Monday, October 8, 2012

Teaching Suzuki Roshi How to Swim

The Han at Tassajara
Here’s a story I lifted from David Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber, the biography of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. The time was sometime in the late 1960s. Although Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind would not be published for a few years, Suzuki Roshi was well-known for his accomplishments--The San Francisco Zen Center, the Tassajara Monastery and his legions of students and admirers. He was coast-to-coast famous among the Cool. The King of Enlightenment. The Johnny Appleseed of Zen. But the day this story happened Suzuki Roshi was at Tassajara, and the place was zapped alive with students earnestly sitting Zazen, studying themselves and being good Zensters. They knew the Roshi was on the premises. He brought the place energy and th\at energy radiated through their practice. No telephones, no electricity. What else can you do but be alive? The mountain flowers were blooming. And the Sierra is always so beautiful.

I’ll tell the story my own way.

● ● ●

So one day Suzuki Roshi is walking down a path with a number of his senior students. They are chatting about this and that, telling stories, laughing, but always alert in the presence of their teacher. The path follows Tassajara Creek that wanders through the rocks and forest, and around a bend is a favorite swimming hole. Hot dog! The students strip down and jump in. The mountain water is cold and it swirls around them. Suzuki, though, never learned how to swim. He climbs up on a big rock overlooking the pool and sits down to watch the merriment. The students forget all about him. After a while, one of the students looks up. The Roshi isn’t there. Where’s the Roshi, he shouts. Then they see Suzuki—such a small man—struggling in the water, gasping for air. He’s drowning. They pull him to the bank, dry him off and warm him up with their clothes. What happened, they ask him? He had gotten up to move so he could see better and he had toppled head-first into the pool. They half-carry him back to his cottage. 

That evening Suzuki Roshi gives a dharma talk. He goes to his high seat in the practice hall. The students are all quiet. The Master is in the Hall. He tells this same story, how he tumbled head-first into the water. He is afraid of water, he said, and he doesn’t know how to swim. He was sure he was going to drown, so he fought desperately to stay alive. His lungs filled up with water. He couldn’t breathe. And, of course, as he realized later, he had done everything wrong. He should have relaxed and he would have floated to the surface. If it hadn’t been for his students, he would surely have died. 

Then he said that he was disappointed in his practice. He had decided to start from the beginning again and to sit zazen counting his breaths. He asked that his students do the same. And they all went back to their zazen, counting their breaths. 

● ● ●

I love this story. I’ve told it several times during my own dharma talks. It’s a very important story for me. For me the story speaks of Suzuki’s honesty, transparency and wisdom. It’s a good reminder for personal practice. I am always thinking that maybe I've achieved this or that in my practice. Patting myself on my back. I think I understand. I think I've “evolved” (whatever that means) and then something happens (something big, like almost drowning, or something small, like stubbing my toe or getting a speeding ticket in a school zone like I did today). Well, shit on all those voices in my head (the “me,” the false self, the “Mara,” whatever)—they’ve fooled me again.

Like the other night at exactly 2:47am. I had got up to pee. (Old men always seem to be pissing at about that time. Listen in the night. You can hear us. Legions of us old men off to pee in the darkness.) Done but not empty, I lay back down. But I couldn't get to sleep. I was thrashing away. Poor Lee. I woke her up with my ups and downs and roll-overs. You gotta understand. I'm an old-time political junkie, I've walked in marches and protests, I've always voted democrat, and just that evening Romney had hammered Obama in the debate. I hadn't even seen the debate. This was all second-hand news. I tried to ignore it. I was cool. I sat zazen, I paid attention to my breath, I celebrated my daughter-in-law's birthday. My worry was a mirage, puffs of smoke.

But sleep does its own thing to our minds. I had a dream. Anxiety set in between the bathroom and my bed.  Now Romney was going to become President. The Republicans were going to take over. Poets would be hung by the neck until dead!

All silly daydreams. Pure insanity. Craving at its most comical. What could I do anyway? Send money? Make telephone calls? It was the middle of the night. None of it mattered. None of it was real. But logic didn’t help. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed and turned. I got up again to pee. But I didn’t need to pee. I needed to sleep. But I got up one more time.

Then I remembered Suzuki flailing at the water, gasping for breath. I remembered his dharma talk afterwards. Another gift from the dead roshi. Oh, yeah.

I went and sat zazen 10 minutes in the darkness. I lay back down next to Lee and started counting my breaths. I got to 10 and started again. I don’t think I got to 10 again. I slept until 6am, floating on the pool of sleep. The alarm bonged. Suzuki admonished, “Get up when the bell rings.” This morning I had to listen to the old dead man. He had given me another gift in the middle of the night. I got up, made the coffee for Lee and me, fed the cats and the birds and sat zazen. The morning was beautiful. Bird song. A train whistled and echoed through the mountain. Still a bit of moonlight from a waning moon.

Lucky me. I have my practice. I have these stories. I have Zazen.

And I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

—Bobby Kankin Byrd

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