Three Zen Masters and an Ugly Duckling

“How far is it?” I asked, a bit out of sorts. We had just finished morning meditation at the San Francisco Zen Center and my teacher Suzuki Sensei was asking for a ride.

“Not far. I have directions,” he answered, in his usual happy tone.

Sensei, Japanese for teacher, wanted to visit a woman who’d contacted him about Buddhism. He hadn’t met her so he felt he should go for a visit.

I’d been his student for about a year but I was also a Stanford student with classes that morning so his request was problematic. But I enjoyed being with him so I did it anyway.

It was in Hillsborough, a wealthy, hilly suburb of San Francisco. Suzuki’s directions were not good so we drove around a bit before arriving at the large, spacious estate where, presumably, this woman lived.

“You stay here. I’ll go up,” Suzuki said

About five minutes later he returned.

“How’d it go?”

“Very interesting,” he said. “But not the woman I thought. Wrong woman.” “She thought I was there to wash her windows.” he began, reporting in a matter-of-fact tone. But then he began to laugh with great abandon. “But I didn’t bring my squeegee,” he quipped. His response turned the situation around. It was as if the joke was on her.

It was easy to see her mistake—a Japanese man in a simple black jacket and loose, baggy pants. It was 1965 after all, twenty years after World War II, when most Japanese on the west coast lost everything—their money, property, and stature—and were forced into re-location camps. Growing up in the Bay area, the only Japanese folks I saw were laborers, until I met “Rev. Suzuki.”

Shunryu Suzuki is one of the most famous Zen teachers in the world today but in the sixties he was virtually unknown outside a small circle of dedicated students. It’s been more than forty years since his death yet he remains the most quoted teacher in Zen. But what I cherish most are the small, everyday, often awkward but always life-affirming moments that he shared with me.

Suzuki RoshiMeeting Suzuki Roshi

I wasn’t quite twenty-one years old in 1964 as I wound through the San Francisco streets with an address pulled from the phone book in one hand, a map and steering wheel in the other. The Zen Center was on Bush Street in an old Jewish Synagogue. I rang the doorbell.

Even by Japanese standards, the man answering the doorbell was small in stature. His head was shaved; he wore a loose black outfit and slippers, and a natural, friendly smile. He introduced himself as Rev. Suzuki.

Stepping aside, he invited me in. I followed him upstairs to a tiny office. Though obviously not a young man, he had a youthful presence, a light step, and a wonderful glint in his eyes. I was excited and a little nervous about meeting a Zen master―but at the same time I felt comfortable and at ease with him. He exuded both dignity and friendliness. I liked him immediately.

I told him about an experience I’d had two or three weeks earlier where all my worries, concerns, and fears dissolved in an instant. For days, I felt connected to everything that existed, with no separate identity. This experience was my reason for seeking him out. I expected an endorsement of some kind, an acknowledgement that something significant had happened to me. Instead, he offered only two short comments about it.

“That is good,” he said, which seemed like an endorsement of sorts. Then he added flatly, “But that is not Zen.”

Immediately, he was on his feet and inviting me into the next room, the meditation room. Here, there was no furniture, only cushions lining bare, gray walls, and a nice hard wood floor, a pleasant smell of incense, and an altar, with a candle, a Buddhist statue, and a vase of fresh-cut flowers. Simple, warm, and appealing.

When we were seated, Suzuki began to explain a practice he called “sitting still and doing nothing.” It was practiced every morning and every evening and I was invited to join them.

“I will,” I told him.

He was the first real Zen master I’d ever seen and I was infatuated with him. But it was more than infatuation: I felt drawn to his presence in a deeply powerful way. I had had other good teachers whom I dearly respected, but never one as compelling as Suzuki Sensei.

I began driving to the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) three or four times a week. There were six to eight regulars, along with the occasional aging beatnik or pre-movement hippie wandering in off the street, or tourist who stumbled in out of happenstance, curiosity, or boredom. Often, the pleasant smell of incense mixed with other smells, like body odors, pot, or the minty smell of patchouli.

Once, there was a young girl wearing a see-through dress with nothing but bare skin under it and bells on around her ankles that jingled during walking meditation. As we exited the zendo, Suzuki bowed to each of us one by one. I wondered what he thought as he bowed to the jingling, semi-naked young girl.

The Zen Center owned the apartment building across the street and before long, I was living there. Once I met Suzuki on the street as he was walking home with a grocery bag. To my delight, he lit up when he saw me.

“Look what I have!” he exclaimed, holding out the bag for me to take a look.

As always, I was affected by his aliveness and presence as I gazed into the bag. Green spinach, red tomatoes, yellow squash, purple onions, a myriad of colors and textures. Yummy! I was seeing with Suzuki’s eyes and through them his bag full of vegetables looked fresh and delicious.

Then he said, “Only two days old. Almost fresh!”

What! Almost fresh? These were discarded produce from the grocery store. I was appalled. I glanced back down. Everything looked awful―brown and shriveled, maybe even moldy and wormy. Delight was replaced by disgust—big time! I thought, Oh no. What if he invites me to dinner? I rushed off.

Too bad for me. Thinking back I wonder, what if he had invited me to dinner?

When working around the Zen Center, Suzuki usually wore loose black work clothes; otherwise, it was his priest robes. I’d never seen him in anything else. Until one afternoon he turned up wearing white shorts, tennis shoes, and a ridiculous-looking hat to protect his bald head from the sun. He was going to play tennis with Betty Wong.

Betty was a concert pianist, a tennis player, and a Zen student. But often, there were long stretches when she was unable to come to the Zen center because of depression. So today, Suzuki was going to meet her on her court.

I was surprised. “I didn’t know you played tennis, Sensei.”

“I don’t,” he said. “But Betty does.”

I couldn’t resist going along. Sensei was all over the court, swinging the racket without the least bit of self-consciousness or frustration. Every now and then, he even hit the ball.

Betty looked happy. She was gracious on the court and radiant. Suzuki, in his ridiculous outfit, beamed with the simple joy of being with his student in her suffering.

Suzuki never showed his own suffering; but I saw it once when I happened by the opened door of his office. A letter lay limp in his hand as he gazed off with teary eyes and wet cheeks.

I was worried. I knew Suzuki was scheduled to give the talk that evening so I found a senior student and suggested that someone else should give the talk.

“Why? What has happened?”

I told him what I’d seen.

“Oh, don’t worry. He’ll be all right. He misses his family”

That evening, Suzuki was the same as always, light-hearted, humorous, and totally present.

Eventually, his wife Mitsu joined him in San Francisco. The first time I saw her, she was walking up the stairs of the Zen Center wearing a beautiful flowered kimono. I’d never before seen one outside a Japanese restaurant. Her hair was styled in the traditional Japanese fashion and she comported herself in a delicate way. I thought, Wow! How lovely.

Suzuki called her Okusan, Japanese for wife. Before long, we all called her Okusan. She and Suzuki had a playful, flirtatious relationship. He treated her with fondness and lightness and Okusan always looked out for him, often chiding him playfully when he worked too hard or didn’t take well enough care of himself.

Once, a couple of us were talking with Suzuki in the hall outside his office when Okusan started up the stairs. She was returning from the beauty shop with a fresh hairdo.

“Oh!” exclaimed Suzuki, in a voice meant for her, “My fair lady!”

She beamed, and then gave him a flirtatious, dismissive wave.

 Katagiri Sensei: Spreading the Seeds of ZenKatagiri Roshi

I had been practicing at the SFZC for less than a year when Dainin Katagiri, a young Zen teacher from Japan, arrived. Suzuki introduced him as his new assistant. Katagiri Sensei was reserved, quiet, and a very gentle presence. He had a great aspiration to plant the seeds of Zen in this country and encourage them to sprout. This was his “dim vision.”

     Dim vision was his way of reminding himself and us to hold our visions for the future lightly so they don’t become obsessions. Ultimately, Katagiri Sensei would realize his dim vision. His success rested primarily on a willingness to face the language barrier head-on, as Suzuki had done.

Other non-English speaking teachers in the sixties used translators. They prepared long written lectures for someone to translate. But not Suzuki and Katagiri. They did their best to communicate in our vernacular. It was very touching sometimes, boring other times, and often delightful because they used English in fresh and spontaneous ways.

They also engaged socially. On March 11, 1966, Katagiri Sensei and his young wife Tomoe attended my wedding at the Unitarian church in Palo Alto, my home town. Tomoe looked delicate and exotic in a beautiful kimono and her hair pulled up in a traditional Japanese way. She was quiet, reserved, and radiant. Her exotic appearance made her a center of attention before and after our bare bones ceremony.

The First American Zen MonasteryTassajara Zen Monastery

The land that became Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery was 160 acres surrounding the Tassajara Hot Springs, deep in the mountains an hour and a half drive from Carmel Valley. In 1966, the Zen center had no members and little money. We were mostly college students or 60’s drop outs. The below-market price was only $300,000 but even so most of us thought it was impossible.

“Well, maybe it is impossible, maybe so,” Suzuki said, thoughtfully, “or maybe not impossible. Let’s try it and see.” That was the spring, 1966. In July, 1967, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia opened its doors. It was also the first in the world to allow co-ed practice.

Soon thereafter, we began having practice periods at Tassajara. These extended retreats, often lasting three months, are meant to help people steep themselves in stillness. But in between meditation sittings, we were skinny-dipping in the hot springs.

Suzuki tolerated it for a while. He even joined us occasionally, modestly cupping his genitals in his hands whenever he got out of the hot spring. Soon enough though, he put an end to the skinny-dipping, but he did it gently and with kindness and warmth; otherwise we would have fled. Besides, he seemed to even enjoy our counter-culture values.

Once, while at Tassajara I was told that Suzuki wanted to see me. When I got to his office, he said, “I received a phone call from your mother today.”

I was shocked and more than a little dismayed. My parents were skeptical at best about my Zen practice. “My mother? What did she want?”

Sensei shrugged and said that she just wanted to talk. Then he added, “Maybe she noticed that her son had become a beautiful swan.”

My face lit up. Wow—a beautiful swan!

Then Suzuki quickly added, “Or maybe she thinks he has become an ugly duckling!”

Beautiful swan, ugly duckling—from a Zen perspective these are just decorations. “It’s all the same,” Suzuki often reminded us. What’s important is to just be who you are. Some days you’re an ugly duckling, other days your teacher may be one—like the time we were driving to Tassajara for one of our early practice periods.

I had been purifying my body in preparation for the retreat, drinking lots of water, no coffee or caffeinated tea, and eating only fruits, vegetables, tofu, and grains. About half way into our three-hour drive and approaching a roadside café, Suzuki said, “Let’s stop for coffee.”

It seemed wrong to drink coffee on our way to a practice period. Reluctantly, I swung in and parked the car. When the waitress came over, Suzuki ordered coffee. I ordered water.

As he sipped his coffee, the waitress passed by with a banana split for the next table. Suzuki’s eyes lit up. “What is that!?”

“A banana split.”

“I want one of those!”

When it arrived, Suzuki turned the plate full circle, appreciating the colors and textures. Finally, he took a tiny bite of the whipped cream. Then he took tiny bites of the ice cream, one color at a time. He only looked at the cherry; and then put down his spoon.

“Just like America,” he said. “Everything mixed together.” He slid the banana split across the table. “You’re American, Tim. This is for you.”

I love banana splits and I ate the entire thing; but I didn’t enjoy it. Instead, I ate it with an anxious feeling. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the banana split lesson. It’s fine to prepare when you’re going into a retreat, but not at the expense of this moment. I love banana splits and I ate the entire thing; but I was woefully unable to enjoy it. Instead, I was splitting off in favor of a future moment.

The old Greek myth of Sisyphus is a good example of how isolating and miserable life becomes when we split our self off from our activity. As punishment for angering the gods, Sisyphus was forever doomed to push a boulder up a mountain, allow it to roll back down, and then push it to the top again.

The Sisyphus myth exemplifies the philosophy of three renowned Existentialists: Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. For these guys, it was the human condition to struggle perpetually in hopelessness and despair.

Suzuki had a different take on life. One of his great loves was working with stones. Throughout the spring and summer at Tassajara, he gathered stones to build walls. The big guys helped, but I’m not a big guy, so I was usually assigned to menial chores that required neither muscle nor skill.

Winter at Tassajara is the rainy season and much of Suzuki’s spring and summer work got washed away by torrential rains. But he was never deterred. Come spring, he was back out there moving stones.

If he could get away with it he didn’t even take time to change out of his robes. When Okusan came around he stepped behind a tree or a boulder because if she saw him, she would say, “No, no, no. Change!”

Off he’d go to change into his work clothes.

One day I was watching them work along a shallow embankment. Suzuki was at the top of the hill pushing a large stone. Suddenly, he slipped and started rolling down the hill.

I thought, “Oh no, he’s old. He’s frail. He’ll be hurt. Oh my!”

Down, down, down he rolled. At the bottom, he leaped to his feet, dusted off his robes, and smiled.

“Just like a stone,” he said.

The First American Zenefit

On November 13, 1967, to raise money toward the loan for Tassajara, we held a “Zenefit” in the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. The concert featured performances by the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Janis Joplin—artists who have since become legendary.

Katagiri Sensei had been in San Francisco for only two years. I remember seeing him standing anxiously in the shadows, half-hidden, and looking quite out of sorts and unsettled in that crazy environment. He looked as if he wanted to run away. I’m sure he did.

Suzuki, on the other hand, was older and more resilient and adaptable. He sat in the front row with strobe lights and lasers flashing on him from all directions and wild, half naked dancers on both sides. The air was so thick with marijuana I was getting high just breathing.

Surrounded by utter chaos, Suzuki was completely relaxed and seemed totally in his element. He was looking around, smiling, taking it all in—I think he was grooving on the whole thing.

Finally, the last performer, the young blues singer Janis Joplin took the stage. She gave it her all! Heart and soul bared completely in a classic Joplin performance.

Next, it was time for Suzuki to speak to the crowd. The auditorium grew silent as he crossed to the microphone. When he spoke, his voice was calm and warm. “At first,” he said, “I think your way very different from ours. But now I see, not so different! Not so different!”

The crowd roared!

Suzuki was touched by Janis’s ability to completely inhabit each moment as she gave her whole heart to the crowd. Janis’s voice penetrated to the far reaches of the ballroom. It seemed to come from the ground of being and people responded to her in a deeply visceral way.

But she didn’t have a practice that cultivated resiliency. She could bare her soul on stage, but privately, her life was tragic. Less than three years after the Zenefit, she was dead.

Chino RoshiChino Roshi: A Man of Dance

One morning, when Suzuki arrived to give his weekly talk to the Los Altos group, he brought along a young Japanese monk who had just arrived from Japan. Suzuki introduced him as Chino Sensei.

We were all drawn to Chino immediately. He had a gentle, sweet nature and a quick, natural laugh. He moved in attentive and precise ways, which somehow gave the impression of transparency. He seemed fragile.

Having held a position as ceremony instructor at Eheiji monastery in Japan, Chino Sensei embodied ritual. It was like a dance for him. Suzuki was not as good at ritual, so he was happy that Chino Sensei had come to assist him.

When Suzuki insisted that I become Chino’s attendant at Tassajara, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t good at ritual either. Suzuki was hoping Chino would shape me up—but he didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “Chino Sensei will show you something new every day.”

The first evening, I went to Chino’s room to see if he needed anything. He invited me in and whipped up a very strong ceremonial tea. It was delightful to watch him whip the tea into thick foam and then serve it in such a delicate way. This became our routine. It was as if he were attending me!

Every evening, we drank tea together and talked. He asked questions about American culture or about books I was reading. Suzuki hoped Chino would teach me about ritual, but I soon discovered that Chino didn’t even like ritual. Since neither of us had much interest in it, we didn’t even talk about ritual.

But when Chino did ritual, he completely gave himself to it. At Tassajara, we ate our meals in a ritualized way, as they do in Japanese monasteries. It’s called oryoki. It is a highly stylized and formal ritual that involves three nested bowls wrapped in meal linens. Back then, I scorned oryoki; but I appreciated the wonderful way in which Chino taught it. Oryoki flowered when Chino was doing it.

Once, during a retreat at Tassajara, Suzuki was unexpectedly called back to the city. It fell on Chino to give the daily evening talks. He had never given a talk in the United States before. He was terrified!

Each evening after dinner and before the talk, when I went to his room to see if he needed anything, he whipped up the ceremonial tea. It was bitter, frothy, and quite wonderful. But it had a lot of caffeine. He would sip his tea, and say, “I’m scared.” I would answer, “I know you are. I’d be scared, too.” This was our routine.

During his talks, he trembled at times, was often inarticulate, and his English was clumsy—a stark contrast to the way he moved. I felt bad for him. No doubt the ceremonial tea was partly responsible because as I sat in the audience my head was spinning from the caffeine.

Years later, however, Chino became known as quite a good speaker. He was so relaxed giving talks that there’s a story about him actually falling asleep for a minute or so during a talk. When I mentioned this story to an old Zen friend of mine, he surprised me by saying, “It’s true. I was there.”

But the most compelling thing about Chino was his uncanny ability to teach without speaking. He taught with his body. He immersed himself in the physical. When he moved, it was as if his whole being was moving with single-pointed focus.

At Tassajara there was a stream with a log across it. Even though Chino did not have better balance than anyone else, he was able to move across the log with ease. There seemed to be no intrusion of thought or fear. The rest of us would be freaking out, struggling to stay on the log and worrying about falling off. But Chino didn’t seem to worry about anything. He just walked across the log.

Seeding the Mid-West

There’s a story about Suzuki and Katagiri on a plane flying over the Midwest. Suzuki looked longingly out the window and said, “That is where the real Americans live. They actually have jobs.”

For Katagiri that fly-over turned out to be prophetic. In 1972, a group of Zen practitioners from Minneapolis flew to San Francisco to meet with him. They asked him to consider moving to Minneapolis to teach.

By this time, I had left California. By sheer coincidence, I was living in northern Minnesota. But I was not part of the Minneapolis group and knew nothing of their effort to persuade Katagiri to move here. As a matter of fact, when I left San Francisco, I never expected to see Katagiri again.

So I was surprised to hear he was coming to Minnesota and excited to see him. I drove down for the retreat, which was in the home of a guy named Erik Storlie. When Katagiri saw me, his first words were, “I thought I’d see you again, Tim.”

Soon thereafter, Katagiri became the abbot of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, the first Zen center in Minnesota and the first to ordain Zen priests in the Midwest. In a traditional Zen ordination ceremony in 1978, Norm Randolph and I became a small part of Katagiri’s dim vision to plant the seeds of Zen in America.

As the Zen center grew, Katagiri decided it was time to purchase land for a country monastery. We located three properties, one of which was 280 acres that most of us did not even wish to consider. At $110,000, it was the most expensive and the furthest away from the city.

But as Katagiri explored the woods and meadows, the walnut grove, oak savannah, and wetland Hokyoji Zen Communityhe exclaimed, “Ah, look at this!” He turned full circle, soaking in the beauty. “I don’t know. It’s wonderful! Shouldn’t we try it?” On July 7, 1978, Hokyoji, which means “Catching the Moon Temple,” became Minnesota’s first rural Zen practice center and a testament to Katagiri Roshi’s dim vision.

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