Interview with Lucy (Bennett) Calhoun

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This conversation took place at Ashland Farm outside of Atlanta where Lucy and her husband, Clay Calhoun live and work. She was also a nurse for years. It's one of the first interviews I did.

Ashland Farm - Lucy and Clay's home and biz. Lynn Hennelly (Hesselbart) is also with the farm.

I hear Suzuki Roshi all the time: There's nowhere to go. It's raining everywhere.

DC: I'd pulled most the Suzuki Roshi material from Thank You & OK and (friend and agent) Michael Katz said that the collective memory of Suzuki Roshi will be lost if we don't act soon and I'm interested in getting that and what people have to say about him and what that will reveal about him and them. I'm interested in those people.

LC: Didn't Suzuki Roshi, when preparing people for his death, say he had confidence in the shared understanding of the teaching? That it would keep Zen Center on track because there was a wide body of people who had practiced with him, that there was a collective wisdom.

DC: I hope he did say it.

LC: What I remember is Richard Baker saying that Suzuki Roshi struggled with whether to focus his energy on teaching one or two people, devoting the time necessary to fully transmit the Dharma, or whether to give his time to creating a wider understanding within the community, within the Sangha, and that he had chosen the community.

DC: Dick said in an interview that he promoted the person church and I remember him using a metaphor of the temple being one stalk of wheat. But maybe it's the wisdom of the group that will survive.

(The following was edited in the summer of 2018 -lc)

LC: You asked how I came to Zen Center.  In the fall of 1967 I was a sophomore at Harvard, and I was physically and emotionally a mess.  I had no idea what I wanted to study, or what I wanted to do with my life.  I had no energy, no interest in much of anything, and I didn't feel good most of the time.  Basically, I was pretty miserable, and I had no idea how to help myself.  A friend, Craig Boyen, gave me a brochure about Tassajara.  When I read it, I felt a surge of hope.  I thought if I could go to that place and just sit down and sit still for a few weeks I would be all right.  I would know what I should do.  But then I had to figure out how to get there.  My parents wanted me to stay in school — of course.  They certainly didn't want me to go off to some unknown group in California.  I had no money of my own and not a lot of energy — or initiative. Somehow I ended up marrying someone just about as messed up as me, and the two of us drove to California.

I remember the first time I sat Zazen.  It was at Sokoji, the old Jewish temple on Bush Street.  Gordon and I walked into the zendo — it must have been after zazen had started.  We just stood there, not sure what to do.  Suzuki Roshi got up from his zafu, brought us out to the balcony area, and gave us zazen instruction.  It was pretty short.

DC: Some people Suzuki Roshi would give a thirty second zazen instruction to and they'd never have another one.   

LC: Zazen made sense to me from that first period.  Suzuki Roshi created a zazen environment that was very powerful.  And that's what I wanted.  I wasn't particularly interested in lectures in the beginning.  I just loved zazen.

DC: Not the guru but the group?

LC: Just zazen really. Not so much the teacher or the group.  I didn't even particularly think of him as my teacher. 

DC: That's how I approached it when I was first there and I got more and more involved with him as time went on.

LC: One of the things that I particularly appreciated about zazen when I first got there was that there was absolutely no point to it. It had no worldly benefit. There were Japanese priests and American students. There was nothing visible to gain from sitting or not sitting.  Later there was a hierarchy and there were American priests and you could "advance" if you were "a good student" but at the beginning it wasn't like that.  It was just zazen.

I also remember, a little later, when I was going to lectures more regularly, asking a question — which I no longer remember — and being puzzled by Suzuki Roshi's answer.  The problem for me was I didn't know if he answered me the way he did because he misunderstood me, or because he did understand me, and that was his answer. 

DC: I wondered that sometimes and came to the conclusion that he was answering my deep question — it seemed like it. 

LC:  So that was in 1968.  Gordon and I had gotten to Tassajara, at least for a few weeks as guest students in the summer, and we had moved into one of the Bush Street houses across from Sokoji in the fall, but then Gordon decided he wanted to study Sensory Awareness with Charlotte Selver.  He decided to go to Monhegan Island in Maine where Charlotte led a summer long session and then on to NYC to continue studying with her.  I went with him.  It wasn't until the fall of 1970 that I found my way back to Zen Center, separated from Gordon, and moved into "The City Center", the newly acquired building on Page Street. So getting to Zen Center was a long, slow, messy process.  When I moved into Page Street it was really the beginning for me.  I no longer had other commitments that took precedence. I wasn't waiting to get back to anything or trying to move forward to anything. 

It was an extraordinary time.  Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi were both there.  We knew Suzuki Roshi was sick, but he was so very present — in the Zendo and around the building.  Sometimes he would eat in the dining room with us, sitting at one of the tables, staying after the clappers, after the end of the silent meal, to answer questions.  (I loved how he answered these — often off the wall — informal questions.  I remember one person asking a question that somehow made me feel embarrassed for her — I don't remember why — but Suzuki Roshi took it completely seriously and gave an answer I remember thinking was wonderful.)  He led several sesshins during that time. It was during one of those sesshins I came to realize I wanted to make practice my way of life.   During dokusan — the only dokusan I ever had with Suzuki Roshi — I told him how I felt.  He started talking to me about shaving my head, putting on robes and going to Japan.  I'd heard a little from Joyce Browning about her time in Japan, and I didn't think I would do well at all there.  And it didn't make sense to me to think about leaving when I had only just arrived.   I told him I didn't know myself well enough to deal with trying to practice in Japan.  He didn't say anything more about Japan, he just started talking about breathing. 

DC: But what do you think of that? A lot of people would then make that their life goal — they'd drop everything at anything he said — you must have thought for yourself.

LC: I didn't understand why he brought it up.  Maybe he thought it was the best way for an American woman to commit to practice, but I knew I couldn't have done it.

DC: It's shocking to me to think he thought there could be benefit from going to Japan but maybe that's not what he was thinking.

LC: One day, at Sunday morning lecture in the Buddha Hall, Suzuki Roshi started talking about what to do if you are on a journey, and you lose your driver.  It was devastating.  Even though we all knew he was sick, it was completely devastating.

After that I didn't ask for dokusan with Suzuki Roshi again.  There were so many people who had already developed a close relationship with him.  I didn't want to take his time.  My sense of commitment to practice didn't change, but I was willing to wait for an American teacher.

I went to Tassajara that fall. Suzuki Roshi was scheduled to lead the practice period but he was too sick.  Katagiri Roshi led the practice period.  Suzuki Roshi died that December, on the 4th day of Rohatsu Sesshin.

So that is how I came to Zen Center.

The next part of my story is harder to tell.  Even to myself I can describe the next eight or nine years before I left in a number of different ways. Whatever I say, it never seems quite right, but I'll try anyway.  

When I got to Tassajara in the fall of 1971, I just wanted to sit.  My hope was still very much the same hope I had felt when I first read the Tassajara Brochure: somehow, if I could just slow down enough, become quiet enough, I would find a way to live that felt more wholehearted and authentic.  I was Anja for Katagiri Roshi during the Spring Practice Period after Suzuki Roshi died, and I felt myself begin to settle.  Katagiri Roshi had a wonderful phrase "to settle the self on the self".  The following fall, I was asked to be treasurer — but only on the condition that I would agree to stay at Tassajara as treasurer for a full year.  I was thrilled.  Treasurer was a quiet, focused job and it didn't conflict with the zendo schedule.  It was exactly what I wanted

That was the fall of 1972 and it was the first practice period Baker Roshi led.  About half way through the practice period I was at a staff meeting.  We were working on a list of recommendations for Guest Season staff positions to send up to the council when Baker Roshi came in. He started talking about Zen Center and the kinds of things that would be necessary to establish a sustainable future for Zen Center, Zen Center's importance to the future of Zen in America, and of his own new life and role.  Among other things, he said he was going to need a full-time assistant, and, he told the staff, he would like for me to move back up to the city to become his assistant.  He had asked me to do a few small things for him, transcribe a few letters he had dictated, but he hadn't talked with me about leaving Tassajara.

Aside from total shock, my feelings were quite mixed.  I felt honored, and intrigued, but I also didn't want to go.  I knew it would be an amazing opportunity, but I also knew I shouldn't go.  It was too soon for me to leave. I wasn't ready to plunge back into a high stress, complicated life.  I asked Reb, the Shuso, to speak to Roshi for me, to support me in my need to stay.   Looking back, I can't quite reconstruct why I couldn't just ask to stay, explain why I didn't want to go.  But I couldn't, and didn't, and left Tassajara on New Year's Day, 1973.

As Baker Roshi's assistant, I threw myself as whole-heartedly as I could into whatever I was asked to do.  I tried to think of what I was doing as "practicing in the market place" — the last of the Ox Herding pictures.  It was intense, and very interesting and I learned a lot.  I was based at Green Gulch, but in fact usually went with Baker Roshi, often driving him, as he travelled between the three places, Green Gulch, City Center and Tassajara.  I remember getting very little sleep, and not getting to the Zendo with any regularity, and there was another problem.  As is now public knowledge, Baker Roshi had initiated a personal relationship with me shortly after I left Tassajara.  Although I denied it was a problem, especially at the beginning, it was a problem.  The confidentiality of the job, and the fact that I wasn't on the same schedule as anyone else tended to make me somewhat separate from the community.  The secrecy of the relationship also isolated me, but I think the most serious problem for me was the effect it had on my practice, and on my practice relationship with Baker Roshi.  It made me less sure of myself, less grounded in my own solitude.  I think one needs the strength of aloneness in order to fully meet a teacher.  (Brother David Stendl-Rast's wonderful question: "On whose authority do you believe?" comes to mind.)  I think this relationship also altered, and muddied, Baker Roshi's understanding of me. He knew me well, but on this point I think he fundamentally misunderstood me, my motivation, my desire to practice.  We had discussed ordination before I left Tassajara, but after I moved up to the city, each time an ordination was planned, he told me, because of our relationship, he didn't trust that I was ready.

Over the next several years I held various practice positions at Zen Center.  With hind sight I realize what rich, unique experiences and learning opportunities these were.  I was one of the early companions sent to live with the author Nancy Wilson Ross on Long Island, in Florida and in the Adirondacks.  Through her books she introduced many Westerners to Buddhism and Eastern ways of thought, and through her amazing openness in sharing her life and thoughts with us, including us as family in much of her social life, she introduced many of her young Zen companions to a deeper understanding and appreciation of our own Western culture.  When I returned, although I continued to work off and on as Roshi's assistant, I also held various administrative positions, participating on the Council and Board.  There was enormous energy and creativity through those years as Baker Roshi and Zen Center worked to create a sustainable practice community.  Watching the development of Green Gulch Farm, the Green Gulch Green Grocer, the Tassajara Bread Bakery, The Neighborhood Foundation, The Wheelwright Center, Greens Restaurant, participating in discussions of staffing, trying to match community members with appropriate work practice positions,  being part of financial discussions, learning how to make complicated finances clear, being awed by the determination that saved Tassajara from the massive Marble Cone Forest Fire, it was extraordinary to be part of all of this.  The problem, I finally admitted to myself, was — I really wasn't doing so well, and I didn't see how things were going to change, unless I did something different.  I was still struggling with many of the same personal issues that first led me to seek out zazen and Tassajara.  For one reason or another I was rarely able to follow the full zazen schedule or to sit a full, uninterrupted, sesshin.  Admittedly I was (I still am) a workaholic.  A different person might well have found a way to follow the schedule more closely, but I hadn't.  I wasn't doing well, something needed to change, and the idea of leaving, which for years hadn't even been a thought, began drifting across my mind.  

Oddly, it was about that time Baker Roshi asked me if I still wanted to be ordained.  I said yes, although I probably shouldn't have.  Not long after ordination I went to Roshi to ask to go back to Tassajara or to be transferred to a position in which I could focus on zazen and practice.   Instead, he and the Council asked me to be Tenzo, head cook, at Green Gulch.  I knew Zen Center was stretched thin trying to meet the staffing needs of the three centers and the businesses, but this was about as far from a zendo oriented position as I could imagine.  As Tenzo I would be responsible for the food for a 60-person community, 7 days a week, 3 meals a day.  It would not only be a high stress, demanding job, it would also mean, once again, that I would rarely be able to get to the zendo. The kitchen staff was scheduled to leave the zendo after the first period of zazen in the morning, and, of course, we would cook for, not sit, Sesshins.  I was some combination of overwhelmed, discouraged and depressed.  I was Tenzo for about a year.  Then, once again, I talked to Roshi about going back to Tassajara.  I'm not quite sure why he answered the way he did.  Maybe I don't remember it right, but what I heard was that Tassajara was for students who were actively working with him — as if I weren't his student, and wouldn't want to work with him. The personal relationship had ended, but did that mean our practice relationship had ended as well?  I didn't understand what he was saying, or why he was saying it, but I didn't ask.  I don't remember saying much of anything.  Once again, with hindsight, I have no idea why I didn't just ask.  But I didn't.  I left Zen Center not long after that.

So — this is one description of how I came to Zen Center and why I left.  It's as true as I've been able to make it at the moment, but it doesn't feel balanced. The focus feels too small.  So much of the good is left out.  I treasure the time I had at Zen Center and all the ways it has — and continues to — inform and enrich my life.  I left, but I am deeply grateful to Suzuki Roshi, to Katagiri Roshi, to Baker Roshi, to everyone who helped create it, and to everyone helping it continue.   I am profoundly grateful for the time I had there.