Memories of Taizan Maezumi
Taizan Maezumi came from his LA Center to Tassajara for most of the first half of the first practice period there in 1967 which ended with a sesshin. He'd met Suzuki in 1959 when he went up from LA to attend classes in English at San Francisco State College. Through the years he went to Sokoji some to visit and to attend ceremonies. And he'd take Mrs. Suzuki out drinking which she liked because her husband hardly ever drank.
One little bit of trivia about Maezumi is the source of his name. I know two of his brothers in Japan. They're both priests. I asked one of them why their family name is Kuroda and his is Maezumi and learned that he had taken the name of his mother's family. This is done sometimes in Japan as sometimes men take on the family name of their wives.
Maezumi's relation to the SF Zen Center was not good in the early years. He wanted to be affiliated with the SFZC, somewhat because he felt no connection to the Soto Zen temple in LA, Zenshuji. Shunryu Suzuki didn't respond to him on this. Richard Baker was very much against it. He and Maezumi were sort of enemies back then. When Maezumi was at Tassajara for that first practice period, he gave a lecture and said something that Baker took exception to and Baker insisted that he take it back which he did. I can't remember what it was but it was a shocking bit of power play at a time that us lowly students just wanted everything to be harmonious. Later, as they got older and mellower, Maezumi and Baker became friendly.
I met Maezumi in the fall of '66 when I was in LA to visit with a famous psychic. Then and later, like when I was on shopping trips setting up the Tassajara dining room and kitchen, I'd stay with Maezumi and sit with him in the morning. He didn't have many students then. That first fall morning after we'd sat zazen and had breakfast, he sat me down opposite him at a low table and ranted at me for an hour about the fact that not only would Richard Baker not allow his Zen group to be associated with the SFZC, but that there was not even a mention of his center in the Wind Bell, the SFZC's publication. He implored me to try to get "just one sentence" in about his center. I mentioned it to the appropriate people when I got back and maybe it was going to happen anyway, but in the January-February Wind Bell, there was a good notice about him and his group with schedule, address and phone number, and mention that he'd help Suzuki out early on.
These things happen. After Baker departed SFZC in 1983, the Wind Bell didn't list his center in the related groups list at the end but the website now mentions them in his brief bio on the lineage page.
Maezumi was a gracious host. In 1973 my first wife to be and I dropped by the ZCLA to say hello and were told that Maezumi was on his way in from the airport. We waited with a group of his students at his doorstep and when he arrived he told all his students he'd talk to them later and took Daya and me inside and we sat and talked and drank and nibbled on Japanese snacks he'd brought with him and drank and drank and drank for the longest time. Not Daya who didn't yet know she was pregnant and never drank much anyway. I felt bad for his students waiting to see him but he said not to worry and treated us like there was nothing in the world he'd rather do than hang out.
Maezumi had an American wife whose name was something like Charlene. She told me she was a Nichiren priest. She introduced me to organic liquid soap for cleaning just about anything - Basic H. I later became a Basic H salesman in order to get a big discount on it for Tassajara. We bought it by the 55 gallon drum. In the early days, in '65, Bob Halpern, who had encouraged Maezumi to start a Zen Center in LA and who'd been one of his first students, said that at times he and a few others would be sitting zazen downstairs while Maezumi and his wife were yelling and breaking furniture over each other's heads upstairs. I'm sure Bob exaggerated. She came to Zen Center a few times saying she was seeking refuge from him. Who know? But anyway, there were many troubles in his early years.
Maezumi sure had his share of troubles and scandal. I bought a video on the subject, an investigative documentary. There had been a lot of improper sexual conduct. One cool thing about him is that he didn't have the problem of not being able to see or deal with his own mistakes. On that video and at other times he freely admitted, confessed, and made no excuses for his preceptual transgressions. He drank a lot but, as I understand it, he got into a twelve step program as well and talked to his students about it openly.
Remembering the times I've been with him, seen him in ceremonies, and stuff I've heard about him, I'd say he had an interesting mix of humility and arrogance. Mainly to me he'd seem arrogant at a distance, but close up he'd be right there with me not putting on any airs. I went to visit him once when he was staying at the SFZC. I guess I was feeling sort of cynical at the time and started asking him if anyone in America had learned anything from studying Zen, from Suzuki, from him, from any teacher. He just let me rag on and said he didn't know, maybe not. When I first knew him he'd on the one hand say he came from an important family and then say that he wasn't really a teacher, that he could only show people the posture of sitting and join them. He got transmission from his father in 1955, a year before he went to America. But he didn't ride on those laurels as he could easily have. He continued studying with other teachers after he'd started his own center and got transmission in two other lineages.
I was sad to hear about Maezumi’s death in May of 1995.I’d interviewed him one month earlier at Green Gulch. This piece was originally written in the December before that. His death is attributed by most to him being drunk and falling asleep. That doesn’t quite do it for me because I have slept in bathtubs all my life and hot tubs in my adult life – with my nostrils just above the water line. And back when I used to drink, I’d do so now and then when I was very drunk. It hardly ever happened but the slightest bit of water in my nose would wake me up. Seems to me the amount of alcohol then would have to be at the level of general anesthetic. I think for Maezumi a stroke or heart attack are just as likely. And I’d not give any credence to anything official there. Japan is cover-up city.
When he talked to me in later years I noticed he tended to stress the positive about others. Any Japanese priest who knew Shunryu Suzuki could say critical things about him since they, being from the same culture, they weren't so enamored (fooled?) by Suzuki's presence. But Maezumi would say to look at what Suzuki had done, what he left behind, that that was the important thing. I suppose if I had the character he had I would only say the same thing about Maezumi - look at all the teachers and centers he's left behind. He had twelve successors and there are over fifty groups in his lineage around the world. My relationship with Maezumi was not a dharmic one, but I respect him and his students for what they are doing. I present my memories here, which add up to not much more than a bunch of gossip, which cast no light on his teaching or understanding, not to detract from his legacy but to say that this is what I remember and that I really liked him and respect him - and to say to the judgmental, puritan, Calvinist, whatever we want to call it in us that our shortcomings and indulgences, our sins and our woes, need not hold us back from carrying the shapeless ball of the dharma forward.
Taizan Maezumi Articles by DC
Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber with Maezumi
ZCLA Website brief bio etc on Maezumi
Excerpt from 33 Fingers Go to What's New