Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971)

Remembering today one of the great Buddhist teachers, Suzuki Roshi,  Shunryu Suzuki, influential Soto Zen priest and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (the first Soto Zen training monastery in the United States and one of the very first Buddhist training monasteries to be established outside of Asia)

Suzuki was also the author of the hugely popular Zen Mind, Beginners Mind  (1970). a key book from a key figure in the spreading in the West of the dharma.

Here’s Allen – from an interview, circa.1996, with David Chadwick: 

DC: Can you remember the first time you met Suzuki – impressions?

AG: The first time I met him was when I went over there [the San Francisco Zen Center, and, prior to that, Soko-ji, the Japanese community Zen temple, Suzuki’s first port of call on his arrival, in 1959, in the U.S] to sit. I just sat. Maybe I heard something about what his attitude toward drugs was. And he said, as long as you can keep your seat on the zafu  he didn’t care about anything else.

DC: Later he started saying, please don’t take them before you come here. He was very tolerant and open-minded. He didn’t like to get into negative things about it….

AG: I guess you’ve talked to Joanne Kyger and Diane DiPrima who studied with him early. I never studied with him sequentially. I did come and sit very early when he was still at the old place [Soko-ji]. It was a mixed company of the Japanese folk and the Americans coming in and sitting too. I had had a little with Gary (Snyder) at Daitoku-ji and I had sat elsewhere. That [Soko-ji] was the first place I sat in America. I don’t remember the year. Then in the late sixties — mid sixties — I had memorized his translation of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Slowly I had worked out a melodic intonation for it. ….. In ’68 I was really intrigued by Suzuki Roshi’s translation. Sort of like telegraphese, compared to others I’d read. It was so succinct. So I went to him and sang it to him and asked his permission to sing it in public. He said, sure…. So I got his permission to do it in public. I didn’t know if I was messing around with something I didn’t understand and appreciate. Just thought I’d better tell him what I was doing and wouldn’t do any brain damage to anybody. He was very nice about it…

Our earlier meeting, Gary Snyder could tell you about, or Michael McClure. It was at the Be-In in San Francisco in ’67. Suzuki showed up on the platform. He was sitting in meditation most of the afternoon. He’s on my left, then me, and Michael, and Gary, and Maretta Greer, my girlfriend at the time who had spent a lot of time in India. Then  (Tim) Leary came up, and others. I always remember Gary saying it was really remarkable that Suzuki came. Because unless he thought it was something serious, or interesting, or signal, he wouldn’t have shown up to such a public strange meeting like that…

He had this great relationship with Trungpa Rinpoche. I remember Trungpa talking about him a great deal. And finding him a congenial senior in a way. He admired him a great deal. Suzuki Roshi left a set of oryoki bowls with Trungpa. At the time Trungpa was interested in international tantra. He spoke to Gary (Snyder) about that and mentioned it to me. He was close to Suzuki because Suzuki’s Soto practice was not far from Trungpa’s samatha vipassana, which he had given to his students. To a level practically the same as Zen sitting. The Trungpa method was just the outbreath. Not the breath to the belly. For various technical reasons. One that you don’t get too hung up on the breath by doing it both ways. That you take a vacation from the breath every half-breath. So you don’t get attached to the breath. Also just to open up space for nothing to happen at all. Including no observation of any focal point. More toward the Vajrayana..tradition. Or maybe shikantaza. Apparently in shikantaza you’re not focused on anything. They had that in common. And they drank in common, apparently. Got drunk together on a few occasions. They loved each other. I heard that when Suzuki died, Trungpa came to visit. He wept and wept. I wasn’t there so you have to find somebody that was there to describe that situation.

DC: [December 4, 1971]. I was there, I’ve gotten terribly dependant on hearing other people’s descriptions. I don’t know what happened to me. He came and laid a white scarf. There was a coffin because all the Japanese who had known him were used to having coffins and the body in state. The Japanese Americans had gotten into that. So we did that. Trungpa went up and laid the white shawl over him. He just howled. Fully expressed his love for Suzuki Roshi. Personally I think he liked Suzuki a lot more than he liked Zen. He tried to read some Dogen. He wasn’t that impressed. He and Suzuki Roshi had a very close relationship. It was one of the only examples of Suzuki Roshi being positive about having another teacher come and speak at Zen Center. It blew people’s minds. Because Suzuki was so Apollonian. And Trungpa was more Dionysian…

DC: Can you say anything more about what your impression was of Suzuki?

AG: Quiet, gentle determination. That was the impression I had. Unspoken friendliness. Inclusiveness. I had a little trepidation of going there and sitting in somebody else’s territory, but he made me welcome. No fuss at all.

The interview may be read in its entirely – here

Here’s Chadwick’s essay – Shunryu Suzuki and the Beats

Here’s Chadwick’s interviews with Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, and Gary Snyder (the latter, interviewed by Matt Jeschke)

For more Shunryu Suzuki resources – see here  ( – as well as here)

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