Joanne Kyger - 2

Joanne's cuke page

This is Joanne Kyger's March 2015 corrections and edit of her 1995 cuke interview. - DC

She wrote:

Hello David. Here's the 'revised' interview I did for Kevin Ring of BEAT SCENE magazine from England. He found your interview on line, and asked if he could print it. It did need some editing. Including getting Bill McNeill's name spelled with 2 l's. I went on to read some other online interviews by you, which were fascinating, and much more…[Added McNeill's name spelling to Crooked Cucumber Errata - DC]


Hello Kevin, I edited this interview considerably (it was a mess) but if you would like a shorter piece, let me know, and I'll edit it some more. I think I've caught all the typos and misspellings. Notice the correct spelling of Bill McNeill. I dropped mention of other people you had on your list. Are you thinking of using any pictures" best wishes,  Joanne


JOANNE KYGER from an interview with David Chadwick, September 29, 1995 in her Bolinas home.

Shunryu Suzuki arrived in San Francisco in May of 1959. Bill McNeill, an artist from Black Mountain College, told me about him. His wife had gone to Sokoji, a Soto Zen temple on Bush Street, in San Francisco, and met him. He said bring your husband and once Bill started sitting he really liked it. He hit it off temperamentally with Suzuki. He was Suzuki's first student. So I started to go over and sit in the morning with Bruce Boyd. He was a poet, who was around the North Beach scene and a friend of Jack Spicer's. We went at some ungodly hour like five thirty in the morning. I was living at the East-West House and was getting ready to go to Japan so I thought I should learn how to sit. The EW House , on California Street, was very social at that time. Maybe because I had moved in. There was Claude Dalenberg, ( who was the character Bud Diefendorf in Keroauc's DHARMA BUMS) a long time student of Buddhism , who found and started the East-West House, and Albert Saijo, Lew Welch, Gia-fu Feng, and Philip Whalen among others. It was established as a co-ed housing alternative for people who were interested in Asian studies. The cost of rent and food was shared. It was one of the first successful communal dwellings in San Francisco and exists to this day. The only rule being that you had to get along with everyone else. There was a very nice library of the Buddhist books that were then available in English. The Hyphen House soon opened with the overflow on Buchanan Street - it was the hyphen between the East-West house.

So Suzuki was starting his sitting group a couple of blocks away. There he was in the morning and he had hardly any English at all - he pantomimed what to do. It was difficult for me to get up and be there on time . Once with a great deal effort I got there with some roses for Suzuki Rosh, and the temple was closed. After much knocking He came to the door and with difficulty explained there was no sitting on days that had a 4 or 9 in them. That was my first formal sitting besides at Gary Snyder's who had a little zendo over in Marin - Marin-an.

During that time there was a real focus on the Zen of 'enlightenment,' koans , all those expectations of the late fifties. We were reading the books of DT Suzuki ; but here was a guy who really showed us how to 'just sit.' Then I went to Japan for four years and sat with the Rinzai Zen group of foreigners at Ruth Fuller Sasaki's temple, Ryosen-an, at Daitoku-ji.

I am sorry I didn't resume sitting with Suzuki when I came back from Japan in 1964. I met Jack Boyce, a painter, who had been up in the Siskiyou Mountains with Lew Welch. They had been following their own sense of Zen from Huang Po's writing, which was available in a Grove Press translation. A lot of intellectual interest. Jack started sitting with Suzuki who had a real sangha by now. It was a well established little sitting group with sesshins. Donald Allen was then practicing with them. He'd spent some time in Kyoto when I was living there where I saw him frequently, and greatly appreciated his style and dry humor. He'd just finished editing his NEW AMERICAN POETRY.

 Kyoto's big temples were mainly Japanese Rinzai Zen. It was ver difficult for foreigners to study Zen in Japan and Ruth Fuller Sasaki's First Zen Institute in Kyoto was the rare place that allowed foreigners to sit and practice. One had to, of course, learn Japanese in order to study with a teacher, who usually spoke no English. And then there was the whole structure of koan study unique to Rinzai, which meant traveling through Japanese and Tang Dynasty Chinese texts, which Snyder was involved in at the Daitokuji Monastery.

 It all seemed somewhat inaccessible to me. I was studying Japanese but couldn't speak it really well or read it. There was a strict formality inside the zendo. I first sat at Ruth Sasaki's little meditation hall and at home every day. Mrs. Sasaki also had a group of American and Japanese scholars who met in her library to translate Zen texts into English-- Snyder, Phil Yampolsky, Burton Watson, Professor Iriya Yoshitaka.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki was often a difficult, autocratic woman, somewhat old fashioned in her sensibilities, from a wealthy upper middle class Chicago originally. She had met D.T. Suzuki on an early trip to Japan in 1930, and subsequently started her practice of Zen with a Japanese Zen master in Kyoto-- sitting at Nanzen-ji monastery. She was one of the first foreigners in Japan to practice Zen. On returning she became a student of her future husband, Sokei-an who taught students in NYC. She founded the First Zen Institute, buying a building and starting a zendo. Her only child, a daughter Eleanor, meanwhile, in London, had met the charismatic young Buddhist, Alan Watts and married him. Eventually, in 1961 her translation group experiencing difficulties with her, resigned.

 Soko Morinaga, known as Ko-san, the main monk at Daitoku-ji temple offered the main Buddha hall of the Daitoku-ji temple to me as a place to sit in lieu of Ryosen-an-- and any other foreigner who wanted to practice zazen.

During 1961 Bill McNeill arrived in Kyoto. He'd gone up to Shunryu Suzuki's home temple, Rinso-in, and had stayed up there. He'd been ordained as a priest, whatever that means. In Japan it usually meant that you'd better take care of the real estate of the temple. He was way up there by himself so he left and came to Kyoto and started to sit with the Daitokuj-i group. And then he just gave it all up. His wife wasn't going to come over, he'd decided he was gay, he had an affair with a Japanese businessman, and he just dropped out of the whole Zen number. He'd say, I'm a homosexual and the way he'd talk about it, I'd say, that's not a real identity. It has nothing to do with your meditation practice.

So coming back to SF and seeing all these gaijin sitting zazen, I was amazed and a little bit critical because it wasn't done in the Japanese forms I knew. I had an attitude about it. And I had a hard time doing that full body bowing. And facing the wall while sitting - all the little differences in Soto Zen. So I never did get into their daily practice although Jack Boyce continued.

 In Ju1y of 1965 Dick Baker put on the Berkeley poetry conference -- coordinated through the UC Berkeley extension program, where he worked. It was a very big gathering where he got all the 'New American' poets together for readings and lectures, using tremendous tact and diplomacy. Very difficult to get them all in one place. He was also a student of Suzuki Roshii's.

 Dick Baker had to make a lot of decisions - people had to pay to get in. Students were lined up at the windows peering in and Bob Creeley wanted them to be able to come in for free. Suzuki Roshii sat in the front row and Bob was convinced Suzuki was trying to give him the evil eye, that Dick Baker had told his teacher to go sic him.

 Earlier Michael McClure decided he wasn't being given enough time so he dropped out and persuaded Philip to do it too. It was a status thing - I don't want to just give a reading - I want to give a lecture AND a reading. So they invited Lew Welch instead of Philip. This made me very unhappy because I had to read with Lew instead of Philip--"He always cry when he reads".

Then Jack Boyce and I went to Europe for nine months and then went to NYC where we stayed for a year. We'd become very friendly with Dick-- I had been on the phone with him every day before the conference trying to get Phillip to join back in. So when he was on a fund raising campaign with Suzuki in NYC to raise money for land for the Tassajara Zen Center they came to lunch. We were living in a loft in what is now the SoHo. I remember how charming Suzuki Roshi was. Robert Duncan was there, having done a reading at the Guggenheim. I remember Suzuki sitting at the table and all of a sudden he put his napkin on top of his head and sat there with it. It was such a tension breaker. We were wondering how to act around this teacher. So we all put our napkins on top of our heads.

 I last saw him at his funeral. It was very peaceful. There wasn't a lot of anxious energy. He was the first dead person I ever saw. The coffin was open and his skin was a blue purple color. I remember Chogyam Trungpa being there. He was this new exotic light who had a close friendship with Suzuki. Although his Tibetan Buddhism was different they had a mutual and empathetic understanding of the dharma and Americans.

At an earlier occasion at the Zen Center I remember a question and answer period with Trungpa and nobody knew how to ask him any questions. They didn't have a Buddhist vocabulary yet. I do remember someone asked "What is reality". The Zen students there did know that he liked Rainier Ale, the 'green death', and they brought cases of it to him.

 Mrs. Sasaki always said what you are experiencing is the Japanese adaptation of Zen. American Zen will be different. But Japanese sensibilities were always so attractive to people on this coast - the wabi-sabi aesthetics, the landscaping, the bonsai, the tansu, pottery, the 'natural' look.

 In the sixties things started to heat up a little more. Acid came on the scene. I learned how to get high in Japan. We grew some grass there under the guise of growing asa (hemp) for clothing. We got these seeds from a guy named Don Crow from Marin County and we grew the plants in the yard. We were kind of nervous about it. Mrs. Hosaka lived in the house with us the entire time we were there. We said this hemp is for clothing we are going to make. There were a handful of people we'd get together with and try to figure out how to get high. We'd smoke a little and then everybody would start to laugh -- there was a lot of cultural release. And then we'd gobble down a great deal of food. We were careful, then, not to get any Japanese high, as we weren't sure how they would act, and we didn't want to get deported.

 Suzuki Roshi had a charming kind of mischievous smile. And back then this garbled English which was incomprehensible. I'd just sit and try to count my breaths one to ten. That was the basic practice for everybody. I had trouble getting to two without a thought interrupting. I hadn't learned what I learned later from psychedelics about the nature of mind. I didn't know if it was an enemy, demonic, or what. In Japanese temples things always looked dark - the statues, deity figures. I loved visiting the Buddhas and going behind them to see what propped them up, and sometimes they wouldn't be painted in the back. We called him the 'Big B'.

 Snyder and I took a trip to India in 1962 and went to all the historic archaeological Buddhist sites (Buddhism was no longer practiced in India ) and visited the Dalai Lama. We saw for the first time Tibetans, fleeing the Chinese invasion, who had come down there to visit the Buddhist holy places. And also saw the Hinayana practice in Ceylon and how the monks lived. You realized religion was some kind of huge historic phenomena --but what did it have to do with ones self --one's own own quest and struggle.

 My own interest in Zen came about because in the late 50's I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger when a student at UC Santa Barbara. Heidegger had come to the study of 'nothing.' Then I found DT Suzuki's book on Japanese Zen and I thought oh! this is where you go with this mind. This 'nothing' is really 'something'. My philosophy teacher was Paul Wienpahl and I studied with him for practically four years - I was infatuated with his style and his teaching. I introduced him to Gary Snyder and later, in 1959, he went on to Daitoku-ji, studied with Goto Roshi (Mrs. Sasaki's teacher) and later published a book called "ZEN DIARY".

 If Western philosophy had come to a real dead end-- where did you go for illumination or insight ? It was a very natural kind of progression into Zen Buddhist teachings. Like what is the study of nothing? How do you start to open up that mystery? Many poets - like Ginsberg and Kerouac had started to find books on Buddhism. Everybody was reading about Zen but Gary was the only one who had figured out how to meditate although early on he hadn't had any formal teacher. And R.H. Blythe's books on haiku were important too. What is this mindless mind, this Zen mind? It was very attractive to everybody in the sense there was some illumination at the end, an enlightenment 'carrot', not like the dead end of Western philosophy then. The Logical Positivists were analyzing language and looking at questions like "if you have a headache and you take an aspirin where does the headache go?"

 There were almost no teachers of Zen here in U.S. except for Nyogen Senzaki in Los Angeles and Sokei-an in New York --and the First Zen Institute--which was one place you could visit and meditate, but was so high 'faultin' evidently it put off a lot of people.

Another friend of mine had been a student of Miura Roshi,--who was sent by Mrs. Sasaki to be the teacher at the Zen Institute in NYC. Bill Laws. He took his wife and child to Kyoto and on Muira's recommendation went to Myoshin-ji monastery to practice with the monks there. He found it very very difficult--a hard practice. His wife, used to make him donuts and he'd go and crouch in the benjo (toilet) and eat about a dozen donuts in great haste. Everything had to be eaten very quickly during meal time - it was very cold and very strict. He thought he was dying of malnutrition and so went to another temple and that worked out better for him. I remember walking down a street once with his wife, who was very supportive of him. We were talking about 'reality'. She said this isn't reality, reality is much better than this.

When Bill McNeill got back to the states he got right into the swing of things and started making a movie with Helen Adams who was a great Scottish balladeer poet . I came back a little after him. Everybody was getting high and the Beatles were being played everywhere. There was a whole cultural flowering in San Francisco. Poetry, music, style.

Bill McNeill had various jobs in SF. But always continued painting. He went to NYC and lived there for some years and came back out here and got very much involved in the gay scene and the Castro and the Stud Bar. Then he was one of the first to get Aids--nobody knew what it was then. He died in 1985, and his ashes buried north of Bolinas at the end of a lane of daffodils overlooking the ocean. Philipe Whalen and Issan Dorsey preformed a final Zen ceremony. But he always kept what he got from Suzuki Roshi. Very open to people. And in his paintings he had a direct style, with a quick sure brushstroke, an economy of line, and a beautiful palette.

 For the people studying in Japan, you had to learn Japanese to do the koan study and have a teacher. One could sit at Mrs. Sasaki's zendo, but the goal there was to learn how to sit and learn Japanese and go on to get a teacher. A lot of people came and sat there and went on to do something else. A very small handful learned enough Japanese to do koans. But with Shunryu Suzuki's Soto Zen there was 'just sitting.'

Suzuki Roshi always kept a modest demeanor. I was always watching to see if people were going to be 'human' in the roles they were taking at the Zen Center, which was getting more hierarchical. But I never saw that in Suzuki Roshi. He wasn't carrying a lot of baggage, that's what was so appealing.

Note from Joanne to the editor of the English magazine Beat Scene which published the interview:

Some names I’m unsure of…

Giaf-u Feng--Born in Shanghai. Taoist teacher and Tao Te Ching translator with Jane English.

Phil Yampolsky--Scholar and translator of Zen Buddhism texts; Head librarian at Columbia's East Asian Library 1968-1981.

Burton Watson--Award winning translator and teacher of Chinese and Japanese poetry and literature.

Dick Baker--Zentatsu Richard Baker -- Roshi and Abbot of SF Zen Center after Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971. Then became founder and teacher of Crestone Zen Center in Colorado and Buddhistisches Studienzentrum in Germany's Black Forest. [Dharma Sangha US and Germany - DC]

If you think any of these people need a footnote?