Interview With David Haselwood

Dave Haselwood cuke page

[Dave Haselwood was at Zen Center in 63 and 64. I just saw him at Sonoma Mt. Zen Center where I gave the Saturday talk (7/31/99). He's a priest there now and going strong. This interview was done on October 1, 1995.--DC]

Empty Bowl Sangha in Cotati, CA meets on Thursday evenings at 7pm at 8922 Poplar Ave.

Dave first came out to California with Michael McClure.

DH: After we meditated at Sokoji, we'd go through this little room and Suzuki-sensei, as we called him then, would be sitting there and everybody would gasho to him and we'd gasho back and sometimes some Japanese member who was in the floral business raising plants down on the Peninsula would give him a magnificent plant in full bloom. I remember one time it was a tree peony. When I saw it I was stunned and he would place the plant so that when you went in to bow to him, you were actually bowing to the plant. It was this beautiful thing. I remember one time there was this big cymbidium orchid with hundreds of blossoms on it. He was in among the blooms. That really typified Suzuki-roshi to me.

On occasion he could be very acerbic. At the time I was there, I suppose the four main students were probably Bill Kwong, Dick Baker, Graham Petchey and Phil Wilson. Phil and Graham were about as opposite as any two people you can imagine. Phil was this ex football player and really a nice guy and full of life and loved the good things of live and lots of women and drink. And Graham in those days was a very prim English Buddhist who looked like he'd been born to wear a Buddhist robe. One day, I think it was on a Saturday after we'd cleaned up the zendo, Phil and Graham were standing in the middle of the zendo and Suzuki just walked over to them and he pointed to Graham and said, "You're all priest," and then he crossed his other hand and pointed it to Phil Wilson and said, "And you're all pig." And then he reversed his fingers real quick so that it clearly meant and vice versa and they both stood there with shit-eating grins on their face - they'd both just been whacked pretty hard.

It was a part of Suzuki-roshi that not many people talk about cause there was a side to him that was pretty direct and unsubtle - he'd just say it so that was one of the times I saw that. People tend to denature him in some way.

I knew Richard Baker from the publishing I was doing and when I came out from Kansas I already knew some of the Buddhist poets. I'd already published a book of Phil Whalen's and Lew Welch's and Michael McClure's and I'd been reading DT Suzuki. All I knew was what was available at the time and it was all Rinzai and they didn't write about sitting and it was very exotic very harsh Zen and very romanticized. Soto Zen didn't fit into that picture too much. All we'd read about was mysterious sounding enlightenment experiences. And it was actually said that people who had had enlightenment experiences were no longer human beings. [superman Zen] Koans were these totally incomprehensible things that were supposed to blow your mind. It always sounded like taking LSD or something like that. It didn't sound like sitting on a cushion and have your legs hurt for hours on end.

Suzuki-roshi came and just quietly got people to start sitting and it was so quiet that you didn't hardly even hear about it - you didn't know it was there. I heard that a couple of people I knew were sitting there and so I showed up on a Saturday morning and managed to sit and do the samu and Suzuki-roshi came over and got my legs sort of arranged because I didn't know how to sit or anything and he straightened out my back and he went back up and sat where he sat and then when the period was over and we started doing samu, he came over and gave me a back massage and he said that I had the stiffest back of anyone he'd ever seen. So here was this completely different picture. Here was this lovely man who was not this big important poobah. He was just very ordinary. He was impressive but kindly and considerate and actually gave me a back massage.

I started coming every morning and evening and to every talk and event without any idea of what I was doing at all. I never went for dokusan, but that was common - people could be there for a year and never have dokusan. [It continued being that way until he died whereas at temples that work on koans you see the teacher everyday, sometimes twice a day.] But he wasn't remote from us - he'd walk up and give you a massage or say something to you but on the other hand it was like he was a million miles away. It never occurred to me when I had problems of any kind with my sitting or what was going on to go to him and talk to him. Nobody did this.

And what happened is that every time I'd sit down on the pillow I'd start crying - not sobbing, but tears would start pouring down and I didn't have any idea what this was. And this went on and on so finally one day I went to Suzuki-roshi and said I would like to talk to you so he set up a dokusan - the only time I ever had one - and I walked in there and sat down and I told him what was going on and said, I'm leaving. I can't be here anymore. I don't know what it is, but I can't deal with it, I can't go on sitting and crying like that - I can't take it. These are the words he said to me exactly cause I never forgot them. He didn't say you should try to stay or do this or do that. He said, "You try and you try and you fail, and then you go deeper." That was the end of dokusan. And then I left. I'd been there about a year and a half.

You really did sink or swim on your own there. There was almost no direction at all in those days. Maybe for people like Dick Baker there was, but I don't know. Most the people who I knew there stayed for quite a while: Trudy and Mike Dixon and Bill Kwong. I'm a student of Bill's now in Sonoma, but I didn't know him back then because he didn't socialize with anybody. I'd go to the movies or a concert with a lot of these people but I don't think I had five words with Bill Kwong. And he's very similar to Suzuki in a lot of ways.

Graham and Phil quit. I really liked Phil and I hear he wasn't doing so well, but that can happen.

The name of my publishing business was Auerhahn - it's a big European grouse . It was on Franklin street. First I had a partner who was a ship's printer but he had to quit and then Andrew Hoyem bought in. He has Auerhahn Press now which does the incredibly fancy books. I started in the late 50's. My first books were John Weiner's first books, Mike McClure's second book and Phil Whalen's first or so and Lew Welch. Gary Snyder and I talked about publishing a book in the international phonetic alphabet but he went off to Japan. I didn't like him. He was a showoff. But he's done a lot of really good things.

I met Bill McNeill right after I quit sitting. My partner and I had a publication party and the guy he was living with and he crashed the party and he was incredibly flamboyant. He'd made a big deal out of being gay in SF. I started talking to him and discovered he was back from studying Zen in Japan and had studied with Suzuki at Sokoji and had dropped out. Suzuki warned us not to be idealistic in our practice but Bill was - he'd romanticized the whole thing. In Japan he didn't get along with Ruth Sasaki which made life tough for him. But what he saw in Japan was that Zen was just as political and corrupt as anything else and he didn't want anything more to do with it.

I read Jiyu Kennet's autobiography and it gave quite a picture of the Soto hierarchy. She took it all very personally but I think the system just didn't have room for an English woman.

[She came from Japan with some students while we were still on Bush Street and we put here up till she found a place. They'd stay to themselves somewhat and her students would go out and get her hamburgers and milk shakes. That's about the time that Tartang Tulku came and we helped him and his French wife out, too.]

She said in her book that the Japanese monks were eating out at laypeople's houses or going out and she never did and all she was eating was white rice and it put her into diabetic shock and made her gain weight.

I remember one time about lunchtime I ran into Bill McNeil in Japantown where he was living and we were walking down the street chatting and Suzuki came by and the bow between them was extremely formal and distant. Bill didn't want anything more to do with it. Later he got so wild and crazy I couldn't see him and he was so into the gay scene and he died of AIDS and I went to his ashes ceremony which was done by Phil Whalen - he did the fire ceremony. That was the most exotic bunch of people you ever saw. Bill knew the farthest out wildest ones in SF. Since he'd been a priest Phil Whalen thought he should have a good Buddhist farewell. There were some other monks there. His ashes were interred on Bolinas on a bluff above the ocean. Kwong Roshi has a very close place in his heart for Bill. They were both artists. I went to the city and saw the guy who lived with him and got a nice monograph of Bill's and had it mounted and gave it to Kwong Roshi who really appreciated it.

DC: I was at that memorial in Bolinas too.

I was born in 31. I'm originally from Wichita, Kansas. Came to SF at the beginning of 57. Mike McClure and I went to high school and college together. When I got out of the Army I went directly to SF and moved right into the Wentley Hotel on Polk and Sutter which was a big artist's scene. That's where John Weiners wrote his first book of poems that made him so famous - Hotel Wentley poems. Bob Levine, the painter, who was so close to Ginsberg and Orlofsky was there. I got my press going right away and started printing some of these people. I took a course in Sanskrit for some ungodly reason. I used to go over to the East-West House a lot. I remember John Montgomery there. He'd come by my press and bring these weird things and leave them for me like Lord Buckley's cash register. Jafu was there - he's teaching in Colorado now. Phil Whalen and Joanne Kyger. I'd go over and have dinner. Joanne moved into the hyphen house. I was sorting mail at night at the Rincon Annex Post Office. [I did that] Then I was working to make money as a typographer. You should talk to Lou Embry to know more about all of that.