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2012 Interview with Jim Morton

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1995 interview with Jim Morton

Interviews with Rick Morton and Carolyn Morton

He was the first person I had met in my life who I didn’t feel was trying to sell me something, or convince me of something, or show me anything about himself.

In Japan I’ve never been to a place as good as Tassajara to practice. It is a very wonderful place.

Jim Morton
interviewed by DC
At his brother Rick's cabinet shop in Sausalito, CA.
Rick was there too.
September 2012

DC: This is Jim Morton, in Sausalito, visiting from Kyoto. What’s happening in Japan as a result of Fukushima, from your perspective?

JM: Yeah it’s an interesting situation. The Japanese reaction to it is really different from what Americans would be. Japanese are so -- they live and think and feel in patterns, much more than we do. Fukushima was a disaster -- the tidal wave, and the reactor disaster, is beyond imagination, really. 25,000 people wiped out by this inky wave, within minutes.

DC: Do you know who Moriyama is, was? He ran Sokoji after Suzuki left. Anyway, he is one of those teachers who had Western students. He is missing. He was in Northern Japan, and he has never been seen since the tsunami.

JM: I can believe it. There are all these little villages -- it’s all mountainous -- in Japan most of the population lives in these little deltas, these little alluvial plain areas along the seacoast. Even Osaka and Tokyo are very large versions of the same thing. So when this tidal wave hit that area -- they form like a funnel, so as the wave went inward, it was squeezed in between the mountains, and the level went up and up and up. The water level. I was looking at Yahoo news on the computer from America, and I saw the announcement from the States before I heard it on Japanese media. Because I don’t have a television any more. So minutes after the earthquake hit and before there was any report of the tidal wave, the magnitude of the earthquake was so huge, it just really astonished me.

DC: What was it?

JM:  Almost 8, or something like that. Their scale is a little bit different than the Richter scale. But anyway it was the strongest earthquake recorded since that type of seismic scale in use. I knew it was going to be a disaster, and then the reports of the magnitude of the disaster kept coming in. I got most of my information right off the internet.

The Japanese reaction to that type of thing is so different from Americans. Very calm about it. They don’t emote very strongly, as you know. So on the surface, life seems to have continued going on the same way, although the news was filled with only that for weeks and weeks. Even now, every day in the newspapers there are radiation level reports, with a target around the Fukushima reactor.

DC: I see stuff on the Internet that is predicting more dire results.

JM: Yes. But you get more honest reporting from America than you do from Japan because they don’t want people to -- there’s nowhere to go! People have to live with it.

DC: There is a strong anti-nuclear feeling in Japan...

JM:  Very strong. There are anti-nuclear demonstrations with thousands and thousands of people that are almost not recorded -- barely mentioned in the national news media.

DC: We’ve had that here, like with the anti-Iraq war demonstrations -- in America they were giant, and San Francisco media hardly carried. Biggest demonstration I ever saw in San Francisco. It was the largest demonstration in the history of the world, worldwide. But I’m sure Japan can beat us in denial!

JM: Yeah. But life continues. There is no visible change in the pattern of life at least where we are.

DC: Has the radiation affected Kyoto?

JM: It hasn’t changed the behavior.

DC: I mean is there radiation in Kyoto?

JM: Not that anybody reports.

DC: What about in food?

JM: For a while you could get some vegetables and so forth extremely cheap, because people didn’t want to buy them if they thought they came from that part of the country. But most of that has died down now. Either the food is coming from somewhere else or people are just closing their eyes to it, that’s all. Life just has to go on, you know.

DC: Let’s go back to you coming to Zen Center. When did you first come?

JM: The first time I visited old Sokoji on Bush Street was in the summer of 1966. I was still going to Rhode Island School of Design. Rick had come out here, I think in 1965. We didn’t talk on telephones in those days -- so often because it was too expensive -- so he wrote and told me that he had visited Zen Center and was very impressed with Suzuki Roshi. So I was excited about that. I came out here in the summer of 1966 and stayed out here the whole summer. I went to Zen Center and got instructions in zazen. Then I went back and sat alone during my last year at RISD. But I was absolutely determined to come back and study under Suzuki Roshi. I figured that the direction of my life had been decided from the moment I first crossed my legs and started to do zazen. I had this strong feeling that I had either done it before or -- anyway, I had this feeling that everything in my life up until that time was just like wandering in the desert looking for something. As soon as I started doing zazen I knew that was it. That was what I was supposed to be doing in life. I felt like I had come home, in a sense. I had a rather interesting -- it all started with LSD, as it did with Rick. I had a powerful experience with that. At one point I was walking down a path in this bird sanctuary where we went, in Rhode Island. There was a turn in the path and right at the turn in the path there was a flat stone that a tree or bush was arching over, making a little alcove. I sat in there and crossed my legs, for some reason, even though I knew almost nothing about Buddhism. I crossed my legs in lotus posture. At that moment this tremendous force seemed to come rushing up out of the earth through me. That was the first time I had any idea that there was any relationship between that experience and meditation. I felt that the lotus posture was the key to enormous  power.

Anyway I tried LSD a few more times but I realized that it was not going to go anywhere. Everybody gets one good peek, if that, but going back for more and more peeks didn’t lead anywhere; just kind of voyeurism, looking in from the outside, over and over again. 

As I was growing up, we had a really nice childhood in Vermont. But after I got into high school I sort of lost my ambition to do anything. All the things that I was told by my teachers and my parents and so forth that I ought to try and want to be, didn’t appeal to me at all. We were always drawing pictures. I was good at art. I went down to Rhode Island School of Design, where somebody in my neighborhood was going. Our art teacher in high school that we respected a lot went there. I saw all these people walking around with paint all over their clothes, wild hair and everything, and I thought, Wow, this is for me! [laughs]. I got very different ideas about art once I got there. I wanted to be an illustrator but once I went there and started learning about Picasso and Matisse, Paul Klee and people like that, I thought that was the direction to go in.

I suppose it did feel a little bit unsatisfied or empty. But once I had that experience with LSD I realized that there was something infinitely more valuable to pursue than that.

Then after that, my best friend in RISD took an English course from a temporary English teacher there that he said had spent some time in an ashram in India. My friend heard from his teacher that the teacher had -- it was one of these temporary teaching jobs; he spent a couple of years at that college. But this teacher had spent a little time in India. I got my friend to introduce me to him, and I asked him about meditation. I had no idea about mediation. I thought Yoga and Zen were about the same thing. I know Zen is a kind of Yoga, but I didn’t know one from the other. I read Alan Watt’s The Way of Zen. It didn’t mean anything to me; just nonsense. This guy started asking me questions. Well first of all he invited me up to his office and said, Let’s talk about it. He was say, What would you do that only relates to us right here and now, and not to anything else? Nobody had ever asked me a question like that before. It was like a koan. It turned out later that I was making my own interpretations of his questions that were really beyond what he intended.

So he kept asking me. I couldn’t think of what to say that related only to the two of us sitting there at that time and had no connection to anything else outside of that room at that moment. Finally I just took his hand, to shake his hand. And he said, OK, what would you do next? So I took his other hand. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I found out later, many years later, when I was doing koan practice in Tofukuji, that that is what koan practice is like.

Little by little this way we developed a kind of style of meditation in which both of us would perform these motions, taking each other’s hands in different forms, crossways, this way and that way. We would do this all night, maybe once or twice a week, do this all night until daybreak. It was rather intense. But I found that if I held one position for a long time, like half an hour or an hour, holding his hand, this way or that way, with no particular -- he wasn’t gay, and I wasn’t -- actually I felt rather uncomfortable doing that, but I felt at the same time that doing something uncomfortable and crossing some barrier, the barrier being aversion to anything of a homosexual nature, or that kind of implication, somehow breaking through that type of barrier was a part of it, seeing this act as completely neutral, an act with no other meaning except the act itself.

Anyway, for the first time in my life I also conceived of the idea of an act that had no other meaning except the act itself. It was not for something. I never thought of the possibility of such a thing except for an accidental act. Acts are normally for something or to accomplish something. But an act where the entire meaning and purpose of it is in the act itself, nothing outside of it, before or afterwards, that was the first time I had any inkling of such a thing. But I found out that if I held one position for a long time, half an hour or an hour or so, that some kind of marvelous power started arising in my psyche, in my feelings, my mind, consciousness. So I didn’t really want to change as much as this other guy did.

That was in January or February of 1966. It was maybe around April or so that Rick wrote me about Zen Center. I was very interested in going there. So after school finished I drove out to the west coast with a friend who was driving his little sister to some dude ranch in Wyoming, and we finished driving across the country. I stayed there in San Francisco. Rick was living in North Beach at the time, going to the Art Institute, working in the shipyards, part time. So I did that too. And went to Zen Center and got instructions from Katagiri Roshi [sensei at the time]. I met Suzuki Roshi -- I listened to him talk once or twice, but I didn’t get a chance to go there that often. But I did get instruction directly from Katagiri Roshi. I knew I had to go back to school. Rick had mentioned that Suzuki Roshi said one time that it is very difficult to do zazen by yourself. I took this very seriously. I thought, I have to go back to school but I want to continue doing zazen. So I asked to see Suzuki Roshi. It was the first time I talked to him personally. One thing that impressed me very deeply about talking to him is that he was the first person I had met in my life who I didn’t feel was trying to sell me something, or convince me of something, or show me anything about himself. This really had an impact on me. I had never met such a person before.

I felt really really nervous talking with him. I just said, I have to go back to school and I wanted to try to do zazen by myself. And he said, You can do it. Which surprised me, because Rick had already said that he said zazen was very difficult or you shouldn’t try to do zazen by yourself or something like that. So I took this very seriously. I did go back and sat a little bit now and then during the last year of RISD. I had very strong experiences while I did that. Like I would see things, I would have hallucinations. One time I thought I was on the verge of leaving my body and it scared me so much that I came out of that.

After I graduated, my friend was driving out to California again but I couldn’t go with him because I had to see my draft board. So I flew out. It was my first airplane flight.

DC: What happened with the draft board?

JM: I was going to apply for a conscientious objector status, but they said no. By that time the government had already said Enough of this nonsense. The only way you could get away with conscientious objector was if you were a formal member of a -- you had to be a Quaker, or --

DC: Zen Center had COs. But they weren’t doing it for religious reasons -- they were Tassajara Fire Department. Like Ed Brown and some others.

JM: I was a kind of groundbreaker. Later on, in January of 1968 I had to take my Army physical in Oakland, but it turned out I was able to convince them I wasn’t what they wanted. At that time the anti-war movement had gotten really strong. I got to see the psychiatrist and he was very sympathetic, he said, You don’t have to go, and he gave me a psychological deferment. My draft board was obliging, too. They just sent me a letter saying, Is your problem cured? and I said No, and I got a 4-F status. But that was kind of an experience, going through the Oakland induction center, in 1968, at the height of the hippie period. That is another whole story. I found out then about the dark side of the ego. The ego has two sides to it: one, all the things that you want to be, and that you want people to think you are. But the other side of that is everything that you are afraid that you are and that you have bad dreams about being. You can only summon this side of your ego under extreme circumstances. That was a pretty extreme circumstance. So I made myself into the worst thing I was afraid I might be.

Rick: I did the same thing. That is exactly how I got out, too.

DC: Me too.

Rick:  It took me two weeks to stop feeling horrible about myself.

JM: Me too. It took a couple of weeks to get over it.

Rick:  Every minute I felt this wall that I had hit myself with.

JM: When I got back -- I don’t know if the first training period had already started -- when did it start?

DC: July 4, 1967.

JM: When I came back in 1967, after graduation, I flew out. I was here before it started, and Rick went down. I continued living in his apartment on Mason Street, in North Beach. Right down near Fisherman’s Wharf. I used to bicycle. It was so interesting. I still have a scar here on my eyebrow -- I think the first day I wanted to go to zazen, after I arrived, I was sleeping on the floor of Rick’s room, and the alarm went off. I was so anxious to get there and do zazen early in the morning, I was in a sleeping bag or something on the floor, and I hit my head on the table, and I still have the scar from that. This scar is the badge, my memorial or whatever, of my first day to go to Zen Center.

This is kind of a typical story from those days. Pedaling my bicycle through that long tunnel -- the Broadway tunnel -- to get from down there up to Bush Street, it was early in the morning and all this fog was swirling around, and I saw this one solitary figure walking along the sidewalk through the tunnel, way in the end. I was still half asleep, and I was riding along the sidewalk -- it is a raised sidewalk with a railing on it -- it is too dangerous to ride on the roadway -- I was looking at this figure and wondering who could be walking around at that time of the morning, in the cold and the fog. When we met, he was a friend of mine from Rhode Island School of Design! Howard Hastings in the sculpture department. We weren’t even surprised to see one another. I said, Hi Howard! Everybody was going out there at that time; it didn’t seem so strange to see him there.

So I sat there, as much as I could, all through the summer. I had no idea how to look for work. I went to the employment office, and they sent me here and there. I got a little bit of temporary work. But as time went on I started getting very anxious. I had no idea how to look for work or what I should do. No experience with it. I was teaching guitar in a little music store on Union Street --

Rick: Marina Music, on Union and Laguna.

Jim:  I got all my ideas from Rick. Working in the shipyards and everything. But when Rick was away in Tassajara for the first training period I was on my own. Anyway this housewife that I was teaching guitar to asked me one day if I could handle woodworking tools. I said, Yeah. I grew up using those things. She said her husband had a custom furniture shop near there and was looking for a helper. So I went in. The guy said, Here’s a little job for you to do, over at this workbench, plane this wood and do this and that. He watched me while I was doing it. Not standing over me -- he was doing something himself, but he kept his eye on me -- didn’t say anything. Later on he called me and hired me.

I had a kind of anxiety attack, I put so much pressure on myself. Everything that I thought I could be or wanted to be, or ought to be, while I was in college -- I found I was totally powerless to make any of that happen. I started feeling horrible. In August there was a sesshin at Zen Center, and that was my first sesshin. I thought, this is a chance for me to break out of this. I had no idea what an anxiety attack was and I had no idea that you could take drugs for that kind of thing. It was really awful. I would feel fine when I would wake up in the morning, then when I would remember about the anxiety, the anxiety would come back.

I did the week sesshin at Zen Center. I went up there every day and sat all day. It was really excruciating pain for me. A one week sesshin. Really painful. But I just sat as hard as I could. I tried my best to endure the pain. I had no idea what zazen was about, really, but I just tried to do it. It is hard for me to remember so clearly, but suddenly in the midst of this pain that seemed unendurable in a way, I suddenly had the idea -- the image of a thread or a string appeared in my mind, that if I pulled on it, psychically at least, in my imagination, it might lead me somewhere. So I followed it. I haven’t thought about these things for years and years, so it’s hard to remember exactly how it happened. I felt that some door opened. I entered into a place in which, if I just balanced, kept my mind in balance, like walking on a tightrope or something, then the pain was endurable. It didn’t become numb or anything like that, but the panic wasn’t there. The pain was just the pain; it was the same pain, but the screaming inside my head, the panic to escape from that situation, calmed down. I found if I kept my mind balanced, like balancing an egg on the end of your finger or something, and kept my concentration right in that moment, I could do it.

Once I got the idea, the idea of balancing my mind in that way, like balancing a ball on your finger, or the edge of a knife, it was then that the feeling of some kind of a door opened. This interesting, powerful feeling emerged and started appearing in my zazen. But that day, after the last period of zazen was over, something in my mind told me that I wasn’t going back the next day. When I got back home, they told me that the cabinet maker had called and wanted to hire me. So I didn’t go back to the sesshin; I went to work for him.

So that was my introduction to furniture making. I had no experience working at a job. I thought working at one job for a couple of months was a long time, in those days. As soon as the training period was over, and most people came back, I heard that people were going down there for work weekends. So I started going to Tassajara for a few work weekends.  That was the first time I went down there. It was a rather frightening experience. That photograph in Crooked Cucumber that you say was in the first work period, I am standing in the back row, that was one of the work weekends.

DC:  I’ve realized that because of some of the people who are there -- Niels is in it.

JM: There I am in the back row. Then I went down -- I got Rick to replace me at the furniture shop and I went down to live at Tassajara.

Rick: And that’s why you’re here today.

DC: What is the name of the furniture shop -- is it that good, high-quality one -- Paul Rosenblum worked there later? What was it called?

JM:  Gatti. Furniture by Gatti. Actually on the way from the airport this time, we had to pick up something from near there that he ordered from a glass shop, so we visited him. We are still on very good terms.

DC:  He is still there?

JM: He is not in the same shop -- he is still in the City, making great furniture. We are still very good friends.

DC:  How old is he?

JM:  70-something. He would be 77; I am 67.

DC: So you went down sometime in Fall 1967? There wasn’t a practice period until spring.

JM: That’s true. I went down there to live in maybe October, beginning of October. I didn’t work at the furniture shop very long, because I felt like doing zazen was what I was born to do. I felt extremely, in a sense desperate, to continue my practice. I thought there is nothing else in life for me than that. That is all I wanted to do. I had no idea what I might do with it, or what it might lead to.  I was compelled to continue this practice and follow this way. This experience that I had during the first sesshin just fired my desire even more strongly. That experience that I had in the August sesshin was not just becoming able to sit with and endure pain. It was something that opened up my whole mind, in a way that continued even after I went home.

Actually, it wasn’t the same day -- after it first started happening, there was another day that I sat, in which the entire day was like that and it became even stronger. I felt like my whole mind had opened up. Then the furniture maker called and I had to stop. So I felt I had to continue; I had to follow that up no matter what. No way that I could not do that, no way I could stop. So I went down to Tassajara.

Zazen was always physically quite difficult for me. Was never comfortable; always painful. I tried to sit in full lotus as much as possible. But like everybody, once I got to Tassajara and got more used to the practice, there was temptation to just sit and think poetic thoughts. Psychologically living in Tassajara was so much easier than living in the outside world. I could see that a lot people, in spite of the difficulty of doing zazen, a lot of people would like to stay there and stay there just because of that.

Then Rohatsu sesshin came up, and the same thing started happening again, in exactly the same way. That’s what I described to you on the telephone [see link top and bottom to 1995 interview], that you put on the internet. Should I repeat that?

DC: Whatever you wish.

JM:  The same thing started happening in the same way. It started as a means of coping with the pain, then something opened up again. It was much clearer this time. I was able to do it much better. I asked for dokusan, and I told Suzuki Roshi about it. He didn’t say anything, just Mmmmm, yes, OK. I told him that zazen was like standing on your head -- it was something that was simple to do but you couldn’t do it very long. I told him it was like balancing a ball or an egg or something like that. He didn’t seem to have any reaction to what I said. He just let me talk on and on and just nodded and nodded. Later, the same evening, in his lecture, he said You know somebody said today that zazen was like standing on your head. This is very true! I almost fell off my zafu.

That feeling continued too. It wasn’t just a temporary means of dealing with the pain; it was something that enveloped me completely. It continued all day long. I felt like I was in some kind of an energy flux, very high. During some afternoon work period during sesshin, I was listening to somebody talk, and this guy was saying something, blabbing something. I listened to him and I sensed that there was a kind of barrier between himself and actual experience. That what he was saying, his words and his feeling, his expression, there was this gap between actual experience and his thinking. I had the feeling that this is the source of human suffering, this gap, this separation. I told that to Suzuki Roshi. I said I think I can understand why people suffer. He said that it was very good to see that. He told me that this kind of experience is very good because -- he said, Now you know where to put your effort. And during his evening teisho at some point, either that evening or another evening, he said You hear about enlightenment experiences. Or you read about them in books. Well, we have them here, too. Maybe he was -- at the time I thought everybody -- I thought Dick Baker and Peter and everybody had had these experiences too. I thought this is just what zazen is about; I didn’t think it was happening just to me. I felt that what was happening to me was extremely important, but also that this is what everybody went through when they practice zazen. I thought that Tim Buckley and Peter Schneider and Dick Baker and all of these older students that I was in awe of, that they all had the same experiences. I didn’t find out until later that they didn’t, necessarily.

After that sesshin, I thought I had really achieved some kind of enlightenment or something. But then after the sesshin was over, day after day this feeling started receding. I tried desperately to hold on to it, and as a result fell into another panic attack, just trying to hold onto that experience. Suzuki Roshi never gave me any intimation that it was temporary. He never said anything about it one way or the other except when he told me that now I know where to put my effort. I told Suzuki Roshi about my anxiety problem, and he said, Have you been working on a koan? I barely even knew what a koan was; I was amazed that he thought I might be working on a koan, and fell into a state of anxiety.

Anyway, I got over it on my own. I stayed down there through the winter. I had to go up for my Army physical in January.

DC: You stayed at Tassajara through the winter?

JM: Yes. You were there too. That was an interesting winter. I kept sitting, and my sitting kept getting stronger and stronger; more powerful feeling in my zazen, little by little, I got better at it.  The next important thing that happened to me, the next turning point in my practice, was during the first sesshin in April?

DC: April would be the end of the training period.

JM: OK. Now they have cabins up there, but there is that little flat area, you have to climb up a steep path, now they have stone stairs up there. That was one of the few places that got any sun. I was up during break time, in the morning -- you were there too at that time, in the same place --

DC: You just mean Rick was at Tassajara.

JM:  Yes, he was at Tassajara at the same time. I think both of us went up there. I had a realization that –suddenly it struck me that everybody tries hard when they are inspired or they want something -- they get pumped up by a book they read, or they got excited by a lecture, or something, and then when their excitement went down they stopped making an effort. I got obsessed with this idea. For the first time it occurred to me that you could make an effort completely independent of outside desire. Just make an effort, without any purpose. That was kind of a revelation to me. Making an effort just to make an effort, without being inspired, without being fired up. I had a clear picture of how people try hard when they are excited and when they want something, when they are stimulated by a lecture or teisho or book, but when this inspiration went down, then they drooped. I thought, Why does it have to be this way?

So when I went back to zazen, I could sit zazen much better. I decided to just make an effort to make an effort, completely independent of any idea or excitement or inspiration. I was able to sit very stably. I didn’t have to be excited; I didn’t have to have any ideas about beauty or getting somewhere. I just made an effort to make an effort.

Then I continued practicing, as the months went by, the feeling in my zazen got stronger and stronger. In June of 1968, came the experience I described to you before, on the telephone [see link top and bottom to 1995 interview]. The feeling in my zazen got so strong that I felt that something was going to happen; some change, something had to develop or happen soon. So I wanted to do zazen every single chance I got, whenever I had a moment free. One day I was planning to go on a hike with Peter Schneider and Tim Buckley. When you printed the interview you said it was Rob Gove but it was Tim Buckley. They had some responsibilities -- they were both officers and they had something they had to do before we went. So I decided to sit in my room in the dormitory. I went back there this time hoping that the dormitory was still there and I’d be able to see the same wall that I saw before! But the building had been completely rebuilt.

DC: What dormitory? You mean when you just went.

JM:  Yeah. I sat on my bed and started doing zazen looking at the wall. As I told you before, a circle of light, something like a soap bubble appeared on the wall in front of me. I had the feeling that this was my mind, that this contained my mind. This luminous circle started rising, and when it rose above the level of my head, I was able to see everything, see reality, see the world in a way that I never could possibly have imagined before. It was completely free of any trace of mind, or idea, or thought. It was beyond time and space. Like totally untouchable.

I had never imagined such a thing before. Nobody could, because it is unimaginable. It is something totally outside of normal human experience. That way of looking at reality is infinite. It’s all the things you ever hear about in the sutras and so on. Without marks, ungraspable, unthinkable. You can’t hold an idea of it in your mind, all you can do is see it, feel it. It’s also not an experience. We are used to having experiences. But they are all kind of the same in that they all involve our feelings, and we have some memory of it that has something to do with the experience itself. But this is something of a totally different nature. But there was no feeling of ecstasy or anything accompanying it. I didn’t feel like I was high. There was no feeling of particular serenity, or ecstasy, or transport [?] of any nature. Just the fact that it was a vision of reality that was beyond imagination, beyond thought, unmarked by any trace of thought at all, was so interesting, and compelling. Even though I had no particular feeling about it at all, no feelings of happiness or power or greatness or anything, still this aspect of it was so amazing. The first person I talked to about it was Chino Sensei. I had no way to describe it, but I tried and tried to describe it. He said, Many strange things happen to you when you do zazen, and you shouldn’t pay any attention to them. Just continue your practice.

Then I would try again to describe it, and he would say something of the same nature. Then he started to describe the way zazen should really feel. He said the way zazen should really feel, you should feel like this, this energy is flowing through your whole body, things like that. He started describing the experience just the way I had -- and I said you just described what I have been feeling. We talked about it more, and finally, he apparently accepted that what happened to me was not just a type of hallucination, like I had actually experienced earlier when I first started practicing. Finally he told me, well, you should have no more problems from now on. I had lots of problems in my life, but none of them were concerning zazen. In a sense, it was a kind of opening, or a tear, a tear in the curtain of thought that envelops all of us, a little rip. So from that time on I have always been aware of a place in my mind that is completely free from fear, free from suffering, free from egotism, free from elation, free from all feelings, good and bad. Just totally free. The feeling -- my awareness of that place -- I felt that being aware of that, I was indestructible. Nothing could happen to me that could destroy me.

I’ve had all kinds of terrible experiences in my life, most of which were caused by me. But since that time that has always been the basis, the foundation of my psyche. And it has grown. That was just a tiny, tiny pinhole at that time, and it has continued to grow and grow and grow. Until, for almost how many years now, 45, 46 years since that experience, 44. I am aware of it all the time; not just zazen. It has just become my everyday life. Though I feel like -- I don’t feel particularly enlightened or anything, but my life is happy and satisfying. I don’t feel that zazen is a separate or special activity anymore. It’s more like to sit and do zazen is turning up the volume rather than something entirely different.

Another aspect of that -- after I continued to mature a little bit, I mentioned to Chino Sensei that -- he was my main confidante in this business, I felt like he was easier to approach or talk to than Suzuki Roshi, who was always more remote and awesome, hard to just simply chat with. I mentioned to Chino Sensei one time that I thought that as your attainment deepened, one aspect of deepening of a person’s attainment in practice was recognizing the same attainment in everybody else. As with enlightenment, one aspect of enlightenment was seeing everybody else’s enlightenment. Chino Sensei said Yes, and moreover, allowing it. So I never had the feeling, all these years, that I had gotten anything that everybody else doesn’t have. I feel if there is any way in which I can help other people it is only to help them see what they have themselves, not to tell them about something I have that they don’t have. I never have that feeling at all.

DC: So what has happened since then? When did you go to Japan?

JM: After that time -- shortly after I had that experience, let us say -- it wasn’t an experience, but we don’t have words for it so I will call it an experience, rather than experience, it’s an event. It is something that happens to you. It is like a permanent alternation of your psyche. At first the impact of it isn’t very strong but it’s permanent. It doesn’t change, it just deepens or gets bigger. It is an event in the sense like a tree falling or something like that. It is something that happens that cannot be reversed. It is not something that you experienced and you can remember, it is something that actually happens to you, like cutting off a finger on a table saw or something like that. That’s it. It’s done. It’s a permanent change that just continues to affect your life more and more deeply afterwards but never goes away. Furthermore, whether you are drunk or sober, sleeping or awake, it doesn’t change it. Even in your dreams, it has as much effect on you as during your waking life.

Anyway after that I had to save money to go to Japan. For some reason I thought that going to Japan was the natural step -- going into a “real” monastery in Japan. Like it was something I naturally had to do. It is hard for me to say without using Japanese. I felt like Tassajara was just a kind of little league place, for people who didn’t -- just beginners, and the real thing was in Japan. I didn’t realize that Tassajara is actually a pretty wonderful place to do zazen. In Japan I’ve never been to a place as good as Tassajara to practice. It is a very wonderful place.

So I wanted to save money to go to Japan. I went back to working at the furniture shop, and sometimes I would work as a carpenter. Then Suzuki Roshi got sick. I was afraid to go to Japan to myself. Sally Block went to that nunnery -- what was the name of that place near Nagoya? What was his name -- remember that couple -- Ron Browning.

DC: Ron and Joyce Browning.

JM: Joyce Browning went to that nunnery. Sally went there and then she came back. After Suzuki Roshi  died we got married. I didn’t really want to get married, but I was afraid to go to Japan by myself. For some reason, I don’t know why. So we went together.  Suzuki Roshi died in December 1971, right. Sally escaped from that nunnery. She couldn’t stand it; they didn’t do zazen. All they did was go around serving tea to people. She thought it was all BS, so she ran away from there and wound up in Antaiji.

Rick:  Dick Baker actually broke her out.

JM: That’s right. She contacted Dick and he came to meet her and she left with him. That’s right, I forgot about that. That’s how she found out about Antaiji. She was such a fanatic. She got a very bad case of sciatica sitting at Antaiji.

Rick:  You’ve got a long ways to go.

JM: Well, I can’t tell all the stuff that happened to me that time. She thought that she couldn’t sit any more. She wanted to study Buddhism academically, so we both ended up going to the University of Chicago and doing a kind of crash Sanskrit course. Under Stephan _____ [Anaker?]. There is a book on Vasubandhu in the Tassajara library that was written by him. He was my Sanskrit teacher at the University of Chicago. And we audited courses at Berkeley after that for a while. I was working part time at the furniture shop. Finally in March of 1973 we went to Japan. We went by ship from Seattle. We went to Kyoto and stayed with some of her friends from Antaiji for a little while until we found our own place and got some English teaching jobs. I sat at Antaiji as much as possible until Uchiyama Roshi retired and they moved  way up to the Japan seaside, the place they are now.

I had to find some other place to practice. I sat a little bit with Morinaga Roshi at his temple outside of Ryoanji, Daishunin, or something like that.

DC: Did you know Daijo? He might not have been there then; it was a long time ago.

JM: No. We lived near there. I used to jog around that pond every day. Then Sally started practicing in Myoshinji under Yamada Mumon. I used to sit with them down there -- this is one of my great regrets -- I could have done sanzen with Yamada Mumon, one of the most famous Zen masters of the 20th century, and I passed up the opportunity. But I did talk to him. I had an interview with him one time. I said that I –I can’t remember how I put it, that I understood zazen, what zazen was about. He asked me very strictly, Under whom? I said under Suzuki Roshi, and he said Ahhh. I’ve been thinking you were an exceptionally patient person!

Then I met a couple of people who were going up to Hoshinji. ____ told me about Hoshinji in Obama and the Roshi there --

DC:  Harada Seiki

JM: He had just moved there from his own temple, and there were a few foreigners there who had started practicing with him in his temple before he even took over Hosshinji. The interesting thing about that place is because of that foreigners were on the ground floor. Some foreign students came to Hosshinji with Harada Roshi when he took over the temple, so it was probably the first place in Japan where there were foreign monks who had seniority over the Japanese. It made it a much better place to practice for foreigners than there had ever been before, probably, in Japan at all. Daigaku wasn’t there yet; he came a little bit later. He came first to Antaiji, too, and I met him there and later he went to Hosshinji. He came very shortly after I started going up there, then he became a monk and stayed there.

I lived in Kyoto and taught and did zazen either by myself or with Sally and her friends in Myoshinji. I did every sesshin. They had sesshins every month, the first week of every month, six times a year [?]. I did every one of them for about six years. Would just drive up there in my little car

CD: Where? At Hosshinji?

JM: AT Hosshinji. It only took about two and a half hours to reach Hosshinji from my house in northern Kyoto, which wasn’t too bad. I had work that I could get away from. That was probably the most important part of the Zen practice I did in Japan. After Suzuki Roshi, I consider Harada Sekkei my true teacher.

DC: You still see him?

JM: No, I haven’t been up there. I should go. I don’t know if he is still alive. I guess he is. I don’t have a car.

DC: He is. It’s easy to get there.

JM: In Japan, I worked 7 days a week. You get into ruts. People have to make you do things, sometimes. If somebody said, Take me to Hosshinji, I have to go to Hosshinji, I’d do that.

DC: Hey, I’ll do that. I’ll go to Kyoto, and say, Hey, take me to Hosshinji.  I’ve been there. I met him once. In 1988 when I first arrived. Met him and Tangen next door. Mike Jamvold, who you might know, he is sitting at Bukokuji now. He said Tangen is like totally gone. Dementia.

JM: Too bad. I talked to Tangen Roshi on the phone one time, only.

I’m getting the order of things mixed up. During the time I was practicing there, Sally was going to Kobe –she started doing sesshins again in the temple where Yamada Mumon was the Jushoku. Then she wanted to move to Kobe because of that. I just kind of tagged along. We moved down there and lived in Kobe for two years. Then Yamada Mumon became the Kansho of Myoshinji, during the time that we were living there. It was that time I was practicing there. Ach! I got to figure this out... I have completely forgotten. I didn’t realize that I couldn’t remember. Oh I know -- the reason we moved to Kobe was because of the children’s school, it wasn’t her practice. Then later we moved back to Kyoto again --

DC: What children’s school? You were teaching there?

JM: Our children. We had two adopted Korean children. They had to go to high school. There is so much stuff to tell. If I told you everything we would be here until tomorrow. At the time she was sitting at that temple Mumon was already at Myoshinji. His successor was there in Kobe. We lived there in Kobe because of the kids’ school, then moved back to Kyoto. Then I think it was after Mumon died that we came back to Kyoto.

DC: No, Mumon died after I came to Japan. Because he was senile. He didn’t talk for like the last five years of his life.

JM: That’s right, he wasn’t teaching anymore. She studied with his successor in that temple in Kobe for a while. When Fukushima Roshi moved into Tofukuji,  became the head of the training, became the semmon dojo, she wanted to practice under him, so we moved back to Kyoto. That’s the same area I lived where you visited me.

DC: Fukukshima Roshi? was he in Mumon’s lineage?

JM: No. But he just had a reputation so she wanted to study with him. She already know about him. We had some other foreign friends that practiced with him. He was from a temple in the Okayama area where Harada Shodo was.

DC: Wonder what temple that was?

JM: He moved out of there. He had foreign students there, too.

DC: In Okayama?

JM: Yeah.

DC: Wow. Wasn’t much sign of it when I was there. There was just Harada Shodo and his students.

JM: He moved to Tofukuji and became the abbot of the semmon dojo there and later became abbot of all of Tofukuji. But I started studying with him, too, and for five years I did koans with him.

After that, our marriage ended, and Sally came back to America, and I stayed there. I married -- the friends that I met from the Antaiji era started going to the Philippines, and they invited me down there. It was nice to get out of Japan. I was kind of in a tailspin after the end of my marriage with Sally. I decided to marry a young Filipina.

DC: Wait a minute. Is the woman you are married to now her mother?

JM: Yes.

DC: Oh, wow! Right!

JM: I met that woman that you just saw (on Skype), her mother. We bonded instantly. When we saw one another we felt like we had known one another for years. We have always had that feeling.

DC: Are you married to her mother?

JM: Yes, yes. The marriage wasn’t really necessary, but her mother needed a visa.

DC: And she lives in your family home in Vermont? Or she just lives in Vermont?

JM: It’s a house -- Joy and our daughter, her daughter, we didn’t have any children of our own.

DC: Where’s joy? Is she there too?

JM:. No. What happened is, we adopted a daughter of one of her sisters who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, Joy’s sister’s, we raised that girl as our own daughter.

DC: So that’s your daughter and granddaughter! Your adopted daughter and your sort of adopted step granddaughter!

JM: Yeah, something like that. My life is very complicated. Anyway, the two of them -- after that child finished Japanese elementary school in Japan, I didn’t see any point to her going to middle school and high school in Japan.

DC: I understand! So you took her to the States?

JM: Yeah. Joy wanted to go to the States, too. I didn’t know any other place where I wanted to live.

DC: What’s the child’s name?

JM: Holly. Rick and I had a wonderful time growing up in Vermont. The school system there is really good. I called up some people I knew, old neighbors that still lived there, and we decided to go there. At first we rented an apartment, and I went there during my school vacations. I have very long vacations, from the colleges where I teach. I found a house in the same neighborhood, a house that I knew as a child, that I had gone trick-or-treating to at Halloween, and so on. Used to be a watch repair shop there, across the street from my old junior high school and high school. It was a huge house, 19th century house, built in 1867 on a quarter of an acre of land, for only $55,000. We had bought a house in Santa Rosa while my father was living up there. We bought it for $190,000 and kept it rented for ten years, and the rent paid for all the mortgage payments. And sold it for $290,000 ten years later, during the tech bubble. So we had all of this money. We were able to pay cash for this house in Vermont.

Joy started going to college there, to become a nurse. Very intelligent, talented woman. But she decided that she wanted to get on with her life, as she put it, so she hooked up with somebody else and announced that she wanted to divorce me one day. At that time, I was left with this house and all this stuff I sent -- all our furniture and everything, by container, to that house. And Joy just walked out on me, completely, and left me with  this house. So I asked --

DC: But you weren’t living in Vermont? Was she living in Vermont? Joy?

JM: Joy was, yes. Joy and Holly were living there, and I was going back and forth during my vacation time. So she walked out and left me with this big house with all this stuff in it. Which I had collected for the last thirty years. Antiques, art work, and everything, I sent there.

DC: You mean Western and Japanese?

JM: Mostly Japanese. After she left, divorced me, I asked Flora if we could get married, so she could get a visa. I just thought we would continue the same relationship that we had. But she takes the marriage thing very seriously. So I find myself married again.

DC: You said you asked Flora if she would marry you, to help her visa-wise.

JM: Yeah. But she was married to a pretty horrible guy in the Philippines. She had been separated from him for several years. Joy insisted that she get a divorce in America, from him, so she was already ostensibly free from him, even though there is no divorce in the Philippines.

DC: Well we’d probably better wrap it up? Would you like to make a concluding statement? What are you doing now? Are you relating to any temple or teacher or anything like that?

JM: No. Fukushima Roshi -- I would have liked to continue -- I studied there for a long time. But Sally was coming to sesshins and it was very uncomfortable to sit in the sesshin with Sally, you know! So I stopped sitting with Fukushima. And also, at the same time I felt like she was going to a lot of effort to -- she was coming from America, she married some rich doctor, she was coming from America just to do sesshins there. I didn’t want to disturb her sesshins. She was going through a tremendous effort to be there. So not only for me, but for her also, I thought it wasn’t good for us to sit together. At the same time I had this young Filipino that I had to take care of. It is hard to come home from work -- she is just sitting around the house waiting for me to come home from work -- you know, it’s hard for me to say, I’m going to go spend the evening doing zazen. So I just started sitting on my own. Since that time I haven’t had any formal...I just continue to sit on my own. But my knees are in pretty bad shape now so I don’t do a lot of zazen. But that doesn’t mean that I feel in any sense whatsoever that I am outside of Zen, or away from Zen, in any sense. For me Zen is, just as it always has been, my real life, in a sense. I talked one time to Harada [Seiki] Roshi about life outside. Practicing. It started getting really hard for me to come to sesshin because we were living in Kobe and the distance was almost double, the drive up there. His advice to me was, he said, “Zen is like this.” He made a big circle. “Zen is like this, and everything else is like this.” Some little, small portion. That’s been the way it has been for me. Zen envelops everything and includes everything. All other concerns are kind of minor details contained within the great sphere of Zen. Whether I’m doing zazen or not doing zazen, it’s still always the same. It includes my teaching, and my artwork. Part of this story also, I started studying calligraphy here in America.

DC: I went to a show of yours. You did real big --

JM: Real big stuff. I studied under Morita Shiryu for 25 years, until he died.

DC: You would call him a shodo master?

JM: He was a calligraphic artist.

DC: In Japanese you wouldn’t say shodo? What would you say?

JM: No, he didn’t like the term shodo. For him it smacked of traditional Japanese slavish calligraphy.

DC: What did he say if he didn’t say shodo?

JM: Sho. Just sho. [sho = calligraphy, do = way] He was one of the founders of the post-war avant garde calligraphy movement that took kanji as just the starting point of abstract calligraphy. He and his group were in communication with Franz Klein, the abstract painter, post-war abstract painter who painted things that looked like calligraphy; splashy, black and white abstract expressionist works. But that's another whole story. I still do that, too, and continue to get better. But I’m not very good at it yet. But I still keep doing it, like a fool. I can’t stop it; it’s too interesting. Even though I’m not very good at it. I very rarely do anything that I would want to show anybody. Still, it’s such a profound thing. I can’t stop doing it. It’s not zazen, but it’s something like that. My secondary zazen.

So in conclusion. Now, I’m getting, in a few years my college job is going to end because of forced retirement age.

DC: How old are you?

JM: I am 67.

DC: Yeah, me too.

JM: I’m thinking of coming back here, to America. And wondering what to do with myself.

DC: Well, are you going to live with your wife?

JM: Yes. But, for me, my art and marriage and so forth are all kind of secondary things. I’m still wondering what I can do to help other people who want to practice Zen. That’s one of the reasons why I went to Tassajara this time. I find that Zen Center is so big and so set in its ways already that I don’t know if there’s any place for me there.

DC: Well, I don’t know. People use Zen Center both from the inside and from the outside. There’s a lot of people that you know, rent space at Green Gulch, City Center, Tassajara -- have people come down and do workshops in this and that. And there’s a tremendous variety of people there. People who are teachers within Zen Center, that’s a lot more narrow. But even that has a lot of -- there’s a tremendous amount of diversity. But, they still have to go through the Zen Center mill. I don’t think you’d want to do that.

JM: No.

DC: But Zen Center has more -- you know all institutions have their limits and problems, but it’s pretty good. And the thing is, there’s not a single teacher. We have Steve Stucky as the central abbot. But he’s almost like an administrative abbot. There are so many different teacher people relate to, and some people relate to no teacher. I think it’s really good.

JM: I had a chance, after the end of my marriage with Sally, I had an opportunity to enter Hosshinji and become a monk there, like Daigaku. But by that time -- I’ve never been able to really -- I used to believe that I wanted to become a priest. I went to Japan to do that; that was my intention. Over the years, living in Japan, I’ve stopped wanting to be a priest. I’ve always been kind of maverick.

Rick:  Sort of like McCain.

JM: And Sarah Palin, exactly! [laughter]  For better or for worse. I don’t consider that a particularly good thing, I’m just kind of... and also Fukushima Roshi, too. I knew he wanted me to continue practicing there, and he did ask me to come back and practice there. The head monk said one time, he told me that he had been told by Fukushima Roshi that if he had me for twenty years, twenty more years, he could make a great teacher out of me. At that time, I made a gesture like [laughs], with my hands shaking, I said, M-u-u-u. He pretended to reach down for the bell with a shaking hand, and jingle the bell, to reject my answer. We were both imagining me still doing Mu after twenty years! Two old men! But he never told that directly to me. He said that to the head monk. So that was another opportunity that I didn’t take, to become a real, a credentialed Zen teacher.

I’m satisfied with my practice, for myself. I’m completely satisfied with my practice for myself. But I wonder how I can help other people, without having any credentials to point to. But I am working with other people. People like having me around. Japanese and Filipinos and Americans, too. Suzuki Roshi asked me one time what I wanted to do with my life and I told him I wanted to be a zazen teacher. And he said, “Oh, then you must spend many years with your teacher.” I didn’t know why, exactly, but now I do. I know exactly why you have to spend many years with your teacher. To learn how to teach. I thought if you just practiced and deepened your own practice you would naturally be able to teach other people. But I think the style of teaching, the way of teaching, you learn from your teacher. So I never had a chance to -- well actually I did have a chance to spend many years with a teacher but my life was already so complicated that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Also, I was burdened with lots of different talents, and an irresistible urge to practice them. I don’t think I could have stood to just live in a monastery without being able to do -- make furniture and paint pictures and do calligraphy and play music and all these other things. I just can’t stop doing those things. I don’t do them because I want to achieve something with them; I just can’t stop doing them. So I don’t know if I could have brought myself just to live in a monastery and do the straight monastic thing, and get the credentials as a teacher.

So here I am. I would just like to help other people as much as possible but I don’t know exactly how to do it. That’s all. I have no desire to be famous. I have no desire to be thought of as a Roshi. I don’t want to be a Roshi.

DC: I hate that word; so sick of it. I really don’t like the way it’s used in America. Most people don’t use it.

JM: I don’t want to be a monk. I don’t want to shave my head; I don’t want to wear robes; I don’t want to fumble with my beads. I don’t care if anybody knows my name. I don’t want to be famous. And I would be very happy just to continue my own life, just as it is, except that -- if I felt that there were enough other people around that were really -- had deep enough experience to  --

DC: You probably could get a certification to teach from one of these teachers outside of Zen Center like Norman Fischer, or Gil Fronsdal. Meg Gawler got certification from Jack Kornfeld to teach Vipassana, after doing a one month retreat with him. You know, because she had been practicing through the years.

JM: I wouldn’t ever do such a thing.

DC: Well, you were saying you didn’t have certification and I was saying that if you want it you could probably get it.

1995 interview with Jim Morton

Transcribed by Layla Bockhorst Smith January 2013

posted 1-22-13