Interview with Arnie Kotler
by DC - 1994?
Arnie now owns Koa Books and lives in Hawaii
I don't have a date on this brief interview but it was a long time ago - something like 1994. When I asked Arnie if I could talk to him about the Suzuki days he said that he hadn't been around Zen Center long before Suzuki died and didn't have much to say and I said that everyone has something to contribute. His opening story I used in To Shine One Corner of the World and, though it might seem like much about nothing to some, it is my favorite example of one type of story that I hear a lot. Arnie started Parallax Press and put his heart and soul into it for years, publishing many books derived from Thich Nhat Hanh's talks. Eventually he gave it away. These days Arnie continues to study and teach along with his partner of many years, Theresa Fitzgerald. They are real indefatigable troopers in the dharma realm. Arnie and I have worked together and practiced together a lot at the SF Zen Center and I have some great stories about that - for later. I searched the web for Arnie Kotler and found a number of links. Here's something Arnie wrote on Thich Nhat Hanh. - DC
AK: It's so ordinary. One night I was on desk duty. And he and Okusan were going out. I was sitting real stiffly, like a new student, and he just smiled and said "good-night." That's the whole story. There was a lot of communication in just smiling and saying good night to me. It really pierced through my ridiculous facade. And it's weird, but I remember it today - it changed my whole life.
DC: I hear stories like that from people and I think, gee, what do I do with something like that? But the fact that twenty years later they tell it really means something.
AK: Just one other. He asked me to help him move stones in the Zen Center courtyard. I remember enjoying it. I have no idea what we did together. That's the only 2 things I did with him, except for go to dharma talks. It seems funny that anybody could attribute meaning to it. You know if someone said, you know the deeper meaning of blah blah blah is, but really he just said good night. I'm sure in some sense he must have just looked and said, "Boy this kid is really stiff. Let me just say goodnight and loosen him up a little." I'm sure that's possible. It's not theological anymore deeply than that.
DC: If you were sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Berkeley and President Clinton got out of a car, and had a big entourage and this and that, and all of a sudden he was just standing right in front of you and he said, "Oh, excuse me for bothering your lunch, good afternoon." Might that affect you?
AK: It depends on his presence. The Dalai Lama - I was in a line of about 50 people to meet him once. I had a couple of book published by Tai [Thich Nhat Hanh], and I was going to give them to him. But I was sort of on automatic. As soon as I was within a couple of inches from him it was like body and mind dropped away. He was so there, that I realized that I wasn't. It was beautiful. It lasted like 5 seconds and it just wiped me out for days, that somebody was so present. That was just shaking hands with him. There are a couple of experiences in my life of just little things like that - Suzuki Roshi's saying goodnight was of the same level, much less formal than that.
DC: Don't you think - I'm thinking in terms of if it was me - the Dalai Lama then said he needed to talk to you about publishing, and you hung out with him for a month and talked about a bunch of things that you might not have that sort of impressive experience.
AK: It's quite possible all would disappear. I've been with him other times and I've really not been impressed. I've been with him three times and twice I've been impressed, and once I really wasn't. Once I was quite disappointed, he was so unimpressive.
DC: What did he do?
AK: He was just there. He was having a conversation. There were 3 or 4 of us, and he just seemed busy and distracted. But I didn't expect to be awestruck by him when I shook his hand. I hang out with Thich Nhat Hanh a lot, and other people say that about him, and I don't have that experience especially. I have something like that experience, in that I really appreciate him. The Dalai Lama's presence in that moment really just disarmed me. Suzuki Roshi's was not like that - it was just much softer. "Wow, that's true, I can lighten up. I don't have to be ridiculous, just cause other people are standing stiffly."
DC: Do you think that there might be something in this like a force field or, like he'd opened up certain chakras and so had an aura around him you might have stepped into, or something quasi-physical.
AK: I wouldn't want to make it too Yogic-fantastic. I'm sure there must be some physical description that that could be included, but I personally - it didn't occur that way to me. That wasn't the experience I had. I didn't feel zapped by good energy. I just felt like a sweet man saying goodnight.
DC: I would imagine that really deep enlightenment is beyond manifestation, beyond chemistry. Beyond any atomic, or aura thing or anything. But there's no reason to think he was enlightened and I don't know anything about that anyway.
AK: He really seemed like an ordinary guy, and his wife kept saying you know this guy's not a very good husband.
DC: Oh I have so much great material with her.
AK: It's a pity that he didn't encourage Baker Roshi to follow the precepts more directly. As far as I can tell Roshi never offered him those teachings.
DC: When Dick took the precepts at his ordination ceremony at the opening day of Tassajara, Dick was ordained as a monk and became shuso. That morning or the day before they were going over the ceremony and Suzuki Roshi said "I want you to take these precepts." And Dick read them and looked at him and said, "Why I can't do that. I'm not going to say this. I'm not going to do these things. I can't promise that." Suzuki said, "Shut up, just say yes." So that is taking the precepts.
AK: It depends how you mean it, though. Shut up, just say yes, might mean just say yes, don't worry about it, or it might mean start doing it as of today.
DC: Good point. There's an aspect of Zen which is, that one possible approach is just to go through the motions.
AK: That's Japanese Zen more than here.
DC: Oh yeah. Just say yes, see what happens, you'll understand later.
AK: That's true. And he certainly had the opportunity to understand later. The teaching got more and more obvious.
DC: So you said that Suzuki Roshi was tolerant.
AK: If he weren't so flexible, if he had been a little more dogmatic, I think it would have helped Baker Roshi.
DC: Maezumi said back then old teachers were too kind. It's better to have a younger teacher who will be meaner to you.
AK: In Dick's case it might be true.
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