Suzuki Roshi

‘Some people, you know, may be envious of bird or cats or dogs who enjoy the warm winter sunshine [laughing] near hot spring. But “return to the nature” in its true sense does not mean to be like animal or bird. If you climb up on the top of the mountain, or, you know, if you come from Jamesburg, perhaps the place you like best will be when you see some of Tassajara mountain. If it is April it is– they are covered with white snow.

If you want to go back to the nature, you should go back to the rocks on the top of the mountain [laughs]. That is much better than to be a bird, or cat, or even a lion. Be a rock. And sit forever, without being moved by rain, or snow, or storm. But weathered by rain and snow, rocks will tell us many stories. You may say that is just a rock. But buddha-nature, in its true sense, reveal itself on weathered ancient rocks on the top of the mountain.

The reason why we wanted to practice zazen, putting strength in our tanden, is to realize what is true practice and what is not.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I have been trying to work my way through the archive more or less chronologically, but I skipped ahead to December 1967 to be able to listen to this talk with my dharma sister Kim. It is from the first day of the sesshin held at the end of the second practice period at Tassajara (I am trying to resist getting completely immersed in the talks from the first sesshin held in August 1967, as almost all the audio for that one is newly rediscovered). I was interested in this talk as he is very explicit about the hara, or tanden, which is not at all common (using the search form from David Chadwick’s site, there are only three mentions of it – two from this sesshin, and one from a talk at Tassajara two months later), and because he presents sections from Dogen’s Fukanzazengi.

When we were listening to it though, this portion from right at the end of the talk jumped out at me in a way that it hadn’t when I was just reading the transcript. His voice has a kind of still power that makes it the climax of what he is trying to convey. Listen to it if you have the time.

I thought this photo was a good representation of Tassajara mountains covered in snow.

Suzuki Roshi

‘So people may [be] divided in two and fighting with each other in the same country. One may say, you know: “We should not fight. We should stop war,” you know. “You are wrong, completely wrong.” And the other may say: “You don’t know,” you know, “what is going on in this world. We should fight. If you don’t fight, we will be lost.” And he thinks he is completely right. So there is big gap between two party, and they have to fight again with each other. Same thing will be repeated. So if both of them knows they are not completely right there may be some way to help with each other. Because our understanding is very naive, and, you know, rigid, and we have too much confidence in ourselves, we cannot help with each other. So “not always right” is very important teaching, very strict teaching. Hai.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I thought, without particular deliberation, that it might be nice to have a week of Suzuki Roshi quotes. I have accumulated many during my work on the archives, and in my talk on Wednesday, and the class on Saturday, I will certainly be focusing on his words. Having not made it to Tassajara, I substituted the post I had planned for yesterday, but the rest of the week will be a selection.

I came across this talk – or more accurately, this question-and-answer session – while studying for the class on Hyakujo and the fox, as he mentions this story earlier in the transcript. The summer of 1969 must have been an interesting time at Tassajara, with the foundations of the monastery starting to be more settled (after the more macrobiotic commune element had been superceded by a more disciplined practice), and the Vietnam war looming ever larger in people’s minds. I suspect, that if Suzuki Roshi were alive today, he would be making the same point.

First Footing

The Robert Burns quote most apposite for my new year would not be the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ one, but rather the ‘best laid plans…’

The 30th was a bright and clear day after all the rain, and while it was tempting to squeeze in a short ride before I left, I made sure I had taken care of some odds and ends instead. Four of us were going down from City Center to Tassajara; the other three were all returning for the practice period, and included the incoming tenzo and the outgoing fukaten. I enjoyed hearing their dharma bios, and having the sense of them as settled in their practice – demonstrating what Suzuki Roshi called composure, or constancy.

Traffic was heavy along various stretches of the 101 – and this was midweek, in the middle of the day. I always feel glad that my life does not involve this kind of driving on anything like a regular basis. We were in the hills north of Salinas when Leslie got in touch to say that, while the county crew had taken one tree out, when people had tried to leave Tassajara earlier, they found the tree that had blocked their way before still there – the crew had not gone as far up the road as requested. So there was no way in, we would have to turn around and perhaps, after the crew returned in the morning, it would be possible to try again.

We drove the couple of hours back to San Francisco. I figured that as my planned stay was not very long, and the work I was supposed to do not urgent, there was not so much point trying again the next day. So I had that happy buoyancy, as I walked back to my place, of having some unexpected free time.

As it turned out, after getting some unwelcome news, I found it hard to get motivated at all the next day. I went out on my bike mid-morning, but while the light was radiant, my spirit was not. It didn’t seem a hardship to go to bed early, and get up to repeat my early morning New Year’s Day ride, where I take roads that are usually too busy to feel safe on. I made it over to the bay for the sunrise – there were a number of people on the Embarcadero with the same idea – then across to the ocean.

Apart from some spontaneous exchanges with people – in that way that people are more relaxed and open over the holidays – what lifted my mood was tackling my large backlog of unedited photos from the past year. I had about 2500 to work through, and had planned to spend some time at Tassajara doing that. My eyes went square in the process, but I was happy to get it done over the course of three days, and I also discovered a way to process some of the phone camera photos in a way that made them a little less bland.

I rode on Sunday as well, as temperatures dropped towards freezing – a rarity in the Bay Area. There was frost on the cemetery lawns in Colma, and on the roofs of San Bruno. I had intended to take the reservoir trail, but it had been closed due to flooding, so I had to reprise the alternative route I got used to after the fires of 2020.

With the photos done – though I will go through the finished folder to select my favourites from the year – I can turn my attention to my dharma talk on Wednesday, which I had also planned to think about while I was at Tassajara, and make sure I am up to speed for the first class on Saturday.

The first sunrise of 2022.
Above Ocean Beach.
By way of contrast, a silimar view from the roam on the 26th.

Off For A Few Days

I am not prone to catastrophising, but I was convinced, with the way the new variant has exploded on the scene in recent weeks, that I would end up testing positive when I took a test on Monday morning. Apart from the roam, there are only three people I have spent any amount of time with in the last couple of weeks, and when we gathered for the roam I masked up, but I didn’t want to take anything for granted. Happily, nothing showed up on the test, so the way is clear for me to visit Tassajara today for the first time since June 2019 (it’s also the first time I have set my email to a ‘vacation response’ since then – and the first time since October 2020 that I have spent a night away from my own bed).

The Tassajara road itself might not be so clear, of course. With all the rain we have had, I can imagine what the state of it might be, and the temperatures have been low enough that there will most likely be snow on the upper reaches. The Tassajara director sent out word on Wednesday that there was a tree blocking the road near China Camp, though apparently the county will send a crew in today to clear it, so fingers will remain crossed for a while.

I don’t think I will be actually driving the vehicle, though it might end up that I do; I have driven the road enough times in all kinds of conditions that I am not too stressed about that. I am pretty sure I will be driving when I leave there on Monday, when I also have to get the vehicle over to Green Gulch; I will have to come back from there to the city on my bike, so I am anxiously scanning the ever-shifting forecasts: I have got wet enough times in recent weeks that it would be nice not to have to do that trip in the rain as well.

The forecast for the roam last Saturday changed each time I looked at it; in the end it started raining after we set out along the beach, and didn’t really let up. The wind blew in from the ocean, the surf roared, and it wasn’t an afternoon to sit and linger in the beautiful locations at the Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights, but I certainly benefited from a dose of fresh air, and I think the group did as well.

On Monday, with the rain forecast to move on at the end of the morning, I was just leaving the house to sit, with blue skies out of my east-facing windows, when a shower rolled in from the west. I put my bike back and went down on the streetcar, to find mostly clear skies on the Embracadero, though it was pretty chilly, and we had a short sprinkling of drizzle for a few seconds in the middle. We sat through it, and the sun came out again, creating a brief sliver of rainbow over the bay.

A rather soggy moment of sitting at the Sutro Baths on Saturday.
The view from Sutro Heights is always inspiring, and I was happy to stand and just listen to the waves breaking below.
Having opted not to ride down to the Monday sit through a shower, by the time I was walking to MUNI, it had blown over.
I managed a brief sortie on my bike later on Monday – here is the view south from Twin Peaks as clouds blew through.
I paused on the way down to catch this rainbow.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student: Docho Roshi, speak to us of the search for the true path…

SR: True path. Don’t think there is some special path which is true or false.

Student: Then of each of our own paths?

SR: Do your best on every moment. Finding your position and reacting properly to everything.

Student: That’s all that I can do.

SR: Yes.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I have been listening to some of the shosan ceremony tapes from the first year or so at Tassajara, and it is fascinating to see what the students were pre-occupied with, and how Suzuki Roshi carefully steered them.

Katagiri Roshi

‘During zazen it is important to keep the right posture. You should especially keep the right posture for your hands. They are like a barometer, directly indicating the attention to your effort. Neither too high nor too low, the hands should be In the right place – as if you were holding jewels in your palm and close to your belly. Don’t touch your arms to your body. It is better to keep some separation. The hands should be held at the lower part of your gut. If you cannot maintain the correct posture of your hands you cannot breathe smoothly in the right way. When your back is kept straight and your chin pulled in, your hands will be In the right place. 

In order to control your mind, first it is important to keep the right posture of your body – your hands, your back, your head, your neck, your eyes, and your mouth. When this is accomplished your mind will be in the right way. What’s more, it will be done naturally in this way. When your posture is complete, everything goes well.’ (from Wind Bell magazine)

I have been doing some research for the Suzuki Roshi archive, and came across this instruction from Katagiri, on the morning of a one-day sitting, held just two days after Suzuki Roshi gave his Beginner’s Mind talk in Los Altos, in November 1965. I will perhaps share a quote from the two talks he gave during this sitting soon; the talks were tapes, to be transcribed, but those are not tapes we have found – yet.

This passage reminded me of the time I was having dokusan with Abbot Steve in the Abbot’s cabin at Tassajara – though I don’t remember if it was my shuso practice period, or the previous one I did which he led, in 2007. About half-way through he abruptly asked, “And how is your mudra?” I had certainly not been paying attention to it prior to that moment. All of a sudden I was. We smiled.

And then I realised that today is the fiftieth anniversary of Suzuki Roshi’s death. I shall (providing I can turn up a second negative at-home test during the morning) be heading into the temple to attend Roger’s shuso ceremony, and may ask him about that, if nothing more pressing comes up in the earlier exchanges. This in turn reminded me that ten years ago I was the ino dealing with all the logistics which come with the ceremonies and surrounding sesshin. I wrote about it here – re-reading the post, it feels at once very fresh and a long time ago; in my teaching sessions this week I made the same point about Thanksgiving week.

Rosy-Fingered Dawns

Thanksgiving could be a mixed bag at Zen Center. The food was always exceptional – the traditional nut roast with mushroom gravy was one of my favourite dishes, and there was always a variety of pies.  At Tassajara, the huge meal was one of the most special occasions in all the monastic winter months, with (usually) the rare treat of no evening zazen. I remember, one of the five Thanksgivings I was there, being totally immersed in some random gadget catalogue for hours, just because I didn’t have to be anywhere else.

At City Center, the big spread was sometimes on Thursdays, sometimes on Wednesday – some people wanted to have a totally free day on Thursday, others wanted the meal at the traditional time, and there were many guests from the wider sangha who had nowhere else they would rather be. The City Center weekend was, though, somewhat overshadowed by the beginning of Rohatsu sesshin on the Saturday evening, so when I was tenzo and ino, there wasn’t really much of a break, with the biggest retreat of the year needing to be organised.

Happily this year, I had very few engagements – and I declined to look at work emails – so I felt like I had two consecutive weekends. The dinner I was invited to was just a couple of blocks away, filled with lovely people I know through Zen Center, former and current residents, though we talked about many other things as well. 

The weather has got a little stuck – high pressure is keeping the rain at bay. There have been many glorious sunrises, clear days, and heavenly sunsets, with the moon receding each night in the sky. I actually got a little worried to see that no change was forecast. On the one hand, I love the sunny weather and, selfishly, as I am trying to make it down to Tassajara over the New Year, I would love the road not to be too treacherous. But we need the rain so much, and the fire prospects for next year are already about as depressing as the newest variant.

Still, I was getting in the miles and the hours outside while the sun was shining, with rides on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, a couple of walks, and a roam. This last was another really lovely outing, following the Tennessee Hollow watershed in the Presidio from the ridge to the beach, and encountering frogs, hawks, pelicans, and a coyote along the way – and then I saw another in the park while I was riding home. I think that is my first double same-day sighting in the city, and followed from catching a glimpse of one when I was on Sweeney Ridge on my Friday ride. Most auspicious.

This week I am slowly picking up all the threads of work again, and hope that I can turn up two negative tests which will allow me to attend the City Center shuso ceremony on Saturday in person.

First light at Bernal Hill on Thanksgiving morning.
Up at Sweeney Ridge on Friday morning.
Walking along the Bay Trail in the East Bay on Friday afternoon.
The first sun at the bridge on Sunday morning.
Across to Ocean Beach on the same ride.
Newly restored Quartermaster Reach during the roam on Sunday.
A handsome coyote on the ridge in the Presidio at the end of the roam.


‘Monks in zazen do not turn their heads to look and see who is entering or leaving. When you want to go out to the washrooms, before you leave your seat, first take off the okesa and put it on the quilt. Then gassho and get down off the tan, turning clockwise to face the edge of the tan. Put your feet in your slippers as you get down. Going in or out, do not look at the backs of the people doing zazen, but just lower your head and proceed. Do not walk with long strides, but advance your body together with your feet. Look at the ground about six feet straight in front of you and take half-steps. Walking with unhurried calm is exquisite, almost like standing still. Do not slide your slippers noisily so as to rudely distract the assembly. Keep your hands together in shashu inside your sleeves. Do not droop your sleeces down alongside your legs.’ (Eihei Shingi Bendoho)

Once again, it is fun to read the details Dogen expounded for his monastic sangha. While some of the particulars pertain more to a sodo, where the monks sleep as well as sit, the overall tone is exactly what would be expected at Tassajara – though generally you would wait for a period of kinhin to leave the zendo.

Kodo Sawaki

‘It’s an idea of the mind to believe that the ego can escape itself and project itself into the fundamental universe.’

I was chatting with my dharma sister Kim about her recent visit to sit sesshin at Tassajara, and in the course of the conversation, pulled out the notebook I had when I was shuso there, nine years ago now. It is full of quotes that resonated for me, observations, notes for the dharma talks I gave, and sketches of the encouraging words I was asked to provide for the evenings of sesshin. This is from the first category, and there may be a few more snippets appearing here soon.

Yosa Buson

This is happiness
crossing the stream in summer
carrying my straw sandals.

I thought of this picture for this repost, a scene from Tassajara summer a few years ago.