Roy Iwaki

Roy sat with Shunryu Suzuki back when we were starting Tassajara. I met again him decades later through John Tarrant. He helped us out with some electrical work here at Tarrantland. Farewell Roy. - dc

6-05-2010 - Johnny Thorn remembers Roy Iwake (below the photo)

Interviewed at an Irish Pub in Sonoma on 1/22/02

by DC with Dennis Samson present

DC: So, how about telling us anything you want about your experience at Zen Center and with Suzuki Roshi?

I was going to school at Cal [UC Berkeley] in architecture and I went to Sokoji cause Japanese architecture is so tied in with Zen - Zen infiltrated all Japanese art and architecture so I just went there to check it out.

I joined in on the early work crews at Tassajara [1967]. I wasn’t interested in zazen but I had to sit to participate. I hadn’t sat for any intense period till I went to Tassajara. It was really hot. I sat three days all day [tangaryo]. I thought - this is good, quiet. I had no trouble crossing my legs. It was such a beautiful place. The heat was just part of the experience. I found you could get to know yourself with that process, could learn by using restraint - instead of getting up to exercise or cool yourself off, learn to restrain yourself. Deprivation enhanced the quality of being. Another neat thing was the meals, the bread.

Suzuki Roshi was out there working with us, helping us move the rocks. Talking with him removed the barrier I had in taking part in it. For instance, I asked about reincarnation. Do we have to accept that? "Oh no," he said, like that’s history. He made me feel unrestricted, like do whatever you want. I was in the Air Force and to go through basic training and I had to readjust my life style and attitude. Tassajara was similar but there it was by our own choice. Had to get used to it but there was something behind it. It was different from the military. And because of this experience one could be incarcerated in prison and all you’d have to do is concentrate and not worry about anything. It was a long ride into Tassajara and a long ride out. I don’t know if the benefits last but you come out sort of cleansed. But once it’s over you start to get polluted again.

In the process of giving talks, Suzuki-roshi coughed a lot. He spoke gently - that’s how he received and gave answers. There was that seductive quality of grandfatherly talk. If you’re a parent you speak differently than a grandparent. He was able to understand your difficulty, your problem, and to help you. Whatever troubled us, we’d ask and there was nothing confrontational about the way he received the questions and delivered his answers. He kept people comfortable with his mild and gentle fashion.

Even in the sittings he’d be this way. At the end we would ask questions or respond to his questions. He’d say you don’t have to but you can do this if you wish. He eased you in - not dogmatic. He was successful as a person to introduce Buddhism because of that quality. I’m a nisei Japanese American [second generation] and I know that much of Japanese teaching is very dogmatic. He had a strong understanding of Western culture for someone from Japan. He wasn’t intimidating. Of course he was also short and bald so that helped make him less intimidating too. Maybe I appreciated him this way because I’m nisei, at the tail end of the nisei, I’m used to a lot of this.

I went there during the summer break from school.

One thing - and this is true of Genjoji too - is that being part of the beginnings of a community is tremendously fortunate. There's a free form. People get caught up in the energy and there’s a mythical quality to it that they don’t fully understand - so it’s a myth, an unknown. That energy that goes into the unformed structure - like in architecture, in building a building that is starting to form. It’s exciting. It has a foundation but you don’t know what it will be and you get buoyed by anticipation. For people who join after the facilities are established and the methods matured, there’s little sense of that play and exuberance because all you’re doing is following orders. At both Tassajara and Genjoji I was lucky to get on the early stages. The demanding intensity was necessary for me to keep it up.

DC: How old are you?

I’m sixty six.

DC: Were you in a relocation camp during the war?

Yes. But unlike most, it was a pleasant experience for me because I was from a sort of wino district of LA and didn’t have many playmates. It was Fifth Street and was called "On the Nickel." The relocation camp was all families and like a vacation to me. I was eight or nine. We didn’t stay that long either. My mother was a business woman and she volunteered for civil service duty and got a job as a chambermaid in a hospital in Salt Lake City. In LA she and my father owned or leased five hotels and she was used to cleaning them up. They were flop houses.

[Roy is a carpenter and artist. He showed us photos of his home. Everything was distinctive. He had a seven and a half foot sink, five inches deep, stainless, that one could work over due to sliding boards. The center of the ceiling was lighter than the border which gave it a sense of depth. He showed us elaborate paper foldings of animals - beautiful with curved lines that he’s made and a book he’s made on how to do this. Maybe I can get some of it up on this site someday.- DC]