Gerrad Ponti (ed.): Remembering the Suzuki Court

 

From Remembering the Suzuki Court

1. Brian Page, clerk in Suzuki’s third term 

One fall day of my clerkship I arrived, at request, at the Chief Justice’s home–to prepare, uselessly I always thought, for upcoming oral argument of a case. He rarely “prepared”; but, when he did, a revision of something seemed sure to come. He never prepared at these “preparations.” One arrived, something happened, one left.

The Chief, I was told, was out back, gardening, which at the moment consisted of Suzuki on his knees, pulling out shafts of a tall weed like plant with delusive hope of becoming a tree. I announced myself, wondering if I was expected to contribute to this enterprise.

“Ah, Brian. I am pulling.”

Oh oh. He’s in his transplanted immigrant mode, victim of the world force beyond the control of all.

“Yes, Chief. I see.”

“Pulling weed-like growth with irritatingly beautiful purple flowers in spring. I pull these out every year.”

“Every year?”

“Yes.”

“They reseed that fast?”

“What?”

“They come back that fast?”

“Come back? They never leave! Devious users of my plan.”

Yes, this is why I am here. To see, hear this. So:

“Plan? You’re weeding.”

“Grows very high, very fast. Pop! Big purple flowers so beautiful! We must let them be! Roots strangle humbler plants. Soon nothing but big, beautiful purple flowers. No one remembers the prior residents.

“There. Done.”

He stands up.

“But you’ve left some of the roots.”

“I must.”

“It will grow back.”

“Unless another appears.”

“You mean to plant something else?”

“I am no plant!”

“Chief?”

“Weed like growth didn’t ask me to be here. Plant must come.”

“It’s your backyard.”

“Illusion! I am only visitor.”

“Chief, if you leave the roots it will surely return.”

“Roots till the soil. Easier for seed to take hold.”

“You pull the roots, Chief. You are the real tiller.”

“You understand!”

For this I fought for notice at Berkeley Law. My future rumbles dissatisfaction: “You were a clerk of Suzuki? Next!” Still:

“Easier for what seed?”

“Good question.”

This last grumbled. He is teaching himself a lesson, one requiring an audience. As though making a point is a bad thing, he makes one circumspectly, hoping I will somehow figure it all out, hoping I will somehow make a difference.

“It is unlikely a seed will drop, Chief.”

“I know. So beautiful purple consumes mysterious unknown resource, grows big every year. Which means I’m here every year.”

Time for author’s message. This must have something to do with vouchers [West v Louisiana oral argument was pending]. His engine of success.

“Strange. Plant slow, evolves slowly. I evolving quickly. So I keep pulling out the slow one, hoping something will happen. I evolve so quickly soon I will no longer be here. Plant will always be here.”

“A bleak legacy, Chief.”

“Seed will come. Important texts say so. Seed will come. Meanwhile, I have lovely purple flowers each Spring!”

He claps his hands to shake the dirt off.

“Let’s eat so you can go home.”

 

From Remembering the Suzuki Court

2. Brian Page, clerk in Suzuki’s third term 

Ben went back to his birth state of Illinois after his “spontaneous retirement.” He settled in a farming town, in a once been small farm whose acreage had lay fallow for many years, hard, bumpy land not quite worth the swallowing by corporate entities. The associated town survived, nearby farms now corporate leases plus some individually owned perpetual debt, the environs inadequate for economies of scale. Ben bought a hold out farm that sadly went under. He kept it that way, of course: weeds and prairie grass for view.

Here he worked on Historical unpleasantness, a collection of interpretative vignettes, some of which were published in his life. “I was Chief Justice. Maybe someday I will say something, so they take present nonsense.” And his Zen Journal–but I knew nothing of that.

Firmly entrenched in Manhattan law practice–too firmly, Ben would say–I visited yearly, grateful I wasn’t turned away. Many past clerks came, but he never spoke of them, not even those of my year. Once, having finished lunch, we went out back to watch the weeds campaign for status as prairie grass, moving to show us the ways of breeze. There they were. A clump of ugly green plants, about three feet tall, sprouting vivid purple flowers, the very same as in his D.C. backyard.

“Ben–they have followed you!”

“Struggle never ends.”

I pause. “Ben, I know I am slow–I was your clerk after all…”

A growl.

“…but it cannot be that this plant is indigenous to both places.”

“Struggle requires preparation.”

“You put those weeds in your D.C. backyard. Every year. After pulling them out.”

“Ah. I chose well. You are slow. Nothing grows that fast!”

“You put them there, let them bloom….”

“Irritating dazzle of purple….”

“…then you tore them out, waiting, then planted them again.”

He stands still, looking out at the moving prairie grass/weeds. Then his arms flurry: “Something must substitute when reality does not come!”

Reality does not come: the wild seed, dropped without intention. Not one of numerous seeds flung about; a rare seed rarely dropped, dropped by no hand. A sutra seed. A seed so rare we wouldn’t know what to do if it came forth. Perhaps, Benjamin Suzuki, there is–there need be–no seed. Perhaps it is the transplanting, the removal, the waiting irrespective of hope, then, when nought comes, the transplanting, emblem for what should come but never does; perhaps it is this foolish cycle which is the marvel awaiting, awaiting for us to notice what we do. No, you do–not I. Not I, Benjamin. Still, this million dollar man before you did listen, fresh out of Berkeley joust, so important walking the Court steps which remain after I pass. I, a transplant which must be uprooted, awaiting the seed which never comes.

He turns toward me: “I know. Was I ever Chief Justice? I have to ask Elizabeth sometimes.”

I have no words. He pulls up two lawn chairs, facing them towards the unkempt acreage of grass.

“Time to watch movement.”

We sit long, saying nothing, sounds and indistinct shapes of color forming sense lost upon the first human encounter, where words inundate all possibility, leaving only the failed words of conversation to construct an abode. But, in this silence, in this movement which never ends nor recedes, in this companionship without talk to make you out of I, no transplanting is necessary. You’ve done it, Ben. Sutra seed whose bloom is as vast as vision. Here, the dangerous mircale of transmission: what I took did you give? Pull me out of this ground. Sell me to the great corporation for rooting in plush concrete where important outcomes abound. I will find a way to dazzle purple, not the real thing, no, never the real thing, but emblem for what might be.

All along it was the purple weed you loved.

*         *         *

You’re gone now. With Elizabeth I view the unkempt prairie a final time. Purple flowers have broken out of their plot, meandering toward the back door, trailing the house’s back.

“He kept it up until the stroke. Uprooting, waiting, transplanting. Each year. I asked him if I should hire someone to do it. He said that would be crazy. Those last three years, sometimes he would look out back. ‘Purple thinks it has won,’ he would say, ‘Let it have its pay.’”

Purple flowers needing no human eye. But purple nonetheless. Purple, ready for use–or not. That is literature. That is the writing in the dark of unknown value. That, Ben, is what you finally left us.

Back inside, Elizabeth opens his desk: “What shall I do with this?”

His Zen Journal, as rambling as the purple weed. Too long grown because never uprooted. His pay. But human flowers never wilt. Ask why they’re here and you miss the possibilities of present use.

That fall next I assumed a judgeship in New York county court. I had made enough money. Time to transplant irritatingly purple flower. I, emblem for what did not come.

 

From Remembering the Suzuki Court

3. Gerrard Ponti, clerk in Cabrales’ fifth term 

The Justice took me south, drove me through southwestern Texas into New Mexico, legal briefs in trunk, days in old hotels, never that fuzzy class called motel, hotels just this side of comfort, days with legal briefs pilled about Mexican food, this the locus of my jurisprudence, he said. Never mind Harvard Law. Desert towns were his education, men and women speaking Spanish, telling stories of lives with fiction a tool for clarity, speaking this time to audience of single man who ramifies into multitudes, unknown, concealed magician of ideas.

So he traveled with a clerk one month each summer, rejected certiorari petitions in tow: what would we have said if the Court had heard the petition? Studies in the caprice of justice, voices drowned so a few others may speak. Why invest so heavily in a few clerks? Because so much was invested in me.

And always church and mass. Sundays, and, when available, confessional. Once, in a small New Mexican town, he entered an old confessional, I sitting in a pew, wondering how such poverty could sustain such a glittering alter; then priest rush walks in directly to confessional, enters his side, confers with an Associate Justice. The priest emerged bemused, started at my presence, rushing off, a visitation from something. The Justice would call it an act of God if in the audience. Acts of God. Cabrales would say our lives are too familiar to recognize an Act of God. But an immigrant needs those acts, sees through others’ mundane. Immigrants, he said, found it hard to ignore God. Then, with a smile, of course, immigration is a matter of scale.

Where we traveled, not all immigrants were Hispanic. One small town’s sole hotel was owned by an Arab. We stayed and did our what if work, listening to the proprietor’s banter. Banter of Iraq. Heads rolling in Bagdad, death so persistent it must come from faith. So many heads only the hand of God could sever them all. The proprietor was wounded inside, no balm in ranting against America, his America, citizen some twenty years.

“We have chaos!” he barked at the Justice, “No one knows who is doing this!”

Anthony paused. Pau paused. He knew most Muslims declaimed terrorists as not of Islam. But the beheadings were too frequent to escape the net of Belief. Gently he said, “No. We know. All of us know.”

The proprietor’s eyes bulged. “Who,” he dared.

“The hand of divinity severs these heads.”

Silence. Not Islam. Divinity. Not nationalism. Divinity. Not the murderous hatred of humans. Divinity. Divinity: the fulcrum of hope.

Anthony reached into his shirt pocket, took out his small childhood wooden crucifix covered with decades of sweat and skin, placing it on the table, before all.

“I know,” he added.

A moment which might break. The proprietor looked at the cross, at the Justice. A burden retreated from his face: “Yes, you know.”

We traveled the next day.

 

From Remembering the Suzuki Court

4.  Theodore Taylor, mathematician at the University of Utah, friend of Benjamin Suzuki; shortly after Suzuki’s first term on the Court

Nonacs v Selton [declaring conscription violative of the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude] seemed about to topple the Court, the Republican House fuming, seriously considering impeachment of half the Justices. Justice Scalia’s proposed Constitutional Amendment nullifying the decision would redirect the rancor, but that was yet to be. Benjamin wanted to get away. He came to visit. We trudged Zion National Park in high spring. At the middle Emerald pool he stared at its waterfall, just stared, seemingly twenty minutes or more, occasional fellow consumers passing, close, unaware they shared this landscape beyond man with the Betrayer, the Assassin of Liberty, the Diabolical Mind–and a host of other sobriquets rampaging through the media. Nothing had changed; nothing would in the foreseeable future. Yet hysteria over Nonacs continued to grow. Ben stared. Out of worry, I approached, asking what he saw.

Staring still, he replied, “The dissolution and confluence of history. The larger no different than its parts, just more destructive.”

I pointed to the pool at waterfall’s basin. “There is also calm below.”

“Destruction is creation”

“How often that slogan has been used for abomination, Ben.”

“I know. But the tool can’t be dropped. By anyone.”

No playful Japanese immigrant-who-is-not in his voice that day. Nor for many days thereafter. Ben had changed the game, and he was afraid. I think Scalia saved him. The Court majority forced Scalia into an honesty which ultimately insulated the Suzuki majority. If Scalia hadn’t been so honest in his Nonacs concurrence, if he had just dissented, prophesying destruction, I think the Court might have broken in its first move. I think Ben was sure of it.

[Archival note:  cf Nonacs v Selten:  Justice Scalia conurring in judgement;  Kendal Q. Binmore: A cacophony of silence: ground of the Triumvirate: 6. Gandhi’s failure, Suzuki’s hope, which uses this entry in its entirety.]

 

From Remembering the Suzuki Court

5.  Andrea Clark, clerk in Suzuki’s seventh term, with her description of Suzuki’s funeral appended

 

I arrived late that morning, entering outer chambers to find the door to inner open, portal to dark interior as always, but brownish glow portending something other than sightless oblivion.  It’s timeless in there; better time disjoint.  Always dark, lights displaying objects, paintings, bookshelves, with hovering weak pin floodlights.  Walk away from that candled illumination and the room ghosts you, there but intangible, your image possibly constructed by the cultural necessities which placed you there.  In clerk conference I’ve seen him pace while we sit, voice traveling dark to reveal itself under a painting, as though that part of the point made, effort from a different world made present advocate.  Goya become legal mind, Picasso shattering jurisprudence, picking up the pieces in new form, see what was always there.

We clerks have looked at one another, certain a point has been settled, not certain how or what why there is.  With Suzuki legal reasoning was an after thought, a way of arriving at a nexus of quite other cause, it’s role to place you in front of the illuminated consensus of history, he fading into almost remembered as you stand transfixed.

Which Goya?  Saturn forever eating his child.  I’ve seen him make a pro-life point, stopping under that painting, then do it again when discussing the burden of a mother forced to term–forced, biologically, to be a mother.  Superimposing the two stands he seemed before the painting issueless, our consumptive fear of our own creation unclothed of all politics.

I’ve exited inner chambers wondering what day it is, whether there is still day.  When I first arrived as clerk, upon saying I was to be Suzuki’s some would look wide eyed, conversation gone halting, a feeling of contamination, more like taboo, descending.  Not unclean, but fathomless, the way we approach one burdened with tragedy, where the divergence of life is underscored.  After inner chambers I knew why.

A rarity, inner chambers open.  He would shut himself in there, often refusing tone of  phone, I glancing toward the closed cultural invention of privacy, walls made by hands anonymous, dead severed from their work as they want it, lives propping up the barrier for creation’s sake, architects unable to make, only house making.  Inner temples everywhere, holy of holies not to be transgressed, from these comes the new, not from me, perhaps from you, exterior into privacy, there as foreign  as God.

From that silence phone ignored, but never a knock, perhaps the hand making wall’s plea for a place after all, what has God wrought in the sanctum bade made, what do we do when our task complete?  Take us back into the beginning we never knew, as closed off as these walls make a room.  Perhaps that’s what privacy is, the unknown beginning, unimpeachable privacy the exit of death.  Perhaps he answered those knocks, bouncing over to open  door, in hope the world would be there, target of all those words of law, finally come to wear that garment, yes, I exist, what no one can touch but only hear in story; yes, I exist, what you weave has a recipient, its just that I cannot speak, only give you rumor of what I might say, privacy of chambers as isolate as world.

But before me world cannot knock, door open, moment separating privacy and its loss.  What do I do?  Is it open because I failed my sentinel of outer chambers, he inside afraid of creation’s isolation without a ready saving hand to pull him out?  A species unable to be alone, wanting to be alone, terrified when it really comes.  But all he has to do is walk into the hall, out of the false dark of made cave.  Walk, and the world changes before you, create without lifting a finger.

I’ll sit, pull out briefs, ignore the unknown hole.

“Enter!”

I start, look up, door empty.  Maybe it will go away.

“Enter!”

I don’t want to hear a third, perhaps quiver in voice, voice attaching to me, whether we link it or it us undecidable, that part of our definition.  How can I disrespect my Chief?  I stand up, role to play, script inside.

“You’ve entered!”

“You called.”

“Door open.  Maybe someone wanted to enter, so I called ‘enter.'”

“Wanted to enter?”

“Open door may be invitation.”

“Or not.”

“Why you here?”

“You called.”

“To acknowledge entering!”

“Can I go now?”

“Why you ask permission to leave when none was given to come?”

“You called “enter!”.  And open door may be invitation.”

“Precisely!”

There’s a reason for this–there always is.  Reason made to figure a reason.  He spoke last.  Cheap one word feint.  So I’ll do nothing.  I stand.

He sits.

I stand.

“I have haiku!”

A notebook before him, he dips his head toward desk.

“Day breaks/ No one knows why/ There we all stand.”

Closer to a reason.  No “the,” just “a.”

He goes on, “Which morning is it?”

“What?”

“Which morning?  Rare gift of language, each gives it, somewhere.  Great significance through arbitrary commonality.  Completely arbitrary, yet yields great significance.  Which:  morning or mourning?”

Only after the fact can I write this.  At the time, all I saw was the sun rising twice.

“Day breaks, shatters–language gifting again!–what does it break to make day?”

“What breaks?”

“Day!”

“No, what breaks the day?”

“What breaks, what is broken.  Same question or not?”

“How did you become Chief Justice?”

“You ask this too!”

“Why am I here?”

“You ask this too!”

“I didn’t sign up for Zen combat.”

“Signing up for Zen combat is not Zen combat!”

At a loss, I move outside the candle illuminations of pin floods, absorbed into the dark.

“Fine reply!”

I will stay here to not be here, so as to hear or not.  To hear is to be here; to here is to hear.  God, now I’m doing it.  In the dark.  Can I ever craft a brief again?  And why is a brief never brief?  Like day breaks–to come is not to shatter.  But he says it is.  Same word hiding itself.

Help.

“Correct!”

I’ve been silent so long–darked–that he has been forced to speak twice.  Hearing is here. Does this mean, having spoken again, he is lost?  Seems reasonable.  Perhaps a new form of court litigation–stand in the dark, let the other side babble.  But one needs dark.  “Your Honor–could you turn off the lights?  No, only on my side.  We need to see the babbling opponent.  When do I speak?  See?  I’m not here.  How can I speak?”

Well, at least a strategy to survive Suzuki clerkdom.  But avoid the pin floods.  Else you’ll be absorbed into a piece of art.

Employing my new found strategy of career survival I remain in the dark.

Agitation.

“Powerful reply!  You want my job?  My eyes hurt from seeing.”

Ok.  Have compassion.

“So day breaks.”

He jumps from his chair, delighted.

“Wise choice!  For me, not you!  Er, you.  I chose you.  I was correct!  You will do fine with task!”

Uh oh.  Task.  I don’t think he means the next brief, brief or not.  How can you fail a test when not told you are being tested?

“Out of darkness!”

I rustle in my dark.  He hears.  Damn sexist blouse.

“Yes!  Conrad in play!  He not know why he wrote!  No one does!  And not just about Conrad.  Humanity employs us to create.  We are It’s sightless hands.  Useful to know!  Enslaved, we are free to read others.”

He points to one of the visitor chairs opposite the desk.  In the light.  I will be illuminated.  I don’t want to be illuminated.  But if I resist he might pull “Heart of darkness” from his odd library and start reading aloud.  That would be really wierd–or a new path of weirdness.  Pulled toward the chair by my chosen task like a fish hooked, just expecting a meal–in my case, career–I sit, trying to flop in the seat.  He doesn’t notice.  Probably doesn’t.

“Day breaks, but still there is light.  What was break, lighting day break?  Mourning becomes morning.  Hard task!”

Right.  If I say something I’m not afraid day will not break but the ground will fall away.  I employ Golden Silence.  Suzuki doesn’t notice.  Probably.

“We cannot break the day.  But we can mourn.  And morning comes after mourning.”

Ok.

“Passive acceptance becomes action!  You will conduct my funeral!”

At least he didn’t start out with that last.  Which has no connection to anything he has said up to this point.

“I’m a law clerk.  I have a copy of the contract.  We’re legal professionals–remember?”

“Relax–I not dead yet.”

Now he moves into voicing dark while I sit illuminated.  My fault.  Employ a tactic, it’s out there for all.  From the dark:

“I provide composition, you conduct.  You not even in performance.  Like a director, backstage.  But you better be in audience as sign of respect!  You one of my clerks!”

“Why do you want me to do such a thing?”

“You law clerk!  You forced to endure darkness interspersed with illumination torture!  Think I not notice!  It is my chambers!  Performance will be my final jurisprudence.”

“How can you make such a finality when you have years left on the Court?”

“I must be constrained!”  His face pops into a light.  “Don’t you think?”

Well, he has me there.

His face retreats into dark.  But his voice continues to sally forth, unseen but here.

“Jurisprudence is way of walking!  Everything finished–body on ground, autopsied.  The law leave us dead.  My final jurisprudence will be final walk.  Knowing this, I can comport myself now.”

“Good you didn’t bring this up in confirmation hearings.”

“Why do people keep saying that over so many topics?”

Poke.  Poke.  Self realization?  Hard to tell in his dark.

“Here.”  Dark severed hand appears at CD rack, removes a case, vanishes to reappear in my face.  “Listen to this.  Track 7.  Funeral music.  Will talk about dancer later.”

What?  Dancer?  At a funeral?  Christopher Tin, The Drop that Contains the Sea.  Track 7, Devipravaha, “Goddess river.”

Taking CD in hand, I await the capping moment or fusion with art object.  A Suzuki darkening always ends with him appearing before a pin flood lit art object.  A brief discourse ensues, like a commentary on a capping verse to a Zen koan, art object here the capping verse.  If fortunate, you figure out what the koan is–not solution, of course–once you’ve escaped the cave.

Darkness moves.  Don’t try to follow it.  Just wait.  How do you follow darkness anyhow?  That was probably the first Suzuki koan.  Full bodied, no longer darkness severed, Suzuki stands before a Native American prayer fan, made of feathers from several species, owl prominent among them.  (After his death, I learn that it is illegal to own owl feathers unless associated with a Native ritual.  Suzuki obtained the fan with [Associate Justice Henry] Mitland on one of their western archeology summer excusions, but the Justices were silent on particulars.)

“Fan lifts, directs, smoke, employing the power of flight.  Impressions here sent elsewhere, smoke capturing echoes of images of us, not whole, disjoint, partial–story sent elsewhere as a few lines of text.  Sage smoke, it is said, takes away accumulated bad energy/spirit.  Not quite true.  We are our accumulations.  Smoke maps this, sends it off in dispersed image as incomplete story.  Original is us.  But by sending images off we change our emphasis.  By sending out, there is a shaking, sifting of pieces within us, that are us.  Telling changes what tells.”

He pauses.  “Hah!  Saw cell video of Sioux civil resistance at Standing Rock in frozen winter night.  Cell holder comments that South Dakota highway patrol were afraid of burning sage lobbed at them.  Translation:  they don’t want to send out, don’t want to change their mix.  Such is a good wall.”

Another pause as he looks at an event that can no longer be seen.  Then:

“Look at feathers.  They have marking; they have images.  There–face calling out.  There–a parent, mother?, enveloping a child.  There–a watcher.  There–a hand raises a feather–on a feather!  Birds fly on the residue of dispersed story, accumulating bits of these on their feathers, unsolicited tattoos  made through flight.  The power to capture while dispersing–this is the feather.  A diverse species fan concentrates accumulating capture beyond the singly traveling bird.  This makes the fan powerful, dangerous.  We thirst for concentrated story–but look at what it can make us do!  Single species fan humble, recognizing the wisdom of inability.”

He peers at me intently.  “Perforce this Court has multi-species fans!”

Has the capping commentary of the capping verse of art object been capped?  Not quite.  His voice rings out:

“What has this to do with funeral composition?”

Picking up the fan, more softly:

“Owl is harbinger of death, but also calls out for medicine.  Like much else in Native thought, power lies in the call for others to come.  Always elsewhere solace comes.  Here humanity is the waiting for other.  Not so our humanity!

“Owl calls from the dark where no tale goes.  But its call comes to us for story and tells us that the oblivion we never reach is not empty.  This our anchor here, and this will be my funeral.”

Ok–that’s a rap–I mean cap.

The inscrutable Zen Justice blank faces me.

“Exit!”

“What?”

“You entered upon Enter!, now exit upon Exit!.  We will choreograph my after exit over the months.”

I exit, entering the artificial day of ceiling light, inner chamber closing behind.  Two other clerks are now desked, gazing at me as at a newly encountered art object.  As such, I can say nothing.


 

The funeral of Benjamin Suzuki

“I stand on the other side of social death.”

So reads the Zen Master facing us, or rather the now empty aisle, as we sit dutifully audienced.  Well, not really an aisle–more a precipice into darkness.

Retired, Benjamin staged the lighting and placement of rented coffin several times, hiring stage production from the theater, demanding they take notes, strong arming, through his fame, an open ended contract for a one time showing, ultimate theatrical reality, reducing stage to life.  I had to be there for each staging, trying to explain to my law partners (who had to be kept in the dark) why I had to skip this dispostion, that court session, without letting a very tired cat out of the bag.  “Law practice stuffy unreality, forcing us into reality; be glad for escape into alternative fiction!” Suzuki would say upon come hither phone summons.  Fortunately, telling my partners I had been called by the ex-Chief Justice flummoxed them into silence.  “I retire to achieve full power!”–a strange power–of silent journals published years after death; of stories of clerks and Associate Justices; of, most strange, works by scholars who cut and pasted from his written opinions, transcripts of of oral hearings, and the above.  A power of trace beyond control of any present hand–just as Mitland wrote, himself hidden in journal:

The world is posthumous in horizon where sky is ground, ghosts traveling toward us into reality, departing again into the view from nowhere never reached.  The world is sustained by death and resurrection, Christ’s trick perpetual.

Culture gulping him down, having appetized on nibbles while he was alive.  That big gulp is final power, just like in the movies, where culture talks, loudly, to Itself.

That aisle which the Zen Master faced wasn’t really an aisle, for audience was seated wholly to his facing right.  The Master is fully lit, but as the aisle recedes toward exit it narrows into triangular light, rest dark, darkness expanding at price of triangle closing of light, ending just before the last rows, wall and conjectured door all dark.  All the Master sees distant is a tip ending of light entering oblivion.

When entering for ceremony, all we saw was darkness at our feet, expanding triangular ray of light beginning somewhat ahead, at our back the light of outside open door.  Feet hesitant to step onto ground darkness, remembering adulthood one steps onto the dark, trying not to scurry toward that beginning ray of light.  Audience shuffles forward, more of it illuminated as it approaches the front row of seats.  But some, never; save at mass’ front, some in the lumbering collective entity remain dark.

The triangular lighting leaves a few of the back rows of seating wholly dark.  Then, moving forward, the first seat of a row becomes lit, the second seat of the next row partially lit, more seats as one moves ahead in rows, toward coffin’s stage; but even the first row retains some darkened seats at its end.  In each row, some sit in light, others in darkness, the most illuminated closest to the front.

Suzuki’s instructions were adamant:  Justices, retired or sitting, must be placed in fully darkened back rows, other judges as well; Presidents and such in the illuminated area of the front rows.  For all else, “seat what you want.”

Triangular lighting is employed on stage as well.  The coffin, so dark it could house the void between stars, sits fully to audience’s right (Zen Master’s, with his back to it, left), so all must turn if not crane their necks rightward to see it, more turning needed the further down a row one is.  The coffin is cut by trangular light, front tip, nearest audience, fully lit, back fully dark.  The darkness of the coffin creates a precipitous severing effect, as though the coffin has been sliced obliquely, far portion removed.  The mandatory draping American flag is severed as well, just gone in the dark recess from which the front end of the coffin emerges.  But emblem resists oblivion, fading into rather than falling therein.  Zen falls outside of us; nation wants to stay.

The (again, mandatory) armed forces guard suffers similar treatment.  To audience’s right of the coffin, it stands slanted relative to coffin’s edge, first two soldiers fully illuminated, last fourth shadowed, darkness his side companion.

Back to all this–the Zen Master, facing now empty aisle.

“I stand on the other side of social death,” he reads, to make that point holding an index card before him.  A moment’s stillness, then he walks down aisle, into darkness.  We expect to hear back door open, see rectangular light promise of outside world–but no.  He simply walks into silent oblivion.

We have no program.  No list of speakers, no choir to lift to heaven, no musicians.  Just the sliced coffin and honor guard, our necks getting sore from rotating right.  We begin to shuffle, cough–the usual things allowed to audiences–look around, alarmed to see part of ourselves sliced away into darkness just like the coffin.

Then music comes.  Though decades passed, Benjamin never wavered in choice of Tin’s 4:39 minute  Devipravaha, never looked elsewhere.  Chord introduces a walking gait, interpretive dancer coming from oblivion of aisle’s end (“Dancer will interpret his presence there!”), delicate chamber additions as the dancer slowly yet decidedly moves forward, contorting his body as though squeezing through the spacing between words, leg first, or through the hole of an “o” or “p” or “a,” torso parallel with ground to pull presence forward into next word.  So until coffin reached; then moves clockwise, he flowing around the wordless coffin entering its back black oblivion, just as at his appearance at aisle’s end, returning into the light on coffin’s other side, now closer to the honor guard, then clocks around again into oblivion, there remaining.

As he so enters, a woman’s voice singing Sanskrit comes from aisle’s oblivion, just as the dancer, she walking stately forward as she sings, no obstacles of words.  Suzuki preferred foreign languages sung, importing–he would say unearthing–meaning into their sounds (“Artists know not what they do or choose!”), but here the Sanskrit, root of Hinduism, mother of Buddhism, ancestor of Zen, fits:

Destroyer of all our sins, who have become the staircase of heaven
with waves ever wavering, O Divine Ganga:  be kind!

Reaching coffin, she too travels clockwise, entering dancer’s oblivion, still singing, exiting other side, stopping at coffin’s lit front.  Here a brief wordless aria, a cry for what was, horn overhead dipping toward her and coffin, then flying on.  Gait music returns; in song now muted she walks to aisle, toward its finality, dancer emerging from coffin’s never end, following, now in streamed walk, all words gone.  In final note he enters the oblivion just transgressed by singer.

We sit in the silence so created.  As with the Zen Master, there is no evidence of life after oblivion.  We sit fifteen, twenty minutes.  Nothing happens.  Finally, a President or two rises, their security relieved to depart, we rest following to begin the outward shuffle.  Massing like lemmings at oblivion’s precipice, are we to grope for wall and door and handle, the final message of retired, now dead, Chief Justice?  Just as bunching at wall seems inevitable, from other side door opens, light comes forth, we exiting social death through anonymous hand.  Blinking into existence, we look about–only to see ourselves.

Sitting in full dark of last row two wait our exit:  Associate Justices Anthony Pau Cabrales and Henry Mitland, remnant of the triumvirate of the full Suzuki Court, both still on the Court, Cabrales departure two years hence.  They watch the honor guard, still motionless in condensed purpose.  They guard nothing; Suzuki was cremated several days before.  Yet he insisted on an empty coffin:  “Understanding compartmental.  Coffin fine compartment.  Ever see anyone walk out from one?  Everyone satisfied with understanding.  Cremation becomes us chasing the air.  Air always wins.  I will be cremated, but you will see satisfying box.  Understanding dodges itself.”

Yet who shall release these uniformed guardians of the insubstantial?  Suzuki’s final comment:  “Law is constraint and release.  But whence release?”


 

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