Buddhism in The West changed forever the day in 1959 when an obscure Zen priest named Shunryu Suzuki landed in California. Students who wanted more than just the words of Zen gathered around the small Soto monk to learn the practice of meditation. David Chadwick describes the early days of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and the warmth, depth and humor with which this great Zen teacher related to the American mind.
August, 1967 was dry and hot at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
The clean wilderness air carried the smells of sun-baked sycamore leaves and fresh bread from the ovens in the kitchen. Tassajara Creek was low but still gurgling, a host to dragonflies, turtles, and tiny flies called no-see-ums that buzz around the eyes at dusk. At eleven in the morning, Suzuki-roshi was in his baggy black monk’s work clothes, using an iron bar to shift a big stone with Philip Wilson.
All around him Tassajara was finding its rhythm, two months after its opening. The generator purred, and a table saw whined at the shop. The beat-up 1953 Chevy pickup bounced on the bumpy road to Grasshopper Flats to get some two-by-fours; kitchen workers chopped vegetables and kneaded bread; the person in charge of the zendo for the day filled lamps with kerosene and trimmed the wicks. Students in jeans or black robes walked past the cabins on the dusty road and glanced at Suzuki making his new garden. It had been a long time since he’d had a garden to work in.
Undistracted, sweating, ignoring flies, Suzuki worked quietly, steadily, and with obvious satisfaction. Whatever he did, Suzuki did it completely, with his whole body and mind. Once he said, “A tiger catches a mouse with all its strength.” There was nothing Suzuki liked more than working in his garden at Tassajara, just quietly moving in the midst of his students, close to the earth and what grows out of it.
I think most of us study Buddhism like something already given to us. We think what we should do is preserve the Buddha‘s teaching, like putting food in the refrigerator. We think that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. If you look at the empty garden you wont see anything, but if you take care of the seed it will come up. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden.
Louise Pryor was Suzuki’s first personal attendant. Having no predecessor to learn from, she had to figure out for herself what the job was all about. She liked the way he set up his cabin, simply and with muted colors. Everything had a place. Things were beautifully spaced. Nothing was new or specially purchased for the cabin. On the first morning of her new position, Suzuki washed his feet on the doorstep after working in the garden. Louise, who was standing just inside the door, handed him a towel. She then reached down and pinched one of his toes. He smiled and said,
“That is one of the powers of Buddha.”
“To see what someone needs and give it to them.”
Another time Louise said to him, “I compare myself to other students and feel inadequate. I haven’t read anything about Buddhism.”
“Oh! That’s the best way to come to practice,” Suzuki answered.
Louise loved to walk him to the baths. He was never in a hurry. When he met people along the way, he’d stop and bow, looking directly in their face. Louise saw how his face would change to reflect the person he met. Sometimes he would stand on the arched bridge over the stream, looking down for a long, long time.
She’d seen him in vulnerable situations. Once, as she drove him into Tassajara from San Francisco, he asked her to pull over. He got out to take a leak off the side of the road. Louise called out that maybe he shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee at the Thunderbird, the bookstore cafe in Carmel Valley. As she stretched her legs beside the car, she heard a sound like a small rock tumbling down the steep incline past manzanita, madrona and oak.
“Oh!” Suzuki called. “My teefl” Louise went over and discovered that his false teeth had fallen out. He looked pathetic and comical, like a skid row bum. Suzuki scooted down the bank, getting his robes all dirty. They looked and looked but couldn’t find the teeth. At Tassajara he had her drive straight to his cabin and refused to see anyone until another set of teeth arrived from San Francisco.
Our rules are based on a warm, kind mind. It is not so important to follow the rules literally.
Before Tassajara, rules didn’t seem so important. One might think about how the precepts applied to one’s everyday life in the city, but the main thing people did together was zazen, and Suzuki always emphasized that zazen included all the precepts. If he pushed your back in with his stick when you were slumping, you’d no more argue with him than with your tennis coach about the proper grip on the racket. But outside the Tassajara zendo lurked trouble, especially now that men and women were living and working together closely in a monastic situation. The rules took on more gravity. Within the context of that demanding life, however, Suzuki’s way was easygoing. He liked to keep rules to a minimum and would suggest new ones only as problems occurred.
In April, before the official opening, a crew was preparing Tassajara for the first practice period, and Suzuki came down from San Francisco for a week to join his young, hard-working students. He followed the schedule, sitting zazen early, doing physical labor during the days—stonework, sweeping and cleaning. In the evenings he’d lecture, and there would be questions. A lot of the discussion had to do with the demands of the new round-the-clock communal situation.
Bob Halpern’s hand shot up at the end of Suzuki’s first lecture. Bob had been coming up from L.A. to the August sesshins at Sokoji for a couple of years, and he was at Tassajara on a trial basis. Bob was always trying to be a model student, fanatically attempting to do everything right, and tripping over himself in the process. Suzuki had a soft spot for him because of his enthusiasm and mischievousness.
Bob asked if it might not be good for Tassajara to have more rules, like monasteries in Japan. For instance, people were using the baths outside the scheduled time, and there was a lot of talking going on there. Like an amoeba dividing, the room polarized. There were serious nods and exasperated exhalations.
“Yes, rules are important,” Suzuki said, “and if there are rules you should just follow them. But if there is no rule you don’t necessarily have to make one.” He paused.
“Hmmm…yes…rules…good…we need some rule.” Then he looked around with a twinkle in his eye and fixed on the corner of the room. “Ah, see that broom over there? It’s standing on its bristles. That’s not so good for the broom. The bristles will bend, and it won’t work so well or last so long. It’s better to rest the broom on the handle. There—that’s a good rule.”
I was there that evening, and I’ve always thought of this as the first rule of Tassajara.
The next evening during his lecture Suzuki talked about the baths. He said he appreciated people’s youthful sense of freedom and was glad to see how comfortable they were with each other in the baths. On the other hand, he said that in a Zen monastery the baths are one of the three silent places, along with the zendo and the toilet. The atmosphere of the baths should be more like that of the zendo than the courtyard, where we say hi to each other and drink tea and coffee. In a monastery, he said, the baths are second only to the zendo as a place for zazen, and it would be best to reduce the distractions there by being silent and having men and women bathe separately. At the time there was mixed nude bathing, which nearly everyone thought was natural and good. He was cutting it off. There are two plunges, large tubs, he pointed out, so we can keep the same schedule and have the men on one side and the women on the other.
There were a lot of questions after the lecture. Don’t Japanese families bathe together in community spas? Doesn’t this support guilt-ridden American Puritanism? Suzuki said that in general men and women don’t bathe together in Japan, and that Japanese are very modest about their bodies. He sighed, adding that they were not Japanese, so that was no argument one way or another. “Anyway, this is the best way for us—it has nothing to do with Japan or America or good and bad. It will just be our rule and we should do it.” Most people accepted what he said, but some argued further. Two couples who had been at Tassajara before Zen Center bought it, and who had been told they could stay, left partially because of the new bath rules.
A couple of days later the guys were quietly soaking in the men’s plunge after a hard day’s work when tiny, naked, practically hairless Suzuki slowly entered the deep, hot, sulfur water, holding a washcloth-sized towel over his genitals, as they do in Japan, a practice no one else copied. Bob was there, audibly taking deep breaths, keeping an obvious silence, staring straight ahead, showing his teacher he was doing meditation in the baths as he was supposed to. Suzuki sidled up to him nonchalantly and said, “Oh, the water’s very hot. How hot do you think it is?” Bob didn’t know what to do.
If we feel too close, it doesn’t make any sense, we cannot help each other. So we need some distance. The rules will give some distance between teacher and disciple. Because of the distance, the student may have some freedom in his activity, and the teacher will find out how to help him. When you play a game, if you are too close, you cannot play. Only when you have some distance between you can you play something.
Suzuki told an old Chinese folk tale about the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, everyone has very short arms. They sit around tables full of sumptuous food, trying to eat with very long chopsticks, but they can’t get the food in their mouths because the chopsticks are too long and their arms too short. They try in agony to feed themselves, to no avail. In heaven, everyone also has short arms, but everyone is feeding each other across the table and having a lovely time.
He said the beings in hell are driven by greed and selfishness, always wanting more, just repeating their bad habits in confusion. So how do creatures of habit come to act naturally, like the beings in that Chinese heaven, when they’re so lost to begin with? First he said, “We must establish our practice in our delusion.” The way to do this is to have some rules, which we receive from those who have gone before us and whom we respect. He likened it to putting a snake in a bamboo tube. He’d had plenty of such straightening out in his life from childhood on, more difficulty and effort than his students could imagine.
What I want to talk about now is how to orient your mind in practice. For the beginner it is inevitable that there will be hard discipline, the observation of some rules. Rigid rules are not our point. But if you want to acquire vital freedom, it is necessary to have some strength, some discipline, in order to be free from one-sided dualistic ideas. So our training begins in the realm of duality or rules: what we should or should not do.
As always, his students would ask why. Suzuki said in Japan no one would even think of asking why. He admired the sincerity and honesty of his students but cautioned that it would be hard to
establish a practice if they had to think about things so much. He said he wasn’t asking anything unreasonable and that most questions would answer themselves in time. Philip Wilson told them of a saying at Eiheiji: “Don’t say no for the first five years.” Suzuki often said, “Just do it!”
With rules, sometimes Suzuki would emphasize kindness and sometimes he would emphasize strictness.
When we practice our way, we should forget everything and try to find ourself in our everyday life. That is why we must be strict, we must have strict rules. Our human nature is very sneaky. Without some strict way we will go this way and that way.
The counter-cultural credo of the times was “Do your own thing,” and vague yet passionately held ideas of love and freedom were in the air. Many of Suzuki’s students had ridden the waves of hippiedom into the Zen Center, rejecting to various degrees the mores of middle America. Others had resisted the authority of government in civil disobedience or had broken the law by taking psychedelics. They had thrown off some of the shackles of their society and were looking for liberation. They were a striking mix of individualists and eccentrics who would never have ended up together, following that disciplined life, if not for Suzuki. Now they were getting up in the dark, practicing zazen in full or half lotus, chanting together in an ancient, unfamiliar language, wearing robes, eating in silence, working hard, and making every attempt to follow a life far more structured than the ones they’d rejected.
These kinds of rules are necessary, because before you start practice or realize the necessity of a religious life, before you adore something holy, you are bound in the realm of necessity, controlled completely by your surroundings. When you see something beautiful, you will stay there as long as possible. When you are tired of it, you will go to another place. You may think that is freedom, but it is not freedom, it’s being enslaved by your surroundings, that is all. Not at all free! That kind of life is just material and superficial.
Some people took to discipline easier than others, and some worried more about their fellow students’ adherence to the rules than about their own. Some wanted less structure, and some wanted more; frequently those who wanted more had the hardest time keeping to it. A woman who had lived in a hippie commune for a year called this tug-of-war the Nazis versus the Gypsies, but of course there were more shades of gray than that. It all worked because Suzuki was there to moderate, point the way, and knock people off the position they were attached to. The path he indicated was often not in the direction that was expected. And before long he’d be pointing them in another direction that wasn’t expected. He often stressed that what’s important is to follow the spirit of the rules, not the letter of the law. He said that fundamentally people knew what they were doing, and their development was up to them.
Within the rules, we should try to break one. You should do something like that, on and off. Then we will know what is wrong with you.
There was a morning tea called chosan held in Suzuki-roshi’s cabin after breakfast and before work period, in which Suzuki would meet with his senior disciples and the officers of the monastery. They would start by prostrating together before his altar. Then the students would bow to Suzuki and he to them, everyone saying good morning. They sat in seiza on the tatami in silence while Suzuki’s attendant made tea. After sipping and munching for a while, Suzuki would say something. He would comment on the quality of the morning chanting or the change of season, and when he was finished, others were free to speak. Then the everyday workings of the monastery would be discussed— meals, changes in the schedule, an upcoming ceremony, or a special problem that had arisen. It might be mentioned that someone had left Tassajara without permission, or Suzuki might clarify some temple etiquette, like a fine point on how to enter the zendo. For the officers it was the high point of the day, because they got to be with Suzuki for thirty minutes in a fairly intimate setting.
As head of the dining room during summer guest season, I generally attended the morning tea. One morning I woke up late. I’d missed zazen, service and breakfast, looked terrible, and reeked of alcohol, having stayed up the previous night with some guests. This was not the first time I’d slept in. At tea, one of the officers looked at me, fuming. As soon as Suzuki had made his remarks and there was an opening, the officer spoke up loudly.
“Suzuki-roshi, what do you think of a student who flagrantly violates the rules of the monastery?” It was obvious whom he was talking about.
Suzuki took a sip of his tea and said, “Mmmm.” He frequently made a sound like that to give some space. Then he said, “Everyone is doing their best. This practice is not so easy.”
“Yes, but Roshi, flagrant. Breaking rules all the time so that everyone can see.”
“Better that we see it than that they hide it.”
“Yes, but shouldn’t he follow the rules?”
“Of course, but you can break the rules sometimes and still follow the spirit of the rules.”
The others were listening attentively. I kept my eyes down, and my occasional winces must have seemed more the result of my headache than what anyone was saying. The poor fellow wasn’t getting what he wanted, but he tried again. “Yes, but Roshi, can’t you keep the rules and the spirit too?”
“Of course,” said Suzuki brightly. “That’s the best way.”
* * *
“Don’t kill” is a dead precept. “Excuse me” is an actual working precept.
* * *
Suzuki was lecturing on the precepts. When he got to the third one, he said:
Do not commit adultery [laughing]. That means attachment, you know, extreme attachment. This precept emphasizes especially our attachment to some particular thing. But it does not mean not to attach to the other sex [laughing more].
Generally sex was not as big a deal in students’ lives as it had been before they’d gotten involved with Zen. Suzuki’s tactic was to focus on the practice, the Tassajara schedule. That didn’t leave much time or energy for anything else. Almost everyone was so exhausted from following the schedule that they’d go to sleep before the fire watch went around with the goodnight clackers at ten. But there would often be one or two up late reading, sneaking into the baths, stealing food from the kitchen, or slipping into someone else’s sleeping bag.
There was more interest in the topic of sex in the city. One student had been involved in a free love scene before coming to the San Francisco Zen Center. After some time at Zen Center, he decided to become celibate and shaved his head. “Is it necessary to have sex in order to have a complete understanding?” he asked Suzuki.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have too much sex,” Suzuki said and paused. “But maybe you shouldn’t have too little either,” he added, to howls of laughter.
On another day a student asked: “Roshi, I have a lot of sexual desire. When I sit I just get more. I’m trying to concentrate on my practice, so I’m thinking of becoming celibate. Should I try to limit myself in this way?”
“Sex is like brushing your teeth,” Suzuki answered. “It’s a good thing to do, but not so good to do it all day long.”
A girl wearing many strings of beads raised her hand when Suzuki asked for questions. “Suzuki-roshi, what is sex?”
“Once you say sex, everything is sex.” Mainly with his students Suzuki avoided the subject, feeling there were cultural differences he just didn’t understand. Sometimes he’d back off when familiar monastic forms ran headlong into sixties’ sexuality.
“Since you’re going to be ordained, it would be better if you didn’t have a girlfriend for five years,” Suzuki said to me in his cabin at Tassajara.
“Oh gosh Roshi, I don’t think I can do that. I have a girlfriend here now! Didn’t you know that?”
“Don’t tell me,” he said turning away.
How do you like zazen? How do you like brown rice? I think this is a better question. Zazen is too much. Brown rice, I think, is just right. But actually, there is not much difference.
As is common in communal situations, there was often wrangling at Tassajara over food. There were raw food proponents and eat-anything proponents, but the most fanatic were those expounding the glories of brown rice. They were influenced by the macrobiotic diet, a Japanese vegetarian movement that associated itself with Zen. It was often called the Zen macrobiotic diet. Some people came to Zen Center with the idea that eating brown rice and soybean products was integral to Zen. Others insisted there was no connection at all.
Suzuki would neither accept nor reject macrobiotics. “There is some overlap,” he said once when pressed to reject it. But, in general, he had a distaste for food fanaticism. “We eat what we’re served.” The macrobiotic movement was reminiscent of the Brown Rice Movement in Japan during the war, zealously promoted by his old friends Kozo Kato and his wife. A good deal of brown rice was eaten at Tassajara, and Suzuki did want Tassajara’s diet to be based on grains and not served in some fancy way— but he didn’t want ideology served as food.
Suzuki did have trouble with the Tassajara dietary regimen, though. He got thinner at Tassajara, and some said it was because the diet was hard on him. He’d eaten white rice all his life and had trouble chewing the brown rice and a lot of the other food because of his false teeth. Ed Brown was head of the kitchen, and when there was a dish that Suzuki couldn’t eat, Ed would serve him something else. But he just wanted to eat the same as others. One day Suzuki broke a tooth, and he was put on a diet of soft food. “You have no idea how humiliating it is to be served mashed bananas,” he told Ed.
Ed had worked in the Tassajara kitchen during the previous summer before Zen Center had purchased the resort and had learned a lot from the chef—especially how to make the great bread that would become the acclaimed staple for Tassajara lunches. Ed conferred with Suzuki regularly about food and factions, emotions and Zen practice.
One day Ed came to Suzuki distraught and told him he was being besieged by people with strong ideas about how he should cook—no salt, more salt; no sugar, more sugar; no dairy, more cheese. Some people were accusing him of poisoning them if he didn’t accommodate their preferences. Suzuki told Ed he was the head cook and he should decide. Pressed for further advice, Suzuki told him, “When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup.”
Suzuki was primarily vegetarian, and he insisted that student food at Tassajara not include meat or fish, but he did not advocate strict adherence to any food regimen outside the monastery. His wife frequently served him small amounts of meat and fish at Sokoji. Even though the food at Tassajara was vegetarian, Suzuki would remind his students that in order to live we had to kill, and that we shouldn’t feel morally superior because we didn’t eat meat. “You have to kill vegetables, too,” he said. Sometimes he’d use a meal to make a point that Buddhism wasn’t the captive of any trips, especially food trips.
Suzuki had again crushed a finger while resetting stones, this time at the base of a wall at Tassajara. It swelled up and turned purple. Bob Halpern drove him into Carmel, making a special effort to sit up straight and not to talk for the first few miles, but then he started asking Suzuki about Buddhism and vegetarianism. Suzuki promptly went to sleep.
The finger wasn’t broken. The doctor drilled into the nail to relieve the pressure, wrapped it up, and told him to keep it high.
Walking past the Carmel boutiques, Suzuki said to Bob, “Let’s eat, I’m hungry.” Bob started looking for a restaurant where they could get a vegetarian meal. “Let’s eat here,” said Suzuki, going into a little hamburger joint while Bob mumbled, “But, but…”
Bob studied the menu with horror.
“You haven’t had any meat in a long time, have you?” Suzuki said to him.
“No, Roshi, not in two years. No animal food. No dairy or eggs.”
“That’s very good,” Suzuki said, as the waitress walked up. “You order first.”
“I’ll take a grilled cheese sandwich.” It was the best he could do with that menu.
“Hamburger please,” said Suzuki, “with double meat.”
Their food arrived and they each took a bite. “How is it?” asked Suzuki.
“I don’t like mine,” Suzuki said, “Let’s trade.” With that he picked up Bob’s sandwich and replaced it with the double-meat hamburger. “Urn, good. This is good. I like grilled cheese.”
From “Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki,” by David Chadwick. ©1999 by David Chadwick. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.