Suzuki Roshi

‘So even [if] you practice hard, your zazen sometime will be good, sometime will not be so good. It is– actually it is not always in the same– we cannot practice our way in the same way always. The purpose of zazen is not to think about it. To catch ourselves in its full function is zazen. If so, there is no need to think about it. If you think about it, you cannot– you will lose it. When you don’t think and [are] involved in the practice fully, you have zazen.

Even it is so, we have to prepare everything one by one carefully. That is our everyday life. When you wash your face you should wash your face carefully. When you walk you should walk carefully. One by one you take care of your activity. But when you are taking care of your activity, you are involved in something which is– which cannot be grasped. You are not anymore you.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Another talk from an early sesshin at Tassajara, with Suzuki Roshi encouraging his students to go deeper than they probably ever had before.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘In every photo I have of Suzuki Roshi – and I have a lot of them – he’s laughing or smiling. My teachers and my practice have never taught me not to enjoy life. The deeply seasoned teachers I’ve had the opportunity to meet have all been supportive to people who are suffering, but they have also been very playful and lighthearted.’ (The Hidden Lamp)

This is a delicate balancing act to pull off, but I trust that Suzuki Roshi – as well as Katagiri Roshi and Sojun Mel Weitsman, who Blanche also namechecks – was able to do this thanks to his long and deep practice.

Suzuki Roshi (r) with Kobun Chino at Tassajara, from David Chadwick’s site

Suzuki Roshi

‘I am quite sure that we can pay for the Tassajara land, but that is not what concerns me so much. I feel a big responsibility in managing the temple and organizing our practice in that monastery. To establish right practice in America is the most important point. Although we are paying a lot of money for the land, we do not gain anything. We are not so much interested in the ownership of the land, but in practicing our way as we want to practice it. To do so, in this situation a lot of money must be paid. It can’t be helped.

The land itself belongs to heaven and earth. No one can possess it. Everything is in flowing change; nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. There is nothing to be possessed in this world of constant change. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear the bird; even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some growth coming up. In the East I saw rhubarb already. In Japan, late in the spring, we eat cucumber. In this way, everything is changing, and sometimes it is nice to feel the change of things. But if we realize what we are doing in this evanescent life, we become rather ashamed of ourselves. In this changing life, we cannot repeat the same thing again. If we miss this moment, we become older.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I had never read this talk before, from early in 1967, after Suzuki Roshi had visited the East Coast.

I had to go back quite a way in my WordPress photo library to find a picture of Tassajara…

Suzuki Roshi

‘You should not try to make some tentative particular effort based on your small mind like, “my practice should be better.” My practice you say, but zazen is not your practice, it is Buddha’s practice. Your effort is based on big mind which cannot get out of. If your small self begins to act without the care of big mind, that is not Zen. What you do should be well taken care of by big mind. Our practice should be based on mind or original way-seeking mind which works on and on continuously.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Another talk from an early sesshin, with Suzuki Roshi telling it like it is to his fledgling students.

Suzuki Roshi

‘There is no end– there is no end in our practice. Because there is no end in our practice, our practice is good. Don’t you think so? But usually, you expect our practice could be effective enough [laughs] to put an end in your hard practice. If– if I say, “Practice hard just two years” [laughs, laughter], then you will be interested in our practice. If I say, “You have to practice whole life” [laughs, laughter], then you will be disappointed. “Oh, Zen is not good. Zen is not for me.” But if you understand what is practice, and if you [are] interested in practice, the reason why you interested in– you are interested in practice is the practice is endless. That is why I am interested in Buddhism. There is no end. If there is some end, I don’t think Buddhism is so good. There is no end. Even [if] human being vanish from this earth, Buddhism exist. That is why I am interested in Buddhism. Buddhism is not always perfect. It is not perfect at all. Because it is not perfect, I like it. If it is perfect, someone will be– many people will be interested in it, so there is no need for me to work on it. Because people are very much discouraged [laughs] with Buddhism, so I feel someone must practice Buddhism.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I quoted the first part of this passage in my Zen Center talk last month, having found it in How The Swans Came To The Lake. It comes from a lecture on the Genjo Koan, specifically, the whole bird and fish analogy.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Even though we say “just sit,” to understand what does it mean is rather difficult, maybe. So that is why Dogen Zenji left us so many teachings to explain what is just to sit. But it does not mean his teaching is so difficult. When you sit, you know, without thinking or without expecting anything, and when you accept yourself as a buddha or as a tools of buddha or ornament of buddha, or if you understand everything is the unfolding of the absolute teaching or truth, or if you understand everything is a part of the great being–one whole being, when you reach this understanding, whatever we say, whatever we think, or whatever we see, that is the actual teaching of Buddha. And whatever we do, that is actual practice of the Buddha himself.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Another gem from an early sesshin at Tassajara.


I was sad to hear of Sojun Mel Weitsman’s passing, though not entirely surprised considering his advanced age. Djinn spoke lovingly of his presence in her dharma talk on Saturday, and I echo her sentiments; even though I didn’t spend much time around him, his presence was always warm and benign, and we were always fully aware of his role at San Francisco Zen Center, and Berkeley Zen Center going back more than fifty years. And, as he always seemed happy to recount to later generations, he had had a varied and interesting life before he got involved in the practice with Suzuki Roshi – if you get a chance to find one of his way-seeking mind talks in the archives, they are worth listening to.

I also think of the time I spent as shuso at Tassajara in 2012. Sojun came, as he often did, to spend some of the practice period as a visiting teacher, allowing Myogen Steve Stücky to go up to the city for meetings. I also was able to read the old shuso logs; his shuso practice period at Tassajara coincided with the arrival of Tatsugami Roshi from Japan, which, as he observed wryly through the pages, marked the transition from Tassajara being a kind of spirited adventure, with a macrobiotic, communal vibe, to being a more traditional zen training monastery.

It always feels like an incredible privilege to have spent so much time around such epochal figures in the establishment of zen in the west, and perhaps the first of these photos gives a flavour of what that sometimes looked like in day-to-day life at Zen Center.

I remember this occasion being around the 50th Anniversary celebrations for Zen Center. Five of the surviving abbots and abbesses were interviewed (I thought that Djinn had done it, but she doesn’t think so), and I rather flippantly refered to this image as an attempt on the world record for number of abbots on a single couch. Myogen Steve, Zenkei Blanche Hartman and Sojun have now all died; Eijun Linda Cutts and Kiku Christina Lehnherr are happily still teaching
A very typical picture of Sojun in the Tassajara shop, beautifully crafting a kotsu – from my shuso practice period

At the end of an earlier practice period at Tassajara – shuso ceremony day, in 2006.
Possibly the last time Sojun spent significant time at Tassajara, when Lucy was shuso – this was the shuso dinner place setting.

A happy picture from a sad occasion – after Myogen Steve’s funeral at Green Gulch.

Suzuki Roshi

‘I already started, you know, to explain the direct experience… experience of Zen, in our… in the… a way of understanding of the original teaching. But the purpose of my lecture today is not to talk about our fundamental teachings. But just to explain how to sit.

Now, we have crossed our legs and to… we understood how to keep our spines straight. Now we have to pull our necks… neck, like this – so that your spine could be straight.. In this case, and your tongue should be on your upper jaw and your… your upper… your teeth support with each other.

And your hands form cosmic mudra. It should not be like this or like that. Here you have one line with your, you know– what do you call it? Joint? [Answered]. You have joint here, and two joints makes straight line. Then there you have perfect mudra. And your both thumbs support with each other. Not don’t press like this, or don’t be loose, like this. It should be just support with each other, as if you have a sheet of paper in-between. 

And if you, you know … there’s some sparkle between first electricity and [laughs] … mine has electricity between here. You know, it is not like this. If it is like this, there will be no sparkle [Answered]. Spark, excuse me. No spark. If it is like this, you will not have no spark, either [laughs]. It should be like this.

Student (Richard Baker): but they actually touch?

SR: Yeah, touch??. Actually touch, with each other. It should be supported with each other.

This is very true in your everyday life, you know, you should be observant (?) in what you do, you know? But you should not be too much attached to it. This is, you know, the secret of the way of life. You should not be indifferent like this. And you should not be too much attached to your everyday activity, or whatever you see or you do. Just, you know, to have interdependence with each other. This is perfect relationship, and you have this relationship between your thumbs. And this is very true to what you hear, or to what you see, in sitting.’ (from the Shunryu Suzuki Archives)

Some wonderful zazen instruction from the early days of practice at Tassajara. I will be offering an instruction of my own for Within Meditation this evening at 6pm PST, and I will certainly be quoting some of Suzuki Roshi’s words on zazen.

Suzuki Roshi

”When you dip a water by this cup, you know, and when you say, “this is water,” you know, this is not water anymore. When you empty it to the river, it is really water. It is flowing endlessly. It doesn’t stay anywhere. If it stay someplace, it may not be true water anymore. But actually it is– it cannot stay anywhere that is water. We think it can stay here, but this is just because I think, you know, “here is water in the cup.” But it doesn’t actually staying here; it is going, you know, away. So when water is really water, it is nothing, you know; no self-nature. There is no water. You cannot catch it. So, in this sense, we can say “nothingness.” Water is nothingness. Nothingness– because it is nothing, it is water, true water. When it is true water, it is nothingness. So everything is nothingness, and everything is everything, just everything. Anything can be everything, and everything can be nothing. This is a kind of technique [laughs, laughter] to talk about– nothingness. When you know, when you become familiar with this kind of technique, you may say, “I understand what is nothingness.” [Laughs, laughter.] Then you don’t understand. So when you don’t know anything, you really have Buddhism. So better not to be concerned about nothingness too much. [Laughs, laughter.] Do you have some– did you understand what I am saying? No? [Laughter.] That was good. If you say “understand,” you understood– maybe you have understood something else. That is your own understanding. Don’t ask question about nothingness, you know. You will be– you must surrender, anyway, if you ask question about nothingness. Maybe I have to surrender too [laughs]’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

When I come across passages like this, I am incredibly grateful that they were recorded, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the assembly that day.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student: I am so grateful to you and Tassajara and Zen Center that I’d like to study Zen. What should I do first? Suzuki Roshi: You should do something in right time in the right way. Try to keep up with our practice.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

There is really nothing to add. This is the same as Joshu’s bowl.