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Interview With Barton Stone


I went to college at Florida State U. but my parents had moved all around the South - Miss and Alabama. I dropped out of college in my third year of school and had gotten more interested in Buddhism and poetry than the curriculum there. It was the days of the Dharma Bums. I think it had been published then. I know Howl had.

So I made my way to San Francisco and found Suzuki-roshi through my landlord and friend, Lee Christianson. He'd been in Japan during the Korean war and had gotten very taken with Japan and it's culture. He saw an article in the Japanese-American Citizens League Newspaper that Suzuki-roshi was going to be teaching something or meeting people at Sokoji temple - maybe an open house. So Lee went there and came back and told me about it. He'd made some connection with Suzuki-roshi and liked it. We found out he was sitting zazen every morning and having lectures every Sunday. This was like in April or May of 1960 - I'd come up from Mexico in January or February.

So we started going in the morning and learning how to sit and it was my first experience of Buddhism that wasn't just from a book and it was very exciting. And we ended up sitting the first sesshin at Sokoji in the summer of 1960. It was a five or six day sitting. I think we ended it with the Sunday morning lecture. Suzuki-roshi did the bells and mokugyo and lead the chanting by himself. Bill Kwong was his main helper, so Bill did some of that stuff too. The zendo upstairs had folding chairs against the back wall and tatami mats against the walls with zabutons and zafus. Sometimes people would use a chair to sit in but mainly we sat on the cushions. The chairs were mainly for the Sunday lectures. I remember Betty Warren and Della Goertz. I really didn't sit very much before that first sesshin. It was five or six days.

Suzuki was just such a delightful person who seemed to take great pleasure in everything that was happening around him. He was just full of chuckles and I liked that. I could understand very little of them. Months and months later I realized that he knew lots of words but that his pronunciation made it so that it was a long time before I could remember what he was saying. One word I remember was ahteetut. It was attitude and I had heard it a thousand times before it was anything but nonsence sylables to me. I went to the lectures anyway. I enjoyed his pleasure in things a lot - his earnestness and sincerity. He was sitting there everyday if anybody came or not. Normally the morning group around the time of the sesshin was six or eight. I don't remember an afternoon sitting.

I talked to him the first time I guess the week after that sesshin in the morning and we would acknowledge each other then. I don't remember him bowing to people after zazen then from his office. After zazen he'd just leave and sometimes we'd be standing around talking and he'd reappear and we would talk with him individually. But he was hard to understand and mainly I just remember him laughing and being friendly and chuckling. And we'd have tea in the kitchen.

In 1960 I walked across America with a group called the Committee For Non-violent Action that included some Quakers and some Democratic Socialists like AJ[?] Mustie and included A Philip Randolf head of the Pullman Porters Union, David Dillenger of the Chicago 7. It was with an anti-nuclear group that had protested against nuclear weapons in the fifties and continued on. So this was a project of theirs. We walked for non-violent resistance to the idea of peace through strength and nukes and to joining the army. It was to be a walk to Moscow and I went to see them off but liked it and so I started walking with them - twelve of us - and they had room for me to sleep with them the first night. So I walked with them toward LA for another day and then another and then I went back to San Francisco and told my roommate I was leaving and quit my job and I went and talked with Suzuki-roshi. We walked from LA through Arizona and New Mexico - Birchers were following us there and demonstrating against us. And we went through the pan handle of Texas to Saint Louis to Chicago to Washington and New York.

A lady who joined us in Texas, Martha, and I started getting pretty close and by Chicago we were lovers. We all flew to England and then took a ferry to France where they refused us because they were almost having a coup because of losing Algiers and so they didn't want protesters of any kind there. We jumped off the ferry and two of us made it to Paris but the rest of us were caught and thrown in jail, treated pretty harshly, and put back on the ferry the next morning. So we went through Belgium to West Germany and got there the day East Germany closed the border - what led to the Berlin wall - and they wouldn't take us and sent us back but they finally let us through to Poland by bus. Poland was great. The people there were into enjoying life. But when we walked into the Soviet Union we could feel the iron curtain. People there were patriotic like in America. The motto of the government was peace but they didn't like us because some people were turning on to us. Some would tell us they sympathized with what we were doing. So the government cut our time in half and tried to get us to take busses but we wouldn't do it so we had to walk thirty-five miles a day in Moscow and we were tired when we got there. Martha and I had gotten married in West Germany. Ten of the original twelve finished the walk.

After the first three days, when I went to town to get my stuff and all, I went to zazen at Sokoji and afterwards talked to Suzuki-roshi in the balcony behind the kitchen. I showed him newspaper articles about it and told him what it was about and he was very enthusiastic about me going on it. He was very supportive. When I came back to San Francisco it was probably March or so of 1962. There were a lot more people there at Sokoji. Grahame was there and Dick and Suzuki's English was a lot better.

I was very involved in activism at the time and Buddhism wasn't the main thing on my mind. I'd go and sit. I went to Sausalito and helped a guy build a sailboat, the Everyman, and we were sailing to the South Pacific to Christmas Island to try to stop the last of the atmospheric nuclear tests - it was still sixty-two I think. We got stopped about a hundred miles out from the Farollones Islands and were given a year in jail - five of us - for intending to interfere in the nuclear tests. We stayed in jail for eight months till the tests were over. Then there was the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

They would have let us out earlier but we wouldn't say we wouldn't sail out again so they kept us in. We were at Santa Rita a San Francisco County facility out past Walnut Creek where they kept some federal prisoners. After I'd been there for three weeks or a month, I think Dick Baker drove Suzuki-roshi out to see me. I just met with Suzuki - in a room. It was very interesting. Obviously they'd never seen anyone like him before. He waved over his shoulder at the guys there to play with them, the guards - he played with them. I didn't know he was coming. He laughed a lot. I told him about how I did zazen in the morning in the prison dormatory. There were fifteen or twenty cots on each side of the room and I'd wake up in the morning without an alarm clock and fold over my pillow and sit there. One morning a guard came in to check on us and he flashed his flashlight around the room and when he got to me he stopped it at me for a while and I just kept on sitting and then he went away. Then there were the sound of more footsteps and then there were more flashlights on me and I just kept on sitting and someone said, what are you doing, son? and I said sitting zazen and he said, oh and they went away.

So I told Suzuki about that and he got a kick out of that. I was just so impressed that he'd come all that way to see me. I'd never established a master\disciple relationship with him like a lot of people. To me he was wonderful but just one of many teachers I'd had. He may have felt more responsible to me than I to him as a teacher.

Okusan showed me a picture of Suzuki-roshi walking in a march in Japan - it was a Hiroshima day march I think and he was part of the Buddhist contingent. Dan Welche's sister was living with Martha at the time. I don't know how she got involved with Zen Center. She wasn't there in Bernal Heights when I got out of prison. Lee Christiansen had had a marriage go bad with a Hawaiian or Japanese woman and he turned to drinking a lot and that did him in. Shortly after that we went to Berkeley and didn't sit much after that. We'd come over the bridge for lectures now and then. I think the last time I saw him was before Tassajara. I was more interested in political activism. We went to Chicago to organize the workers.

People would ask him a lot about satori and enlightenment after lectures and he'd discourage too much involvement with that. We'd all read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki and Jack Kerouack (who I still love and appreciate what they did and what they had to offer but Suzuki just gave us a bigger picture, a different way to look at it all that was less idealistic and more down to earth. That's how we'd come to it but he would just laugh if we asked him to tell us about enlightenment or what was it like or how to we break through to that. He worked hard at that and tried to get us to back off of that and more into being aware and kind to each other and into everyday life. Gary Snyder said once at dinner at his place that to him there is such a thing as enlightenment and that the best way to it is through working on koans. But Suzuki's teaching was not like that. It was kindness and attention. He was always completely there, really engaged in what he was doing.

DC: It's like my father-in-law always being asked about flying saucers when he's lecturing on space travel and the environment and peace. He gets tired of all the UFO questions in Russia.

Yeah, it was like that.

I went to Green Gulch with Martha and our kids, Alan and Ananda from 74 to 78 or 79 and then we broke up and I went to Bolinas where I lived with you and Liz. Until ten years ago I was an atheist but since then I've been into the goddess. I can see God as a woman. Martha went to Texas to study midwifery and she runs a center for that now.

Barton Stone

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