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Interview with Dana Fraser by DC

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I heard a talk of Suzuki’s just passing through. I see his influence with all kinds of people.



Called Dana Fraser up around 2001 and got the following. He and I had talked a lot when he was at Tassajara. His story was so different than almost everyone else's because his Zen practice had been in Japan. Recorded the notes from this conversation in 2011 and transcribed that audio in August of 2016. - dc
 


Dana Fraser

From 1964 to 1970 I was in Japan. I spent a year at Shokokuji in Kyoto with Kajitani Sonin Roshi. There were monks from back during WWI in the monastery. It suddenly came down to two people and it was too much being there. I got lodging nearby. I did sesshin and dokusan with the roshi.

When Ruth Fuller Sasaki died, the money for translating dried up and Iriya and I thought about it and we wanted newer words. Irmgard Schlegel put hers out in paperback. Iriya brought in poems of Han Shan.

I left in 70 after Layman Pang was safely in Weatherhill’s hands. I was getting stiffer. I was thirty. Time to get on with life still not sure what to do.

A Man of Zen: the Recorded sayings of Layman Pang, 1971, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya, Dan Fraser (translators).

The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang: a Ninth Century Zen Classic (1973) - republished with new complete title.

DC: That was a great book. I read it when it came out. How do you feel about it now?

I wouldn’t change a word of it.

I worked with Maezumi in LA in the mid seventies. He needed help with translating. I was not involved with the practice.

In 1970 I was at Tassajara for a week.

I heard a talk of Suzuki’s just passing through. I see his influence with all kinds of people.

Suzuki Roshi was a spiritual friend. My roshi was the same. We met for tea, we talked about the weather. The relationship was friendly. But as Adyashanti points out, it’s different if you’ve had the experience or not. In Zen Dust, Ruth Fuller Sasaki lays it out. It’s like a PHD course.

My teacher, the current abbot, is more of a scholar. Moku-san was senior monk when I was there. I had trouble with the diet – white rice a little tofu, mainly starch, body gets bloated, lethargy, monks didn’t add barley which has more protein. I got jaundice there. Lay people gave me a villa to recover. Had to leave and got a room with a nearby family.

I moved to Maui in 1990. There were pleasant breezes. I have been attending a Catholic church where I am an assistant.

Worked in Maui as a tour driver. There was a Soto Zen temple and a Korean Rinzai one down the road.

Adyashanti renewed my interest in practice. He sang Steve Bodian's praises. I like Pema Chodren as well.

I do the Right of Christian initiation for Adults. Was a RCIA team leader with my wife for three parishes. If someone wants confirmation or baptism we introduce them to the power of prayer and holy spirit. I'm technically a catechist. We do RCIA for those 17 and older and catechism for younger.

I don’t consider myself awakened. Don’t feel competent to talk about Zen. To talk about Zen is an ongoing frustration but I know enough about spirituality to point people in the right direction. I help people determine if the Catholic faith is for them. My wife is active in various good works in the community.

I’ve been working pretty much full time. Money has not been sufficient since 9-11. I used to do scenic tours with history and geology in Japanese and English and now I shuttle service a mini bus so I answer questions. Do some adult education.


August, 2016 got hold of Dana again via email.

DC: I want to get straight some memories I have - whether they're from you or someone else. I keep thinking Bill Laws was in Kyoto practicing Zen for a while. Does his name ring a bell?

Were you at Myoshinji before going to Shokokuji? I remember either you or Bill telling me about how tough it was there. A monk in tangaryo sitting in full lotus on a deck and being picked up and thrown off by more senior monks.

You mentioned the last we spoke (in 2001) that at Shokokuji the diet was too sparse, you got sick, weak, had to move out. You told me about that in 1970 too but as I recall said it was mainly white rice, thin miso, and pickles. As I recall you said that the abbot or former abbot, his dharma heir and his dharma heir had stomach cancer and I think it was the third in that list that you talked to who said he didn't care, he'd found what he wanted there. Something like that. Ring a bell?

You also said in 70 as I recall that once you moved out that things went well. That's what a lot of folks have found out in Japan - me too. Richard Baker too. I lived next door to Sogenji in Okayama and had a great four years there and am still close to the abbot, Shodo Harada.

Kajitani Sonin Roshi was the abbot of Shokokuji when you were there and was your teacher. He didn't have anything to do with Layman Pang did he?

Dana responded:

I was at Ryoanji with Ruth Sasaki as sponsor in 1964—that’s a subtemple of Daitokuji in Kyoto. I practiced sitting a couple of months and then she put me in charge of her little zendo to take care of the occasional foreign tourists interested in Zen. They usually didn’t stay more than a couple of weeks due to legs discomfort while sitting—20 minutes sitting, 5 minute break - back and forth for a couple of hours. She set me up with Kajitani Sonin Roshi at Shokokuji along with a more dedicated Jewish boy. We entered Shokokuji Dojo in October or November for sesshin, and stayed until late spring. I got jaundice in early summer. The cause was white rice, overcooked vegetables from the garden, no protein, and very salty miso soup, salty daikon pickles, and bancha to wash it down. They didn’t expect I would manage on that diet, but since I didn’t accompany them on takuhatsu, on the occasion of going out for Japanese lessons in the vicinity, I was expected to get food to supplement what was served from the kitchen.

There was an Austrian with an English passport at Daitokuji named Irmgard Schloegl who was my confident and supporter while at Shokokuji—she subsequently published an English translation of the Rinzai Roku. She was an advanced student, way more than me, who was very helpful.

Ruth Sasaki died a couple of years after ‘64, and it fell to me to assist Professor Yoshitaka Iriya who had been working on the English translations with Ruth of the Rinzai Roku and the Sayings of Layman Pang (Pang Hokoji Goroku). The Rinzai Roku version of Iriya’s was scholarly, probably had limited sales, and followed his scholarly interpretation, rather than Ruth’s preference, which was the traditional Roshi’s understanding of the text. I saw the publication of Layman Pang safely through editorial meddling by the Editor, and returned to the U.S. to stay with my parents in Newport Beach, CA. It took 6 months or so for me to get re-Americanized.

I never met Bill Laws.

DC: So that must be Bill who told me about the extreme and rather violent treatment at Myoshinji.

Kajitani Roshi needed a special diet. His stomach was damaged by the salty food, and he used moxa burned on his back on a regular basis to help with circulation, or possibly, pain, though he never complained. His teacher was the kancho (abbot) of the Tacchu, or main Shokokuji temple, who never visited the sodo while I was there, and whose senior monk, Moku-san was in line to succeed kancho when the time came. Moku-san came rarely to the sodo, but he was a well-worked-out human being, respected by all for his quiet and no-nonsense presence.

While I was studying Sutras and Buddhist Meditation techniques in London, before Japan, I learned that someone of my nature should stay close to the teacher and observe him closely. My situation at Shokokuji could not have been more different. I saw Roshi at tea in the morning (no talking), at sanzen in the evening (no talking except on rare occasions to change my Koan) and then I’m on my own to work on the koan.

DC: That seems pretty close to me.

When I came to the Shokokuji dojo to live, there were about 13 monks. (Moku-san had already “graduated out”), and when spring training ended, all but one left to go to their temples. That left me alone with Roshi and another monk, who was scheduled to leave in Fall. They didn’t want a layman to be an insider and have to do the things that should have been for their training. That was the main reason I was told to leave in the fall and only return for sesshins. Thanks to the Roshi’s intercession, I was allowed to do that much, at least.

There was a Japanese layman's group of about six men who sometimes came to the sodo, but there was only one serious Zen student among them, and I didn’t join them. Roshi finally came back to my place behind the meditation hall to encourage me with a talk before I left altogether. He had nothing to do with my English translations, but I think he and Professor Iriya collaborated on the Hokoji Goroku (Layman Pang collection Japanese name) which came out in a new collection of Japanese Zen works. When Roshi unexpectedly visited me at the last, I got all uptight, knowing how he must regard me as a less successful student than he had hoped. I gave him the usual short answers, and apparently discouraged him from saying much. Too bad, all around. 

I’m sure Roshi considered the sacrifice of his body’s well-being for his accomplishment in the practice of Zen to have been worth it. He was a scholarly person, read a lot. I never saw him outside his quarters working to keep the grounds clean with the monks. I never felt the desire to write him, or to return to Shokokuji, since I had done all that I could have done, and it was over, in a sense. I was as a layman expected to utilize the benefits of Zen practice as I saw fit in daily life, and do. That is my payback for the great generosity I was shown there. I learned that peace of mind, utter groundedness, is the most valuable mental treasure we can have, and to be on guard against all assaults from outside or inside.

I was fortunate one time to be working with a senior monk outside. He was chopping sticks for the bath. I saw that what he was doing could be arranged better to get the job done. (that was my m.o.) And so I said, “If you do this and that, the job will take much less time.” He kept on, quietly chopping wood. The silence grew. I understood as never before what he was showing me, keeping on undistracted.

Adyashanti and his wife are true exemplars of the lay Zen tradition of teaching others. As the abbot of Myoshinji once said, “Wearing out his body in service to others without a thought for the consequences.” Fortunately, his close disciples have steered him to medical help when he became ill, or too run down from the brutal schedule of sessions and weekends he and she are both committed to. We are truly fortunate to have their inspiring example so close by.

So the Myoshinji story was Bill Laws I think.

DC: Are you still involved with the RCIA work and the church?

My wife Celia was Catholic when we came to Oahu, but after a unique occurrence in Kahuluu with my son Hal choosing to join a local Episcopalian church, “St. John’s by the Sea”, we decided to join him there. That was a year ago. Thing is, it’s nominally a Hawaiian service, with a nod to the history of the place when most of the parishioners were ethnic Hawaiian. So we have some of the usual responses in Hawaiian, as well as some hymns, and often the Gospel read in Hawaiian first, then English. The congregation is small, and elderly like us for the most part. It lost parishioners over the crisis when the Episcopal church became more liberal to gays, marriage of same, and ordination. I’m unsure whether to try to learn Hawaiian language, to know more of what we do, but so far I’m stalling on it. I don’t teach RCIA, Episcopal style, since there are no young folks to prepare for Confirmation there. I do serve as one of several lectors on Sunday, and assist at the altar which goes along with the job.

I’m living quietly on Oahu, helping my wife Celia with her quilting business by doing some of the sewing. I just turned 78 years old, and Celia is 74. We “retired” years ago, but use her quilt business (see quilts2order website, if you like) to supplement our other, probably insufficient other income, to pay for long-term expenses of growing older if we live a long time like our parents. Nothing new—just like millions of elderly trying to get by with steadily rising prices of things. Adyashanti has a radio broadcast today—maybe I’ll catch it.

I’ll be off island to the west coast to visit family and friends from Sept 5-20. These days I’m not keeping up with the Zen developments much, except Adyashanti. Just a layman putting his practice into daily use. 

It was nice to hear from you, David. We wish you peace and happiness always. Dana.

DC: My pleasure. And folks, go to quilts2order.com