Interview with Ron Browning

Ron Browning and his wife Joyce were ordained as priests at the SFZC in 1968 shortly before they went to Japan. Ron has been involved with Vipassana meditation in recent times. I met Ron at his home in Sonoma County in a lovely setting in the woods near Occidental. Think it might have been in 2009.


He said to put 100% of your awareness into whatever you are doing.


RB: [Asks what DC looking for in this interview]

DC: Nothing in particular, just whatever you want to say.

RB: So what’s the project.

DC: I have an oral history of people who knew Suzuki Roshi. No criteria.

RB: OK. So you keep the emphasis on SR.

DC: Nope. They can say anything they want. Some may say something like I didn’t know him very well. I remember he said so and so and then they tell the story of their lives. Some say they have one story and don’t want to say anything else.  Anyway,  they can say anything they want. OK. I’ll ask some questions. I guess it’s good to start with coming to ZC, meeting SR, your memories of him, and then branching out.

RB: OK. I don’t remember the exact date that I came to the Zen Center, but I came from Dallas, Texas. I went from a very conservative family to UC Berkeley. It was during the time of the free speech movement and LSD was still legal and  hippies were coming into existence. It was also the beginning of the Vietnam War.

DC: Not the beginning – that goes back to the fifties with the United States , Kennedy died in ’64, but I know what you mean. It was coming into our consciousness. We talked about all that back then. I remember a lot of what you said.

RB: Tell me.

DC: You said your father disowned you because you merely applied to be a contentious objector. You were very contentious. But you go on.

RB: I met my first hippie, Ken Spiker== on the steps of Sproul Hall during the Free speech Movement and we were debating about this or that and it came down to “Well how do you know?” - I was on the debating team of UC Berkeley - and he said “I know because I know”. I said something like I know too. But he actually did know.

DC: Know what?

RB: I don’t know what the topic was… We then went over to _________?? and he told me about I Ching, LSD and Zen and sometime later I found a book in the San Francisco library on Zen and the experiences were such that it was like - oh my gosh - really amazing. So back to Ken and I asked him “You know that Zen Master that you told me about – that Zen teacher – is he available and can I meet him?” and he said “Yes”. He told me there was a Zen Center in San Francisco and at that time it was on Bush Street so I went over and I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I do remember going over to Suzuki Roshi’s quarters and telling him that I wanted to go to Japan to be a Zen monk.

And my recollection is that he kind of looked at me and said “Maybe it would be better for you stay and learn our way first.”

So  we were living in the East Bay and I started going over a little bit each day – whatever time was necessary to get to early morning zazen – it was really great.

My recollection was that it was 4am or something like that when we’d leave. [1st zazen 5am] Just over the experience of several months my understanding was deepening, even though I didn’t know exactly what that meant and I knew that I was interested in doing more. So, Joyce and I moved to San Francisco. First we rented an apartment on Octavia Street, around  the corner from the Zen Center, then I could go to whatever activities were there – zazen early morning, zazen evening, Saturday morning talks. Amazingly sweet.

What time were you there [to DC]?

DC: September first and then October 1966 started sitting there.

RB: There were times with the Saturday morning talks where we would meditate and then we would go into the little hall with the wooden floors – the gaitan [outside sitting area] yes, that was a really sweet time – there weren’t a whole lot of people there.

One of the memories and teachings that stuck with me was one of the Saturday morning periods when it was time for us to clean and my job was to clean the zendo and my job was to clean the floor with a rag and I had this really strong lazy streak and so I used my foot to rub the floor so I wouldn’t have to bend over – and Suzuki Roshi comes over – very present – without any judgment – with love and compassion – he took the rags and got down on the floor and rubbed the floor like this [demonstrating getting down and putting his body into it]. I don’t think he said anything.   ==sr

Later he said to put 100% of your awareness into whatever you are doing. I was pretty unconscious back in those days, so – it was a total nonverbal transmission at the time – but very effective and it stuck with me – many times that memory would come back in my mind. I think Suzuki Roshi taught a lot that way – just by direct transmission of whatever the communication was – it was so much better than any explanation or words. Powerful teaching.

So… I don’t have a lot of clear memories – I don’t know what the occasion was but a railroad flat became available right directly across from the Zen Center and Joyce and I rented it and that was the first of 4 railroad flat rentals –above and below , really it was the beginning of the first Zen Center Community with people relatively living together and we rented out rooms in our flat and a young man from Minnesota who worked for Bank of America came and rented the front room of our flat and that was Reb Anderson and I can’t remember who else rented in our flat… it was very sweet – we would share meals, take turns cooking – it really was the beginning of the Zen Center Community.

Because I still so wanted to go to Japan, I was working and saving money. I worked as an apprentice cabinet maker; I think Joyce worked for the telephone company – and we were able to save quite a bit of money. I worked at Arnold Egan Manufacturing and Door Company. and also a couple of weeks at a door company – I have no idea what the name was. We were then available in the mornings, evenings and weekends for Zen Center activities.

We were saving money to go to Japan and over the first 2 years the idea of having… I’m not sure how the possibility of Tassajara came about. So we were there in the summer of 1967 for the first inaugural Tassajara retreat. I did roofing. There was another person there who showed me how to do it. It was an amazing retreat and what happened during that retreat was that for the first time it felt like my practice was going at a deeper level.

I was still interested in going to Japan and I talked to Suzuki Roshi about it for a long time and asked him if he remembered that retreat and he looks at me … like it was a big miscommunication .

There was a movement in my practice – something very deep below the level of what I was aware was happening and I was thinking that this was a really suitable place for me to practice – what if I just stay here and practice and I don’t need to go to Japan. I was thinking that and the way that I expressed my question is I said that I felt that something was developing here and I was wondering if I should go to Japan or just practice here – I just figured this out in the last couple of years- and he said good students are more important than monastery, centers and I didn’t quite understand … but what I got was that he wanted me to go to Japan – so like he was saying you had better go over and get trained as a good student than stay and work and develop. I’m sure he thought that I meant a center - like Tassajara - and should I stay and help. I couldn’t quite express what was happening … like the dharma had gotten activated in the heart and mind, but I didn’t have the language to language it like that at the time. I felt like something was happening here in this place and I was thinking that I should stay here and practice instead of going to Japan to practice because these were really suitable conditions for my practice and my meditation and I said I felt like something is really going on here and I wonder if I should just stay here … but his answer was that good students are more important than the center. And he thought I should go to Japan, which I thought was a funny answer and I didn’t understand what he meant but I got his attention. So I decided to go on to Japan.

In the summer of 1968 Joyce and I were ordained by Suzuki Roshi and took off for Japan.

I used to drive Suzuki  Roshi to Los Altos – it was one of my great joys – spending that time with him alone. I just don’t remember half of the things that he said. I have some confidence that even though I don’t remember, they still shape my consciousness. Those times at Marian Derby’s were very special and I remember the feeling of the time as happiness and contentment of being with Suzuki Roshi – of serving him in that way.

DC – Well, he didn’t talk a lot is what I remember, he would mainly just respond.

RB: I do remember once being in Los Altos when he was down there with Okusan

 DC: She was with you?

RB: I don’t remember why she was there and we were in the car and maybe Suzuki Roshi went inside… but I remember taking off a sweater and she said, “The sweater says ouch”… and it was like: you should take the sweater off mindfully and conscientiously and you fold it and it place it in the back seat… she could have said all that but all she said was “Sweater says ouch”.  And then we went to japan.==

The next communication I had with Suzuki Roshi was when I was in Japan and I had gone to Kobun Chino’s up in his a family temple in Kamo. He was not a biological son, an adopted son - he was adopted as the heir to the temple.)

I do remember that they were not happy that he wasn’t going to stay and take over the temple.

DC: He didn’t want that, he didn’t want to do that in America.

RB: It was interesting – the place was amazing – these temples were built hundreds of years ago – a deep, old feeling in these old temples – there wasn’t a lot to do – clean the floors - so I spent a lot of time meditating and I didn’t have a clear understanding of karma or how karma worked – the meditation took me well beyond where I had gone before – a whole different reality – but I didn’t have an understanding of what the Buddha taught and karma was – I thought, mistakenly at the time, that if you did an action and someone suffered as a result of that, that you had created bad karma. I didn’t understand that karma is actually created by intention. Since I didn’t talk to Suzuki Roshi about stuff like that and so I ended up with this misinterpretation. I started reflecting on all these things and it was like – oh my gosh and it was much bigger and deeper than I had thought. Not just fairytales. I just wanted at that point to practice and be free and Joyce was practicing at the time. We wanted to just practice, devote ourselves  to the dhamma. There was too much effort and now I understand that the mind was really over-efforting and so it was really tight, putting in tremendous effort and things were happening – the purification process was taking place but the foundations or its meaning wasn’t there. I remember calling Suzuki Roshi on the phone and asking him what I should do and I do remember his words – he said, “When the way seeking mind arises, you or one should go to Eiheiji and sit with the monks,” and it was like, okay. 

So we went to Eiheiji and it was amazing and intense. In Eiheiji and they would ring a bell and serve food and … we used to eat quietly at Zen Center, but this was like SLURP –they had to eat so fast because they required 100% attention – there was no gap for your mind to wander while you were eating. But the food, it wasn’t sufficient to nurture the body and my weight – and I was already pretty thin – and I dropped lower and lower.

DC: That was the problem that Grahame had… and Grahame== had to be hospitalized.. He didn’t realize the monks had other food.

RB The other thing that happened, I started reading Zuimonki in English at Kobun’s suggestion. It was life transforming – it was totally revolutionary and eye opening – it was really different from Suzuki Roshi’s talks,  for American lay people… and here I was in robes but it was like  and I really felt like I just wasn’t practicing in accordance with the dharma and that Dogan was very clear and very direct about what some of the criteria were – I really wanted to do that and that led to the phone call with Suzuki Roshi but it wasn’t like a calm phone call – I was in this whole other reality and it was like “help – what should I do?” and I remember – it was very interesting because no one spoke English at Antaiji where I spent several months when I first got to Japan there was a monk Ippei-san who spoke really good in English and for better and worse I never had to learn Japanese. Joyce was in a place where pretty much no one spoke English so she really learned Japanese so well. Uchiyama was the master, the head monk was Koshosan. Later he died of cancer.

I was so na´ve.

The original precept said not to take intoxicants  and in Japan  at Antaiji we were serving sake and we took turns cooking on a wood-burning stove. – To be a zen cook…I don’t mean every…amazing..

Back to Eiheiji – and I was really getting very thin and I had this very strong resolve to try to practice in accordance with the original teachings as Dogen taught. I really wanted to go and do takuhatsu alms rounds there like in the Vinaya and there is something in the Zuimonki about food and the purity of its source and I can’t remember…… but they wouldn’t let me go and do alms rounds like at Antaiji and put the money in bowls and it’s a long way from what Buddha taught cause monks didn’t touch money.  

Something I heard like around the turn of the 20th Century – the early 1900s – that the government issued a declaration about monks marrying –

DC: it was the 19th Century I think.

RB: When I came back to the United States I was really, really thin. I went back to Texas after being in California for a while and I went into the hospital for evaluation of my physical condition. I had severe malnutrition with dry Beriberi and that can affect things like mental processing of information and cognitive functions – which can explain a lot. It affects the body and it also affects the way you process information.

There a point when I came back in robes and whatever had started in Japan continued – how the mind sees things - and I didn’t know how to interpret everything that was streaming – like a different reality. Kobun said, several years later, he said two things – when you were at Eiheiji you turned the wheel of dharma, and I took that to be good; and… I do remember … he then said that when you came back, the mind was so pure … I thought that that was a really interesting interpretation.

DC: So when you first went to Japan you went to Antaiji why did you leave there? It was a practice oriented place.

RB: Ya, … I don’t know … there were many different causes and conditions and I’m just thinking what would be useful… I don’t think it is useful to talk about it … The criteria is: is it true? Is it useful? Is it timely? So, if something is useful to say but not true than better not to say it – I don’t think it would be useful to say it…Buddhist criteria for speaking is it true, useful, and timely. If its useful but not timely, don’t say it. [Priest here in Bali 2015 said if you’ve got two of those conditions you can say it.]

Rented a small place near Antaiji. Fred Stoeber and  Carl Bielefeldt had an apartment very nearby – near the mountains and Ginny and Dick Baker were down at the bottom of the hill.

Japanese have a total community consciousness and the thought of you being by yourself is that you are impolite unsociable and so when I wanted to go out for a walk by myself I almost had to fight. It was interesting and you could walk for miles and miles in the hills – we were at the very north end – “it was very easy to go out into the cold – what is difficult is to stay out in the cold” – I don’t know why it occurred in my mind because it wasn’t physically cold but like the cold was solitude – so it was very wonderful to go out and be alone. How Zen. Easy to go out in the cold but difficult to stay.

So I was living there and I almost feel like Kobun rescued me cause I was living there and I didn’t feel like I was practicing very intensively. Kobun was very interesting. It must have been the summer of ’69 – and he came back from America and invited me to his temple.

And then in the winter or late Fall of ’68 I went to Eiheiji. In the beginning of a practice period. It was the right time to go. At Eiheiji for about 3 months. Then I had basically lost so much weight that the people at Eiheiji were concerned about me and so I ended up back at Rinsoin as a launching place– back in the United States. I really didn’t want to go back to Eiheiji – I wanted to stay and continue my practice, but my physical condition wasn’t – my karmic condition wasn’t supporting it. I had this desire. There is a place in Eiheiji when you go up and ask a question… I don’t remember what my question was but I asked something in Japanese – very intense – my question was like “how could one find the true nature of the dhamma in this mappo era – “ … you know out of the Zuimonki I saw what Dogen had in mind and I observed what practice had become, on the outside but there was a big gap and I had so totally real burning questions

And he said, “Yunin yunen(?) Kekkafusa.”

DC: Kekkafusa was a term Dogen used for zazen - full lotus.

RB: Full lotus, samadhi. The first 5 days of each month we did a retreat, 5 day sesshin. Know what sesshin means?

DC: Mind gathering - touching.

RB: Someone asked, What is samadhi? The English translation is it’s the unification of mind.

DC: When you came back – how long were you around Zen Center?

RB: Not very long – only in the Bay Area for a few weeks – in this altered state of consciousness – I was certainly seeing things in a totally different way than other people were seeing things and it was really stressful. It was like being in a parallel reality or universe and not understanding dhamma  well enough to understand how to sort things out what the mind was needing,

[There’s film of Ron coming up to Suzuki at Tassajara – in the outtakes from Sunseed which will be posted on sometime this year. – dc]

And Kobun – and looking back on it at some of the meditations that were going on at that time …

And I’d love to ____ some of the ____ of the teachers that I worked with _____ he said that he was the teachers’ teacher at a meditation center in Rangoon where over a 45 year period they trained between 1 – 2 million people to meditate. He was the teachers’ teacher – He taught meditation to teachers.

So I didn’t have the categories of understanding ____ to understand what the mind was seeing and I was just like this baby in a life raft out in the ocean and I really wanted Kobun to explain to me more clearly about how this mind is great and wonderful.

At one point at Tassajara I took the robes and burned them and people took that to mean that I didn’t like them or something like that but they didn’t understand that it was really out of this respect for the purity of the dharma and the robes. ____ like an altered state of consciousness or like an acid trip and it’s like “why did he do that” – but I do remember that ____ was one of respect for the dharma and respect for the purity of the robes and maybe it was just like I felt my mind wasn’t up to maintaining that or that the robes… I don’t know – but I know that the intention was one of respect.

DC: And then you went back to Dallas for how long?

RB: For nine months or so. Oh I don’t remember much – and then I came back here because I wanted to understand some of the experiences that my mind had opened to and went to the Jung Institute. Carl Jung was a Western psychologist and I wanted to understand about these other dimensions of consciousness and so I wanted to see if ____ and I would like to study – the Jung Institute – however, I didn’t get to speak with him, [George Wheelwright’s brother Joe) I spoke with a receptionist who said that you really need to be in your first year of psychiatric residency – that means that you have finished your MD and are in the psychiatry program or you need to have completed your doctorate in order to study at the Jung Institute.

I put an application in on the last day to the doctorate program at the California School of Professional Psychology and started teaching a little zazen there and I was afraid to meditate for a while because I was afraid the mind would open to this deep mind space – there’s more.

DC: I really like to get out of people what they got out of the Zen Center and Suzuki and what they have done since then. We’ll stop here. Want to hear about your Esalen and EST thing and the Vipassana you've been into for so long now.

Alice Dill transcribing May 21, 2015. Checked by Katrinka McKay in July and prepared by DC August. Posted 10-31-15