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Shunryu Suzuki in Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan

Now a Shambhala Publications book

Suzuki photo by Tim Buckley

5-29-07 - Searched the whole book this morning and took out every mention of Suzuki just to see what I'd said there so I wouldn't repeat it unconsciously in some other writing. Found it rather interesting. You might too. [My present comments in brackets like this sentence.] – DC

David Chadwick, a Texas raised wanderer, college dropout, bumbling social activist and hobbyhorse musician, began his formal Zen study under Shunryu Suzuki-roshi in 1966 at the age of twenty-one. Many years later, Suzuki's successor, Zentatsu Richard Baker-roshi, shaking his head, said of Chadwick: "Years of expensive Zen training gone to waste."

- From the bio at the front of the original Penguin edition and in the back of the Shambhala, also on the back cover of both. Highlighted sentence dropped, surely by accident, from the back cover of Shambhala version.



Once when I was driving Suzuki Roshi to Zen Center from Tassajara, after we'd stopped at the original Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel Valley and he'd had three cups of coffee and me two, we got back into the car and I was all jacked up and driving down the road and I said, "Suzuki Roshi, may I ask you a question?" and he said "Yes," and I proceeded to beg him to tell me what it is that I should do to understand reality, to get enlightened. I told him that I was totally dedicated to the Way and that whatever he told me, I would do, no matter what it was. I went on and on making sure that he was thoroughly aware of my sincerity and devotion. I turned to him for an answer. He was sound asleep.



When I arrived in Japan in April of '88, I was forty-three and had been a fixture at the San Francisco Zen Center since I was twenty-one. I studied for five years with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi who ordained me as a priest, and then for another five with Richard Baker Roshi, Suzuki's heir. (Roshi, literally "old priest," is a title that we often translate as "Zen master" in America.) After that I mainly lived outside of the institution and was less of a company man and, though I continued my involvement with the Zen Center, easily half of my activity for the next decade was away from it.

During this whole period, a special teacher and friend was Dainin Katagiri Roshi. He had come to San Francisco in 1965 to assist Suzuki in ministering to the transplanted Japanese-American Soto Zen community and in guiding the zealous non-Japanese devotees of Zen practice. After Suzuki's death Katagiri went out to start his own group though he would return at times to help out. I always kept up with him. He was like my Zen Uncle.


Almost all the proper names have been changed. I fudged on the details a bit and did some combining and dividing of characters. Left intact are most U.S. and some famous Japanese place names, the names of members of my immediate family and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Dainin Katagiri Roshi and Zentatsu Richard Baker Roshi; I've tried to be as accurate as I could about the latter three because they figure prominently in American Buddhist history.


[The rest of the quotes come from the book proper. It would be nice to include the page numbers but there’s no time for that now. – DC]

I remembered Suzuki Roshi's advice: when the bell rings, get up. Moving forward, clumsily climbing out of the covers, I got up. I reached into the blackness and found the clock, fumbled with it and turned it off. [Awake in the Dark]


I maintain a more low-key posture and wear a rakusu instead.

It looks like a black bib but is actually a miniature kesa that straps around the neck. It's less formal but it does the job. It's old, tea stained and in need of mending. On the back side are some kanji, Chinese characters, written by Katagiri about twenty years ago. was dying when he ordained me, so he couldn't do the ceremony. Katagiri officiated for him and also wrote on the back of my rakusu. On the time-soiled white backing it says "no end" in the center, up to down. To the left is written "enlightenment" and to the right, "delusion." I looked at this old rakusu while I was standing by the closet in the dimness of the living room, light coming in from the kitchen where the tea kettle was puffing out the first hints of a whistle. No end to delusion. That sounds right. No end to enlightenment. That's good to hear. Suzuki used to say that there was no end to suffering, which made sense to me as I plodded back into the kitchen.  [Awake in the Dark]


A couple of old men were coming out of the bath area holding their small towels over their genitals as they walked, the way Suzuki and Katagiri used to do at the Tassajara baths.


Until just before I came to Zen Center in '66, Shunryu Suzuki was called "Suzuki Sensei." One day Alan Watts wrote a letter saying that sensei wasn't an appropriate title for Suzuki and that we should call him roshi, which was a much more traditional and appropriate term of respect for Zen masters. It was said that when Suzuki was told about this that he laughed quite hard for a long time. But some started calling him Suzuki Roshi, a moniker which stuck. Before he died, Suzuki told us to call his successor, Dick Baker, "Baker Roshi." Horrors. We only wanted to use it for Japanese.


I have a Buddhist name too that was given to me by Suzuki when I was ordained twenty years ago. I don't use it. In fact, Suzuki never used it and neither did Katagiri, Baker or anyone else. It didn't take. With Norman it's the opposite. I'm the only person who calls him by his Christian name.


[Norman explaining how he first came to the Minneapolis Zen Center] "I looked it up in the phone book. I just opened the phone book and turned to "Z" and there was "Zen Center." I went there, met Katagiri Roshi and here I am."

"That's funny," I said. "That's just what happened to me, except it was a different part of the country and a different decade. Found it in the phone book and met Katagiri. Suzuki was visiting Japan at the time. And here we are."


Katagiri introduced me. I didn't understand everything but I knew he'd said that I was a disciple of Suzuki and that we'd known each other a long time.


Dick Baker (who Suzuki chose as his successor) told me that when he and his wife were living in Japan they saw a sweatshirt with PEPPY CASUAL written on it and thereafter spent a good deal of time trying to find one to buy but had no luck.


No one could forget Gyuho who had been a visiting monk at Zen Center years before. He came when Suzuki was starting to get ill. For a while he practiced at Tassajara. He was the camp nerd, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and oh-so-naive. Soon he started picking up on American culture. He was curious about everything. His English improved. In Big Sur someone turned him on to pot and his transformation accelerated. He moved to the Zen Center building in the city so that he could do shiatsu, Japanese pressure point massage, on Suzuki who was by that time clearly dying. No one could forget Gyuho who had been a visiting monk at Zen Center years before. He came when Suzuki was starting to get ill. For a while he practiced at Tassajara. He was the camp nerd, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and oh-so-naive. Soon he started picking up on American culture. He was curious about everything. His English improved. In Big Sur someone turned him on to pot and his transformation accelerated. He moved to the Zen Center building in the city so that he could do shiatsu, Japanese pressure point massage, on Suzuki who was by that time clearly dying.

In his spare time, Gyuho was learning more and more about the San Francisco of the early seventies. After Suzuki died, Gyuho left Zen Center, no longer able to bear the restrictions.


Before long I was forced to find refuge in the practice of nondiscrimination as best I could. This calls for not paying so much attention to the editorials between the ears. To me it meant following the breath, the opening to body/mind with the center of attention being in the belly like Suzuki and Katagiri had told us over and over. "Just sit. Just work," they both had said so many times. It's the Soto mantra. When the bell rings, go where it beckons. Don't take your thoughts so seriously. Nothing to it but to do it. That sort of thing.


The first time I was married was in '73. It was a big wedding at Zen Center complete with a reception and many guests. Suzuki's heir, Richard Baker, decked in his finest robes, performed the ceremony.


Suzuki, my old teacher, once said we find our treasure by watching and waiting.


The bath is a place for zazen, "second only to the zendo" said Suzuki.


Suzuki used to say we could talk or we could eat but that we couldn't do both at the same time and indeed I have noticed that conversation covers a meal so that the act of eating becomes automatic and the taste of the food is lost. When Suzuki and his students ate together informally on a shopping trip or a picnic, there would sometimes be a tense silence with each of us trying so hard to "just eat." At that time, he would often ask someone a question and get a little talk going and thus nudge us to relax and be natural. Ah, this path of just doing things naturally can be so full of unnaturalness, overdoing and inappropriate application of methods. What humorous dolts we are. It seems upon close scrutiny that our way, all of us, teachers and students alike, is to just bungle along together.


There was a visiting roshi at Tassajara a long time ago while Suzuki was still alive who gave two hour talks every night on all that minutia.


[While doing Takuhatsu, monks’ begging]

I stared and absorbed the sound, transfixed, and, suddenly unaware of my role in this rite, time melted enough to transpose onto this scene my last memory of an even shorter Japanese priest, my original teacher Suzuki Roshi, powerfully bringing his similar staff down, the staff Alan Watts gave him, bringing it down at Dick Baker's Mountain Seat ceremony, bringing it down and saying goodbye in that chilling moment. That was the last time I saw him, so brown-skinned with metastasized gall bladder cancer. The ringing of his jangling staff was there at the pachinko parlor for a bent moment and then it was Dainin (Katagiri's Buddhist name) again, his Great Patience waiting for this Japanese pinball Vegas colored pleasure dream to spit out a sycophantic employee who quickly dropped a coin in Katagiri's slot and darted back into the mirrors and screaming machines.


Katagiri, incidentally, like Suzuki, back when it was an issue, asked people not to come to zazen high.


"Well, be careful. Do you know what Baker Roshi, Suzuki Roshi's successor said?"

"No. What?"

"Once he said, 'Years of expensive Zen training gone to waste.' That made Koji laugh. I continued, "And on another day he said that my practice was to lead my fellow students on the path to hell."

Koji put his cigarette out. I rubbed my new table and admired the grain.


Isabel [Yvonne] called from California from her place north of San Francisco near Zen Center's farm. She's a buddy from way back. We both started studying with Suzuki and Katagiri in the same year. She's my Zen sister - keeps me in touch with what's happening in the States. Isabel was worried about Katagiri. He'd been sick since the past summer when he and I were at Hogoji.


I met Katagiri at the San Francisco Zen Center back in sixty-six when I, an unkempt semi-hippie with curly long hair all frizzled out, first came to check it out. The fellow who opened the door, a Caucasian like me, introduced me to Katagiri, calling him Sensei. He and I talked in the small funky office on the second floor of Sokoji on Bush Street, an old synagogue which had been converted into a Soto Zen temple for the San Francisco Japanese-American community. I'd looked around for a place to meditate in California and hadn't found anything I liked so I was on my way to the office of Icelandic Airlines to buy a ticket to Europe. From there I planned to get to Asia where I would seek enlightenment. But I had the thought that maybe I should see if there was a Zen temple in San Francisco. Sure enough there was. Like Norman, I'd just looked up "Zen" in the phone book.

There I was in that run down old place talking to this shaved headed, smiling and kindly seeming Zen priest. He was thirty-eight at the time but looked younger. Wow, I thought, I've finally met a Zen priest. So this is what one looks like.

He was sitting on a couch. "What can I do for you?" he said.

"I want to learn to meditate." I wanted to find a group of people I could meditate with until I could do it on my own, I explained.

"You should have a teacher," he said.

"A teacher?" I asked, "Why do I need a teacher?"

While he answered me I looked him over. He's got nice vibes but he's nervously tapping the pencil in his hand while he talks to me. Hmm. That doesn't seem to be what a Zen Master should be like. They shouldn't have any nervous energy. Aren't they perfectly clear with no thoughts in their head?

"A teacher is beyond your judgment," he said making me wonder if he was reading my mind.

"Should you be my teacher?" I asked.

"No. Suzuki Sensei should be your teacher. He's in Japan now but he'll be back in a couple of weeks."

"Why can't you be my teacher?" I went on. "Could you be my teacher?"

"I could be but Suzuki Sensei should be," he said with finality. It was Suzuki's temple. Katagiri played second fiddle there for years. He gave me a brief zazen instruction and showed me the schedule.


I told him that Edward Conze, a cranky and eccentric Buddhist scholar, said once in a class I was in, "If there's no magic, there's no religion."

"But what is magic?" I asked Maku. "I didn't understand Conze. Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi never taught us anything but sitting and not getting caught by things - by things like magic."


[about koans]

Katagiri and Suzuki in typical Soto style didn't assign these conundrums to students, but they would sometimes discuss them in lectures. Katagiri tolerated the fact that some of his students, rather than be involved with the Suienji system, studied in Japan with teachers that used koans. Suzuki's teacher [Gyokujun So-on] once sent him to study with a Rinzai teacher [name unknown]. He said he got passed on his koan without having deserved it.


Like Suzuki had said, it [zazen] was sitting with wandering mind and painful legs. We also didn't talk much about Zen and especially not about enlightenment. We regarded Zen-that-ran-after-enlightenment as goal seeking or, "having some idea," as Suzuki said. I told Watanabe [Harada Shodo] that I treasured every moment I'd had with my Soto teachers and friends, but that it was good to have something definite to chew on for a change. [a koan]


The eager beaver's problem is the hindrance of goal orientation. Suzuki and Katagiri both warned us of the futility of "seeking practice."


Suzuki told me once that I should keep sitting and wait for something wonderful to happen. He didn't mean, I don't think, that I should try to create this "something wonderful" by a meditative technique, but rather that I should practice "just sitting" alertly and continue just walking, just eating and so forth without any intention or striving. Over the course of time, something wonderful would happen of itself, not as a result of my effort. He said that I would definitely have "some experience." He defined it as little as possible but I thought that he meant the type of experience that is sometimes called "beyond experience" and is indescribable and all that. In other words, I didn't know what he meant. So I was very pleased to hear him say that it would definitely happen because I had been all worked up about it back then. But aside from various temporal, lifestyle and therapeutic effects, I couldn't claim that my first few years at Zen had produced anything close to "dropping away of body and mind."

"Don't fight," he said, "That is the key - don't fight." And don't strive to gain what I've already got. The point isn't to bring on spiritual experience but to cultivate the mind that can receive it, realize it - to "widen the stage" as I remember Dick Baker explaining to a Tassajara guest back in '67. And this effort is not at all tied to huffing and puffing or to a forced slow motion, but to just "do what you're doing" (age quod agis - a saying of the Jesuits). Suzuki and Katagiri imparted the empowering teaching that we are fine as is. No need for something extra, just us as we are is all we need to stand in the footsteps of the saints and to sit on the zafu of the masters.

Suzuki didn't stop at "something wonderful." He went on to say that not only would it happen to me, but that it would happen to everyone. I liked that even though it definitely reduced my sense of being special, because it increased my odds dramatically. It would happen to us all. Good. There was a catch though. "You should continue sitting," he said. "If you continue sitting, this wonderful experience can continue with you. It can be yours forever. But if you have no practice, it will be passing - like a psychedelic experience."

Oh boy, he sure hit the nail on the head with me. As divine and total as my psychedelic experiences had been, they certainly had no lasting qualities - they were mainly useful as encouragement to use other means. They eliminated any doubt as to the reality of the so-called goals of religious life and cast great doubts on the ultimate reality of hard facts and the American Way as some narrowly perceived it.

I had left behind the quick fix of that chemical spiritual masturbation in order to follow the "gradual path," a controversial epithet for Soto Zen not used much by Soto Zenists. It is said that Rinzai picks the fruit off the tree and that Soto lets it fall, but that practitioners of both ways throw all body and mind into zazen. Even though psychedelic experience might, in comparison, be more like scratch and sniff, at least I'd had the whiff. Suzuki seemed to be telling me not to emphasize the glitter of the way but to get it in my bones gradually, day by day. I have almost forgotten the carrot and have often lost track of any horse or road but from time to time, like the drunk who pulls himself from the gutter, I pull my legs into zazen position or watch the breath while waiting for a bus. Suzuki is long gone and can't answer my "what was that?" I have continued haphazardly with his colleagues such as Katagiri and the teachers and fellow students he left behind and they have tried their best and have encouraged me greatly. I have been told again and again that it's not enough to say I'm "already saved" as is taught in Jodo Shinshu, but that I should keep practicing in order to express it. So I keep on plugging away as if by following this way of suchness one could prepare the infinite room for that which cannot be contained.


"Nishiki says priests shouldn't smoke."

"Ohhh - I see. Suzuki felt that way too and Katagiri. I also agree completely."

"I do too."

We stopped and looked at each other.

"Then we are of one mind?" I asked.

Koji nodded.

"Just three a day till the ceremony's over?"

"Just three," Koji answered and we continued walking downhill - quickly because we wanted to get right back to work.


Katagiri was on the deck in a soft brown traveling robe. He had on a brown cotton hat indented from front to back like a sergeant's headpiece. Suzuki used to wear one of those when he traveled.


Katagiri's Buddhist name is Dainin, "great patience," and he shared that intangible quality with us in day to day life in the city and at Tassajara. The first time he had a sesshin of his own at Tassajara, while Suzuki Roshi was dying in the city, the scheduled zazen went around the clock.


His [Katagiri’s] answer to so many questions had been silence or "I don't know." His teaching was simply to continue practicing and to find things out for ourselves.

Just like when Suzuki Roshi died, some of the little lies and games we played with ourselves were exposed. The myths we perpetuated and nourished without examining: fairy tales about our teachers. Like the child makes super beings out of parents, the student of the Way makes an idol of the teacher. If this phase is not grown out of, the disciple suffers, for this idol is not clay, but flesh. Flesh which dies and decomposes and leaves you completely.


There's an old warning against confusing the great wonderful Absolute Truth with the teacher which goes, "Don't confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon." It's as if a fellow came along who pointed to the moon and we just stared at this gentle, kind Oriental man in his brown robe and went, "Wow, far out!" and then he fell over dead and we cried and said words of praise about him and walked off talking about him and never noticed the moon. So here we are all walking around in the moonlight, mumbling and grumbling and bumping into each other. We are a silly lot.

Another thing we do when we go on babbling about how great our teacher's understanding was, is we imply that we are qualified to appraise their understanding. This seems arrogant. When I first met Katagiri and watched him fiddling with his pencil and wondered if an enlightened person would do that and he told me that a teacher was beyond the students judgement, he wasn't telling me that he and Suzuki were beyond karma or making mistakes. He didn't mean that they could have a burglary ring going that I should ignore because their every act was perfect buddha dharma. To me, what he was saying was, "Don't look at me, look at the moon."

We do not know what their understanding was. There is no reason to say they were enlightened, whatever that means, or that they were anything other than our spiritual friends or good friends.

What Suzuki and Katagiri learned and knew, I do not know. I learned from them to have confidence in zazen while sitting, standing and walking, as it is traditionally said. I am thinking and commenting on these people because that is the subject now, but in my life today, I am just as encouraged by family members and my mutually irritating fellow students and by living peers who have all sorts of ways and practices as by the memory of the Japanese teachers whom I have known and loved.


I thought of Katagiri's life, from the boy who ate incense, to the priest who died feeling he hadn't realized his dream of sinking his dharma roots deep in America. He tried in Monterey, in Minneapolis, in San Francisco and in Marin County to have the sort of following and success that he'd seen bloom around Suzuki and Baker.

"How's it going in Minneapolis, Roshi?" I asked him on one of his visits to Green Gulch after he'd given a talk to several hundred people.

"Not so well," he said sadly. "We don't have such a big group. There's not so much interest in Minneapolis. And people are mad at me for being too strict. Ralph stopped wearing his robes. He doesn't like me anymore."

"Oh I'm sure he likes you Roshi. But do the numbers really matter? That's not very Zen is it?" I ribbed him. "Wasn't Suzuki Roshi the only student who didn't eventually leave his teacher?"

He nodded.

"And aren't you the only student who stuck with your teacher?"

"Yes, I was the only one. Though eventually I left him too."

"Not till long after you'd completed your training. You had to move on."


"And what of Suzuki's so-called success. Look what's happened. We've got fine buildings and many students but we're all a bunch of idiots. Nothing to brag about here. Just a lot of depressed dopes and infighting. Who of us understands anything? So didn't Suzuki fail?"

"He needed more time." Katagiri smiled at the line of thought I was hitting him with.

"And didn't Dogen say that the life of a Zen master is one continuous mistake?"

"Something like that."

"Congratulations, Roshi, you're right on target."

"I never knew how hard it would be," he said shaking his head.


Two nights before when I'd called Suzuki's son in Yaizu and told him of Katagiri's death, he only said that no words came. I knew just how he felt. No words.


Once when she [Tomoe Katagiri] and her husband were staying in the guest house at Green Gulch, Kelly [my oldest son] and I paid them a visit. We had found a frog carved from green Mexican stone and brought it as a gift for Katagiri. Like Suzuki, he was known to love frogs.


I remember Katagiri's first lectures at Sokoji. Suzuki had asked him to speak, so he did but we could barely understand him. In fact, I couldn't catch enough of what he was saying to get the point. He was horrified to be in such a position, but we all smiled and nodded, encouraging him on.


Almost thirty years before, he had left them [his home temple congregation] and gone first to Zenshuji in LA and then in 1965 to help Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center. What they had been told was that he was going to the States for a couple of years to be a priest for Japanese Americans. That's why Suzuki was sent there too, to minister for a reasonable term to Japanese abroad in the land of the materialistic heathens. They just didn't come back. They didn't come back because they were both priests who were passionately absorbed in the core practice of their religions, and in California they were sought out by hippies, housewives and investors who desperately wanted to do what they did and know what they knew. The traditional Japanese American Buddhists went to the temple on Sundays to hear a sermon and participate in a brief service and the rest of us newcomers went Monday through Saturday to practice zazen, chant the Heart Sutra and bug those two guys with questions till their English improved considerably.


[At the memorial service for Katagiri at his home temple] The gaijin and the locals were distributed much more equitably at this point around the long table. The unifying ceremony followed by alcohol and a generous spread of sushi, tempura and local dishes loosened us all up considerably. There were a few brief words before we ate.

What I remember best is when the tall, thin, reserved caretaker of the temple said, "Katagiri-san was a great priest who took on a big job in America and died twenty years too soon." We toasted Katagiri. How true, I thought, just like Suzuki, twenty years too soon. It's a shame, a real shame, and nothing can be done about it.


Katagiri once told me that Suzuki had never thanked him for his years of selfless service - showing he'd reacted to this typical closed-mouth Zen modus operandi much as I would have - hurt and still waiting for appreciation. So before he died I wrote him a letter in which I said thank you about twenty times. Thank you for coming to America and thank you for being such a good friend and thank you for being such a good teacher and on and on like that.


And Suzuki did thank Katagiri. I was there and I remember it well. Maybe Katagiri was expressing himself so completely that there was no room left to remember it, or maybe he just blocked it out. But I admired him for what he did. When the time came to grieve, he just grieved. It was the last formal meeting between Suzuki and those disciples whom he had ordained as priests. There were about a dozen of us. We were sitting full of sadness around our tiny beloved teacher who had turned dark brown from the cancer and who was so weak. He was encouraging us to practice forever and to let go of the teacher. At one point Suzuki turned to Katagiri and thanked him for all he had done through the years.

Katagiri burst into tears and with a mournful voice he beseeched Suzuki, "Don't die." He started to make his way across the tatami floor on his knees, treading awkwardly on his brown kesa, and repeating, "Don't die, don't die." Throwing his arms around fragile Suzuki, he sobbed, expressing unreservedly the grief and love that the rest of us were trying so hard, like good little Zen soldiers, to keep inside.

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