Interview with Jacob Fishman

Podcast with Jake Fishman 🔊 - That's a link to the podcast on Cuke Podcast home, Podbean. For links to the podcast on other platforms go to the Cuke Podcast page or search for “Cuke Audio Podcast” in your favorite podcast app.

Jake's 1974 spring photos of students sitting zazen at Tassajara - click on right arrow to advance to the next of 32 photos.

1998 post from Jake Fishman (down below)

Shunryu Suzuki memories from SFZC Alumni retreat of April 2012

Jake Fishman on Rene Pittet's passing

Jake Fishman interviewed by David Chadwick

Interview with Jake at Tassajara during the spring alumni retreat April 2012

DC: Jake wants to add to what he had to say yesterday.

JF: Yesterday I spoke a little bit about some of my work experience with Suzuki Roshi. Here comes Layla, she’s just passing by, which reminds me that she and I spoke a little bit about dokusan. How awkward it was for many of us to enter dokusan. For people who are priests, as well, to have dokusan, that it is awkward for them. I’ve had dokusan with various Zen teachers. Again, with Suzuki Roshi, who I had my first experiences of dokusan with, were amazingly the most relaxed, even though when I entered them I was pretty uptight myself. So I just want to say a little bit about my experience of dokusan with Suzuki Roshi.

So you enter dokusan. You have problems, you have questions, you have doubts, you have anxiety. You enter, and you’re not quite sure what to say or how to present yourself or anything like that. But with Suzuki Roshi, I remember, at least with me, we would bow to one another, and he would always start the dokusan with a little chuckle. Like he was saying, how preposterous it is that here we are, two people from completely different worlds, in this unusual situation, sitting here facing each other.

DC: You mean that’s what his chuckle implied to you.

JF: That’s what his chuckle implied to me. So it relaxed things, and it also opened up much of what I needed to say.

So I wanted to say a little bit about that, because that was always a special feeling in our relationship. I want to talk about an experience that was completely unusual, completely a mystery to me today. I was following Suzuki Roshi around Tassajara, just because. This was during our work time together, when he would come out and join us working on the rocks. We were walking down the path, down by the barn, where there’s a steep hillside of loose dirt and slag rock and sandstone rock and stuff like that that comes right into the path. I don’t understand how or why this happened at all, but as we were walking by, and I guess I was walking a little behind him, or something like that. Suddenly he points up the hill; he points and says, “There’s a rock up there we can use on the wall.” Which was kind of preposterous because we were getting all our rocks, our granite stone, from out of the river, and up there was just a slag rock. He starts, “Come on, let’s go.” We start climbing up this dirt hill, which is loose; it’s kind of like climbing up a sand hill, or something like that; dirt is running down. And we got about halfway up the hill, and a little mini slide happened, and we slid down the hill. All these rocks and sand and stuff came down with us. He lost his zoris in a pile of sand and I lost one of mine. And he just seemed delighted. He just seemed like he was having—that this was like the funnest thing that had happened to him for a while. I got his zories, and he put his zories on, made a few gestures, and left. And I kept thinking, What does this mean? Why did he do this? To this day, I have never understood it. I kind of like to think of it as a little vignette with him walking away with this little bubble over his head saying, “Well that a Zen experiment that failed,” or something like that.

I’d never seen him act like that before, or do anything like that, and why he did it with me, I have no idea; I still haven’t figured it out to this day.

DC: Couldn’t he have just done it for fun?

JF: He might have just done it for fun. But especially considering my relationship with him and how everybody treated him with such awe and respect, to be involved in a little situation like that was very unusual, and it has always stuck with me.

DC note: See same story below in 1998 note. I think it is either in or an outtake of Zen Is Right Here.

JF: One other small vignette I can talk about. At the time I was studying, I was a young guy, I had just entered the Art Institute. I had to take an elective, and I took a class in pottery making. I didn’t know much about pots. I certainly didn’t know much about the history of Japanese pottery or anything like that. So the first pot I ever made—I can’t remember how awkward it was, but I’m sure it was a pretty awkward pot. I got it glazed. During my next dokusan schedule with Suzuki Roshi I brought it to him as a gift. (Laughs). Thinking back now, it must have been—compared to what he knew about—or just the whole essence of Japanese art, that this must have been awfully awfully crude. But he treated it like it was a really special gift. He was really gracious, though his wife kind of looked at it askance (laughter). It just made me feel really, really good. So, I think that’s enough.

DC: What year were you born?

JF: I was born in 1946. February 22.

DC: Where?

JF: I was born in Miami, Florida, but I grew up in New York City.

DC: Are you part Sicilian?

JF: I am half Sicilian and half Jewish.

DC: What a combination!

JF: It’s a New York combination! My father was an immigrant Russian Polish Jew, and my mother was the daughter of immigrant Sicilians.

DC: I remember you telling me something your uncle used to do.

JF: Outside of beat me?

DC: He beat you?

JF: Yeah, I had one that used to beat me.

DC: Did he drive a milk truck?

JF: He drove a milk truck. He was a milkman.

DC: And what did he sometimes carry in his milk truck?

JF: You mean booze, or—

DC: Bodies?

JF: Oh, that was some of the story. He was kind of like a wise guy wannabe. He was big into gambling. He used to make me work on his—he had a Mr. Softie machine. He used to make me work in the summertime. He would drag me down and I would have to work 14, 15 hours on this truck, in the back, with his Mr. Softie machine. Some of the speculation is that he used—he also had some kind of an interest in a gas station—some of the speculation, rumors that went around, is that he used to do some work for the Mafia, moving stuff around.

DC: I remember you telling me that once. So, you came to Zen Center you said, because somebody—who was it—

JF: Esteban Blanco.

DC: Yeah, I knew Esteban. I could tell you stuff about him. Did you have any inclination or interest in Zen before that? Nothing?

JF: Nothing. When I met Suzuki Roshi I had no – very little knowledge of Buddhism. What happened with me, and it happened to a lot of people, is that I was part of the counterculture, I was young, I had been on the scene in North Beach for quite a while. Then the Haight started, and I was involved in that, and I got turned on to LSD. After a few LSD experiences I realized that everything in my life had turned upside down. I started seeking a deeper explanation for things. I started reading spiritual books a little bit. Gurdjieff was my primary instigator. Through my readings of Gurdjieff I had a conversation with Esteban Blanco. We used to meet in Gino and Carlo’s poolroom. We used to hang out in the bar; it was one of the places I used to hang out in North Beach. I didn’t know he was involved in any kind of spiritual practice. But I always noticed that he was the kind of guy who would break up bar fights. He was an artist. He was a good artist. And he would always call people when they would kind of get out of line, or they would be lying about stuff, or pontificating about something, he would always call their number. I had a lot of respect for him. He was the one that said, You know, there’s the real deal, the real deal, he said, the real deal. That’s how I found out about Suzuki Roshi. There were also other people at the Art Institute, like Robert Quagliata [Narcissus], who was an older student—eventually I studied stained glass with him. Some other people at the Art Institute who had a connection with Zen Center.

DC: Oh yeah. Rob Gove, Ginny Baker. Norman Stiegelmeyer.

JF: I know Rob Gove but I didn’t know Ginny Baker. Norman Stiegelmeyer was a teacher there.

DC: Rick Morton was there. I used to go there—before I went to Zen Center I went to the Art Institute to eat and bum grass off people.

JF: It was a wonderful place. I was very lucky to get a scholarship to go there.

DC: Do you remember when Suzuki Roshi died? Were you at the—

JF: Unfortunately, I wasn’t.

DC: You weren’t at Dick Baker’s Mountain Seat Ceremony...

JF: I left Tassajara after the spring training period with Tatsugami. I went back to the City. I had a truck, which was my sole possession, and which I sold for $500. It got stolen on the steps of Zen Center. I left it in a bag, and some little black kid came by and swiped it and took off with it.

DC: You left your money on the steps of Zen Center? What, by accident?

JF:  By accident. I was sitting down talking. I had a shoulder bag, and I had all my money in it. I had just sold the truck. It shows how you responsible I am—

DC: How responsible you were

JF: I left the bag on the steps and went inside. I realized I had left it and came out and some little black kid in the neighborhood came by and just took off with it.

DC: Somebody told you that?

JF: Yeah.

DC: They didn’t do anything to stop him?

JF: Well, in those days, it was the early days of Page Street, it was a dangerous neighborhood. I also got held up; I got held up at gunpoint once, in my house. I was sharing a house with several other Zen students. Some of these Zen students weren’t really—they’d just come to Zen Center from, I don’t know, the Midwest or something.

DC: They weren’t very street savvy.

JF: They weren’t street savvy. So three young kind of thuggish black guys, and I hate to say “black” but that’s what they were—they heard my name being called. So they walked up to the door. They rang the bell. We all had separate rooms. It was on an alley. One of the people who lived there was leaving. And these three guys, obviously, dressed in ghetto clothes, said, Hey, is Jake there? He said, Yeah, he’s upstairs, and left the door open, and they walked up. I was alone in my room at the time, taking a nap, and I woke up with these three guys with guns on me. Lost a little money there.

DC: What year was that?

JF: Oh, that must have been.... maybe in the early ‘70s, something like that? It was a transition period between Tassajara and some other place I was going.

DC: In terms of like a way-seeking mind story, where has your path led to? Because I know you were living around Zen Center, sitting there, into, I’d say, the ‘80s.

JF: I slowly dissolved my relationship over the course of the ‘70s. I never really found a – Zen Center changed, I was changing. It became more institutional. I didn’t particularly have a strong connection with some of the people that started running Zen Center. Richard Baker, I had a couple of dokusans with him, and it felt very different. So I just started drifting away.

DC: In Japanese, they’d say, we didn’t have “en,” chemistry, karmic tie, something like that. The vibes weren’t right. Might be for someone else, but didn't work for me.

JF: Yeah. But I always had tremendous respect for Zen Center, as an institution. But it just didn’t feel right to me any more. There was a lot of stuff that I’d already started in my life, that I had to continue to find out. My artist path, my path to making my way in the world. Making a living for myself. I had a maritime history that resurfaced later on, that I followed through, becoming a boat captain and becoming a charter boat captain, as well as learning how to me a manager and administrator of business. My history—

DC: I remember you were operating a projector in a theater in San Francisco. I saw some very interesting movies there because of you.

JF: No, you have me confused with someone else.

DC: Not you?

JF: No, it wasn’t me. I don’t think it was me! I mean, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but I can’t remember—

DC: In the Tenderloin, you never—

JF: No, that must have been someone else.

DC: I get a lot of that; I mix people up, and people tell me I said things that I didn’t say—that just happens.

JF: As far as way-seeking mind, when I look back on my life, sixty-some odd years now, and consider, I came from a pretty rough background in New York. I left school. My father died young, and I left school when I was 15. I came to San Francisco as a young guy and I was struggling and I had a lot of New York attitude. Zen Center—not Zen Center so much as Suzuki Roshi and his students, people like yourself, Dan, the older students that I could respect and have an empathetic relationship with, helped me to find myself and to develop morality, ethics. Some of it took a while to take hold, but now I feel very comfortable and relaxed with myself. And I think, considering how I felt about myself at 20 and how I feel about myself at 60, I have a lot of satisfaction about that. And Zen practice had a lot to do with that maturation process.

DC: Suzuki Roshi said once, We practice Zen so we can enjoy our old age. That means a lot to me.

JF: One thing he also said that I find very true is, he said, You come here with all these problems, and anxieties. And you want to solve all these problems and anxieties. You want to get rid of them. He said, But when you get older, as you get old, or as you progress in life, these same problems and anxieties are going to be with you. It’s kind of like the change, desires are inexhaustible. But yet, you are on the path to eliminate them. It’s all about, it’s not about the destination, it’s kind of about the trip. About traveling the path. Who knows where the destination is, or if there even is one.

DC: Like in the Nirvana Sutra or something. People said, Hey, we thought you went to Nirvana, blew out the flame of existence! Buddha said, Oh, that was just an expedient teaching! All right. Unless you have something else to say...

JF: It was a lot more than I planned on saying. You have done a good job of helping...

Transcription by Layla Smith

Jake Fishman 2/11/98--I can't remember if I got this by mail, email, or over the phone. I remember Jake's stories of his Sicilian East Coast (New York I think) background. He's an artist, doing painted prints and stained glass now. He almost died a few years ago when his liver failed due to Hepatitis. Luckily he got a transplant and it took. Jake's a darn good pool player and he's got a couple of good stories here. I get a lot of good stories from people who start off with how they didn't know Suzuki-roshi very well. And a lot of people say that. But then they tell something intimate.--DC

I wasn’t close to Suzuki-roshi. Went to Tassajara for the first time in 69. I got to work around him on rocks and I'm physical and appreciated being around him that way - it stuck in my head. I remember him encouraging me in dokusan but there are two main memories I have of him.

When we were working in summer Ed Brown's stone wall below SR's cabin - Alan Marlowe, Silas - SR just loved it among rocks - he’d feel all around. We had to put in a cornerstone, had to chip off a piece of it. I had a big 10 lb. sledge. He perched on rock like a fly, picked up chisel bigger than his wrist. I didn’t want him to hold it but I had no choice. I lifted the sledge hammer up, realized I had this tiny man's life in my hands, and therefore everyone else’s there - the chisel he held was bigger than his wrist. I hesitated, then wham! wham! hit it a couple of times - SR vibrated from it and his face broke into the most gleeful expression.

He and I were walking down path with the old cabins to left - by the hill with a small slide of sandstone and granite and he said, "There's a rock I like," - it was not river rock like he usually got - "come on let's go get it" - and he ran impetuously up the slide kicking loose rocks down on me - I followed and we went up a ways and then lost our footing and were dancing downhill in a slide - he lost his sandals in the slide. I couldn't understand why he'd do something like that - the suddenness of it.

Jake at Tassajara 1974

Jake Fishman, Rene Pittet, Howie Klein, DC at an anniversary exhibit for the Summer of Love at the De Young Museum (I think) Maybe 2007?