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Interview with Meg Gawler

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posted 9-03-12, reposted with Meg's edits 9-08-12

Shunryu Suzuki memories from SFZC Alumni retreat of April 2012

Qualitative and Quantitative Analyses for Mapping the Path of Practice in ZMBM by Meg Doshin Gawler [posted 5-23-15]

Analysis of "Most Important" in ZMBM - that's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind - posted 6-04-15

Meg Gawler interviewed at Tassajara during the April 2012 alumni retreat in three sittings

DC: Meg Doshin Gawler. Doshin is your Zen name?

MG: Yes. The full name Suzuki Roshi gave me is Kansho Doshin (meaning “Feel Illuminate, Path of Faith”). Doshin is now legally my middle name.

DC: Have you had another last name?

MG: Gawler is my maiden name.

DC: What’s your married name?

MG: I’ve kept my maiden name, but my married name was Brown from 1970 to 1978.

DC: When did you first come to Zen Center?

MG: In June of 1968.

DC: Tell me about it.

MG: I was a student at Brandeis University outside of Boston. I was a sophomore, studying social psychology, because I was concerned about the war in Vietnam. I took a course in educational psychology. One of the things the professor was trying to get across to us is that you can’t educate somebody else if you don’t know yourself. So he put five books on Zen on the reading list. I read The Three Pillars of Zen and I thought, Wow, this is really something. At the time I was also majoring in modern dance, and so for the summer, I had planned to dance. I thought to myself, if Zen is happening anywhere in this country, it must be in San Francisco. So I drove all the way across the country in my little car. My brother helped me drive as far as Colorado, then I went the rest of the way myself. I got to San Francisco.... do you mind a long story? Is it OK, a long story?

DC: Yeah.

MG: I remember vividly driving across the Bay Bridge. I went to Golden Gate Park and this man in long, white robes offered me LSD, which I didn’t take. But he also told me a place I could spend the night if I needed a place to stay, so I crashed in somebody’s flat somewhere. That was Sunday. The next day I went to my dance studio, and that was wonderful. I looked up Zen in the phonebook, and I found Zen Center, so I called the number. This little lady Japanese voice answered, and I said "Hello? Would it be possible to practice zazen?" And she said, "Yes!" I said, "What time?" and she said "Five o’clock." I said, "Five o’clock in the evening?" "No, five o’clock, morning." So the next day—I’d never been up at 5 am in my entire life, I don’t think, at that point--I showed up at Sokoji. And this is really funny--The Three Pillars of Zen was written by a person from a different Zen tradition. I didn’t know the difference. I got there early, because I wasn’t sure about being there on time. I went into the zendo and I plopped myself on a zafu, sitting face out, with my knees up in the air and my eyes closed. So I didn’t see everybody else come in and sit facing the wall, so there I was!

[DC note: Philip Kapleau who wrote Three Pillars studied Rinzai-like Soto - Harada Yasutani lineage]

Chino Sensei was also there, together with Suzuki Roshi. Without saying a word, and with infinite gentleness, he turned me around to face the wall. Chino Sensei. He put my knees down, and he straightened my back, and he pulled in my chin. He just kind of fixed my posture. I was mortified that I’d been facing out—anyway . . .

So that was Tuesday morning, and I came every day. That was June of 1968. On Saturday morning was the lecture by Suzuki Roshi. I also remember bowing to Suzuki Roshi on the way out, after zazen, every time. So I went to the talk by Suzuki Roshi Saturday morning. I don’t remember what it was on, but I said to myself, "Oh my goodness, this man knows more than all my brilliant Brandeis professors put together. I’m going to practice with him." I just vowed right then and there to study with Suzuki Roshi. Six months later I was at Tassajara.

DC: What was your first impression of Suzuki? Was it bowing after zazen?

MG: No, it was really the dharma talk that just transformed--I mean, I have many vivid impressions--yeah, the bowing was very powerful. But also everything he did, you would see enlightenment. He would drink a cup of tea and you would see enlightenment. Not only did I give up my college education--I didn’t go back, I just called and said--well, I actually did go back and collect my stuff--but I also gave up dance. Because I felt that zazen, sitting perfectly still, was the ultimate dance.

DC: So you came here in late 68?

MG: To Tassajara? In December of 68.

DC: You came in December?

MG: Yes, because I was going to start the practice period in January, and I sat tangaryo all by myself, in the zendo, in the freezing, freezing cold. It was hardcore.

DC: How long were you here?

MG: I was here for two years straight. During that time Ed [Brown] and I got married, and then we moved up to San Francisco for a year to be with Suzuki Roshi, who was ill at that time. After that we came back to Tassajara for a year, after he died. So I started in December of 68; I was here for all of 1969, all of 1970, in the City for all of 1971, and back here for all of 1972. In 1972 we conceived our daughter here at Tassajara. She was born in April of 1973--

DC: On the day--

MG: On your wedding day! Yes, I know! Because Daya was supposed to come to the birth. And we were supposed to go to your wedding! April 21.

DC: I was just telling some people in the dining room that Daya wanted to skip the wedding to go to the birth! And I said, well there’s about 300 people coming, my relatives and your relatives; I think we can’t get out of it. But we went over there right away after the reception.

MG: I was telling Blanche this morning that my years at Tassajara were the best years of my life. I felt like I was a practicing ecologist here . . .

DC: You’ve gravitated toward Europe... in terms of spiritual practice, where has your life led you? Like at the Berkeley Zendo, people will be asked to give their Way-seeking mind stories, their whole spiritual practice...

MG: OK. So Ed and I came back to Tassajara when our daughter was four months old for one practice period, and he was head something here--I don’t remember exactly what, but he had an important position here. And then we went to City Center and lived there for a while. That was lovely.

DC: He was Shuso, head monk, here the practice period before me. I was 74. He was Shuso here in the fall of 73.

MG: That’s it. It was the fall of 73 that we were here with our daughter, who was 4 months old. So then we went to the city. I worked at Zen Center for a couple of years, but I didn’t really see myself becoming a Zen priest. I was still only 25, 26 years old. It is sort of the reason I would never become a doctor. I didn’t feel that I could take that kind of responsibility for people’s lives. I didn’t feel like I was together enough. So I decided to go back to school. Since I had become a practicing ecologist here at Tassajara, I decided to study ecology. Also, after Suzuki Roshi’s death, I feel that I was harmed by Dick Baker.

DC: How?

MG: By his duplicity. I didn’t see myself staying at Zen Center with Dick Baker as the abbot. So I applied to Cal, Berkeley, and I got in and I got a degree in conservation of natural resources.

DC: At what point in this did you and Ed break up?

MG: It was when our daughter was four. So I did a year at Cal, in conservation, while we were living at Zen Center. Then he and I broke up. Actually, I moved next door to 340.

DC: I remember your apartment. It was right across the hall from mine.

MG: Yeah exactly. Ed didn’t wanted to have custody of our daughter, so that was not an issue, because I did. So she and I moved next door. I had to drop out of school and get a job. I had to support my daughter. I went to work for Tom Silk for a year. I became a legal secretary. Fortunately I had learned to type in high school.

DC: I’ll tell him Hello for you. I see Tom every once in a while.

[Tom Silk is a non profit tax attorney who has done a lot for the SFZC and me too through the years. His is the only signature on the 1995 re-incorporation of the SFZC]

MG: Do you! Well, I’d like to see him again. Give me his number. I would love to see him again. Is he healthy?

DC: He's doing 100 pushups a day.

MG: Good for him. That’s wonderful. I’d love to say hi to him again.

So anyway--and my job interview with him was fun. He asked me if I did any sports, and I said that I had been very athletic before I was a Zen student. When I was at Brandeis I did four hours of sports a day, and if I didn’t do that I was too nervous to sleep. So I had given up sports, as a Zen student, but when I went back to Cal I started swimming again. So I told Tom that I swam, a mile a day. He said, "Oh great! Bring your bathing suit on Monday!" He didn’t quite say that. But he was a member of the Dolphin Club, and he took me for a swim in the Bay. It was June, and I got hypothermia. The water was still that cold, my hands webbed out, I sort of lost my motor control. I made it back, but it was a real lesson in how you have to get used to that cold water to be able to keep swimming in it. I worked for him, and I loved the Dolphin Club. I was one of the very first women to become a member. It had been an all men’s club. I was like the second or third woman to become a member of it. All these old wharf rats. Some of them didn’t like the idea of women. But once we got there they thought that was pretty cool. And they were really sweet. It was great. I did the Alcatraz swim, and I did the Golden Gate swim.

DC: What do you mean, Golden Gate swim?

MG: I swam across the Golden Gate. And I escaped from Alcatraz.

DC: You must have to do it at the right time or you would be swept out to the ocean.

MG: We did it as a race. They would study the tides and plan it to catch the slack tide. But the slack tide only lasts ten minutes. So you’ve always got a tide to deal with, and wind to deal with, and you have to navigate. It’s really something.

DC: That is impressive. We’ll talk more later.


DC: Now where were we? You wanted to complete your way-seeking mind story. What year were you born?

MG: 1947. June 8th. OK. So I worked for Tom Silk for a year, and I went to Berkeley, and I got a Bachelor’s degree in Conservation of Natural Resources. Fulfilling my practice as an ecologist here at Tassajara. Then I worked as an environmental planner. Then I went back to Cal and got a Master’s degree in Applied Ecology, more specifically Aquatic Ecology. Then I fell in love with this Frenchman, and moved to France. He is a high-energy, neutrino physicist. We tried to find someplace in the world where you could do origin of the universe physics and aquatic ecology, and we found Geneva.

DC: Most expensive city in the world I read.

MG: One of them anyway. So I studied the plankton ecology of Lake Geneva for four years. Then I got a wonderful job with WWF International, the World Wildlife Fund. I worked there for over ten years, in the Africa program. I quit, I kind of hit a glass ceiling, and became an independent consultant in the field of nature conservation and human development. I specialized in program evaluation. So I would get hired by various large NGOs or UN agencies or foundations to go evaluate their projects to see whether they had worked or not, and if not, why, and what we could learn from it. So it was wonderful. My work took me to 65 countries. I got to go to villages in the far-flung places, talk to villagers... it was great.

So my marriage fell apart five years ago. We have been separated for over four years. Still trying to get divorced. So during my whole 25-year marriage we raised five kids, because we had a blended family. I had one daughter, he had three, and then we had another one together, so we raised five girls. It was wonderful.

DC: Where are they?

MG: My daughter from my marriage with Ed is in San Rafael.

DC: I visited her there with Kelly.

MG: Erminie is in Paris, and she is an opera singer. I am also an opera fan.

DC: I've heard a lot of opera. My mother is on the opera board in Fort Worth, still. Senior member. She is turning 98 in August.

MG: Wow. So anyway, during my marriage I didn’t have a regular sitting practice, but I still was practicing mindfulness. When I would be driving I would be mindful, and when I’m cutting the carrots I’m cutting the carrots. The practice has stayed with me in that way. When I moved out and had my own life, I had space for meditation in my life. I met a wonderful Theravadin monk from a monastery in Switzerland. There is a sitting group in Geneva that was started by the Thai community, so it is in the Ajahn Chah lineage. So this dharma friend of mine in Geneva said, “You’ve absolutely got to go, there is a one-day sitting this month.” So I went, and it was really, really something. There was a very strong current that passed, and it really kind of put me back on the path.

Also the other thing is that I read Jack Kornfield’s book The Wise Heart, and that really spoke to me. So, on one of my trips back to the Bay Area, I thought it would be good to go see Gil Fronsdal, since he is sort of a dual lineage person, like me. I asked him if he would be my teacher and he said Yes. Then Ed managed to ask Jack if he would see me. So I had a long interview with Jack Kornfield. He asked me zillions of questions; he wanted to hear all about my life. And at the end he said, Meg, you should teach Buddhism. I said “What! Me??” He says, Yeah. I was kind of incredulous. But it did light a little fire in my heart. So Jack invited me to come to the next month-long retreat he was doing at Spirit Rock, which I did. That was a year ago. It was a whole month of silence and meditation. No talking at all; no internet. Jack gave me Dharma Transmission during the retreat. And at the end, he said, Go teach, and if anybody wants to know, tell them Jack Kornfield approves. He kind of threw me in off the deep end. So Gil has been mentoring me, fortunately.

So this group, where I met this monk, he actually left the order because he was very ill. I am still in touch with him, and he is better now, but he’s not in the area anymore. Anyway, there is a monk who comes once a month. So I offered that if they wanted to keep sitting I would be happy to stand in. So I’ve been doing that. It’s in Geneva. It’s English-speaking. Geneva is a very international city so there is a demand for teachers who teach in English. I do speak French fluently, but I don’t have all the dharma language in French. I’ve never read much about Buddhism in French, so I’m more comfortable teaching in English, and that works for a lot of people. So that’s one place I teach. There’s another place in Geneva called the Vimalakirti Center that is run by Charles and Patricia Genoud, who are Theravadan teachers from the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts that Joseph Goldstein and company... and they are in the Burmese tradition of U Tejaniya. They too invited me to be a guest teacher. They travel a lot, so when they are gone I teach there, on Thursday nights. Gil has also asked me--he has an amazing center and practice. He does everything for free, and everything is up on the Internet. He gives a Dharma talk and a day or two later it’s on the Internet. And his website has got thousands of Dharma talks, and it’s all out there.

DC: He’s got one from me.

MG: Yeah. Twice a year he does an online course called Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation. It’s a six-week course. It’s not taught by him personally, but by his senior students. There are about a dozen of his students who teach the course. Last time they taught it in January they had 700 people sign up. But only the first 120 got to have individual teachers, where they had a half-hour Skype with their teacher every week. So I was asked to moderate an online forum for whatever people wanted to ask about practicing mindfulness meditation. So that also was kind of a baptism by fire. Because you are right out there; what you say, it’s going to stay. That was really nice, also. So I’ve been enjoying it very much. It kind of pushes you into what you don’t know. And it also reveals to you what you do know.

I took a very interesting online course with the Institute of Buddhist Studies this fall, which was taught by Gil and one of his associates on the Majjima Nikaya, the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. That was really, really interesting. And very challenging to really go deeply into the original texts. At one point Gil was giving a lecture, and he was talking about the different ways that people get enlightened, and that often it’s by listening to a Dharma talk. But another way that people have traditionally gotten enlightened is by giving a Dharma talk. I have found that--one night I led a meditation evening in equanimity practice. In Theravada Buddhism there’s the Brahmaviharas, and the formal practices of loving-kindness, of compassion, of sympathetic joy, and of equanimity. There was this intense calm that was created in the room. And when I walked out of there I was so equanimous. I was just like, whoo.... and it lasted for days. So it was kind of like teaching myself as well. I was transforming myself, actually. Amazing.

So it’s interesting. In the Vipassana tradition there’s no form. There are no robes, no... all you have is your authenticity.

DC: There’s no robes? Nobody wears any robes?

MG: There’s no robes, and there’s no bowing or chanting. There is one simple bow at the end of a sitting. There’s really no form. You just do it. All you’ve got is what you can be. So I retired in October from my job as a consultant going around and evaluating conservation and development programs, and now I’ve been doing Buddhism 100% since October.

DC: You are still living in Geneva?

MG: I still live in France near Geneva. About a half hour north, perched right on the Jura mountains. It’s very beautiful.

DC: Well, if I get back over there I will try to see you. Zurich, Lucerne, Felsentor -- [Vanja Palmer's retreat above Lake Luzern.

MG: I haven’t been there yet. I went to a great retreat center in Beatenberg. It’s a Vipassana Center in the Alps; it’s very beautiful.

So I’m hoping to move back to the Bay Area. I’m planning to live in Berkley, but I’ve got to get divorced first and that’s taking way longer than I thought it would.

DC: Is that it? You have anything else?

MG: Well, I could tell you stories.

DC: What stories?

MG: Not at this time. Some Suzuki Roshi memories.

DC: Well, good Lord, yes. Tomorrow morning.


DC: So yesterday at the end you said you could tell some Suzuki Roshi stories.

MG: OK. Let me start by telling you what has been his most lasting teaching to me. As you remember, I was a kid when I came to Zen Center. I was 21. I had a traumatic childhood, and a lot of trauma still to work through. When I was at Tassajara, the first year, I think I cried every period of zazen. The tears would just be streaming down my face, day after day. Suzuki Roshi, his really big teaching to me, was that he treated me as though I were the Buddha. And he actually perceived each of us as the Buddha. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh gosh, if I’m the Buddha, maybe I’d better start acting like the Buddha!” I think it’s one of the reasons that he was never mugged in San Francisco, is that he was just always transmitting that, to everyone that he came into contact with. I have such an immense debt of gratitude to him. He allowed me to begin to believe in myself. He also loved me unconditionally. He loved all of us. But he had this wonderful, pixie, joyful spirit, but he also had this beautiful compassion. So that gift of unconditional love, really showing me that I have Buddha nature inside of me. That I am an awakened being, already. It was very, very beautiful, and it has stayed with me my whole life. And that also has been the impetus for my wanting to begin teaching. To try to repay the debt that I owe to him. In whatever way I can, to give back some of what he gave to me.

DC: More? You said you had some stories. Do you remember your wedding?

MG: Yeah (laughs). But you probably remember things I don’t remember.

DC: But this isn’t me, it’s you.

MG: It was actually an arranged marriage. Ed and I were down here. We got married a year and a half after I got here. So that spring of 1970 Ed and I were--

DC: You got married a year and a half after you got here?

MG: To Tassajara. Spring 70 - solstice, June 21,. Ed and I were kind of sweethearts, and we thought it might be nice to explore living together. One day we asked Suzuki Roshi if we could see him together. We said, “Suzuki Roshi, if it’s OK with you, we’d like to live together”. He said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! I’d like to marry you as soon as possible!” We said, “No, no! No, you don’t understand. We hardly know each other! We’re not ready to be married. I was 23; he was 25. I said, “No, no, we just want to live together.” He replied, “Would June be all right?” So there you have it! So we got married in June.

DC: Do you remember the ceremony? Do you remember what he said?

MG: I remember he said something about how hard it was going to be for us.

DC: Right. There were all these people here, this whole joyful ceremony, and then you know, he gave this really heavy talk, telling you what a hard time you were going to have. Then later he said to somebody, I don’t remember--Maybe that was too much--or something like that.

MG: It was really heavy. I think he saw that we weren’t ready. He could see that. He could see that we were both vulnerable people struggling with a lot of issues that still hadn’t been resolved.

DC: Japanese, a person like that, coming from Japan, people decide to get married who don’t know each other well, and they stay together. Very low divorce rate, before his generation, especially, practically none. Right? So that fact that you didn’t know each other well might not have been that big a deal to him. He had learned that you can’t just ordain people right off. You know, people who said they wanted to dedicate their life to Buddhism. Somebody in Japan says that, they’ll do it. But in America, he learned to wait. They would say, Now I got Buddhism down, enjoyed that two weeks, now I’m going to take up golf!

So that’s a nice story. Do you remember anything else? Any moments, any dokusans?

MG: We were once having tea together in his garden. He was in a playful mood, I think he was doing some calligraphy. He picked up this little rock, a smooth stone from the stream, about 7 centimeters, something like that...

DC: That’s not 7 centimeters, that’s more like 7 inches, what you just--all right, that’s about 4.5 inches.

MG: OK, so let’s say that. And there was kind of a little eye shape in the stone. So I think the Japanese word for eye is me. So he took the stone and turned it over. It was a bit of a curved stone. With his calligraphy brush, he wrote a "G" on the back of it. Then he held it up to me and he went, "May-GUU."

DC: That’s funny.

MG: I was May-guu-san.

DC: Right, they don’t have final consonants except for N.

MG: And I still have the stone, and a little picture...

DC: If you think of anything else, just e-mail me and I will add it to what we have here.

MG: He liked the way I did oryoki, and he decided that I should study tea ceremony. He asked Okusan if I might study tea ceremony with her teacher. So I was actually the first--

DC: Ueda-sensei?

MG: Ueda-sensei. So I was actually the first Western student of Ueda-sensei.

DC: She is still alive, isn’t she?

MG: She is. She has dementia and she is living with her older daughter in Hawaii. Angie came after me, but kept studying with her all this time. Angie Runyon. And Ueda-sensei was a beautiful teacher for me.

DC: OK, is that it?

MG: I have some notebooks.

transcribed by Layla Bockhorst Smith September, 2012