Interview With Art Atkinson

[Art has continued his relationship with the SFZC, coming on Saturdays. For years and years he helped with every other Saturday lunch. He's a schoolteacher, maybe retired by now, and lives in SF with his wife Erica] I had a lot written about him and Barton Stone (who lives near me in Sonoma County) that I really liked but which hit the cutting room floor in the course of preparing Crooked Cucumber. Below is a transcript of a tape he sent me back around '94 or so. Liz Tuomi typed it out. The transcript was prepared for the website by Richard Speel and I went over it and then Art sent me some changes when a friend printed it up for him. Updated with him 9/25/02-- DC]

Art & Bart, a chapter cut from Crooked Cucumber.

Art Atkinson letter to the SFZC about Shunryu Suzuki

This was probably October, 1960. Suzuki Roshi had been in San Francisco maybe a little over a year then. He had a place, the old Jewish temple, on Bush Street. Beautiful wooden building. He had a zendo upstairs that overlooked the street, so when you were sitting zazen you'd hear the traffic going by, heading downtown. It was a nice-sized room, with good diffused light in the afternoon. I had dropped out of college - I was all screwed up like we all were then- looking for truth, looked in the phone book, saw Zen Temple, went down there - it was a beautiful old place, banged on the door on the left which was the Go Club, the guy comes out and says no it's the door on the right. I go bang on that door and someone told me to come back at five am the next day.

I think the main thing is that the few folks of us that were there then - and I was only there a couple of months before I went off to become a dumb-ass soldier boy. The main thing was, nobody knew he was a big shot, nobody knew he was a Roshi, he was just - he was the genuine thing, he was from Japan and he was Japanese and he wore robes and he looked happy -- first of all we didn't know the word Roshi. We knew all about Zen masters, those were guys in Japan that were enlightened, you know. And this guy was over here, so he wasn't one of those. But he was a nice guy, and I guess if we ever thought about it, put a word on it, or a phrase, he would be a temple priest, something like that. But he was definitely the real thing. He was Japanese and this was Zen, even though this was Soto, and we didn't know anything about Soto cause it wasn't in the books. The books were all that good hot shot artistic and samurai stuff, Rinzai stuff.

I sat in the morning. There might have been maybe six or seven or eight at the most of us for a morning sitting. There was some weird thing with fours and nines . . . I don't think I ever figured out that it wasn't open every day [no zazen on days with a four or nine in the date]. But if you got everybody together, like we did once, when some big honcho came over from Japan, some big Soto guy, and he wanted to see what was happening here in San Francisco, everybody got into the zendo for zazen and there was maybe 24, 26 people, I'd say. Women would sit on one side, over along the windows that faced out onto Bush Street. And we dudes would sit on the other side. Of course we faced the wall. Always, even in the morning when there were only a few people sitting, the women would be on one side of the zendo and the men on the other.

There were benches, church pews, in between, kind of close to the altar, so maybe, probably Wednesday night, he'd come in and we'd sit zazen, and then he'd give us a lecture which none of us ever understood. The English wasn't that good, and it was all about stuff we didn't understand, about Zen stuff, you know. But we figured we knew something even if you didn't know the words you'd just look at his hands and his body and that would teach everything you needed to know, or something like that.

This was definitely 1960. Bill Kwong was there and stayed on. There was a young man Paul Alexander was there who was interested in that organ down below, the Jewish organ. He wanted to rebuild that baby. It was a beautiful old golden colored brass thing. There was some crazy girl, maybe 22 or something like that. Crazy out of her mind. She'd walk around during zazen making weird sounds and getting on everybody's case. We were doing stuff wrong, or something, maybe our ears were twitching or something, and she'd be up and down on our backs. I guess Suzuki Roshi didn't mind at all. He never said anything to her, just let her be. Maybe it was his intelligent way like that. But she was in the way and it didn't bother him at all.

We didn't really do much. We weren't involved in the running of the zendo like happened about three years later. I came out of the army and went back for a couple of sittings and then disappeared. By that time -- this would be like early 1963 -- by that time Bill Kwong would have been what we later came to know as a Doan, sitting up there hitting bells. And other people had ongoing temple responsibilities. And there was an organization and a mailing list, and there were dues and stuff. But back then nobody really did anything. We just showed up and tried to sit zazen. But I was afraid that people would see through me so after a few times I stopped coming till ten or fifteen years later - in ‘74, three years after he died.

The first time I got there was on one of those four and nine days or something when nobody was supposed to be there. Morning zazen -- it was probably about 5:20 when we'd sit -- there was just one woman there plus myself. I don't know what the deal was. She maybe made an appointment to see him. She had just come back from Asia and she was all glowing about all these things she'd seen and he was showing her his temple and I just happened to be there and he let me hang around and he showed us how to do zazen and told us. She was a short woman and slight. [At first I thought this was Elsie Mitchell but in going over dates with her and Art I now have my doubts.-DC] 

I came back after he showed me how to take shoes off, cause that's another thing -- we didn't know you were supposed to take your shoes off when you went into the zendo. He showed me how to take the shoes off. Very gently. That was the thing. He was very human. I guess that's the first thing I noticed. I don't notice anything then. I thought I was some intellectual giant and the world would learn what it needed to know soon from me and people like me, you know, that were so dumb ass in love with ourselves we thought we knew everything. So I couldn't see much of anything beyond myself, except that got through. He showed me how to take my shoes off to go into the zendo. You got a contact with something real there, a real human being doing a teaching. Very soft and gentle and touching. He touched you with his presence. In a simple matter like that and with an awkward screwed up boy. 

He knew I was screwed up and I thought I was superior to everybody and he knew that and he was very gentle about it. He had a nice way of indicating how I should take my shoes off. We'd take little bamboo beach mats and fold them out to sit on and he had such a gentle way to show me how to do it so there was some artistry in unfolding that thing. Very nice artistry.

Oh, yeah - when we got in there, whoever was there that morning - not many of us - as I went in - it was my first time really sitting with some other folks -- he says, "You must greet me." O.k., fine, alright. We're willing to do that. What I didn't know was it meant that when he would walk around after some bells were rung circumambulating the zendo, and we were supposed to bow to him, which I suppose everybody else did, but I didn't and he never said anything about that. Maybe that was his way. To let us find out what to do. I don't know.

But we didn't know how to sit, of course, and the posture was horrible, but he gave us very very basic instruction, tried to show us how to put our bodies so we could sit, which we couldn't do. So he let us sit any way we could. The main thing probably was to stay on that cushion for however long we were there -- forty minutes. And then he told us about breathing, too, and keeping the eyes open which nobody did. But the intent was to start off very simply and do it in the pure simple way of crossed legs and straight back and folded hands and thumbs barely touching and concentrating on the breath and counting breaths and staying there. About the only thing we could do -- we couldn't do any of that other stuff -- except we could stay there. We could stay there as best we could.

There wasn't any organization then. There weren't any dues, for instance, no mailing lists, no people you really expected to be there all the time, cause we were all transient. No steering committee. Basically no organization at all, except people hurting and wanting and coming there to try and get something and of course Zen was real big in the underground culture at that time.

There was one woman -- I'll bet she was in her early thirties. Her husband was over there, he was doing the real thing, he was over there in a monastery somewhere in Japan. But the way our minds worked back then, if you wanted to get enlightened you went to Japan, so we'd sit around and talk and this lady's husband was there. She'd say something like, "One of these days one of these Americans that actually goes over there, they're going to end up enlightened, they're going to come back here and become teachers for us," and stuff, and we figured that's how it worked. The way to get enlightened was to go to Japan. If you went there, went to a temple or a monastery, you're going to get enlightened, and then you come back to America and help us out. It never occurred to us that we were all enlightened at the moment -- anyway -- forget that crap. Jesus. It never occurred to us that things would happen here. You had to go to Japan. Then of course it was different over there. Like you got worms in your stomach. This guy had -- she was sending him charcoal or something like that for him to eat to kill the worms and get rid of the diarrhea. The point probably is that if you wanted the real stuff you went to Japan. If you were doing it here you were doing something else -- American diffused whatever. No, it's not so.

It must have been that he took us the way we were. I don't think he ever asked anybody to change. Or if he did, it was all private. By that I mean -- there was one fellow, I forget his name, a bearded guy, kind of patriarchy, he had some property over on what's now the north slope of Bernal Heights. Lee Christianson. Then it was just off in Yucatan or something. That part of the city was like being in Yucatan. He had a real old beat up Victorian home. Then he'd built about four cottages there, just ramshackle things, no code or nothing. I don't even think they had water in them. Just electricity. No toilets or something. They had the hill behind them. Barton Stone was there. Those two guys were buddies. The guy that had the house, he'd been in the Air Force over in Japan. Suddenly got the ass, turned in his uniform and all that business, and took off, started walking to India. How do you walk to India from Japan I don't know, but he headed off in that direction with a trunk load of books he's probably hauling along behind him on the trail or something. Quit the Air Force, just walked away from it -- I don't know how that worked out. I think he was a free man here in San Francisco. He gave Barton Stone a place to stay.

Barton was a good dude. He'd been in the National Guard in the South somewhere. Somewhere it came into his mind that this military stuff was a bunch of crap, so he did the same thing, he turned in his uniform and webbed gear and all that stuff, and walked out on the National Guard. A supply sergeant hollered at him that he hadn't turned in his blankets or something like that. I don't believe it now, but Barton said he walked into the middle of a five-day sesshin. It might have been like maybe the second sesshin Suzuki Roshi held with probably five or six people sitting, somebody doing the cooking, him doing the overseeing, but Barton said he walked in there like maybe on the second or third day. Cause the third day was the big thing. The few people that had sat sesshins -- we'd sit around like at Bill Kwong's place and smoke our weed and talk . . .(156) intellectual and enlightened talk. Although I don't know if Bill ever smoked the weed. The rest of us of course were stoned real nicely and we'd do all our intellectual type talk. The guys that had done sesshins would always say the third day was the hardest. After that you were o.k. You weren't o.k., but it wasn't so hard.

I think Barton came in like on the second or third day, and he said it never got no easier, it just got harder and harder. I don't know if that story's true, but if it is, it says something. The man there, Suzuki Roshi -- I don't even know what we called him. We called him Sensei. That was it, we called him Sensei. He just took this guy and let him sit. He didn't know how to sit and sat whichever way he could.

So then there was that accepting type stuff. He let old Barton sit. He didn't know who he was. Accepting things because -- that was like early December 1960. Pretty quickly I went down to Fort Ord to be stupid -- be a soldier boy. So I was saying good-bye to Sensei. He said something like, "It'll be good for you." Same time old Barton, shit, he heard about some outfit was getting together down in San Jose. Cold War stuff. Wait a minute, let me try to figure this out. I don't know what it was. I'll try it this way. This time old Barton he heard about this outfit getting together in San Jose. They're going to walk to Moscow. Jesus, you know. I never understood that. We thought that the Ruskies were bad and we were good. But we could walk across Europe and walk right into Russia and all the way to Moscow and they let us in there, you know. There wasn't no way in hell we were gonna let any of those Ruskies come into America. They weren't going to let any of them get out, but they'd let our people walk in there, like Barton did. Anyway, he just took off going down the road to San Jose. Hooked up with this group and they headed east, walked across the U.S. Somewhere in the Midwest around Ohio, a young lady joined the group and they ended up getting married somewhere along the way -- took the boat across the big one over there, the Atlantic, walked across Europe, through Eastern Europe, ended up in Moscow. Came back and somewhere along the way Barton went off on some magnificent tall ships, sailing sloop, went down into the H-bomb testing area in the South Pacific, trying to raise hell -- that is, they were about to do a test, you just send a sloop in there with some people on it -- if you do the test you blow up your own kind, you blow up the people.

Barton was all involved in that, and again -- there's a point there. I was taking the low road, going down, being a soldier boy in a new Army green uniform. Barton was going in the other direction, and from what I could tell, to Suzuki Roshi, to sensei we were both the same dude. Both were o.k. I know he said to me, "It'll be good for you." I don't know if he said anything to Barton, but he might have said the same thing to Barton. No difference from his point of view between either one of us, what we were doing.

Years later, like 'seventy-five or something, I ran into Barton, my hero, again. He was back out at Green Gulch at that time, having trouble with whomever his wife was at the time. He and I were in jail a little bit. Not much, just a little bit down there at Livermore in 1983, when Zen Center got hooked up in the radicalism that Baker Roshi got involved in so much.

Like I said earlier, there was this big heavy guy from Soto Zen in Japan. He might have been like the high potentate commissioner or something like that of Soto Zen in Japan. Anyway, he came out, probably in November of 'sixty to see what was happening in San Francisco. I don't remember him coming in. I don't think we went out to greet him. We went out to see him off. There were a whole bunch of us, maybe like eleven people standing out there. It was neat then, because then you got to walk out on the blacktop, on the asphalt. And the plane was sitting there with its propellers. And they had these steps walking right up to it. So that was real intimate, you got to walk right out to the plane and walk up and down the steps, instead of going through these corridors that they wheel out to the plane now. So we're standing out there on the asphalt, I think seeing this fellow off. He's in traveling clothes so he's not glowing. When he was in the temple he's had on these golden babies with the polished, lacquered head. He was glowing all over the place. Although, a big dude, he looked like a Sumo wrestler or something like that. Anyway, going onto the plane he was dressed pretty subdued. But we were dressed like a bunch of -- oh I don't know -- if Nixon would have seen us he would have got eighty-four thousand million more votes. He could have just pointed to us and then the rest of America would have voted for him to get rid of us. We looked like a bunch of -- you didn't have hippies then and I don't think you had beatniks. Yeah, we were a bunch of beatniks, that's probably what we were, and radicals, and the whole thing was coming, and the anti-war things was coming. It was a real good looking group, actually, out there. It wasn't like a bunch of freakos.

Again, there's a point in there, I think. That was all fine with Sensei. I don't know what the big guy thought about it all, but he didn't -- oh, I don't know about that, but anyway -- that was all fine with Suzuki Roshi. I guess we were what was there and what was there was o.k. We didn't look like America, but -- ah, forget it. Jesus.

Again, whoever we were it didn't matter who we were -- that's not it either. Oh it's simple. Whatever we were, whatever anybody was, he just accepted you.

Earlier, there was a big big big ceremony in the former Jewish temple there, downstairs that was a regular nine-to-five Sunday School go-to-church-on-Sunday group. Thousands of Japanese people in there come to see the big potentate. He was glowing. Big guy, Sumo wrestler, had on these golden robes and that lacquered head, and all that business. He was walking tall and stomping big. After that formal ceremony down there -- I don't know if it was the same day or, it might have been just a regular Wednesday night sitting before lecture. Maybe that was it. I don't think it would have happened at the 5:20 thing in the morning, but there was a sitting where Suzuki Roshi had asked everybody to come in. Everybody was there. Probably twenty-five people in the zendo, women on one side, men on the other. That freaked out girl, she wasn't messing up. I don't know what happened that she didn't do her number, but she wasn't messing things up. That was whacking night. That surprised me. That was whacking night. He was glowing.

Suzuki Roshi was in his dark robes. I don't think he wore brown. He never wore gold. I don't think he wore brown. I think he wore simple priest's black like on the cover of his book. But he was glowing that night, Jesus, and walking around whacking everybody. I don't know why he was whacking. We never got whacked in there during the regular zazen. He always carried the stick, but he never did any whacking, but he was whacking right and left and just happier than hell. I was sneaking looks, you know, cause this big time big shot going on stuff. I was a little surprised that he whacked people, but again, if there's a point here, -- nah, anyway he was very pleased. Very very pleased with that group of people that night. You could tell it. He was tickled to death, tickled to death.

There was a morning in the fall of 1960, where, after 5AM zazen, think we started sitting then, that early, and this was probably the second or third week of only a couple months I hung around there, that the few folks who’d shown up for zazen were cleaning the zendo. Probably it was early in the second week because I didn’t know much of how things worked there, didn’t know what was going on with the people bustling about getting cleaning equipment, was too shy or proud or superior/ screwed up to ask so sat instead outside in the area where shoes got left before entering the zendo, there was a long, low padded bench there to help with the de-shoeing.

I was sitting on it not knowing what was going on in the zendo all alone feigning deep, heavy thought, but actually not knowing my tail from a hole in the ground, when Suzuki-roshi appeared next to me.

He didn’t come into the alcove (which, of course, he did), but to me it was as if he wasn’t there, then suddenly silently materialized and said something like, Please help, or Please join us. This is Buddhism too.

The "This is Buddhism too," I know he did say exactly.

And again, it was that quiet, strong gentleness he had, inclusive presence, non-judging, helping way of his.

Back to Suzuki on Peace and War