Kato, who met Suzuki when he first arrived, at 87 is still lecturing in English and Japanese at Zenshuji in Los Angeles.
I was asked what sort of influence Suzuki had on this crowd. I’d say he did his part, quietly made an impressive contribution to the mix along with others. He was also greatly influenced by those around him. That was one of his strengths. He’d call himself a friend in the dharma and say, “Sometimes I’m the teacher and you’re the student, and sometimes you’re the teacher and I’m the student.” Both at his temples in Japan and in America, he paid no special attention to someone due to their wealth, fame, or status in society. He thought teachers were essential but that the teaching is there before the teacher and is not what the teacher says but is the ineffable reality we share in which there is no person or self or being.
Sometimes, like Trungpa, Suzuki would use the phrase “First thought, best thought” and one can find it being attributed to both, mainly Trungpa. But it was Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s credo for writing from the early fifties and if not the exact phrase, the spirit was in the air back then in the music, art, and writing that included the Beats and one of their inspirations from a century and a half earlier, the poet William Blake who wrote, “First thought is best in art, second in other matters.” Kindred spirits. Their spirit continues.