Interviews with JS - J*a*n*et
St*urg*eon - semi anonymous

You know, it’s alright to have as many boyfriends as you want. You just have to remember every name.

 [I interviewed JS on the 30th of May 1999 in Sebastopol and we've had some email communication that added a bit to it. For professional reasons she doesn't want a Google or other search to lead to this interview but I don't think she wouldn't mind me spelling out her name like this: J*A*N*E*T S*T*U*R*G*E*O*N--DC]

JS: I was born in Grand Junction, Colorado on September 8, 1946.

I was taking an intro sociology course at Berkeley. We had an assignment to visit 4 different religious groups, preferably different from the one we were brought up in. I visited the Berkeley Zendo, thinking it would be a fraud--there weren't any real Zen Buddhists in Berkeley, I thought.

I went down one afternoon at 5:30, and Mel invited me in. He informed me that I was supposed to come at 5:30 in the morning, but he agreed to show me how to sit. He showed me how to sit on a zafu, and how to enter the zendo. That was it.

I came back the next morning at 5:30, and I was hooked. It was as if this is what I had been looking for--a religious practice that had the possibility of being transforming, instead of just reassuring, as the church I had been brought up in was.

Mel and Richard Burack would drive to Sokoji from Berkeley in Mel’s old stick-shift Buick when I was just starting to sit in the fall of ‘67. We sat downstairs for one of the first lectures I heard of Suzuki Roshi’s. It was a Wednesday night and we sat in pews. Suzuki Roshi was giving a lecture about desire. I no longer remember the gist of the lecture, but it was hilarious. We were about to explode. He was talking about how young men will stick their thing into a hole in the wall for desire.

[DC: Dogen said that when you’ve got sexual desire you’ll even have sex with a hole in a board.]

In the question and answer someone said, "But Roshi, I thought we were supposed to get rid of desire." And Suzuki Roshi said, "If you had no desire, you’d be dead." He was talking about the nature of desire. About finding and following your deepest desire. What is it? I never heard him give one like that again. It amazed me. Driving home Mel and Richard were more amazed. He was like a stand-up comedian. He was funny, Richard said, "He was a little clown in brown."

Then in ’67 after a lecture I met Katagiri. He was fiddling with some chalk and Mel said, "Oh, that’s ‘cause you miss having a cigarette."

In those early days of sitting at Sokoji, I remember going to Saturday mornings and some one-day sittings. At the end of the day, Roshi would get down from the altar and walk out between the rows. As he walked by, suddenly you’d realize that he was about a foot shorter than us (the women), and you’d wonder how that could be, when he’d filled up the zendo the whole day.

Stories that stay in my mind. Suzuki Roshi made comments about me and my many boyfriends. I went to Tassajara for the spring of ‘69 practice period when the road was closed. Went back to the city and lived on Bush Street in one of the apartments after that, and needed money, so I got a job. One evening – this was on the stairs at Page Street, where I was standing with Harriet Buffington (who married Kobun). This was November or December of ‘69, just after the move. Suzuki Roshi was about to pass us. He stopped and looked at us and said, "You know, it’s alright to have as many boyfriends as you want. You just have to remember every name." [SR said that to Alan Marlowe too. Mel was there. Only Alan's girlfriends were mentioned in Mel's story.--DC]

In the spring of ‘71 I was ordained by Tatsugami Roshi. Early that summer there was a board meeting at which they decided not to invite Tatsugami back. Yvonne was at the meeting, and she came to Tassajara and she took me aside. She told me that Tatsugami was not coming back. She was nice, but said, "you’re going to have to figure out what to do, because this changes the equation." I signed up for dokusan with Suzuki Roshi and we talked about a number of things. I wanted to ask him if I could be his student. I said I know Tatsugami Roshi is not coming back. Suzuki Roshi said, "Yes," but then he indicated, somewhat obliquely, that I should be more in control of myself and boyfriends. What Suzuki Roshi implied was that sex was fine – but maybe I was being taken advantage of. He didn’t understand that I was interested in actively pursuing some people. He said I have to take control and set some limits. "After all," he said, "I feel the same way." I felt in awe then, that he would say that. I thought it took both courage and humility on his part. It was the most heavy-duty dokusan I ever had with him. I also asked him if I could be his disciple. He said yes. But I didn’t know what he meant.

[DC: Her memory of the noodle story is (the story in Crooked Cucumber) – that was the only part of the book where she said, "No, no, this isn’t what happened."]

I was ino the summer of 1971. In chosan Suzuki Roshi said, "I heard you used to make noodles for Tatsugami Roshi." I did that. And all the officers came one by one for the noodle dinners when Tatsugami was there. There’d be a special noodle dinner on a day off for each of the members of the Rokuchiji. Since Suzuki Roshi had heard about this, that I’d learned to make them by hand, he said, "I want to see what they’re like. Can you make them for me?" I said, sure. I was in the kitchen that afternoon making noodles when he came in to help. He wanted to make his own. He got his own bowl, flour, and eggs, just like a kid stirring up the dough. At one point he picked up this huge wad of dough and threw it on a bread board on the floor. Then he took off his zoris and walked around on it, looking at me as he was doing it. It might not even have been on a bread board. It might have been on the floor. He had this expression on his face that was ecstatic. Later I thought his message to me was that there are many ways to have sensual pleasure. I had a strong impression it was a teaching moment for me. Okusan came in and wanted him to leave, but he wouldn’t. So she started making noodles too. She tried to take over his task but he didn’t want her to, so she started making her own. The three of us were making noodles.

DC: Then some other people joined in don’t you think? That’s how I remember it.

JS: Well maybe so.

[DC: She didn’t remember there being tons of noodles for days. Maybe those are different events or maybe our memories just changed things.]

The third story from the same summer: there was a big wedding. There was a quiet couple that had a child already. They were there toward the end of the summer and wanted Suzuki Roshi to marry them. I was the ino still so Suzuki Roshi arranged that we’d do this ceremony in the zendo to which everyone came. Before the ceremony Suzuki Roshi asked me to come to his cabin. He told me what we’d do in the ceremony. What we’d chant. He was very specific. I’d do the bells, he’d do this, I’d hit so many bells, he’d chant that, I’d set up the altar with something to sprinkle water on them.

DC: You set it up with an ivy leaf. Ivy leaf? It’s supposed to be a fern.

JS: Oh, he looked at me very funny. He was expecting a fern. In his cabin beforehand he had the standard text he used for weddings. I said, "Roshi, I don’t understand, you read the same thing at every wedding. You say to the man you married the perfect wife for you. And then you say to the wife you have married the perfect husband. And you say that no matter who it is." And he looked at me and grinned, his little mischievous grin, and he said, "Oh, you don’t understand??" And I thought yes, I do understand. I think what he meant by that was that when we marry someone that is the perfect practice opportunity, it becomes your vehicle for understanding. This is a focus for your practice. And so whoever it is is perfect.

So we went to the zendo to do the wedding that he had laid out very clearly. We got into the zendo and he offered incense and took out his bowing cloth and was kneeling in front of the altar and I was hitting the bells. He bowed once and I went gong once. I went gong and he bowed again. Then he picked up his bowing cloth. He only bowed twice. And then, it went on like that – he didn’t do anything as he wrote it out in that cabin. So I just went with it. I could follow and even anticipate what was going to happen. It turned out to be a wonderful ceremony but not at all what we’d planned.

That was a very hot summer. And on the hottest night I canceled evening zazen because I didn’t want Suzuki Roshi to go to the zendo. He lectured the following night, and toward the end he said something about sitting zazen when it’s very hot. He said that we leave the zendo and feel some breeze. Then you can appreciate our practice. My wrist was slapped. But I didn’t care.

Diane DiPrima was with Jeanie down there and the other kids. I was in the dining room setting up for dinner and Diane was there too and Jeanie was talking about two men she'd slept with in the last two months, and Diane said to me, "I don't worry about her having sex. I just want her to be with someone who's good at it." She seemed older than thirteen. She seemed so sexually ripe. She was lucious.

You may remember, David, how I came to be ordained. Marian Derby was sequestered in the barn. Marian had decided to move down to the barn. She was on a vow of silence and she wasn’t coming up to the zendo. It was Tatsugami Roshi’s second practice period and she’d been very close with him before, but this was her retreat.

I had shaved my head. Alan Marlowe had shaved it for me at the baths, naked. Silas was the shuso then and was mad at us. I had wanted to do that for some time, so we’d done it. Tatsugami thought it was fun. I was anja. It was my first practice period with Tatsugami Roshi. I had taken an intensive course in Japanese in the summer, so could stumble around with very simple Japanese. Stan White was jisha. Dan was the director, and also the one who sorted out the Japanese.

Marian sent a note to Tatsugami saying, "These robes have arrived for me and I’ve decided I don’t want to be ordained as a priest. But I’d like to give them to JS." So Tatsugami talked to me and said, "Want to do that?" I said, "Yes," And he said, "Do you sit in full lotus?" "Yes." "Okay."

Over winter break Tatsugami went back to Japan and he brought back robes. Some of them were Marian’s robes, probably they weren’t the right size. He came back with them and we had the ordination. My parents came down to Tassajara for it, and they were pretty good about it. They liked Tatsugami and brought him some good scotch. They brought me an orchid. They sat in chairs in the zendo. Afterwards, he talked about plans. He wanted me to go to Nagoya college for women. And to a nunnery.

DC: "Well JS I remember what happened. You got ordained, and then Tatsugami started telling you he wanted you to do all this stuff and you freaked out. You went, ‘Wow I don’t want to do all that, I want to stay here at Tassajara and study with you and with Suzuki Roshi.’" He said, "No I want you to go over there and go to this Japanese college for women and go to a nunnery." I can remember the image of you hiding behind Suzuki Roshi’s robes to protect you.

JS: Oh yeah, I wanted to stay at Zen Center.

DC: But you also had an affair with him right? It was no secret. You told me you thought he was sexy.

JS: Yeah, that's right. You learn things in many ways, sometimes by doing things all wrong.

[So Tatsugami was planning to come back in the fall – after his third practice period, spring 1971. That was called off and that’s when Yvonne called JS aside. She said she never saw him again. She got a letter in the fall that said, "I look forward to seeing you in Japan."--DC]


JS: I think Katagiri helped me send a letter back to him saying I’d decided to stay in San Francisco. At the time I thought I’d be at Zen Center the rest of my life. Getting ordained seemed the thing to do in that life.

DC: And there was that bit about you in Crooked Cucumber. Grahame Petchey visited Tatsugami in Japan and Tatsugami showed him your picture and said you were his disciple. Grahame said you looked beautiful in the picture and that Tatsugami obviously was soft on you. Grahame said that his wife was right there when he showed Grahame your photo. He said he was planning to go to Tassajara and stay there eventually, that every time he went he brought more stuff with him. And then, after his third practice period, he wasn't invited back. He was trying to take over. It was time for him not to come back.

JS: Suzuki Roshi was the most remarkable person I ever met. No one else comes close. I remember driving from Tassajara to San Francisco. We each had a banana before we left. Then we got to the bottom of the ridge on the other side and we were all a little nauseous. Roshi said, "Let’s stop." He walked around the car in a circle and farted for five minutes.

From later emails:

From Suzuki-roshi, I learned that there could be a person like that. Others have mentioned how his movements flowed naturally, and how he sat down or walked. I remember this same quality in his responses to people. He responded very naturally, and simply, but from a deep place. Watching him, you could begin to understand what it means to be egoless. He didn't seem to be dragging around heavy feelings, the way most of us do, and yet he was bringing his life experience to bear on whatever happened.

I remember once some crazy guy came down the road at Tassajara. He may have been on some drug, and he was certainly angry and potentially violent. Roshi went and talked with this guy himself, and just defused the whole situation. (You were probably there, David).

I think I remember everything he ever said to me in dokusan. Those things still reverberate in my life, lo these many years later. I also remember his sense of humor, of course. Once in his cabin at Tassajara, someone told a story about some guy falling off a cliff and dying. But the way the story was told was so absurd that it was hilarious. Roshi and I started to laugh, and we were both helpless with laughter for awhile. Roshi didn't need to pretend to be sorry about some tragedy--some guy falling off a cliff--when the story was so funny. He just laughed.

From Zen Center I of course learned many things, and if you followed me around, David, you would find some of my movements, like in washing dishes and taking care of clothes--have a zenish imprint. I also loved the community of people. To this day during stretches when I'm lonely, I find myself dreaming at night about being back at Tassajara. Some sense of community, even with people I never really talked to.

Other things I learned from Zen Center, in the years just before I left, were the danger of taking the outer forms of practice too seriously, and the trap people began to fall into of thinking that they were more "spiritual" than others because they practiced at Zen Center. There are pitfalls everywhere. When I left Zen Center, I thought I wanted to try practicing in the real world, like by working at a job, and doing things that normal people did. Of course, that's very hard. Many things that I did in those next few years didn't feel much like practice.

Probably the most lasting legacy of practice at Zen Center is a sense of right livelihood. I have tried to pursue jobs, and even a career, that had some chance of being right livelihood. There are still problems all the time. But maybe that's the koan that I keep trying to figure out.

Since leaving Zen Center, I have done many different things, almost all with a connection to Asia. I did a master's degree in Chinese Studies at the University of Washington, after which (logically enough) I went to live in Nepal for 5 years. There I taught English and became director of the English Language Institute in Kathmandu.

When I came back to the U.S., I got involved in academic exchanges with China through Columbia University. Later I became a program officer with Winrock International, working in agricultural development and natural resource programs in China, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Now I'm finishing my dissertation for a doctorate from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, doing a comparative study of access to natural resources and land use for an ethnic minority group found in Southwestern China and Northern Thailand. Now I'm applying for academic positions, about to launch yet another career. It's fun stuff, but I still dream about Tassajara sometimes.