Interview with Bob Walter
Interviewed by DC late April and again in July of 2010
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Interview with Audrey Robinson (Walter)
Photos of Bob Walter doing yoga at Green Gulch Farm - on John Stroud's Picasa site.
When I first met Suzuki Roshi I was disappointed. He was a little guy up there on the alter speaking softly. I had doubt. But little by little I got impressed and saw what he had to offer. He didn’t make a strong impression like Soen Nakagawa Roshi. But Suzuki treated us like family. He was inclusive.
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Bob Walter came to Tassajara in the summer of 1968 with his wife Audrey and kids Lethe and Eliot. He’s visiting now, having been living in Tasmania for thirty years. Haven’t seen each other for thirty-five we figured. He’s been here in the States for three months and is flying out tomorrow, the 17th of July, 2010. He arrived with only a small carry on bag and a silk bag he can slip into he calls his bed that’s so light he can compress it into a size he can hold in his hand. His black shoes are made from Kangaroo which he says is superb leather – thin and strong. He stayed at the SFZC’s City Center for a couple of days (as Blanch’s guest) and then with me for a week or so and then went East via Amtrak to visit with Lethe and Eliot in Kentucky and vicinity for six weeks. He stopped by Crestone Mt. Zen Center for a few days on his way back. Since being back he’s spent a week each at Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara. He’s enjoyed and been very positive about his experiences at each of these centers. He relates well to the newer students who tend to find him inspiring. My son Clay’s friend Todd says he wants to be like Bob when he’s 76 and Clay says he wants to be like Bob when he’s 75. Bob lives with his mate Penny on 400 Norfolk Bay front acres they own on Salt Point in the South of Tasmania. They live without electricity or plumbing. He’s never used a computer. He wouldn’t even touch one. I got him to read some stuff he needed to on my flat screen but I had to hit the key to scroll down as he didn’t want to touch the keyboard. When I asked him how old he was he said that this year he arrives at 1000 moons.
It’s all Bob talking unless in a paragraph that starts with “DC:”
Also, other comments by me are in brackets. – DC
I remember an exchange between Suzuki Roshi and a student, a teenage male, idealistic and sincere. Ken Berman. It happened during a shosan ceremony at the end of a practice period, a ceremony in which students ask the abbot dharma questions. [We might come across it in one of the recordings of shosan ceremonies and get the exact wording.] We were all quite conscious of the War in Vietnam and this student was a pacifist. He asked something like: I'm married and have a wife and children and an intruder comes into our home and wants to kill us. What do I do? Do I kill him? Do I let him kill my family? Suzuki Roshi responded: “Kill your self.”
I remember Suzuki in a talk saying I’m only doing this because you want a talk. I’d rather just do zazen and work with you.
I used to do stone work with Suzuki Roshi at times. I was walking down the path at Tassajara and Suzuki Roshi was trying to move a rock with some students. He excitedly called me over. I thought he was going to move it or we were going to but he asked me to so I moved it by myself.
Alan Rabold, Jack Elias, and I went to Big River Farm to do a 100 day sesshin. The general attitude at the ZC was that this was not Suzuki Roshi’s way. I returned to the City Center and said I wanted to talk to Suzuki Roshi and was told I was not a real student so I was way down on the list. I was working in the building a few days later and had to go to the Suzuki’s apartment and ask some question. Suzuki stuck his head out after I had rung the bell and said “Just a minute.” Then he returned and asked with visible excitement, “How was it?” I said, “I’ll tell you when I see you,” and bowed. When I did see him and tell him about it he was totally supportive.
DC – He could jump from one side to another. He didn’t have a fixed way.
I told him about the inner sound that I was experiencing and he said that that was enlightenment and I’d taken good care of myself and now I had to take care of everything. I said what do you mean by that and he picked up a pencil on his table and said, “You have to take care of this,” and he picked up something else and said, “and this,” and he kept picking up things and doing that. My interpretation was that he was saying you have to take care of all sentient beings.
I wanted to go to LA to join Soen in a sesshin. It was the last summer Suzuki Roshi was there and he was giving everything he had. I could feel a sense of urgency. I went to see Suzuki Roshi about going to the sesshin in LA with the idea in mind that there’s nothing he could do to stop me. I went in to see him and he said, “The reason you’re not going to the sesshin is that you’re my student now and when I die you can be Soen’s student.” I walked out stunned. No way was I going to that sesshin. I felt good about it.
When Suzuki Roshi saw Soen on the way to San Francisco after leaving Tassajara for the last time, Dan and Louise were there, as Dan had studied with Soen. Louise was pregnant. Soen said to her, “The world doesn’t need more babies – unless they’re Buddhas.”
I was born in 1934 in Mt. Vernon, New York near New York City. Grew up in Albany. Went to Duke University, then Pittsburg Psychiatric Social Work School. Then masters at City University of NY – then called City College of NY – in child clinical psychology. It was a great practice oriented school with great teachers. Then to Kansas U and worked at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka – training and working. Public health fellowship at NIMH [National Inst. of Mental Health]. Then to Columbia U to do graduate work in marriage and family counseling. Quit studying then. Worked at Bronx State Hospital, the experimental hospital for the state of NY. Did psychotherapy seven years in the Bronx. Then did private practice in Manhattan near the UN.
[Bob said it was because of baseball that he got in to Duke. He played in high school, wanted to be pro, The Duke baseball coach got him in even though his grades were bad, especially English. Duke had an excellent team, the best in the country he says. He played semi-pro during summer back home but his interests shifted. He got into philosophy and especially liked Berkeley’s mind only philosophy, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard. He had a major in Sociology because he wanted to do social work but took a lot of philosophy and psychology too.
He never went into the military. He was in the air ROTC at Duke because it gave him an advantage if he went into the Air Force. and then got drafted because there was a fourteen dollar unpaid bill to the school that he didn’t know about that caused the school not to respond to the draft’s request about his status and it got right up to the day he was supposed to enlist so he went to the head of the Selective Service in New York who told him to forget it and Bob never heard from them again.]
I was in analysis with Rollo May, the most famous existential analyst at the time.
DC: I remember him being at Tassajara. He was quiet.
His analyst, his mentor, was Eric Fromm.
DC: They both had some interest in Zen. Fromm wrote a book with some others called Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.
It was with Richard De Martino and DT Suzuki. May eventually became somewhat critical of Fromm’s approach and was more impressed with Fromm’s wife, Joanne Greenberg who wrote I Never Promised You a Rosegarden. He said he’d rather have her as an analyst though I doubt if he ever did.
DC: Yeah, they lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico when I was down there in 65.
Rollo May had a great effect on me in terms of how I did psychotherapy and he gave me a great appreciation of dream analysis. He was conventional, serious. But at that time Kerouac and LSD had a greater effect on me and analysis seemed terribly laborious and not as exciting.
One of the most formative experiences of my life happened when I was about eight. I had a sense that everything was a dream. In later years I realized that was conveyed in the Diamond Sutra. It was a deep opening and frightened me. Another important experience I had later was an out of body experience. I was in a half sleep, half wake state and feeling like I was a ball rolling around the room. I was lying in the bed but out of my body. It was pleasurable but it frightened me. I didn’t know what was happening.
The director of the clinic in New York where I worked jumped out of the window. I was getting tired of it and thought there must be a better way. One day I had an insight, that the mental health work I was doing was like spraying things with DDT – it looks good but promotes mental illness, disturbance.
DC: I remember you told me long ago that hearing RD Lang speak was a turning point for you.
Yes. RD Lang gave a series of lectures at the William Allison White Institute, a Sulvanian school of psychiatry. Erick Fromm was important in that institute as was Rollo May. RD Lang spoke to the analysts over the course of a week. I was there sitting next to May. Most of the participants were pretty conservative and had a hard time with Lang but I loved him. He said it takes 100 people to make a schizophrenic – parents, school teachers, and psychiatrists are part of it. He was weaving when he spoke and in a state of agitation but he had presence. He’d say things like, “I don’t know how I got here tonight.” Someone asked, “What should we do?” and he said, “Less of everything. Less drugs. Less shock.” He inspired me. He was supposed to do a workshop at Esalen I was going to go to before going to Tassajara but he canceled. People in the psychiatric community said he’d gone psychotic but they’re so narrow and rigid. To me he was a breath of fresh air.
DC: As I remember it, Elin’s parents were at some sort of conference where Lang was and said he got really crazy and was chasing a Chinese guy around with a knife calling him a chink. And he was at the City Center for a while as a guest but he was too crazy. He was an alcoholic and drunk in the building so he had to go. I wanted to meet him. I remember in the mid eighties walking with Elin from Green Gulch to Druid Heights near Muir Woods to see Roger Sommers and Roger said we’d just missed Lang by ten minutes. Lang died in 89.
I took LSD. Had a fantastic trip. Everything was brilliant. It opened up doors. I only took a couple of trips and thought it was a great key and was grateful but that that’s enough of that.
Then I met my first Zen teacher, Jack Kerouac. We met playing softball with artist friends on Northport on Long Island. He hated psychiatrists. One reason was he got kicked out of the army for “inadequate personality.” He liked me cause I had paint on my clothes and he thought I was an artist. We had instant contact. When he learned I was a psychologist, he went, “Oh my god!” He was a fantastic baseball player. He did zany things on the field, would twirl around and fall on his face. We’d go off on drinking trips. He called me his psychiatrist and him my Zen teacher. He was very spontaneous, very dramatic. He was disturbed and an alcoholic. He had the ability to create great social situations, a bit like Halpern. But also he was frightened to death of people. He’d hide under his bed when someone knocked on his door. I’ve seen him be defensive and hostile on TV but he could be beautiful. Coming back from Fire Island one time he said to me, “You’re just like Neil Cassidy,” and he started to cry.
Audrey knew Jack. They got along well. She said he sure knew the literary scene.
[Lethe, Bob’s daughter, writes that Bob shows up in a book called Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac by Jack Kerouac and Paul Maher.
Go to Google Books website, she writes, with keywords "Bob Walters Kerouac” brings up the book Empty Phantoms page 402. (“People always spell Walter with an 's' even after I tell them "Walter" a second before. The keyword Walter without an S doesn't bring up the reference. But it's our town of Northport and all the other info in that paragraph is related:”
But Kerouac was a man of little polish—in his dress, in his writing. What he seemed to distrust most were those who were too polished. His friends in Northport were a group of weekend softball players—Larry Smith, an architect; Stan Twardowicz, an artist; Bob Walters [sic], a psychologist; others.
Kerouac was a clown on the softball field—missing a long fly ball, he would suddenly decide to give up the chase and began doing a series of somersaults or backflips.]
We were walking around drinking and he got arrested. I went to get him out. He didn’t like to carry money or identification. He’d get money from his mother and give it to me so I had the money to get him out. He told the police he didn’t need identification, that he was Jack Kerouac, the famous writer and they didn’t believe him. He was playing with them.
He’d get in fights in bars and disappear and there I’d be and have to deal with it.
A friend of ours visited with his Japanese wife and Jack kept them up having sex with an old alcoholic man he’d picked up in a bar.
We’d listen all night to Handle’s Messiah. He’d call up Alan Ginsberg and have long talks with him. Alan knew that Jack’s mother was anti-Semitic – hated blacks and Jews. Jack would hand me the phone and Alan would say I should tell Jack that the only thing he should do is fuck his mother.
DC: Did he? I think I remember you telling me long ago that Kerouac was filled with guilt from having sex with his mother.
No no, he didn’t. But there was that sort of talk.
He married a woman and moved to Nantucket. Everyone thought he was hopping she’d take care of his mother but it didn’t work out. He moved to Florida with his mother because his sister lived there and he wanted her to take care of their mother. He’d promised his father he’d see she was taken care of but he also wanted to be free to travel. As I understand it, his mother sleepwalked into his room naked and woke up and died of a stroke or heart attack or something.
He died the same as Trungpa, pretty young and with cirrhosis of the liver
I went to a workshop with Alan Watts and I asked him about psychotherapy and he said, “Psychotherapy is prostitution.”
DC: But he wrote a lot about psychology and psychoanalysis without putting them down at other times.
Yes but there’s a lot of truth in that. But also he was just being flippant. I drove him back to New York. Then he became charming and humble, like Kerouac. Get below their defenses and they can quickly change.
I had a very difficult manipulative patient and he’d hear me talk about Zen so he went to the NY Zendo and met Tai San [Eido Shimano] who gave him a hard time. He came back and said, “You’re full of bullshit. Stop talking about Zen and do it!” He gave me the number so I did it. But first the family went to Mexico. Coming back from Mexico I thought I have to start sitting. During one acid trip I’d spontaneously started sitting. Audrey was eager to sit. I believe she went first. She arrived an hour early and Eido was rather surprised and pointed to a cushion. She sat still in full lotus for an hour and then for the forty minute period. When I met Eido he said, “Your wife is a zazen genius. You, we’re going to work on.”
I was working with a psychiatrist in New York and he referred Catholic priests to me. I got the poor patients. I had a guilty Catholic patient who said, “If I could just confess my sins.” I told him “I’ll hear it.” He asked, “Can you do that?” “Sure,” I said. “You’ve just crossed the barrier between psychiatry and religion,” he said. “You’re out of the box now.” There was a Jesuit priest who wanted to leave the order. He was struggling with homosexuality. That’s why he came to see me. We sat zazen. Then he decided not to quit. He said it was the first time he had any spiritual feeling. He had to do a spiritual retreat every year to satisfy a Jesuit requirement and he did the next one at Tassajara and I met him there.
In the fall of 1967 Dick Baker came and talked about Tassajara at Zen Studies, Eido’s center in NY City and so we decided to go. In the summer of 68 we were there. When I first met Suzuki Roshi I was disappointed. He was a little guy up there on the alter speaking softly. I had doubt. But little by little I got impressed and saw what he had to offer. He didn’t make a strong impression like Soen Nakagawa Roshi. But Suzuki treated us like family. He was inclusive.
That was the summer that all the teachers came – Yasutani, Eido, and Soen. When I met Soen I was blown out. Just watching him walk I was blown away. The first day Yasutani talked and I got emotional. All Soen said was, “No tomorrow.” It was so powerful. I sat a sesshin with him in New York.
DC: He also gave a talk where he stood up and walked back and forth on the altar – and made me stand up and show how to make a popping noise with my hands clapping in front of my mouth and he told how I’d shown him that in the middle of the night way down creek below the narrows between two cliffs in the river. It was pretty close to a full moon. I’d met him in the baths and shown him how to crawl under the roots of the old sycamore and come up inside the trunk in a little cave. We hardly got any sleep.
I told Dick Baker I could help council students and he said I’d have to forget psychology. He had his motives but he was right.
The next year, 69, we went for the summer and stayed for the fall practice period.
DC: Jean Ross was shuso.
DC: Tell me about Audrey.
I met Audrey just before my Duke graduation ceremony in 1956. She had just graduated from University of North Carolina, about fifteen miles away. She and my brother were working at Macys. He set it up. She went to Europe and when she came back we got together. Both families were opposed. My family was anti family. My father never had anything to do with our kids, Lethe and Eliot. He was a bitter man. Everyone in my family was against marrying.
DC: That’s quite unusual.
Her family hated me. Her father was a TV producer, VP of Young and Rubicam, a Madison Avenue ad firm. He wanted Audrey to marry higher class. We got married in 58. Lethe was born in 60 and Eliot in 62. They got ordained in the kids ordination by Suzuki Roshi after making their own rakusus at Tassajara.
DC: Oh yeah. He ordained kids before the adults if these years are right and I remember correctly. He hadn’t done a lay ordination ceremony for adults since like 1962 that I can remember. That was 69 and I think the next lay ordination was 1970. I think. That’s how I got in touch with them a few years back. Eliot put an image of his rakusu on the web and was wondering what the characters meant. They were done by Suzuki Roshi. I found it and answered him and got a nice interview with Audrey.
In 1968 Dan Welch and Bill Shurtleff were working on the stone wall for the new kitchen at Tassajara and I was getting stones for them and mixing cement in the wheelbarrow. I suggested Audrey do the cornerstones because she’d done some stone sculpture and so they asked her and she was working on one when Suzuki Roshi came by. He was entranced by the way she worked with stone and asked her if she could carve a Buddha. Of course she said she would. When we were back in New York state she found a graveyard with a pile of old stones for graves and choose one. It was very hard granite. She went to a library to study what dimensions to use. She was breaking chisels even after we got special carbide tips. When she got to the mudra she broke a thumb off and had to carve in deeper to redo it. We drove the van across the country in 69 with the statue the next summer and brought the statue to Suzuki who was delighted. It’s still on the right side of the bridge over Cabarga Creek walking downstream toward the cabins. I think Suzuki choose that spot. Several years later I was back there doing stone work myself and heard a student showing some guests around say that the statue was very old, probably 13th century Chinese. It’s still there.
Later I encouraged Audrey to enter another statue she’d done in a show and she got 2nd prize.
I remember going to the airport in New York to pick up the stone sent from there for the opening of the New York City Zen Studies zendo.
DC: I remember that. Suzuki choose it and there was a box built for it, maybe by Paul Discoe, and I think it cost $650 to send. For some reason that number comes to mind. It might have just been an estimate I heard. It was quite large.
Audrey and I separated in 1970. She went to San Francisco and lived above the Katagiri’s at 308 Page Street. I went to Big Sur and worked as a stone mason. I worked on a stone wall at Esalen and built a stone wall for a psychologist who was building a house. Bill Shurtleff had taught me about stone work at Tassajara. He was the work leader and I was a stone mason. I did some stone work with Suzuki Roshi in the summer of 71 when he was there, helped to move the big stone up the hill for the ashes site with Mel, Reb, Dan, and a motorized wench. It was on a steel sled. Did a few feet at a time. We got to the very top and the chain broke. We were scared it was going to slide down.
Then Audrey went to Tassajara. Alan Rabold, who I knew from the NY zendo and I did a sesshin with Soen. Then we went to Big River Farm, Phil Lewitt’s place, and did a 100 day sesshin. Jack Elias started it with us but he went a little crazy after a while but Alan and I did the whole thing. Got the idea from the monks at Gold Mountain where Alan had taken me to sit with Tao Lun, but we didn’t want to join them. We also went to the LAZC for sesshin with Maezumi.
We went to the opening of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah. There were lots of Chinese arriving in busses who just went straight in and devoured all the food that was to be for after the ceremony. Tao Lun was mortified. He was angry, condemning them, then he cried and was sobbing. I don’t remember Chinese being in the hall for the ceremony. Some American monk arrived who’d been bowing his way prostrating from a nuclear weapons facility in Southern California. He talked about how lazy he was. He said you’ve all been here working so hard and I’ve just been bowing. He played the guitar. He was very moving. His mother was there. There was a huge number of people there.
We’d sat a sesshin in Chinatown at Tao Lun’s city temple. That’s how we decided to do the 100 day sesshin. We met Phil Lewitt at the City Center. He was eager to establish his place, Big River Farm, as a Zen retreat.
Bob Treadwell was there. He was a character. He asked for the stick every time I walked by in sesshin. He’s been an entertainer who’d toured with Lord Buckley. He was enthusiastic about spiritual practice. He took me Sufi dancing. But he was crazy. He threatened to jab scissors into my eyes because he heard Al and me talking about what to do about him. He was being paranoid. He came down with the scissors and I massaged him and he said he didn't really want to put the scissors in my eyes and I said I know. Lethe found an obit on him on the Internet in the Fort Bragg Advocate News.
I came back to Tassajara in the summer of 71 and stayed for the fall practice period with Katagiri – as his jisha [main attendant].
I coached Katagiri in English and his English improved. I’d go over important points with him I’d noticed after a lecture. He asked me to. I’d ask him what did he want to say and we’d find that words that conveyed that.
DC: I used to go to his cabin too after lectures and give him some sheets of paper with every mistake he’d made so he could see his repeated errors.
Katagiri choose me to be his jisha for that practice period – fall of 71. The officers said no, anyone but Bob. Katagiri asked, Can I choose? The officers said yes. OK, I choose Bob. Niels was upset that I didn’t care one way or another and said then you shouldn’t have the position. I said I don’t care.
DC: I remember he told Bonnie Miller who was his anja [2nd attendant, cabin cleaner] at the time that he couldn’t be your main teacher because you’d go to Japan and have a great teacher like Soen or Mumon Yamada in Kobe, both Rinzai teachers, and that you’d return a great master. Richard Baker favorite teacher in Japan was Mumon. He brought Mumon to Green Gulch and related to him the way I saw him relate to Suzuki.
On the morning that Suzuki Roshi died. I told Bill Kwong who reacted with a lot of emotion. Katagiri Roshi said, “Perfect.” [Probably because it was just as the rohatsu sesshin in the city was beginning.]
I went with Pauline to Mumon’s temple but we didn’t meet him.
I did sesshin in LA with Koryu Roshi. Maezumi wanted me to stay. He called me a butterfly. Later I heard he told his students I was like a monk from the old days who traveled around visiting various masters. He said, “Stay with me and you’ll get transmission. I’ll do it all.” I thought that was strange. I didn’t like all the pushing and koans in the special room. There were six of us going crazy. It was too artificial for me.
Koryu Roshi was fantastic. He was a Nagasaki A bomb survivor. Maezumi said Koryu was the sole survivor of a platoon or whatever there. Later he was run over by a motorcycle that broke both his legs. When I met him he could hardly make it to the cushion. But he sat lopsided but when he spoke his voice was like a tiger – roaring. Maezumi translated for him and the roar would be something like, “Happy to be here.” In my first dokusan with him, his eyes were askew. He roared out a mu!!! It was amazing. Then I saw him quietly ambling down the street. I never saw such a contrast.
Soen came to LA to a sesshin in Big Pine. I said I wanted to be a monk with him in a real teaching situation. He said come to Ryutakuji and I’d be a monk in time.
I had a girlfriend in Mill Valley who I knew from Mendocino. [Bob had more lovers back then than anyone I knew which is saying a lot - though he tries to deny it now.] She said she lived in a place that someone named Francis owned. I thought it was a woman but I learned in was Francis Ford Coppola. Later I got a job in San Francisco working on his mansion. Ned Hoke was plastering. He showed me how.
DC: I visited there. I remember how exacting all the work was, going to extremes to make sure no imperfections showed in the plastering. I remember being shown the inside of a drawer slot which was finished and looked really nice. I saw his Oscar for Patton on top of a pile of stuff in the corner of a bedroom.
There was marijuana in the gazebo, we’d steal from his wine cellar for booze, and then there was cocaine in the attic. A guy named Frenchie would paint grain on the woodwork. I was saving money to go to Japan. I wanted to be a monk with Soen. He told me, “There are no real monks in Japan.” He put out his hand gesturing, “You and I are going to become real monks.” I was living with Jerry Provasoli then.
So I went off to Japan. I was there for nine months. The exchange rate doubled the value of the dollar during that time. I was at Ryutakuji, Soen’s temple [not far from Suzuki’s in Yaizu]. Peter Matthiessen came with some folks from the New York zendo. I remember crossing the street with Peter and him saying, “I admire the way you live so cheaply. I’ve got lots of money. I’ll support you.” I said, “You admire it but now you want to destroy it.” Peter said, “You’re right. I won’t give you anything.” I’d been at Tassajara when Peter was there. He and Ed Brown were trying to make a damn in the creek below the swimming pool, for water to fight fire with, with these little rocks. I said let’s use the biggest rocks we can so we did that and put the little ones in between.
So it was 72 when I worked at Coppola’s. Came back in 73. Lethe and Eliot were at Tassajara that summer with me. They’d been living in Garberville with Audrey.
I went to live at Niels and Maggie’s in Muir Beach [The home that ZC then Yvonne Rand later owned].
I went back to Japan with fifty dollars. I arrived in the middle of sesshin and was not eating because I didn’t have any money and Soen said I had to eat to save all sentient beings and he had all the money in the world and I could have all I wanted. I didn’t know it at the time but I was sitting next to the president of Mitsubishi Bank.
Because of Pauline Petchey I got a ride back on a Greek boat. The Greek ambassador was hot for her and I was staying with her in Kobe. She told him I was trying to get back to the US so he got me on a Greek ship to get rid of me.
There was a monk named Takunen who I became close to and he offered me four thousand dollars. I took four hundred and arrived back in America with that. I took the Shinkansen, the bullet train, to visit Soen before I left. It stopped because there was an earth quake. We sat there for four hours. Soen was furious with me for arriving unannounced or something. A monk took me to sit zazen and we sat and sat and sat but Soen ignored me. So I said to heck with him and went to sleep. He got me early. I was in robes, had been begging with Takunen and some Jodo Shinshu monks. All my clothes got moldy in the temple. Soen told me just to wear the robes. I said I couldn’t do that on the freighter. I was nine months in Japan. It took ten days to get back. I got seasick. The guy who took the ship in asked how the hell did you get to be a passenger?
I stayed in a Trappist monastery in Oregon. I sat zazen with five of them there and at the end of the period we said, “Thanks be to god.” The abbot said that he had a friend who was the abbot of a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts where they also sat zazen – but “he’s Rinzai and I’m Soto.” I’d been to that place before I went to Tassajara. It had the same very open vibe. I took communion with them – did everything with them.
Soen was coming over and he asked me to prepare the way for him, find a place. I did – near Los Altos I think. Arranged for the cooking, etc. Then Soen didn’t show up. He was in retreat.
I was going to go to sit alone in the Wind Caves near Tassajara but I started pissing blood. Saw Dr. Wenner in Monterrey. He sent me to a urologist. He said I had Prostatis, inflammation of the Prostrate gland. I thought it was too much hiker’s mix that caused it.
DC: Maybe too much raw oats or the wrong granola mix. A lot of people got internal problems from that sort of thing.
Later that area had a fire. Dick Baker was furious with me. He had some idea I’d started a fire, but I wasn’t there. I’d left some toilet paper. I remember staying at Ellen Millers thinking I was hiding from the police. I went to Camaldoli, the Catholic monastery in Big Sur. They gave me a room. The guy in the next room thought I was the devil.
Dick said I couldn’t come back to Tassajara as a student so I went to Genjoji [Sonoma Mt. Zen Center just the next ridge over from where Bob and I were at the time]. Bill Kwong invited me.
Takunen came to America. I took him to Don Penner’s [a dentist in Monterrey who was married to a Japanese woman and did free work for Zennies]. He and I were going to do a 100 day sesshin. Don offered us a Winnebago. That was not for me – no way. Later I took Takunen to Genjoji. Bill Kwong was very welcoming to him. Of course he liked having a Japanese priest there. Some doctors in Fortuna found a cabin for me to do another 100 day sesshin. I did it by myself. Bill wrote and said to come back and take care of Takunen because his heart was bad or something like that. I responded no, I’d not leave my retreat. Bill was not pleased.
[Johnny Thorn dropped by to see Bob and talked about Takunen whom he called a breath of fresh air. He reminded Bob that one day after zazen but before dinner Takunen was with the other students and Kwong had walked through in his robes and greeted Takunen and Takunen had gone up to Kwong and grabbed his robe saying, “No good,” or something like that and started taking Kwong’s robes off and continued to do so till Kwong was in his long johns. He took it well but Johnny and Bob thought that maybe it was after that that Kwong had written to Bob and asked Bob to come take care of him.
Johnny said that there was a guy at Genjoji with colitis who’d been a volunteer to be tortured in the Air Force and that he had a harder time with Takunen’s shiatsu treatment than with the torture.
Bob and Johnny told about how once they were doing laundry at a laundromat and didn’t’ have enough money to dry the clothes so Johnny went into the washers and lifted out the agitators [the central part that sticks up in top loaders] and found change from peoples’ clothes in the trap below.]
I took Takunen to the Black Hat Ceremony with the Karmapa that was at Fort Mason back in the seventies. Tickets were expensive. Takunen said monks shouldn’t pay. He strutted right in not realizing I followed showing two tickets I’d been given. Trungpa and Baker were up on the altar. I remember Takunen saying to a kid there, “You number one. Karmapa number ten.”
Takunen arrived at the airport in LA and after some confusion cause he’d talked some Japanese into driving him elsewhere, I found him and we went to Big River Farm. We also went to Tassajara, Green Gulch, Genjoji, and LA Zen Center. I told Maezumi we’d done takuhatsu (monk begging) in Japan and were considering doing it in the US. Maezumi said if we did it near him he’d call the police. We were hitchhiking all over California and at one point he went off to the side and went to sleep and left me hitchhiking alone and so I went to sleep next to him, pretending actually, and he woke up and then frantically started hitchhiking. We were on our way to Garberville to see Lethe and Eliot and some Jesus freaks picked us up and because they wanted to keep preaching to us they drove us right to their door up a hill. I told Takunen what was up and to encourage them to drive us all the way he called out, “Jesus Christ number one! Buddha number ten!” When we had a sesshin at Big River Farm he said we couldn’t charge for sesshin. I told him Soen wanted to make me a monk and Takunen said when you want to become a monk just tell me and I’ll shave your head. That was back in Japan. He did shave my head and gave me robes and took me begging. He said your vow is with buddha. When I went to a sesshin at Antaiji wearing robes he said when they ask who your teacher is, say Shakyamuni Buddha. I did that and the head monk looked shocked at first and then said, “Oh, of course!” Takunen said he wanted to blow up all the temples in Japan because they were polluting the dharma. You would have found him cool, David. He was cool. But difficult. Everyone found him difficult. He was iconoclastic. You never knew what he was going to do next. He gave a talk at Genjoji and he carried on with great force in Japanese with no translator and then I was expected to translate and I just told them I went back and forth with him on wondering if he was enlightened or crazy and finally I decided on both. He and I went around like clowns. We had a pantomime we did together cause we had to communicate with gestures and a few words.
I got a job up at the College of the Redwoods near Eureka so the kids could live with me. Lethe says it saved her life. I was in the psychology department. I taught psychology but also mediation and all sorts of stuff – encounter groups, human potential stuff. Had a house in Lolita. The kids hated school there. Lethe was almost 16. I told her to go on and drop out. She did and started coming to my comparative religion classes. She lied about her age and got in. She got an associate degree from there.
Also I was doing college classes in Mendocino and meditation workshops. I met a woman named Jeannie Doe. She’d been in the movies. Her movie name was Jeannie Ingram. She was in movies with Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, Ray Milland, and others. She was on TV shows too. She’d gained some notoriety. Her ex husband had been stalking her and came to the restaurant, an early health food restaurant called The Source, owned by her lover who had a black belt in karate. The hubby had a gun and ended up getting shot and killed. Her boyfriend went to prison for that. People were suspicious they’d plotted to do this. She’d also been stalked by the gangster Lana Turner’s daughter killed. She was quite attractive. She’d been in TV adds as the Clairol girl when she was sixteen and I had pined for her back then and now we were lovers. We started living together. She went to Hawaii and became the caretaker of a Chinese temple for a Tibetan group. I joined her there. Then we went to Big River Farm. And then we met in Japan, my third trip there, and stayed at Soen’s temple. I had sanzen every day with him. It was very intense. A weird thing happened when we were leaving Soen’s temple to go to India. He got furious and started yelling at us that we should have told everyone we were leaving, that they’d made a special lunch for us and now we’d put them out, we’d been thoughtless. He made the whole temple shake he was so angry and loud. He screamed at us that he told the monks not to think of us as foreigners but that now we were and yelled “Gaijin! Gaijin!” which means foreigner. I was numb and we didn’t say anything. Then he stormed out. He must have talked to some monks then who set him straight – everyone knew we were leaving and there was no problem. Soen came back in and calmly said, “Oh please excuse me for getting angry. Come let us drink.” So we went to his quarters and drank and had a good time and he got me to play this strange game he’d shown me before wherein I’d crawl on the floor, actually swim on the floor and call out “Who is my master?” Then I’d pull myself out of the imaginary sea onto an imaginary island and call out, “Where is my master.” That was it. Then we left and went to India.
We went to Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, where the Dali Lama’s temple is. Jeannie got sick, a lung problem. The Dali Lama’s junior tutor told her she had to leave for her health. Maybe it was the altitude. I put her on a plane. Oh yes, but before that happened we were listening to a lecture given by a renowned rinpoche who was quite well respected and there were a lot of Westerners listening to the lecture and all of a sudden the rinpoche fell over dead and the monks were distressed and shoed us out and one of them yelled at us, “You dirty Westerners! You killed him!”
I went to Nepal and studied with Dudjom Rimpoche doing the extraordinary preliminary practices. I got to 15 thousand out of 100 thousand prostrations and got a severe case of hepatitis. I was bedridden. Dudjom was going to give the last great teaching of his life. People were coming from everywhere – riding, walking – it went on for weeks. A friend of Jeanie’s who spoke Tibetan came with Gyaltro Rimpoche. She got gall bladder of bear from him and I drank tea made from it.
I went back to Japan and did a sesshin at Ryutakuji. It was hard. I was coughing. They put me in another room.
I went back to Big River Farm and did sesshins near Ukiah with Mel Weitsman, and a student of Kobun, and Kobun who’d show up or not.
Did a sesshin with San Sunim who came to Big River Farm. We chanted all weekend, a special power chanting to Kwan Yin. Each in turn would stand before the altar chanting and people were moving up and down till they started bouncing up and down. I dismissed it but then it happened to me. I was almost hitting the ceiling. There was a heavy woman who was bouncing beyond belief.
Lethe and Eliot would come there to visit. Gyaltro came there too.
Phil decided to sell the farm. A guy from Australia, an artist named Paul Boston, who was at Ryutakuji, came with a friend. I said I had a dream about going to New Zealand. He said you don’t want to go to NZ, go to Tasmania. He said it would suit me. It was wild, wilderness, not many people, a good place to meditate.
Eliot was 18 then. It was 1980. He and I worked to renovate a doctor’s place in Mendocino, a studio to rent out. We used that money to go to NZ. We checked it out and then went to Tasmania. I got a job as a psychologist at the Hobart Clinic. I found land and bought it – 300 acres on the ocean to the south. It cost $43,000. I got a loan. I bought a truck. We went back to the US and in a month I returned and went to work. I worked there for four years. It was a private mental hospital outside of Hobart, the capitol of Tasmania. There were eleven patients. It was intensive. I suggested working with patients without drugs. The psychologist founder liked the idea. He completely supported me. It was a big challenge to the four psychiatrists. We, the psychologists, ran the programs, the therapy, and meditation, but the psychiatrist had overall responsibility because they were doctors. They were poorly trained. Their interview techniques were atrocious. Psychiatric care and training in Australia is pitiful. It’s all behaviorism. Students from the university would come. We’d have them take someone shopping and utilize their behavioral training. I gave the patients Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to read and had trouble getting them back. We lost about ten copies. One of the psychiatrists would come to my zazen group and chant with us. He was eager to learn. The doctors there were making a fortune – charging individual session fees for group lessons. I was getting very little - $10 an hour and I was the one they called for all emergencies. There were interesting people as clients: the wife of a judge, a director of botanical gardens, factory workers, nurses, school teachers. I had a little cottage nearby and went to the land often for ten day retreats.
I went to Bali for a vacation and when I came back the no drug program was over. It was working well but was sabotaged by the doctors and patients who wanted drugs. The founder of the place had accused me of all sorts of things. We had a sort of love/hate relationship. He was afraid I would pull the clinic down. He took drugs, smoked, drank. He was giving shock treatment to patients. I was against that. He was mad at me. Twenty years later at a dinner for past and present staff there, he praised me to the sky and lamented the decline of the place since the old days. He said I was trying to stop the clinic from becoming what it did. It’s just a pill place.
Penny was doing mime and theater with the staff at the clinic, planting trees, taking them to organic farms. I’d met her the first year I was there. She was an actress from Brisbane then studied dance and became a dancer. She got a job as a dancer in a casino – like Vegas with feathers. Dancers came to my meditation class. At first we never spoke but then we got together. In 1984 she and I went to live on the land permanently.
[Bob and I sat down at a coffee shop and he and a guy at the next table started talking about all sorts of things and later Bob said that in the US this happens to him all the time but not in Tasmania. He said he’s had more interesting encounters on this trip to America than in the last thirty years in Australia. But he also said that has helped to make the Tasmanian experience more of a retreat. He said that, for instance people here might talk about their dreams and that in Tasmania only Penny does that. He said she has great dreams. He paused for a moment and said, “I’m jealous of her dreams.”
DC: I have a question. I remember hearing something about Soen taking LSD.
Yes. And I heard he had a bad trip.
DC: And you told me he had a hard time when he was older. I heard it was from a fall out of a tree and he got a concussion and wasn’t found for a couple of days and bamboo had grown into his head.
Stuck into his head maybe. He was in a coma for a month.
DC: And how did he die?
I read he drowned in a hot tub at Ryutakuji after a visit from an old poet friend.
DC: You said that Japanese monk who came to do sesshins with you at your land drank beer all the time and you finally got on him about it and he said he was very ashamed and the next time he came he said that because of what you said he quit. Maezumi drowned while drunk in his brother’s bathtub I understand, the brother in Tokyo. I’ve been there. And the brother, a very sweet guy, looks like a leper with no fingers which I understand he lost from passing out into an hibachi and he has burn scars from that too. And the abbot of Antaiji after Uchiyama died I hear from a drunk driving accident. And there are more stories like that. Amazing. I’m interested in going back to Japan now that I don’t drink. I was there seven years ago, the last year I drank, and I drank so much on that trip that I was high from the hangovers. I didn’t drink that much when I lived there because I was with Elin who would drink half a glass of wine a month or so. But I’ve sure been around a lot of drinking there. Hoitsu Suzuki used to drink a lot but he stopped. There’s Trungpa who died from drinking. Alan Watts and Jano were alcoholics but she died of it. How about Takunen and Soen? And Eido?
I never saw Soen drink more than a little tiny bit but Eido said he was a heavy drinker. I never saw Takunen drink.
[Bob has been in Tasmania now for thirty years, mostly living with his mate Penny on his land without electricity or plumbing. They don’t even have an outhouse but use little holes dug by a sort of anteater marsupial that leaves piles of dirt by the holes they dig. They drink their urine. They wash with urine. He says it’s the best cleaner for clothes and lots of things but prefers ashes for cooking pots. Also increases ones ability to detect the light as in brilliant light within (or without).]
DC: Many people worldwide drink their own urine. Millions in China, also in India and the Mid East. Mayumi Oda followed a teacher in Hawaii who advocated it. I remember Mike Wallace asking Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat during a TV interview if it was true that he did so and Sadat said yes and that many people follow that practice. Here’s a link so you can learn more about drinking your own urine: http://www.universal-tao.com/article/urine_therapy.html
[He says people always assume they go to sleep when it gets dark but they don’t. They sit and meditate and sit by the fire. When it’s light they may read Grimm’s Tales which Bob says are great teaching stories for adults. He also likes Genesis.]
I love the Grimm’s Tales and what we call fairy tales in general. There are the kings and queens, that level of reality, like the oriental emperor being between heaven and earth. It’s like the Buddhist level of gods. But the prince has to go out from that world and seek enlightenment, maybe living an ordinary life to meet challenges. Like Buddha. Find out about lifer and death and come to union. Like the union of yin and yang or emptiness and compassion. Have to overcome the opposites. “In the beginning” of Genesis is like “once upon a time.” And in the end they live happily ever after which is an indication of the union, the completion of the task. It’s not ordinary time, it’s enlightenment, the pure land. It’s gone gone beyond. The so called fairy tales are on a cosmic level. They’re like koans, teaching devices. I like them better than koans. They’re closer to our own culture. Genesis is my favorite book in the Bible. I have great respect for that myth. It’s like one of the great fairy tales – like the quest of Shakyamuni.
DC: What about yoga?
I started doing yoga in 1967. At first did it as an adjunct to zazen, to make my body strong and able to sit more effectively. But in time yoga became for me a thing in and of itself, a full practice like zazen. I’ve never stopped doing it for long and in the last twenty years I do more of it more regularly. I do it spontaneously, anytime – in the Denver railroad station, at Green Gulch in the garden, in the middle of Hobart. One day some young guys in Hobart were razzing me, “Hey old Billy goat, what are you up to?” And I said, “Standing on my head.” So I ended up doing that and other yoga exercises for them and they cheered and took up a collection for me and then offered me $100 to stand on my head naked there in the middle of the city. Penny wanted me to do it but I didn’t. We were living with the original bungee jumping tribe in Vanuatu, a Melanesian island. We were at a house being constructed in what looked like an amphitheater of rocks. I was on a woven bamboo floor like a stage with the whole village watching. They were living the same as they had for the last two thousand years. And I showed them some yoga positions and in their pigeon English they called out, “True! True!” over and over. The owner of the hut, one of the natives, our guide, heard about this and would then demand I do repeat performances for him by shouting, “Yoga!” and hitting the floor. I indicated some other time and he hit the floor again and loudly repeated, “Yoga!” Just like Soen yelling at me on a freezing January day at Ryutakuji (the monks all warming themselves around a fire), “Take your clothes off and do tai chi!” I said, “Some other time,” and he barked back, “There is no other time.” So I did it.
[They have a station wagon they use to go shopping with but have to walk to the road a couple of kilometers to get to it. A mean neighbor won’t let them reopen a road that goes through his land. They’ve had years of legal fights over this getting all the way to the Australian supreme court. Also they’ve been involved with a legal fight in stopping an oyster farm from operating on their beach. With the road dispute they’ve been badly screwed over by local judges and police ignoring the law, hassling them, trying to wear them down. There’s an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) TV video on it called Zen and the Art of Litigation: the Long Road to Justice that I’ll try to get on cuke. It not only deals with the legal battles but with their lifestyle. Lethe has the video tape of it. It’s a whole long story Bob had a tough time with all this and went into a difficult period then had a spiritual emergence. He says his mate Penny was a veritable saint throughout his ordeal. He calls her Vajrayogini, the “diamond female yogi” who transforms ordinary experience into a path to enlightenment. And now he lives in an ocean of light.]
I just look at all of these people in my life as interesting characters that had a lot to offer. The practice, the real work, is up to me alone. I think of Gurdjeff’s meetings with remarkable men – Kerouac, Suzuki, Soen, Takunen, Katagiri, Treadwell, whatever. I’ve also been having wonderful encounters with people on this trip to America. We touch each other’s hearts. That’s what we pass on – our energy, our example. Heart to heart is the transmission. Now Amida Buddha has transmitted the light to me and the infinite life. Amida is a symbol for infinite life or super light or super consciousness. Consciousness is nothing but light. We just have to realize that.
He offers this chant (which has some errors for sure – maybe it should be called a chant that sounded vaguely like this):
Om om om
Photos of Bob at GGF by John Stroud
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