Suzuki Roshi

‘Student: Docho Roshi, let me see who I am. [Pause] To die each moment to be reborn is the great freedom of the dharma. I’m like a small fish, I swim in and out of big death. 

SR: [Softly] Yeah, that’s right.

I am grateful that you are making your best effort in accepting this dharma. Of course it is not easy, but dharma cannot be so easy. Dharma is the thing to which everyone of us have been striving for, and will strive for, to know what it is, to accept as their. So it is not only you, but all the patricarch and sages have been striving for it, and you are one of them. And you should be pitiful for the people who do not strive for it, who haven’t good chance to realize the necessity of striving for it. To realize the necessity of striving for it is the point to which we are making our best effort. There’s no other point to strive for. Since you have realized the necessity of striving for it, you are already one of the patriarachs and you gained that state. Don’t think Buddha and patriarchs were quite free from birth and death. They are still striving for it in the name of various sentient beings. It is most valuable thing that you realized the necessity of striving for it. The suffering you have is the every — should be everybody’s suffering, but perhaps most of them will not realize it, but it should be so. And it was and it will be the true with the future Buddha and past Buddha.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

In what spare time I have – and now I do feel like I have caught up with everything and have some time to spare – I have still been transcribing lectures from the Suzuki Roshi archive. This exchange came from an undated shosan ceremony at the end of a summer sesshin, and the best guess (for various reasons) is that it comes from 1968. I originally offered this tape to someone who volunteered to help, knowing that it was an hour and a half long and would take a while, but six months later, even after following up, I heard nothing back, so, since I have to write an article about it soon for the series, I contacted a couple of regulars in the Suzuki Roshi field and we took roughly thirty minutes each.

This was the last exchange that I transcribed earlier this week, and I was totally struck by the intensity of how he spoke, almost to the extent of having my hair stand on end. It was the most remarkable moment for me since I played the tape that contained the Beginner’s Mind talk, about two and a half years ago. I am inclined to think, especially having read some of the material that David Chadwick has, that it was Trudy Dixon, already sick with cancer, who asked the question. In any case, I thought it worth uploading the audio, if you have time to listen to the exchange:

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘When I would walk about under the influence of the atmosphere of stillness and the teachings, I sensed an ancient time that could have been on any continent on the planet, silently witnessing life through connections with people and the land. There was a memory in my bones of something old. I saw myself sharing those teachings. 

When I first entered the zendo at Tassajara Zen Center in the Los Padres Forest, I said to myself, “I’ve been here before.” It wasn’t the center as much as it was the feeling of being next to the mountains and spending time under the stars at night. Coming to chant and bow, I knew this life, this living close to the earth.’ (The Shamanic Bones of Zen)

I bought a copy of this when I was at Tassajara, since several people had recommended it to me, and although I have not got very far into it yet, I feel that Zenju is writing about something that speaks to me.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When you sit, your practice should be done with the spirit like, if someone, you know, tell you to stand up, you shouldn’t stand up forever. Until someone, you know, say, stand up. This much confidence is necessary.

It means you sit right in the center of the earth, of the world, or universe, whatever it is. And you are right in the point of the eternal time. If you have some idea of space or time, that practice is not true practice. You should be always sitting in cross-point of time and space. That is true practice. And this is very important, because this practice of — this practice, which is beyond the idea of time and space, accord with the true teaching of Buddhism.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archive)

Mountains and Waters Sutras

‘Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

I read this passage to the retreat group as we silently ate lunch at the Horse Pasture on the first full day of the retreat. It was an amazingly beautiful day, the wildflowers were abundant, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And, when we got to the Narrows, one of the group, who knew Tassajara very well, slipped and broke a wrist crossing the creek. Luckily another member of the group was a nurse, so we got them strapped up and ready to walk back to Tassajara. Then we came across a rattlesnake at the side of the trail. Only the nurse got past it. I backed everyone else quite a few yards along the trail, and told her to alert the stone office about the injury. The Tassajara protocols worked fine, as did, eventually, throwing small stones in the direction of the snake to encourage it to find somewhere quieter to sun itself. The trained responder sorted out the patient, who was then driven off to hospital in Monterey by the shika.

And that was only the smallest portion of my time there. When I arrived, through clouds on the ridge, I felt the deep relief of being back. Then, on the first morning, chilly after the previous day’s rain, I strained something in my back as I bent over to pull on my boots. Some things, especially sitting down, getting up from sitting, zazen, sleeping on a thin shikibuton, twisting slightly to the left, were painful for a few days, and in the case of sitting and zazen, uncomfortable throughout my stay. Other things – hiking, working with rocks, moving dirt, doing the compost in the shed, cleaning the bathhouse, and very gently yoga poses, were fine.

I didn’t, as I wished, get to give a talk in the zendo, or even be morning doshi, even as the intricacies of service reappeared in my mind, and the chants came back to my voice after all these years. I did offer a presentation on the Beginner’s Mind talk which was well received, and boosted by Steve Weintraub offering a moving personal testimonial on Suzuki Roshi’s way.

I did five hikes in a little over a week, the Horse Pasture and the Wind Caves twice each, first to check (both were in much better shape than I anticipated, thanks to the indefatigable trail crew), and the Overlook and creekside hike on the easy day, which still offered moments of beauty and silence.

I ate a lot of delicious food. I lingered in the baths and the creek. I met up with fellow practitioners from fifteen and twenty years ago that I did not expect to see, and others from summers and work periods past that it was lovely to see again. I tried to encourage some of the newly arrived students, and petted the dogs as often as I could.

I drove a stage one day, and declined to do a town trip, but otherwise did what was asked.

I felt totally at home, and yet did not feel that I needed to move back there any time soon. And this is just the merest glimpse of what it was like. I took notes for the first couple of days, but there were too many details and memories to try to capture it all.

I took a lot of photographs with my new camera, and was glad I had decided to buy it.

Lupins on the way in.
Overlooking the Narrows from the cut-off trail.
The Wind Caves.
It was very green and bright.

Suzuki Roshi

Student: Roshi, you said not to stop thinking, but to be free from thinking, and I wonder if you could explain what it means to be free from thinking?

Suzuki Roshi: What I meant was don’t be bound by your thinking. When you reach a conclusion by thinking, you will have some definite idea. Actually, that is why you think: to have a definite answer. But that is not possible.

Student: So what should you do?

Suzuki Roshi: You can think, and thinking will help you, of course. But you should know, at the same time, that that answer will not be definite. So you think, but you are free from thinking. That is what I meant: to have what we call a double edged blade. So double-edge think: don’t think and think. It works two ways. This is the double nature, the double construction of Buddhist philosophy: thinking construction and non thinking construction. (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I think this exchange illuminates Dogen’s “think of not thinking” from the Fukanzazengi – which he borrowed from Yakusan.

Setting Off

The wind changed on Monday. On Sunday afternoon we had roamed in clear skies cooled off by the westerly breezes. We stayed at the top of Corona Heights long enough to enjoy the view, and to discuss the huge crowd we could see in Dolores Park for the resurrected Hunky Jesus contest, but we sat lower down in the shelter of the rocks.

The Monday sit was pleasantly mild, but the change also brought more rain, which is starting to feel a little unseasonal. I was lucky with the special outdoor sit for Within ahead of Earth Day, as Wednesday lunchtime was clear and sunny. Afterwards I rode down to the outer Sunset to catch up with my old room-mate, her girlfriend and the beloved dog. Riding back, a weather front was on its way.

It was supposed to rain all Thursday, but I didn’t get wet on my commute as I had feared. The afternoon ferry passed through the briefest of showers, which then threw up a rainbow over the Bay Bridge. 

Writing this on Thursday evening, I have just packed my bags for Tassajara, rather fuller than they might have been as I am taking clothes down to leave at the goodwill there for people who will use them more than I will. I have no idea how the weather is going to be over the next couple of weeks: I have had wet springs down there, including my first April, twenty years ago now, when I remember saying indignantly that this was not what I had signed up for. It might equally reach ninety degrees. 

In any case, I have been expecting something to happen that will prevent me from making it again, and until I set foot in the valley, I will still expect that, but all being well, I will report back in a couple of weeks.

Sitting at Metson Lake, Wednesday lunchtime.
Looking one was on Wednesday afternoon.
Looking the other way.
Thursday morning skies.
Thursday afternoon.
There is a rainbow low over the middle of the towers, but the phone didn’t do a great job picking it up.

Suzuki Roshi

'Student: Docho Roshi, what am I asking you?
SR: I know what you want to ask me pretty well. But as you don't ask me now, I also don't want to answer you [laughter].
Student: But I'm not sure that I know. That's why I thought maybe you would know [laughs, laughter].
SR: I know [laughs, laughter].
Student: Will I know sometime to ask you?
SR: Yes. But not now [laughter].' (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Wednesday evenings with my dharma sister Kim have resumed, now that she has completed her shuso practice period at Zen Center. Since I know she likes listening to shosan ceremonies, I chose one from Tassajara in 1969. The intimacy and playfulness is plain here.

Diane di Prima

Even Buddha is lost in this land
the immensity
takes us all with it, pulverizes, & takes us in
Bodhidharma came from the west. Coyote met him.

(Tassajara 1969)

This poem was featured in a conversation about Tassajara that I attended yesterday after my dharma talk.

I have so many photos of the mountains at Tassajara. Let this one represent them all.

Suzuki Roshi

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

This was the most recent talk that I have written an article about for the archive. I have been very interested in how Suzuki Roshi laid out his vision for teaching at Tassajara in the first sesshin held there, and the early part of this talk is given over to his ideas about work practice. But, as he points out in this closing paragraph, what he is hoping to instil is a mindset.

I remember a more senior student telling me that he felt it was okay to leave Tassajara when he could feel that walking the streets of New York was the same as being at Tassajara. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I came to see exactly what he meant.

All In A Day’s Work

I didn’t really have anything on my calendar for Friday, but that doesn’t mean it was an empty day. 

I started early. With the clocks about to go forward, I was watching the light start to show a little before 6:00am, sitting by my kitchen window with my first dose of coffee and my main dose of news. I find I am reading less at the moment, as I don’t need to read every story about the war, and the waves of analysis seem also to have got bogged down (though this was a treat). At a certain point when I got hungry, I ate a bowl of cereal, then made my bed and put on some regular clothes – my signal that I am ready to do something. 

FIrst up was editing a couple of tracks for Core that I recorded on Wednesday between teaching sessions, as I felt I was in a nice spacious mood that morning. I ended up having to move sections around on one of the tracks, where I was attempting to suggest some ways to take care of yourself in challenging times. I did this kind of piecemeal over the morning among other activities, before uploading them at noon. I usually submit four tracks a month, but I was waiting to hear if some existing material needs to be re-recorded, which I would do in lieu of a couple more fresh tracks. 

I scheduled another extra roam, which also involved looking at old maps, and reading articles about history associated with various places en route. This is a route I have thought about for a while, but it was looking recently at a map from 1861 that really made me give it a try – even before the roads were built, the public squares were designated, and they all exist, more or less, today. I thought about writing the email for the other roam I have coming up, the one that was postponed so that we could see the magnolias, but I will leave that for later in the weekend.

It was a warm day, and I took a break around luncthime to walk around the neighbourhood and sit in Alamo Square, watching the pack dynamics of dogs being walked – a half-dozen of them under the control of one walker seemed to be picking on the female golden retriever among them, with some neck biting that looked like it could turn nasty at any moment. I managed to grab a small child who ran out of one of my local restaurants and was about to continue off the curb into the road. As I was walking I rather wished I was on my bike, for all my misgivings about drivers on Fridays, but I still had things to finish off.

My next article in the series on Awakening the Archive was due. I did a lot of work on the last one, as that, and the next few, are all about the very first sesshin that took place at Tassajara, in August 1967. Finding the tapes for these was almost as exciting for me as finding the Los Altos talks, as here Suzuki Roshi was really getting to express his vision for practice in America; there were transcripts, but when I first listened to the talks, I realised that these were not complete. In spare moments I have been trying to complete the transcript for one of the later talks which has a long question and answer session, only a part of which was deemed suitable for the Wind Bell at the time. Because I had set the scene in the last article, this one should have been relatively straightforward; I updated the transcipt about a year ago, but I was stuck on one of the themes. A lot of the talk revolves around the four stages of practice, “belief, intellectual understanding, practice, and enlightenment” – “shi, ge, gyo, sho.” I had a memory of writing notes about this at Tassajara; I assumed it was something to be found in Dogen, but I had already skimmed through the Bendowa and the commentary by Uchiyama Roshi to no avail. Over the morning I checked Shushogi and Gakudo Yojinshu in case something showed up. While I was looking around in other talks by Suzuki Roshi for any clues, I found a nice exchange that felt worth putting up on Instagram. In the afternoon, as I was putting the finishing touches to the article, and emailing about the article with Wendy, the ZC web editor, she pinned it down to the Lotus Sutra, which made sense.

There were also details to check and emails to write for the wedding I will be officiating next weekend (and for which I hope finally to get to spend a couple of nights away, down the peninsula); for a ride down to Tassajara in April, after Lauren the Tassajara director emailed me to let me know someone was offering; and for fine-tuning the schedule of the retreat I will be co-leading in May.

Finally (apart from writing all this down), a Patreon post, showcasing a series of photos of morning sun in my kitchen, plus some hi-faluting commentary about that. All in all, twelve hours well spent.

Flowers blooming on a warm afternoon in the neighbourhood