Suzuki Roshi's Way

Norman Fischer

 

For many years we have had Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a book edited by Trudy Dixon of Suzuki Roshi's early talks. As everyone probably knows, this book is the best selling book on Buddhism in the history of the West. It has never been a best seller, but it has sold steadily for the last twenty-seven years or so, and every year more copies are sold. It has been translated into many many languages and undergone many, many editions. Like the Bible, it will probably never go out of print. Somehow, despite all the changes in the world, all the changes in fashion in Western Dharma, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind still holds up. I think this is because there is something about Suzuki Roshi's way, Suzuki Roshi's Zen spirit, that strikes us all as particularly true and particularly warm. Even when we do not precisely understand what he is getting at, we feel the truth and the sincerity of what he is saying. Suzuki Roshi's words, as his practice and life, are not spectacular or exciting or particularly brilliant or poetic. They are pretty simple and down to earth. And yet they have a strong and almost universal appeal. They seem somehow right. And almost all of the Buddhist lineages in the West honor Suzuki Roshi as a great founding Western teacher. Even though he was not a famous or particularly noteworthy teacher in Japan, somehow his practice and teaching, meeting the Western mind, created something strong enough to transcend Japanese Soto Zen, even to transcend Buddhism.

I have wondered why after all these years we have not been able to produce more good books out of the Suzuki-Roshi archives. Perhaps it was because we were too busy, or maybe it was because we were intimated by Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, or wanted to let it stand all by itself, one thin book representing all that Suzuki Roshi taught. There is something nice about that. But, at the same time, it seems as if it would also be good to have the benefit of more teaching by Suzuki Roshi, and I am happy that now we will have that. There is a new book Crooked Cucumber, by David Chadwick just out, a biography of Suzuki Roshi. It contains, for the first time in written form, many of the stories we have been telling about Suzuki Roshi for years. And soon we will have in book form the Sandokai lectures, Suzuki Roshi's talks on a fundamental text of Soto Zen. And Ed Brown is also now working on a collection of new talks by Suzuki Roshi, an excellent manuscript so far. There are also now available for the first time audio tapes of some of Suzuki Roshi's talks. We are also trying to raise $108,000 to preserve properly the Suzuki Roshi archive--most of this thanks to David Chadwick, whose tireless and almost obsessive efforts, have gotten us this far.

So there is soon going to be much more of Suzuki Roshi's teaching available for us all to study and cherish, and I am very very happy about this. For us at Zen Center, Suzuki Roshi's teaching isn't just books or tapes or ideas, it is a way of life, a deeply held attitude or feeling about life. I think that those students who studied with Suzuki Roshi have this attitude and feeling, and for them it is very strong and very much connected with their affection for and experience of the man. But it seems as if the attitude and this feeling is also being successfully passed on to those of us who have come later, and who did not [study with] Suzuki Roshi during his life[time]. In a way, we also have had the chance to meet Suzuki Roshi face to face, in the reality of our own practice with our own teachers. So it seems as if the way of Suzuki Roshi is alive and well here at Zen Center and in many, many other places around the world.

Buddhism is really one teaching. Although there are many forms of Buddhism, many ways of speaking about the teaching and many ways of putting it into practice, really all forms of Buddhism are just different ways of getting people to see and realize the basic truths about human life that the Buddha himself saw personally and tried to teach. For each era, for each culture, and also for each person, there must be a unique way of presenting Buddhism, because although the truth may always be the same, there is no truth that is independent of a form of expression. Because people are always different, there must be different forms of expression of the Buddhist truth. In every country that Buddhism has visited there are always people who eventually, probably without trying to do it, find an expression of Buddhism that speaks to the particular cultural condition that formed them. Such people do not create a new Buddhism, they just find a way to make clear in a different way what Buddhism has been saying all along.

In Japan, Dogen Zenji is such a figure. His teaching and practice of the Soto Zen way is uniquely Japanese, and very profound. Suzuki Roshi studied Dogen's teaching very deeply, and based his own understanding on that of his great predecessor. With all of this new material of Suzuki Roshi now becoming available, it occurred to me that perhaps as times goes on we will see Zen in the West as sourcing, at least to a great extent, from the way of Suzuki Roshi.

Suzuki Roshi's way of Zen is the same as and also different from other styles of Chinese and Japanese Zen, and also the same as and different from Dogen Zen. I think it will be an interesting discussion as time goes on to characterize Suzuki Roshi's Zen, and maybe scholars will write about this, as they have written over the years about the characteristics of Dogen Zen. So, although it is exactly contrary to the spirit of Zen --and especially to the spirit of Suzuki Roshi's way-- to characterize anything, I thought I would begin the conversation and try to think of what are the basic points of Suzuki Roshi's way. I am a great one for making lists of characteristics of this or that, and sometimes such lists are temporarily useful, though in the end certainly are not. They are finally only things we make up; but then again, we also make up our lives and then take them quite seriously, to our detriment. So, with all of these caveats, and in the spirit of conversation, which is an endless give-and-take, I thought I would talk a little bit about the eight characteristics of Suzuki Roshi's way. Of course there are eight characteristics; there are not seven or nine. They are:

1. No expectations
2. Faithful daily practice is enlightenment
3. No sticking to any teaching; there is nothing special to do or understand, every moment is always new (this Suzuki Roshi expressed in the phrase "beginner's mind")
4. Zazen is the most important thing in our practice and true Zazen is our whole life
5. Kindness and toughness are not two different things
6. A close and loving relationship with a teacher
7. Whole heartedness in all activity
8. Pay close attention to the details of form, for true freedom is found there (Hinayana practice with Mahayana mind)

No expectations

I think most people come to Buddhist practice with great expectations. We don't go to Christianity or Judaism or Islam with these kind of expectations, and I think in Asia most modern people do not go to Buddhism with the kinds of expectation we have.

What do we expect? I suppose we expect some enlightenment or some peace of mind or some sense of happiness or relief or profundity for our lives. Maybe we expect some kind of sensational experiences or some serenity of deep wisdom. Maybe we don't even know what we expect, only that we do expect something. Maybe we are excited by the expectation that something will happen and we don't know what it is. I think we have these expectations because Buddhism, and especially Buddhist meditation, is completely new to us. We see it as a possibility for our lives. This is probably true, but then again every moment is full of possibility, only we have become jaded to the possibilities. Since Buddhism is new to us we haven't yet becomes jaded, although some of the old timers around here are approaching that! This is our practice, to try not to become jaded even though we are very familiar with the teaching and might not have too much idealism left.

In a way, our expectations are good, our freshness is good, and I think Suzuki-Roshi appreciated it very much, He said we have beginner's mind: in other words, we have great expectations but we don't really have any preconceptions, at least not any preconceptions founded on experience. Since we don't know what we are doing when we do Buddhist practice, we are free to expect the impossible. All our preconceptions are fantastic and imaginary. This is a fresh mind for practice. [Since being a child], Suzuki Roshi wanted to come to the West to practice with people who had that kind of fresh expectant mind.

Naturally then, he taught us non-expectation, non-hope. And this was and is a good teaching for us --exactly because we have so many expectations. If we can use the energy and enthusiasm of our expectations for practice, and transmute it into non-expectation, then we will be able to practice quite well. The strong point about expectation is that it produces energy and enthusiasm, but the weak point is that it leads to grasping and attachment and distraction, which are the opposite of Buddha's teaching. If we expect something we must be completely mistaken about the nature of experience and the nature of self and the nature of time. We think we need something and that later we might get it. Or we think we have a problem and later we might not have it. We think that Buddha lived a long time ago and that we live now. But actually none of these things are true, they are only persuasive projections of our mind. What is actually true is that this moment arises now independent of anything, and everything is included in this moment. Buddha and self are here, and problem and no problem are here. If we persist in having the expectation that things will change and that we can somehow make them change, we won't really understand things or change. When we can give ourselves completely to this moment of our lives --and then to this moment and this moment-- without any expectation, then we can have some happiness. We do not need to get mad at ourselves for having expectations, because it is good that we have expectations. But we have to use expectation to go beyond expectation. Maybe we can say that having no expectations means that we always have expectation but that what we are expecting is nothing. One of my favorite sayings of Suzuki Roshi is something that he shocked people with in a lecture once. He said, "The problems that you have now you will always have." He also said, at another time, "I have found it necessary to believe in absolutely nothing."

Faithful daily practice is enlightenment.

As you all probably realize, the Zen school in China was founded on the experience of sudden personal insight into Buddha's mind. There had been many schools of Buddhism in China with many practices and many teachings. Religion does have a way of becoming very refined and complex, and then it may be quite beautiful and satisfying in a way, but it also may remove itself from the simple and profound truths that it was built on. So in China the first Zen ancestors emphasized cutting through complexity to an actual experience of enlightenment that was transformative. This emphasis is both good and bad. It is good because it cuts through scholasticism and gets us to the heart of the matter, our life experience, rather than what it says in the book. But it is bad because it tends to privilege a particular kind of experience, to make us expect and long for such an experience, and become arrogant and therefore confused if and when we do have that kind of experience. We tend to feel that the purpose of practice is to produce a particular kind of experience, and that once we have that experience practice is irrelevant. But for Dogen, and for Suzuki Roshi, the practice and the experience of enlightenment are one and the same. When we do the practice we are expressing our enlightenment, and when we find true enlightenment, we naturally practice.

Suzuki Roshi came to San Francisco in 1959 to be the priest for the local Japanese-American community at Sokoji Temple. He did not take San Francisco by storm. There were no posters, no news articles, no high profile retreats. Instead he did zazen by himself in the mornings, and if someone came and asked him about Zen. he just said, "I sit in the morning please come join me."

His practice was the practice of a simple priest, full of faithfulness and sincerity. He often spoke of how stupid he was, of how his understanding wasn't so good. He said that when he was a small boy at his teacher's temple, all the other students ran away because the teacher was so tough. He said he was the only one who didn't run away, not because he was so good or so strong but because he was the only one who didn't realize that he could run away. He just went on with the practice every day, no matter what happened, for his whole life. And in his teaching he emphasized that kind of steadiness and faithfulness. Not to any ideal or philosophy or belief, but just to the simple life of daily practice. He emphasized routine and repetition. He taught that just doing the practice over and over again, without expectation of any result, but being as present as possible with it, something subtle would happen. Unlike other teachers of his time and now, he did not travel all over giving sesshin and talks. He just stayed around the temple taking care of things and of his practice.

He was in a way a very ambitious priest; if he were not, he never would have come to America. But his ambition was not to do great things but just to have great hope and a great faithfulness and to bring that to his practice every day, confident that what needed to happen would unfold naturally, without forcing. He once said that practice is like walking for a long time in a slight mist. You might walk and walk and never feel that you are getting wet, but when you arrive at where you are going you will notice that your robe is soaked. He also said, "if we walk in the mist together and you get impatient with me and want to go ahead, that is all right. Please go ahead."

The longer I practice the more it seems to me that our enlightenment, our insight, our freedom, is in our faithfulness, our confidence, in our Buddha nature, the real nature of our body and mind beyond the appearance we take on in this life. We are not looking for an experience or a knowledge, but only the growing faith that life is life and death is death, and that we are always in connection with this. Because of this, naturally we want to do practice, to bow to Buddha, to make offering, to chant, to sit, to be kind to others and ourselves, and to everything, without making a big deal of it. Our enlightenment is not a state or an accomplishment, it is a moment by moment experience of faithfulness. I think it is probably true that other teachings and teachers may be much better than ours, more beautiful or wise or colorful or profound. But this really doesn't matter. We are not trying to be beautiful or wise or colorful or profound, we are only trying to practice our whole life through, day by day, with faithfulness. That is all the enlightenment we need, and in the simple daily activity of practice we find enlightenment everywhere.

At the end of last month we had a wonderful sesshin, a silent sesshin. No dharma talks, no chanting, almost no interviews, no talking at all of any kind. We just sat and ate our meals and cleaned up and rested and at night we went to sleep. Instead of watching over the practice of others, the teachers also just sat and faced the wall, taking care of their own practice. It was very beautiful, and we found we didn't need any special teaching or inspiration. Just to be alive was inspiration enough. One afternoon of that sesshin I was walking to my room and I felt sunlight on my shoulder. It was so warm and bright, almost tender, almost delicious. I almost started to cry it was so beautiful, and I understood then for the first time a Jewish prayer that I used to practice as a child. The prayer says something like, "Blessed are you. o god. who creates a whole universe of time that has given me this one precious moment." Something like that. So this is our enlightenment, and I do not think it is just about Zen or about Buddhism. It is about life, real life, life as it is.

Not sticking to any teaching

I think sometimes if you read Suzuki Roshi's words and think about what he us saying, you might think that he is rather wishy-washy. He often will not take a definite position about things, or if he does, he will soon say that the opposite is true also. He often used the phrase, "the other side," and I can remember my own teacher, Sojun Roshi, in my early days of practice using that phrase all the time also. "The other side is..." he would say. It meant, well this is one way to look at things, one kind of truth, And then there is also the other side, the other way to look at it. Both are true and both are therefore also false. Sometimes people refer to this as the non-dual point of view, but that term has always struck me as excessively philosophical --and dualistic. Non-dual is very dualistic, because it implies that non-dual is good and dualistic is bad. But dualistic is also part of non-dualistic. The real non-dualistic is both non-dualistic and dualistic. These kinds of thoughts are what happen if you use terms like dualistic and non-dualistic, and this is why I do not like to use them.

Suzuki Roshi understood the idea of non-dualistic not as a philosophical concept but as a way of being. He understood it as freedom, as not being caught by anything, not being limited by views, even Buddhist views or Zen views. Practice is beyond all views, it includes all views and honors all views but it doesn't stick to any views. So he was always interested in pointing out to people the nature of their sticky views, and encouraging them to unstick themselves from them.

There is one famous story about Suzuki Roshi driving up to the city from Tassajara with a student who was an ardent vegetarian. In those days, as I suppose still now, people had some quite definite ideas about was was right and wrong to eat, or good for you or not good for you. When Suzuki Roshi and the student stopped at a restaurant for lunch the student was quite surprised and challenged by the fact that Suzuki Roshi ordered a big hamburger. Probably rare. The student ordered a salad or something like that. But the student was even more surprised when the food came and Suzuki Roshi took the salad for himself and pushed the hamburger plate, without a word, in front of the student. I do not think that this meant that Suzuki Roshi disapproved of vegetarianism. It was not any particular view that he was against or for, rather how do you hold the views that you hold. This was the question for him.

To practice the Way is to be present in each moment, which is beyond time. Suzuki Roshi spoke of this over and over again. When you hold onto views, any views, you create a fixed world, a world of linear time, a world of suffering and opposition. Not sticking to views is not wishy-washy if you're not sticking to views truly comes from the heart of your practice. When your practice is faithful, you stand firmly in the middle of your own life, which is not separate from all of life. Standing in that place, truth is clear, it is not confusing. But how to express truth may change according to circumstances. When your practice is faithful, you will not get mixed up between the truth and its expression --you will know the difference and so you will stand firm with truth but very flexible with its expression. You will know what is important and what is trivial, what is truly helpful and what is not helpful. And even if you do not know what is helpful, you will have the patience and confidence to go forward in the best way that you can, without getting confused or caught or pushed off center. This kind of practice is a subtle thing. It has more to do with a feeling for life than it does with any rules or doctrines. Over and over Suzuki talked about how there are no rules, no definite procedures, and that even when there are definite procedures one should understand that these are completely contingent. One of my favorite phrases of Suzuki Roshi came in response to the question, what is the essence of Zen. He said "Not necessarily so."

In Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick's biography of Suzuki Roshi, he tells the story of Suzuki Roshi and Miss Ransom. Nona Ransom was a very headstrong English woman for whom Suzuki Roshi was house boy, when he was a student at Komazawa University. She was a delightful woman, very sure of her opinions and her English world view, and very critical of the Japanese way of looking at things. As a good rationalist and a good liberal Christian, she considered Buddhism to be an odd and picturesque form of Asian superstition. Miss Ransom had a buddha statue in her home which she kept as a work of art. She'd put her shoes next to it in the tokonoma, and this careless disrespect bothered the young Shunryn Suzuki. But he knew that it wasn't going to do any good to argue with Miss Ransom about it, so he began one day to make offerings to that buddha. he said nothing, only every day at a certain time he'd offer tea and a flower to the buddha, making formal bows. miss ransom was of course quite bothered by this but Suzuki Roshi just would do it, without any explanation, every day. eventually she blew up at him, demanding an explanation, and he explained to her why Buddhist practitioners make offerings to the Buddha. after that she changed her attitude and began to be interested in Buddhism, and eventually she practiced it.

This incident became a turning point in Suzuki Roshi's life. He realized that it was not enough to explain something but rather it was necessary to do something, and to do it with constancy and faith --then perhaps if there was an explanation, it might be worthwhile. So whether there are eight or eighteen characteristics of Suzuki Roshi's way, the important thing is not what we think about but what we do. Zen has always emphasized direct pointing. This is because our mind is very easily interested in something and then confused by that which it is interested in. Even correct ideas and excellent teachings can be counterproductive if there is not an actual lived experience behind them, a lived experience that ripens and deepens over time. In Zen practice certainly we are interested in the mind, and in thoughts and ideas, but we try not to be led by the mind. We try to have mind and body and heart aligned and working together. We try not to be too concerned with complicated ideas or with complicated teachings. Actually all teachings are quite clear when our life is whole. When we do zazen, we try to have breath and posture and attitude and thought all aligned into one whole.

Zazen is the most important thing in our practice

True zazen is our whole life. Suzuki-Roshi definitely emphasized zazen practice, physically taking our posture on the cushion, and all of his disciples who teach Dharma emphasize this point powerfully. In this he followed Dogen's lead. Dogen wrote in Zammai o Zammai:

"Sitting in the meditation posture vivifies a forthright body, a forthright mind, a forthright body mind, a forthright buddha ancestor, a forthright practice enlightenment, a forthright top of the head, and a forthright life stream. When you sit in the meditation posture the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow of a human being are made immediately vivid in the King of Samadhis. The World-Honored One always sat in this meditation posture, and all his disciples correctly transmitted it. The World-Honored One taught humans and devas how to sit in this meditation posture. It is the mind seal correctly transmitted by the Seven Original Buddhas."

Shakyamuni Buddha sat in this meditation posture under the bodhi tree for fifty small eons, sixty great eons, or innumerable unclassifiable eons. Perhaps he sat for three weeks, or perhaps only for some hours. In any case the Buddha's sitting is the turning of the wondrous Wheel of Dharma; in it is contained his lifetime guidance. Nothing is lacking. The yellow scrolls, and red rolls of the sutras are all here. In this moment of sitting Buddha sees Buddha; all beings attain buddhahood.

So our practice is very simple, embarrassingly simple. It is just to sit in this way, up straight, and breathing, and paying attention to our life. There is nothing more to it than that, and yet everything is contained in this one practice. In a way, this is a rather odd idea. We think of truth or religion or spirituality as something broad and mysterious, and certainly non physical, yet Suzuki Roshi taught us that truth is just to sit down in this way, in this particular way.

So I find this teaching actually quite troublesome, because it can sound as if people who can't twist their legs up in pretzels and sit still can't practice Zen. And this is a strange idea, don't you think, to have a religion that a sick person or an old person or a disabled person cannot practice? Something about this does not sound right. Once Suzuki Roshi scolded someone who had a superior attitude because he woke up early every morning to do zazen while he wife remained in bed. He told him, "If you think that you are getting up to do zazen and your wife is sleeping and not doing zazen, then you do not really understand our zazen." True zazen is not limited to a particular posture or state of mind. True zazen is ultimate reality itself, and ultimate reality is the actual essence of every moment of our lives. To sit faithfully is to realize this point. So when we sit we know that all beings are sitting with us. And when we get up from the cushion we know that sitting continues. So Suzuki Roshi's simple idea of zazen, like Dogen's idea of zazen, is very hard for us to grasp --maybe it is ungraspable. We have to practice particularly, specifically, with this actual body, with our legs and arms and lungs and heart, our own body, not just our mind, with all its detail. and yet in doing that we have to appreciate that this specific body, in its detail, is not just our body. it is the whole universe. So we actually do have to sit zazen. I do not think there is much Zen practice if we do not do zazen. But we have to understand also that zazen is also not actually zazen. It is just life. Our practice is life.

Kindness and toughness are not two different things

Suzuki Roshi did some hard training in his youth. his original teacher Gyokujun So-on was very tough. Today, in our world, we might almost call him an abusive person, and wonder whether there is something wrong with him. maybe we would send him to a therapist, or maybe Suzuki Roshi would have to go to a therapist to work through his experiences. But Suzuki Roshi loved him very much and felt that his guidance and his toughness was very important.

I remember being impressed years ago when someone told me that Suzuki Roshi really wanted Zen Center to purchase a farm, and this is why we got Green Gulch. And the reason he wanted us to have a farm was so that when times became tough, and food was hard to get, we would be able to have food for ourselves, and to supply food for others. To me, an America born after WW II, it seemed almost unimaginable that there could ever be a time when you could not get food. But Suzuki Roshi knew about hard times, he knew about not being able to get enough food. In the early days of Zen in China there were also hard times. Zen was suppressed, monks were kicked out of their temples, and there were many uprisings and revolts and famines. So Suzuki Roshi and the Zen school itself were formed in the midst of difficulties. Suzuki Roshi knew that the Zen life, that human life, requires a great strength. But in this strength is the truest kindness, for strength brings constancy and real kindness is not an emotion or a feeling but the ability to see clearly and follow through, and this requires a great strength. There is no effective kindness without strength. Suzuki Roshi was much loved for his kindness, and he did not consider himself to be a strict teacher. But he understood the virtue of strictness, and there was a strong backbone in the middle of his kindness. He was not sweet or sentimental.

A close and loving relationship with a teacher

Almost everyone who came into contact with Suzuki-Roshi was deeply affected by the experience, and I find it inspiring to listen to the warmth and immediacy with which his students speak of him even now, twenty-eight years after his death. He himself had several important teachers in his lifetime, and he trusted them all completely. His root teacher So-on, was, as I said, more or less a mean person, and very often denied Suzuki Roshi those things that Suzuki Roshi very much wanted, but Suzuki Roshi always accepted his instructions, and saw that surrender to his teacher was the best way to train. He also knew that So-on, despite his gruff manner, loved him very much. In Suzuki Roshi's way there is emphasis on the teacher-student relation as a mysterious and yet a warm necessity. Without this relationship, the alchemy of transformation cannot occur. The teaching takes place not in words, but in some much more subtle imprinting, an almost physical communication that occurs in the midst of living daily life together.

A Zen teacher is not a guru. He or she is an ordinary person to be grappled with. He or she will have various rough edges, because of karma, and at the same time, the relationship to a teacher is not the same as an ordinary human relationship, it is our opportunity to develop deep faith and trust in the dharma. We trust our teacher, not as a person but as the dharma itself. When the teacher throws his or her life into Buddha's house and when we make that effort too, then we meet each other in Buddha's house, not in our own house. So we might have all sorts of personal problems with our teacher or not, but if the teacher is true and if our effort is good these personal problems don't matter too much. We ourselves find trust in our buddha nature through the relationship to a teacher. When we trust him or her unconditionally, not as a person, but as Buddha, in other words, as our own truest self, then we have completed our work, and we will always be grateful to our teacher, even if, as with Suzuki Roshi and So-on, there doesn't seem to be much overt affection.

Whole heartedness in all activity

Suzuki-Roshi often spoke of the nature of time. that it is not an unfolding of things in a linear or accumulative way, but rather the depth and completion that occurs in each moment. To practice in time therefore means that we must give ourselves completely in every activity, no matter what it is. He often used the word "sincerity" to mean just doing one activity completely and energetically --no matter how we feel about it.

Zazen is the center of our practice, but zazen is just being our self, and being our self is being present throughout the whole universe on each moment. This is why everything that happens, every activity we engage in, is decisive and complete. When we approach the world with our ordinary ego-inspired mind, we have many evaluations about our activity: this activity is good, that one is bad, this activity is interesting that one is not interesting, this activity is more important than that one. Such evaluations absorb our attention and we cannot be really present very often with our activity. And even when we are present, there is attachment, and attachment is like putting on a pair of blinders --we only see half the world. But when we try to pay attention to our preferences without validating them, we see that all our activity is a field of profundity, that any gesture or effort can bring up the whole of reality.

This is the reason why we stress simple work in our practice. We understand work as zazen itself, as, we could say, a form of worship or devotion, or a form of offering. This is especially clear when we clean, and Suzuki Roshi in his early training and throughout his life did cleaning practice. There is the famous story of him arriving early to the Cambridge Buddhist Association where he was to give a talk. Everyone was busily cleaning up the place for the arrival of the great zen master Suzuki Roshi, but he arrived several hours early by mistake and everyone was quite flustered. He said, "Oh, the great zen master is coming, we must prepare." And he stripped down to his kimono and began cleaning with everyone. For me, cleaning practice is very important. Cleaning was something I never really thought about, but I learned from my practice that when I sweep the floor I am actually sweeping my own mind, and the whole universe. If I can put one corner of my room in order, then whole worlds come to order.

Nowadays in our practice we honor people's preferences and we understand that sometimes it is difficult for someone to do something and maybe they should do something else. These days at Zen Center people actually refuse sometimes to do jobs that they are asked to do, and we honor that refusal and the reasons for it. I think it is good that we do things in that way, and can be compassionate with each other in that way. But it would be too bad if we forget that in the end we need to be liberated from preference and be whole hearted in whatever we do. This is our ideal, this is our goal, this was how Suzuki Roshi trained, and this was his instruction for us.

Careful attention to form as freedom.

Suzuki Roshi was at pains to teach his free-thinking individualistically inclined American students that being free to choose and express for yourself is not what it seems to be. In fact, true freedom is not found in the exercise of one's preferences, but in finding spaciousness and full self expression within whatever form appears. He once said that when everyone wore the clothes they liked, and appeared with their own body language, it was difficult for him to see people's real individuality. but when everyone put on black robes and sat on their cushions in exactly the same way, then it became clear the ways in which each one was unique. This seems like a paradoxical Zen statement, but actually it is literally true. By letting go of preference, which is after all only habit and conditioning, our real, our deeper, individuality, our own particular spin on buddha nature, can come through. It was with this spirit that Suzuki Roshi stressed the importance of form, of bowing correctly, of walking and standing with the proper decorum, of following all the temple forms, from striking the bell to eating oryoki meals. He taught that we did this not because it was the absolute way of doing things, the best way, but because formal practice is a way for us to find a big openness inside, a truer freedom than our conditioning would ever produce.

Many people find Zen practice too regimented, too stiff and formal. But it only looks that way from the outside. Actually, when the body is guided by form there can be a soaring spirit inside, a real freedom, and a real beauty. Formal practice is not the best way to live or the Zen way to live, it is just an arbitrary way to do things. But I do not know of anything more effective in helping us to let go of our deeply conditioned nature, which is the force that binds us to our suffering. Formal practice works with the body at its most unconscious level, and if we do not touch ourselves there, I think it will be very hard for us to find our buddha nature and bring it to the forefront in our lives.

Suzuki Roshi stressed this at a time in America when wild personal expression was dominant. He had to have a lot of patience with hippies and other people who would come to the zendo with their own ideas of how to dress and walk and sit. But he was very patient and always amused by what people did. He was not a narrow minded person, and I think he appreciated the colorfulness of people's approaches to formal practice, yet he knew that there was much suffering in the middle of people's so-called freedom, and he knew that the only way to show them that was to help them find themselves with the forms of practice. So, steadily, and with a kindly voice, he encouraged people over and over.


From Everyday Zen Foundation