Interview with Paul Discoe

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Paul Disco
Interviewed by DC in a restaurant in Berkeley

DC note: Suzuki Roshi ordained Paul Discoe and Reb Anderson as priests on August 9th, 1970.

What was special about him, especially to neurotic Americans, is that he was just an ordinary person. That made him very unusual. He was unusual in some ways - really amazing - he was neither male nor female, Japanese or not Japanese.

Suzuki Roshi was into stones. Like the one he broke his finger on. He talked about them as if they were alive and different kinds of stone - dead and alive. On one level it's like stones that are vivified and stones that are absorbent - that breathe water and the oxygen. Those that inhale and exhale. There's also in the Dogen sense of the mountains walking and then everything's alive. I think he felt that all stones are sentient beings and some are more active than others. He understood stones as an organism.

DC: Like the time Steve Tipton was working on the massive stone in the hole they were digging for the septic tank by the end stone room. He was at it for days and Suzuki Roshi kept walking by and watching and then coming over and showing him just where to hit and it broke up right away.

PD: Yeah, it's not magic - it's something that Italian and Japanese peasants know.

DC: There was an Italian mason who came to Tassajara and did some of the same sorts of things Suzuki did, showed that knowledge of how to work with stones.

PD: What was special about him, especially to neurotic Americans, is that he was just an ordinary person. That made him very unusual. He was unusual in some ways - really amazing - he was neither male nor female, Japanese or not Japanese.

Niels was the shokuten and he had to go outside and ring the bell but he wasn't in the spot for that person and I was a doan on the alter - he was on the creek side and he didn't know what time it was so he leaned back and looked at the clock up on the wall and he was doing that right in front of Suzuki Roshi who was up on the altar sound asleep and as soon as Niels looked at the clock, Suzuki Roshi was up off the tan down and hitting him with the stick - wham wham! wham wham!

The first person that Ruthie and I met was Phillip Wilson and he put his arms around us and said, I love you folks but you have to leave. It was about three days before tangaryo. And then we met Rob Gove who showed us the ropes. He took us to the zendo for zazen with Ruthie on one side and me on the other in the old dining room before the new zendo was ready for tangaryo and the junko came by and he put his hands up in gasho to receive the stick and so she did too and the junko hit her whack! whack! and she burst into tears. And then I talked to Dick [Baker].

DC - I think it took him about one minute to figure out that you were someone who should be there.

PD: Dick has the psychic power to figure out immediately who everybody is. Then I met Suzuki Roshi and there was something there that was very appealing.

I considered myself a Taoist - I thought that Zen was done in a big group and couldn't possibly be the real thing. You had to be a hermit alone I thought so I was anti-Zen. But on the other hand I wondered what did Taoists do? - Zen people did zazen. But I felt that Suzuki Roshi knew what he was doing. He was somebody who was a real person.

Another great experience - after I'd been down there for a few weeks or months, I decided to stay longer and I came back to Tassajara in the old Toyota Land Cruiser - the one that my friend Carl, the tall fellow, rolled (that's another interesting story)- Somebody was driving and Suzuki Roshi was there and me and we went by my parents house in Berkeley to pick up my woodworking tools and my black stepfather was out in front mowing the lawn and was in his overalls drinking a can of beer and Suzuki Roshi came out of the car and something happened between the two of them and my stepfather was this died in the wool Marxist who believed that religion was the opiate of the people and something happened between them and took his beer can and put it in the bib pocket of his overalls and shook hands with Suzuki Roshi and there was something very powerful happened between them - I couldn't believe it. Suzuki Roshi was so happy to meet him, so turned on, and Bob was so happy to meet Suzuki Roshi and it was very far out. To me it was important to see that relationship happen right off.

DC [I tell about the angry, tough, violent-vibe, disturbed red-neck mechanic whose house Suzuki Roshi and I went to who we were warned not to bother, worse to be careful, that he hated Japs and was violent - when my car broke down but what else could I do and Suzuki Roshi came along and the guy answered the door and he immediately melted and invited us in and went to the kitchen and got us some Oreo cookies and asked him simple questions like how can he be a better person.]

PD: Suzuki was really taken with Americans. When we go to Japan we're not interested in businessmen and generals - we're interested - you and me - in common Japanese people and the more common they are the more we like them and he was the same way about Americans - college educated intellectuals are the same all over the world and he was really interested in meeting the folk. And I think he was turned on by meeting a black man and interested that he was my father-in-law.

DC [I tell about the time Halpern and I were hysterical and tried to get Suzuki Roshi and Okusan to get out of the neighborhood when the riots were happening in the Fillmore and he said, "Oh I'm not afraid, black people like me. They like to put their finger on my head. In fact I think I'll walk down there right now." And Bob and I went no no no! that's okay we'll leave you alone - forget it but at least stay here!]

PD: Many of the Japanese people who come to this country are renegades, outcasts, misfits. If you don't fight the system, Japan is paradise - it's perfect. Everything is so worked out and effortless as long as you accept all the boundaries and restraints and don't stray from the rules. But if you have some little quirk in you that makes you fight the system then you have nowhere to go but out - it's hell. But I think he was totally acceptable in Japan - he left there for other reasons, not because he was an outcaste. I don't think he came to America to make a mark, I think it was happenstance. They needed somebody for America and he knew some English - I think he was a high school English teacher [no but he’d studied English a lot]. He didn't go to escape Japan.

When Suzuki Roshi went to Manchuria it was pacified. He was like a conscientious objector and he just went there to be a priest to the Japanese nationals. Most of the ones who went there were liberal types. It was a place where people could go to get out of Japan and you could escape the war effort that way - it was more of a colonial experience - farming and so on. But the concept of a pacifist in Japan was like an ice cube in hell. An unheard of concept.

I don't know if he wanted any monks in Japan. I think when he came to America and met all these people who were interested in practice that it blew his mind - they had no karmic history with Buddhism and they were interested - they had beginner's mind. Maybe it's also true that they had it in their bodies and we only had it in our heads.

One time I was driving him back to Tassajara and we stopped somewhere on the way at the house of a Japanese American. They had a big house and the grandfather had died and he was stopping for one of the periodic memorial services. So we were chanting the heart sutra and I was doing the mokugyo and chanting with him and he would chant along and get lost in the middle of it and he'd start up somewhere else and he'd go over the same place four or five times and then he'd leave out a big section and then he'd end and the grandmother was totally thankful and she fed us and for a logical American it was a big breakthrough for me. It had nothing to do with the linear sequence of events. There was something happening on another level altogether.

DC [I tell him about Suzuki Roshi missing the train stop at Yaizu when his mother died and riding the train up into the hinterland before he realized his mistake.]

PD: You know when the Japanese are distressed they just zone out entirely.

I was in the Rokuchiji [officers of monastery] and the mail had come in the night before and there was a letter for Tatsugami and he was sitting behind his hibachi and we were sitting there talking and he was reading the letter and all of a sudden he broke out laughing and Dan was there and he asked him what was he laughing at and Tatsugami said, "My best friend who is taking care of my temple while I'm here in America was eating New Year's mochi and chocked and died!" It's such a stereotypical way for an old Japanese to die.

One time when Benjamin was just a little baby and Suzuki Roshi and Tatsugami were both there, Suzuki Roshi took Benjamin and held him and I took a photo of the two of them standing there, and afterwards he said, "I'm the mother and he's the father." I liked Tatsugami and I think that he did what Suzuki Roshi wanted him to do and I don't think he got out of control - Suzuki Roshi set the whole thing up - and Suzuki Roshi was playing the female role and Tatsugami the male role but you know that Japanese women control everything anyway. I was at all three of Tatsugami's practice periods. Katagiri absolutely hated him. All of that Japanese pretentiousness and role playing and playing empty roles kind of Zen - everything that Katagiri was totally against. And he'd have to listen to translate his lectures and he hated everything he said and so he translated them five minutes of English for thirty of Japanese and he did it in incoherent English.

Okusan says that Suzuki Roshi wanted Katagiri Sensei to stay on with Dick but she has so many agendas. I think Suzuki Roshi thought it was important for Americans to practice with Americans and I think he wanted Katagiri to stay around in a subservient position. Katagiri Sensei was a poor boy and Suzuki was much higher class and Katagiri rebelled and didn't want to play that game. Katagiri had to leave to leave Japan - he was too low class with too high class ideas. He wasn't able to play his lumpen role that was assigned by society - you get in Japan a role at birth and you have to do that whatever it happens to be whether you're smart or dumb or deserve it or not and he wasn't satisfied with his role - he was an outcaste - he was a beggar as a kid you knew - very poor. He did a lot of unJapanese things.

I think Suzuki Roshi wanted either Dick or Silas. I think he saw them as the two components of the whole but he didn't see that it wouldn't work out - it was just not understanding Westerners I think. And he also expected Katagiri to take care of them for the greater cause of Zen. I don't think he had any idea of how psychotic Americans can be. Japanese are much more predictable - they might freak out once or twice but not everyday. I think his understanding of Dick shows a miscalculation of the American psyche. I think he thought that Dick would do anything to make Zen Center survive if just to protect himself. But Dick is also a great teacher - he's a pain but a great teacher. Maybe he's the best teacher I ever had.

In the same vein The really great guy that I studied with in Japan, who I really respected and thought was the most wonderful person, and brilliant as a carpenter, the guy who rebuilt Ginkakuji when it was burned down - he was really a sweet wonderful person. And then he sent me out to the country to work for this guy out there who was a real prick who only thought about himself and rude and tough and drinking all the time. He made me do everything just so and right or wrong he'd just scold me and was always pushing pushing pushing me so that finally I did it and I learned a lot from him.

I don't think Suzuki Roshi realized that Dick would burn out the way he did - cause Japanese don't do that.

DC: [I bring up some events involving sexual misconduct]

PD: I think he had no judgment or idea about it whatsoever. We told him that in America we all bathe together naked and then Katagir came along and said, no that's not the way they do it in America - we should not do that and then we segregated the bathes. That first year we all bathed together naked right. When I got there there was still mixed bathing and it went on at least until the fall if not into the next year.

DC: No, it ended in the spring before the first practice period. People left because of that.

PD: I've seen mixed bathing in Japan.

Once going to Tassajara with Suzuki Roshi in the Land Cruiser with Phillip Wilson driving Suzuki Roshi was sitting cross-legged in the passenger seat and Phillip was nodding out and I tried to wake him up and he said, "It's okay - he's driving." And he pointed to Suzuki Roshi and he never swerved or wiggled or anything. They had a very special relationship.

Soen Roshi was visiting Tassajara - maybe a month before that I was in my cabin, the upper cabin, and Suzuki Roshi was in the cabin down below so I could look right into his cabin and he had Phillip in his room and was berating him for all the bad things he'd done and he was hitting him hard with his stick and Phillip was saying, "Oh sensei I'm so sorry I'm so sorry" and finally Suzuki Roshi broke that short teaching stick over Phillip and then later he brought me the broken stick and said, "I want you to glue this back together but don't do it too good because Soen Roshi is coming and I want him to see that we have strict practice in America." He was so proud that he'd broken that stick over Phillip.