Interview with Kazuaki Tanahashi by David Chadwick
By Upaya Zen Center on December 2, 2013 in Upaya's Blog
Sensei Kazuaki Tanahashi will be teaching at Upaya Zen Center multiple times during 2014. Soon, he will be co-leading the Winter Zen Circle with Roshi Joan Halifax, Natalie Goldberg and Brad Warner from 2/7 – 2/23/2014. Click here to register and for specific program information. Programs may also be attended separately.
I first met Kaz Tanahashi in the early seventies. He was embarking on a project to translate Dogen’s Shobogenzo. I had studied some the old Buddhist Japanese and Chinese and had made study books of two of Dogen’s writings, the Genjokoan and the Fukanzazengi, and Kaz asked me if I’d like to work with him on his project. Unfortunately, I was tired of such pursuits and said no, a foolish decision. Others – Mel Weitsman, Taigen Dan Leighton, Dan Welch among them – worked with Kaz on the translations and these efforts have brought us some great books.
Visit Kaz’s website, http://www.brushmind.net/, to get a taste of his art and scholarship. He’s also been involved with peacework, having, among other things, founded Plutonium Free Future with Mayumi Oda. There’s lots he’s done that you won’t find here or on his website. Maybe I can get another interview with him to go over some of that – like his slideshow on painted cars. This interview begins with much of what Kaz wrote in Meeting with an ordinary monk elsewhere on this site – but there’s lots more. – DC
DC: Here we are with Kaz Tanahashi. We’re in Berkeley at his home at 9:00 on Tuesday, October 18, 1994. I’m working on the biography of Shunryu-san. Do you have anything to say?
KT: I guess it was 1964, February or March, that was the first time I was in the United States. Komobata (?), the (Soto?) bishop in Hawaii drove and showed me around. We enjoyed each other. I met Robert Aitken. Those two people suggested that in San Francisco Reverend Suzuki would be the best person to meet. I had been translating Shobogenzo into modern Japanese at that time. I was 29. I stayed at the YMCA in downtown San Francisco and went to see Reverend Suzuki on Bush Street. He was very nice. Humble, very quiet. He listened to me. We enjoyed conversation for about one hour. He couldn’t figure out why I was there. Finally he said, are you a salesman for Buddhist altar things. I said no. He said well, I asked Kumobata Roshi to send me one.a7.kaz
DC: Had you told him you were working on Shobogenzo?
KT: No. We continued, and I said, what do you teach? I joined in morning zazen a few times. I would come and sit. He would invite me to have breakfast. One time I said, what do you teach? What kind of text? He said, the Blue Cliff Record. I said, why not Dogen? He said Dogen is too difficult for American students. So I said, if you are teaching foreign students, you should present your best. And Dogen is the best. It doesn’t matter if your students don’t understand. Around that time I had told him I had started translating Shobogenzo and had great difficulty translating with Nakamura-Roshi. He said, I’m scheduled to give a talk on Sunday morning. Would you like to talk to my students about Dogen? So I said, Yeah, sure, I’ll be happy to.
My English was not so bad, but I had never given public presentations so I was nervous. And I said I don’t have the Shobogenzo text. He said, don’t worry. I have the text. He brought me three volumes of Shobogenzo. Brand new. It looked like it had never been read.
At that time a lot of beatnik people would come and sit. One time I asked one of them, are you a beatnik? And he said, there is no such thing. So I knew he was one. And we became friends. I forgot his name.
I decided to talk about time. Uji. I typed up all my talk — I think I still have a copy of it. So on Sunday I gave my presentation. Reverend Suzuki said, well, it was quite good. I hope for next time you’ll be giving a talk, instead of reading your talk, you should really speak from your heart. It’s o.k. to make a mistake. That was one lesson I had — very important. So I decided not to read my talk anymore. I was a kid. I had just met him. Then he invited me to give a so-called dharma talk. That was perhaps the first time people heard about Dogen.
Later, the following year – 1965 – after traveling in different parts of Canada and the US, I went back to San Francisco. He invited me to do some calligraphy demonstrations. I joined zazen and he would invite me for dinner.
Then I went back to Hawaii. Robert Aitken and I translated the Genjo Koan together. Something like the realization of the truth. Later Peter Schneider showed me the Genjo Koan printed with some commentary of Suzuki Roshi. He was using our translation.
DC: I made that. It took me three months at Tassajara — staying up all night before the day off.
KT: No no. This is different. This doesn’t have any Japanese.
DC: I did it with the kanji and Suzuki Roshi’s commentary.
KT: That came later. This is just one sheet of paper, both sides, all translation. Just a few lines of commentary. I had great respect for him. He was so humble. He was also profound. I was very impressed with his students’ attitude toward him. Even all these beatniks had great respect for him. Some kind of very strong practice was going on.
Trudy was an assistant. When she looked at Suzuki Roshi to get some instruction for work or something, she was so sincere. I had a very good feeling about that. Usually people would come to sit in the morning, then just leave, without talking. Then he would just bow. Then we’d talk at breakfast. Okusan had just arrived from Japan. She was talking about her mistakes riding on a bus and getting around. I have an impression that she had just arrived.
DC: She came in 1961. But I believe at about that time she’d been over there visiting.
KT: That copy of the Shobogenzo books — that sort of led me to suspect that he didn’t know so much about Dogen. Later when I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind I could see it’s Shobogenzo in a very plain, simple language. Based on solid understanding. Richard Baker told me later that Kishizawa decided to train Suzuki at the last part of his life. Kishizawa was the foremost scholar of Shobogenzo of his time. I think Suzuki Roshi’s practice was not to reveal knowledge. Although he said, “I was very lucky because I had a teacher in Kishizawa Roshi.” He also said, “You should have a good teacher.” Unfortunately I never followed that life, so I formed my own conclusions.
DC: Suzuki Roshi said he trained with Kishizawa Roshi. I think what he did was he saw him at least once a month. He went there for lectures. Kishizawa had a series of lectures that lasted 15 years on the Shobogenzo and other texts such as the Sandokai. Suzuki went to those once a month. But he also had other contact with him about revitalizing Buddhism and giving lay ordinations. But the amount of time he spent with him — can you call that training with someone? It seems like Kishizawa was important and influential, but he never lived with him. There was a lot of distance. Okusan [Mitsu Suzuki] attended Kishizawa lectures also.
KT: Okusan talked about him. Maybe you should talk to a Kishizawa student and ask why he moved to Suzuki Roshi’s sub-temple and lived there at the last part of his life. I suspect — like Baker Roshi — he felt he wanted to teach Suzuki. He wanted to give the most profound part of the teaching to Shunryu Suzuki. But I can’t tell. This is just speculation.
My suspicion was wrong, that he doesn’t read Dogen. I think he saw me doing something meaningful. He gave me a chance. Now I feel that he can talk about Dogen, he could have done that, but he gave me the chance to talk about Dogen my own way. “Present your understanding to my students.” Somehow that became a seed for my own development of more studies and my relationship with Zen Center and many people. He planted the seed in me by simply asking me to talk. I’m extremely gratefully for giving me such an opportunity. Now Zen Center wouldn’t ask any little guy from Japan to give a dharma talk. Not even a Buddhist scholar.
DC: Zen Center board decided not to support Masao Abe while I was in Japan. Peter Schneider and I sent messages urging them to do so. They had practical reasons, and nobody was studying with him. To me Zen Center should have supported him.
KT: I went back to Japan. We had some kind of correspondence. He wrote to me. Okusan wrote to me. One student wrote to me about Tassajara. I was part of a Zen lecture group in Japan. Zen Cultural Institute. We were giving lectures most of the time. One time I organized a zazen group with Nakamura Roshi. It fell apart right away because people were not interested in doing zazen. But people were interested in philosophical aspects, artistic aspects of Zen. So the lectures would go on.
I did some fundraising for Tassajara. Karen — she’s from Hawaii — Pomeroy — they [she and her husband Gil] sent me something about Tassajara. I met her in Hawaii in ’65. They both came to my lecture and then started sitting with Aitken. I went to their marriage ceremony with Aitken. Right after I came in 1977 Mel took me to Genjo-ji and Bill Kwong remarried them.
DC: I didn’t know they did that.
KT: I went back to Hawaii. Robert Aitken invited me to have a show. I was doing calligraphy and painting. Abstract and regular. Big canvas. Basically I came here with some paintings and started showing in different parts of America.
DC: Did you have a show in Ghirardelli Square? [I’m thinking of another Japanese artist here – Kano from Otsu near Kyoto]
KT: No, I didn’t. I didn’t have a show in San Francisco. I first had a show in Georgetown, then Denver, then Toronto, then New York at Asia House.. But the paintings never arrived (in New York). Custom held my paintings. Now Asia House doesn’t show living artists. The show at Hawaii went really well. Good review. Then I was invited to teach there.
Then I completed my excerpt of Shobogenzo in one volume with my teacher. The first time when I was in Japan and studying Shobogenzo it was so hard, translating it into modern Japanese was horrible. I had to study Sanskrit and Chinese. But after coming back and visiting the U.S., translating those texts into English somehow made everything so easy. There was some kind of breakthrough. Breaking the plane of Japanese apart. So I said, okay, let me do this work. So I completed this one-volume book of Shobogenzo. After several years the team completed a 4 volume version of Shobogenzo in a modern translation, which was the first translation. Then I wanted to translate Shobogenzo into English with real practitioners of Zen. I don’t practice in a positional way, I practice my own way. I really wanted not to have a Japanese scholar’s work, but more like American practitioner’s translation. I immediately thought of San Francisco Zen Center. I went to Baker Roshi and eventually I met Michael Phillips and Reb Anderson — in 1975. Then I came to Zen Center in 1977. We connected through Suzuki Roshi.
Mel and I have been translating Bokusan’s commentary. [influential late 19thcentury Soto Zen master/scholar]. Bokusan’s commentary is so great. Kishizawa’s understanding must have come from him. The Soto scholarship from Dogen is centered around, in my understanding, on Bokusan’s understanding. And then Kishizawa refined it, put it in context.
DC: You’ve said something about Kishizawa supporting militarism.
KT: My suspicion is maybe in the context of military colonial Japan. That was Japan: military, colonial, imperial at Kishizawa’s time. I have to study his commentary. More to justify my suspicions. I read some of his comments about like, when you hold a gun do so and so. That’s my suspicion.
DC: You’re saying that since it was the time of militarism, since that was the subject at hand, that he adapted his teaching in that context. There was a tank battalion stationed — I think at Fort Ord. I knew a guy from it. They had Zen Tanking. The tank disappears, no tank.
KT: I’m pretty sure that part of Kishizawa’s contribution — that’s a sad thing. Instead of criticizing the spirit of the time, they usually adapt to it. [Kishizawa later in life expressed regret about this. - DC 2/01/05]
DC: It’s an old, conservative institution. The Christian churches in America in general have gone along with American imperialism. We’re a bigger country, so we can be imperial without such an enormous effort.
KT: But there was opposition, Quaker maybe, quite different from how the Buddhist role was in imperial colonial Japan.
DC: I want you to tell me as much as you can about that. That’s important background.
KT: When I think about Aikido, my teacher, it was like a hybrid of his spiritual teaching of love, and also the teaching of conquest. They went together before and during wartime. You love everyone, then you kill the enemy. There was not so much contradiction in the public mind. When Japan got defeated, it became clear that maybe conquest doesn’t make sense – then love, the spiritual part, was emphasized, or maybe almost forced to be emphasized, and Japan become more peaceful and peace promoting. I think all the martial arts and religious disciplines somehow went in support of the imperial expansion.
DC: You’re saying that Buddhism in general, all the sects, went along with, cooperated with, harmonized with, the imperialist, militarist state.
KT: The great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere — that’s right. That was the spirit of that time. Suzuki Roshi went to Manchuria as a kind of minister attached to the troops.
DC: I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s why he went. Tell me what you heard about his going to China.
KT: I read somewhere that he went as a chaplain. I think I read it in Japanese. As a part of troops — troops chaplain. Maybe I read it in some kind of biography, history. Kaikyoshi(?) — overseas mission in Soto — the history of Soto overseas mission. I think there is a copy in Zen Center. The task of this kind of monk was to do funeral service for those killed in action. Maybe memorial service, prayers for victory, that kind of thing. For Buddhists there were not so many choices. Maybe you would work in the factory, be a soldier, be a monk chaplain.
[Suzuki went privately, not as part of the army, more of a VIP because of his connections, but he did have the blessing of the Soto Shu and always wore robes and surely did do some ceremonies for lay people and probably soldiers while he was there. Mitsu says he did, but she didn’t even know him then. Mainly though he was looking for a place to start and new temple. – DC 2/1/05]
DC: Have you heard of any opposition to the war on his part?
KT: No. I don’t know where I got it, but he had some kind of flyer in his temple talking about peace or something. Not at all being against war or anything. He would have been arrested or maybe killed.
DC: I asked him about that. I said, how could you oppose the war and not be arrested? He said it was because he didn’t oppose the government and said that peace would make the government stronger. I’ve been looking into this.
KT: I don’t know how the description in Zen Mind Beginners Mind appeared. [That Suzuki led a pacifist movement in Japan during the war – after we’d had some discussion, this sentence was eliminated by Richard Baker in the 1999 edition of ZMBM. - DC 2/01/05]
DC: I think [banned term] Baker put it there. I don’t think Suzuki read it or noticed it. I wonder about it. I’ve asked a lot of people in Japan about it. I had to get into arguments with Hoitsu, who would just say, “What are you talking about? Peace? Talk about peace? This was a senjo.” Senjo, he called it. Battlefield. Japan was a battlefield. There was no room for any opposition of any kind. You couldn’t even say the word peace.
I’d say I heard Suzuki talk about doing some things like you mentioned – passing out flyers. Other people mention it. I have to get to the bottom of it. “That’s stupid! Don’t tell lies about my father and glorify him,” Hoitsu would say. And he didn’t want me to ask anyone about it. I knew there was something at the bottom of what Suzuki said. I didn’t care what it was as much as wanting to just know what it was.
I said to Hoitsu, “Do you want me to say in my book his son says I can’t ask anybody about it because it never happened. Fine with me if he didn’t do anything, but I want to hear it. I can’t just have you telling me not to talk to people about it.” We had a lot of talks like this. Finally he agreed – after a lot of late night sake and verbal wrestling – but only after he was convinced I wasn’t going to try to glorify his father. [I took out a lot I said here cause it’s a little confusing without putting in stuff I learned later and think I should do a piece on this but not here. – DC – 2/1/05]See Shunryu Suzuki on war
KT: Did you hear John Steiner’s story? I heard about it in the early ’80s. A student was asking, What can I do? There’s a war and we’re going to do zazen. Suzuki Roshi took his stick and went to him and hit him without saying anything. That’s a profound story. I don’t know the situation.
DC: I’ve talked to John and heard about it from others. I need to get this and the whole war story down. That story is an important part of the Suzuki Roshi myth in America. [See this story and more on this topic as found in Chapter 16 of Crooked Cucumber.]
KT: You are sharing the formation of myth. Projection of students. I said to Okusan, Suzuki Roshi is becoming a kami [god or spirit]. We all have this tendency. We want some kind of ideal person. We need something. Living people are dangerous — Very quickly we do that like Paul did on Jesus. It’s more convenient to have an ideal picture. It supports the church.
DC: A friend of mine recently quoted an Indian he had just met who had 10 rules for living. Number 10 was, don’t seek a leader outside of yourself. I like that. I’m more interested in promoting the reader than the subject of the book. Ordinariness and being your own boss is my prejudice. I’m not seeking for the Kami-san. Maybe I’m prejudiced the other way. What inspires me is the ordinary, or something in the ordinary. The peace thing — I think it would be interesting for me to trace what we’ve done to it. Isn’t that part of who Suzuki Roshi is? Like saying he led a pacifist movement in Japan. I have heard that he participated in marches.
KT: American projection of peace movement work.
DC: Exactly – I think the whole exaggerated view of what he did about militarism is due to projecting our situation on him.
[He had been in at least one march in Japan but that was after the war and against US nuclear testing in the Pacific. – DC 2/01/05]
KT: Have you talked to people in the Los Altos group?
DC: I’ve talked to Les some. Les is writing a book. They also have anecdotes they collected [See Chronicles of Haiku Zendo - part II]. I want to get to those. The Shumucho [Soto headquarters in Japan] Do you think I should find somebody there that might have some history? Or at Eiheiji?
KT: I don’t know. What is most lacking?
DC: I don’t know. How did he impress you in terms of being a Japanese, a Buddhist, a Soto Zen priest?
KT: The most important impression was he was humble. He would really listen. He tried to see the best in other people. I was very confused when I came back to Zen Center. I felt that was most Buddhist quality: humbleness. There was humbleness in certain people. American Zen seems quite different. On the one hand the most important part of Suzuki Roshi’s spirit is somehow not so present any more. But also, maybe I shouldn’t project Japanese qualities to that new, upcoming path that is developing. It’s not my job to say, hey, you’ve got to be humble. I was amused and open to be learning what Americans are doing and what qualities they are developing. I think it was a remarkable thing I observed during the time Suzuki Roshi was there. That was his central quality. When I arrived after Suzuki Roshi had died, it was not there.
DC: It wasn’t there at Rinso-in before he came either. It wasn’t there with So-on. The neighbors told me – the temple owned the land. They grew rice and they had to give rice to So-on. He always wanted more and he would yell at them. People were afraid of him.
KT: Did you learn about his first wife who was killed? Tragic thing. Mitsu said something about the crazy monk. Who told me? I don’t know. Maybe one of the students.
DC: I have that story from many people. When his oldest daughter told me the story, she told me that it was the first time she’d cried since her mother died.
KT: Because people don’t talk about it.
DC: The first time she’d cried about that event. To me it appears very clearly to be a turning point in Suzuki Roshi’s life. Did he mention anything about Japan to you?
DC: Do you know anything about Hodo Tobase, the priest who was running Sokoji before Suzuki got there?
KT: I think he had a problem with his danka [members] in Sokoji. Someone said he was greedy for donations. He wanted to stay there. He wanted to be in Japan for a short time, one year, or something, and he wanted Suzuki to be in his place. There were two schools of thought. One was really supporting Tobase, the other was people who tried to get rid of him. Suzuki came in on a temporary basis. Okusan told about going to see Tobase somewhere and he was like a lord, high up, big zabuton. He was a big guy. It might be interesting to think of the relationship. How Tobase wanted Suzuki to come, and how he got to stay there.
DC: Yamada in Shumucho is the one who asked Suzuki if he’d like to go. They were friends. Yamada came over and visited and gave lectures. I think I just found some old lectures maybe nobody has, from Mike Dixon, 1965 sesshin lectures, reel to reel tape. I’m doing a tape copying project too. I would imagine Tobase communicated with Shumucho. Did you hear he communicated directly with Suzuki?
KT: I don’t know. Okusan should know about it.
DC: She was very open when I was in Japan. She was very pleased — she didn’t know I could talk Japanese with her. I can’t remember that much, but we could talk. I couldn’t understand all that she was saying, but I could ask the questions. It opened her up a lot. She talked for hours. Do you think maybe Okusan’s role is romanticized, her position with Suzuki Roshi?
KT: Their relationship was not so great. He was so dedicated to Buddhism, so he deserted her.
DC: He left her to die in Japan.
KT: That’s one thing, but even here. One time – in Sokoji the bath is in the basement – she was somehow locked in there and she couldn’t get out. But Shunryu didn’t notice all night. She got so mad she just said, I’m going to get divorced and go back to Japan. That’s kind of symbolic of their relationship.
DC: I know that story but I don’t remember reading that in the transcription of your tapes with her.
KT: I interviewed her twice. That’s a very symbolic story about their relationship. It’s typical temple wife’s role. Cooking, etc. [See Tanahashi' interviews with Mitsu Suzuki - on her life and on her husband.]
DC: She never did it in Japan. She never lived with him in Japan. The first time they lived together was when she came to America. He married her in December and he left in March. He knew he was coming to America before he married her.
KT: He wanted someone to take care of the kids.
DC: She didn’t live at Rinso-in either. His mother-in-law took care of the kids. There was only Otohiro in school. Hoitsu was 27 years old. Hoitsu says his father shouldn’t have just left after the roof was fixed, but after Hoitsu’s shinsanshiki [the ceremony wherein he became abbot]. But still Hoitsu was in college. Shunryu couldn’t wait. That’s not deserting your children. The third daughter was at a mental institution. She was said to be a very sensitive person. After her mother’s death she got worse and worse and went into a mental institution and hanged herself. While Suzuki was in America. And he didn’t go back when she killed herself for any service. The youngest was Otohiro. He was in junior high school. So he did leave Otohiro. Otohiro’s 50. Basically all Suzuki Roshi was leaving was Otohiro with the grandmother to go to America. Mitsu lived at the kindergarten. Chitose, Hoitsu’s wife, says she was too abrasive, too difficult, to live at the temple. Too aggressive. Too independent. Why they got married I do not understand.
Bill Shurtleff told me that he’s heard many teisho in Japan and he said that the way Suzuki Roshi talked to people in teisho is totally different from anything he’s met. The other speakers had more of a style — maybe like Tatsugami. Theatrical, dramatic, stylistic. Even Harada who I was with in Okayama was more dramatic and formal. What do you think about that observation?
KT: I don’t know. I never heard Suzuki’s lectures.
DC: So you can’t really compare him. Hoitsu’s point was he was just another priest. There was nothing special about him at all. Hoitsu says when he went to America there was no other Japanese priest so he became a big deal. But he was not special in any way in Japan. What do you think?
KT: I went to Yamada’s temple in Los Angeles. He didn’t speak English at all. He taught calligraphy. And that was one way to communicate dharma to American students. So his capacity was quite limited. Suzuki Roshi had a linguistic skill so he could relate to people, maybe in a limited way, but in an inspiring way. That was his strength. There is a choice when you publish foreign teachers’ talks. One tries to make it fluent. It gives an impression that he spoke perfect English. The other is to keep some flavor of pigeon Japanese. Like the book of Deshimura’s lectures with no editing. I just hated it. They kept this man’s pidgin English so when you read it he seemed stupid.
DC: I know Daishimura disciples. I know the guy who put that out. He thought it was great to do it that way. I didn’t.
KT: It’s not so fair, because he spoke perfect Japanese. To present him as a not-so-intelligent seeming person is not really a good way.
DC: I know that from teaching English to Japanese. We’d always speak English. No Japanese. I’d meet them outside, or some special day, and they’d be speaking in Japanese, and I’d think my gosh, these are sophisticated, bright, graceful people. I didn’t realize that.
KT: So there’s this dynamic. It’s important to tell people that his English is at this level.
DC: Anything else?
KT: That’s all I can think of now.
DC: Thank you very much.
KT: Thank you.