Pioneers of Pause
Words by Andrew Dietz
“If you’re looking for your comrade, I haven’t seen him yet,” one of the regular customers says. He’s sporting a week’s worth of beard stubble and a red and black University of Georgia baseball cap on his bowling ball head.
I am early for being late. Because I have just arrived back in Atlanta this Friday morning from an out of town trip, Sensei and I are having lunch rather than breakfast. I make it to The Original Pancake House a few minutes early and glance around to see if Sensei has gotten there before me.
“Comrade? He’s a Zen master and an artist. We aren’t communists plotting a Marxist rally,” I say. “We talk about Zen and creativity.”
“Same thing,” the regular says.
Neither of us is certain whether or not the other is joking.
Atlanta’s ability to be open-minded has come a long way and not so very far.
When Sensei first moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 1970, there was no Original Pancake House and there wouldn’t be for another 19 years. If Sensei wanted pancakes at any hour of the day back then, he might have gone to the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon Avenue near his home - a joint that looks like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks meets Times Square.
He was still Mickey Elliston back then and Atlanta was still a Southern backwater. Mickey moved to the city for work and, at the same time, began offering Zen meditation training to what must have been a hard-to-find audience. Georgia’s notable events in 1970 included ratification of the 19th Amendment allowing women the right to vote – 50 years after that had already become U.S. constitutional law. The James Dickey novel, Deliverance, was published that year. It would later become a film with a dueling banjo soundtrack that reinforced hillbilly stereotypes of the area. That year, too, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter won the Georgia Governor’s race. The prior Governor, pro-segregation, Klan-supported Lester Maddox, couldn’t run for a third term. So, he became Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor instead. To be a Midwestern Buddhist designer sauntering into Atlanta in 1970 required the guts of a pioneer, the idealism of a flower child or a bit of both.
In the midst of Atlanta’s tumultuous milieu and the overall disruption and din of the times, Mickey Elliston was on a mission to teach people how to sit facing a wall and follow their breathing. He was out to teach Atlantans how to sit down and shut up or, as he would sometimes say, how to “sit up and shut down.” He was on a mission to teach people the possibility inherent in pausing, quieting, opening and just being.
Today, in the ruckus of The Original Pancake House, I have paused to examine the menu while I consider that Sensei was really a frontiersman of sorts when he moved to town. I’m caught up in my own thoughts and pancake choices so I’m startled when Sensei lowers himself into the diner booth. Atlanta’s July swelter has him dressed in a beige cotton short-sleeve Columbia-brand fishing shirt and hiking shorts.
Our waitress is upon us quickly. She looks at us with the no-nonsense scowl of a drill sergeant. “What’ll you have?”
No hot coffee today. Just ice water and a Reuben sandwich for Sensei.
I try to butter the waitress up by complimenting her Disney wristwatch. “I like it. What do you have on there? Looks like you have some movie characters,” I say.
“Villains,” she counters with deadpan delivery.
I change the subject to my order. As I have been contemplating pioneers I feel it is, therefore, only appropriate to order the 49er Flapjacks.
“Can I get half a stack?” I ask.
“No, the kitchen won’t do that” she says flatly.
“How about a three-quarter stack?” I wise crack at the risk of my life.
She rolls her eyes and walks away with a faint giggle.
“You can’t help yourself can you,” Sensei says.
“No, I really can’t. I think in a former life I may have been a Borscht Belt comedian. Or maybe The Gong Show. My dharma name should have been Shecky.”
I turn the conversation to the topic of pioneers. I assert that he was a pioneer in coming to Atlanta and teaching Zen in the 1970s.
He shrugs and says that his teacher, Soyu Matsuoka Roshi, was the real pioneer – helping to bring Soto Zen from Japan to the United States. Matsuoka, he says, helped inspire a different type of American frontiersman: not one bent on exploring undiscovered physical terrain but one who “explores the territory of the mind, as the gateway to understanding reality, and our place in it.”
Sensei says of Matsuoka, “He felt deeply that the Western mind, with its emphasis on individual self-sufficiency, and its embrace of a creative, do-it-yourself mentality, would be fertile ground for the planting of the Zen way of life.” The surge of interest in contemplative, meditative traditions and on “mindfulness” – on pausing to sit amidst the ruckus of modern living - has proved Matsuoka right. However, that interest took a long time to become fully manifest as the acceptance of Japanese ideas into American society seemed, for a while, highly unlikely.
Soyu Matsuoka Roshi learned about the American mindset the hard way. He was born in 1912 into a family with a long lineage of Zen priests in Yamaguchi Prefecture near Hiroshima. Matsuoka earned a Bachelor’s degree from Komazawa University and a Ph.D. in political science from University of Tokyo before completing Zen training at Sojiji Temple in Yokohama – one of the two head temples of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan. In his free time, Matsuoka earned a black belt in judo and karate. He went on to become abbot of a Zen temple in Oshima near his hometown and founder of another in the Northern frontier of Japan on what is now the Russian island of Sakhalin. Adding to his personal accomplishments, in 1938, Matsuoka married a 16-year-old Japanese woman named Tamiko in a ceremony in Oshima.
By age 27, in 1939, Soyu Matsuoka had assuredly earned the confidence of Soto Zen Buddhist leadership (the “Soto Shu”) in Japan and they asked that Matsuoka travel to the United States to assist in the transmission of Japanese Zen teachings to the West. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
In 1912, when Matusoka was born, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted 3,000 Cherry blossom trees to the U.S. government to be planted in Washington, DC as a sign of friendship between the countries. By the time Matsuoka arrived in California in 1940, however, Japanese American tensions were approaching a boiling point.
In fact, the stew of anti-Japanese sentiment in California began simmering at least 40 years prior, when former San Francisco Mayor James Phelan kicked off the 20th Century in early 1900 at a mass rally where he declared of Japanese immigrants, “They are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made.”
Five years later the heat was turned up by a stream of headlines in The San Francisco Chronicle including: “The Yellow Peril – How Japanese Crowd Out The White Race,” and “Japanese a Menace to American Women” and “Japanese Bring Vile Disease.” The Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in California that same year, 1905, to stop the flow of Japanese immigration. The group’s statement of principles stated, "no large community of foreigners, so cocky, with such racial, social and religious prejudices, can abide long in this country without serious friction." The California Alien Land Law of 1913 (also known as the Webb-Haney Act) prevented Japanese immigrants who were "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from owning land while the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted Japanese entry into the U.S. Much later Matsuoka’s older brother, Mutsuo, wrote of Soyu, “He must have had a complicated and uneasy feeling about his trip since no rosy dream in the U.S. could be expected around this time for him.”
In 1940, when Matsuoka arrived at the doors of Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission in Los Angeles, the city contained over 35,000 Japanese. 30,000 of those resided within the confines of Little Tokyo – an inner city neighborhood bound by the overcrowded Chinatown to the North, the flood-prone L.A. River to the East, the 110 Freeway to the West and the home of the down-and-out, Skid Row, to the South. Matsuoka described himself on immigration documents as 5 feet 4 inches tall, 125 pounds, yellow complexion, brown eyes, black hair and a small mole on his lower lip.
If Matsuoka was apprehensive in the strange new surroundings, that fear was assuaged by an unflappable, forceful presence – the senior priest to whom Matsuoka would report in Los Angeles - Hosen Isobe. The 63-year-old Isobe was from a Samurai family in Yamaguchi prefecture not far from Matsuoka’s family home. Though a Zen priest, Isobe carried the demeanor and physique of warrior. He sported a bushy mustache and fierce eyes that bore defiant holes in whatever was being observed. Though Isobe assiduously practiced sitting still, he was a man of prolific action.
Isobe had become a priest at age seventeen and proceeded to command and repair several aging temples in the mountains of Japan. He was then sent to Korea to do mission work and temple building. In 1914, he was sent to Honolulu to transform the city’s temporary mission into a full-fledged Soto Zen Temple building. He spent nine years in Hawaii where he founded Shoboji temple in Honolulu and negotiated on behalf of Japanese workers during the contentious Oahu Sugar Strike of 1920. In 1922, now on the U.S. mainland, Isobe founded Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission in a small apartment before raising funds to construct a temple building for it in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. Not done, Hosen Isobe went on to San Francisco and founded Sokoji temple in 1934. Sokoji was located in a former Jewish synagogue at 1881 Bush Street which would later be the birthplace of the influential San Francisco Zen Center under Shunyru Suzuki Roshi. As precarious as his new American life might have been, it seemed that Matsuoka had come under the tutelage of a secure force.
Under the supervision of Isobe and alongside another Zen priest, Daito Suzuki, Matsuoka served as Assistant Abbot at Zenshuji in Los Angeles and briefly as Supervisor at Sokoji in San Francisco. In May 1941, Matsuoka returned to Los Angeles to become principal of a Japanese Language School near Long Beach and continued his Zen practice and his ministry through Zenshuji. He bought a car and when he wasn’t driving to and from work, enjoyed cruising through the Hollywood Hills or along bits of the Pacific Coast Highway.
In the summer of 1941, Little Tokyo was teaming with people visiting the shops on First Street and assessing the vegetables at the markets on Central Avenue. They gossiped with neighbors over dinner at the Far East Café on East First or enjoyed sweet pastries from Fugetsu-Do Confectionary down the street. For Matsuoka, it was a pleasant existence…for only six months.
Just before 8:00AM on the morning of December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service began a brutal surprise assault on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, on the Island of Oahu. Over 2,400 American were killed. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. On February 19, 1942, with the reasoning that “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 enabling the military internment of all people of Japanese ancestry who were residing in the United States at the time – whether or not they were U.S. citizens.
It is unclear to which internment camp Matsuoka and his wife were taken. But that he was taken quickly is clear. He had probably been under U.S. government watch even before the Pearl Harbor attack as Japanese language schools had long been under suspicion of indoctrinating students with Mikadoism: loyalty to the Japanese emperor who was to be worshipped as a god. According to Matsuoka’s brother Mutsuo because, “Soyu was giving a speech at various meetings for Japanese audiences about Japanese national pride entitled “Nation’s power of honorable sacrifice for a great cause,” he was once under suspicion of espionage and was even isolated after deportation.”
Instead, Matsuoka’s involvement with the Japanese language school and his relative ability with English turned out to be of benefit in avoiding the dismal living conditions of the crowded transit and internment camps. In 1942, Matsuoka was selected to be one of 164 bilingual Japanese Americans to teach Japanese to American military men at the US. Navy Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He would remain there until 1947.
In September 1946, a slender, handsome, talented 17-year-old boy from Springfield, Massachusetts matriculated at University of Colorado, Boulder. He chose the school because his older brother – just back from serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II – decided to attend University of Colorado on the G.I. Bill. The boy received assistance for his University of Colorado tuition from his participation in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps while he studied drawing and painting at the college’s School of Art. That boy was Phil Dietz, my father.
“While unlikely that they met in Boulder, it is a curious thing that my father and Soyu Matsuoka’s lives intersected in any way whatsoever given that both - one by way of genetics and upbringing and the other by way of your Matsuoka-infused teach - have so significantly shaped my own way of living,” I mention to Sensei.
“Hmmm, biological father versus dharma father?” he replies.
“Probably random. Possibly not,” I say. Or maybe, I think, it is just that - like a confluence of tributaries feeding a rushing river - the lives and influences of our mentors and ancestors naturally converge into us.
More pancakes, coming up.