Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Couple More American Zen Stories

I can see that today will be a busy day for me in blogland. I've already posted an paper on Hobbes and Aristotle, and I hope later to post some of my wrestling with the Gospel of Mark. But right now I just have to share some stories from the wonderful book One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories by Sean Murphy.

I picked this book up a few weeks ago (for $1!), and have been picking at it since, reading a story here and a story there. Every now and then (see Carve Me a Buddha) I find something that just has to be shared, with some brief explanations.

Today's first story concerns Shunryu Suzuki, whose teachings were immortalized in the classic book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Suzuki Roshi (Roshi is a respectful term for "teacher," not entirely unlike the Hebrew "rabbi") marks a change in the American approach to Zen from the philosophy to the practice, and his book (compiled by some of his students from talks he'd given) reflects that. It reads more like a manual on how to meditate than on a meditation of human nature.

According to Murphy, Shunryu Suzuki came from Japan in 1959 (at the age of fifty-three) to lead a Soto temple in San Francisco. While there he not only tended to the needs of his Japanese congregation, he also reached out to many Americans from the counterculture, helping spread Zen into the broader culture.

Here is my favorite story about him, as told by Murphy:

Elsie Mitchell of the Cambridge Buddhist Association reports an early visit from Suzuki Roshi, in 1964. He'd written that he would be arriving on Wednesday night, and they planned to have someone meet him at the airport.

On Tuesday afternoon a number of the members set to work housecleaning. That evening the meditation room was in the process of being scrubbed down when the doorbell rang. There on the front step, a day early, was Suzuki Roshi, wearing a big smile on his face, and highly amused to find everyone in the midst of preparations for his arrival.

Ignoring their protests, he tied back the sleeves of his robes and insisted on joining in "all these preparations for the important day of my coming!"

The next morning, Mitchell says, after she'd left the building to run some errands, "he found himself a tall ladder, sponges, and pails. He then set to work scrubbing Cambridge grease, grime, and general pollution from the outside of the windows in the meditation hall. When I returned with the groceries, I discovered him on the ladder, polishing with such undivided attention that he did not even hear my approach. He had removed his black silk kimono and was dressed only in his Japanese union suit. This is quite acceptable attire in Japan. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering how the sedate Cambridge ladies in the adjoining apartment house would react to the sight of a shaven-head man in long underwear at work right outside their windows!"

What strikes me most about this story is Suzuki's insistence on participating in the preparations for his own arrival. How Zen is that!

Each of us are, I hope, headed somewhere. We are moving toward some unspecified destination, working toward some inarticulatable existential goal. But to get there we must, in some way, participate in the preparations for our own arrival.

Or, something like that.

The second story concerns the first Korean Zen Master to teach in America, Seung Sahn, who came to Providence, Rhode Island in 1972. He worked at a Laundromat, was sought out by student at Brown University, and founded the Providence Zen Center.

Here is a story about him and one of his dharma (teaching) heirs, Su Bong Soen Sa, as told by Sean Murphy:

After seeing Seung Sahn speak for the first time, Hawaiian American Su Bong Soen Sa asked if he could have a private meeting with the teacher, to which Seung Sahn agreed. Su Bong Soen Sa showed up with a big volume of Zen sayings, which he had been studying, and hoped the master might clarify them for him. Seung Sahn made him wait for a long while before he would see him. Finally Seung Sahn invited him in for the interview. Su Bong Soen Sa, heart pounding at being before a master for the first time, turned the book toward Seung Sa and pointed with his fingertip, saying, "There's a line in this book by the Sixth Patriarch that I wonder if you would explain for me..."

In a flash Seung Sahn leapt at the book and slammed it shut on his finger, shouting, "No more reading! Who are

Su Bong Soen Sa couldn't answer. He decided at that moment to become Seung Sa's student, and eventually went on to become one of his dharma heirs.

As someone who's life has been interpreted through the lens of the books I've read, I found that story to be a powerful reminder that we are more than just a product of the external ideas which we try to take in and make our own. Of course we should read. But we should read as people who are in the process of becoming, who read as one of many ways to facilitate that process. When we become more a collection of other people's ideas and less our own creatures, we should stop reading, as the reading is no longer helping.

Of course I realize that many Americans have exactly the opposite problem.


crystal said...

I was lucky to have for a short while Robert Aitken as a roshi. I mentioned a little about it in a past blog entry

Liam said...

One could put together the two stories and saying that reading is essential, but only as preparation for the celebration of our own arrival.

annabanana5 said...

I found it interesting that many eastern religions such as buhddism have the same values as that of the early Christians in terms of humbleness and servanthood.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading it. And I'm with you about the quieting of the mind.

One thing which helps with that is to understand that you cannot quiet your mind by any act of the will, nor by any amount of effort. In fact, will, effort; these are mental noise which compounds rather than solves the problem. So instead of trying to quiet the mind, merely observe it. Listen to your self-talk. Monitor your thoughts. Neither judge them nor alter them. Merely observe them.

Eventually (so I am told) the mind will quiet itself.


Very clever. I like that! You're right: Reading is marvelous preparation.

Anna Banana,

(I hope you don't object to me making your one name into two)

In both Christianity and Buddhism there is the notion that you must die to the claims of self. You have correctly identified one area of common ground. There are several places here where I discuss points of intersection (and diversion) between Buddhism and Christianity.

Thanks for commenting.

Sandalstraps said...


I forgot to mention that Robert Aitken is a recurring character in Murphy's book, showing up (by my rough count) 12 (or so) times. Murphy quotes him as saying:

Zazen is just like learning how to ride a bicycle. You have to steer, pump, keep your balance, watch out for pedestrians and other vehicles - all at once. You are riding a pile of parts with your pile of parts. After you learn how to ride, however, what then? You are free of those parts, surely. You are one with the bicycle, and the bicycle keeps its own balance. It steers and pumps itself, and you can enjoy your ride and go anywhere, to the store, to school, to the office, the beach. You have forgotten sprockets and handle bars. You have forgotten that you have forgotten.

In the rare moments that I ride the bicycle of zazen (I got my college degree in philosophy, so that should show you my approach to things: I think too much to meditate well!) I'm still being bucked by the pile of parts!

crystal said...

Ha :-). Riding the bike of zazen sounds a lot like contemplation (or falling in love) ... time stands still, you forget yourself, there's no distiction between you and what you're doing.