Sojun

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.

Marian Mountain

‘One day, many years ago, I asked Suzuki Roshi what the Chinese characters on his wooden nyoi [short staff] said. Roshi studied it thoughtfully. After a long pause, he spoke, very slowly, as if he were reading the characters one by one: “Hit him over the head and by his yell you will know if he is a dragon or a snake!”

Roshi seemed just as surprised by his statement as I, and we both laughed. That was all. We never discussed the matter further. But the words stuck in my mind, and slowly, slowly, over many years, those words began to change my mind. The effect of turning words, as they are called in zen, may not be realized immediately or consciously. They may work quietly in the depths of our mind, changing it very subtly. It was only after my zen master passed away that I found out that Suzuki Roshi hadn’t read me the inscription on his nyoi. He had inscribed the turning words on my own embryonic nyoi.(The Zen Environment)

Suzuki Roshi

‘We should not be caught by anything. Until you have that kind of strength or freedom, you should, you know, practice hard. Purpose of practice is not to chase after worldly freedom, but it is to have freedom from our small desires or fame or success in our mundane world, and if possible to help people– to make– to release them from that kind of mundane wishes and restrictions. That is, you know, Buddhist way of life: join you in your path, in your ordinary life, and then you will have freedom from ordinary life. There big difference.

So when you have real freedom from everything, you may be very sympathetic with people who are involved in small, personal desires and– to be involved in competitive world. So naturally you want to help people to be free from– free from this kind of life. To share the, you know, to share the joy of freedom with people is our purpose of life. Usual– usually, you know, people are deeply involved in city life and so they stay in city. But Buddhist, you know, remain in city and live in city to help people who are involved in that kind of confusion. The way upward is to, you know, to– to make ourselves free from the small self of desires. And the way downward is after we have that kind of freedom to help people and to go back to the city is the way downward.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This illuminates the point made in Lama Willa Miller’s post the other day.

Suzuki Roshi

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

As with the other recent post, wise words from Suzuki Roshi during the first sesshin at Tassajara. I remember, and I may have recounted here before, a former monk saying that he felt okay leaving Tassajara when he could find Tassajara walking the streets of Manhattan. I did not understand it then, but I see it better now.

Suzuki Roshi

‘If someone asks me: What is Prajna Paramita? I will answer: practice of zazen. If someone asks again: What is the practice of zazen? I will answer: To open Buddha’s eating bowl and to take bath in evening.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I had pulled this quote out from a talk, and then posted it to Instagram having forgotten where I had got it from. I attributed it to Dogen – so I wasn’t far off really. The phrasing certainly sounds like Dogen, and Suzuki Roshi, as I often say, was channeling Dogen for his new students in America. In fact these lines came from the first Tassajara sesshin, in the summer of 1967; from the shosan ceremony, to be precise, where Suzuki Roshi answered the questions of those sincerely trying to understand their practice and zen practice. And the answer: eating and bathing, at the appropriate times. Naturally.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Zen student is not, you know, so expressive, you know. Mostly they keep silent. They do not walk so fast. They don’t act so actively, you know. You know, they have some– something, you know– something different, anyway. Especially when you sit for so long time, you yourself feel you changed a lot. You feel, you know, it is difficult even to smile [laughs]– even to say something, you know. That will be the feeling you have. And if you continue your practice, you will be more and more so. And even though you will not change into a strong buddha [laughs, laughter], a great change will happen to you, you know, and you will be someone which you didn’t like at all. “I don’t want to be like this.” [Laughs.] But although this kind of experience is not the experience you wanted to have, but this is the experience anyway you will have through [laughs, laughter] zazen.

But there is– there is no need for you to worry, you know, because this is the way, you know, upwards, and soon you will find out the way downwards, and you will find yourself in the city again as a normal person. So there is nothing to worry, but in zendo it is necessary for us to have this kind of experience through practice.

And I think one or two years we must devote ourselves this kind of practice. If you go to Tassajara, you know, even more so. And Tassajara itself will have a kind of feeling of practice center more and more. When you see this kind of practice, you may say– or people may say, “Zen practice is not for us” [laughs].” You know, you may not like it. But by the time you have a Caucasian, you know, old Zen master, you will have found out exactly what is Zen.

So I want you to be patient enough to continue this kind of practice. And it is important for you to take care of this kind of feeling and gradually extend this kind of umperturbability [imperturbability] of mind to our everyday life. When you start to work on this point, to establish, you know, to extend our practice to everyday life, you will understand– you will understand the teaching– our teaching. Or you will understand what is meant.’ (From the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I was recently conversing about how I feel about sesshin these days (I haven’t sat one in about three years, though I certainly would have sat this year’s Genzo-e had it happened non-virtually), and I think what Suzuki Roshi says here to his mostly new monastic students is germane to what I was thinking. Having been immersed in that kind of practice for many years, something happened, and it feels more possible to access the kinds of feelings that took all those days and weeks in retreat to uncover initially. Not that I live in bliss day in, day out, but I feel like I understand the underlying mechanisms a little better.

Yvonne Rand

‘Harry Roberts was a teacher who worked with many of us involved in planting the garden and fields at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Harry had lived at Green Gulch for a while and then lived with me and my family for the last several years of his life. As he was dying he asked me, “What are you gonna do with the ‘carcass’ after I die?” I told him, “First of all, I’ll close all the orifices, and then I’ll wash your body with tea made from yerba sante that I have collected from Mt. Tamalpais. Then we’ll put some medicine pieces from your own wisdom tradition into your hands. We’ll sit with your body for three days, and then we’ll take your body to be cremated, or we can bury you somewhere.” And he said, “That’s too much trouble. Just put the carcass out the back door and let the dogs take care of it!”

Harry was quite equanimous about his body. He was in the late stages of dying for two months. I’ve never experienced anyone else take that long a time in the late stages of dying. Harry was so thorough in his lifetime; he did everything slowly and carefully. And that’s exactly how he died!’ (from Inquiring Mind)

I read this week that Yvonne Rand had died; I never really met her, though she was present at a few big Zen Center occasions I was at, but she was very close to Suzuki Roshi, and very involved in the early years, so this is another connection to those times lost.

Yvonne Rand at the Zen Center 50th Annicersary celebrations in 2012