Interview with Jack Elias
9\9\95 by DC
Intro to Interview
Jack Elias and I were good buddies back in the late sixties and early seventies at the Zen Center. When I took the notorious vow of silence for six months in '72 (at Baker Roshi's suggestion - notorious because everyone said it was the noisiest vow of silence they'd ever heard - better to call it a vow of not talking), anyway, when I did that, Jack was the person who understood me the best. He was so tuned in to me that I swear I had the impression that we were having conversations without me having to say or write anything. I still look back on that and wonder what was really happening. Anyway, he was the most sensitive person to what I was trying to communicate.
These days Jack is the director of Finding True Magic, a Hypnotherapy center in Seattle which he founded. He lives in Ballard, Washington with his wife, Ceci Miller. Go to that link and find out more about Jack and get a copy of his book, Finding True Magic.
I dipped into my interview storehouse and edited this one for cuke.com because I just read an interview with Jack on the Chronicle Project website (from where I stole the photo of Jack - now on his link page) with other interviews with students of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. There is some overlap with his memories here and some new stuff, especially more about Trungpa Rinpoche. Speaking of his photo, he looks like what he looked like when he was in his twenties. And it's not a picture from back then I know because I've seen him now and then. What is it Jack, clean living?
I sent an email to Walter Fordham of the Chronicle Project that said
DC: Okay Jack, so what do you have to say about your experience with Suzuki Roshi and Zen Center?
JE: I felt very much in tuned with Suzuki Roshi. When he would give talks at times I'd feel like he was talking from inside my bones, inside myself. So it was very wonderful to be his student - there was no question because of that kind of experience. And I felt very grateful to see his courage, his spirit and his dedication. I remember once I was doing the drum at the zendo at Tassajara before morning zazen and I was standing back there in the cold and it was fairly dark and he came in to put his shoes down and to do that he had to turn around towards me and as he did that I saw this great pain on his face - like he was just with himself and then he put his shoes down and then before he turned he was just the Zen master and the pain went away. He just dropped it. It was in ‘68 or ‘9 or ‘70. I just thought, he's got an old man's body that he suffers with and yet he could just drop it to be there with his students. It was a big impression.
DC: When was it you came?
JE: I first came in the summer of ‘67. At the end of my sophomore year at college I was in Middletown Connecticut at Wesleyan University and I had this big experience - an acid trip - and then the next day somebody handed me a brochure about Tassajara. So I wrote a letter applying to go but I didn't get a reply so I just went out there. I hitchhiked across the country from New York and came into Zen Center and I walked in the door on Bush Street and there was a little Japanese guy sitting at a desk, Katagiri, and there were a bunch of people around another desk and I went up to him and started explaining what I was doing there and he looked at me with a puzzled look - he couldn't understand what I was saying.
DC: Oh, that’s funny. I never think of him as not understanding what we say. But you were new and talking too fast I guess.
JE: Yes. And there was a man at the other table, Dick Baker, and he said, let me help you out. Yvonne Rand was there and Phillip Wilson. Dick said tell me about yourself and I said I'm here for the training period and he said you can't go - it's full and Yvonne said oh we've got a letter from you and you've been accepted. She told me later than they'd been worried that no one would come and Dick said, you watch - people are going to show up with back packs on their backs and she said I was the first one she saw who came in with a backpack on his back.
I spent about a week at Bush Street and then went down to Tassajara with Dick and someone else and I met Suzuki Roshi there. We were briefly introduced. I was just there for a weekend and I got a phone call from my dad that my mom had cancer so I had to go back to New York and take care of her for six months till she died.
I came back in January of ‘68 and saw Suzuki Roshi in the city and he asked me a question and I answered it and he said that's a pretty good answer and I agreed and that was my first dokusan. He said this is probably all new to you, but I said no, I realized there was nothing to gain, all there was, was to serve and just to sit and the Bodhisattva path would take care of me and he said that sounds good.
DC: Pretty good. Some people would be like that when they came – like a duck to water – and others would fight it. He was so blown away by how sincere everyone was. We had the spirit but not the maturity.
JE: At the end of the fall training period at shosan [question and answer ceremony with the abbot] I remember standing in line and not knowing what I was going to say so I said something about the stream and he said, "If you understand that then that's the Buddha speaking." In the way he said "if" he conveyed I didn't fully understand what I was saying. It made me contemplate.
Watching him with other people I saw his tremendous kindness. I saw and realized that if you have a true teacher and you present yourself sincerely and present an obstacle sincerely - it just gets taken away. I saw that most vividly with Niels. I remember him going up - he was in so much pain, and so sincere about saying he was a bad student and he was so critical of himself and he was just right there with it and Suzuki Roshi said with conviction, "You're not a bad student, you're a good student." And he just said a few other things and from that moment on Niels was in that sort of
clear sort of conviction that he has which sometimes goes overboard.
Who was that young girl 16 - short [Liz Wolf?]. She went up and was saying how she couldn't do the practice and he said, "Just pick one thing and that will be enough, that will work." That was a really powerful impression on me.
I remember when Trungpa Rinpoche came. Before it happened we were at one of the dinners in the dinning room with Roshi in the city - it was great the way he'd come to dinner at night and then hang out with us and talk and we were sitting around talking and he said, "Somebody's coming. Maybe nobody will be at Zen Center except Roshi," and then he laughed. He didn't know that Trungpa was coming. And then when he came one day Rinpoche gave a talk in the dinning room and Suzuki Roshi sat with his eyes closed and a smile on his face. Some of us stayed to ask Suzuki Roshi what he thought about him cause Trungpa was drinking, maybe smoking and Suzuki Roshi said he didn't know if Trungpa would live long enough to be a great teacher and I remember that after the talk Bob Halpern and Mike Gilmore went out and got him a six pack. I remember that Suzuki Roshi was deeply moved and that helped to set my direction to study with Trungpa.
One day I was bopping in the front door with my mind just going and right there at the desk was Roshi with Rinpoche next to him. And I stopped dead in my tracks. Rinpoche was just sitting there looking at Roshi with such total focus and so much love and Roshi was sitting there shyly pushing a pencil around with his finger. When I saw the incredibly love Rinpoche had I felt a very strong connection with him.
My experience of Rinpoche at Roshi's funeral really clinched it. In spite of all of the people who were broken hearted and all of the dignitaries, in my eyes Rinpoche was the only person in the room who was totally naked, who had no idea of himself. He was just this naked, broken-hearted man, just total human connection, no idea of himself and by contrast I could see everyone else's trip. I knew he would be my teacher at that point. I stayed in San Francisco for about a year. I left in the summer of ‘72.
I really got screwed up at Tassajara. I went down there in ‘69 for a year and I immediately got hooked up with Margaret and I felt myself closing down. It was very painful but I just couldn't stop and Roshi tried to stop me - I had a dokusan with him and he told me that this is no good. He told me to stop being with her - he made it kind of moralistic actually. He said, "Don't you know it's wrong to sleep with a woman in a monastery?" And I knew I wasn't the only one and I knew he knew that and so it didn't stop me and beyond saying that to me he didn't become authoritarian and he knew we were still doing it and he would joke with us about it though he knew it was best for me not to. I felt myself loosing myself and becoming alienated from people and feeling a lot of unworthiness and then hiding from him and it really felt like I'd built a wall against him and he noticed this and he would seek me out and I'd run away. He'd just be there and I'd turn and run away and finally at one point I was going under the trellis in front of the zendo towards the bath and he appeared in front of me and with all my effort I managed to do a gasho and as he walked by I immediately felt something in my heart stir and that made me recognize again the power of making even the smallest gesture to your teacher in a dharmic way had an immediate effect.
In the city he pursued me as well. I felt like he was chasing me around in a circle once from the dinning room to the hallway to the kitchen and back around. Once he was with some people there and it seemed like they were just wandering around discussing things but to me it was like I was trying to avoid him and I'd go around and through another door and there he'd be talking with these people and that was happening but on another level it was very vivid to me that he wasn't going to let me get away. But I did get away. I really feel like I blew it. I got very screwed up, but I had moments of clarity and moments of strong connection with him and then I'd blow it again.
Once after a sesshin at Tassajara I came up to the city and asked to see him and I explained to him my state and there was just a moment I don't know what happened - just for a moment I just sort of let go and I know that something happened and I got up to leave and I was walking down the hall and Okusan called me from the other door and said, "Here, Roshi wants you to have this," and she gave me a banana and so I took it and I ate it before I got out the door cause I was rushing out to drive back to Tassajara and I got in the car and was driving and everything was different - it was fluid and moving, nothing was solid. And yet if I focused everything would stop. I had to deliver something to Jean Ross in Carmel and I never really appreciated who she was beyond being a nice lady, but when I got to her house she immediately was obviously very emotionally excited about what was happening with me. I didn't really understand and I didn't say anything and I went back to Tassajara and back into this thing with Margaret and Jean came down and tried to talk to me but I was locked into the negativity again and just pushed her away. And that's something that I regret - not having talked to her or a lot of people.
I feel Roshi really gave me a lot even though it was just like windows - because of this stuff I was going through.
7-17-07 - A brief memory of Shunryu Suzuki and Maggie Kress from Jack Elias. [On Maggie's memorial page]
Here is story for Maggie's sister:
At the end of session in the Fall of 1968 most of us were very ardent and concerned about succeeding at pushing through to enlightenment and being warrior Zen students. Because of this many of us presented ourselves to Roshi (one by one in the line awaiting our turn according to custom) with discouragement about the quality and results of our effort. When Maggie presented herself she seemed somewhat shy, and perhaps even lacking in self esteem, yet she asked the most courageous question, given the context. She said something to the effect of, "Roshi, what if I don't care about getting enlightened, can I still practice?" Roshi very passionately responded, "Just stay honest and open the way you are right now!" I have forgotten most things over the past 40 years but that moment of Maggie stays in my heart.
Well gone Maggie!