Jerry Fuller, interviewed by DC 8\25\95 in San Rafael CA

Jerry Fuller was a much beloved Zen student, carpenter, mountain climber, and practitioner of Tea Ceremony. He was in great shape and I tended to think he'd live to be very old. Alas, he got cancer and died a couple of years ago. I was glad I got to see as much of him as I did in Japan and when I was living in San Rafael a few years ago. Jerry had a humble approach. He never got ordained as a priest or pretended to know anything but he always expressed himself thoroughly in his everyday life. He had a constancy and good humor that made him a real asset to the sangha. Hi Jerry.--DC


I came to ZC in the fall of 68 over on Bush Street. The first person I met was Tommy Dorsey. I remember meeting Suzuki-roshi after morning zazen when everybody would go through his office in single file and gasho with him and he used to do that with everybody. I always remember as being a smiling interested man who was always trying to make contact with you.

In 66 I was working as a merchant seaman and I'd ship out of SF and whenever I'd come to SF to get a ship I'd stop by and visit Loring Palmer. We met originally in Sun Valley Idaho where he was a night accountant and we became good friends. So when I visited him in SF he was living on Bush Street next to Gavin Arthur. He took me to a party there once which was pretty far out. I'd stop by and see Loring and score some really good grass to take onboard ship with me. And we'd go to evening zazen together. Several times we'd go to lecture. I was interested in a spiritual path - sort of embarrassing to say it but that's what it was.

I went to India and Nepal and all that and as soon as I was through with that my plan was to go to Tass and become a monk. You couldn't go immediately to Tass so I got a room in a rooming house on Polk and California and every morning I'd get up and walk over to ZC and sit zazen and Clarke Mason and Niels Holm and Reb and John, the junkie - the one who painted the mural at the DeYoung Museum on the parking lot side of the freeway after the war with all the wrecked cars and animals roaming around - that was done by him. I can't remember his name - he was a student of Suzuki-roshi's too. So I'd go to zazen and go to North Beach and have coffee and come back and go to zazen in the evening and go to lectures and sesshins.

The first sesshin I sat was at Sokoji and was five days and we had to leave at five everyday because the Japanese congregation needed it for something else. So it went from five am to five PM. So I'd walk to Polk and California and there was a famous old soda fountain there at that time and I'd go get a hot fudge Sunday.

I remember hearing of a sesshin in the early days when Suzuki-roshi was hitting the bells and he let a period go on and on and he came down from the office and he was crackling the paper that had the schedule on it and then he'd go back up to his room.

I went to lectures he gave when it seemed that he was directing it to me - to just what I was dealing with in my life and then I'd talk to other people about it and they'd say the same thing. It used to happen all the time with Suzuki-roshi. I think when you're practicing together as a group, a lot of us have the same focus and the problems we're thinking about are similar. And maybe it was something psychic too but I never thought of that - it didn't seem important. He was very intuitive. He could look at a person who was trying to practice and see something.

I remember during a sesshin at Tass and about the fourth day I was really flying pretty high and during the break I came walking across the bridge and it was a beautiful fall day and I looked up at the leaves on the trees and they were all vibrating and alive and I could see energy coursing through everything and he came by and he looked at me and he looked in my eyes and he said, "Stay exactly like that."

I can remember working at Tass when we were building the cabins up on the hill and I was sort of up in the rafters and somebody was cutting two by fours for blocking and he came up there and just joined in and started passing them up to me. He used to do that sort of thing - he'd just come along and join in.

He'd move these monstrous stones around and he always had people working with him and people thought he was magical but he was just skilled.

Remember when we moved his little cabin and he stayed inside it while we moved it. Okusan was pissed at him for that.

If I had to say what he taught I'd say he taught zazen. He was in the zendo for every period of zazen. I remember in the city once in the morning after a seven day sesshin there were only about ten of us in the zendo and he got up during zazen and took his stick and beat the hell out of everybody in the zendo. His point was probably that you can never let up. But I never thought of what was his teaching. The whole time I was just trying to sit zazen and pay attention during the day to the things I was doing and maybe I was trying to be like him whatever that was not based on what he said but what he was like walking around. He was around a lot so people got to see him a lot and even though there was this high guard that on the surface looked like they were protecting him and sometimes it seemed like they were hoarding him for themselves. They were the ones who were with him all the time and if some of the others of us tried to get near him you'd have to go through them but he was around anyway.

When Tatsugami was there the second period and he decided he really liked Tass better than his little temple in Japan and I think he thought I'm going to make this temple my place and Suzuki-roshi came down from the city and there seemed to be a sort of battle going on of whose going to be the abbot here. Every morning the abbot would come down and open up the zendo at the beginning of zazen. Alan was his anja. He had to do something more for Alan because Alan really wanted to be near him so he created this special role for the anja which was carrying this little box of incense behind the jisha who carried the stick of incense so Alan the theatrical person he was presented himself in a much more obvious way than anyone else in the procession. Suzuki-roshi came down in the afternoon and so the next morning Suzuki-roshi with Mel and Alan came in and offered incense before the third round so that when Tatsugami came, Suzuki-roshi was already there at the altar offering incense and Tatsugami stood at the door. I think Suzuki-roshi felt he had to make this bold statement and Tatsugami was left off balance. Suzuki-roshi handled it so cool that said to Tatsugami, I'm the boss, this is my place.

DC - The first time that Suzuki-roshi came in when Tatsugami was there, Tatsugami had been giving two hour lectures every night - and Marian had stayed down in the upper barn on a vow of silence and wouldn't come out till he finally kicked her out even though she considered him her teacher and he'd had EL driven out and Alan stopped going to his lectures and just stayed in his room studying and anyway, Suzuki-roshi came down and we all missed him so much and were dying to see him - to me it reminded me of having my parents come visit me at camp - and Tats told the officers that in honor of Suzuki-roshi's coming he would give a lecture and they told him forget it - that there'd be a riot if the students couldn't hear Suzuki-roshi.

Tats knew what he was doing - he was making his moves to try to take the place for himself.

DC - He thought he'd done it too. When he was back in Japan, there was some get together where Tats announced he had a temple in America and he didn't mention Suzuki and Dick stood up and said on behalf of ZC and our founder Suzuki-roshi, we thank you for coming as our guest teacher. It was Dick who invited him. Ananda feels he almost took over - that it was real close.

I don't. I really think it was a good thing - so many of the zendo and monastic forms we have at Tassajara now came from Tatsugami. It really makes the zendo and the place work. Marian rejected him.

DC - But she said in her book that he was her second teacher. She was really out there. And she started taping Suzuki-roshi lectures.

I thought that was Pat Herreshoff.

DC - No, I think she was against that. Anyway, there were sure a lot of different free spirits there and he seemed to support each of us to be ourselves. He'd be a stickler for following the rules and doing everything the same unless someone really knew what they were doing and then he'd support them. Of course half the time he'd knock us off our trips but there was also the way he made everyone feel like he was in on their conspiracy with them.

Each person has to be their own teacher and find their way and to do that you have to go against the grain.

DC - Dick once said that Suzuki-roshi had two teachings - one for him and one for everyone else. What do you think of that?

He did earmark Dick early for leadership of ZC. He sent Dick to Japan to figure out the Japanese way so he'd know more of what we were getting this transmission from.

DC - He wanted to give him transmission at the very first at Tass and Dick refused.

I think he understood Dick because I remember once in the old days on Bush Street and Dick was in Japan but he was back for something [at Bush Street? Really?] and I remember standing outside Bush Street waiting to drive down to Tass with some people among whom was Katagiri and I remember Dick talking to Katagiri and being upset that Suzuki-roshi wouldn't let him give a lecture. There may be a lot of reasons for that. But so many things that happened that shaped ZC the way it is today were the result of Dick's efforts and energy.

DC - When Suzuki-roshi ordained Dick and made him shuso at the same time at the opening day of Tass I believe, he said, "I am so grateful to Dick for what he has done to help establish Buddhism in America - he has worked tirelessly to do so more than anyone else. He has selflessly given his life to this." Something like that.

Dick is so talented - if he'd so chosen he could have been a leader in any number of fields.

One of the things I always liked about ZC which I considered one of Suzuki-roshi's central teachings was the whole thing about a big pasture for the students - there's a lot of room for them to make mistakes in. And it goes along with his statement that, "my life has been one continuous mistake." [?] I think it's in ZMBM - maybe he didn't say it but I thought so. I really felt that he opened the doors and let you come in and in one way he'd be strict with you about sitting zazen but in another way he really allowed you to make a lot of mistakes as far as pursuing the path.

Once several years ago when she was still living at Green Gulch Farm there was some Soto-shu big shot in the area and they were going to be at Green Gulch Farm at 10:30 and we were going to make tea for them so I got the tea room all set up and they showed up a half hour early and I didn't have the fire going to get the water boiling but we managed to get it together to make tea for them and it came off perfect but after they left Nakamura sensei came up to me trembling she was so mad and she said, "Big mistake! Big mistake!" and I said but Sensei, they showed up early and... and she said, "No excuses - only mistake!" What a great teaching I thought. Why waste your time thinking up excuses - just look at the mistake and say what happened here? And that really is the Japanese way - they really don't like excuses.

Peter Schneider knows about this because he was there but I know that Suzuki-roshi almost drowned and he went underwater and didn't come up and they all got nervous and dove down and they found him down there at the bottom of the narrows and they brought him back up and he said that he had a sort of life\death experience down there and up to that point he didn't understand what enlightenment was and that was a sort of turning point in his understanding. I think it was before I came to ZC.[no it wasn't] He wasn't the kind of person to talk about his spiritual accomplishments and for him to make a remark like that he was saying something I think. He said that until he had that experience he really didn't understand - it was like an enlightenment experience or something.

DC - I remember him saying that and it might be in a lecture that it was a real turning point for him.

Nobody talked about their experiences in zazen - it was too personal. They'd talk to Suzuki-roshi about it in zazen but people didn't do that. I remember picking up a copy of the Rochester ZC newsletter and remember remarks made by various people after a sesshin and this one guy had been sitting for three months and he talked about his enlightenment experience in the sesshin and he described it and how he'd broken into laughter and cried. And I thought I'm glad I don't belong to that group - I really like the way that ZC is that there's none of that enlightenment stuff here that we talk about - it's not really emphasized. MJ is always talking about Tangen Roshi who I really like but his whole trip is enlightenment and how that's what we're here to do. What you're doing here with me is you're trying to get enlightened and that's the most important that and nothing else matters.

DC - It's so great to ask people what Suzuki-roshi's teaching was and I ask everyone that and nobody feels comfortable answering that and I love it. You go to some groups and they say so and so Roshi taught this and that and we believe in this and that and it's the only way and there are 10,00 different teachers and they all think it's the only way. That's what all the teachers in Japan in Japan are like that I know of - it's a run for enlightenment trip. There was a minister who came to Tass once and he said he'd visited many groups and done their trip but he'd never met people who couldn't say what they'd gotten out of it. The ZC priests had a meeting with Aitken Roshi when the thing was happening with Dick and we were getting advice and Aitken said, well ZC's real nice but you're short on enlightenment and experience or whatever and my students can answer right away to any Zen question and what did Dogen say about this or that. I could send you one of my teachers like Nelson who could help you out and Ananda got really pissed at him. It shows the difference of approach. I don't think he comprehended what was happening in ZC. Or maybe he did and we didn't.

It's more like Suzuki-roshi was consciously operating on the assumption that everybody is already enlightened and let's learn to live our life together as if we were enlightened people. Rather than let's sit and work on koans till our minds are enlightened it's like if I put my life into this form where I do this and that then I'm acting like an enlightened person. You live your life according to the rules of enlightened living. If you think you're enlightened it's just another delusion. Maybe he didn't even know himself - maybe he was just doing his best making his mistakes himself.

DC - His oldest students say he came here pretty special but it seems that he learned a lot here - he must have learned a lot and grown a lot here - it seems he adapted instantly and learned a lot from everything and made the most of it.

In some ways he was totally Japanese but he's so different from the Japanese that we've met. He didn't have the totally programmed Japanese mind set that I met so often in Japan. Look at the way he refused to giving the Soto-shu any foothold in the Zen Center where they could have any influence on how ZC worked. I was part of the recent tokubetsu sesshin and both Norman and Reb thought this is a bunch of bullshit and Tetsugen and others revolted. Daido said I've got a monastery with 150 students and you're treating me like a beginning student and trying to teach me all these forms I've already learned.

DC - Do you remember Suzuki-roshi saying to you before he died, "Don't worry, you've got Dick and Silas." You told me that back then.

He said that to me? I forgot.