Suzuki Roshi

‘People often think it would be best to study Zen in Japan, but this is rather difficult. “Why don’t you stay at Zen Center?” I ask them. If you go to Japan mostly you will encourage them to build more new buildings. They may be very happy to see you, but it is a waste of time and money, and you will be discouraged because you cannot find a good Zen master. Even if you find a teacher, it will be difficult to understand him and study with him.’ (Not Always So)

I had occasionally had the idea during my early years of practice, that it might be better to ‘go to the source’ and try to practise in Japan. Living at Tassajara, I realised that all the conditions I needed were right there.
Somewhere I seem to remember reading that Suzuki Roshi thought there were maybe a dozen good teachers in Japan in his day; his somewhat cheeky statement here notwithstanding, he still sent a few of his students off to train at Eiheiji for a couple of years, as he had done in his youth.
This passage is commenting on a line from the Fukanzazengi. I looked back to see if I had posted that previously, and came up with this quote from Blanche, along with my response, which will serve very well in this case.


Suzuki Roshi

‘To appreciate things and people, our minds need to be calm and clear. So we practice zazen, or “just sitting” without any gaining idea. At this time you are you yourself. You “settle yourself on yourself.” With this practice, we have freedom, but it may be that the freedom you mean and the freedom Zen Buddhists mean are not the same. To attain freedom, we cross our legs, keep our posture upright, and let our eyes and ears be open to everything. This readiness or openness is important because we are liable to go to extremes and stick to something. In this way we may lose our calmness or mirrorlike mind.’ (Not Always So)

Perhaps the least conspicuous line here is ‘At this time you are you yourself.’ How would it feel if that were the case all the time? If you are wondering how to do that, not sticking to something, including our idea of who we are, is a good way to head towards freedom.

Lingering Over Dinner

Recently I had dinner with a friend; we had shared the cooking and prep responsibilities, and had fun doing it. We had enjoyed eating and catching up with news. And as soon as I had put my fork down, I was ready to jump up to do the dishes and clean up. My friend was rather aghast – why didn’t I just want to stay at the table and prolong the conversation?
Feeling a little abashed, I did just that, and noticed that I relaxed back into sitting there, which we did for quite some time before heading to do the washing up (to use the English expression). 
This incident has stayed in my head since it happened; I know my own tendencies to keep moving on to the next thing, but I was curious about why I seemed to be in such a hurry to move on from an enjoyable moment. I wondered if it was a downside to the intense training we get at Tassajara to follow the schedule completely: when the han sounds, we go to the zendo; when the bell rings at the end of zazen, we get up for kinhin – it doesn’t matter if you were having the best sit ever, or the worst, you still have to get up when the bell rings.
To do this is a wonderful practice, as we always have to let go of our personal preferences to follow the flow of the sangha through the scheduled day; I often tell people that there is a huge value in having to surrender to that extent.
In my reflections, I thought of a passage from Suzuki Roshi about responding to his wife, when she calls him for breakfast:
‘For an instance, you know, my wife [laughs]—every morning, when breakfast is ready, he hit, you know—what do you call it?  Clappers?  Yeah, clappers—like this.  If I don’t answer for it [laughs], you know, I—he—she may continue to hit it [laughs, laughter] until I feel rather angry [laughs, laughter].  Why we have that kind of problem is quite simple.  Because I don’t answer, you know.  If I say “Hai!“—that’s all [laughs, laughter].  Because I don’t say “Hai!” she, you know, continue to—she has to continue because she doesn’t know whether I heard it or not [laughs].
Sometime she may think: “He knows but he doesn’t answer.”  Eei! [Probably imitates a mock attack by Okusan.]  [Laughs, laughter.]  That is what will happen.  When I don’t answer, you know, I am, you know, on the top of the pole [laughs].  I don’t jump off from here.  When I say “Hai!” you know, I jump off from here.  Because I stay at the top of the pole, I am—I have something to do—something important to do [laughs, laughter]—something important at the top of the pole:  “You shouldn’t call me!  You should wait!”  So before I say something I determined to shut up—not to say anything.  “This is very important!  Don’t you know that?!  [S.R. and students laughing.]  I am here [taps on stick], on the top of the pole!  Don’t you know that?”  So she start to—  [Probably gesturing.]  That is how we create problem.
So the secret is just to say “Hai!” you know, and jump up from here.  Then there is no problem.’
Jumping off the top of the pole is a classic zen image for not getting stuck – in Suzuki Roshi’s case, not getting stuck by thinking that whatever he was doing was more important than responding to his wife’s call for breakfast. 
In my case, no-one was asking me to jump up and do the dishes; I was stuck in the idea that I needed to go and do the next thing, rather than respond to the (as-yet-unspoken but still clear) desire of my friend to linger at the table.

This post first appeared on my Patreon page

Suzuki Roshi

‘When everything changes we seek for some permanent thing, we want everything to be permanent. Especially when we have something good or when we see something beautiful or we want it to be always in that way. But actually everything changes. So that is why we suffer. So if we seek for happiness – even though we seek for happiness, it is not possible to have it, because we are expecting something to be always constant when everything changes. So naturally we must have suffering.’ (From the archive)

Suzuki Roshi

‘You may think that you cannot express yourself within a particular form, but when we are all practicing together, strong people will express themselves in a strong way and kind people will express themselves kindly. When we pass the sutra cards along the row during service, you each do it in your own way. The differences among you are easy to see because the form is the same. And because we repeat the same thing over and over again, we can understand our friends’ ways eventually. Even if your eyes are shut, you know, “Oh, that was so-and-so.” This is the advantage of having rules and rituals.’ (Not Always So)

This paragraph resonates with me very strongly. I often speak about how we learn each others’ ways when living in community, and how it most often does not depend on spoken interaction. The example given of the sutra cards especially makes me chuckle: in one of my stays at Tassajara I read An Infinity of Little Hours(if you don’t manage to read the book, there is always the movie, though I remember thinking at the time that it moved a little too fast for my liking) and remember a passage where one of the Carthusian brothers, who spend far more time in silence than we did at Tassajara, says something like, ‘I can tell Brother Patrick doesn’t like me – did you see the way he passed me the prayer book?’
I also remember how it was possible, when living at Tassajara, to know who was walking towards you on the path when you could barely make out their features, or to see who was on the engawa around the zendo when all you could see beneath the drum were their feet.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)

Tatsugami Roshi

Dogen often called zazen sanzen, or just one word, san, which means “to practice, to examine carefully”.  You should practice directly towards the truth.  You should practice zazen according to Dogen’s advice so that your small senses do not create any ideas.  And you should never judge your practice in terms of your small senses.’

If you read the stories of the early days of Tassajara, as I was fortunate to do through the shuso logs (you can also read about it in Crooked Cucumber)it would be tempting to think of Tatsugami Roshi as the ‘bad cop’ to Suzuki Roshi’s ‘good cop’. There came a point, a couple of years into the formative monastic practice in the late sixties, where Tatsugami was brought over to teach the students how to really do the forms, and to practise in a way that was closer to Japanese training monasteries. A few people didn’t like the new levels of discipline, and left. I have wondered if Suzuki Roshi didn’t feel able to insist on these things himself, but still wanted them to happen. In any case, tough as Tatsugami apparently was, those who stayed loved him, by all accounts. In an archived (and I assume translated, as I believe he didn’t speak much English) transcript of some of the talks, he sticks to explaining Dogen, in a clear and simple way.


‘A monk asked Caoshan, “How can one be in charge all the time?”
Caoshan said, “Like passing through a village with poisoned well – don’t touch even a drop of water.”‘ (quoted in The Book of Serenity)

This is an intriguing little exchange, which I don’t remember hearing before. My first thought was, ‘why would you want to be in charge all the time?’, and my mind brought up the case with Kueishan (not for the first time). But then I thought of all the introductory verses in the koan collections where the suggestion is that mastery of the teachings mean you experience, as Suzuki Roshi put it ‘being the boss.’ And then I thought about Caoshan’s analogy, and that the way to be the boss is to be aware of the dangers of taking in things that we might think are beneficial but fundamentally do us no good. Or to put it another way, as Linda Ruth always used to say to us at Tassajara, remember that there is no fundamental to rely on.