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Interview with Norm Randolph

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Podcast with Norm 🔊

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Norman Randolph is a dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri Roshi who teaches with Steve Hagen at the Dharma Fields Zen Center in Minneapolis. Here's that site's bio on Norm. You notice he doesn't mention he studied with Suzuki. This I take as Norm modesty. He never puts himself first or makes any claims.

NORM RANDOLPH is a senior teacher at Dharma Field. Born in San Francisco in 1943, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a psychology degree and worked in an Air Force psychiatric clinic. In 1969 he met Dainin Katagiri Roshi in San Francisco, and moved to Minneapolis when Katagiri Roshi went there in 1972. He was ordained in 1978 and received Dharma Transmission in 1989. He has retired from his position as a patient transporter at Minneapolis hospital.

Norm and I shared a room at Tassajara for the summer of 1971, maybe even 1970 too. We had a lot of fun talking at night before going to sleep. I don't want to detract from what he has to say here by going on about him except to say that everybody loves Norm.

Norman Randolf in Minneapolis
over the phone with DC

The first time I saw Suzuki Roshi he was standing at the top of the stairs at the Bush Street zendo in 1969 and I'd never seen anybody who stood there in the way that he did. It was very impressive - there seemed to be a very powerful stillness that I'd never seen with anybody else before. I don't believe it my own projections that made me so impressed by him. I think the reason he was so impressive just standing there is that most people don't just stand there - when they stand they have so much busy mental activity that you don't get the feeling of powerful peacefulness that he had. I was very much impressed with that.

One thing I noticed about him that I really admired is that he seemed to do things 100% when he'd work in his rock garden or do the oryoki you'd sense him 100% in the activity - it was a very beautiful thing to see. I can't describe it beyond saying he was 100% there in a way that was completely appropriate to the situation.

I was so impressed by how he ate with oryoki. As you may remember I had somewhat of an eating problem in the zendo and elsewhere I might add like the time that I drank that five pound jar of honey in our room. Anyway, I had kind of a reputation for gluttony. And sometimes I'd modify the oryoki rules to fit around that desire - I developed my own style of oryoki to maximize the intake. I made attempts to follow the path of wakefulness and mindfulness but at mealtime I would abandonee that practice in order to indulge this gluttony which came from very deep in my psychic and karmic history.

One day when Peter Schneider was head monk, Tatsugami Roshi had seen me get thirds in the zendo a few times. There would be four servers for the four rows of the zendo and if the server on the other side got delayed I'd finish up my seconds real quick and put my hands in gasho and the server would think the one on my row had run out of food and I'd have an earnest expression on my face and I'd get thirds. Tatsugami sent Peter to admonish me in a very kind way but he also told a story about himself when he was at Eiheiji and how he'd really liked rice balls and how he'd load up on them till there was no room for more in the bowl and then he'd signal the server one more and then he'd take his chopstick and stab it before it would roll on the floor. It was a nice way of encouraging me to do a little better.

In the summer of 71 Suzuki Roshi was down there and giving lectures every night and one time I looked up at him during breakfast and he was doing oryoki and it looked like he was doing it for the first time - 100% there. The same way with working with him in his rock garden. Niels and I would work with him. He asked me to come help Niels, his jisha, to lift rocks because I was so big and strong and it was really wonderful working with him. I don't know why it would be so beautiful to see the way he would act. He'd be 100% percent into what he was doing and it seemed like exactly the right thing for the right time - you can't describe it, you have to see it. And it was very beautiful - his warm personality. Once Niels and I were horsing around trying to decide who was the strongest and I was saying Niels was the strongest and he was trying to say I was the strongest and Suzuki Roshi cracked up at that - he thought it was so ridiculous. He had a beautiful sense of humor - he'd see humor in all sorts of places.

I was sitting at Page Street in a sesshin, my knee was bad and I was using a chair and my chair was on the edge of the platform which was only about six inches at the time and he came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and he pointed at the leg on the edge. He had a kind of twinkle in his eye and was kind of amused by it all.

You had a feeling that he saw you completely. Anything that you were trying to hide he saw - he saw you as you were but you also had a feeling that he totally accepted you and that he cared about you very much and that he didn't have an agenda for you. He wasn't trying to run something past you. He cared about you and saw you very clearly and sincerely wished the best for you whatever that was. I remember I went to see him one time and said I'd like to be ordained as a monk and the first thing he said right away was, "Layman or monk, there's no difference."

There was something very wonderful about him but it's hard to describe because you had to feel the vibrations of his situation and the situation that you're in with him so that you can feel the humor and the joy and his way of life.

There was a feeling of deep caring and seeing people with precision - there was no way someone could bullshit him.

During that summer of ‘71 when I had most of my contact with him, he said, “When I see somebody whose practice is very good I wish I was younger.” I think he saw there were a lot of people who had a great enthusiasm for following his way and he was sorry he wasn't going to be around to help them.

I'll never forget him walking across the floor being held up by his son at Baker Roshi's mountain seat ceremony and him crying (Norman choking), most everyone else too actually, as he was walking out. I'm starting to cry now as I think of it. But uh I think that he really cared about people and he was sorry to have to leave them.

DC - When I was ordained by him with Ed and Angie and Lew - he wasn't there - Katagiri did it for him and we went to his bed and he thanked us and I looked at him and he was being so grateful and kind and I realized that he was dying and I went up on the roof and cried - I just had to be by myself.

NR: That’s the kind of feeling he inspired. I think he was crying because he wanted to help all these people who wanted to follow him and who he cared about a lot. That's my projection on the situation.

He was from the heart 100% but he had this real puckish, impish humor that would just cut through the solemnity of the situation. And that was one thing you were good for at Tassajara and you were really good at cutting through the pomposity. Once you get caught up in that you really go down a slippery slope into a very ugly practice. (we're laughing) It's essential to the health of the community to have some Zen lunatics and if the teacher incorporates that crazy impish quality like Suzuki Roshi did then you can really have a beautiful community which it was.

In the forms of practice you can see a person's state of mind. If they're doing it in a sloppy way or a pride-filled way, you can see where the person is. It's evident in the forms. If you see somebody who's really doing it it looks completely natural - like how Katagiri would bow - not forced or arrogant or pompous in any way. I'd watch him bow before lecture and it would seem to come out of the circumstances of the moment. It wasn't always that way with Zen people. Suzuki Roshi said that the forms of practice he'd use like the sights on a gun. By looking at how students bowed and did oryoki or wore their robes, he was able to see their state of mind. It was in a lecture called "Warm-hearted practice" delivered in March of ‘71 at Tassajara when he came down for Peter's shuso ceremony and I think he stayed and gave it the day before or after.

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