Interview with Charles MacDermed

If it's not disappearing, it's not real

Interviewed by DC 8/17/01 at Tassajara outside of the dinning room. We were chatting with some students sitting in a circle of redwood chairs arranged around a small round table. I was taking notes and may have taped it too. I can't remember because I got it all down on disk soon after returning home and I don't usually keep the tapes of these interviews. I asked him when he was born and he said 1937. Then I suggested he just say whatever comes to mind. - DC

CM: I first came to Sokoji in 1959, October I think. Suzuki Roshi had arrived about a half year before. I want to tell you something that altered my life and has stayed. He was giving a talk on a Tuesday evening I think. There was a small gathering of people sitting before him. He sat looking at us [in chairs back then - DC] and he looked directly in my eyes and said, "If it's not disappearing, it's not real." When he said that, I felt myself dissolving. I saw he saw me as having no immutable substance. He saw me as utterly ephemeral and transitory. I saw it in his face and eyes and heard it in his voice. I saw that he not only understood truth, but perceived it. He had the lucidity of mind to see what was happening in front of him.

I'd been studying analytic and linguistic philosophy - Viennese and Oxford and Cambridge philosophy - Wittgenstein is the summit of that. I'd met some of these people but nobody who embodied the power of these understandings. It was so exciting and delicious, savory beyond belief, to encounter Suzuki. It was like the whole of existence opening [crying a little]. He had an infinitely delicate touch - there's no expressing it. He had no weight, no gravity. There's no way to assert it. [breathing heavily] Had to experience that one. I am an artist, musician, composer, thinker, philosopher.

I've spent my life trying to capture the beauty of things - noticing those who claim it are charlatans. There are stories but they're fiction of transcendence and realization. 

Question from Tassajara student sitting in outdoor chair next to us: What do you do when you meet someone like this?

CM: In this case I went back, learned to sit, and hung out. I did not join or become a member of the sangha. 

DC - I'm sure he didn't mind. 

I don't think so. I took a lot of people there, instructed them in zazen. My sitting though was different from the standard way because I have to sit for two hours before I get what I want. To still my mind, to give it up, takes a time. I still sit intermittently. In composing I have to go to a still state. I can't push. Things have to emerge on their own. I have to be still enough to let things emerge. Maybe it shouldn't be associated with Zen, but that's alright.

I went to India and the 12th day before my visa expired I met a man who became my teacher for 12 years. That's another story.

DC- go on

CM: His name was CM Chen.

DC: CM - just like your initials.

CM: Yes. He was the author of Chenien Booklets published under the name Yogi Chen. He was a Vajrayana teacher. I met him in Kalangpon, India. I'd just met the Karmapa at Rumtek monastery in Gangtok, Sikem and was coming down the mountain when I encountered his hermitage He'd been there twenty-five years. Someone had asked me what I'm doing there and I said I'm looking for a teacher and they said there's one there. I ended up bringing him here to Sonoma County, CA - to Brain Ridge due East of Fort Ross though you have to get there by Meyers Grade. He had a few students here and died in '87 - 12 years after I brought him here.

DC: How did you get to Sokoji in the first place?

CM: I was brought to Sokoji by Daniel Moore.

DC - Wow. He brought a lot of people to ZC. He brought Mel.

CM: I was there when he brought Mel. Did you know Norman Steiglemeyer?

DC - Yes, very well. He was one far out dude. He was an art teacher at the SF Art Institute I remember and he sat quite regularly at Sokoji. He had been around a long time when I arrived in '66.

CM: Yes indeed. He was a good friend. He came in '63 or so. He'd been in Japan. He had a mystical experience there that led him to Zen. He fell into a pond and looked up through the surface and saw the moon. He got out and found he was standing at the gate to a temple. He said that all his paintings were true stories. I've got a lot of his paintings.

DC - Once at Tassajara, say 1967 or 8, we were in the middle of a seven day sesshin and some rowdy young drunk guys, about five of them, walked in, and Silas and I were out talking to them in the road by the upper garden and they wouldn't leave and one of them was getting pretty belligerent and Silas was talking to him. He kept saying, "You mean you want us to make our bird," over and over. I'd never heard that phrase to mean to leave. And he was asking if we liked to fight and knew karate. I was trying to bond with a fellow who seemed to be number two on the pecking order and who didn't seem interested in trouble but Silas and I weren't making much headway. Then Norman came out. He was a bug-eyed goose-like guy who'd get real close to you when he talked and say strange things. Anyway, he started talking to the belligerent guy and they went on for a while and I think that Norman sort of knocked him off balance and maybe freaked the guy out a little because at some point the guy asked, "Well do you all believe in God?" They were from a Catholic junior college somewhere near San Jose, as I remember. And Norman repeated the question and thought for a while and then said, "Well no, I guess we don't." and the guy totally freaked out and said, "Let's make our bird! Let's get out of here! They don't believe in God!" And they left and we went back to the sesshin.

CM: If I had to say one thing about Suzuki Roshi I'd say indescribably, ineffably beautiful. I'm into beauty. His manner, his movement, without flaw, without fail, inexpressibly beautiful. That's me, that's my take. There's a shallowness to that but that's the way I like things.

DC - I fell the same. I don't care if it's shallow or not. And I don't think you can attribute all of who he was to Zen or his Zen practice. It's the way he was. Maybe it's the way he was born.

CM: I'm glad you said that. It's an important thing to say. Another thing - his English, his spoken English, carried such subtlety of meaning. It was almost like learning to talk and communicate in a new way. That's important. We weren't steeped in a sodden form of communication with him - you were learning a new language in its nascent and pure form. Freshly born before your eyes and ears. That's an extremely important part of what was going on with him and his students.

I went to Zen Center now and then. I went to India in 1969 but was at the Mountain Seat Ceremony for Baker in '71. I remember the sound of Suzuki's staff coming off from the distance. I came from Berkeley. It was an overcast, foggy day - haze, mist, a somber day, a colorless, gray day. The sound of the staff - what's it called? It had symbols on it.

DC - I think it was just a staff that Alan Watts had given him, maybe with a Tibetan bell on the top.

CM: Basically the sound emerged from nothing into a slow stabbing rhythm. It got closer and closer, an excruciatingly delayed, tortured approach. And then the darkened, bent form of Suzuki Roshi entered the hall punctuating the atmosphere with his staff. He was literally a walking cadaver, a ghost already - right out of Kurosawa. He took his seat, his cushion, and at that instant [he puts his hand on my arm here with emotion - DC] a burst of radiant sun came through the glass and landed right on him. I just fell apart - into total abandoned sobs of anguish and awesome amazement that he had transported himself into that hall - not just out of will and not just out of sheer obligation - in total defiance of physics and mortal boundaries. I heard he vomited blood and heard several women gasp near him. I didn't see it but I think that's what in fact happened. He made it from his deathbed to his cushion and it exploded in an outpouring of blood from his mouth.

DC - This is the emotional high point of Zen Center history. Many people have told me about their memories of this event but no one has mentioned the sunshine or the blood. I was there and I don't think that happened, the blood that is - but I think there's a truth for you in it.

CM: I think it's interesting that Sokoji was an old synagogue and that Page Street was a Jewish women's home.

DC - And we've had so many Jewish abbots and there are so many Jewish Buddhist teachers in America. And women abbots and teachers.

CM: Zen Center seems to be part of carrying on the Rabbinical tradition. It was transferred to Japanese Zen.

DC - He said that people of Jewish background seemed to understand Zen more easily than other Westerners.

CM: I have other things to say about the people there. Some other time. A lot of odd things happened around Suzuki Roshi. A lot of corners were turned when people got close to him. He was more than a living example. He generated his own reality and causality that can't adequately be accounted for by tradition or history. He was Japanese and a Zen master but beyond his own history and identity and person. People who observed him and related to him saw how an original person who's viable in his own right can make appropriate use of a system. If you see a person who's just an exponent of a system, there's no touchstone there.