Interview with Bill Smith

Bill Smith
Interviewed by DC
No date - I think it was about 1997.

Bill Smith is a carpenter who helped to start The Work Company for the SFZC shortly after Shunryu Suzuki died. It was a noble experiment, part of Richard Baker's attempt to get us to be self supporting. I did this interview on the phone one day and, as you will notice, I disagreed with a number of Bill's memories. I left these exchanges in because I think that it's interesting to see what memory does, how it changes, how things aren't so sure, how rumors take over at times. And Bill has some good memories and observations of Suzuki and his teaching. - DC

DC: How did you get involved with Zen Center and Suzuki Roshi?

BS: Through the Haiku Zendo in Los Altos. Marian Derby built the Haiku Zendo and it was called that because it had 17 seats and Haiku have, as you of course know, 17 syllables. Silas Hoadley, Suzuki Roshi, and some others turned her garage into a zendo. Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Sensei gave talks there. And later Kobun Chino Sensei came and helped. Eventually she sold it to Les Kaye and he was a priest and got another zendo and then it was no longer a zendo.

I think Marian put an add in the paper saying they had a group looking for a teacher and Suzuki Roshi responded and that's how they got a teacher.

DC: Really? I don't know about that.

DC note: Don't think this is right. See Marian's cuke page.

BS: I first met Suzuki Roshi when Marian took me to San Francisco and we knocked and this little man came to the door and he was my teacher from then on.

DC: Do you remember any of the Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind lectures?

BS: Most of the lectures in ZMBM were given in old stone zendo at Tassajara.

DC: No they weren't. They were given at Marian's place either before or after the zendo was built. Or both. Before they had the zendo they used to sit in the living room. You forget maybe because you heard him give lectures in both places. Actually, I did too.

BS: Once he was asked "How do you know when you're enlightened?" and he responded, "When you no longer complain."

Someone in Los Altos asked what was it like to sit zazen for forty years or whatever and he responded, "It's like climbing a mountain - the higher you go the more beautiful the view is, but it gets lonely."

DC: Thanks. Those are good quotes.

BS: You asked a question about people breaking rules, David, at the stone zendo at Tassajara. He said "If there are some rules just follow them," but he also looked around and said "See that broom? The broom should be positioned so that the handle part is on the floor." In other words don't store it with the bristles on the floor.

DC: I remember that and Bob Halpern asked that question. And Suzuki concluded it by saying, "There. That's a good rule." I call it the first rule of Tassajara.

BS: I still do that.

DC: I do too. It's like me always remembering that my father taught me to hand tools, scissors and knives and all tools, with the handle toward the person you're handing it to.

BS: That's how fathers who are concerned teach their children. Basic stuff.

DC: That story about the broom was in the spring of '67 before the first practice period in the dinning room that soon became the zendo.

BS: When I came down it was the zendo.

DC: Yeah, it was the zendo but we moved into what's now the dining room while it was remodeled into a zendo with tans and tatami and the raised platform built across the front. It was only raised to cover the fireplace because there wasn't a tradition of the teacher sitting higher. It was helpful to have them higher though when they gave talks. And we could see them better during ceremonies.

BS: I have a marvelous lithography of SR inspired by the dust jacket to ZMBM that was made by my second wife. I also had a beautiful sideways Bodhi Dharma scroll made by Tada Sensei who visited us for a while. I gave it to Reb to put it up so everyone could enjoy it but I've never seen it since then.

There was a guy named Brian (not the big tall guy who cut the handles off all the garden tools in the garden shop) who was trying to fix up the tapes that were lost to the sound of the creek. Fred Catero was going to fix them but they wouldn't let Brian have the tapes.

DC: There's work being done on that now by Mark Watts, Alan Watts' oldest son.

BS: At Dick Baker's high seat ceremony, Suzuki Roshi was seated with dignitaries to the right just inside the door and you and other disciples were seated in front of the platform in front of the alter.

DC: I don't think he was seated in there but maybe he was. I think he came down to hall with help and just came in for his part and then was helped out.

BS: Suzuki Roshi was the first one to leave and as he left, he got to a place exactly opposite me and with his staff he pounded three times on the floor. No words. I burst out in tears. They helped him upstairs and that was the last I saw of him.

Later during the December sesshin, Baker Roshi came to the zendo during zazen and said he'd died. Baker said that his last words to Suzuki Roshi were "Where will I meet you again?" Suzuki Roshi simply raised his hand and made a circle in the air.

When he died they lay him out in the middle of the floor of the second floor meeting room and four women prepared him and were sitting with him and we all came to pay our respects. I was crying and felt like I was loosing a father. They took him to a funeral parlor to prepare his body for observation and those same four women sat all night with him but maybe that was before the cremation.

DC: I think various people sat with him.

BS: At some point there was an open coffin ceremony and Trungpa tried to put a white scarf in the coffin and my memory is telling me that Okusan objected to that. I didn't know why.

DC: I would be surprised if she objected. She fully accepted Trungpa and his relationship to Suzuki. But Japanese don't do that so it may have thrown her off.

BS: One night in the dining room Trungpa was drinking and smoking and giving a lecture and a student asked how he could be doing that and he said, "I just smoke and I just drink."

I heard Tartang Tulku talk at Tassajara and it seemed that his emphasis was on getting happy and he didn't sit but chanted and it seemed to me that the different schools of Buddhism that formed all over Asia are coming back together in America.

DC: I remember that you and Marian were together and I think you drove her and her stuff to Tassajara when she came and then I remember you came to get her and her stuff when she had to leave because she was on a vow of silence and wouldn't leave her room.

BS: Katherine and I were starting to get involved and I got kind of nervous about the relationship and I went to Suzuki Roshi and he simply said, "Stop it." His response was if you're unsure about it cut it off.

DC: Did you hear anything about Suzuki and the war?

BS: Indirectly I heard he was a pacifist and had written letters which apparently angered people in authority. I guess he had a certain amount of influence. This was said about him. And that he was an activist.

DC: I think that we used to have an inflated idea of all that here - mainly because of what is in the introduction to ZMBM. What he did was good - it was all he felt he could do - and he did tell me that he passed out written material saying Japan would be stronger if it followed a path of peace, and people I've talked to there say that his temple was a beacon of light during the war, but that mainly they felt free to speak their mind and he mainly kept quiet. I don't think he can be called a pacifist or an activist in the way we use those words, but he was always peaceful, encouraging peace, and active in small ways.

DC: What did Suzuki teach?

BS: Basically he taught the precepts. Dogen. Respect for ancestors. He taught a lot about lineage. I saw Mel's ordination papers and it seems that he taught that the triple treasure and the authentic teaching that his teacher had taught him had come down in an unbroken chain. He didn't say that but that's my sense of the whole thing. You've got one of those papers, right?

DC: Yes. But they had to fill in names where there was no one for a hundred years or so here and there so there's a lot of fudging in that list. And Dogen said that his master was the first enlightened teacher for 500 years. It's all a mystery.

BS: God knows if I could ever memorize the names of all those ancestors. Mel's disciple had to walk around the names of the ancestors reciting them and they went through this whole elaborate ceremony in the founder's hall at Tassajara and they took these two little pine trees. I found two saplings and planted them for the transmission.

Suzuki's trip was adapting straight Zen understanding to our everyday needs and building monastic life and respect for the precepts and that would affect our lives and our relationships. He did talk about some of the conditions that he encountered when he was over in Japan. He was brought up in a tradition where the young monks in the temples inherited their father's temple. He said there were actually only one or two old men, teachers who actually sat zazen. The rest of them were all involved in ceremonies. He got in close contact with one or two of these old men who were practicing the traditional way and one of them became his teacher so that when Alan Watts came along and was looking for an authentic Zen master Alan Watts found him at Eiheiji I believe and as I recall he was the one who persuaded Suzuki Roshi to come here. He and Claude and Gary Snyder.

DC: Who said that?

BS: Good question but I do recall that Alan Watts was involved.

DC: No way. I don't think he met any of them till he came to America. And he wasn't at Eiheiji then - that was decades before. Nobody at all knew him or of him till he came. He didn't have any students. He was just a temple priest for families in a temple totally unremarkable - I mean, it's beautiful - but there was no idea of there being a teacher there who could relate to Westerners.

BS: When I first started sitting I had a tremendous amount of pain in my legs and Suzuki Roshi's attitude was be patient with yourself. Work with the pain and adapt the sitting posture. People were getting surgery on their knees trying to force themselves. I learned not to push myself.

He would emphasize the whole concept of choiceless watching. When I first started sitting zazen my practice was counting from one to ten and then from ten to one and I'd loose track and his advice was if that happened to start over. In time Maezumi at a sesshin in Los Altos told me to change to shikantaza which is choiceless watching.