Mel Weitsman cuke main page
Interview With Mel
long time abbot of the
Berkeley Zen Center
Interviewed by DC - 1995 (on two occasions). This is a quickly edited version of those interviews. last editing--5/26/99
[Mel Weitsman was born in Southern California in 1929. An artist and musician who frequented the haunts of San Francisco's North Beach, he started studying with Shunryu Suzuki in the early sixties. In 1967 Suzuki asked Mel to go to Berkeley to run the Berkeley zendo and in 1968 (I think) he ordained him as a priest. He continues as the abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center today. At the time of these interviews Mel was an abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center as well. There's another long interview with Mel done by Basya Petnick which she combined with mine to put into a very nice limited edition book, a present to Mel from the Zen Center upon stepping down as abbot. Maybe we can get that online here at some point.--DC, May 20, 1999.]
MW: My mystical belief about Suzuki-roshi and his disciples is that each one of his disciples represented some aspect of him. We each represented one side of him. I won't say who represented what, but that was my feeling. Like what are we now? It's 23 years since Suzuki-roshi died and Zen Center, I think, is following Suzuki-roshi's way. There are many possibilities after a teacher dies. Sometimes I'm concerned about Zen Center. When I retire, somebody will take it over. What will the course be? What will be retained and what will change. Everybody I see as a possible successor has a different style, they are interested in different things. Yet they're all devoted to zazen and the general style of the practice as initiated by Suzuki-roshi. I think also that many people want to make it more American all the time. More New Age. Buddhism is going New Age. People come to it through their own understanding. Not necessarily having teachers. Or teachers who are not necessarily grounded in a tradition. Introducing various therapies. Buddhism is a great support for a lot of people's new age ideas. They combine it back with Buddhism. Zen practice is archaic to begin with. And against a background of New Age Buddhism, it's almost like a museum piece, even in Japan. But here it's new. But it feels so conservative.
DC: It has a radical aspect over here that it doesn't have over there.
MW: Right. To have a strict practice where people get up early in the morning and have a very formal, traditional style puts it in a class by itself. Little by little it will transform. Probably some segment of Zen will become even more conservative in order to preserve a traditional kind of practice. And others will blend more with the culture. I think that will be a kind of split between the conservatives and the progressives. In previous times the Mahayana and the Hinayana practiced side by side in the same monasteries. They didn't think in terms of Hinayana or Mahayana. Then later those various factions formed schools. In China the schools became independent. Then in the 19th and early 20th centuries they all coalesced into one school. Before the cultural revolution if you went to a Chinese monastery you could go and do Zen in one hall and Pure Land in another. All the practices were in one monastery but in different halls.
DC: What is Suzuki-roshi's legacy?
MW: Zazen. And daily practice. Preserving the way of the ancestors. I think that Suzuki-roshi said it would be very colorful. What will Zen be like in America? He said, "Very colorful." I think he meant that people will transform it in different ways to reflect the culture. Another part of the legacy is his disciples and what they're doing. How many are sticking around doing something, and how many have either left or are doing something in a different way. Maybe that's an aspect of the legacy.
DC: There are situations like Jean Ross's where, to me, she clearly left with a broken heart.
MW: Bill Kwong was my Dharma buddy. We grew up in Sokoji together, although he started five years before I did. Around '59.
DC: Betty and Della and Jean were around in '59. Maybe Paul Alexander.
MW: Paul Alexander? He just disappeared. Katagiri-roshi lived in Paul's house when he first came to Sokoji. Paul had a motor scooter. He lived in a big house with his mother. One of those big Victorian flats. Suzuki-roshi said, "Just you and your mother live here?" In Japan there'd be twenty people living in a place like that. Paul used to go to zazen every morning on his motor scooter with Katagiri-roshi. Katagiri-roshi in his koromo. His koromo waving in the wind behind him. That was before he moved across the street from the zendo on Bush Street.
DC: Jack Elias lived with Paul. He said Paul was guilt-ridden because he was gay. Jack feels he killed himself because he had standards he couldn't live up to, an idea what it meant to be a disciple of Suzuki's and he felt like he failed. Does that make sense?
MW: Yeah. It does make sense. Bill had started working on dharma transmission with Suzuki-roshi. They'd been working on calligraphy. Then before Suzuki-roshi died he made Dick the successor.
DC: Incidentally, he strongly asked Hoitsu to take care of Bill. He was very concerned about Bill. He thought everything else would work out. He also mentioned it to Ananda.
MW: Bill felt that he wanted to share the leadership with Dick.
DC: What year are you talking about now?
MW: '71. Suzuki-roshi had asked Dick to see if he could invite Noiri-roshi to come to America to help us with authentic procedures for dharma transmission.
DC: He mentioned that to Ananda. Are you sure he mentioned it to Dick?
MW: It was common knowledge. Everybody knew it. I can't remember how it exactly came about. Suzuki-roshi wanted Noiri to teach us about dharma transmission because he didn't want us to do dharma transmission like they do it in Japan. He wanted us to have a meaningful dharma transmission, original dharma transmission which was more selective and not just handing out certificates. He didn't want it superficially or perfunctorily done.
DC: Suzuki-roshi had asked Noiri-roshi to come to a Tassajara Practice Period when he was well and he hadn't.
MW: Here was the thing that I heard. Both Niwa and Noiri had the same teacher, Kishizawa, and they were both going to be very prominent. So he asked one to be the recluse scholar and asked the other one to face the public. So Noiri-roshi was asked to be the scholar, the recluse, and the monk; and Niwa-roshi was asked to be the public face. That's the way they developed. They were dharma brothers.
MW: Kaz Tanahashi doesn't particularly like Kishizawa. He thinks that Kishizawa was kind of a militarist during the war. Suzuki-Roshi gave talks before the war, or just leading up to the war. I know that he was very poor during the war. He talks about that, how he didn't have any rice. He didn't put on civilian clothes. wear shiny shoes. The temples got very poor. The priests started leaving the temples and started putting on civilian clothes. He stayed in his robes. And his cupboard was bare. He had a little vegetable garden. One woman came over and looked in his cupboard and there was no rice. She called the neighbors and they started bringing over handfuls of rice for him. This was after the war. But during the war he went to Manchuria. After the war he took the last boat out of Manchuria. I met his other dharma heir. Somebody that he'd given dharma transmission to. I may have met two of them. Bill introduced me to him. We met them outside the train station when Bill and I were there. It was in Yaizu. He was a man about my age I guess. DC: Yeah. Okamoto Shoko.
MW: This is what Bill told me that I remember. There were three dharma heirs and one was a woman.
DC: I think there's just Hoitsu and Shoko.
MW: It would be interesting to get a picture of that place during the war. We don't know anything about what happened in Japan during the war. And the background of just what was happening at Rinsoin -- that would be very interesting.
DC: Very hard for us to understand the totality of the Senjo-- the battlefield. There wasn't fighting there but it was battlefield mentality. Everybody was fighting the war all the time.
MW: Just like here we were too.
DC: No. Not like here.
MW: Not like here, but we were also doing that. When I was a kid everybody was thinking about the war all the time and the war effort and rationing. It was different in Japan because Japan was the aggressor.
DC: They became anti-war after the war while we still have the war mentality.
MW: Bill and I used to go down and visit Maezumi-roshi from time to time. One time we were down there and Maezumi-roshi said that Bill should get Hoitsu to complete the dharma transmission. He looked through his directory from Japan and called up Hoitsu.
DC: Suzuki-roshi told Hoitsu to do it. Japanese are so passive, man. The way they deal with things that are uncomfortable is they won't answer the phone, they won't deal with it. I'm having that problem now. Suzuki-roshi did it to people too. If he didn't want to talk to somebody he wouldn't answer their letter. Like Mrs. Ransom.
MW: He never wrote letters. He said, "I never write letters. I'm sorry." He had a thing about writing letters.
DC: I've gotten copies of letters of his to Mrs. Carlson and to various people. If it was important he'd do it.
MW: I've seen lots of letters from other people to him.
DC: Could you tell me -- I want to hear about when you first came to Zen Center. what were your first impressions, what are your strongest impressions, that sort of thing.
MW: I'd heard about Zen Center in '63, something like that. The person who talked to me about it was Phil Wilson. I was an artist.
DC: And all your paintings burned.
MW: I don't think so. If they did I didn't hear about it.
DC: That's what Mike Dixon told me. He thought your paintings all burned up in a fire. Did your first wife die recently?
MW: I hope not.
DC: What was her name?
MW: Ruth Weiss.
DC: There was this notice in the paper that she died.
MW: Really? When?
DC: Recently. Several weeks ago. But you'd know it though, through somebody else?
MW: Not necessarily.
DC: I looked at that and I thought, I remember her. It could have been somebody else.
MW: So Philip told me about Zen Center. Told me about this priest name of Suzuki. I should come there some time. But I never did. The person that took me there was Dan Moore.
DC: He used to come around to see Loring . I used to live with Loring.
MW: He was the director of the Floating Lotus theater.
DC: He wore robes a lot. I liked him.
MW: I knew him since he was out of high school. I enjoyed him as an up and coming poet. He married Diane Varsi's sister Gale. Remember Peyton Place? She was an up-and-coming movie actress, and then she quit. Dan married her sister Gale and we became friends. That was about the time I started going to Zen Center. I left my wife and had a girlfriend. I was having all kinds of problems. Dan and I were smoking grass. And we stayed up till about 4 o'clock. So at 4 o'clock in the morning we walked up Fillmore Street and went to zazen. It was this unusual experience. A little man came up behind me and put my hands into a mudra, straightened my back, showed me where to look. I liked it. And I am sitting here with nothing else to do. I got an immediate feeling for it. I would go once in a while. One day when I went I had this wonderful experience. I don't know if I can describe the experience, but it was just -- this is it. I was just floating down the street afterwards. I would go to my little house that Dan Moore left me. Right around that time I was having toothaches for the first time in my life. I would get this toothache in the middle of the night. I'd get out of my sleeping bag and do zazen. At that time zazen really hurt a lot and the pain in my legs was such a distraction that my toothache would disappear. I did that for 3 or 4 nights in a row. Every time I did it my toothache would disappear. .It reinforced my feeling about zazen. So I just kept going back. Little by little I got more interested to know who Suzuki was. Then I went all the time. I was driving a taxi at the time. So I'd drive all night and then go to morning zazen and then go home and go to bed. Zazen would be the last thing that I would do at night rather than--or in this case--as well as the first thing in the morning. At that time you had to wear a suit and a tie if you were a taxi driver. and I would go to zazen in my suit. I had a lot of pain. Suzuki-roshi really worked with me. Always admonishing me to keep my posture straight. Making remarks. Very diligent about that. During sesshin he'd say, "Don't move. Don't chicken out."
DC: I don't know if don't move is Buddhist or Japanese.
MW: Japanese, I think.
DC: I would say so. It really worked. I don't do that anymore. When I sit I do anything I want. But I know from past experience that sitting without moving, especially if you get pain, is great. Somebody I know called the New York Zen Studies group once and when they answered the phone he said, "Hi, I'm visiting here in town and wondering if I could come and sit zazen every day." "If you don't sit full lotus, don't bother to come."
MW: But he also said, "When I say don't move it doesn't mean you can't move."
DC: Well then what did it mean?
MW: It's more about letting go than about trying to do something extreme. I remember my first one-day sitting. Before that, I remember going into the zendo on Saturday morning. I didn't know what they did on Saturday morning. We sat zazen and did kinhin and then people sat down for zazen again. They're going to do this again? I looked around at everybody's face. And their faces had a little bit of that look that you see in the zendo. I remember Jerome was one of them. Suzuki-roshi also said things during zazen. "You're like loaves. Loaves of bread cooking in the oven."
DC: Anything you remember that he said like that. Can you describe Suzuki-roshi physically?
MW: He was short and thin like Gandhi. A body build like Gandhi. Very agile. Very light. Sometimes he looked his age, but at other times he and looked much younger.
DC: His age in '64 would have been 60 years old.
MW: I'm older now than he was then. I'm 65.
DC: If you were assigned the task of saying how he taught. How did he teach without words, what would you say?
MW: He taught by example, but he also taught with words, without saying something directly. That was more his forte. Two things: one is he taught through his body by standing up and sitting down and walking. What we learned from him is how to walk, how to sit down, how to stand up. And he taught with his lectures and speech. And he taught in a casual way - just being with him you wanted to be on your toes. Just by his presence it made you want to be careful. Doing something with him made you attentive so you could harmonize with him. So I always felt like paying a lot of respect - like an apprentice with his teacher. It's because his teaching wasn't ''do this and do that'' but was in the context of moving around and interaction without any idea of it being teaching. This is what kept you on your toes. The way you moved with him was how he taught.
DC: Tim Buckley said how to breathe.
MW: How to breathe. That was his greatest teaching. He would say you should put strength in your hara.
DC: I can't say he taught us how to breathe. I have to say he told us to put strength in our hara. MW: He would say, breathe deeply. Breathe in your hara. Breathe in your lower abdomen.
DC: I've told Elin that. She'd say, wow I've never heard anybody say that. That's so central to Zen. She'd say well nobody ever said that.
MW: But they don't teach that much any more. I remember when he was giving zazen instruction . . . count your breaths. He was very insistent on counting breaths. Not always. But there was a period. when he did that. Dogen doesn't mention breath People think that because he didn't seem to have emphasized it, that you're not supposed to teach it. .
DC: Suzuki-roshi was creative. Dogen was creative.
MW: That's right. It can be your own thing. That's what Suzuki-roshi said. The usual way of teaching, Japanese style, is to copy your teacher. Sometimes we can't tell the teacher from the student. On the other hand, he really allowed us to be innovative. But, he said that we wanted to make Zen American. We wanted to leave the Japanese way behind too quickly. "You have big ego." Big ego is the measure of Americans. He said something about how it has to go both ways. Learn from each other. Suzuki-roshi also said we can let go of Japanese and American.
MW: I think he got a lot of it from Takeda. Takeda later wrote this book called Zen Training.
DC: You mean Suzuki-roshi got it from reading it in English while he was here in America?
MW: When Takeda was very old, he was a layman, and he was in the Diamond Sangha in the sixties. He used to write a loose-leaf publication, a newsletter, out of Hawaii. He wrote about zazen, about posture, about breathing. It was very detailed. With drawings. I remember Suzuki saying that Takida had very good ideas about it. In about '66. He would get these publications in English. I don't know if he had met him. He liked his approach.
DC: Dogen might not have been emphasizing that because they had a sitting on the floor culture and what Harada-roshi said in Japan is when you have a culture that sits on the floor, that likes the floor, the handles to things are built to be at that level when you're in seiza to reach them to open and close. It's a floor society, not a standing thing. So then you're automatically in your hara and your way of life returns you to your hara. As Japanese culture stops sitting on the floor it is going to lose its keel.
MW: One of the differences between Suzuki-roshi and all the other teachers: Yasutani, Soen, Kapleau, Maezumi. That whole group -- was that they all emphasized kensho.
DC: Aitken says that Zen Center is the place without any enlightenment. He says its problem is that it's gotten so beyond any idea of getting enlightenment that everybody's neutered or whatever.
MW: It's not that Suzuki-roshi ignored enlightenment. He was very strict. Practice is equated with enlightenment and enlightenment is equated with practice. You don't emphasize enlightenment, you emphasize practice. Because enlightenment is not something you can grasp. Everybody should know that.
DC: He was against emphasizing kensho. He emphasized don't attach to your experiences.
MW: Right. Just do the practice. What fault is there in that?
DC: It's just different. I was three and a half years next door to that temple.
MW: Who are all these enlightened people who have kenshos? It's the ultimate arrogance. Suzuki-roshi's first hundred lectures were on the Blue Cliff Record. I'm not sure if he covered them all. I'm not sure exactly when he started lecturing on it.
DC: He was giving lectures way back. When Mike Dixon came in '62 he said Suzuki-roshi was hard to understand.
MW: He wanted to give a lecture on the whole Blue Cliff Record. We have this fiction that Suzuki-roshi's lectures on the Blue Cliff Record are just from some scattered notes, but they seem pretty complete to me. They have his language. He said he gave lectures on all hundred cases. I think Dick said he wrote them down. Anyway, he would talk about a koan during lecture. One time he was reading this case of Ummon, about everybody has his own light - but it's dim and dark. What is everyone's light? None of his students could answer him. So he said "Temple storeroom and temple gate." One day Suzuki-roshi and I were looking for rags during work period. He said "The temple storeroom." When it came up I laughed and he laughed. There was a realization, a connection to the meaning of the koan. I remember several times he did very direct things. One time just walking up to me and saying "Just being alive is enough" and then turned around and walked away.
DC: That's very comforting.
MW: When I'd go to talk to him about something, some problem in my life, he would not give me a direct answer, but rather a way to look at it. He said "You came to me with a problem and I gave you another problem." He'd say, "I'm sorry," and he'd laugh. I would come to him with something and he would turn that into a koan for me. expected you to pick up on stuff right away. He was very subtle. Sometimes later, a week later, you'd realize suddenly what he was talking about. It didn't register at the time, but it registers later.
DC: Was he always indirect in that way?
MW: There's a range of directness and indirectness. It would depend on the situation. I remember one time when Zen Center had these houses across the street. One apartment was empty. His wife Okusan was in Japan. Tomoe-san, Katagiri's wife, was somewhere in Japan. We wanted to have breakfast. Suzuki-roshi and Katagiri-roshi, and three of us students went over to the apartment. There was a stove there. There wasn't much to eat. There was no furniture in the place at all. But we had a newspaper. Suzuki-roshi took the newspaper and spread it out on the floor like a tablecloth. He set up cups and a few plates and spoons on this newspaper and placed them very carefully as if it were a palace dining table. He turned the place into an elegant dining room with a piece of newspaper.
DC: Japanese traditional rooms for guests can be very bare. The rooms they're actually living in can be a total mess. Like going into Okusan's kitchen -- things all around. But she's pretty neat. It's almost like the room becomes a dining room because the people walk in and sit in the right way. Eat at a table what's put in front of you, like at Eiheiji. Have you had that happen? They call those o-Zen.
MW: Just the way he stood up and sat down. His body language was his greatest teaching. Also his subtle way of teaching. At Sokoji, we used to do the Robe Chant but in Japanese. I didn't know what it was called even. So I went to him and said "What is the meaning of that chant that we do right after zazen?" Suzuki-roshi said, "I don't know." I stood there and Katagiri-roshi was in the office with us. Katagiri was trying to think about it and he started looking through the drawers looking for some kind of translation and Suzuki-roshi gestured to him not to do that. And then Suzuki-roshi pointed to his heart and said, "It's love."
DC: When I came from studying Japanese I took everything we studied and took it apart and looked at the kanji and did basic literal translations - not like ones we could use but set up with the meanings of the kanji and then the meanings together so that someone else could translate and Suzuki-roshi loved it and encouraged me a lot. Tell me anything that you can remember. Got any magic stories? I've got two good magic stories.
MW: Suzuki-roshi's magic is the ordinary. The reason why people have to use those other kind of stories is because the magic's not in the ordinary.
DC: There are things people say about Suzuki-roshi that come across sort of vague and insipid. Like you'd just sit with him and it'd just be so far out. I appreciate that, but it's not usable, not descriptive. But there's a lot of stuff like that.
MW: There's a way of saying it. I think you have to find the right way to say it. I remember going into dokusan with him and sitting down and he was so present. His presence dominated the room. It's hard to say. People can draw various conclusions as to what they mean. It was his samadhi. If you have samadhi you are wide open. Luminescent. He was very luminous. I think Dick's like that too. I've seen Dick very similar at times. When he was really clicking, he was very luminous too.
DC: Somebody who can be luminous still needs education. Cultivation, maybe is a better word.
MW: Sudden enlightenment entails gradual practice. One of the reasons why Suzuki-roshi was not emphasizing enlightenment was because enlightenment is a beginning. Gradual practice, continuous practice, after enlightenment is necessary. He would say it's not so hard to get enlightened. That's not the difficult part. There must be continuous practice within that enlightenment. They are not separate. that's one thing. Dick could feel enlightenment too, but that's not the end.
_________________________ October 11, 1995
MW: Suzuki-roshi was very critical of the Soto school. He was interested in Dogen Zen more than Soto Zen. But he was a Soto Zen priest and he was very careful on the one hand not to be headstrong and individualistic about criticizing and being disrespectful. On the other hand he was very critical of the Soto sect. Dick said Suzuki-roshi told him it would be really nice if he reformed the Soto school in Japan. (laughter) I can understand him talking to Dick like that and saying the Soto school needs to be reformed and thinking of the long shot of us having some influence in the long run on the Soto school in Japan. My feeling about it is that Suzuki-roshi was not trying to give us Soto Zen. He was trying to give us Dogen Zen but not ignoring Soto Zen cause Soto Zen was the vehicle for Dogen Zen - the forms we have and so forth. He didn't want us to get too mixed up in the Soto sect because he didn't want them to dominate us. He wanted to be careful that they didn't take some kind of control. He wanted us to develop our own way, but not without some respect for where it came from. He said, You will have to develop your own way - the wonderful thing about your practice is your innocence but that's also a shortcoming. He thought they were corrupt. They weren't practicing zazen. They were making their living doing funerals which is something he didn't want us to get into.
DC: I remember that.
MW: He felt that they were off the track as far as practice goes but he also had respect for them. He thought they treated dharma transmission too lightly. They were doing it without the right intention he said and I think he said they weren't doing complete transmission and skipping things and not necessarily doing it for the right reasons. He didn't like it that monks put on suits and shiny shoes and went to work. He said, I never abandoned my robes and I always kept my head shaved. A lot of priests went to work in the city and abandoned their temples and weren't really serious about the dharma - their positions were like jobs.
DC: But lots of temples don't have enough danka to support the priests and they have to work. Rinsoin had lots of danka ((lay supporters).
MW: He thought the bureaucracy of the Soto school was really horrendous and didn't want us to be involved in that kind of bureaucracy. He called it the stinky way and told us he didn't want us to get involved in the stinky way.
DC: Do you remember when that plaque came? Katagiri was there and he threw it in the firewood by the stove in the abbot's cabin during chosan and Ken fished it out. Ken Sawyer got it out of the firewood box.
MW: It's up just outside the door in the zendo. It was authorizing Tassajara for lay people. One time I asked him in a board meeting when this stuff had come up, Are we the Soto school or not, and he said, yes. But he was saying yes to one side. He wasn't answering the whole question. I knew the other side was also there--yes, we're the Soto sect but no we're not. I remember one time coming back from Tassajara, Katagiri started talking to me about Buddhism and he said, This is not Zen or Soto Zen or anything, this is just Buddhism and he was so emphatic about it and I thought, well, why is he talking to me like this, I didn't say anything. I think he and Suzuki-roshi both felt the same way: this is just Buddhism. Yes it's Zen but beneath the Zen is Buddhism and it's not Soto or Rinzai but on the other hand it's Zen and Soto Zen and that's part of our heritage and we should be respectful of what it is and at the same time not bound by it and we have to find our own way.
DC: Do we use the word Soto officially or legally anywhere? MW: Sometimes and sometimes we don't. Maybe in our bylaws or our articles of incorporation - to promote the such and such of Soto Zen as taught by Dogen. We never called it Soto Zen up to a certain time - maybe 1980 or so people started talking about this as Soto Zen and I thought well yeah, but we never emphasized that before - that was not a particular point with us. Maybe it was Dick or Reb - For a long time Dick was so emphatically down on anything Japanese and then at one point he gave this strong Japanese character to our practice so maybe that's when it was - but not when Suzuki-roshi was here or some years after but it started creeping in. Now we've got this contact with the Soto school and they've given some American teachers the designation of Dendo[?] Kyoshi for whatever it's worth and now there's this translation conference in Japan some of us are going to. We may be being drawn into to calling ourselves Soto Zen but I personally feel it's Buddhism. We shouldn't be bound by the Soto Zen designation but more what we think it is and not necessarily what somebody else thinks it is. Maybe it's Tozan's and Sozan's Zen and not necessarily the organization in Japan. In 1970 in the summer after the practice period when I had been shuso, we were planning on me being the ino but Suzuki-roshi came down and he wanted me to be his jisha. So he said, What do you want to do? I said, I think I'd like to be ino, is that a good idea or should I be jisha? And he said, Okay, and it was completely clear that he wasn't saying either. But after a while he said, I think I'd like you to be my jisha. It was like a koan for a while. He'd give me koans like that.
DC: I think he was saying, I've already indicated what I want ,now you choose and that gave you a chance to pick up on his preference.
M; I remember going into his cabin with him and he'd take off his koromo and just drop it on the floor and go into the bathroom.
DC: He'd only do this with some people - with others he'd never do it. MW: One time he called me into his room and he handed me his short kyosaku and said, Will you close the curtain? It was so strange - it had nothing to do with closing the curtain. Just handing me the stick was something. So I used it to open the curtain and handed it back to him and he said no more. It felt like he was testing me but I didn't know how. He wasn't so short that he needed someone to close the curtain for him. Then he left me there. I didn't know if I'd done the right thing or not. That was the way I felt that he tested me and left me with, "how should I act?" He'd take it down to the bare bones of 'how do I do something.' He was always in time.
DC: Are you saying this from the point of view of your being a musician?
MW: Well, I do play music. He was always on the beat. He was never ahead, never behind. He was always walking in time, whatever was going on. He had no anxiety. He always had this feeling of being completely within the activity of the moment. He would approach a chair and he wouldn't just casually sit down - he'd really make contact with the chair - like he was in harmony with the chair. It was very simple but he was always harmonizing with whatever he met and merging with whatever he met. And he always had his balance. So he'd walk in a very easy way but when he would sit down he would remain in balance - he wouldn't lean to one side but he would lean back. He could relax because he was in balance. He could take it easy and be really at ease because he wasn't off balance. He was never in a hurry though things had to be done. He never hurried to get to zazen or to or from the baths. He'd always take the time to do everything. That's being in time. The way he sat down was being in time. His cabin was very simple - there was never anything out that wasn't supposed to be out. It was casual but neat and everything was accounted for.
DC: I remember he had a big set of official Buddhist texts in Chinese.
MW: And the Shobogenzo and some English books that he read, especially at Page Street. He had the straight reddish brown stick and the kotsu and the curved nyoi with the mushroom on the end and then he had several kotsu's - one was roughly carved - it was very rugged looking. I think it had Japanese characters on it. It looked like it had been made with a chain saw -it was a nice stick. The stick he took to the Mountain Seat Ceremony, the shakujo, had writing on it carved in - in English, a poem.
DC: Was that from Alan Watts?
MW: Bill Kwong said that he did the carving. Ask Bill.
DC: SR wanted it to go to Hoitsu. In fact you were there when Hoitsu told us that. Alan Marlowe was working with you as an elevated anja. when you were Suzuki-roshi's jisha at Tassajara.
DC: Yes, the anja has the most contact. The jisha doesn't do that much but the anja is always there serving tea and taking care of the Roshi and Alan being the gregarious person that he was just when in there and took over. The three of us built the creek stone wall by the kaisando. Other people helped too. Ed and I think Reb. Ed did the foundation to the kaisando. We built a tripod out of pipes and there was a block and tackle and Alan and I would go get the rocks and haul them in Suzuki-roshi chose some and we chose some. And the three of us would lift them up with the block and tackle and put them in place. We'd work for hours on a rock to get it in place and Suzuki-roshi would say, no, that's not quite right so he'd take it up again and no matter how much we worked on something we might still have to do it over again. He never left anything that he felt wasn't right. Alan and I would probably have left lots of them . And he was sick and Okusan, his wife, would come over and say, You shouldn't be doing this,- you're too sick. She wasn't there the whole time but she was there enough. It was very hot during the summer and I would take a wash cloth and wet it and put it over SR's head. And he'd take a nap in the afternoon over in the dormitory. He knew that he was sick but he wanted to work on the rocks. He would move a rock with his whole body - he was a thin little guy you know. There was nothing we did that he didn't do. Working with him day after day moving those rocks was a great experience. We didn't worry about being quiet - it was natural - there wasn't any excess conversation - we were just talking about what we were doing - we were always focused on it. He'd work all day and take his nap and take a bath and after dinner he'd work on his lecture and he'd give it that night. There were 12 San Do Kai lectures. DC: I studied the SDK with him and wrote the kanji on the blackboard for his lectures - he wanted me to sit on the altar with him for them but I refused - he insisted but I couldn't stand the thought - it was too embarrassing. And I'd study the lines for each day's lecture for hours. He was happy to see me use my energy in that way. It was better than sitting up drinking and talking with guests though he didn't mind if I did that either as long as it didn't get out of hand - but he loved my studying and told me to keep it up.
MW: I edited the eko lectures and published them in our Berkeley newsletter. He gave them after the SDK lectures. They were specific lectures with a definite subject and I liked the eko lectures a lot. We didn't know much about the service and he gave us a lot of insight into them in those lectures. He and I translated the second eko. Dick dropped it but I use it sometimes.
DC: I worked on those too with him. They're beautiful.
MW: He said that in Japan the jisha is very close to the abbot. He's the eyes and ears of the abbot for the monastery. He tells him what's going on. He takes names for people to see the abbot. He's an intermediary and secretary as well. He wanted me to inform him what was going on but I didn't know anything. A lot of things were going on that I didn't know about. I never told him about people sleeping around or anything like that.
DC: He didn't want to know about stuff like that.
MW: He said, "When I walk around Tassajara, I don't see anything and I don't hear anything."
DC: I think mainly what was going on is that people were sitting very hard and working very hard and they'd go to sleep early and get up early. I know because I was always the last one to sleep - I'd be up studying. Dianne (who later became my wife) and I were sleeping together and I told him so but he said he didn't want to know.
M; I was about the fourth or fifth person who was ordained. Dick was in Japan. You'd never know that Ananda had been ordained - in Japan - but he never wore his robes or acted like he was ordained - he didn't sit zazen but he'd go talk to Suzuki-roshi all the time.
DC: He was shuso though.
MW: Philip was gone by then. Graham was gone in Japan. Bill McNeil was gone before I got there.
DC: What about Bob who was the architect who went to Chicago?
MW: I don't know.
DC: Jean was shuso but she wasn't ordained as a priest was she? She got some ordination in Japan too but I don't know if it was for the priestesshood.
MW: I asked Suzuki-roshi when I was ordained, what should I do? He said, oh, I don't know. I asked Katagiri the same and he said, I don't know. I knew I had to find out something but they weren't going to tell me anything so I just ended up imitating. So I'd watch Suzuki-roshi very closely and do everything just the way he did it which is how he was teaching me. I don't know if my experience is different from other priest's experience because in a way I was an experiment of a priest who was actually there at ZC being taught by Suzuki-roshi who wasn't teaching anything except that I should keep my eyes and ears open and learn from what he was doing. And he told me, "One way of teaching in our lineage is to imitate the teacher - it's called putting your feet in the footsteps of the teacher." He indicated to me that that was how he was teaching me. He wouldn't tell me much and he expected that I would just follow what he was doing and that's what I did. Bill Kwong was ordained after me but Suzuki-roshi made it clear that even though he was ordained after me, he was actually first before me because he'd been there for so long - but he ordained me first. Bill had been practicing for five years with Suzuki-roshi when I came. Suzuki-roshi said, I ordained you first because of your Sangha in Berkeley but you should know that Bill is actually ahead of you. He knew that Bill and I were good friends. He wanted the seniority to be made clear.
DC: That's certainly not done in Japan.
MW: Bill and I acted out all of SR's mannerisms. Bill had a class at Sonoma State and I would come up once in a while and we'd talk to the class together and I took over his class when he was shuso at Tassajara in 71 and one of his students came up to me and said, there's something about you two - you have a certain kind of personality that's very much the same and your mannerisms are the same too." And our speech followed the same pattern too. Both of us were very much tuned in to SR's mannerisms and way of doing things because that's the way he taught us.
DC: Were there things that you learned from him that people wouldn't pick up on as being the same as him?
MW: I don"t know. We were also doing things in our own way. We did a lot of that too. Our own ways evolved. It reminds me of what Dizzy Gillespi said when he was studying trumpet. Roy Eldridge was his model. He said he became Roy Eldridge - he learned everything Roy Eldridge had done and imitated everything he did and then he stepped out and became Dizzy Gillespi. That was his foundation.
DC: Reb did that too. He did it with Suzuki-roshi and he did it with Tatsugami but he acted more like Tatsugami even though it was Suzuki. he was devoted to.
MW: Yeah, I can see there's a lot in common there except Tatsugami was laughing all the time.
DC: Tatsugami is a controversial person in ZC history.
MW: Suzuki-roshi said, sometimes you can't tell the disciple from the teacher. It's also a way of leading someone to dharma transmission. The student absorbs the teacher and they flow into each other's mind.
DC: I didn't do any of this. I didn't think about it or do it unconsciously as far as I know.
MW: I enjoyed Tatsugami a lot. I had a great time with him. I was the shuso for the first practice period he did in 1970. Dan Welch spoke some Japanese and you knew a bit. DC: A few words but Dan spoke quite a bit.
MW: But mostly we sat around and smoked - it was smoking transmission.
DC: He'd blow smoke in people's faces in dokusan.
MW: He was continually smoking and somebody challenged him and he said, oh you know, you can get enlightened by smoking." He was a great chanter and had a great voice for chanting. He formed the doan ryo and all the formality of the monastic practice - the tenzo ryo and the rokuchiji.
DC: There were structures there but they were much less formed.
MW: Totally. And he introduced the duties of the shuso and the rokuchiji (the six officers) little by little. One of the doans was the tenken who took role and looked up people who didn't show up. Nobody wanted to do that. When we said that people were going into the walk-in in the kitchen in the middle of the night, he said, that's simple, just put a lock on the door. What are you worried about.
DC: Take the locks off your minds and put them on the doors.
MW: Peter Schneider argued with him a lot about that. At that time there were the people who wanted to be Zen students and those who wanted a commune and the ones who wanted a commune resented his being there because he represented Eiheiji. Somebody said, do you want this to be a little Eiheiji? I thought, yeah, isn't that the point?
DC: Dianne, Margaret, Bob Schuman - those are some of the ones I can think of who were upset. Wasn't it Bob and someone else who went to Church Creek Ranch and came back late or even the next day and had to do an apology ceremony? That's something else he introduced.
MW: Bob Schuman was in Colorado or something.
MW: In a stopover of his plane in some airport I got this call from him in the middle of the night and he said "Mel, the cops are shaking me down." He didn't have much ID and he didn't have any verification of who he was. He wanted me to identify him for the police.
DC: He fit the profile - that was at the time of the hijacking scare. Bob may have left after that practice period and gone to study with Sasaki in LA. I visited him there.
MW: This is the dividing line where the communalists left and the monastics stayed. It was a turning point in Tassajara life. Tatsugami was real nice to me. He spoke Japanese and I spoke English and somehow we understood each other very well. He'd start talking to me and I'd get his intention. Sometimes I was wrong and had to be filled in but a lot of time I just got what he was saying. It was interesting. And he had this little opium pipe and he had this fine shredded tobacco and he had his hibachi going and he'd take a coal out of the hibachi and light his pipe. I don't think Suzuki-roshi came down that practice period - he just left it up to Tatsugami and didn't interfere. I heard about the other stuff later about Tatsugami trying to take over and all but I never saw any of that.
Tatsugami introduced the Sandokai and the ancestors chant after it and the Hokyozammai. All we did before that was the Heart Sutra three times for service.. DC: Are you sure? What about the Dai Hi Shin Dharani?
M; And at the time we started getting together the English translations for the Heart Sutra. He was instrumental in introducing the chants and Peter Schneider put together the various translations - the first translation of the Heart Sutra.
DC: Really? Are you sure?
MW: Yes. We had never had lay ordination till the end of that practice period except for the one in 63 that Bishop Yamada came from LA to do. Suzuki-roshi had never done it and he'd never done it for the present students. I mentioned it to Suzuki-roshi. I felt there was something needed and said if people had lay ordination I think it would really pull things together in some way. I don't know if that was instrumental or not but a couple of days later he said, we're going to have lay ordination.
DC: I believe it - that's one of the ways he did things - to pick up on suggestions of his students - especially Dick.
MW: And then Katagiri wanted us to sew our rakusu's. Suzuki-roshi would never have thought of that. It was not his intention. It was Katagiri-roshi's master's way - Hashimoto - and he wanted to do that. He talked Suzuki-roshi into it - into sewing our own rakusu and okesa and Suzuki-roshi wasn't that keen on it. Suzuki-roshi had certain loyalties. He never wore that kind of okesa - he wore the current style. Hashimoto and Sawaki Kodo sewed their own. It was called nyohoe (original style) and it was supposed to be more like the original style. Joshin San from Antaiji was Sawaki Kodo style Then Yoshida-roshi was Hashimoto style. Suzuki-roshi always wore the rakusu with the ring in it... And he always wore the okesa that folded over in front on his left side rather than over his shoulder. I never saw him wear the nyohoe.
DC: It would be like going with another school's colors.
MW: But Kat wanted to do it so SR went along with it. And of course so many people liked doing it that he went along with it too. He wasn't that enthusiastic but he assented to it. When I wanted to sew a rakusu and asked him if I should, he said, no ,I don't think so. You're too busy to sew a rakusu." I have sewn one for myself and some that I've given away. My first nyohoe okesa was done by Yoshida-roshi with Tomoe-san - it was the first one, the experimental one. DC: Yoshida had us say Namu Kie Butsu with every stitch. Joshin san did one for me too when I was shuso.
MW: So that's how it all happened.
DC: Reb said that the problem with writing something about Suzuki-roshi is that that's what people will think he was like but I think if we get a big enough archive and various people write various things that there won't be one way he was presented.
MW: SR responded to you according to who you were at the time and to others according to who they were at the time.
DC: Did you ever have a period where he ignored you?
MW: When I'd bow to him on the way out of the zendo at Sokoji, sometimes he'd look in my eyes and sometimes he'd look over my shoulder and sometimes he'd seem to be ignoring me. There were times he was angry at me, especially when I was with some girl. He wasn't angry about Janet. He was a very interesting guy - very liberal. He didn't want to order us around much. Somewhat permissive. That was his way, his style at that time - to be somewhat permissive and not tell you what to do.
DC: Maybe because we were from another culture. But he was very tolerant of Kobun.
MW: His idea about precepts was very strict in that he thought that if you followed the precepts narrowly according to the rules that that was heresy. He was very much attuned to one mind precepts. Just act like Buddha. He'd say to follow the precepts literally is heresy. When Alan Marlowe told him about all the girls he'd been with and asked, Is that okay? Suzuki-roshi said, If you remember the name of each one.
DC: I can tell you stories on both sides. We had the freedom or the burden to make up our own minds a lot but in general we knew we shouldn't be running around screwing each other a lot and I think there wasn't so much of that considering the times.
MW: Just before I was ordained in 1969, SR asked me to come to the zendo at Sokoji There was only Chino-sensei and him and me. And Chino rolled out a line of goza mats all the way across the zendo. Suzuki-roshi sat at one end and I sat at the other end. And he said, "After I've ordained you, I don't want you to have sex for one year." And that was it. That's all he said. Then we all got up and left.
DC: Didn't he give you precepts?
MW: Not at that time. He might have said girlfriends instead of sex. I failed and he knew I did. Then when I was going to Tassajara he came up to me at Page Street and said something like, it'll be nice to go down to Tassajara and be shuso - that was the way he announced it to me. And he said, I know you haven't been 100 percent perfect and he kind of chuckled. I was so relieved to have been forgiven.
DC: When he ordained Dick at Tassajara he showed him the precepts and we hadn't looked at them much.
MW: No, he never did that.
DC: And Dick looked at them and said, I can't say that, I can't say that, and Suzuki-roshi said, just say yes. [Dick doesn't remember it that way now.]
MW: He said to me, we sometimes ordain somebody before they understand what it is And we even give dharma transmission to somebody before they understand - we do that too. sometimes. He asked me what I thought of him transmitting Dick. Just before he went to Japan he saw me at Tassajara and said, "I'm going to go to Japan and give Dick dharma transmission this summer .What do you think of that?". I didn't want to say I don't think it's a good idea but I said, do you think he's ready? And he said, "well, sometimes we give it to a person when they're ready and sometimes we give it to a person before they're ready and hope."
When Suzuki-roshi died it was the first day of the rohatsu sesshin. There was no bell between the first and second period of zazen. I thought this is very strange and then Peter came and got me and told me that Suzuki-roshi had died and we went upstairs and there was Suzuki-roshi lying in the dokusan room with this blanket over him and his rakusu case on his chest. That day people kept coming in and seeing him and paying their respects and sitting zazen. Later we were all upstairs in a room crying - except for Dick. And around ten o'clock, or maybe it was in the afternoon, a hearse came to take him to the mortuary and we put him on a stretcher and carried him to the hearse. He'd taken a bath and lay down and died. I remember picking up his feet and they were bright yellow
DC: They were? I remember him as dark brown.
MW: Or brownish yellow. They embalmed him right away and he was in state in the mortuary and people sat with him.
DC: They should have left him where he was for three days but we didn't know about that then. Just my idea of how to do it - like oryoki.
MW: They wanted him to be accessible to a lot of people. He was there till the funeral. Niwa-roshi came over from Japan and there were the three guys with hats - he and Kat and Kobun? Hoitsu wasn't one of the three.
When Suzuki-roshi had his stepping down ceremony before Dick had the high seat ceremony, he had his shakujo with the rings and rubbed it between his hands and it made that dramatic sound. And before that the only sound was him walking into the Buddha hall. with the jangling of the rings on his staff as he walked. I don't remember exactly what he said. And then he stopped and did that sound with the staff, turning it between his palms, once to the right and once to the left. It was the most final sound I ever heard--like a knife. Time stopped- amazing.
DC: That's the emotional high point of ZC history.
MW: Yeah, it is, it really is.
DC: Anything else about that ceremony?
MW: Suzuki-roshi had asked me to be ino in the city. I really regret that I wasn't able to do that. Dick wouldn't allow me to do anything. Not only that, he asked me to sweep the floor during the ceremony. It was so dramatic and I had such mixed feelings about Dick and such trepiditious feelings that a lot of my perception was colored by that.
DC: Well, a lot of people who didn't allow that kind of feeling felt bad about it later.
MW: Maybe the last time I visited Suzuki-roshi, Okusan was giving him a massage. He was kind of on his hands and knees in a kimono and she was giving him a back massage. And he let out a huge fart - and he turned around to Okusan with this smile and laughed and said, "That's for you." He used to tell Yvonne, you should tell Mel to come and see me more often. But I didn't want to bother him. People say to me that they know I'm so busy and they don't want to bother me and that's exactly how I felt about Suzuki-roshi but he wanted me to bother him. I didn't see him as much as I should have. That was before he was so ill. When Bill was going to Tassajara to be shuso, Bill asked me to take his class at Sonoma State [didn't he say he didn't want his priests teaching like that?] and Suzuki-roshi said, I'd like you to move into the building to be ino and I said I've already made this commitment with Bill and I can't do that. I think that was a big mistake but I didn't want to go back on the commitment but I should have moved into the building because he wanted me to be near him (pausing a lot, having difficulty talking) and I think he was maybe disappointed that I didn't do that because I think he wanted that support or something. I really regret that I wasn't able to do that.
DC: That's sad.
MW: Yeah. That limited my contact with him at that time. There were a lot of questions that I would have asked him that I never got to because I was afraid to ask him, you know. But being in a more intimate situation it would have come up - the things that were on my mind. It was hard to just go in and ask him those things. I never asked him exactly what I should do.
DC: You would have gone to some chosans and then every time you tried to see him he'd be too ill and you may have seen him a few times and you'd have prepared your questions and you'd go see him and say what should I do and he'd say, you're doing pretty good or he wouldn't have said anything. I just want you to feel good. Everyone has regrets about their last days with their teachers and parents and what they should have done that they didn't. Look at Gandhi - He felt so guilty that he made love with his wife instead of massaging his father and then his father died and he felt so guilty and became celibate didn't he - Jesus, lighten up Gandhi.
MW: I remember when he announced he had cancer. Yvonne and Claude and myself and some others. He called us in and announced he had cancer and he said, "I can eat anything I want now." He said, "You don't have to do what I did." He was just talking to everybody. He was letting people off the hook. Like, I did things my way and you should do things your way. And he asked Claude to please stay with ZC. Before the cremation he was lying in state and people were putting petals in the coffin
DC: What sort of flowers?
MW: Maybe rose petals. And then they put the coffin in the furnace. There was a strong feeling of bonding with people and there was a lot of strength. He left us with a lot of strength and they felt good with what he'd left them - that's how I felt. I felt his presence strongly in the building the day he died and after that. There was an ashes ceremony, at Tassajara and a burial under the rock where the disciples put the ashes in with long chopsticks.
DC: I remember Jerome was taken out of that line because he wasn't ordained - it was horrible. I was in that line and then Jerome was out of it. Who's priest and who's lay?
MW: Then we scattered the rest of the ashes on the mountain. What's the name of it? It's where we spread Nyogen Senzaki's ashes. We went up there for a couple of days and prepared the site. I helped to prepare the rock site. We cleared the brush. There was a huge wind that came up that night. We associate this big wind with Suzuki-roshi. It was blowing so hard while Dick scattered the ashes.
DC: I fainted. I fell down - I remember being at people' feet - or was that at Nyogen Senzaki's ceremony?]
MW: Later some of the ashes went to Rinsoin. And much later Bill Kwong went to Hoitsu and asked him if he could have some of the ashes from Rinsoin for Genjoji. He gave them to him but he didn't like having to do that.
DC: Hoitsu doesn't like it when people ask for too much. He says we're into "my way" and that in Japan people enter into the stream.
MW: He's very much my way himself in some ways. Suzuki-roshi was too. When he did something recognizing us, he felt good about it. Hoitsu did too. He went with some of us to the Grand Hotel to the headquarters of the Soto-shu. They own a 15 story hotel and the fourth floor is their headquarters in Tokyo. That's where we meet with them. Hoitsu was with us one time and he was telling them, why don't you recognize these guys and stop trying to control them and he got so much shit from Yamamoto-san. Moriyama-sensei did the same thing. He came charging in telling them to stop treating us the way they do and he got in trouble too and I thought that was really gutsy of both of them. They both have both sides. But when somebody wants to do something in their own way, that's upsetting. He does what he wants at Rinsoin. They try to keep certain things harmonious and they don't violate that but, on the other hand, they have their freedom. So when we violate what they want to be harmonious it upsets them. I have a lot to say about the shumucho but I have to make dinner. Suzuki-roshi would empty his tea leaves and extra tea into his garden at Tassajara. I do that. It's good fertilizer.