The Zen Master in America

Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves

by Stuart Lachs

Presented 2006-2008, used by permission


3. Suzuki Roshi

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"...we must have eyes to see that which is good and that which is not good. This kind of mind will be acquired by practice." [54]

Suzuki Roshi

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and its leader until his death in 1971, was an impressive person, sincerely beloved by most all of the Center's members. In the introduction to Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Richard Baker quotes Trudy Dixon's description of Suzuki as the ideal of a fully realized Zen master:

A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists freely in the fullness of his whole being. The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary – buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, security, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable compassion. His whole being testifies to what it means to live in the reality of the present. Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to change another's whole way of life. But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher that perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher's utter ordinariness. [55]

Suzuki lived through circumstances that were sometimes ordinary, though sometimes tragic. He was married three times. His first wife contracted tuberculosis and returned to her parents shortly after marriage. His second wife was bludgeoned to death with a hatchet at the age of thirty-nine by an erratic, antisocial monk whom Suzuki failed to dismiss, despite warnings from family, neighbors, and colleagues.

Suzuki's relationship with his children was less than ideal. Despite being thought of as quiet, soft spoken and kind by his Japanese parishioners, at home he often scolded his oldest daughter Yasuko quite harshly. [56] Suzuki's relationship with his son Hoitsu was sometimes difficult. Hoitsu would run from his father, at times frightened by "the fierce look in his eyes." [57] His daughter Omi committed suicide after nine years in a mental hospital. Suzuki, living in America at the time, did not attend her funeral, despite pleas from his son Hoitsu, living in Japan. Suzuki waited six months to tell his other son, who lived across the street from the SFZC, that his sister was dead.

Nor was Suzuki strict about giving Dharma transmission based on spiritual attainment. He gave Hoitsu Dharma transmission, though Hoitsu did not study with him. [58] Hoitsu also inherited Suzuki's temple, according to standard Sōtō Zen procedure. Suzuki also gave, as a favor to a friend, what is sometimes jokingly referred to as "telephone transmission," Dharma transmission to someone with whom he was not personally acquainted. [59]

Suzuki ran a temple virtually under the control of Japan's repressive fascist era government, hardly a government known for promoting exaltation, peacefulness, or kindness. All of the above is the sort of detail which might be useful to both present and future students, but it is absolutely missing from all of the widely propagated standardized biographies of Zen masters throughout the ages. Suzuki had something of a fixation on the idea of reforming Sōtō Zen in Japan by having his American students go there as living examples of reform. His American students accepted this grandiose notion unquestioningly. However, the first two students he sent to Japan experienced emotional breakdowns and the third, though being the best trained for the task, felt himself totally uninformed and unprepared. "Suzuki-roshi ordained me just prior to leaving [for Japan]. He had not taught me anything about being a priest." [60] Suzuki, quite amazingly, according to Baker, said "I want you [Baker] also to reform Buddhism in Japan." [61]

Suzuki Roshi

Suzuki Roshi, older

Did Suzuki actually believe this, or was he attempting to heighten the importance of Baker's practice and mission? Still more is missing in this picture, some sense that Suzuki could not grasp the vast cultural divide between his American students and Sōtō Zen in Japan. For example, when Suzuki brought Tatsugami roshi, one of the leading Sōtō Zen training teachers from Japan, to Tassajara, SFZC's monastery, his American students were so dissatisfied, that he had to "arrange" to send Tatsugami back to Japan after only one training period. Why couldn't Suzuki get his students to accept this leading Japanese teacher? Further, how could Suzuki not have suspected that his fellow Japanese Sōtō roshi and priests would refuse to accept Americans as examples for the reform of Zen and vice versa? And what reforms did he have in mind? If there were something to reform in Japanese Sōtō Zen, giving Dharma transmission to someone you have never met or giving automatic Dharma transmission for virtually all priests, often between father and son as Suzuki had done with Hoitsu, would, seemingly, be high on the list. [62]

Why should one even think that Suzuki chose Baker as his only American Dharma heir based on his level of "spiritual attainment?" After all, the only two previous Dharma transmissions Suzuki gave, to his son Hoitsu and to Unknown, were not based on attainment at all. A senior SFZC student quoted Suzuki as saying "'Dick's commitment is at another level,' so the rest of us simply were not in a position to criticize him." [63]

In other words, Suzuki instructed his students that Baker's behavior was to be taken as above reproach. Interestingly, Suzuki did not mention "spiritual attainment," but, rather, "commitment." This is not surprising if we remember that, in Sōtō Zen, "spiritual attainment" is simply not a criterion for Dharma transmission. [64] We might, however, ask what "commitment" Suzuki was referring to? Was Baker's commitment to Zen practice that much greater than a number of other of Suzuki's close, very committed senior disciples? Or was it that Baker, in addition to his commitment to Zen practice, was more committed to institutional growth than other senior disciples, and most importantly, was the only disciple who possessed the necessary fundraising [65] and organizational skills required to achieve the growth that Suzuki desired and invested in? [66]

Suzuki was hardly naïve about group dynamics or above being calculating for dramatic effect. He did not want Baker to be "one of the guys" around the Zen Center when he made him his Dharma heir. Rather, Suzuki wanted Baker to be in Japan so he could say "He is in Japan." He could then call Baker back in a new role. [67] There is nothing inherently wrong in these calculations by Suzuki. But, it certainly is in contrast to Baker's description above of Suzuki as a perfected being, whose qualities include extraordinary straightforwardness and simplicity. If one looks beyond the hallowed image, made even larger by students of Suzuki since his death, a new level of candid and nuanced inquiry becomes possible.

Granted, the pervasiveness of the problem with Baker did not become obvious until after Suzuki's death, but we are, nevertheless, obliged to look at Suzuki's role in the problems that resulted with his Dharma heir. By stressing that it was "real" transmission [68] that he had given Baker, i.e., implying it was based solely on spiritual attainment, Suzuki exhibited a total misunderstanding of Baker's character, a hard nut to swallow since Suzuki spent over fifteen years in close, intimate contact with him.

He also, not coincidentally, fueled Baker's already existing predilection for grandiosity. We shall see shortly how impressed Suzuki was by Soen Nakagawa roshi's iconoclasm, expansive Rinzai Zen-like performances, and fame as a haiku poet to the exclusion of any of his faults. Might Suzuki, a seemingly gentle and humble country priest, have also felt some level of inferiority, taken by Baker's grand gestures, apparent ease in dealing with the murky realities of the actual world, his fundraising ability, and access to people of wealth and renown? Did his interest in having the Center grow quickly and in reforming Sōtō Zen in Japan make it easier to "not see" Baker's faults? Lastly, according to the genealogical model of Zen lineage, the Dharma giver is referred to as "father" and the Dharma receiver as "son." One cannot help but wonder if Suzuki's actions, in part, came from his emotional, paternal feelings for his Dharma "son" Baker, a relationship that he did not seem to have with his two birth sons.

We have just raised several possible motivations for Suzuki's having a blind spot about Baker, including his personal feelings about Baker and his desire to have a prominent center in America. But, is there any possible chance that Suzuki was not blind to Baker's character flaws that were so obvious to some of his students? Might Suzuki, in his genuine passion to play a major part in bringing Zen to the West, have simply felt that Richard Baker was the person who could best accomplish this? We, of course, have no way of knowing.

Understandably, Suzuki may not have been able to read across the Japanese-American cultural divide and therefore missed Baker's character flaws that were more than obvious to some of his "unenlightened" American students. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Suzuki, in so many ways an admirable person, yet with an assortment of human shortcomings, especially so around family issues, was in some way responsible for the problems at the SFZC that followed his death. All of this is in the context of Suzuki, the Zen master, being a man whose essential character is described as one of: "buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, security, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable compassion." [69]

This is a person without a defect, showing no self-interest, desire, interior calculation, or a shortcoming. Yet, we all know that no human is like this. Suzuki or any other Zen master only looks this way if we avoid looking at their real life. But that is the way that Suzuki, Baker and all roshi are presented within the tradition, that is, as idealized reflections of the original truth and perfection of the Buddha. And that very presentation is the stock and trade of the Zen institution. It means, "Don't ask, trust me." It is an institutional delusion that needs to be analyzed, using its own description.

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Notes, part 3

[54] Crooked Cucumber, p.209.

[55] Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 18. This is perhaps the most idealistic description of a roshi in print in the English language. Trudy Dixon was the editor of the Windbell, the magazine of the SFZC. Beginning with the phrase "A roshi is" makes it apply to all roshi when it is questionable whether it applies to even one roshi. Interestingly, by the time Baker penned this, he knew he would be Suzuki's successor, and thereby, become a roshi.

[56] Shoes Outside the Door, pp. 62–68. Also see Crooked Cucumber, pp.137–152.

[57] Crooked Cucumber, p.134.

[58] Shoes Outside the Door, p. 68.

[59] Ibid, p.69

[60] Shoes Outside the Door, pp. 59–60 He added, "It could never have happened in the history of Eiheiji monastery that anyone showed up as uninformed as I about what was to happen."

[61] Ibid, p. 62. He may have said this to Baker to inspire him to practice. However, it could also have played into Baker's sense of his grandiosity.

[62] Apparently Suzuki was not the only one to give this kind of Dharma transmission. See Welch, Holmes, Buddhism in China: 1900 to 1950, Harvard University Press, 1967, p. 315. Welch gives the interesting case of one Chinese monk in the twentieth century who gave Dharma transmission to another Chinese monk then in Burma, "without ever having met him, and indeed, without even finding out whether he would accept the Dharma." [More comments in Part 1, Note 17]

[63] Shoes Outside the Door, p. 170. [Baker's attentiveness and submissiveness to the Roshi can be seen in this 9-minute narration and dialog: youtube ]

[64] Foulk, T. Griffith, "The Zen Institute in Modern Japan", pp.157-177, Zen, Tradition and Transition, Kenneth Kraft ed., N.Y, Grove Press, 1988. Foulk points out that roughly 95% of Soto priests have Dharma transmission. This is because the Soto sect strives to match the institutional structures of Dogen's time when every temple had to have an abbot and every abbot had to have Dharma transmission.

[65] The importance of having the necessary fund raising skills when appointing a successor and abbot should not be underestimated in Soto Zen, at least in Japan. See Bodiford, "Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practice," pp. 272-273. For an interesting view of material wealth, the role of merchant bankers in Mahayana Sutras, and the spread of the Mahayana from India to China along the Silk Route, see, Ostro, Douglas, "Money, Merchant-Bankers, and the Mahayana," a paper to be delivered at the December 2007, AABS Conference. [not found on the web]

[66] Language and Symbolic Power, p. 215. Bourdieu mentions talk of "interests" as serving a radically disruptive function because it destroys the ideology of disinterest, which is the professional ideology of clerics of every kind. See all of chapter 9, "Delegation and Political Fetishism," pp.203–219 for a discussion of the "delegate" and delegation which is relevant to Zen with a few word changes.

See also Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loic, J. D., An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 116.

[67] Shoes Outside the Door, p. 126.

[68] Language and Symbolic Power. See pp.117-126, "Rites of Institutions" for a discussion relevant to institutions defining roles and authority. Bourdieu points out that the distinctions most efficacious socially give the appearance of being based on objective differences, based perhaps on the notion of natural boundary, as in geography. This social magic also produces discontinuity out of continuity. In this case Baker's authority is now guaranteed by the institution and made concrete by his special robes, liturgical instruments and so on. His authority is continually reinforced by being addressed as roshi which is just so many repetitions of the "inaugural act of institution" carried out by the recognized authority, Suzuki roshi.

[69] Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 18. [In the words of Richard Baker]

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