On Zen Center History, Personal History, and Nona Ransom

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Interview of Suzuki Roshi by Peter Schneider

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[From almost the very first, for a while very hard to understand because mike is on the tape recorder. But it has been checked pretty closely and I think it's 99.9% right. -- DC- circa 1996]
[I spent a week going over these tapes and making sure of the of the transcription. A lot of it is almost impossible to hear. I was very pleased when I found an earlier transcription by Katherine Thanas that was almost identical to mine. Date in question in my mind. Might be interview associated with lecture on Miss Ransom of 69-11-09. In parts of this interview Suzuki and Schneider are looking at the Curriculum Vitae Suzuki and Kobun Chino had made (69-09-16-W). Often they did not identify what on the CV they were discussing. Suggest to read edited versions where I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this and other sections and interviews and organizing the information more logically. -- DC, 3-09]

Entered onto disk by DC -1996 or so. Revised by Bill Redican 9/01. Revised by DC 2/15


(listening to chanting tape)

PS: We'll start with the farmers.

SR: There were many farmers who went to Manchuria to start some farming village or something like that. And the world situation was very bad. For three months - when I left Japan it was just three months before the war ended.

PS: So it was very bad then.

SR: So no one accepted our headquarters plan or appointment. So I thought maybe I may go and I left Japan May 14 for Manchuria. And it took a pretty long time because our ship couldn't leave Hakata port because of the B-29 bombers. And I stayed there one week waiting for the ship.

PS: And there was always bombing going on?

SR: Yeah. But anyway I could reach to Korea. Through Korea and I went to Manchuria visiting Japanese farmers in various places. And when I reached to (in Japanese we say Harbin, I don't know). The big city, capital city in Manchuria. They announced there were no ships bound for Japan, but I hardly could come back to Japan. That is not for service but just as a priest I went to Manchuria.

PS: So how did you get back to Japan?

SR: Huh? Oh, I thought there must be some transportation or some you know way to get back to Japan. Even though we have no ship someone must be going to Japan, and if I am waiting at Pusan I thought I am quite sure I would have a chance to go back to Japan. And they didn't sell me ticket, but I said even though-- maybe so, but I will pay anyway for the ticket. Whether it is you know available or not doesn't matter, so give me a ticket. And I came back by navy, not battleship, cruiser. They were collecting some wounded soldiers and the ship arrived at not that port I expected, but at some small port near that big port. And in the train, before I arrive at Sanroshi [?] which is small station, but that's-- when we arrive at that small station, the conductor announced that if someone who is going to Japan from Sanroshi should get off. So I got off at that station.

PS: This is in Manchuria?

SR: Korea. And as soon as I arrive at Sanroshin, pretty big port, the port when Chinese wanted to attack Japan, Chinese army started that port. Because of that it is pretty famous port. And as soon as I arrive at that port, big ship came, guarded by two cruisers, I could - by that by that - not cruiser, cruiser was . . .

PS: Big ship. Destroyer is small ship maybe.

SR: Yeah. (uncertain). The ship we took was not so big, but it was protected by that big cruiser. So without making any zigzag voyage, we come back straight Kyushu Island and arrive at some unknown small port. And after I took express train. We were exposed several times by attack from air. And - it was July 15, and August 15 everything was over.

PS: So you were in Manchuria and you took a boat to Korea?

SR: Yes.

PS: A cruiser to Korea?

SR: No. Just a steamboat.

PS: They told you in Manchuria there were no boats leaving from Korea.

SR: When I come back already those boats stopped.

PS: Looking at your history, it looks pretty ordinary. Is it ordinary sort of Zen teacher's history?

SR: Maybe so. Not so ordinary. I say priests in my age it will be. If I tell it to you in detail it is very kind of noble.

PS: Oh, ho. That's what we never hear.

SR: But what I did actually is just not so different. But nowadays those who are brought up in temple family succeed his father's position, that's all, you know. But my age was thirteen I left my father's temple.

PS: Why did you leave your father's temple?

SR: My father took care of me too well, so I felt here I felt something family feeling always. (tapping chest?)

PS: Where is here?

SR: Emotional feeling. Too much emotion. Too much love. And my teacher at grammar school told me this kind of thing. He always said to me, to us, “You should be –
(interrupted by visitors talking in Japanese)

SR: - various problems -

PS: You caused various problems?

SR: Yes. For them and for me, too.

PS: How so?

SR: How? Before I take my master's temple, I have not much, I didn't cause any trouble. I was just trying to study, but after I took over my master's temple my life started by some confusion or - if I didn't take over his temple, you know, I have - I should be in Zoun-in. And I must have very calm, and I could study more, but because I felt some - resistance you know the priest near Rinsoin, you know, I determined to take over his place. And two years confusion and fight.

PS: Would you restate that last section? Because of a priest near Rinsoin -

SR: The priest near Rinsoin wanted - they have someone in their mind to be a head priest of Rinsoin, and that man, under the name of someone, he wanted to act what they want to act, which is not so good for the people or for the Soto school.

PS: Some sort of greed Roshi?

SR: Greed and fame and uh some - They themselves divided in many, you know, ways, and each one of them has their own ambition, but - if they - one of them or if they do not get Rinsoin you know - they were you know - they acted same way until they get Rinsoin. But after they get Rinsoin, Rinsoin will get into confusion. I know that pretty well. So I determined to -

PS: To stop them huh?

SR: Yeah, to stop them. So I have very difficult time for two years with extraordinary things happen.

PS: Like what, Roshi?

SR: Like what? Eighty of my Rinsoin members left from Rinsoin and went to some other temple. With me that is alright, but they accused my responsibility and they said, “If Rinsoin leave us such a bad example, we will get rid of confusion. So that is your responsibility. Why you let them to go some other temple? So if you say, 'I am sorry,' or if you ask for help we will get it, but you don't say 'I am sorry' or you need help so we cannot help you.

PS: They said to you--

SR: Once a month we had a meeting and in each moment they accused my responsibility. But I said, “wait two years.” you know. In two years if the eighty of my members don't come back I will resign Rinsoin. So wait - without criticizing me for two years. And they agreed with that. And in two years almost all of them came back.

PS: What happened to the priest who was trying to take Rinsoin?

SR: He has his own temple, so he lost his ambition, that's all. And he himself did not want to be a head priest of Rinsoin so much, but some ambitious people around him -

PS: Lay people?

SR: No, priests, mostly priests and some influential lay people.

(Mitsu comes in and she and Suzuki talk sort of sharply with each other-- and Peter asks something. Suzuki has some appointment or obligation or talk or something.)

PS: Do you think it would be interesting Roshi for the students to know - is it best to give your biography very simple?

SR: Maybe so.

PS: Just facts? It doesn't make much sense.

SR: It doesn't make much sense, I'm afraid, you know, until - If they don't understand what is - what kind of thing is going on (phone call - horrible background noise starts) - I don't know what to do with some things.

PS: Yeah I'm trying to think what I do with it. How much I should put into the history. It's interesting to your students, but maybe -

SR: No. Maybe for someone who is not a student. I don't know. To announce to students[?]

PS: I know. So maybe I should just -

SR: Because of this kind of experience I decided to come to America. No interesting thing in it. Just talking to you. (I'm not interested in this kind of thing. This is record. Just confusion.[?who put this in?] So my history, my life in Japan was spent to fight, to struggle.

PS: Did you always win the struggles?

SR: Yeah. But it is not so. It is better to surrender. If I know American life earlier, I was sayonara a long time ago. Like this, you know. (some gesture).

PS: It seems like many people are exiled to America. That some priests come to America as exiles - are punished by being sent to America. They could have punished you a long time ago.

SR: Yes. Fortunately I knew how to handle them lot of times. Makes (more difficulties[?]circles[?].

PS: Too smart again.

SR: I won always, that was -

PS: Did you ever feel vain about it or are - ?

SR: No, no. I don't feel vain - just like, because of I am very impatient and angry I became very patient in order to win fights and so on. Hence I always started to fight because of my impatience. And once I start to fight I should be very patient or else I'll lose that fight - so it is not - (dangerous(?) - endless?

PS: In Western astrology your birth [?]sign means you should be very stubborn. But your students don't understand because you don't seem stubborn to them. - typical for your birth sign.

SR: Yes. I am very impatient, that is true.

PS: But Americans are so much more impatient than you. You seem very patient. Your students are - Japanese couldn't live with them.

SR: Hmm. I may be patient with American people even before I came to America. Recently I feel in that way very much. It may have something to do with past lives.

PS: And all your students think that in their past lives they were Japanese. Except me. I don't think so. - Chinese or Japanese.

SR: Maybe so. I don't know. This is big job. I'm, not interested in this kind of thing. I have no record, accurate record of my life.

PS: Is there any meaning at all in having something about you in the Wind Bell?

SR: This sort of thing?

PS: Some sort of history, some sort of biography, not too elaborate, but some sort. Not a book though. Maybe about four or five pages? Is that a mistake?

SR: Four or five!

PS: How much do you think? One? Half a page? A paragraph? One sentence? Suzuki biography: “I do not think much of this sort of thing and have not kept any records.” End biography. You have the right to decide. This is your direct concern. How do you feel about this?

SR: I don't find answer to this kind of question my teacher (teaching) (in this life?[I don't hear that]

PS: Neither do I.

SR: If you see my record in this way, everything will be lost.

PS: Let me ask you a question Roshi. When you were forced to be political in your - when your (year?) 30's and 40's, did you have many serious students? Was it possible?

SR: What do you mean?

PS: Well, when you had to have fights, when you had to have arguments--

SR: Yes. I have young students who have same feelings. Like they did not participate in some mistaken thinking. But my youngest students, mostly in high school were very kind, helped a lot (encouraged me), and they, many of them, came to me because I have the same feelings. Most of them were not priests but students. And at that time Japan was involved in some kind of wrong idea about strength and power, some strange form, so that is another thing to tell to you--

(end of side five) (radical machine noise till this point)

(end of tape)

(side six)

PS: In the thirties and the forties, Japan was involved in some strange - what did you say, power or?

SR: . . . Some strange pride or confidence, confidence in power, some strange idea of nationalism.

PS: And you did not feel good about this?

SR: No. What they say is very strange, you know. By television, by lecture, in various ways they tried to lead people in strange directions. And they didn't understand - they didn't try to understand actual realistic situations or power of Japan. Although I didn't know anything about America or other countries, I thought how powerful are they or how weak they all are, I didn't know, but I had some confidence in human nature. Human nature is the same wherever we go. So they called American people like beasts or devils. I always said beasts or devils is not only Japanese [does he mean American?] people. We need big beasts or demons - those who have that kind of idea about some other type may be our enemy or demon or devil. I always said to them. And during the war they were afraid of very much American people who may land sooner or later in Japan island. But I was not so afraid of them. They are also human beings. Nothing will happen if we surrender. Those who don't want to surrender may die, and if they survive nothing will happen to them. But they burned their personal record or various records in city hall. They started to burn it and they started to destroy the memorial tower, memorial tombstone of the unknown soldiers. But why do you do that? It is quite natural to have memorial stone for the people who sacrificed their lives for their own country. Nothing wrong with it. If I explain - if we explain in that way why we have those tombstones, they may understand what our point of view is.

PS: Oh I see. They thought that the Americans would destroy all the graves huh?.

SR: Grave, and if we have records in city hall.

PS: Americans would destroy that too.

SR: Americans search for each person to kill them or something. Very curious idea.

PS: Were you ever criticized, Roshi, for your sort of pacifistic views?

SR: I - Yeah, I was, but I didn't act officially. At my temple, in my lectures or when students come, I talked about this kind of thing always, and even during the time when the war was almost finished. There still be some power or some courage to sacrifice their life to Japan. But I thought, that sacrifice is not for Japan, but for some - know wrong i- someone who has wrong idea, who has some leadership which be by big misunderstanding. So I - uh when they decided to destroy the big memorial stone for the unknown soldiers, I told them to carry it to my temple. I said to them I will protect it as long as I'm alive and as long as I'm here I will protect it, and I will take all the responsibility for that, I am sure. American people who will make any damage to this memorial stone.

PS: I'm a little worried, Roshi, if they were - not worried, I'm a little confused. If they were going to, who was trying, they thought the Americans would do what to the stone?

SR: Destroy the stone.

PS: So the Japanese were going to destroy it first?

SR: Yeah. Destroy the first. And you know, they -

PS: Doesn't make sense, Roshi.

SR: Doesn't make sense, yeah - but they were so afraid of what they had been doing, afraid to be responsible for it.

PS: But on unknown soldiers you can't tell.

SR: But if we have still the tombstone, worshipping them, then those who have been worshipping them will be punished or something. So no one will want to take responsibility for that. But - and if they destroy it, American people will feel very good for that purpose.

PS: What did you think of the atomic bomb, Roshi? The first time.

SR: The first time?

PS: Yeah, or you know, when uh - right before surrender.

SR: That was something you know which I haven't no idea of it you know, and how powerful it was I didn't know. And even when I heard of it I couldn't trust it, that it was so powerful and that kind of thing will happen. But most Japanese people, including me-- most Japanese people-- I-- I haven't-- have no idea that thing would happen. But most Japanese people afraid of - too much fear about their life, you know, when they lost war. So in comparison to that atomic bomb uh was not so reasonable cause so much fear. I think most of them must have thought, anyway we will not live (be so?) so long - so long, maybe a good way to finish our life. They have no idea of righteousness, or humanity, or those problems is not al- -- not already a top question. And I-- I thought-- if -- it may be very silly very foolish for us if we don't surrender right now. If we surrender they will stop doing such things. So best way may be to surrender. If they don't then that is uh all over, everything.

PS: What happened when the Yaizu fishermen were killed by the atomic fallout? [?]

SR: Most of them, I think, accused the American people, you know, because of the viewpoint of righteousness, but that righteousness is very superficial righteousness you know. They-- I think this kind of feeling is the feeling we have about Okinawa problem you know. They talk about Okinawa in various way, but no actual feeling is in it. It is just game, you know, political.

PS: Someone once said that you marched in a protest against something -

SR: Umhum.

PS: - at some point. What was that, Roshi?

SR: (long sigh)

PS: When was that or what was that all about?

SR: It was the time when Peace Corps[?] - uh not Peace Corps -

PS: Atomic submarine?

SR: Yeah. That was--

PS: No, that's not it either probably. What was it Roshi? I don't want to force you.

SR: Hmm?

PS: Was it that? An atomic submarine or - ?

SR: Atomic submarine. At that time peace work, you know, and when atomic submarine wanted to come to San Francisco and they had big demonstration. That is you know - uh - peace uh desire to express desire strong desire to against war. (phone) That is why I joined.

PS: Someone mentioned that you once marched in a demonstration in Japan ever. Is that true?

SR: Yeah, I did.

PS: What was that for?

SR: That was after the war finished you know. And before the war I was much more strong feeling against war, so before the government started some organization to organize civilians against war - oh no, against America you know, I started, I organized young men in my area to have right understanding of situation of Japan at that time and to have more, to invite good people who have actually participating some important activity in government in various area. I invited them and - we invited them to ask question until we understand them, you know. So later government organized some - with some purpose with the purpose to organize people to fight completely with America, but my purpose was to prevent - not war you know, but to prevent people who may have one-sided view in the situation of Japan, or in understanding of ourselves and human nature. We, I started to, I wanted to, I - not big - I haven't not big purpose for my group, but I didn't want my friends to be involved in that kind nationalism which may destroy our Japan completely, which is more dangerous than war. We lost completely, you know, because of lack of our understanding.

PS: And wasn't this considered a very unique thing to do?

SR: Yeah. At that time.

PS: Did you get in trouble? Did you get in trouble for it?

SR: Yeah, I got into various troubles.

PS: What happened?

SR: What happened? At length it helped, you know, but at first I was very much criticized. But what I say - I was saying right and enough people agreed with me so they decided to utilize me to help their you know - to help their idea of leading people. And they appointed me to be a head of the new organization, which was started by government, but I resigned. I accepted once, you know, and next day I resigned from it.

PS: Oh but oh this was when there was some conflict, I mean this is before uh -

SR: Before the war.

PS: Before the militarists took over.

SR: Yeah.

PS: Before the so - before the army took over.

SR: Yeah.

PS: What happened when the army took over?

SR: When the army took over my voice was not loud enough, you know.

PS: But the army didn't come after your voice?

SR: No. It was not so bad. But uh that was why I think I didn't got uh - I didn't uh - I wasn't drafted you know.

PS: Oh I see.

SR: They marked me - on my name maybe there was some special mark. He's dangerous, you know, and no reason to kill him or you know - I was not so big, but if he joined army or something what he will say will affect them - the courage you know of the army.

PS: Were there many priests like you who were pacifists?

SR: Hmm?

PS: Were there many priests like you who were pacifists?

SR: They didn't take any stand. And that time was after the Second World War over--

Yvonne Rand: You want to come back on the second? The second of October?

SR: Yeah.

Yvonne: Is that early enough?

SR: Yeah.

PS: You know something Roshi, your experiences like this would be very interesting to the students.

SR: Oh.

PS: Don't you think so?

SR: I think so.

PS: Maybe you could lecture on this tonight.

SR: [laughs] Oh, I think -

PS: I think it's good if Zen is not for war in America -

SR: Umhm, umhm.

PS: And you never speak about it. Maybe you have a reason for that.

SR: No. [Yeah, no? Sounds like both at different speeds but I think it's “no.”]

PS: But if you don't have a strong reason, I think it's moral, it's ethically proper to speak against war.

SR: Uh-huh.

PS: And (laugh) I shouldn't do this - but anyway you know the students would like to know your feelings about it.

SR: I care more about the way of thinking.

PS: I know, than the actual killing.

SR: Actual killing and - not actual killing, but the fundamental way of thinking which will cause big war. That is why I didn't like nationalists in Japan. Their view if very one-sided and very unrealistic. And they accuse some other's fault without knowing what they are doing, they actually creating problem.

PS: Maybe this is why the government did not persecute you, because you were approaching the problem from religious point of view.

SR: Yeah. And yeah--

PS: Not as a political.

SR: No.

PS: Not political.

SR: Not political.

PS: No.

SR: And uh after-- after the world war I was not purged. I have no record of fighting with military war. (phone) I have many printed matters expressing my feelings.

PS: Many what matters?

SR: Many things about the - what should be the policy, what kind of danger we have right now, you know, in the nation, something like that. But most of it is - may be difficult to understand for people. It is not - I didn't say anything about war or anything, but if we neglect to understand the situation of Japan more clearly and if we understand things just by paper you know, we will lose the real picture of Japan. So what I put the emphasis on is to study more about what everyone is doing in his country, in army or in other uh - as uh - in political world. I was very much interested in that kind of thing when I was young.

PS: I see. This is before the war or after the war now?

SR: Before the war.

PS: You said after the war they did not purge you?

SR: Because of this kind of antiwar--

PS: Oh, were most priests purged?

SR: Yes. Most priests who joined the army.

PS: Lost their prop- -- temple?

SR: No.

PS: Put in jail or--

SR: They couldn't join some educational program or some official things, on education or city hall. But I wasn't purged. They tried to purge me, but I showed them--

PS: Who was “they,” the American soldiers in Yaizu?

SR: No, the government, the new government.

PS: Oh, the new government, yeah I see.

SR: So, they didn't - they had no reason to purge me.

PS: Did Rinsoin lose any land? Most temples lost land. Rinsoin lost land too-- much of it, most of it?

SR: Most of it.

PS: How much, Roshi?

SR: Mmm -

PS: You don't know in American terms I guess.

SR: Yeah. Most of it. Except, you know, mountain. If it is some paddy field or some place where you can cultivate - we offer-- no-- we should sell it to government.

PS: Did you think that was a good idea?

SR: Maybe. I thought, if we don't do that, I did think to force that to force that kind of thing to temple is not good idea, but to have not much land, you know, for anybody at once (?)

PS: I had heard, Roshi, I don't know where, somewhere, that before the war many of the Zen temples were very rich and some of the priests were very corrupt and many priests kept concubines. Is that true? Particularly Rinzai temples. This is not for history. I'm just kind a curious.

SR: Concubines, no. Not so many temples were so rich, you know, even before the war. Most of the temples were very poor. But after the war (small laugh) they lost everything and they started to work in city hall or as a teacher in various ways and they became more and more rich. (Peter laughs)-- in America but-- I'm afraid Japanese people may have too much confidence in their activity again, you know.

PS: Right now.

SR: Right now, more and more - without knowing you know why they become so rich or you know -

PS: This is like second Meiji Period.

SR: Second Meiji, yeah.

PS: (laughs) (tape starts up again) How many people, about 200 people in your group? But the Japanese did do nothing violent in that sort of thing. That's very calm and quiet, huh?

SR: Yeah, calm and quiet.

PS: Like discussion group, philosophical discussion group [from here, not on my tape] rather than revolutionaries.

SR: Yes. Very calm and quiet.

PS: It seems, Roshi, that the state of Japan in the thirties and forties limited you.