Interview with Bill Lane

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Our dear friend and dharma brother Bill Lane died on October 2nd in Santa Rosa. Here's the announcement on Sangha News. Bill was from Detroit and was an amateur astrologer with a great deal of interest in things psychic. He was also a no-nonsense straight-forward person who treasured sincere conversation. He read a great deal and loved movies. We used to go see movies and smoke and get some drinks afterwards and talk and smoke more. Bill and I were always close and he stayed with me for nine months all added up over the last years in which he was sort of a wanderer. He also would get greatly irritated with me for extended periods of time, one of these periods being toward the end of his life. But we had a very close couple of hours about a week before he died and agreed that we were brothers for better or for worse. Here's an interview I did with him in San Rafael almost ten years ago. - DC


DC: What's your first memory of Suzuki Roshi?

BL: The first time I saw Suzuki Roshi, Jane Schneider, who was Jane Westberg at the time and I went together. I had come down from Seattle and we saw him in a workshop Suzuki Roshi was having with Charlotte Selver and it was a benefit for Tassajara. It was a two day workshop. Charlotte and Charles Brooks did their part on sensory awareness in the morning and Suzuki Roshi did the afternoon. It was at Fugasi Hall in North Beach. Suzuki Roshi was up on a stage giving zazen instruction arranging his legs under his robes. He said, you know I'm going to show you how to do this but because of our robes here you can't actually see whether we're crossing our legs or not so you'll just have to trust me and we all laughed together and right away he got me because here was someone who doesn't take himself seriously and also his voice was very kind and expressed a sense of humor. So he got me with the first thing he said.

Later I was driving him to Bill Kwongs place in Mill Valley. It was 1967 and we drove by an add for Chrysler Plymouth and it said they were bringing out their 1972 cars now - that's how advanced they were in their styling or something and Suzuki Roshi said, actually, it's 1972 right now. Did you know that?" We all said nothing in unison. Maybe that was said at his talk that day.

It was a one day sitting at Sokoji. It was the fall of '67. I'd been to Tassajara for the first practice period. I hadn't been around long enough to know that Suzuki Roshi did this thing of letting you sit there and not ringing the bell. At Tassajara that didn't happen - we followed the schedule - although Dick Baker was creating a new schedule every two days. It was a Saturday. Katagiri had to go to Berkeley to give a talk. So I'm sitting there in the morning at nine or something and Katagiri got up to go to Berkeley and then there was nobody there up on the altar by the bell - he sat up on the right. After a while I got this idea that the bell hadn't been rung - it had been an hour or more. Suzuki Roshi came in the room and rang the bell. I was always one for punctuality. Somehow it was even past the time when we were supposed to have service - so it was time for lunch [or breakfast] and somehow I decided that Katagiri had screwed up and that even though we were going to have service I decided that an error and been made and that Suzuki Roshi didn't realize it. So I went up on the stage and said, Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri made a mistake and left so as a result it's too late to have service and he looked at me and said, okay, and turned around and sat on his cushion and started doing zazen. So everyone was getting ready for service. Then I sat down and so everyone else did and after a couple of minutes I see Bill Kwong open the door from the kitchen and saw everyone sitting there waiting for lunch so he had to hurry up and serve it.

DC: I remember something you told me. When you wanted to leave Tassajara, you talked to Suzuki Roshi and he told you, most people I can fool into staying but I know I can't fool you so I'll let you go.

BL: In 1969 I was in San Francisco. I'd been to Tassajara the second time in '68 and I was living with Barrie Mason and we were working at the post office at night and the apartment building we were living in was too noisy in the day and it was a little bit of a hell realm and I told Tim Buckley I think that it would sure be great to live out in the country somewhere quiet and he referred me to Yvonne Rand and she referred me to Huey Johnson who tossed a key across his desk and told us to check this place out in Sonoma County, a preserve. We loved it - it was in the middle of nowhere - we didn't see anyone else when we were there. But I was feeling a little guilty about leaving the city and not telling Suzuki Roshi or something like that and so I asked Yvonne to please tell Suzuki Roshi that I'm going out to live in the country and she said okay. Then I saw her two or three months later and she came up to visit and I asked her if she'd let Suzuki Roshi know that I'm up here. She said, I told him, and he said, "It's okay - I told him to walk by the stream."

I had been at Tassajara at the first practice period and during one of Richard Baker's scheduling experiments there was a study period after lunch where we were to study in our rooms. I strongly suspected that everyone studied by practicing dream therapy or something because it was a very hot summer and probably over hundred degrees most days. I decided I'd spent enough time in my life reading books and I was going to create my own schedule and I decided that the best thing for me to do was to go out and walk. So I'd go in the stream bed and I'd walk on the rocks upstream. I had to let go so as to not fall or be afraid. I thought it was great practice for me. I just did it - I didn't ask anybody - I'd sneak away - the whole place was dead quiet. And I'd get back for work and I'd walk up the rocks and go swimming. It was just great - hot, dry and wonderful. I fell in the creek once and my clothes dried on a rock in about eight minutes. It was 28 years ago right now. John Steiner and I were on trash detail and there was a thermometer in the shop and we'd check it out every day and it would get to 105. I never told anyone. I never told anyone that I did that thing at Tassajara. And it only lasted for a week or so and then the schedule was changed again. So I never told a soul and I'm pretty sure no one ever saw me. But now you see the sense in Suzuki Roshi's answer. He knew what I was doing. I think what he was saying was, you actually know what's best for you. I know what you're doing but you know what's best for you and I want you to follow that. It makes me a little teary. I told that to a therapist I once had and he said, that's not a teaching story, that's a love story. That may be true but I thought the therapist was jealous.

I was at Tassajara and heard the frog lecture and I read that every once in a while.

Suzuki Roshi was saying in a lecture, when I took over my father's temple, then he switched it to master and then to father and he said in Japanese we use the same word. Anyway the teacher was passing on the temple to him [his teacher had died] and he was very young compared to the members of the temple and the story is that his teacher had a room with the shoji screens between them and some members talked very loudly and disparaging to the young Suzuki Roshi about Suzuki Roshi and what an incompetent inept human being he was and how he's unworthy to take over the temple but there didn't happen to be anybody else, if there were anyone else at all that other person would take over and he must have been an unworthy teacher to have such an unworthy disciple and it was his bad karma and he went on like that for half an hour or more and Suzuki Roshi took it as the gospel truth and everyone could hear it. And Suzuki Roshi said they were surely thinking, all our suspicions are founded and thank god his teacher knows that and now that that's clear, we might as well help the kid. Suzuki Roshi said he didn't get it why his teacher had done that but actually it was a great gift because it allowed the other people to support him. If his teacher hadn't done that it would have taken years to get the other people on board. And he said, that was a great gift but the greatest gift my teacher ever gave me was something to do - he gave me the responsibility to rebuild the temple. So that was his job. Everything's built there with the knowledge that it will decay so they have to repair and rebuild a lot. Phillip Wilson always said that Suzuki Roshi is a very capable person. He said that at Eiheiji he realized that there were other priests with Suzuki Roshi's eye but Suzuki Roshi was more competent.

We started studying in the first practice period Edward Conze's book on the Heart and Diamond sutra's. Since Chester Carlson was one of our founders we didn't hesitate to get anything Xeroxed so we had all these copies of this book. Suzuki Roshi was starting his class and he had his glasses on and was sitting at his lectern and he had to get real close and he started reading. He read the name and the author from the cover first and then he turned to the first page and read that and the name of the publisher and their address and the date published and the ISBN number and he continued that way till he got to the text. He read every word. When he did it I knew he was doing it for a reason. For the first five seconds I thought he was making a mistake.

DC: Oh, maybe that's where I got that from - I used to read that way to Kelly.

BL: David, you and I were working in the kitchen together at Tassajara but you were at all places at most times and I started working in the old wooden small kitchen in the spring of '68 and Ed Brown was the tenzo though at that time we said head cook. The people on my crew were Mary Quagliata, Sandy Hollister, and Clark Mason. I wanted to learn how to make bread and so you offered to teach me and I'm one of these control type people who likes everything very specific and so I was eager and asking how much do I put in and you said, that's the right amount no matter how much I had put in the spoon or cup or bowl. How much flower? Well - that's fine. The bread was not a great success and the next day Ed Brown taught me and he had my rigorous unbending unhappy type mind and that bread came out fine.

DC: So, how did Suzuki Roshi teach?

BL: I never saw Suzuki Roshi read from anything unless he was looking at a text he was speaking on. He just talked about what was on his mind at the moment but there was this presence like the sutra come to life. He never had notes. Richard Baker would have notes in his sleeve. Baker Roshi would go into lockdown two hours before his lecture and he'd open a book to any spot and read that and come out with an extraordinary lecture. Probably the great Zen talks of our time. Suzuki Roshi would be very sweet but not wimpy. He was a dynamo but he understood, he felt. I don't know how to respond to the question of how did he teach. He talked all the time about no gaining idea and following the way, being persistent, trusting the way, the practice, the teaching of Buddhism and just going along. His oft quoted: walking in the midst and gradually getting wet. I asked him once, How can I improve my practice and he said, just keep practicing and following the way and eventually your way and the way will be the same. The magic for me was that I felt for the first time in my life after my first dokusan which was at the end of sesshin at the practice period - I hadn't had dokusan with him before and I remember upon leaving that I was quite joyous and it was the feeling of actually having someone on the planet who understood me. I felt that no one before had actually seen into my heart and he did. It wasn't any big deal or special technique - I was sitting there and he experienced me and validated me. He said what you want and what you want to be is right. I wasn't expecting anything. I didn't know what to do. I went into dokusan and it was a bonus. I felt I'd already found this person who had complete integrity and who was speaking wisdom, who was wisdom, and that was as much as one could hope for, to be around someone like that. Whether one could do what he said or be like him that was a different matter but to have that person say in effect, you're fine and this thing is for you and you'll be okay. I didn't stay around all those years to manifest that and it was a big mistake. At the time my life difficulty was in sharing my feelings with other people and I didn't know that it was okay to tell him or another human being how I felt. I felt I didn't open up to him to the extent I could have. With other people that didn't seem to be a problem and there was that discrepancy.

DC: What about zazen?

BL: That was high up there. It was being said very loud but I didn't hear it that loud.

DC: It seems to me that he lead with the teaching of sitting zazen but that there was no dividing line where his teaching stopped.

BL: I was mildly surprised because the books I had read before I came, Alan Watts and Kapleau, basically the word that was used to describe what they were talking about was Zen, and the interesting for me was that Suzuki Roshi almost never used the term. He almost always talked about Buddhism. Buddhism and Dogen Zenji.

His English was really good. Better than we even thought it was. He knew parsing and sentence structure and things we'd never thought about.

DC: His skill at speaking English I especially admire because of how hard it is for Japanese. They are known throughout the world for having a hard time learning language.

BL: Suzuki Roshi told a story about after the war when the US forces were occupying the country and he saw US soldiers and he felt sorry for them because he saw they had no practice and that increased his desire to teach Westerners.

There was a kind of non specialness about him that was kind of extra special.

DC: Did you notice any particular faults in him?

BL: It's hard to see the faults of a person from another culture.

DC: And maybe it's hard to see the good points of a person from your own culture. It doesn't seem Suzuki Roshi could get anything going in Japan so they sure didn't see him as special.

BL: It was 59 when he came?

DC: Yeah.

BL: That's very important - the twelve year cycle. 59, 71, 83 and 95. These are all the year of the boar. The year he came, died, the year Baker Roshi had his fall, and this year when Norman came in.

I was in dokusan in San Francisco and on the city center staff. I went on staff just six and a half months before he died, as buyer. One of the goodies was I got to go to chosan [morning tea] with Suzuki Roshi in the morning. Craig Boyan was like sort of like Reb's disciple and he was the work leader and was there and one morning Suzuki Roshi said, I don't think Craig should be at ZC. Maybe it's something Craig was considering or something.

DC: Craig was torn between Zen Center and Meyer Baba's group.

BL: And as soon as he said that, tears were streaming down Craig's face. Maybe he just said, I don't think Craig should be ordained.

DC: He was supposed to be ordained with Ed, Lew, Angie, and me and he almost did it but he decided against it right before - like a day or two before. I remember him crying in the halls when he decided not to get ordained.

BL: The last time I talked to Suzuki Roshi, we'd gotten a new bell for the Buddha hall - the bowl bell. So we got the new bell and Suzuki Roshi wanted to hear it. I don't know if I was ino yet - I became ino in November. So we carried it upstairs so he could hear it. As I was setting it up and moving around the room, he farted and I was startled and looked over and he said. "Ahh, that's better, I really feel better after doing that." And later I hit the bell and he said, "beautiful sound." And later I took the bell away.

The last time I saw him was walking with the staff going down the hall to the mountain seat ceremony down the hall and I was shocked at how sick he was. I didn't want to see the ceremony. I was working in the kitchen with Deborah Madison preparing dinner. We were preparing a spaghetti and French bread and salad dinner. I used it as an excuse to miss the ceremony. I was at the door to the office when he came down the stairs to the door of the Buddha hall.

Mel showed me a picture of Suzuki Roshi and some students walking in a procession in Japantown and Phillip Wilson was in it and Tony Johansen and his son were in it and his son wrote a story about that day. Suzuki Roshi looked very young and wore that fancy red outfit and the way he was holding that staff was the way he held it going into the mountain seat ceremony. I may be sick be sick but bonk! with his arm extended straight and those rings at the top were jingling. It was like the dharma was burning like fire. The building was packed and only Deborah and I were in the kitchen. She was newly in the kitchen. Reb had replaced Mary Quagliata with her because she went down to Lums everyday at her break and had coffee. And Reb didn't like the staff, especially the tenzo, to leave the building.

DC: That's a policy that didn't stick.

BL: Deborah was a fearsome presence in the kitchen. The first mountain seat ceremony I ever saw was this year - Norman's. The Gold Mountain teacher was there at Suzuki Roshi's mountain seat ceremony. We didn't expect him - he either hadn't been invited or hadn't RSVP'd. They knocked on the Laguna Street door and Peter Schneider happened to be there and there was Master Hua with eight or ten of his disciples for the funeral ceremony. I remember him and all the gray robed priests sitting in the middle on the Page Street side and looking very thin and very somber.

I was involved a lot in the funeral ceremony. I did the chanting for it as the ino. I remember the funeral and I remember going to the funeral hall the next day. I remember going off and finding a tree and crying. The funeral directors were wise enough to stay out of the way and let everybody be there the way we wanted to be. Hoitsu was there - the first time I'd seen him and Katagiri. He stood by the coffin and everybody went up and put a flower in the coffin. I guess we chanted but it was fairly simple. I didn't feel so much like crying at the funeral ceremony. Niwa Roshi came and it was a big deal. He read a very formal poem in Japanese (with great drama like Tatsugami would do). Kobun Chino was there and he was doing all the work and telling us all what to do and how to do it. I like to chant and I got to chant a lot. Katherine was next to me and I remember her crying.

Trungpa Rinpoche came and talked to us in the dining room at Page Street and we all sat in the back and he was kind of like the new teacher on the block - I think this was his first meeting with Suzuki Roshi when he was so impressed with him. Later on Suzuki Roshi's picture was on Trungpa's group's altars. Trungpa had a Scottish wife and his English was pretty good and he talked to us and was very pleasant. Sometimes Suzuki Roshi would talk in the dining room with students after dinner. We'd all heard about Trungpa and we knew he was a Tulku and all this stuff. Tibetan stuff was always exciting and we'd read Lama Govinda and Alexandra David Neel. But we'd also heard about his drinking and so people were asking questions about Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi was talking about him in a kind way and at one point I asked him question. The drinking had come up in the discussion. I had the idea that an enlightened teacher didn't have to bother with problems like drinking or, if they did it, it was for the benefit of all beings as a teaching device so I asked Suzuki and I said, now Suzuki Roshi, his drinking, is it something he does to help people or does he want to drink or is his alcoholism real and he said, Yes. It wasn't a teaching device or at trick. Here was this Buddhist teacher who seemed to have some sort of blessing from Suzuki Roshi and he was an alcoholic. I think Sam Bercholz met him on that trip and started Shambala in the back of Moe's Books.

DC: What was Suzuki interested in as a teacher?

BL: Suzuki Roshi was interested in his big self which was the same as our own. He talked about everyday mind and big mind. Once he said, "if it's not paradoxical, it's not true." One of those paradoxes is that a human being and a Buddha are the same thing.

When Baker Roshi started to talk like Baker Roshi who was so brilliant it was quite extraordinary and so different from Suzuki Roshi.

Suzuki Roshi emphasized Buddhism as a teaching that had a salutary positive effect on human beings and he didn't pay attention to the time and went straight ahead and paid attention to the practice.

One sesshin Baker Roshi had a lecture about why we weren't Christians anymore. He said that if you went down to your church you didn't find a developed person like Suzuki Roshi or Mumon Roshi. In a sense Suzuki Roshi was Buddhism. We had the chance to have our retinas and hearts and ears incorporate and see a developed human being according to the Buddha Dharma. Someone showed us the possibility. The teaching of Suzuki Roshi was in walking down the hall. And eventually it might occur to us that we might be that for others or that we might want to step into our own shoes someday.

Suzuki Roshi was doing one of his dining room talks after dinner and I remember Reb being there and I remember Suzuki Roshi talking about how there will be a new driver and I didn't know what he was talking about but later I realized he was talking about his successor and he said at some point you know, you'll have a different driver and you'll have to do what that driver tells you to do, but there will be problems, there will be problems, but it's okay.

I was at the chosan where Suzuki Roshi said, I think we should call Katagiri Sensei, Roshi. That was the fall of '71. He said something like, I think we should now call Katagiri Sensei, Roshi. or I would like you to.

The first Zen teaching I ever experienced was just before Suzuki Roshi joked about his legs. He went to sit down and there was no cushion. Katagiri was over to the side and he was sitting on his cushion and as soon as he saw Suzuki Roshi looking for a cushion he took his own cushion from under his own seat and offered it to Suzuki Roshi. No hesitation.

Read Tony Patchell's emails about Bill.

Sangha News announcement of Bill's death