Joanne Kyger - 2 - corrections and edits of interview below and note to me and editor using the interview for a magazine. Below this is the 1995 interview by DC without changes so far. - DC, 3-31-15
JOANNE KYGER interviewed 9\29\95 by DC in her Bolinas home.
Suzuki Roshi arrived in May of 59 - I looked it up. Bill McNeill told me about him. His wife and gone over to Sokoji and met him and he said bring your husband and once Bill started sitting he really liked it and he hit it off temperamentally with Suzuki. So I started to go over and sit in the morning with Bruce Boyd who was a poet who was around the North Beach scene and was a friend of Jack Spicer's who was also a part of the SF poetry scene and who died in something like 65. 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 had to learn how to sit. The E-W House was a very social house at that time. Lew Welch and Claude Dalenberg were there. It was established as an alternative dwelling for people who were interested in Asian studies after Alan Watts was asked to leave the Institute of Asian Studies. We got it so we could share the cost and have people come speak to us. We divided up the costs - it was one of the first communal dwellings. It was on California and something and the Hyphen House was on Buchanan - it was the hyphen between the East and the West. Giafu Feng was at the EW House and there was a very nice library of what Buddhist books were available. Philip Whalen stayed there. You'd cook one night a week. You could save your money and go to Japan.
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 - sort of like pantomiming what to do. It was difficult to get up and one time I got there and it was a four or nine day when we didn't sit and he got up and tried to explain there was no sitting on these days. I brought him some roses. That was my first formal sitting besides Gary had a little zendo over in Marin - Marin-an I think he called it. Albert Saijo was living at the EWH too. There was a real focus on the Zen of enlightenment, koan, all that stuff that was going in the late fifties. Some kind of open door to whatever it was supposed to be - realization. We were reading all those silly books of DT Suzuki and here was a guy who really showed us how to sit. I think I went to Japan for four years.
I was sorry I didn't resume sitting when I came back. I met Jack Boyce who had been up in the Siskiyous with Lew Welch and they came down and had been following their own sense of Zen from Huang Po - there was a lot of mental interest. There was a little book by Ruth McCandless that was on Zen. Some Frenchman had done a book. So Jack started sitting with Suzuki and by this time it had become a real sangha. Trudy Dixon was sitting there - it was 64. I'd gone in 60. It was a well established little practice group with small sesshins. And Don Allen was then practicing with them. He'd spent some time in Japan when I was living there and at point he was editing his book called the New American Poetry which had all the beats. [I bought it when I was in or just out of high school.] I spent time with him over there. It was all Japanese Rinzai Zen. The article in the new Tricycle or their new book called Big Sky Mind will tell you a lot about all this and how difficult it was to study Zen in Japan and about Ruth Fuller Sasaki's institute in Kyoto and how you had to learn Japanese and the whole structure of koan study. And I came back and there was Shunryu Suzuki just sitting without all the horrendous study of Tang dynasty texts that Gary [Snyder] was participating in - it was very strict. Of course he was very strict in his Zen study and it seemed inaccessible to me. I didn't speak Japanese, I was a woman, there was such formality inside the sodo you couldn't just drop in and out and it was a very strict kind of sitting. Eventually I got fed up. The First Zen Institute [?] had enough infighting that Mrs. Sasaki and Gary and the translators that were working with them, Phil Yampolsky and Burt Watson, withdrew. She had one of the temples at Daitokuji. Idiya Sensei was translating too - the Rinzai Roku I think. Ruth was a difficult autocratic woman, Victorian in her sensibilities. There was a break so Gary went directly to the hondo there and as a result I was invited to sit with any foreigners there - Irmgard Schloegl who did that little book on Rinzai. Ryosenan, Ruth's temple, she'd been given and she had enough money to restore it and make a study center and a very nice little traditional zendo and her own very nice Japanese style house and this was where you went to learn enough to graduate to go and get a real teacher. So we ended up going to sit in the Buddha hall. Irmgard too. Somehow everybody just left. [?Why] She had Goto Roshi as her teacher. Why? Infighting, jealousy, charges of homosexuality, who was enlightened and all this grunge went on and she was pretty autocratic. It was a falling out.
During this time Bill McNeill was there and he'd gone up to Shunryu Suzuki's home temple, Rinsoin, and had stayed up there. He'd been ordained as a priest whatever that meant. People didn't know. What does that mean? In Japan it means that you'd better take care of the real estate pretty good. He was way out by himself out there and so he left and came to Kyoto and started to sit with the Daitokuji group when the fallout was going on and 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 an identity. It has nothing to do with what your meditation practice is about. So anyway that was during the big fallout in 63.
So coming back to SF and seeing all these gaijin sitting in this practice situation, I was amazed and a little bit critical because it wasn't done in the Japanese forms and what do they know - I had an attitude about it. And I had a hard time doing that bowing - my ankles were stiff. And facing the wall - all the little differences. So I never did get into the daily practice although Jack Boyce did it for a good year. He went to sesshins. He[?] and I got married in 65 and came to Bolinas and separated in the early seventies. He was with Magda for a year. Lew Welch had died the year before. Jack died later under dramatic circumstances.
In 65 Dick Baker was arranging the poetry conference which was a big gathering where he was trying to get all these poets together to make some sort of common statement. He was also studying with Shunryu-san of course. He had to make a lot of decisions - people had to pay to get in and Bob Creely was there and Suzuki was in the front row and Bob was convinced Suzuki was trying to give him the evil eye. And he wanted people without money to come in. Dick was a total genius of diplomacy to get all these geniuses together. At one point Michael McClure decided he wasn't getting enough time so he made Phillip drop out. It was a status thing - I don't want to just give a reading - I want to give a lecture and a reading. And there was this person, Suzuki, who was going around in robes which was weird to some people. He went in the afternoon.
Then Jack Boyce and I went to Europe for nine months and then went back to NYC where we stayed for a year. We'd become very friendly with Dick and had been on the phone with him every day before the conference trying to get Phillip back in and whatnot. He liked Jack's paintings a lot and he was into the poetry scene. We heard rock and roll - the Jefferson Airplane - there was this energy in the air. So when he was on his fundraising campaign and took Suzuki Roshi to NY - they went to the Xerox guy to get money to buy land. He remember he said to Suzuki, you want some land for a monastery I'll get it for you. We had this funny lunch. We were living in the loft section which is now the SoHo. I remember how charming Suzuki Roshi was. Robert Duncan was there. I remember Suzuki Roshi sitting there with this napkin on top of his head. It was such a tension breaker. People were wondering how do we treat this religious man and how should we act, so very early on in the lunch he put this napkin on his head and sat there with it. Then we all put our napkins on our head. Some Zen master had put his sandals on his head - it was a koan - it wasn't mentioned but we knew about it. He made everybody feel comfortable.
I saw him at the funeral and Trungpa was there. Liz and Arthur were part of the sangha. There wasn't a lot of anxious energy. It was the first person I ever saw in an open coffin and he had this blue purple color to his skin. I remember Trungpa being there and he was this new exotic light who had a friendship with S. and they'd had this exchange of Buddhism and Americans.
I remember a question and answer period with Trungpa [? where?]and he was this exotic new teacher and Liz was all excited about this new teacher and what he wanted was Rainier Ale. And we said the Green Death! And nobody knew how to ask him any questions. And we tried to find a way to have dialogue. Suzuki didn't talk so much but that was the basic attitude of Rinzai too - you didn't get your mind all confused with terms and states of mind that you didn't know what they were about yet.
When the ZC went over to Fell Street it became a little more formal and developed the accouterments. Mrs. Sasaki always said this is what Japanese Zen is about - these are Japanese forms. The Japanese sensibilities were always so attractive to people on this coast - the wabi-sabi, the paired-down sense and the clarity, the bonsai, the tansu. All of the was very attractive cultural methods that had come over sense the war. The cost here didn't have any really strong sense of aesthetics. We had Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
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 Cloe(sp?) from Marin County and we grew the plants in the yard. We were kind of nervous about it. Nakamura-san lived in the house with us the entire time we were there. She was kind of open-minded but we said this is for clothing. There were a handful of people. Ponderosa Pine was one of them. I met him there in 62. He used to teach at Doshisha University. He'd been in Korea and he was dressed up in a three piece suit. I remember going by him on the back of the motorcycle with Gary and I thought, that guy looks so good, he'll never talk to us. He looked so immaculate and duded out. Jim Stoopes. We'd get together and try to figure out how to get high and we'd smoke a little and then everybody would start to laugh and there was a lot of cultural release. We stuck out a great deal and that was a release. And then we'd gobble down a great deal of food. Mrs. Hosak (Nakamura) was not supposed to figure out what we were doing.
And then Timothy Leary's emissary look some LSD there - he came at night and dropped some off and then Alan Watts came and brought LSD. The regimented rules in Japan of how you acted and sodo life were so strict and there we were on acid. Walter Nowick didn't smoke any grass. He was a nice personal person and wasn't so much in his head. Gary had such a certain way of doing things. Walter was very easy going warm hearted second generation Russian Long Island Potato Farmer family. He was a student of Goto Roshi's and received Inka from him which Ruth didn't. He was lovely and spontaneous. He said Zen is sweeping the floor. They have such a thing about cleaning though to me Japanese houses seemed to have everything stacked up inside with a little clearing in the middle.
Suzuki Roshi had that charming kind of mischievous smile about him. And then this awful garbled English which was incomprehensible and then 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.] I was starting from zero. I hadn't learned what I learned later from acid and peyote about the nature of mind. I didn't know if it was an enemy, demons or what. The fact that Japanese things always looked dark - the statues, the idols, what are they? I loved going to see the Buddhas and go behind them and see the props and sometimes they wouldn't be painted in the back. I had a no idolatry number. And we took a trip to India at that time and went to all the Buddhist sites and checked out the Tibetans and saw how the Hinayana practice was in Ceylon and the monks way of life. The words, religion was some kind of huge phenomena but what did it have to do with yourself or your own quest and struggle.
All along the outside in the zendo we sat. I don't remember the pews. We sat on the outside edge - what was in the middle? [pews] Now I remember. It was a blockade.
The only interaction with Suzuki Roshi I remember was the time I gave him the roses and he gave me a Japanese name I didn't remember. It was the morning he said we're not sitting this morning. They were little tiny roses. I had brought them as a gift that morning. It was delightful.
I remember him giving a little talk but it was incomprehensible. We couldn't get much from it.
When I came back from Japan Suzuki Roshi was more inaccessible. Dick Baker was acting as a go between but I didn't sit a lot so I don't have a very good sense of what it was like.
I knew Bill McNeill because he had been a student at Black Mt. College in North Carolina - Charles Olson was the last dean there. The poetry scene in SF in 56 changed when it closed and a lot of the students came to SF and became part of the poetry scene studying with Robert Duncan who had been there and Jack Spicer.
My own interest in Zen came about because I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger in Santa Barbara. Their philosophy just comes to an end saying you just have to practice the study of nothing. Then I got DT Suzuki's book on Japanese Zen and I thought oh! this is where you go with this mind. And my teacher was Paul Wienpahl and I studied with him for practically four years - I was infatuated with his style and his teaching. He went on to Daitokuji and studied with Goto Roshi and published a book on Zen himself that came out in 64, 65. The way of Western philosophy had come to a real dead end and where did you go for practice or illumination or insight and it was a very natural kind of progression into what was available about Zen Buddhist teachings. Like no mind - no mind - what is the study of nothing? Where do you start to open up that mystery? A lot of people - Ginzberg, Kerouac had started to find these books. Everybody was reading about this Zen and Gary was the only one who had figured out how to meditate although he hadn't had any formal teacher. And Blythe's books on haiku were important too. What is this mind? This mindless mind, this Zen mind? It was very attractive to everybody in the sense there was some illumination at the end not like the dead end of philosophy. The logical positivists were analyzing language were all analyzing questions like if you have a headache and you have an aspirin does the headache go away? They were really dumb kind of states of mind. There was some kind of religious quest in the fifties going on but there weren't any teachers except for Sokeian in NY with Mary Farkas and Ruth Fuller - that was one place you could go though that was so high falutin evidently it put off a lot of the Bohemian type minds that were more naturally drawn to it. That's where Walter Nowick started to sit.
Bill McNeill knew Ebba Borregaard down the block and he was in North Beach. He was a poet and a painter, 23 or 24. His wife told him about Suzuki and he told me about it and I'd been reading about Zen. He and I met at the Place in North Beach, a small hole in the wall where everything went on - blabbermouth night when everybody would get up and talk and they'd get prizes. Jack Spicer was there and I was enamored with the idea of Zen and we had something called the dharma committee and we'd sing songs like "When it rains it always rains zennies from heaven," and it was like a sardonic reaction to it. Spicer was an original California voice and he had a sardonic approach to it but he wasn't serious about oriental religion. So I went to zazen with Bill one morning. He went to Japan in 61 or 62. He got robes and all the accouterments that go with it and somehow couldn't see the end of it - it seemed like it would always be heirarchical Japanese and it was just full of Japanese culture and style.
When he came back I think he was through with it all. A lot of it had to do with Mrs. Sasaki who disillusioned him a great deal. It was just too rigid. There was a building that was used for Zen students who were a part of it - Irmgard stayed there and Bill. Irmgard was this compulsive German who said, When you clean the bathroom you had to clean everything including the ceiling with this wet mop and Bill said what should I do - all the water falls down on my head and you put the toothbrush back in the right way. Everything was like some long tea ceremony with everything so precise and very Germanic.
Another friend of mine who had been a student of Miura Roshi who didn't turn out to have a lot of students. Bill took his wife and child over[?] and went to Myoshinji which he found very very difficult hard practice. A friend of ours, Judy, his wife, used to make him these donuts and he'd go over and crouch in the benjo and eat about a dozen donuts. Everything had to be eaten so quickly - it was cold and high marine practice. [He came to Tass and told me how brutal Myoshinji was and how his knees swelled up so big and how they threw a monk in tangaryo off the deck - he said he was dying of malnutrition and the he went to Shokokuji and lived outside and that worked out better for him.] Miura Roshi wanted him to go to the best school and he thought Myoshinji was it.
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 poet clergyman's daughter. I came back around the same time and everybody smoked grass and getting high and the Beatles were being played. There was a whole cultural flowering of where you could put your energy. He had various jobs in SF. Everybody was working at the warehouse at that point - Ebba Borregaard was there and they were old friends from before. Paper books, paper bound books were just coming out. Then 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. And then got AIDS and died in 82 - he was one of the first and we didn't know exactly what it was. But he always had what he got from Suzuki Roshi. He wasn't anti-Zen. He had his brushstroke, he had a lot of the economy of style. That's his painting up there on the wall. He did a lot of painting. He had a nice direct style. [Did you know Ray Coffin? He was at Daitokuji I guess later than you and he was loved to climb over the wall and finally had to leave and he went back to Austin and published a book of poems called Cowboy Zen and he died of AIDS - he wasn't gay but he got into shooting up speed with gay guys.]
When Ruth Fuller Sasaki's husband died he told her to get a new teacher so she helped bring Miura Roshi over and he was very sweet but it didn't work out.
Alan Watts had been married to Ruth Fuller's daughter, Eleanor, and he was this bright Episcopalian priest who was friends with Christmas Humphreys and was famous for his little essay on Zen which was very brilliant and they came and moved to NY where Ruth was living with Sokeian and he said this is my chance to view a Zen teacher up close so he saw them as they were living together and it was platonic but they fell in love and got married. That was in the early forties. Then Alan went on to teach at Northwestern. Ruth was married to Everett Fuller and he had died and she got him to be the teacher and then the romance developed but people wondered if she married him to keep in the country but it was romantic.
Alan came out here in the fifties and he married again. Ruth was always criticising Alan saying he was turning Zen into a circus. She was very traditional. Beat Zen Square Zen had just come out. [He didn't like zazen.] When he came to Japan for the first time in 62 he was with his third wife Jano and they'd put together workshops and they had LSD with them and they went to temples high. He was sponsored by Shokokuji? Someone who was more open. [David Kubiac said that Alan came into his bar in Kyoto and got so drunk and abusive that he had to kick him out.] That was probably on his next trip later when he brought a tour. [Jano just died of acute alcoholism and her apartment was full of empty bottles. Sad.]
For the people studying in Japan, you had to learn Japanese to do the koan study and the old Chinese to study the koans. They could sit at Mrs. Sasaki's place but the goal there was to learn Japanese and all 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 Suzuki there was just sitting so you didn't have to learn Japanese or get into that scholarly approach to get into Zen. I know I was worn out after four years and my relationship with Gary ended and I came back. Gary loved Japan and when he married Masa it seemed culturally to made a lot more sense for him. He got into the language.
Trungpa's court and the Vajra guard and everybody dolled up and everybody took it so seriously I just couldn't believe it.
I remember walking down the street with Judy Laws and her saying this isn't reality, reality is a lot better than this. When we get enlightened then we'll be in reality but this isn't it. It's the opposite of Suzuki and so was Trungpa's court. The idea was you pass your koan or go through some long training period and then you get in some better place. [Like the Judeo-Christian tradition that this world is not heaven but we'll die and go to heaven and then it will be better.]
I used to go to Boulder and I went there in 91 after the whole Osel Tenzin number and the sangha was in moral disarray because of the fact they tried to suppress it - Rick Fields had tried to bring it out in the Vajradhatu Sun and they tried to suppress it.
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 in the organization 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.