In the following excerpt, author Chadwick describes Suzuki's wonderfully eccentric teaching style at the San Francisco Zen Center in the early 1960s.
Bowing is a very important practice for diminishing our arrogance and egotism. It is not to demonstrate complete surrender to Buddha, but to help get rid or our own selfishness.
The people coming to Suzuki weren't seeking devotional religion. They might become devoted to Suzuki, but they still asked more questions every day than he'd been asked in thirty years as a priest in Japan. They passionately wanted to understand Buddhism, Zen, themselves, life, death, enlightenment, truth. They wanted to know the meaning of everything. Suzuki was not quick to define things. "If I give you an answer, you'll think you understand," he said more than once. Why were four-and-nine days taken off? "It's a mystery," Suzuki answered. What is the meaning of the sutra. "Love." Why do we use that particular hand position in zazen? "It's a secret." Why do you shave your head? "It's the ultimate in hairstyling?" At times of his own choosing, Suzuki would give reasons and meanings-but they tended to change each time he answered. He wanted people to learn things for themselves in their own time.
Then there was the matter of prostrations, or full bows. Many students weren't prepared to bow down to the floor without asking why. Some complained it was too Japanese, and like begging, not appropriate for American Zen. Suzuki had tried takuhatsu [monks' formal begging] in Japantown [in San Francisco] but had given it up.
Suzuki told them how his masters had taught bowing as a central practice of Zen. It was Buddhist, not Japanese. The Japanese secular bow is from the waist, with the head lowered. Buddhist bows are either the gassho with palms together, or full bows which begin with gassho and end with knees, head, elbows, and hands on the floor. Morning service began and ended with three full bows. Suzuki explained that when the forehead goes down, the extended palms are raised three times to life the feet of the Buddha. "Bowing is second only to zazen [sitting meditation]," he said before the morning service one day. "It is Buddha bowing to Buddha. If you cannot bow to Buddha, you cannot be a Buddha. It is arrogance. So from now on we will start the morning service with nine bows instead of three. In Japan three is enough, but her in America we are so stubborn, it is better to do nine bows."
There were some groans.
"Don't complain," he said. "You want more practice than Japanese want anyway. It may be hard for you to understand why it is so important, but you will come to understand by bowing. Bowing is a very good practice, and after sitting we feel very good when we bow."
From CROOKED CUCUMBER: The Life and Teachings of Suzuki Roshi by David Chadwick, Copyright c 1999. Published by arrangement with Broadway Books , a division of Random House, Inc.