Miss Ransom was teacher of conversation

Sunday, November 9, 1969


[Tape starts with background group chatter. Then the mike is set up, and more group chatter follows. Then Peter Schneider asks Suzuki a question.]

Peter Schneider: I would like to ask Roshi a question for the Wind Bell that I was going to tape just with him, but I think it would interest you. It will appear in the next Wind Bell.1 And the question is to have Roshi talk about Miss Ransom.

SR: No. [Laughter.] I must tell you she was my old, old girlfriend [loud laughter].

Peter Schneider: I'll have some water. [Loud laughter.]

SR: Almost, but not quite [laughter]. When I was young, even as a boy, I wasn't satisfied with Buddhist life because of many reasons. I wanted to be a good teacher when I was very young, and I wanted to notify people who did not respect priests so much. At that time, my ambition may have been directed toward the wrong direction.

But anyway, I made up my mind to leave my home and to study—to practice under a strict teacher. So I went to my master's temple. My master [Gyokujun So-on] was a disciple of my father.2 And my father, when he was young, was very strict with his disciples. And my master was one of my father's disciples who was raised up in a very, very strict way. My master was always talking about my father's strictness with him. That was the hardest situation for me to accept. My master almost blamed my father. “Your father [tapping repeatedly] raised me in this way.” [Laughs.] That was very hard to listen to. Anyway, this is not what I want to talk about.

So naturally, this kind of spirit I had all the way till maybe I became thirty or more. After my master's death, I had not much feeling. That kind of feeling later changed into the opposite way, and I missed my master very much.

When I was at college, I studied English pretty hard to go abroad [laughs]. I had no idea of America or Hawaii, but if I was going to some country, I thought I would have to speak English. And I studied English pretty hard when I was a student. When I was at Komazawa University, Miss Ransom was a teacher of conversation.

Once a week, Miss Ransom taught us conversation. And, after I finished her class I attended English course lectures. Meantime, Miss Ransom found me and asked me to help her in shopping, or when some Japanese came, or when she had her private students. Of course, I couldn't help her so well, but I tried pretty hard. And, at last she asked me to stay at her home with two more students who were helping her in shopping and conversation with Japanese people.

But, the other students, Kundo and—I forget one more student's name—Kundo was a student at Komazawa.3 And the other student was from Bundikadaima. Before that school was a normal high school, and that school changed their system and became a university. The other students were studying English—English course students. Both Kundo and that student left Miss Ransom's home. I was the only student who helped her. And meantime there were many interesting stories between Miss Ransom and me. Don't be so inquisitive [laughs, laughter].

No, no, no.

Student: Is it alcoholic? [S.R. may have picked up a cup of water.]

SR: Hmm?

Before she came to Japan, she was a tutor of the last emperor of China, Emperor Sento,4 Emperor of Manchuria. At that time, Japan became more and more ambitious, and was trying for some chance to fight with that northern part of China. Emperor Sento's capital was in—I don't know what is the name of the city right now. At that time it was Choshun.5 And when the Emperor was there, she was a tutor of the Emperor. And, she was a daughter of a very famous naval general [admiral].

She had a very strict character, and at the same time she complained always about Japanese people: at school what kinds of things happened, and in the car what kinds of things happened. She always complained about Japan. I was the only person who listened to her complain [laughter]. But I had also many complaints with her. For instance, she had a beautiful Buddha—sitting Buddha as big as this—which was given to her by the Emperor. It was all right for her to put it on a tokonoma, but she put her shoes beside the Buddha [laughs, laughter]. That was a tokonoma, you see. A tokonoma is a place where we put an antique, or scroll, or some valuable things: an object of worship, or something like that. But she used to put her shoes there as soon as she came back from school. That was very embarrassing to me. I didn't say anything, but I offered tea every morning in a small cup like this, putting it in front of the Buddha, and offered tea every morning [laughs]. She started to be amused about me, but she didn't ask anything. And I didn't say anything about it or about her shoes [laughs, laughter]. This kind of a silent cold war [laughs, laughter] lasted maybe for two–three weeks, and I was waiting for a chance to start a hot war [laughs, laughter], as my English was not so good.

Dan Welch: How about the matches, Roshi?

SR: Mm?

Dan Welch: The matches.

SR: So I had to study pretty hard, polishing the weapon, so to speak. And I studied some important words to speak about it [laughs, laughter]. When one of her friends visited her, they were talking about my funny things—about me. “He is very strange Buddhist, offering tea [laughs] for the wooden figure, sometimes offering incense.” They were talking about it. I could understand what they were talking about. And, her friend started to put matches in Buddha's mudra [loud laughter]. And, she sometimes left matches and sometimes cigarettes [laughter] in the incense holder.

Student: Oh, no.

SR: Still, a hot war didn't start. And at last, I don't know how the hot war started, but she asked me about the Buddha figure. She thought Buddhism was a kind of idol worship. So I explained it. It was very difficult, but I could manage to explain why we worshipped a wooden image or Buddha and what is the real Buddha—maybe about Dharmakaya, Sambogakaya, or Nirmanakaya Buddha.

She was rather amazed [laughs]. She didn't know Buddhism was so profound. And she started to become interested in Buddhism. And, soon she converted to Buddhism. And she started to study Buddhism, because there were many professors, and some professors could speak some English.

So in one year, I think, she had a pretty good understanding of Buddhism. And, one day she took me downtown to buy some incense and an incense bowl, and she started to offer it. I felt very good. At the same time, I could have some confidence in our teaching—in Buddhism. And, in that way, I had a kind of confidence in making Caucasian people understand Buddhism. I thought for Caucasians, Buddha's teaching may be more suitable than for Japanese. For Japanese to study Buddhism in its true sense is pretty difficult because of the wrong traditions or misunderstandings of Buddhism. It is difficult to change their misunderstandings once they have that kind of wrong idea of Buddhism. But for Caucasians, who don't know anything about Buddhism, it’s like we paint on white paper. It is much easier to give right understanding of true Buddhism. I think that kind of experience I had with Miss Ransom resulted in my coming to America.

And, as soon as I finished my schooling, I asked my master,6 to go to America or Hawaii or to go to anywhere abroad. But, he became furious [laughs], and he wouldn't allow me to go. So I couldn't come to America. And, I gave up my notion of coming to America for a long, long time until I forgot all about it. But ten years ago, at last I came to America.

Fifteen years ago,7 actually, I had a chance to come to America. But, because I hadn't finished fixing our main building [at Rinsoin], which was my duty left by my master, I thought I had to finish his order first. So, I didn't come to America at that time. And, maybe five or six years later I had a second chance to come to America, and I decided to come to America.8 It was pretty hard to come, but anyway I managed to come to America.

After I finished my schooling, I went to Eiheiji. And Miss Ransom came to Eiheiji and stayed for one month at Eiheiji, and was sitting there, and practicing pretty well. And two years after, I went to Kasuisai monastery.9 At that time, she came to Kasuisai and stayed for one month also. And then she went to China again: Tientsin, near Peking. And she went to England. Once in a while I wrote to her, and she wrote to me, but since I came to America I haven't written so often. She wanted to write something about me, various experiences we had between us. And, she asked me to give some dates or events. But that was too much, so since then I didn't write to her, because it was too much. Whenever I wrote to her, she asked me many things, which were almost impossible to write back. So I didn't. And, she might have been very angry.

At that time [Grahame] Petchey was in England, and he started a Zen group at her home. [Not right. Grahame had a zendo at his own place. Just checked with him. - DC, 4-11-17]

Peter Schneider: Her home! I didn't know that.

SR: [Laughs.] So whenever Petchey went to her home, he was the one who listened to her complaints [laughs, laughter]. I know her very well. Even though she complains, it doesn't mean it's so bad. So, I thought it may be all right. But that was my mistake. She passed away last year, before I wrote to her.

I trusted her very much, and she trusted me so much. So whether I write to her or I don't doesn't make much difference, I thought, but I don't know. As long as she was alive it was all right. But now, I think, I regret a little bit about my not writing to her.

Anyway, I think she was a good Buddhist. After she went to Tientsin, she sent me a picture of the same Buddha, who got into trouble between us. And she enshrined the Buddha in the wall where there was something like a big hole in the wall like this [gestures],  and she said she was offering incense every day [laughs].

Dan Welch: What happened to the shoes, Roshi? Did she ever take them off?

SR: Yes, of course [laughter]. And I taught her how to clean up a tokonoma.

One day she told me to get some daffodil bulbs. I bought pretty big ones for her, but she wasn't satisfied with them. “Oh, this is too small. Get me some big ones.”  I tried to find the best daffodils in Tokyo, at least in Shibuya district. I visited several florists, and I got the largest bulbs I could get. But she wasn't satisfied with them. She made me very angry [laughs]. So I bought some onions [laughing, ongoing loud laughter]. “Here, I got very big ones. Here they are.” And I left her room. But I was careful, watching her to see what would happen. She opened it, and saw the big bulbs. “Oh, this is very good!” she said. I felt very good, but at the same time scared of her, so I ran away from the room.

And at last—she didn't like onions, at all. Of course, it was onions, so it smelled [laughter]. “Oh! This is onions!” she shouted, and looked around for me. But I wasn't there [laughter]. But I couldn't help bursting into laughter—a big laugh, so she found me. With an onion in her hand, she started to chase after me. She was a big, tall, girl, you know. So I went upstairs, to the second floor, and from the second floor to the roof. That kind of thing happened pretty many times.

I had to come back to her home before ten o'clock. But it was rather difficult to come back before ten always. So when I was late—I knew how to open the doors. You know, Japanese doors are sliding doors. The lock is between the two doors. The lock goes this way, like a nail driving down, a nail for two doors. It is not possible to open this way, but if you lift the two doors [laughter], it is quite easy to take out the two doors [laughter]. And I sneaked into my bedroom and slept.

At last she found out what I was doing. And, she didn't trust me any more [laughs], and she didn't trust the safety of the Japanese building any more. And she determined to move out from that house. I was told to find some good safe building, which was almost impossible. Almost all the buildings were Japanese buildings. If it was a Western building, we would have to pay a lot of money. So, I gave up on finding that kind of safe building.

But it was good for me to go out with some reason to find a good apartment. And, sometimes I went to the barber shop, or sometimes I visited my friends, instead of finding some good apartment. At last I decided to ask some good, old carpenter to explain how safe Japanese buildings are from thieves and how to fix the lock so that no one could get in. And we convinced her not to move out.

As she was an English woman, even though she had rotten old knives, she wouldn't throw them away. And sometimes she asked me to get one polished. But, in Japan no one could polish any knives for anyone. If she had carpenters or gardeners, they might do it, but she wanted me to get it polished immediately. That was a big problem for me. And, she said, “In England, if you go to a department store you can get them polished up immediately. So go to Mitsukoshi and ask to get it polished.” Her idea was ridiculous, for Japanese people to polish. It was a pretty beautiful, good knife. But even so, no one could polish it. “Oh, this is old,” a Japanese store might say. “This is very old. Why don't you get a new one?” That is what they might say.

Do you know Japanese ofuro? The cover of the ofuro will easily get rotten, so she asked me to get a lid only. But that was also difficult. Unless we buy the whole thing, they wouldn't sell the wooden ofuro—bathtub lid. I think the English way may be quite different from the American way.

That's all [laughter]. Nothing more than this.

Student A: Roshi?

SR: Hai.

Student A: Miss Ransom was your first Westerner you helped to convert to Buddhism?

SR: Yes.

Student A: Who was the second person after her?

SR: Maybe Jean Ross or some old students of Zen Center. Until I came to America, I had no chance to see any Caucasians or any foreigners—gaijin.

Student B: How did you get an idea to teach Caucasian people a long time before you'd met any Caucasian students?

SR: How? Just, I visited her home when it was very hot, just because I wanted to have a cold drink [laughs]. It was so hot. [Sentence finished. Tape turned over.]

—without she will give us something, some drink or watermelon or something like that. She gave me a big watermelon, cutting in two, and putting some sugar on it, and with a big spoon she offered half the melon, a big one.

Peter Schneider: And you determined to come to America [loud laughter]?

Student C: Hey, it's the watermelon, man. That's what it is.

SR: Oh, maybe so because of watermelon.

Student D: “Watermelon Zen.”

SR: “Watermelon Zen.”

Dan Welch: If I remember right, Roshi, there was another Zen master in Kyoto who got caught by a watermelon [laughter].

Student E: What's that story, Dan?

SR: Dan, it may be good idea to send a picture of a Zen Center student eating watermelon [laughs, laughter]. Some Zen teacher like me may come [laughs, laughter].

Dan: Publish it in the Dai-horin.

SR: She was very tall, maybe as tall as [Grahame] Petchey. Very tall girl.

Student E: Petchey's about 6'-2”, I think.

SR: [Laughs, laughter throughout paragraph.] She used to put on a big white hat, like this, and she was very tall, and I was very small. When we went shopping, I had to almost run. Because she had no one to talk with, as soon as she came back from school she started to talk with me at the fireplace. I was always studying in the corner of the fireplace. I couldn't study anything. I couldn't get any homework done, so I decided to buy a big, big screen. I told her for Japanese it is necessary to use a big screen. She bought it for me, and so I was very pleased—just to prevent her talking. But she was so tall! Taller than the screen—watching down. Didn't work at all. I gave up. Very big.

Another professor, Sugioka10 would visit our home many times—maybe twice a week or weekend. According to her, he was a big scholar in English. He had more vocabulary than Miss Ransom herself, she said. And she was very much proud of him. But he was also very short—as short as me. I don't know why she liked so short people [laughter]. The man who translated Uchiyama Roshi's11 book, small book.12 Someone said it was not so good a translation.

Student E: Which book is that, Roshi?

SR: Small.

Student E: Uchiyama Roshi?

SR: Mm-hmm. Palms.

Student E: With the hands?

SR: Yes. With hands.
 
Student E: Why did you leave her?

SR: Because I had to finish my thesis. So five or six months before I finished my schooling, I left her. And she went back to China again. She was a good friend of Premier Yoshida.13 He was a famous premier who signed the treaty after the war—treaty at San Francisco, treaty of complete surrender. He was the premier who signed.

Dan: Roshi, what did you write your thesis about?

SR: About Shobogenzo. Study of Shobogenzo, focusing on “Raihai-tokuzui”—the chapter on the meaning of bowing.14

Student E: Is that because your master bowed so much?

SR: Maybe so. I didn't notice it. Maybe so. I was the last one who submitted my thesis to the office [laughter], because I was too busy. Most students left three or four units for the last year, but I had twelve units more to go. So, I was very busy in writing my thesis and finishing twelve units. That was why I bought the screen, but it didn't work [laughter].

Student F: Roshi, could you tell us something of what you wrote your thesis on?

SR: Study of Shobogenzo, focusing on the fascicle of bowing.

Student F: Could you tell us what you wrote?

SR: Too long.

Student F: In—in a capsule? [laughter]

SR: Essence? You have to bow anyway [laughter]. That is why you have to bow nine times, maybe. My thesis was very good, but my oral questioning was not so good, because I didn't study so much. Some other questions?

Student G: A few years ago, at a lecture in the basement of that big church—downtown , you were giving a lecture—no, Dick was talking, and you were just listening. And you had your hands—your mudra upside down. The right hand on top of the left hand.
 
I was sitting right in the front row, and I was staring at your hands. And, you weren't looking at me, I don't think, but you fixed them, and you put the left back on top of the right. But then you'd be listening to Dick, and your right would go back on top [laughter]. And I thought that something strange was going on. And I looked real hard, and you put your sleeves over your hands [laughter]. My question is, what were you up to [laughter]?

SR: That was your study, then. Usually this is because—I have not much feeling on this, so— .

Student E: Why not?

SR: Because I cut my finger from here to here. Sometimes I don't feel so good, and I do like this [laughter].

Student E: Oh. He's doing this. See? Like this, though.

SR: You know, this finger. So if I don't feel so good, I do like this and go back to the mudra like [gesture]. Sometimes I am doing like this one.

Student H: Roshi, do you still hear from some of your master's disciples, or other Zen masters?

SR: Yes. My younger brother in dharma15 once in a while after I left Rinsoin came to my temple and helped my boy [Hoitsu Suzuki] or a priest who was there always. After I left my temple, there must be some qualified teacher in my temple [laughs, laughter]. Someone like me must be there. So my brother in dharma16 was formerly or officially responsible for my temple, but actually someone else was always there. But another—my elder brother in dharma is now in the temple which I entered after I finished my schooling—Zoun-in.17 And then, as soon as my master passed away, I took over my master's temple, and my elder brother took over my place.

So still we have three brothers in dharma. And one is now—I don't know what he is doing. He is not a priest anymore. And, I was actually the youngest one. At that time there were four more disciples, and I was the youngest one. And four disciples ran away from my master because he was too strict.

Student H: Could you give us some examples of his strictness—of what he did that was so strict?

SR: [Laughs.] You know, he was a very unique character. And, he would sit in the corner of a dark room, and when someone entered his room, he stared at him like this, and without stopping eating [laughter]. Most people were scared of him very much. Just to look at him was good enough. Before he said something he would strike us—bam! [Laughter.] A little like Tatsugami Roshi also does. For Tatsugami Roshi, there is no need to speak English. His hand will speak fluently [laughter].

And he was pretty humorous, sometimes very much humorous. And he was a very good friend of us in some ways. For instance, when we came back from a village after finishing a memorial service for our members, three or four of his disciples were with him, and we were coming back to my temple. When we came to a dark slope, he told us to go ahead. “You boys are wearing tabi,18 so it may be better for you to go first. Because I have no tabi, I will follow you,” he said. So we went ahead of him. As soon as we arrived at our temple, he told us to sit in front of him. “You boys sit here and listen to me. When I don't wear tabi, why did you wear tabi?” That was his question. “Why did you wear tabi? When I don't? Moreover, when I told you to go ahead, you four boys went ahead of me without noticing that I have no tabi. How about that? [Thumps several times.] You geese! You foolish boys!” He was very mad at us. At that time I took him very seriously, but now I think apparently he was teasing us. He was playing games with us. He was enjoying our innocence [laughter]. “Sit here,” and we four boys sat [laughter]. We didn't know what would go on. No one could figure out what was wrong with us [laughter].

One day when he was not at temple, one chicken died [laughs, laughter throughout]. So we decided to eat it, taking off all the feathers. But it was very difficult to cut with a blunt temple knife. Very difficult. So we ate only one leg. And the rest of the chicken we buried. We recited a small sutra. Unfortunately, the next morning my master found it, when he was weeding. But he didn't say anything. That was the day before the Obon festival. And after we prepared the altar for the various souls, we had dinner. That was August 13th, when we had Obon festival. And at breakfast time he told us, “I had a very funny dream last night. A one-legged hen came to me and said, 'The altar is too high for me. So please make it lower.' And the hen asked me, 'Do you have some good idea?' he asked us. All of us. All of us.” We couldn't look at  him either. What did he mean by that?

Student E: Obon festival is the festival for all spirits.

Dan Welch: The dead spirits.

SR: The dead spirits. The one-legged hen came to the altar, but couldn't climb up. A one-legged hen, because we ate one leg and buried the hen around the tree. And my master found out, unfortunately. And  he didn't say anything at that time. It was the day we had Obon festival. And, when we had breakfast, “I had a very funny dream last night.” [Laughter.] We were listening to him. One day the hen came to him, he said [laughs, laughter].

Student E: Where did the chickens come from? [Laughter.]

SR: We were raising them. We were [4-8 words unclear], and unfortunately one of them died.

Student E: They were at the temple?

SR: Yeah. So we ate [laughter] one only. Because it was too difficult to cut it, we gave up and buried it in the garden.

Student E: So what did he say when you were like this, Roshi? [Probably gesturing.]

SR: I don't know. I don't remember, anyway. We have no words.

Student L: Was that all he ever said about it?

SR: Yeah.

Dan Welch: Isn't that enough?

SR: That's enough, you know. [Laughter.] “Do you have some idea to help her?”—that was what he said. We were not such alert disciples because we had no words for him. Hai.

Student M: Is he the one that kept some yokan [?]19 up on a very high shelf?

SR: Yes. He is the—

Student M: Will you tell us about that?

SR: Ohh. Whenever he had some special thing for guests, he would keep it in a high place where we could not reach. But [laughs and laughter throughout paragraph], we knew how to take it. So, all the time we took it down and cut a little corner of it—slice by slice we cut. And then, looking at it, we felt that now anyway he would find out, so we took all of it. That is what we would do.

One day it was too high for us to reach [laughter throughout paragraph]. So our eldest disciple asked me, who was the smallest one, to reach it. And he said, “I will carry you on my shoulders. Then you can reach for that.” So he carried me on his shoulders. And we were still not high enough.  I told him, “A little bit more.” So he stood on his toes, like this, and he lost his balance. He dropped me out on the boiling kettle.

Student: Oh God.

SR: I got badly burned here. Still I have some mark here. But I couldn't say anything about it [laughter].

So, when mealtime came, enduring my pain, I sat in my seat. And I started to eat, but this was a pretty terrible injury. Someone told me to use some oil on it. So by oil I barely recovered. I have still some mark here. We did almost all the mischievous things, almost. But, when we did it with all of us, he didn't scold us so badly.

But one day, we ate some big persimmons—four or five persimmons, which he kept until they were good enough to eat in rice. And, when someone ate them—I don't know who did it—but when he found out someone ate several persimmons already, he asked me who ate them. Actually I didn't know. “No, I don't know,” I said. And he started to find out who did it. Finally he found out two of us had eaten them. At that time he was very angry, not because they ate them, but because they didn't share the persimmons with all of us. He was very angry. I think he was pretty kind to all of us. Maybe with skillful means.

Student: What time is it?

Student: It's 9:30.

SR: Just right [laughter].

Thank you very much.
_______________

1 It did not.

2 Suzuki Butsumon Sogaku (c. 1858–1933).

3 Komazawa University, Tōkyō.

4 Sentō (Jap.): name pertaining to a former emperor—in this case Henry Pu Yi (Manchu Aisin Gioro, 1906–67, last emperor [1908–12] of China).

5 In Chinese, Changchun, later renamed Xinjing.

6 Gyokujun So-on.

7 1956 [see Crooked Cucumber, p. 153].

8 Suzuki-rōshi left for San Francisco, via Honolulu, on May 21, 1959, at the age of 55. He arrived in San Francisco on May 23.

9 Near Zoun-in temple, in the city Fukuroi, western Shizuoka prefecture

10 Professor Kido Sugioka of Komazawa University.

11 Uchiyama Kōshō-rōshi (c. 1912–1998).

12 Kōshō Uchiyama [English order of names], Modern Civilization and Zen. Administrative Office of Sōtō Sect, June 1967, 36 pp.

13 Yoshida Shigeru (1878–1967): Prime Minister of Japan for most of the period between 1946 and 1954. Negotiated and signed, in 1951 in San Francisco, the Treaty of Peace between the Allied Powers and Japan.

14 Suzuki-rōshi's graduation thesis for Komazawa University was entitled "Raihai-tokuzui" no maki o chushin to seru Dōgen-zenji no shukyo (Dōgenzenji's Religion as Seen Especially in the "Raihai-tokuzui" Chapter of Shōbōgenzō). His thesis advisor was Professor Nukariya Kaiten.

15 That is, a fellow student or peer, not a brother by birth. This was probably Kojun Noiri-rōshi.

16 Probably Kendo Okamoto (Crooked Cucumber, p. 90).

17 Zoun-in temple, Mori-machi, Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan.

18 tabi (Jap.): Thin white socks traditionally worn with sandals.

19 Phonetic guess only. According to Chadwick, this was a cake (Crooked Cucumber, p. 24).

Sources: Partial transcript by DC and City Center original tape. Transcript checked against tape and made verbatim by Adam Tinkham and Bill Redican (2/12/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (2/2021).