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Interview with Louise Pryor

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Louise Pryor (formerly Welch)
by DC
9\24\95


When he was finished washing his feet, I handed him a towel to dry them and he smiled at me and said, "That is one of the powers of Buddha," and I said, What? and he said, "To see what someone needs and to give it to them." I understood then that the teaching could be learned from another person, not just books.


The first time I saw Suzuki Roshi was in 1966 and there was an art show to benefit the purchase of Tassajara. It was located in a building near Sokoji, the temple and where Suzuki Roshi and Okusan lived. I volunteered a shift taking care of the gallery. I was told to get the key to the gallery from Sokoji. I went there, ran up the stairs two at a time, long hair flying. I remember I was wearing a blouse mini skirt silver stockings and yellow high heeled shoes. I knocked at the door out of breath and Suzuki Roshi answered. I told him I needed the key to the gallery. He wanted to know who I was. I seemed to have difficulty explaining. He stood and looked at me quietly after I'd finished explaining. I remember wondering if he was thinking how such a person could be affiliated with the Zen Center. He gave me the key and I slowly walked back down the stairs. I was twenty-three years old.

Dan and I got together when I was a student at Davis in ‘64 maybe. We lived at the Berkeley Zen Center in ‘66.

I realized when I saw him that there was just such a contrast between me and him and he was quiet for so long and I had such a hard time telling him who I was. I kept going on and on and nothing was enough. I felt like he might not give the key to me. He finally gave it to me and I felt reflective (?) after that. He was dressed in his robes. I remember his gaze. We were about the same height. He seemed very calm.

DC - How tall are you?

About five six.

DC - You're seven inches taller than he was.

I don't remember that - I remember being about the same height. Isn't that funny? I remember being stopped and wondering about myself afterwards.

I was Suzuki Roshi's first jisha and anja at Tassajara I think. Those two jobs were one job at that time. Since I was the first person to do the job, I had no idea of what to do and remember on the first morning of the job Roshi worked in his garden and when it was time to clean up and go to the zendo he sat down on the steps to his cabin and washed his feet before going into his cabin to change clothes. When he was finished washing his feet, I handed him a towel to dry them and he smiled at me and said, "That is one of the powers of Buddha," and I said, What? and he said, "To see what someone needs and to give it to them." I understood then that the teaching could be learned from another person, not just books.

The first time I ever sat zazen was for the tangaryo of that first practice period.

One time at Tassajara, Suzuki Roshi had a cold and it was chilly outside. I suggested he wear a turtleneck shirt under his robes to keep warm in the zendo. As I followed him into the zendo carrying incense, he stopped, turned around and looked back at me and said, "Do you think that the turtleneck makes me look like a hippie?" I knew if I said yes he would go back to his cabin and remove it. I said, no no you look fine and we went on into the zendo.

Once I was feeling a lot of self doubt and comparing myself to other students who had the right Zen clothes and read all the right Zen books. I told this to Suzuki Roshi. I said I just fell into the experience of studying Zen and doing zazen without any idea of what I was doing and without any plan. He said that is the best way to come to practice.

After I sewed my rakusu and before the Bodhisattva ceremony where it was presented, I visited Suzuki Roshi and Okusan in their apartment in the San Francisco Zen Center. I asked him if he would tell me what name he had given me and what it meant in English and he said yes he would. He told me my Buddhist name was Koun Shojun and I asked him to explain it to me in English and he said, "The first part is fragrance of the clouds and the second part is natural purity. The fragrance of the clouds is the scent of something that is the very best like the best Champaign and natural purity means just dirt for something to grow. He seemed that he took a great deal of pleasure explaining my name to me.

When I was married to my first husband [Dan Welch] I was present during a conversation between Suzuki Roshi, Okusan and I think Yoshimura-sensei. It was about sending my first husband to Japan to study with Tatsugami-roshi for a year or two. Okusan and Yoshimura-sensei pointed out that if I went to Japan I couldn't be a Zen student there and I would be a great burden to Tatsugami-roshi's wife, so I should remain in America for a year or two by myself while my husband studied in Japan. I became very angry and said, "You think it's better to be a man than a woman, you think it's better to be a priest than a layperson and you think it's better to be Japanese than American. But I will always be a woman and I will always be a layperson and I will always be an American and here I am. Suzuki Roshi looked at me and said, "That is the Bodhisattva’s way."

I don't remember when that was or why that didn't happen. There's so much I don't remember. I remember being very angry.

I went to see Suzuki Roshi when he was dying. He was sitting at his low table on a zabuton in his interview room in San Francisco and on his table he had his little brown soft-covered Japanese-English dictionary that he'd brought from Japan and that he carried with him from San Francisco to Tassajara and back so often. It was very worn. He picked it up and looked at me and said, "This will live longer than I will."

I went to see him when he was dying. I had tea with him and Okusan in the kitchen. He expressed great regret over his cancer and that he was dying and said, "Before my disciples are ready to come out of the oven, I will be going into the oven." I was surprised at his sadness because I still had the idea that someone who was a Zen teacher didn't have this kind of feeling. But he was very sad about not being able to finish with his students.

DC - He said the opposite to Bill Kwong at the time. Bill told me back then but doesn't remember it now. Suzuki Roshi said, "I've put my cookies in the over and they've come out and they're fine and now I'm going to crawl into the oven."

LP: When I was pregnant with Johanna I made her a tiny rakusu. I gave it to Okusan and asked her if Suzuki Roshi would give her a Buddhist name. She said she would see if he was able to do it. He was becoming weak. Johanna was born in September of 1971 and I took her to visit Suzuki Roshi and Okusan and they enjoyed seeing her very much. Later Okusan told me that shortly thereafter, Roshi got up and dressed in his robes and sat formally at his table and calligraphed her tiny rakusu. He gave her the name Johana, flower of enlightenment. It was the last rakusu he completed before he died. I still have it.

The last time I saw Suzuki Roshi shortly before his death I expressed love and gratitude to him and regret for his illness. I don't remember what I said to him, but I remember as I was leaving he looked at me directly from his sickbed and said, "Thank you."

I was driving Suzuki Roshi into Tassajara and we stopped to take a look at the view or maybe he had to pee and his upper bridge fell out and went rolling down the hillside and we looked and we looked and we looked and we looked and we couldn't find it. When we went to Tassajara, I drove the car almost all the way to his cabin and he went quickly in and wouldn't come out or give a lecture or go to zazen or see anyone till his other set of false teeth had been driven up from the city. I don't think he went back - I think another set was brought back. He did look a little funny without them.

I have lots of visual memories. I remember the feeling of being with him and Okusan - that it felt good to be with them. I remember how they teased each other and how they would hit each other with fans and it felt wonderful and happy to be with them.

DC - Maezumi Roshi and Ryuho Yamada both commented on his relationship with his wife and how unusual it was.

LP: They would banter and fight not too seriously and she would scold him for wearing his robes and working in the garden in them and make him go and take his robes off and put his work clothes on and he didn't care whether he was in his formal robes or what. She did nag him but it was all done with good humor. I don't remember feeling bad about anything that happened between the two of them. It always felt comfortable to be with them.

DC - I remember being with the two of them once on the Tassajara road talking and they said that they'd both forgotten their wedding anniversary - and that was their last one. But I'm sure it was never a big deal to them. He had other things on his mind.

LP: I never saw Suzuki Roshi rushing or hurrying. Whenever he greeted anyone he stopped. He would stop and bow and look at you directly. I'd accompany him to the bathes and I remember how he would stand on the arched bridge over the stream for a long long time and look down the stream and watch and he always seemed very appreciative of nature and always aware of the trees and what he was walking through and seemed to enjoy it very much.

DC - His pace was slow but it didn't put anybody out or make anyone uncomfortable. It was natural and felt that way for everyone else too. It wasn't forced or deliberate. And if you were going in circles around him he didn't care.

LP: There was no forced mindfulness or forced slowness.

His cabin at Tassajara was very simple and the colors were muted and everything had a place. Things were very beautifully spaced. Nothing was new or had been purchased for the cabin.

DC -    Maybe there were some things that students made for him – like I made the low table he sat at – and I’d never made anything. Kobun said that Suzuki Roshi was shibui, the epitome of shibui. The word is a level of taste. Kobun said an elegant old set of books is a good example of shibui. The word originally means astringent. So there's the idea of some oldness or emptiness with a hint of something bitter or, in this case, astringent. Like some perfumes are made with skunk smell.

Nick Pryor: Brillat Savarin said that a really good wine at the peak, you can taste death.

LP: I remember onetime when I was cleaning his bathroom and I picked up a straight razor and there were Japanese characters on the handle of the razor and I thought of it as calligraphy and said, oh Roshi, is this a poem written on your razor, and he said he said, no that's the name of the razor company.

It was very difficult having Johanna at Tassajara. It was very difficult to have him die and to have her born so close together. It was very hard to figure out how to practice and to know my place in the community and the first few months I had Johanna I was living at Tassajara and I was told by Dan and the community that I couldn't expect to have him help me take care of her and I felt very isolated. At the next training period at Tassajara in the spring of ‘72 he was asked to be shuso and it was felt that Johanna and I would be a distraction to him so I moved to Pacific Groove and Katagiri was there and we stayed in a house with Rory. I tried to go to morning zazen with her but she wouldn't sleep in the pack on my back. I felt very separate from Dan and that we didn't bond as a family. I felt separate from the community and I missed Suzuki Roshi very much.

I got along with Baker Roshi okay but I didn't have the same feeling about him that I had for Suzuki Roshi. The first time I saw him was at a poets’ conference in Berkeley. I felt like I'd had really good American teachers. I had good painting teachers and I was very interested in them and what they had to teach.

With Suzuki Roshi I never felt criticized. I was treated with utmost respect. I was never told I did anything wrong. Even though I felt self doubt I never felt that it was generated from him. But with Dick I didn't feel respected or valued - I felt superfluous.

When I was at Tassajara Alan Watts came and he met with Suzuki Roshi and they visited and I thought it was so funny that Alan Watts had on a toga and he carried a stick with rings on the top.

DC - I guess that's the one he gave to Suzuki Roshi that Suzuki Roshi used at Baker Roshi's high seat ceremony.

LP: When Lama Govinda came with his wife, Li Gotami, they had a little art show downstairs in the dinning room and she showed her paintings and I went with Suzuki Roshi to meet Lama Govinda in the first stone room and they greeted each other and sat down together and Suzuki Roshi formally asked Lama Govinda, "Could you please tell me what is the cause of suffering?" And I don't remember what the answer was.

DC - You've read The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Govinda? In it he describes him and Li being in the most extreme cold winters where they'd boil water to wash their faces in and when they put their hands in it it already had ice on it and there was so much snow. He came to Tassajara in December and he said it was the coldest and most uncomfortable place he'd ever been. And it was only twenty or so - cold for Tassajara but not for Tibet and it was wet. And I remember that he and his wife ate in the zendo and she's from India and we had to put Tabasco sauce on her trey so she could cover all her food with it. And he gave a talk. Bob Halpern used to call him Mr. Govinda after Bob studied with Trungpa.

LP: Suzuki Roshi loved Dan very much and had big expectations of him.

Durand Kiefer had battery powered socks that he'd wear to the zendo and he kept condiments in his robe's for the meals.

DC - And he refused to wash his oryoki cloths when he left because he'd donated the material. He was a character.

Nick:  I remember my father driving me downtown and pointing out Silas Hoadley when I was eleven and saying that's Silas Hoadley and he's a Zen monk

LP: When Suzuki Roshi left Tassajara for the last time, I went with him and Okusan and Yvonne and we stopped by the end of a sesshin at San Juan Bautista, And we had tea with Soen Roshi. He made powered green tea for everyone. I was very pregnant, almost ready to pop. When he served me tea he said, "Unless your child is like Buddha, of what use is another child in the world?" I said nothing. I didn't take it terribly seriously.


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