Interview with Jerome Peterson

Jerome Petersen Died December 12 - from the SFZC's website [also at bottom of this page]

Mentions of Jerome from the cuke archives

SFZC Memorial site for more on Jerome

Jerome Petersen's Funeral - Life Celebration: Saturday, February 5, 3 pm

2-12-11 - Messages about Jerome Peterson

12-12-10 - Farewell Jerome Peterson who died today of a heart attack at the SFZC's City Center. He was 82. I went to link to the interview I did with him and discovered it wasn't yet put up here on cuke. It isn't dated but I'd say it was done somewhere back in the mid nineties. We met at a restaurant near Union Street in SF. I'll have more to say about Jerome in a day or so. Right now I'm putting this up before I even read it. - dc

12-18-10 - Adding more material to Jerome Peterson interview. It was at a meeting with Michael and Barbara Wenger and friends at Chuck Gould's house that we learned about Jerome's death. Fifteen minutes after Steve Stucky left he called to say that Jerome had died and that paramedics had insisted on taking his body away. It took a few days to get it back. I'll miss seeing Jerome at the round table in the small kitchen where he ate many of his meals and drank coffee. The last time was about a month ago. I said hi and he said hi without looking up. He didn't like much small talk. I remember asking him for his opinion one day a couple of years ago about archiving Suzuki Roshi lectures and he said that we should start with the present and move back in time so as to not create a bigger backlog.

Once I sent him a postcard from Jerome, Arizona, with the name of the town prominently displayed on the card face. The message simply said "Hi Jerome. Greetings from Jerome."

DC: . . . Do you remember what month you came?

J: No. It was in the fall. Fall of '62. No one knew where it was [the Zen Center, then called Sokoji, Soto Zen Mission]. There was an add in the Chronicle. The only time they did that. A religious notice in the Saturday paper.

DC: Did you have any prior interest in Buddhism?

J: Yes. I know even as a teenager, I was interested in religion. In about 1960 or so I read Conze’s book, Buddhism, its Essence and Development. That was before I came to California. I came to San Francisco from El Paso. I'm from Minnesota, but I was working in El Paso. I went to school at [?]. I was a librarian with the El Paso Public Library.

DC: El Paso is like another country. So in 1960 you came out. Why did you come to San Francisco?

J: Two brothers and a sister live here. I didn't do anything when I came out.

DC: How old were you then?

J: I was born in '28, so you figure it out. 68

DC: So you have this interest in religious experience from when you were young, which I can understand.

J: Also one thing - the part of Edward Conze is the preface where he talks about Imitation of Christ, the book. You might look at that yourself to understand what I'm saying. There's a paragraph in there about . . .[?] understand the . . . I bought that book when I left Minneapolis.

DC: Did you have any idea when you came out here that there might be some place for spiritual studies.

J: Yes. Because those were the days I was looking for a spiritual connection. But I didn't know there would be a sitting group. I hadn't thought about it.

DC: In 1960 you went to El Paso?

J: Something like that. Let me think. '59. Maybe it was '60. I came to San Francisco in '62. Something like that. Those were the days of Watts.

DC: So you'd just been out here a little bit when you found the Zen Center?

J: When I came out, who do you suppose was at the door - at 1881 Bush Street? Della was on one side and Betty Warren was on the other. They were giving out apples. Each one gave us an apple. So they gave us two apples.

DC: What happened then?

J: I don't know what happened.

DC: You went inside?

J: We left after the ceremony.

Dc: What did you think of the ceremony?

J: It was alright. It was nothing usual.

DC: Was it weird?

J: I think so.

DC: Did you see Suzuki then?

J: I was part of the audience, that's all.

DC: Did he give a talk?

J: I don't remember. I don't think so because it was just a ceremony.

DC: When did you come back?

J: I don't know. It wouldn't be very long after that.

DC: Did you come back to sit?

J: Yeah. Because I got a job at the hotel.

DC: Right. You had that a long time. What was the name of the hotel?

J: [?] Crown Hotel. It's still there today.

DC: Where is it?

J: 528 Valencia.

DC: I remember driving you there. It scared me to death. I was a new student and you told me, "Oh yeah, I see people come, I see them go. They come here full of enthusiasm. After about two years 99 percent of them are gone. There's just not enough here to keep their interest." Oh, that was so depressing. But I've always remembered that fondly, as reality. Do you remember anything -- like do you remember the first time you met Suzuki? your first impression?

J: The first impression I had was that he’s just a regular person - that's all - nothing out of the ordinary.

DC: What did you think about sitting?

J: It seemed sort of natural. I can't explain it to you. [I remember Jerome telling me that sitting in the zendo at Bush Street was very comfortable for him. More comfortable than anything he’d ever done.]

DC: I understand. That's a good answer. Did you talk to Roshi much?

J: I used to kind of come and go . . .

DC: So you came to sit in the morning. I remember you standing out there reading under the light of the of Toyo Market . . . reading under the light in the doorway in the morning. When did you get there?

J: About 5:20. There was only one zazen in those days.

DC: When did the second sitting start?

J: I can't say, because I had to leave. They had a service. I had to leave before service. I had to be at work at seven o'clock. I had to sit and go. I worked from seven till ten [or maybe seven?], six days a week.

DC: Did you come to lectures much?

J: On Saturdays. That was the day I took off.

DC: Yeah. There was a half-day thing. What was Zen Center like back then? What was Sokoji like?

J: Very simple.

DC: No bureaucracy?

J: There were officers. But it wasn't organized - after all we had only about 15 people sitting.

DC: In '62? 15?

J: That many people didn't make much difference. Maybe there were 25 members.

DC: What changed then?

J: People started to stay finally. Finally more people stayed than left.

DC: Like in about '64.

J: Something like that. '65.

DC: In terms of Zen Center starting out - by '70 Suzuki was saying, oh this has gotten too big.

J: He started saying that in '69. We moved into the building in '69.

DC: So the expansion was '65 to '69. Do you see '65 as the turning point?

J: I think it was. That's when the number kept going up.

DC: The idea of getting a monastery or retreat -- was that in the air when you came?

J: No. Not yet. The idea of a retreat was not yet in the air. It was still quite small. We were renting the space from the Japanese congregation.

DC: Did you have much contact with them?

J: No. You remember the movies? [in the big auditorium downstairs]

DC: Tell me about that. Did you ever go to them?

J: No. I went to the Toho Rio. At Steiner and Union. That was the studio theatre. They got the first run samurai movies. Toshiro Mifune.

DC: Tassajara . . . were you there when Suzuki was there?

J: No. I didn't go right away. When we had sittings we could never hold a one-day sitting after five o'clock. Six o'clock would be the latest you could sit because of the movies. On Saturdays. We had the movies on Saturday and Sunday. [I thought it was Fridays and Saturdays.?]

DC: So even during seven-day sesshins?

J: We had to end at six o'clock. Maybe it was seven o'clock.

DC: In a way it made a real strong impression on me. The time I drove you home - it helped me to stay. You told me to think about it. I made a pretty firm decision to stay for a length of time without thinking about it or judging it. In terms of Suzuki Roshi's life are there any events, any practice you think are particularly important?

J: He wasn't pretentious. The strange thing about him - it took me a long time to realize - he was short. We knew he was short obviously because you see him and he's not very tall. But there was something about him, I never thought of him as being short. And he was extremely short - not over five feet.

DC: He was four-eleven.

J: I never thought of him as being short. I think it was something to do with his personality - very ordinary. One of the most ordinary people I ever met in my life.

DC: That's a paradox.

J: That's the way he was.

DC: Do you remember him talking about his past? He didn't do that much.

J: I don't remember that at all.

DC: He did some.

J: It wasn't important to him.

DC: He didn't want people thinking about his past. He thought of it as a red herring or something. Not important. What did you think about his choosing Dick as the abbot?

J: I think it was a good choice. He accomplished what he was supposed to do.

DC: You think Dick accomplished what he was supposed to do?

J: Yeah. Made Zen Center financially secure. And I think that's what he was supposed to do.

DC: That's true.

J: Suzuki was into graphologies. Don't you remember? He had people write their name in the book.

DC: What book?

J: A book he kept for people to sign during sesshin.

DC: During sesshin we'd write our names in a book?

J: If you went to dokusan. One of the things you'd do is write your name in this book.

DC: So what's the significance? . . . graphology is handwriting analysis.

J: He wanted to see what your writing looked like.

DC: Cool. That's great, Jerome. I never thought of that. I'd forgotten completely about that. No one else has mentioned it. Just your name, right?

J: Just your name. [In the very early years I've seen a notebook of Suzuki's with people's names and addresses and a few facts like when their interest in religion started.]

DC: What sort of cover did it have?

J: I don't remember that.

DC: Was it black? spiral bound?

J: It was a bound book with blank pages. About 8 1/2 by 11. Maybe an inch thick.

DC: I wonder where it is?

J: Okusan should know. She's here. [No more.]

DC: Yeah. I've talked to her a great deal. I don't want to bother her. I just say hello to her now. If I want to ask her more I'll ask her about it then. Did you do that writing your name in the book thing as far back as you can remember?

J: Yes.

DC: When did he stop doing it?

J: After he left Sokoji.

DC: I remember sometimes he'd say to people, "Please tell me your name." He'd be very embarrassed when he couldn't remember people's names.

Some people see it back then as the good old days are gone. How do you see that?

J: When they're gone. you continue without them.

DC: What about Zen Center now?

J: It's still developing.

DC: Zen-wise?

J: I don't know what to say about that.

DC: How do you feel?

J: Zen Center right now is searching for an identity. Not sure. . . what it's going to be.

DC: That's true. Seems like Hartford Street sort of knows what it's identity is. It's a difficult one. It's really hard. [Jerome is involved with that zendo in the Castro district of San Francisco. It's basically a gay zendo though some of the priests who go there aren't gay. It's also a hospice. Some of the folks who sit there or who help out with the hospice aren't gay but many are.]

J: It's smaller. It's much simpler.

DC: It's for somebody who's service-oriented. What was Suzuki's teaching? Did he have a teaching to give? What was his spirit?

J: Beginner's mind.

DC: Did he have any method? How did zazen fit in?

J: That's where you explore your beginner's mind.

DC: Is there any difference between zazen and having lunch here today?

J: Not necessarily. I have a peculiar way of looking at Buddhism. It's the development of identity - on a personal basis - Whatever your identity is. It's never solved but always there - you're always seeking. Some people don't know this. But that's what you're really trying to do.

DC: That's a great way of looking at it. It's very natural.

J: That's right.

DC: The thing is not something put upon you?

J: Yeah. You must do this. That's not what it is.

DC: No particular system. No system.

From the cuke archives:

Dennis Marshall (3-29-05) : I have been here in Crestone since 1991. I first moved here to practice at Crestone Mtn. ZC. After leaving, I built my own house (Jerome was here the week we poured the foundation) ....Long time since I saw FK, but I visited her in Santa Fe with Jerome when Jerome was visiting Crestone. ...By chance, just this morning I had a phone call from Jerome, who keeps sending me materials on China to spur me on in my project.

Mel Weitsman: I remember my first one-day sitting. Before that, I remember going into the zendo on Saturday morning. I didn't know what they did on Saturday morning. We sat zazen and did kinhin and then people sat down for zazen again. They're going to do this again? I looked around at everybody's face. And their faces had a little bit of that look that you see in the zendo. I remember Jerome was one of them.

There was an ashes ceremony, at Tassajara and a burial under the rock where the disciples put the ashes in with long chopsticks.

DC: I remember Jerome was taken out of that line because he wasn't ordained - it was horrible. He'd been around longer than anyone there except Bill Kwong. I was in that line and then Jerome was out of it. Who's priest and who's lay? I also remember Bill asking Philip to remove his cowboy hat. Who else would Philip have respected?

Stan White: I like Jerome.

From Larry Sheridan's Tassajara Journal : Spring training period 1971: Librarian: Jerome Peterson

Shunryu Suzuki lecture dated August 23, 1970- Bill Redican's note: "According to Zen Center records, this lay ordination was performed on August 23, 1970. The 36 ordainees included Carl Bielefeldt, David Chadwick, Katherine Thanas, Jerome Peterson, and Yvonne Rand."

Shunryu Suzuki lecture dated August 25, 1970. [both say they are for the lay ordination. Haven't looked into them to figure out what's what yet - dc

From Barbara Wenger's notes of interview with Della Goertz and Betty Warren:

Later Philip, Jerome finish floor in meditation hall. [early sixties]

Jerome said BW and DG used to hand out produce on Sunday afternoons. Japanese would bring produce (lettuce, apples).

Eric and Nina helped Jerome with Della's parties.

Saturday mornings at Sokoji   breakfasts, Jerome.  Work   cleaning, making zafus, zabutons.

Alan Klein

Have been thinking of you, reading the latest Windbell which Jerome kindly sent me.  There are many ducks in the park across the street; it is good weather here for ducks.

Am enclosing a note for Jerome.
Warm regards for Ginny and Sally.

Michael Katz: Hope someone collecting his dharma exchanges, especially the extended ones. Maybe they'll be the only thing that lasts 1000 years. I can't remember any of them except: Jerome: "28 flavors and no satisfaction" Baker Roshi: "Go to Japan" And he went to Japan. I do remember his shiny black leather shoes walking on the Buddha Hall tatami, but I don't know what the occasion was.

Dan Kaplan: WOW. I just learned Jerome died yesterday. And I just saw him yesterday as he got out of some assisted van service right in front of zen center. He was one of the first people I met at zen center, manning the bookstore and library. Very helpful to me in my earliest days at zen center with my interest in reading about zen and buddhism.

He was also at Tassajara when I was there, first just as another zen student, then as shuso. His shuso ceremony was very memorable to me. A friend, Tom Walsh, took off after the ceremony for a few hours just to process how his mind was blown by Jerome in the ceremony.

DC: Jerome's shuso ceremony was most impressive. More than that. It was the most impressive of all I've attended. As I see it, he was a sort of misfit who didn't feel at home anywhere till he came to Zen Center. He told me that. Even in Zen Center he was eccentric and I think felt like people didn't understand him or appreciate him - except for Suzuki and a few others like Baker. He wasn't comfortable socially, but he was socially responsible. He didn't let people in his room at Tassajara - I remember going around collecting coffee cups from the rooms when we'd get short in the guest dining room and his room in the dorm would be a complete mess with cups all over - but he'd keep the hall and bathroom clean for all of us. He was awkward and gangly and would grimace and stretch his arms out like Ed Norton on the Honeymooners. I called him Zen Center's Frankenstein. But when Jerome sat on the head monk's seat in the shuso ceremony that day, he was totally comfortable, poised, at ease, and he batted the students' questions back at them laughing, effortlessly like ping pong balls, only they landed like bowling balls.

Jerome Petersen Died December 12 - from the SFZC's website

Chikudo Genki, Jerome Petersen
June 12, 1928 - December 12, 2010

Jerome Petersen, who came to Sokoji Temple in San Francisco's Japantown in 1961 when Suzuki Roshi was there and lived at Tassajara, Green Gulch, and for several years at City Center, died on Sunday, December 12, of heart failure. He was shuso at Tassajara in 1976. He received Dharma Transmission from Tenshin Reb Anderson.

Thursday morning, December 16, update: Jerome's body will go to the crematorium early this morning. The cremation itself will be within the next few days. This morning, there was a ceremony in Room 1 to honor Jerome, chant, and address personal goodbyes to him. The date for his funeral and memorial service is not yet set.

Please contact the City Center office at 415-863-3136 for more information.

If you have specific information about Jerome that you would like to share, you can do so on our Facebook page and/or by contacting the City Center office via email at This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it.

After posting the news of Jerome's passing on our Tassajara and San Francisco Zen Center Facebook pages, we received a flood of goodbyes and kind remembrances.
A selection:

"As a student at San Francisco Zen Center in 73-4, he was a role model, a selfless practioner...."

"Jerome...que buen amigo!!...Cuando un amigo se va...Un amigo se queda..."

"My whole life, Jerome was like a big, cozy Zen Center teddy bear, looking down over his glasses."

"There was the time we were snowed in. 1972. Some of the folks hiked out for supplies. Jerry F. brought back a cake for Jerome! A cake. Jerome over the next couple of days invited the newer students, myself included, into his room for a tiny slice of his cake. I was always amazed at his generosity of spirit."