Interview #1 with Niels Holm

Niels passes on - 9-27-07

Niels Holm Interview II

Niels Holm Interests - Interview III

Niels Holm Home - photos

Oneill's home-cabin

1971 Wedding Photos

photo by DC with cell phone - 4/07

[Niels came to Tassajara drunk as he could be one day in the fall of '67 I think it was. He was a young tall Danish merchant marine who'd also been a carpenter. He lived at Tassajara many years and married Maggie Kress at Tassajara just after Suzuki died. They got an apartment in the city and then bought a home at Muir Beach near Green Gulch Farm. Then she gave him the boot. Niels went on to spend time in Boulder with Trungpa Rinpoche and lived and studied with Walter Nowick in Maine. For twenty years or so he's been living in Port Townsend. He has a zendo there in his home right now. He and I have remained very close. I interviewed him August of '94 in Port Townsend Washington--DC]

I was never that close to Suzuki-roshi and I never was close to any of the Japanese people - none - not Katagiri or any of them. I had that closeness with Walter who had a different style. He was a good teacher but I was very much in doubt with him. Van der Wetering was a student of his.

[Almost everybody starts off by saying I didn't really know him very well or talk to him very much.]

I never could figure out Suzuki-roshi's teaching. I don't know. My teaching was in Tassajara was the community.

When I was an apprentice carpenter in Denmark, there were 11 apprentices and one journeyman which is not really legal - it's supposed to be one to eight but it was a good system because all of the students were teaching their ability to each other. He went down in the rank - he was a good teacher and he was a carpenter. I felt my main teachers were the other students and I got the teaching of the community. I loved the community more than Suzuki-roshi cause he was kind of busy.

He said you put some square wood or stones in a tumbler and they get nice and round. It'll polish the wood and stone. You stir up some problems. Walter always stirred up problems

I wouldn't think of Suzuki-roshi making mistakes or not. I didn't know what we were supposed to do. He was the teacher. And he had no alternative but to make Dick abbot. Anyway, Maggie and I got married right after Suzuki-roshi died. I was jisha at Tassajara when Suzuki-roshi died. I was jisha for a year for all of them. I don't know how I got that position. And I was attendant [benji] to Silas when he was head monk and I was jisha to Yoshimura in the spring. I thought I was the worst one they could pick. People would ask me why did they pick me and I didn't know.

[It's cause you were very responsible.]

Maggie was the anja. One day she really wanted to be a good anja and she went into Suzuki-roshi's cabin and there was this antique iron tea kettle and she scrubbed it with Ajax and steel wool. Oh my god was Okusan mad. It was for tea ceremony. She said, there are three enemies of a tea kettle: water, soap and steel wool. And she didn't shut up about it. And then one day Maggie knew she was standing out listening by the door and she was putting her down - saying how awful Okusan was to Dan and Okusan changed and she was completely nice to Maggie from then on. I never liked Okusan.

I couldn't see Suzuki-roshi as a person. I thought he was very distant. He was closed up to me and didn't show me what he was. I was kind of always in doubt about him and what he was like. I didn't really communicate with him. I was a bad student and I always felt guilty, having this wonderful teacher and I never really got close to him or had any good experience or any bad experiences. With Walter I was engaged right away and very strong. I could talk about Walter for hours and hours but with Suzuki-roshi it was kind of like emptiness or something and I think back and it's just kind of foggy.

I remember Okusan was giving him a massage and he farted right in her face. He just laughed like a kid.

[Harada-roshi in Japan once said when Chisan farted in Tai Chi, that would cool off a love affair of 10,000 years.]

I like to work with him and I was very proud that he'd leave the stones I'd lay down stepping stones for instance. He loved stones and loved to work with them. I thought they were kind of boring. I liked stone walls but I never worked on stone walls with him - I'd help in his little garden there.

Dick was a better teacher to me. He was an older student and there was more of a relationship but I rejected him in the end.

[Have you rejected Buddhism?]

I haven't rejected Buddhism but I'm just bored with it.

[I know what you mean and I feel good about not caring.]

That's why I like Buvoo (Buddhism and Voodoo) because I still like to have religious life but it has to have some form that I like. I would like being possessed of gods - it's more interesting to me than enlightenment - but to be possessed of god - these gods come down, this energy. I think that everyone has religion they just don't admit it. The people who have technology have technogods.

I'm going to go play poker.

[Niels Holm on the San Do Kai on the phone at another time:]

The San Do Kai summer I was there but I was in Denmark when Trungpa was in Tassajara. Those lectures were very abstract and not so interesting.

When Alan Watts came to Tassajara I was Suzuki-roshi's jisha - 71. I went with Suzuki-roshi down to the third stone room to see him and we sat in there and I could feel that Watts was kind of nervous and Suzuki just sat there and looked at him and didn't say anything and I felt his discomfort. So I started talking. I did almost all the talking. They hardly said anything and I felt bad but I couldn't stop talking so the next day I said to Suzuki, I'm sure a bad student, I talked too much and he said, no, you're a good student. He only said a few polite sentences. And Watts kept saying he had to excuse himself, that he was really thirsty and he needed to drink some water and he kept exclaiming how good the water was and I knew he was going out and drinking alcohol. He was an alcoholic and he was very nervous. And he and I talked about the water.

DC - I was there outside listening and even watching. I heard that he hadn't drunk for six months prior to that visit.

The next day I saw Watts standing and talking to some guests about reality and I felt sorry for him. I didn't appreciate him being that way. But now that I'm fifty years old and nothing but a bullshitter, I appreciate his spirit and have more sympathy for it.

I think I was work leader in 70. And I was Katagiri's jisha and Silas's benji.

Zen Center sends mailers out saying we're being really good and please send some money. They send pictures of the bathes before and after and talk about a million dollars. Walter used to read Zen Center's fund raising brochures out loud and ridicule them. Oh please give us some money, we need a bath house.

I have heard Suzuki chant the heart sutra and he couldn't remember it. He'd just jump around and be all over the place and repeat himself. I'm not the only one who says that either. Paul once was with him when they went into a layman's house and they had a new alter and he and Paul sat in front of the alter and Paul said Suzuki couldn't remember the chant.

Dan came to me and said, Suzuki-roshi wants to talk to Katagiri but Katagiri didn't want to talk to Suzuki-roshi. Katagiri wanted to go to Monterey and he wanted to sneak away because Suzuki-roshi didn't want him to leave and I was jisha to both so I tricked Kat. I said that Suzuki-roshi hadn't left SF yet to come to Tassajara and Katagiri said, find out when he's leaving and finally Suzuki just showed up and I said, oh my god they must have told me the wrong thing. And then Suzuki came and Katagiri couldn't run away and I saw these two guys playing this game with each other and they were on their knees and acting like animals I didn't know. They bowed and talked in Japanese. I've never seen anything like it. Katagiri was acting like a school boy. It was clear that Suzuki had all the power. [There's a lot more to this. It's after Katagiri had submitted his resignation. He wanted to get away because he knew it would be hard for him to say no to Suzuki at Tassajara. It's in CC.--DC]

DC - The whole thing was set up for Kat not to be able to say no. The lower person can't say no. He wanted to have his own place and to be free.

That's terrible.

DC - But if he'd stayed, Suzuki-roshi might have made him the abbot of ZC before he died. [Later I came to change my mind on this. Now I think he would have wanted him to stay as a senior dharma advisor to Dick Baker.]

Dick would have chewed him up. That's the only way it could have happened. It was such a big deal with Silas - it's his koan. Dick wasn't a leader like Suzuki-roshi, nor was Walter or Palo Solari. A good king is a person who takes the power from all the people and gives it back. That's why he's the king in a sense. And when someone takes the power and keeps it it's not so good. One thing about Suzuki-roshi that he did, he was a phenomena when you think about it - there was no place where he was egocentric, where he took the power and kept it. He never dominated the board meetings. He'd just sit there. And he never dominated ZC - he was always giving the power back to the students. None of the other Zen leaders did that - they'd pretend to give back some power but they didn't really - it was just a promise. Even in carpentry work they'd tell you what to do. But Suzuki-roshi didn't do that and he was unique in that. That was his greatness. One of the most amazing things about Suzuki-roshi, the leaders usually sit on the power, they're not good kings and they become a burden to the community. When the king puts on the crown it's supposed to shine back the glory to the people so they themselves become powerful. He's supposed to give it back and Suzuki-roshi did that. He was a true king in the royal sense. He didn't take credit and make people his slaves. He didn't ask us to do much. People would ask him what to do and he didn't tell them. As his jisha he never told me what to do. I'd tell him what to do and after a while I was bossing him around and he never said anything. He wasn't really a leader like Dick.

DC - Suzuki-roshi was almost infatuated with Dick. No one was doing what Dick was doing and Suzuki-roshi promoted Dick and expressed his gratitude and said he'd done so much for Buddhism and many people told Suzuki-roshi that Dick shouldn't be trusted or whatever but he trusted Dick completely or at least he thought Dick was the best shot we had to keep his centers strong and going. I remember Bob Halpern saying to him if you give BR transmission, everyone will think you're crazy but he said no no no no. I think his singling Dick out so completely and singly when he was dying and leaving all of ZC in his hands is one of the most important acts of his life and one in which many people feel he made a mistake.

It's a kind of koan. I think the difference between Christianity and Buddhism is the way we deal with doubt. They believe this and that and if you have suffering they say, this is what you should do - you believe in this and so on. The Buddhists go the other way - they give you more doubt. They seem to say you won't have anymore suffering if you overcome doubt so lets really pile it on. I think that Dick was a test to the community. It was a koan. What the heck were we supposed to do? There was no one of his students who had a good understanding, I think.

DC - I asked Suzuki-roshi questions when I was driving him. He had the choice of falling asleep or not say anything or answering something. Once I asked him, "Have you ever had a student who understood your teaching?" and he said, "Yes," and I said, "How many?" and he said, "One," and I said, "Was this person American?" and he said, "No," and I said, "We're they Japanese?" and he said, "Yes," and I said, "What happened to them," and he said, "He died." But I think he may have been putting me on.

He may have just been saying what he wanted to like a child. It's your koan now. And when you write your book you'll express your understanding.

DC - Yeah I know and that's horrible, but I have to do it.

You can't get around it.

DC - One of the problems that Zen students have is that so many have been frightened into not expressing ourselves. We've been intimidated by emptiness is what I say. And we defer to others and let them express themselves instead of us. Some people don't become what they want to become because they're embarrassed at their understanding - more in other groups than ZC.

The Christians are worst. The best people to talk to are Buddhists and Jews because they like to bullshit about their religion but the Christians don't like to talk about their religion so much. This intimidation is Christian.

DC - Some of it comes from the Japanese too I think.

In ZC there's a kind of pietistic Zen. Walter was like Chinese Zen - rough and wild - juicy. In ZC they feel afraid to talk. They get tight.

DC - Well Suzuki-roshi and Kat both had a thing about too much talk, let's not talk about it so much.

Trungpa's group talked a lot and had an openness to discussion the dharma.

DC - And people should feel free to express themselves artistically too. Even BR said to me that writing a book is just an ego trip - I think he was putting himself down more than me - he was writing a book then too. I thought, what a terrible thing to say.

I believe in bullshit. It fertilizes people's minds. It's one of my roles in life. It's fun - it's not just in church or a library - it's right here and it's our life and it shouldn't be so pious.

He was very forgetful. Like I said, he didn't remember the sutras. No like he was senile.

I was always wondering, who the heck is this guy and could never pin him down. Silas said the same thing. You test someone to find out where is their ego or where they're trippy but you couldn't ever pin him down. I couldn't see the man even. He was amazing. But I didn't really love him either. I felt that that was always a fault in me. With Walter I could see his faults and good points and had more feeling for him.

When I'd come in the morning I'd get there sometimes before the wake up bell and he was always up. I'd go in and put his bedding away. Maggie was the anja. I don't remember her being in there before zazen. I don't remember him getting anything to drink.

DC - He used to say, "Don't drink anything before zazen. That might have been because some people would drink coffee and maybe it was too stimulating. I think it was more the caffeine but it may have been the liquid too. I'd go in when the bell was ringing and put his things away and he'd go out and stand in his garden and look at his rocks many times. We'd go outside during the han and sometimes we'd stand there waiting. The first round was slow and long and the second was shorter and the students were supposed to all be in by the end of it. On the intro to the third round I had to echo the hits or hit his han to announce he was coming and then we'd go down and I'd carry the incense and he had to offer the incense as the han ended. Then he'd do three prostrations to the alter and then he'd walk around the zendo doing a jundo and bowing to everyone and we'd bow back and then he'd go back up on the altar and bow to it and then he'd sit down. Then we'd sit and then have service and breakfast and then we'd go out and then he'd have morning tea, chosan, with a the officers and senior students. In the beginning it would be just a few students but after Tatsugami it would be with more of them. Then there was work meeting which he wouldn't attend. Often the tea would continue but often not. Then he'd go out and work in his garden except when he got sick. He didn't do that much dokusan. He would go out and work.

I'd go and work with him but he often had me go do carpentry. Alan Marlowe wanted to work with him all the time and Ed Brown worked with him.

DC - And Dianne worked with him on his garden a lot. She really understand it.

If Okusan was there she'd be telling him what to do and Maggie was there and she'd help him with things. He worked mostly in the mornings and would often study and rest after lunch. He'd go to the baths at three thirty or four and I'd always go with him. He'd always go to tea. At the baths he never took a towel, he'd just take this little cloth he wore on his head, a washcloth, and he'd dry himself with it. He'd hold it in front of his genitals but you couldn't see his penis because of the hair - their hair sticks out straight. It's not curly like ours. All the Japanese were like that - the hair sticking straight out. And then he'd study and prepare for lecture, especially if he'd worked in the afternoon. And then he'd follow the evening schedule with everyone else. It was amazing - he just followed the schedule like everyone else. Tatsugami would follow the zendo schedule but he was always in meetings smoking his pipe.

Niels on the phone at another time:

When I visited Tai San's Zendo in New York it was so fancy with priests in robes, I didn't like it - at that time there were no priests at Tassajara except for Suzuki and Kobun and the feeling was so different - I didn't like New York at all and the fucking priests and Suzuki Roshi he had - lay practice is more anarchy - there's not the power and centralizing and all the priests in their fancy robes. Do you remember when we were doans and we were really trying to do it really perfect and Mary Quagliata really impressed me when we came out, Bob Halpern and me and you and all we had these first new robes for the lay people on and we were all dressed up and trying to get it down, really down to the details and being in unison and stuff and she was standing outside when we came out and she said, "You look like a bunch of Nazis." It blew my mind you know because I was holier than fucking shit I thought this is real you know and it is kind of Nazism I mean the whole fucking thing is militaristic you know. I don't like it now when I think about it but I can get into this shit. And she blew my mind - I was really angry at her you know for pointing it out right.

(I tell Niels about Dogen bringing regimentation - Kubiak's trip that he brought Confucianism over thus playing into the hands of fascists and militarists)

Why the hell did Suzuki bring that jerk Tatsugami over? I guess he would have been alright for a while as the ino but not the abbot.

Silas realizes now that he didn't want to be a priest Suzuki wanted him to do it so he did but he really didn't like it and one day he said that he realized he really hated it and it was like a relief for him to admit it to himself.

Yeah, it took me a while to realize that too.

Niels says on the phone in fall of 93:

I used to work on the rocks with Suzuki-roshi but I wasn't really that interested in it. I know that to Alan and others it was like a big trip if he let you put a rock in and he didn't do anything and I put in a lot of rocks and he didn't move them, he let them be, but I wasn't on a big trip about it. That was 71 when he was sick but I didn't particularly like it and Yvonne and Okusan didn't want him working so much and I'd stand watch and I'd whistle if they came and then he'd pretend he wasn't working and I'd pretend to work. It felt like Laurel and Hardy. I was on a work trip. I never had so much fun working as down there. You remember when we were chopping wood - it was so much fun. He liked work and work trips.

I used to scrub him down in the baths. I bathed with him every day. I was jisha. I said to him one time, you want to try the Danish way and then he looked like my dog if I'm mean to her because I had this really stiff brush like they do in saunas they scrub with the brush to get off the dead layers of skin. I said it's supposed to be very healthy for your skin. So I scrubbed him and he acted subservient with his shoulders hunched down and he was all red but he wouldn't say stop it and then he said, now I'll do you and so he did and he scrubbed me down with one of the scrubbers you scrub the floors with. [That's pretty bizarre for a Japanese to use something for the floor on the body.] He said okay - it was like I was testing him all the time. [?did Niels use the floor brush on Suzuki-roshi? sounds like it.]

His muscles were soft and his skin was smooth, very feminine, soft, he was skinny but soft. He could move big rocks but I think everyone exaggerates that. They wanted to tell you this things. Once at Walters there was a beam that took ten men to move and I used leverage and built a scaffolding and hung it by myself and took the scaffolding down and they came back and (it was ten feet long, 16 by 16) it was so big I couldn't even lift one end of it. They came back and they couldn't understand. They asked has anyone helped Niels and they asked how the hell did you do that? And I said I levitated it.

DC - At the lower barn at Tassajara there was a very heavy freezer and four guys and I were trying to load it into the pickup truck and then drive it up and load it onto the big truck to go to Monterey or somewhere and we were having a hard time and the bell rang for lunch and someone said we have to come back after lunch with more people and I said no no no we can do this right now and they said forget it and they went off. So they went off to lunch and I stayed and when they came out of lunch it was sitting there loaded in the big truck. I did it all by myself. I just rocked it and it went up an inch and I stuck a board under it then I went to the other side and I did the whole thing that way.

I did the same thing. I rocked it. And I built scaffolding and kept rocking it higher and if it had fallen it would have killed me.

DC - I was absolutely driven to get it out there so they could see it when they came out and they couldn't believe I did it by myself except I explained it. And if I'd have been a Zen teacher they'd have been telling it like it was a supernatural story but because it was me nobody remembers it.

That's exactly right.

DC - But still I've heard so many people say that about Suzuki-roshi that I can't discount it and Alan Marlowe said he saw Suzuki-roshi move rocks that he couldn't move.

People always want to make teachers more mystical than they were. It doesn't take so much energy to move a rock if you know how to do it. I worked on a boat once and they most tired I've been in my whole life and there were square blocks of paper about 2 feet cube and they came down with a crane and we had to move them out and there were people who ran with them. But if you don't know how to do it it's an incredible struggle. But if you know how to do it it's like bicycling or something. You know where the balance points are and you can move it but a strong man might not be able to do it if he doesn't understand the balance point.

I saw Suzuki-roshi do the rock with Steve Tipton. He'd put in thirteen holes and Suzuki-roshi told him where to put the last hole and he broke it boom. It's not a matter of his strength but that he knew stones and he knew the balance point.

The guy who taught me how to unload the 500 LB cans of crushed glass from the high bed of the truck.

Throwing the 200 LB sacks at the warehouse I couldn't get the balance and got fired.

see Niels Holm Interview II