Interview with Maggie Kress
Interviewed by DC - 7\28\94
- Maggie quoting Shunryu Suzuki
Maggie Kress lives in Santa Fe and was visiting the Bay Area and kindly dropped by my house in San Rafael to say hi and be interviewed back in '94. I read it to her over the phone and she was touched by hearing it and remembering it and though she says she never thinks about those days any more she had a bit more to add. - DC
DC: Thanks for coming. So what do you have to say about Suzuki Roshi and all that?
MK: I was very touched when I saw the shadow picture of Suzuki Roshi at Zen Center [Page Street] today - it was very emotional to see that. I can't put into words what I felt about him.
DC: That’s by Narcissus who we used to call Robert Quagliata. I think it was in the Museum of Modern Art. [Nope - Brit Pyland says it is by Al Wong. Am checking on it. - DC]
MK: I remember being around Suzuki Roshi that I felt more alert and more peaceful but always a kind of nervousness around him too because his mind seemed so clear and so powerful and so strong compared to anyone else that I've ever been around - I've been around the Dali Lama quite a bit but their personalities are so different - his holiness is so much more jovial and relaxed.
When I first saw Suzuki Roshi I'd been to Bolinas in the late sixties and I was surrounded by a lot of dope smoking hippies.
I'd always had an interest in Buddhism but never a teacher and someone said they're sitting at a Zen Center in San Francisco - why don't you go check it out so I called up and I got Okusan [Mrs. Suzuki] on the phone and she said go to Bill Kwong in Mill Valley - that's closer to you so I called him and he said they sat on Monday mornings at a recreation club. I went there early one morning and Suzuki Roshi was there and I've always had a problem with time so I arrived late and in my mind I had a picture of a bunch of hippies sitting around a fireplace with incense and lots of color and instead I arrived and zazen was over and Suzuki Roshi was lecturing and I peaked around the screen that they put up there and here were all these people sitting in black robes with their backs straight and it was all very formal and beautiful to me but I was too shy to go in so I sat and listened to Suzuki Roshi give a lecture but I couldn't see him and I was caught right away - there was something very powerful about him even that way.
DC Comment on editing: I think the black robes memory is somewhat added by memory or association. No one in the Mill Valley group was ordained as a priest at the time. Maybe Bill and some others had black sitting robes but mostly people came in their regular clothes.
MK: So I started going to zazen and his lectures in Mill Valley and in the city [at Sokoji] where we had zazen and service upstairs in the zendo and lectures downstairs and I remember the first time he ever spoke to me, someone had handed me a bowl to carry downstairs and I started to take it and move on with it and he looked at me very directly in the eye and he said, "Don't drop it." and it was very significant to me - very simple and direct and I took it to mean he was saying don't drop your attention or mind.
That was in ‘67 or ‘68 and I went to Tassajara soon after that for a training period and I remember when I began to think of him as a master. I was a refugee from the New York Andy Warhol scene and hippie scenes. I had very long died blond hair.
I signed up for a week long sesshin and so I checked into some horrible old wino hotel and I was scared and thought I was going to die and I went to zazen and sat down and felt like I was going to be sick and during a break I asked Silas if I could sit outside and he said no you can't and why do you want special attention so I sat down and vomited in the zendo all over the pillow and myself. That's how scared I was.
[added 2005] A few hours later we all went downstairs to the big room for a lecture by Katagiri Sensei. I was sitting on the edge of the pew by the aisle and as Katagiri walked by he caught my attention and as he started to hand me something he said, "Here, Tums for the tummy – don’t be sick." And I’d never even met him.
[back to ‘94] Suzuki Roshi had a nickname for me that meant runaway horse in Japanese and that last summer he was at Tassajara and he was sick he went out to take a bath and I was his anja [attendant] and he was in his tee shirt and he said, "Oh Maggie, dig a ditch here in the garden," so I started digging and he came back an hour later and I'd dug this mammoth ditch and he looked at it and laughed and shook his head and said "Not like that, not so big," and he said "You're a runaway horse - you just nudge them a bit and they fly off."
One of the last mornings he was there he was up early as usual and I remember him saying when he spoke to us after zazen in the zendo he said, "When you hear the wake up bell you should jump out of bed right away - you shouldn't lie there. Otherwise, how could you ever face death which always comes suddenly? But - don't jump out of bed the way I did this morning. I knocked over my kerosene lamp.
DC: I remember that. I think maybe his futon had been moved or his lamp was in a different place.
MK: I don’t remember. He got up before everyone else - he was always awake when I arrived. I would set his robes out. I ironed them. He'd go to zazen and I'd clean his cabin and he'd come back. He worked or saw people all day long, though he did spend time alone and quiet in his room.
One of my biggest memories was that summer he wanted to work in his garden a lot and he'd often wear the same beautiful delicate silk robes while working in the garden – the same ones he’d wear to the zendo - and he'd have Niels and Alan Marlowe help him moving stones with their bodies or with the help of a crowbar and he'd get in there and work with them and Okusan was always upset saying he shouldn't be working don't let him do that and she was always trying to stop his physical work - she was very fussy and demanding and angry when she'd find us helping him and letting him work. But he worked very hard all that summer - he was always busy in his garden or writing something sitting at his desk or talking to people.
[added 2005] Sometimes he’d ask me to stand on guard and I’d whistle when Okusan was approaching.
[back to ‘94] He lectured almost every night that summer - they were very intense lectures, fiercely focused, and he was full of energy. The feeling of being around him was that he never lost a moment of attention or focus and awareness - he was completely engaged in his life and the life around him and connected in feeling and thought to the people around him and everything around him all the time and it was a very calm, strong energy.
[added 2005] Since I was anja my job was to clean his cabin and attend to things there while he was in the zendo so I couldn’t go to his lectures. I asked him if I could and he said, "No, you’re getting teaching from me all the time. So I sneaked a tape recorder over by the side door and taped them. But it didn’t work. I did something wrong. They were all blank. I think so. I have them here, about 20 of them. Maybe I should check them again.
DC: Please do. I wonder if we’re missing any of those lectures.
[back to ‘94] MK: The day that he was leaving for the city I remember that he was up and doing things - I remember it surprised me how active he was for that hour of the morning and I looked at him and his color had changed, it was darker - he looked twenty years older and he looked sick and Niels noticed it too and we had this horrible feeling that something was really wrong and we still did not know that he had cancer though he and Okusan had known it all summer. She and he withheld the info that he had incurable lymph cancer and that's why the summer was so electric in feeling. That's how I remember it.
DC editing comment: I don’t think they knew that. And he didn’t have lymph cancer. They knew his gall bladder had been cancerous but the doctor thought he’d gotten it all. On the other hand, Japanese tend to see cancer as a death sentence and there were many signs that they, especially he, thought he didn’t have much time.
MK: I'm not much of a reader but sometimes I do read things but I've never been able to read Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind because I always felt that in some ways Suzuki Roshi was offering us enlightenment by the example of the way that he lived and spoke and related to people and the way he did everything and that it was something that couldn't be understood intellectually or studied but experienced. He talked in lectures about how to understand things and he used to say that. I'd fall asleep almost immediately in his lectures and he'd say that's okay cause maybe when you're asleep you can understand what I'm saying better than when you're awake.
I remember him talking to me about a cup and as I said, the first thing he ever said to me is Maggie don't drop it. I remember asking him a question after lecture, he had a cup in his hand, and he was talking about attachment to things and I said Roshi if you drop the cup and it breaks, to me that's no big deal but if you fall down and are broken then that's something terrible and he said, "there's no difference between me and the cup." Something like that and he said something like, "You don't understand what I've been trying to teach you - you don't realize the sameness between me and everything else around." Something I didn't understand then or ever.
Now I'm involved in Tibetan Buddhism I've gotten sort of prejudiced about the poetics of Zen language and all this stuff about rocks breathing - I didn't understand it then and I still don't - my ordinary dualistic mind always had trouble with that kind of language and Suzuki Roshi definitively spoke that way a lot but all I know is that my feeling of trust and awe at his mind and his way of being was so complete that I never would distrust his using that kind of way of expressing himself. I felt of all the people I've ever known that he truly had some kind of transcendent vision, wisdom that he could share with other people around him just - there was a magic around him. And he's always remained a powerful influence in my life although I've been studying Tibetan Buddhism and am not interested in Zen at all there's still a safe and deep feeling and trust in Suzuki Roshi (crying). This is very hard, I don't know what to say. I don't think about him but I have a picture of him on my altar. I felt very attached to him. He probably had a more powerful influence on my life than any person ever, ever.
Suzuki Roshi told Niels and me that we should get married because we were causing too much of a commotion in the community with our affair. He said something to Niels like, I wish more of my students could be celibate but most of them can't so for you to practice zazen you need to get married and I think you should marry Maggie. So we got engaged and set a wedding date and Suzuki Roshi died and there was a cremation in the city and one person stayed as a caretaker at Tassajara and everybody came to our wedding at Tassajara at the end of December  and Katagiri married us and it was in the zendo with zabutons and zafus and then everything was taken out and we had the big dinner and Angie had made the base part of the cake. The top was from Denmark [Niels is Danish]. It was an elaborate edible Marzipan decoration with a very tall steeple. Angie oversaw a fabulous meal and my mother came and brought a lot of Champaign and the main table was right in front of the altar and I remember getting up on the altar and playing with the mokugyo and Katagiri had a few glasses of Champaign and his face was bright red the way Japanese get when they drink and he said, "Oh give Roshi [Suzuki] some Champaign and cake," and so we put some on the altar and the feeling was that our wedding was a kind of celebration of his passing.
DC - I remember that Daya [Dianne Goldschlag, my first wife] and I went to it and we saw Jeannie DiPrima at the top of the mountain and she gave me some hash which I ate and I was so stoned that I couldn't say anything the whole time I was there. I had to say I was sick. We had to leave right after dinner to catch a plane to Texas And we made it to the airport in 3 and a half hours. It was a great event.
MK: Suzuki Roshi seemed enlightened to me and at the time I believed in it and he seemed like an enlightened man to me. Serving him as an anja was a great honor. I was comfortable and at the same time protected by him. That's how I felt. I loved him and couldn't stand his being sick and dying. He touched our lives so deeply.
Why did so many people leave after he left? If he'd lived I would have stayed longer. I really felt like his disciple and whatever he told me I believed completely.
Niels and I moved into the city and had the apartment on Laguna at Page for a year and then we bought the house in Muir Beach and then we sold it a year later and got divorced and I moved to Taos. I have pictures of you there.
[The following is from the March 25, 2005 phone conversation with Maggie]
One day I found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest and I wanted to help it so I beat up some egg yoke and squeezed it into its mouth and it keeled over dead. I asked Roshi in a lecture why when you try to help does it often just cause more trouble. He said that if you see a cat playing with a mouse and try to stop it that the mouse will tell you to stop interfering with its karma. I think it was an old Japanese story.
DC: You had something you wanted to say about Shoes Outside the Door?
MK: Yes. I think Downing’s book is in the realm of cheap gossip and doesn’t offer anything enlightening in any way. It’s muckraking, sensationalist. I feel it’s damaging to American Buddhism and doesn’t serve any purpose. It seems very one-sidedly negative about Dick’s character. Maybe things got worse later on after I left, but when I was there I admired him for hanging out with the Governor, hobnobbing. I felt he was doing things to help people and making Zen more acceptable to American society.
One of my first encounters with Dick was at Tassajara right before he went to Japan. We were on the altar preparing for a ceremony and I was hitting the mokugyo and he leaned over and said, "I love your hair. Who did it? Sassoon?" It was just the right thing to say to make me relax and I thought that’s what we needed around there – more lightheartedness. I thought it was good for him to go to Japan to learn more about Zen and that he’d be a good leader for us in the future – one who understood American mind and our varied backgrounds better than the Japanese priests. I thought Suzuki Roshi understood us but not the others. I appreciated Dick’s being as natural as he was. When he became abbot, his lectures were wonderful and his zazen exemplary. What he did in his private, social life did not matter to me. I have such tremendous gratitude for everything he created in Zen Center so I felt he created in Zen Center and I felt that a key part of my practice was not to get involved in his private life. But I guess if later I’d been involved in the financial affairs of Zen Center that I’d have felt differently. Anyway, I think the book is revolting.
In Tibetan Buddhism there are bodhisattva vows and tantric vows that you take later. The tantric vows are really simple but they’re about respecting the teacher and not saying bad things about the teacher. The number one Bodhisattva vow is not to praise self and belittle others. That’s the hardest one to keep – don’t gossip.
What I think is that if Zen Center doesn’t forgive its wayward uncle they don’t have a chance to survive, can’t go on. He’s done great things and its wrong to overlook that and focus on his screw-ups.
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