Suzuki Roshi

‘And when you sit, your practice should be done with the spirit like, if someone, you know, tell you to stand up, you shouldn’t stand up forever. Until someone, you know, say, stand up. This much confidence is necessary.

It means you sit right in the center of the earth, of the world, or universe, whatever it is. And you are right in the point of the eternal time. If you have some idea of space or time, that practice is not true practice. You should be always sitting in cross-point of time and space. That is true practice. And this is very important, because this practice of — this practice, which is beyond the idea of time and space, accord with the true teaching of Buddhism.

To live on this moment, on this point, moment after moment, is how to actualize our teaching. So when you sit in this way, there you have the true teaching of Buddhism. The gist of the teaching. The point of the teaching. Here you have the oneness of teaching and practice; and oneness of enlightenment and practice.

So, this much, at least this much, confidence is necessary. When you fix your mind, and practice our way, there you have renunciation. You have the true feeling of Zen. This practice — when you practice this — in this way, we say you resume your original face, or original nature.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This is one of the talks I worked on a certain amount, from the first summer at Tassajara in 1967. The original reel was much better quality than previous copies had been, so it was possible to clean up the transcript a little. I listened to it again with my dharma sister Kim last week, and a couple of things struck me: the talk offers one of the most extensive zazen instructions that Suzuki Roshi gave, which is great to listen to in itself, and it is bookended by more philosophical musings which, it occurred to me as I listened, he may have been reading out from prepared remarks. Certainly there were a lot of technical terms, and his cadence is a little different to what it usually seems to be. Kim noted his referencing to time and space, similarly to how Katagiri Roshi expressed it later, and which she hopes to talk about from the dharma seat in a few weeks.

Suzuki Roshi

‘How to help people is very– not very difficult thing, but it is rather difficult to explain how to, you know. To help people, in its true sense, is just to join their life, and lead their life as they do, and to be always friend of others. That is the only way. And if they find me something different from them, even though we are in same condition and living same way. This is, I think, how to help them and how to teach them real practice of Zen.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Interestingly, I had just pulled this quote up when a student texted me to ask how it was that they could help people.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When I came to America for the first time, for pretty long time, as our old students knows– know, I put emphasis on way-seeking mind. When we have true way-seeking mind– pure true way seeking mind, we can practice our way without any problem. When you have questions or problems in your practice, it means that you are not practicing shikantaza. If you practice shikantaza, you know, you will be monkey-minded buddha in shikantaza. You will be pain-legged buddha in shikantaza. And your whole body will be obstacle buddha– obstacle of buddha– or to be obstacle itself is buddha. Is there any problem, you know, when whatever you do, that is buddha? That is shikantaza.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Frankly…

I had been planning to write something anodyne about the rain on Sunday and getting wetter on my bike than I had expected. Monday morning was pencilled in for cleaning the crud off my bike, but before I started, I got into an exchange with someone I know. For the sake of anonymity, I will just say that this is a person of colour relatively new to practice, but interested in going deeper. They expressed enjoying a recent ceremony, and then went on to say, 

“However, I am just sitting with this question of whether I can “practice” wholeheartedly knowing that the teachers here can’t meet me in my race… which is really the root of so much of my suffering and conditioning.”

My response, which I have amended slightly for clarity: “You should be able to include all parts of yourself in your practice. If you aren’t able to, it cannot be a fulfilling practice. If your teachers can’t mirror all parts of you back to you, I think you need new teachers, even as you can love these ones in their imperfections.”

Later in the exchange, the student said, “My comments are my perspective. I know I’m operating from a place of confusion. [One teacher] says I can’t do anything from a place of confusion. So I’m supposed to just sit and find my calm.”

“Frankly that’s bollocks,” was my initial reaction. 

As I tried to articulate why, I went on, “[Another student] was undoubtedly operating from a place of confusion and what [they] said was needed and essential. How is a POC or person used to being oppressed or targeted supposed to find any sense of calm if their perspectives are diminished or even dismissed out of hand? People’s confusion is the ground of our practice. None of us get to sit in equanimity and make serene “objective” statements about how things really are. As a quote that really resonated for me says, “neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.” You can operate from a place of confusion and understand that it is confusion and still come up with better understandings than someone who refuses to see that.”

I was reading about the ancestors this morning, and how our ceremonies cultivate gratitude to everyone who passed down the practice through many different cultures so that we can avail ourselves of it today. And, as I get to be more senior, I understand how essential it is to ensure that the teaching is not cut off, that it continues to reach down the generations. I have been listening to Suzuki Roshi emphasising this point in the first few months at Tassajara.

Fifty-five years on, there are so many more options for people wanting to study Buddhism, or even Zen, and as dharma centres we cannot be complacent in assuming that the way we have always done things will be sufficient, especially when the communities have been so homogenous and inward-looking. As a male from the dominant culture, I can’t claim to have the answers for what everybody needs, and in the past I have suggested other teachers to students of colour, teachers who might be better placed to help the student deal with such aspects of their practice. Still, I don’t think it’s okay to suggest that people, especially people from non-dominant communities, need to just stay quiet and not get to express who they are and what they need, even if they are coming from a place of confusion, and even if ultimately this practice is not for them. As a teacher, I know need to allow everyone that space, meet them where they are the best I can, and use what I hear to examine my own blind spots and shortcomings.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When you sit, your practice should be done with the spirit like, if someone, you know, tell you to stand up, you shouldn’t stand up forever. Until someone, you know, say, stand up. This much confidence is necessary.

It means you sit right in the center of the earth, of the world, or universe, whatever it is. And you are right in the point of the eternal time. If you have some idea of space or time, that practice is not true practice. You should be always sitting in cross-point of time and space. That is true practice. And this is very important, because this practice of — this practice, which is beyond the idea of time and space, accord with the true teaching of Buddhism.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archive)

Mountains and Waters Sutras

‘Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

I read this passage to the retreat group as we silently ate lunch at the Horse Pasture on the first full day of the retreat. It was an amazingly beautiful day, the wildflowers were abundant, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And, when we got to the Narrows, one of the group, who knew Tassajara very well, slipped and broke a wrist crossing the creek. Luckily another member of the group was a nurse, so we got them strapped up and ready to walk back to Tassajara. Then we came across a rattlesnake at the side of the trail. Only the nurse got past it. I backed everyone else quite a few yards along the trail, and told her to alert the stone office about the injury. The Tassajara protocols worked fine, as did, eventually, throwing small stones in the direction of the snake to encourage it to find somewhere quieter to sun itself. The trained responder sorted out the patient, who was then driven off to hospital in Monterey by the shika.

And that was only the smallest portion of my time there. When I arrived, through clouds on the ridge, I felt the deep relief of being back. Then, on the first morning, chilly after the previous day’s rain, I strained something in my back as I bent over to pull on my boots. Some things, especially sitting down, getting up from sitting, zazen, sleeping on a thin shikibuton, twisting slightly to the left, were painful for a few days, and in the case of sitting and zazen, uncomfortable throughout my stay. Other things – hiking, working with rocks, moving dirt, doing the compost in the shed, cleaning the bathhouse, and very gently yoga poses, were fine.

I didn’t, as I wished, get to give a talk in the zendo, or even be morning doshi, even as the intricacies of service reappeared in my mind, and the chants came back to my voice after all these years. I did offer a presentation on the Beginner’s Mind talk which was well received, and boosted by Steve Weintraub offering a moving personal testimonial on Suzuki Roshi’s way.

I did five hikes in a little over a week, the Horse Pasture and the Wind Caves twice each, first to check (both were in much better shape than I anticipated, thanks to the indefatigable trail crew), and the Overlook and creekside hike on the easy day, which still offered moments of beauty and silence.

I ate a lot of delicious food. I lingered in the baths and the creek. I met up with fellow practitioners from fifteen and twenty years ago that I did not expect to see, and others from summers and work periods past that it was lovely to see again. I tried to encourage some of the newly arrived students, and petted the dogs as often as I could.

I drove a stage one day, and declined to do a town trip, but otherwise did what was asked.

I felt totally at home, and yet did not feel that I needed to move back there any time soon. And this is just the merest glimpse of what it was like. I took notes for the first couple of days, but there were too many details and memories to try to capture it all.

I took a lot of photographs with my new camera, and was glad I had decided to buy it.

Lupins on the way in.
Overlooking the Narrows from the cut-off trail.
The Wind Caves.
It was very green and bright.

Suzuki Roshi

‘If you want to study Buddhism, you should, you know, enter the room. You should not stay at the edge of the teaching. Even though you enter our room, you will not have any restriction, you know. You are quite free. So—but you should enter our teaching. It means not to be—not—don’t try to understand it just intellectually or by means of experience only. Experience, of course, [is] important, but the more important thing is—is confidence to believe in yourself.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Suzuki Roshi

Student: Roshi, you said not to stop thinking, but to be free from thinking, and I wonder if you could explain what it means to be free from thinking?

Suzuki Roshi: What I meant was don’t be bound by your thinking. When you reach a conclusion by thinking, you will have some definite idea. Actually, that is why you think: to have a definite answer. But that is not possible.

Student: So what should you do?

Suzuki Roshi: You can think, and thinking will help you, of course. But you should know, at the same time, that that answer will not be definite. So you think, but you are free from thinking. That is what I meant: to have what we call a double edged blade. So double-edge think: don’t think and think. It works two ways. This is the double nature, the double construction of Buddhist philosophy: thinking construction and non thinking construction. (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I think this exchange illuminates Dogen’s “think of not thinking” from the Fukanzazengi – which he borrowed from Yakusan.

Suzuki Roshi

'Student: Docho Roshi, what am I asking you?
SR: I know what you want to ask me pretty well. But as you don't ask me now, I also don't want to answer you [laughter].
Student: But I'm not sure that I know. That's why I thought maybe you would know [laughs, laughter].
SR: I know [laughs, laughter].
Student: Will I know sometime to ask you?
SR: Yes. But not now [laughter].' (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Wednesday evenings with my dharma sister Kim have resumed, now that she has completed her shuso practice period at Zen Center. Since I know she likes listening to shosan ceremonies, I chose one from Tassajara in 1969. The intimacy and playfulness is plain here.

Suzuki Roshi

‘The monastery is not some particular place. Whether you can make Tassajara a monastery or not is up to you. It may be worse than city life even though you are in Tassajara. But when you have wisdom of Prajnaparamita Sutra, even though you are in San Francisco, that is perfect monastery. This point should be, you know, fully understood.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This was the most recent talk that I have written an article about for the archive. I have been very interested in how Suzuki Roshi laid out his vision for teaching at Tassajara in the first sesshin held there, and the early part of this talk is given over to his ideas about work practice. But, as he points out in this closing paragraph, what he is hoping to instil is a mindset.

I remember a more senior student telling me that he felt it was okay to leave Tassajara when he could feel that walking the streets of New York was the same as being at Tassajara. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I came to see exactly what he meant.