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

Suzuki Roshi

‘So through group practice you find out how to know your own way. For example, Buddhist ceremonies are too complicated to do perfectly and so in our observance of them we can see our own way and not just the way of the ceremony. And in learning to accommodate ourselves to the practice of others and to our teachers, we will find out how to communicate with others and with all worlds and their various Buddhas. This is not just verbal communication. It is more direct than that. It is person to person and beyond any specific way. This is known as the Bodhisattva’s way.’ (from a WindBell article, via


Suzuki Roshi

‘Buddha’s practice goes first. Our practice goes.
We say, “our practice,” but it is actually Buddha’s practice. We should know this point. This is the key point of our practice.
I don’t know how many people want to practice zazen, but as long as their practice [is] involving personal practice, it is not true practice. If we practice selfish personal practice, it means that we are accumulating our karma more and more instead of releasing our previous karma.
Because of many bad choice–things you accumulated in previous life–you are right here and practicing under [Sotan Ryosen] Tatsugami Roshi. In spite of his difficult situation, Tatsugami Roshi is here.
Again, when Buddha’s practice goes first, real practice will be ours.
The more you know what is practice, the greater your practice will become.
We must be very, very grateful to join this practice–day by day, moment after moment.
Sorry to disturb your practice.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Rindo Fujimoto

‘I will now speak of the proper functioning of the mind during zazen. Beginners often ask me about their problems; however, it is very difficult for me to be of any help to them. Neither a short nor a complicated answer to peoples’ questions is really helpful. It is all right to ask me questions, but it is not enough. One must experiment for oneself and then one will understand. After reading a book on the subject of swimming one must get in the water and find out about it first hand. A book cannot give one the experience.

There are various ways of “quieting” the mind. The first way is “putting the mind In the left hand,” which means projecting the mind into the inzo, or hand position. The inzo symbolizes the Buddha. When our mind is in the inzo, the body and breathing will be right.

In Rinzai training, the kosoku koan is used to quiet (to clear) the mind. This is a good way to cultivate the Zen way of seeing; however, I think it is better to develop the Zen condition by shikantaza. This means devoting oneself solely to sitting; by quieting the mind and putting it in the. left hand. The “Zen eye” finds its source in the Zen condition, and the Buddha’s enlightenment is not the Zen eye, but the Zen condition. In Soto Zen we just sit; this is the most natural way. The main aim of zazen is to “let go of mind and body”; however, Buddhists sometimes pay too much attention to the mind and therefore they cannot get rid of it. The kosoku koan may be useful; however, shikantaza is better because one has a tendency to cling to the koan and to one’s mind. Although we should “put the mind in the left hand,” we must not pay attention to the mind. When we pay too much attention to the left hand, we are preventing satori. When we consciously put the mind in the hand, it is wrong. There are various kinds of good meditation. Satori is beyond all of these, and it is necessary to pass through the many regions of the mind before enlightenment.’ (The Way of Zazen)

Apparently, this booklet was one of the few zen texts available in English to Suzuki Roshi’s early students – I found it an interesting read on how Dogen’s zazen is currently understood.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student L [Katherine Thanas]: Docho Roshi: When does my life express the Dharma and when does it not?

SR: When it does not? There is no time when it doesn’t. It always expresses the Dharma.

Student L [Katherine Thanas]: But sometimes better than others?

SR: Don’t think in that way. Always expressing. You are always expressing the buddha-nature. That is you who thinks you are expressing “better” or “not so good.”’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

And how about you? How do you think your life expresses the Dharma?