This biographical snippet, taken from the introduction of Tenshin Reb Anderson’s book Being Upright, tells a bit of the story of how he met his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, and what the first days of their teacher-student relationship were like. Anderson says of the drive he had to be near his teacher, “I would make myself like a piece of furniture in his life that he would have to deal with,” revealing a great deal of how we go about making ourselves available to one another, and especially to the people from whom we wish to learn. As Anderson writes, in the Japanese tradition, learning is mostly done through watching and emulation, and this was the process that he went through with his teacher during the short period that they spent together before Suzuki passed away.
The more I studied and practiced meditation, the more grateful I felt to have found this sitting: so simple, so all-consuming, so all-embracing, and so effective. But practicing alone was difficult and inconsistent. I tried to get my friends to sit with me, but they didn’t stay with it. Eventually, I realized the necessity of having the support of fellow practitioners and an experienced teacher. I heard about a group of people studying with a Zen teacher named Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, and in 1967, at the age of twenty-four, I left graduate school to join them.
What was Suzuki Roshi like? I’m tempted to say that he was quiet, kind, attentive, and interested in everything, but these words don’t describe him adequately. He was constantly changing. In one of the first talks I heard him give, he told us that he wasn’t enlightened. I thought, Oops! I’ve given up my academic career and all my friends to study with this man, and now he tells me that he’s not an enlightened teacher. But then I thought, He’s still the best I have ever seen, so I’ll stay. The next week he gave another talk, and this time he said, “I am Buddha,” and I thought, This is more like it.
I wasn’t really concerned about whether he was enlightened: I just wanted to practice Zen with him. I still do. I decided fairly soon in my practice that I would make myself available to him, and if there was anything he wanted to teach me, I would be there to be taught. I would make myself like a piece of furniture in his life that he would have to deal with.
The zendo (meditation hall) in the Zen Center’s first location was on the second floor. There was a long stairway with banisters leading up to it. At the bottom of the stairway there was a newel post with a round top on it. Every time Suzuki Roshi went upstairs or downstairs, he would put his hand on top of the post for support. I wanted to make myself like that post. If he wanted to show me something, I was there to be shown. If he wanted me to help him, I was there to help. I didn’t think of it in terms of doing things to get him to like me or to please him, but just to make myself available for whatever relationship was appropriate. I didn’t expect him to be my friend, but I wanted him to be my teacher.
This way of relating to him worked very well, because he would call upon me to lead the chanting or make the offering during the service. In the Japanese tradition, learning is generally 80 percent watching and 20 percent instruction. Sometimes he would ask me to do these things without training me beforehand, because I was always there observing him. After two or three years of practicing closely with him, I asked him if he would ordain me as a priest. He said that he had been thinking about it himself, and a couple of months later my head was shaved and I was ordained.
My main motivation in becoming a priest was to be like him. The fact that one of the main components of the ceremony is receiving the Sixteen Great Bodhisattva Precepts was not important to me. Receiving the precepts was just part of the process of becoming more like my teacher. I wanted to be able to practice the way he practiced. I wanted to be able to respond in the compassionate way he did. I wanted to be intimate with the essence of his practice.