Interview with Mark Gripman

by DC in February, 2002

DC: We have Mark Gripman. Where are you now, in Berkeley?

Mark: Yeah, in Berkeley.

DC: When did you come to Zen Center?

Mark: It’s a long story. An enormously long story. I was in Washington D.C. in a communal house, and in the mail I received a brochure saying, give money so Zen center can purchase Tassajara. That was 1967. I had no idea about Zen center. I had no idea how I’d gotten this brochure. Just out of the blue.

DC: I think we sent out 80,000.

Mark: Yeah, but how did I get it. I’d read Zen books since I was eleven. My mom started reading D.T. Suzuki when I visited her.

DC: You’re from where?

Mark: Essentially northern Virginia. Cause my dad was in the CIA.

DC: Oh, yeah, you and Neil Rubenking.

Mark: Ah ha. Yeah, there’s a lot of us. Miserable lot. All of us are communists or anarchists. A reaction to that hideous mess. Anyway I got this thing and I saw a picture of Suzuki Roshi on it. I really – something connected somewhere. I didn’t know where the hell this thing came from, but there’s something good happening. So that was it. I just saw that. Then I moved to California in early ‘68. Not long after that I met Alan Marlowe. He was giving a free yoga class. I was taking a dance class with Janie LePeener [?]. Peter Burg’s wife.

DC: Peter Burg, founder of that theater company.

Mark: Yeah, and he was an ex-Digger, and I'd tried to start a Digger thing on the east coast.

DC: Reinhabitory Theatre?

Mark: Yeah, Reinhabitory Theatre.

DC: Peter Coyote was with them.

Mark: Yeah. So I took this one dance class with her, and she said, oh you know Diane DiPrima’s old man just got back from Sri Lanka and he’s giving free yoga classes. Oh great, so I went over there and I met Alan and he was great. He was so funny. He was totally into this kind of upper class English effete thing. He’d just come back from Sri Lanka and he told me, oh, yes, this teacher over there was going to have me take over his practice and become a new teacher, but I had to walk around all of Sri Lanka. I did the fire walk and I did this other thing, but I didn’t have enough time to walk around the island of Sri Lanka, and it’s very uncomfortable over there and the food wasn’t as good as I wanted and I couldn’t travel first class. So I decided to come back. Anyway, so I started sitting zazen. I moved to Berkeley then, and I started sitting zazen at the Berkeley zendo. At some point Alan called me up and said, hey, why don’t you come out to Tassajara, we just got this place started and I’m in charge of the library and it’d be fun. It’s a great hot springs. So I got my friend Jack Shields to go with me. We were all long hair and everything. We hitchhiked up. Turned out Alan had invited me and then he’d split. He wasn’t even there.

DC: You said ‘68?

Mark: Yeah, this was ‘68. It could have been ‘69 at this point. I’m not sure. He was doing the library at Tassajara. He gave them all his esoteric books so they put him in charge of the library. And he was living there. But when we got there he was gone somewhere, I don’t know where, and people were very – I don’t know what the word would be, but they weren’t exactly glad to see us. Jack and I. A couple of woolly looking hippies. Jack Shields. He used to hang out with Steve Gaskin. He was one of Steve Gaskin’s right hand people for a long time. He was in charge of their CB radio stuff. Anyway, we got there. We got basically tossed out after one night. So we came back to the city. They had said, do stay at Zen Center before you go back to Sonoma County. We started sitting in Sonoma County then. I guess this is later. Late ‘69 or ‘70.

DC: That’s what I would think.

Mark: So we got back to Zen center. I’d never met Suzuki Roshi and I’d never been to Zen center. I always hung out at Berkeley zendo. So we get in the building. It’s maybe seven o’clock when we finally get in there. I think – what’s her name – oh god – the woman – the main woman – Yvonne Rand – sure – she was great. Anyway Yvonne said, yeah, sure, you can have dinner and maybe spend the night. We’ll see. Before you go back to Sonoma County. Which is where Jack lived. We walked down the hall from the office. There’s the stairway upstairs on the way to the dining room. Roshi was just going upstairs with two or three people attending on him. Holding his staff in both hands. This little formal walk. He had walked up the first flight of stairs, and he was on the landing, and his back was to us. We were in our sock feet. We had just gone along there. He whipped around really fast, stared at both of us, and said, "You’ve just come here from Tassajara. You’re hungry. Why don’t you go eat." Jack’s mouth dropped open. It was just amazing. I was just mind-boggled. The guy didn’t even know we were there. And he came out with this. I was reminded of that when I read one of those stories. A very similar thing happened. O, he was going to throw me in the pool story. The guy was thinking of throwing Roshi into the pool and then Roshi said something to him about it. It was just like that. It was phenomenal. So that was our first meeting with Suzuki Roshi. Actually that was my second meeting. I’d been over at Bush Street once.

DC: So that would be pre-fall of ‘69.

Mark: I remember he seemed like a nice little Japanese man standing there. He said, oh you have to come back and visit again. After zazen. There was a huge tea pot. Very memorable. At Bush Street in the old synagogue, there was a giant tea pot. Like a kyusu, but it was like two feet high. It was located at you come in the door on the left, somewhere, in the foyer. Downstairs.

DC: I forgot about that.

Mark: It was a monster. Pretty interesting. So anyway that meeting wasn’t much of a meeting. But that kind of pushed it along. Anyway after that I went to Berkeley zendo, then Tassajara, and then I was back at Zen center after Tassajara, living there. My other real Suzuki story was just because the older students kind of monopolized him. I didn’t feel comfortable going to dokusan with him.

DC: Oh that’s bad.

Mark: Because everybody said, oh no, you shouldn’t take up Roshi’s time unless you’re an older student. You’re just getting in the way. So I really felt I was out of this hierarchy or something.

DC: Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot.

Mark: But I felt like a really – there wasn’t a point having a teacher if you didn’t have any contact with him. So I was determined I was going to get him at some point. So that lecture – you actually had it in your book – the one about the pig. You feed the pig all this food and it just looks at you. He was talking about his students, teaching to his students. And they’re just waiting for more. They don’t react at all. They don’t eat up the food, they just look at you, waiting for more.

DC: Oh right. When you feed pigs he said you’ve got to do it right or they won’t even eat.

Mark: Yeah. So anyway he gave that lecture. As soon as he said that in lecture – I’d just gotten back from Mexico and I had been feeding this guy’s pigs in Mexico. I’d throw them food. And one day I went out there and I had the thing they liked best which was watermelon rinds. I dumped all these watermelon rinds in front of them. And the pig just leans down, sniffs them a couple times, and looks up at me, like, what the hell is this. You expect me to eat this. And I thought, hey, what’s going on. I thought this was your favorite food. So turned around to ask the guy I was staying with. Hey, what’s happened to your pigs they don’t seem to like this. As soon as I turned away (eating noise)_ and they’d eaten everything within two seconds. So they were expecting more. When are you going to give us the rest of it? So I had this very literal thing. When he said that, I thought, oh so that’s the reason why those pigs acted like that. I understood the story. What he was saying in the lecture. But I just glommed onto this literal thing cause I’d just had this experience.

So anyway, after the sesshin I thought, oh man, I've got to get a hold of him. You know, I really want to have some sort of meeting with Roshi and see who he is. So he was walking back to his room with a couple of attendants and I just walked in front of him, blocked his way. So he tried walking around me (laughing) and so I walked over there and blocked his way.

DC: Good for you.

Mark: So he tried walking by me again and I just stood in the middle and wouldn't let him get past me.

And I said, "Hey Roshi, I wanted to ask you about something in the sesshin."

And he goes, "Oh, Okay. What is it?"

And I said, "That story about the pigs. I was in Mexico and I had this experience with pigs and what I wanted to know is, is that really the reason the pigs don't eat the food? Because they're waiting for more? Where'd you get this?"

And he looked at me - stared in my eyes for about half a minute without saying anything - just staring - keeping total eye contact with me the whole time. Then he repeated what he'd said in lecture word for word. Just exactly the same thing.

And I said, "Well no, I know Roshi. I heard the lecture. What I want to know is, is this the real reason the pigs don't eat the stuff?" Me being one of the pigs who don't eat the stuff. And he started repeating the same thing he'd said again, staring in my eyes. And I thought, ah, his English isn't so good. He's not really getting it. And so I repeated it again.

And this time he started out saying a couple of words or sentences and then he started just saying nonsense. He started just combining words. And after a few seconds he wasn't even combining words. He was just going, "ah ga ba da ga" like this. And the whole time he had this little grin on his face and he was staring into my eyes and as he kept on doing this I got more and more confused and he started nodding his head and this little smile was growing on his face and it got bigger and bigger, and finally I just got it. We connected and we both started laughing hysterically in the stairwell there. And that was it and I said, "Ah, thank you Roshi."

DC: Wow

Mark: I gave him a gasho and that was it. I mean I've never been so confused in my life. He was not only repeating the story but all of a sudden he was speaking gibberish. And the really funny thing about that story to me is that I didn't even get that I was the pig until a couple of years later. I got the silliness of my question but I didn't really connect the whole story until a couple of years later.

I always got Katagiri Roshi instead of Suzuki Roshi in dokusan. There's really not too much more about Roshi except the Mountain Seat Ceremony [not long before he died passing on the temple to Richard Baker].

DC: What about it?

Mark: Well, he was really brave. It was great. His spirit was really great. And then after it was over, Chino Sensei told me he was like a rare wind from the East or West, I can't really remember. (laughing) Nihon no kotowaza [a Japanese folk saying]. And then that was it. He was gone and I left. I liked Dick Baker but when he was Roshi I thought he was a prick. I really did. I mean he was such a nice guy but he got back from Japan and I talked to him and he was a regular person and then once he took over being at Zen Center - I don't know, I can't say.

DC: Well he's been beaten up a lot since then and he's a pretty nice guy now.

Mark: I didn't want to beat him up anyway, even at the time because I felt like I mean the guy has to take over this huge institution and um he's taking over from a guy who can't be replaced by anyone living -

DC: Living or dead.

Mark: Yeah, it's just impossible. It's like the comic who follows Charlie Chaplain. He may be good but nobody's gonna notice that.

DC: And think of the karma of trying to do it. And trying to do it ambitiously like he did.

Mark: Yeah, well, my complaints with him were two things. One is that he was too materialistic. He had to have all the Zennies work as free labor on all these building projects while he was gallivanting around with all the popular social icons of the day. And uh - I forget the other one. That was my biggest peeve though.

DC: Richard got hit on that pretty hard in this new "Shoes Outside the Door" book.

Mark: Oh, I didn't know about that. Who wrote that?

DC: A novelist named Michael Downing. [Here the tape recorder was turned off. Later in transcribing the tape I wrote on as if I were talking to Mark and wrote a lot more than what I said to him. Go to Comments on Shoes by DC] Anyway, thanks for talking to me.

Mark: My pleasure.