Shunryu Suzuki and my Father-in-law

Shunryu Suzuki

One interesting thing came up this weekend when we were at Green Gulch Farm. My father-in-law, Leon, came along with us and we had a chance to chat a bit here and there. I had been told in previous years, in a vague way, that he had done some sitting meditation previously but there hadn’t been many details given. He doesn’t make much small talk so I’m not surprised.

While we were there at Green Gulch, Leon went to a meditation session without the rest of us. He mentioned to me over dinner later that, based on something that was said, he thought that the place had something to do with a teacher, Suzuki. I told him that, yes, it was part of the San Francisco Zen Center and that had been founded by Shunryu Suzuki. Leon then told me that he’d studied for about six months with a zen teacher named “Suzuki” in 1962. He said that the group had met near Japantown in San Francisco in a building that was a converted synagogue (which probably stayed in the memory of my father-in-law since he’s Jewish). Later this same day, Leon mentioned that he’d seen a photo of the same teacher in the library upstairs, which is where I had noticed a picture of Suzuki Roshi earlier as well.

On getting back to town, I checked wikipedia and other information that I had about Suzuki’s history. It turns out that he came over in 1959 from Japan. He was brought to America to be a priest at Soko-ji, the only Soto Zen temple in San Francisco, which served the Japanese community. Soko-ji was, unsurprisingly now, in a converted Jewish synagogue. There is a picture of the temple in Crooked Cucumber, which is a biography of Suzuki. It was on Bush street and looked like a synagogue, not a Japanese Buddhist temple, so no work was done to convert the exterior. At this location in 1960, Suzuki Roshi did the first sesshin (a three day one) ever held in North America and began to take on more and more non-Japanese students. (I have elsewhere been told that this caused a bit of trouble as members of the Japanese community were not entirely pleased with this turn of events at the time.) In 1961, Richard Baker, who was Suzuki Roshi’s later successor and the founder of Green Gulch Farm, showed up and began to study with Suzuki Roshi. (As an aside, a friend of Baker’s, who was hanging around with him in Fields Book Store having a discussion, sent Baker to see Suzuki. Fields is currently owned by a friendly acquaintance of mine who is probably reading this…) Philip Kapleau, who became very well known later on, showed up in January, 1962, for a visit which he wrote about in a Zen newsletter, Wind Bell. It was only in the later 1960s that the new center (now called the “City Center”) was purchased and Suzuki Roshi left Soko-ji.

So, it turns out that my father-in-law was sitting at Soko-ji and studying with Suzuki Roshi at the same time as Richard Baker and a number of the other early movers and shakers in American Zen. The funny thing is that Leon did not know that Suzuki Roshi was famous or had gone on to seriously kickstart Zen in the non-Japanese population here in the United States. Leon was flipping through Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a collection of Suzuki’s talks on Zen, and he’d never seen it before and had no idea it was one of the most influential books in Zen Buddhism in the West.

I asked Leon what had happened and why he had quit going there. He said that he’d sat often for about six months, riding out with a friend who had a car. He’d attended the Saturday meals, he said, which happened with the sitting, but he wound up moving out of San Francisco (to Berkeley, where he lives now, I assume). Since he had no car and this was before BART, he had simply stopped going. He didn’t really have a lot to say about it and I didn’t want to pry overly but what a strange connection. To have been with Suzuki Roshi at that time, at the very beginning of such an influential change, and then to not even know about all of the things that had happened in the 46 years since then. It was an odd thing to come out during this weekend, that’s for sure.