Interview with Ken Berman

Ken Berman

Maybe this is a letter Ken sent. He doesn't do email.

Not dated – maybe it was like 2001. I think Dennis Samson suggested I get hold of his old dharma friend Ken.

Ken was one of the youngest males to go through tangaryo and practice steadily at Tassajara. I think he was maybe fifteen when he started but maybe six or seventeen. Leland Smithson might have started younger - at sixteen. - dc

Stories of Suzuki Roshi

I remember Suzuki Roshi's being a very kind and gentle man. I think you would say he was a glowing ‑‑ very glowing energy. He seemed like the old sages of Asia ‑‑ China, Japan, or India ‑‑ he had that energy, especially of a Taoist sage of China. He had that kind of energy. He was playful, warm. You could feel very intimate with him. He was very open - to what was happening with American students, and how he related to them.

I remember one time after a sesshin, probably a seven‑day sesshin, or a five‑day sesshin ‑‑ just hugging him. Just going up and hugging him after the sesshin. He was really excited, and he wasn't afraid to show that. It was great.

I remember he was very playful. I was at Tassajara in sixty‑nine. I remember him coming down the path. There was a wooden statue of Hotei. I think his fingers were broken off, but he was there, he has his hands up in the air, like he was laughing. Suzuki Roshi came down the path and did a great imitation of Hotei ‑‑ holding his hands up, just to show me he could do it. It was fun to see him do the same poses as the statue.

I remember going to many lectures. I think he was a funny guy. It didn't really hit my funny bone as much ‑‑ I mean I went there and a lot of times other people were laughing, but I remember not laughing when everybody else was laughing. I laughed a lot more at Katagiri Roshi than I did at Suzuki Roshi. But he did like to play around, as well as being really serious.

I do remember one time ‑‑ this was at Tassajara in sixty‑nine. It was an evening lecture. This guy Bob Halpern was there. In those days there were some really far out people at Tassajara. It just amazes me the characters we had. One of them was Bob Halpern who is now named Mipalm and is with Trungpa. A lot of the old Suzuki Roshi students left Zen Center after Suzuki Roshi died to study with Trungpa. Anyway, Bob Halpern was a real character, a strong guy, he did all kinds of things. I was seventeen at the time so he was kind of an image for me. He was kind of like my ideal male image in some ways. He was crazy. He was an exhibitionist and a wild guy.

In a lecture Suzuki Roshi said you can do anything you want. Something like, you are a Zen master, you can do anything you want. Bob Halpern says, "Really? You mean I can go right into the kitchen and eat some bread?" Suzuki Roshi says, "Yes you can." So Bob Halpern jumps up from his seat and runs into the kitchen ‑‑ which right at that time was a really big deal ‑‑ and came back with a big mouthful of bread. Suzuki Roshi laughed and laughed. He really enjoyed that kind of open contact.

At the end of the lecture he said, "Thank you very much." He really felt the practice was alive with Bob just going into the kitchen and eating bread. That was one of my fondest memories.

I remember another time, back in sixty‑nine. Suzuki Roshi was around a lot ‑‑ him and Kobun Chino.

I was also at Tassajara in seventy‑one and seventy‑two, but I don't think Suzuki Roshi was there, but he might have been. It's all pretty hazy for me now.

I think this was in sixty‑nine. Anyway, we were all having a meeting in the guest dining room which was one of the few warm places there. We all sat down and Suzuki Roshi started talking about his past in Japan. I remember the kerosene lamps, and how intimate it was. It was like secrets. What was your teacher's real past? What was it like for him living in Japan? What was he like when he grew up?

Here we were in this very intimate setting and he was really giving out the jewels of his life, in a way, what it was like in Japan. He talked a lot about ‑‑ there must be a 300 Page Street recording of this ‑‑ I recommend somebody listen to it. Try to find this recording of Suzuki Roshi. I'm almost sure it was recorded. It should have been.

He told about his teacher who was very tough. A lot of his students left, and he was one of the few who stayed. Once he climbed up to some canned fruit that were on the very top shelf, and him getting on the shoulders of somebody else, and falling down and burning himself on the stove. He told about minor, petty theft or whatever. His teacher said if you were going to steal something then you should share it with your friends. It was important to share.

Another memory is ‑‑ before World War II he worked for this Englishwoman, Mrs. Ransom, I think her name was. He cleaned her house and I think he lived there in an apartment. He went to school. He was really into coffee. He went to some American style cafe, and he was really into drinking coffee. He was studying English. Mrs. Ransom had a Buddha and all her European guests would come and visit her and would use the palms of the Buddha as an ashtray. He cleaned them out, but he wouldn't say anything.

He used to sneak out of the house. You can just lift up Japanese doors and sneak out underneath them, you didn't have to slide them if they were locked. He said that if Mrs. Ransom ever knew, she'd get really insecure or afraid, because she thought they were completely locked. He'd sneak out at night and go run around I guess.

Mrs. Ransom went back to England, I guess. I think she started some kind of Zen center or meditation center when she went back there [no no no]. Suzuki Roshi lost touch with her. Stopped writing her. He said it was a real regret of his life that he stopped writing her and lost touch.

I'm sure he said a lot more about his life in Japan.

I'll go on to another story. This must be around 1970‑71. Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi were both doing sesshins. At that time I was a young hippie and constantly knocking middle class values which I considered were TV and TV dinners, certain aspects of carpets ‑‑ wall‑to‑wall carpets, whatever. Anyway, that's what I grew up in. I was at the sesshin ‑‑ either a seven‑day or a five‑day. I went in for an interview with Suzuki Roshi, upstairs in his apartment. His apartment was very nice, comfortable and very plush. It had real thick piled white carpet, and a TV in the corner. For some reason it really put me up tight that Suzuki Roshi had this really nice fancy room. What kind of Zen practice is this? I had my cold linoleum floor downstairs in 300 Page where we were sitting. This put me really up tight. My mind was just churning about, how could this guy live in all this luxury, etc., etc. My mind was going around and around and I got more and more uptight. The interview was over and I left and went downstairs. My mind was still going around and around. How could Suzuki Roshi live in all this luxury? What kind of a teacher was he?

I had an interview the next day with Katagiri Roshi. I was still fuming. I even told Katagiri Roshi ‑‑ he couldn't figure out what I was talking about ‑‑ I said, you should live with us. What kind of practice is this? Suzuki Roshi has a TV set, or something like that. It really pushed my buttons. But somehow I worked through it during the sesshin. I really got a lot out of sesshin, I remember. Somehow realizing it was my own trip. I think the drama, the incredible doubt about Suzuki Roshi and the practice at Zen Center, really helped my sesshin out. It was a big hump ‑‑ an iron mountain I had to get through. I learned a lot from that sesshin.

This is around 1970. Suzuki Roshi hadn't been to Japan for four or five years. He took a trip back to Japan. He came back. He went around to all the Zen Centers to renew contact with them. At that time I was living in Mill Valley and going to the Mill Valley zendo with Bill Kwong. We used to have Wednesday morning breakfasts with Jakusho Kwong. Suzuki Roshi came to one. He came and sat with us at Almonte Hall. It was a collapsible zendo, so you had to get up around 4:30 ‑‑ one person did ‑‑ I did it for a number of months ‑‑ and bring out all the zafus and zabutons and the altar and screen ‑‑ everything ‑‑ from this box in the corner of this community hall. I wonder if that box is still there at Almonte Hall? You set up the zendo. Suzuki Roshi was there. We had this guy, Pat McFarland from Arkansas. He was a commercial artist. I considered him a cross between Emmett Kelly and Snuffy Smith. He was a real character (he's back in Arkansas now). He talked with an Arkansas drawl. He was a really wonderful artist, too. Pat was there doing the mokugyo. He had this really funky style. He'd be hitting the mokugyo and his head would be bobbing up and down, his whole body would be moving, as you'd imagine Snuffy Smith would be doing. (Demonstrates, chanting.) He'd be bobbing up and down, totally funky. At the end of service, after zazen, Suzuki Roshi said to Pat, "I really like your style at the mokugyo." Pat goes, "Yeah-ess, it's southern style."

We usually had breakfast at Jakusho Kwong's place with Laura. We had breakfast with Suzuki Roshi. Afterwards he started talking to us. We were just sitting around informally in the living room. He was real upset with the way things were in Japan. He thought they were disgusting. He thought the politics were disgusting; the environment was getting totally screwed up; what people were doing with their lives. I think he was glad to be back in the United States although he could see it coming from the United States also.

I guess he gave this talk actually at Almonte Hall. It was a revolutionary talk. We don't have a tape of that one. I remember him really being inspired and struck by his trip to Japan. He said we should sit and spread the dharma. More sitting. There was almost an evangelical feel to his talk, which I'd never heard before. It was certainly different from anything I'd ever heard. What I remember about that talk at Almonte Hall was that we should spread sitting more.

After breakfast at Bill and Laura's house he talked a lot about how disgusted he was with Japan. He was very idealistic. He talked about how we should move away from the city, stay away from politics, plant trees, grow something. He had this real vision of what went wrong in Japan, and he really wanted us to stay away from it. All those things sounded great to me. I was a nineteen‑year‑old boy. I remember not looking at him, just looking at the floor and listening to him go through all these things he wanted to do which I thought were just right in line with all my hippie philosophy of living in the woods, or living in the country, growing things, staying away from politics, not polluting things, just practicing. And that was his idea. Then I looked up and realized here was this sixty‑five‑year‑old, or whatever age he was, man telling me to go live in the country and stay away from politics. I was amazed that this guy, this old Japanese man, was telling me exactly how I felt about things, telling all of us. It was inspiring to have a teacher who had a similar mind himself, but was older and from a different background. I got a lot out of his lecture and its idealism.

There was another time ‑‑ probably at Tassajara in sixty‑nine. I went in for an interview at dokusan with Suzuki Roshi. I bowed to the floor and was getting up and he said, "When you raise your hands when you bow it's like lifting Buddha's feet. Don't raise them very high. Raise them just to your ears or so, then put them down. Don't raise them way up high." He told me to start over again and do it. So I bowed to him. He put either his hands or his feet into my palms. It felt like his feet, but I don't know how he could get his feet out of his robes that fast and put them back in again, so it must have been his hands. But I always thought of them as his feet. I remember lifting up and feeling the weight of his hands, or feet, in my hands and putting them down, and getting that sense of gratitude, and what real bowing was about. From then on I've always made sure not to raise my hands too high, although I see people raising their hands high.

One time when I was at Tassajara, sixty‑nine, I was sleeping. I heard his voice say, "Don't make dokusan a long one." So I didn't. I had always wanted it to be drawn out, because I wanted to be around Suzuki Roshi and I'm sure he was tired of all the students. So I made is a short one. I was telling Noel(?) about this many years later. I guess he'd been sending messages.

I remember the fall of seventy‑one. We were driving out of Tassajara to see the Mountain Seat ceremony with Dick Baker. It was fall and all the leaves were orange. It was beautiful at Tassajara. We drove out to the city for the ceremony. I remember Suzuki Roshi coming in. He was jaundiced, very yellow, I guess from hepatitis [cancer], and walking very slowly. I remember Hoitsu, I guess Yvonne Rand, and somebody else, I can't remember who, but they were helping him in to the Mountain Seat. He stood there with a staff, really close to death. Death was on his face. Very intense, very strong image. I remember him doing the ceremony with Baker Roshi. Just before he left he looked at us all. It was one of the most incredible feelings I've ever had. He hit his staff. He had a lot of energy but he couldn't manifest it in his body. He hit his staff 3 times. It went (makes a shushy sound), like that. Then he walked out. They took him out. We all bowed and cried as Suzuki Roshi left. It was so sad. What a strong feeling.

We went back to Tassajara for Rohatsu sesshin. Then him dying. For me the strongest part was the Mountain Seat ceremony.

There are lots of other stories. I don't remember so much any more. but I remember hearing lots of stories about Suzuki Roshi . . . because there were so many far out people in the early days of Zen Center. It was story‑telling time all the time. I'll go through a few that I might not have anything to do with first‑hand, but are great stories.

John Coonan was at Sokoji around sixty‑eight. He was going with a woman named Gloria who is now married to Paul Discoe. John told me about his wedding ‑‑ how him and Gloria were at Sokoji. Suzuki Roshi said, "Hey you guys should get married." He performed the service right on the spot. They went in, Suzuki Roshi hit the mokugyo, did the Prajna Paramita Sutra ‑‑ he forgot the Sutra, he couldn't remember the whole sutra. He performed the ceremony anyway and they got married by Suzuki Roshi.

Another story, I think John Coonan told me this one too. It's an old one. When you go into Sokoji there was a long row of steps you had to go up to the office and upstairs. There were these two Zen students. I think they were at the top of the stairs. They were discussing whether Suzuki Roshi was perfect or not. They decided to leave it at that, they didn't resolve it. One was walking down and one was walking up the stairs. Suzuki Roshi happened to come in right at that moment. When he was right in the middle of the stairs, and one student was at the bottom and the other at the top of the stairs, he dropped his stick, his baton, right there in the middle. There's a good koan as to was Suzuki Roshi perfect or not.

When we were having meals and we had enough food we'd raise our hand, flat out. In the early days we didn't do it just flat out, we did it like a Boy Scout motto, with our thumb over our pinky over our palm. Somehow we got into that trip. Suzuki Roshi just went along with it. I was there doing it like a Boy Scout until we got told to change it. [Different temples have different styles. There’s the two finger and the whole palrm methods of signaling one wants not more, probably others. It depended which priest was teaching us.]

Tassajara, seventy‑one and seventy‑two, I worked in the kitchen and had my own schedule. It was very comfortable, actually. I had time off when nobody else did in the afternoons. There was a book of Suzuki Roshi's talks. I used to go up on this hill behind Tassajara where there was sun, and I'd strip down totally naked. I could take off all my clothes and be warmed by the sun until it set. Then it got very cold. I'd sit up there and read this book. It was a wonderful booklet of his talks. They were revolutionary. He'd talk about money, about everyday life things. He talked about money as being a very cleansing thing, about how money could actually cleanse the world. What an interesting idea. You don't see those kinds of talks around any more. They were really different from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind in their content. [see]

I remember being at another long sesshin, probably seventy. Suzuki Roshi came in and said, "Oh, I'm so ashamed." He kept saying it. I can't remember if this was a different time or the same time, but I remember another time he came around and hit everybody really hard with the stick. I've heard that "shame" and "grateful" in Japanese are the same word. [maybe there’s some overlap in some cases] I'm sure Suzuki Roshi was grateful. Of course we all took it literally We were all wondering what he was ashamed about.

It was a very intense burst of energy when he did come around with the stick. He hit everybody, and there were a lot of people sitting in those sesshins. He must have had to hit sixty people or so with the stick.