Interview with Carolyn Morton

Cuke Podcast with Carolyn 🔊

Carolyn Morton

10/26/95 - Interviewed by DC

See interview with Rick Morton

See their wedding photo with Shunryu Suzuki

What I was so attracted to about him was his presence and the non-verbal indefinable thing he had. I hadn't really seen that before.

I remembered in Japan that Suzuki Roshi said that you should establish a habit of always observing your mind.

I first met Suzuki Roshi in 1968. Probably in the summer. I looked in the phone book to find Zen Center but it took me a couple of years to get there. I was going to the Art Institute and Rick lived around the corner from me in North Beach. We always thought Rick was strange because he wouldn't go anywhere because he had to get up for zazen in the morning and my roommates and I would go pester him. I don't know why I wanted to study Zen but I told him I wanted to try it. I had visited Japan with my parents and was attracted by the feeling I'd get in some places. So finally I got to Sokoji on a bicycle with Rick. It was quite a ride. I usually never got up before 11. I didn't meet Suzuki Roshi then, I just went to zazen. And then I went with another friend to a talk and then everyone was sitting in a circle having tea. I just remember walking in that room and the floor was a beautiful golden color. The light coming in the windows and the floor was so beautiful. I sat down and someone said, that's Roshi's chair and he'd just come in and I got up and was embarrassed and he said no no that's okay but anyway I moved. So that's how I met him. It was like coming home. Not that I ever felt comfortable at Zen Center particularly on a social level, but inwardly I felt some recognition. I still get that feeling if I go to Tassajara and go in the Zendo, like I've forgotten this place in myself. I don't remember what Suzuki Roshi talked about. He was small and elfish. He had a sort of twinkle in his eye. He was very nice about me sitting in his seat by mistake and just laughed.

I usually just went to evening zazen because it was too difficult for me to get there in the morning. We had to walk out through his office and bow to him and I'd get paralyzed. It was real irrational but I'd get petrified about having to bow to him. I did bow but it was hard and I felt really embarrassed. Sometimes I felt my fear was pretty obvious. I felt the same way in dokusan - petrified. So he had me talk to Katagiri because he knew I couldn't talk to him very well. I did continue going to dokusan with Suzuki Roshi but it was much easier for me to talk to Katagiri. I felt bad that I was so petrified. And it remained constant.

I didn't go to zazen so regularly. I did go to a one day sitting and that was pure torture for me. I also went to a seven day one and I got carried away by the whole thing and asked him if I could go to Tassajara and I heard that those who decided said I shouldn't go because I wasn't sitting enough and I heard that Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Sensei said I could go. I felt an acceptance from them that I didn't get from others. I got to be friends with the people I lived with in the apartment across from Sokoji when I lived there, but generally it was pretty forbidding. Zen Center was not too welcoming. It was a kind of inward thing that people were doing.

I went to Tassajara in 1969 or 70. You were there and a bunch of people we know. Suzuki Roshi was getting pretty sick then but I do remember that it was a lot harder than I expected. Tangaryo (initiatory days of sitting almost all the time) sort of turned my mind upside down. I was so disoriented by it.

After that Ed Brown was teaching me to hit the bells and stuff and I couldn't get it straight at all. On the alter one day during service I was hitting the bells on the raised altar and I was doing it all wrong and Suzuki Roshi got angry and jumped up and grabbed the mallet away from me and started doing it himself and I was completely humiliated and upset by that and angry. But I wasn't doing it right.

He married Rick and me in 1970 in the summer at Tassajara. He'd said to us, do you think you should be getting married? I thought, oh, he must think this is a marriage made in heaven and years later I thought why did he do that? We went to Tassajara as a couple and were living together. I guess he thought it was time. I remember him telling other people not to get married. I remember several women being upset and crying about that. Marian Derby said she was hearing all this hysterical crying from people who were crushed when he told them not to get married.

I remember at a shosan ceremony that Suzuki Roshi was wearing an incredible robe all yellow with the top hat and a hair whisk. I was goggling at the way he looked. He looked like some kind of magician or something. Tassajara was like being completely removed from the culture, the century we were in and everything.

After Tassajara we went to Page Street and lived there for a year and a half. I remember Suzuki Roshi coming into the dining room and he was so dark, his skin was dark grey. He seemed so fragile and was really really sick and I knew he probably wasn't going to recover from that. I felt very sad. He wasn't eating there - he was just saying hello to people.

He wouldn't answer my questions. I don't know if he did that to other people too. If I saw him in the hall and asked him something, he didn't really answer. They'd be questions about my practice that I guess weren't very important but seemed important to me at the time. He just didn't say anything. He didn't answer. And I remember that at my wedding too. I was sitting next to him at the meal that followed and drinking a bunch of Champaign so I was probably more verbal than usual. I was talking to him and he just didn't answer me. But it wasn't mean. He just didn't say anything. It didn't make me feel bad. I was puzzled. It wasn't hostile. It was enigmatic I guess. Later I thought he may have been teaching me. He was looking at me, I had his attention. It was deliberate.

Even in dokusan I had a hard time thinking of something to ask.

One day at zazen at Sokoji - I hadn't been sitting very long - he came and adjusted my back and I felt a new energy circulating through my body like an electric current. He touched me very lightly - my lower back on the left side and pushed it in a little bit and he touched my shoulder blade on the right side and drew in back a little bit. I've got one shoulder higher than the other - I've never been able to get over that.

DC: So what do you think was Suzuki Roshi's teaching.

For me Suzuki Roshi's teaching was to draw myself more and more into the present but I don't think what his teaching was - it's more inward on a non verbal level. I couldn't say what it was exactly. What I was so attracted to about him was his presence and the non-verbal indefinable thing he had. I hadn't really seen that before.

I always liked Katagiri a lot and later he seemed to grow so much as a person and those qualities became strong in him.

We went to Japan in 75 and came back in 78. We lived in a samurai hut, a very old fashioned place near Daitokuji. It was an old house that a nursery school owned. My son was diagnosed as autistic in Japan but they told us more when we got back here. It took us a while to notice it there. It's kind of weird but they never said anything to me at the nursery school about his strange behavior. That's so typical. There was a day when the parents had to go watch the kids do stuff and I was just in shock because he was doing real strange things with his hands that he didn't do at home. He was very hard to live with but it came out more in a nursery school setting. Now he's been through a lot of special ed classes, he's twenty-three and he's doing better than I would have predicted.

I remembered in Japan that Suzuki Roshi said that you should establish a habit of always observing your mind. I was under so much stress and I remembered that and somehow I'd developed this ability to do the things I had to do with Ethan twirling around and jumping all over the place - he was so incredibly hyperactive and repeating the same thing over and over - he'd say the same thing maybe 100 times and it kept me from going crazy just to watch my mind. But it was better when we came back because in Japan they'd pretend nothing was happening and in America people would deal with it and talk about it.