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Interview with Paul Rosenblum

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Sometimes Iím standing here before you as your teacher and sometimes Iím sitting there for you as your student. And, weíll be true friends and travelers together. - Shunryu Suzuki


6-29-07 - Tenryu Paul Rosenblum Zen sitting and study group in San Anselmo, CA

Paul's website


Thanks to Richard Speel for taking tons of time to transcribe the tape for this interview. Paul speaks softly and he gets softer for emphasis. After I got Richard's transcription I went over it and called up Paul who kindly filled in what blanks he could. In the end it came out quite well I do believe. - DC

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DC: We're (Dennis Samson and DC) with Paul Rosenblum on the nineteenth of February, 2002 in his lovely home in San Anselmo. I'm just here to get your memories of Suzuki Roshi and those days and what you remember of Zen Center and how you got there and whatever you want to say. But first tell me when you were born if it's okay.

PR: 10/21/46

DC: When did you first come to Zen Center?

PR: I came to Zen Center in the summer of 1968. Do you remember Henry, bushy haired Henry?

DC: Sure

PR: I was going to school in Pennsylvania. I flew out and stayed overnight at one of the houses across the street from Sokoji on Bush Street and Henry gave me a ride to Tassajara and at the time there was a ceremony for Nyogen Senzaki, an ashes scattering ceremony. So Yasutani Roshi was there. Soen Roshi was there. Suzuki Roshi was there. Edo Roshi, then called Tai San, was there. And that's when I arrived - the same day.

DC: Far out. That's one of the most interesting, maybe the most interesting day that a new student could have popped in on Tassajara.

PR: So I got there. I remember it rained for ten minutes during morning zazen of the next day. It never rained in the summer since when I've been there. I imagine it was in June or July.

DC: Rare indeed.

PR: It was my first summer at Tassajara. It was between my junior and senior year at college at the University of Pennsylvania.

DC: Oh, was Mickey Stunkard there?

PR: Absolutely. That's how I got started sitting. He was head of the school of Psychiatry there. And there was a great religious studies department with very good people. A very good Sanskrit department. I studied Sanskrit. There was a very good Chinese philosophy teacher named Dirk Bodde and E. Dale Saunders who wrote Mudra was one of my teachers. And a lot of people who were involved with the sources of Eastern tradition like Theodore DeBarry. A Sanskrit teacher that had been at Columbia came to Penn. So I stumbled into something very good because of Buddhist studies. I started to sit while I was at College and I thought I was going to be an English major and I got advanced placement. I was writing something on Wordsworth's Preludes and I showed through textural revisions how he'd become a Christian. He'd changed the words from an older text and my teacher went ga ga over it and to me it was so meaningless. And around that time I saw this hardcover magazine called Horizon and there was something about this thing called Zen Buddhism in it. It had a picture of Bodhidharma facing the wall and it had a picture of a Zen monk facing a wall from behind and the only pictures I'd seen from behind were like John and Bobby Kennedy walking together - people who you knew. But I'd never seen a picture of somebody from behind who you didn't know who it was. It was really powerful for me. And I thought, there's something here that I need to know about that I'm not going to learn from scholarship and I started to take courses in Buddhism. So I was planning to get a doctorate and be a Buddhist scholar but what I decided was, wouldn't it be good if I got enlightened? I'd be a really good Buddhist scholar if I got enlightened. So I started to sit and I thought maybe I should go to Japan for the summer and get enlightened. I didn't speak any Japanese. I was going to go to some university that had an exchange program with Penn and I could go for the summer and live in the dorm and there'd be some Japanese classes but mostly it would be classes in English studying Japanese culture in the confines of the ICU, International Christian University.

I started to sit and started to get a hint that I wasnít going to get enlightened over the summer. And I also realized that there was a teacher who was in America at this place called Tassajara. So I wrote and Dick Baker answered and said I hadn't been sitting long enough to go to Tassajara so I had to spend the summer in the city on Bush Street. I could sit in the zendo there and could go to Tassajara after the summer. But then it turned out they needed somebody in the kitchen. So I ended up going to Tassajara and staying there. Ed Brown was the head cook. Alan Winter worked in the kitchen. Clarke Mason was in the kitchen.

DC: I was in the dinning room.

PR: We used to call it Chadwick's place. Who were those guys who came every summer - the Watsonville Domino Club. They called it Chadwick's place.

Anyway, on the East Coast I sat a weekend sitting with Shibayama Roshi. I think he was from Nanzenji in Japan. He came to Haverford College in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The group that I was sitting with was an offshoot of the Zen Studies Society - Edo Roshi's group in New York City. So I ended up going to this weekend sitting and I remember Shibayama Roshi as a Zen teacher who talked a lot about ice cream and he had lots of golden teeth. And I didn't get a whole lot out of it. It was very painful and difficult for me to do. And I did my best to make it through the weekend but otherwise I'd go to sittings on Thursday night. No talks - just two or three people sitting. So anyway, then I went to Tassajara where I sat tangaryo [a one or more day intense initiatory sitting without getting up except after meals for a brief break].

Chino Sensei couldn't believe it when he saw me because I couldn't get my knees down. They'd go way up. And I wasn't really clear about what I was getting into. Another newcomer had just shaved his head for tangaryo. It was summer and there were a lot of flies and he kept swatting them.

PR: When I met Suzuki Roshi, he seemed so vast to me that I wondered, how does this guy suffer? He felt so big to me. I couldnít quite relate. It was like I felt in awe of him, not understanding why, knowing something was there, but not having a way to get there to relate to it. It was like how does a mountain suffer or how does the ocean suffer?

And I remember once I was at a tea on the stairs in the afternoon on the big stones steps going into the building and I was telling somebody that in college Iíd been translating Nagarjunaís Discourses on the Middle WayÖ

DC: Youíd been translating from Sanskrit?

PR: Well, with the help of my teacher. And so I was telling somebody about this and I didnít know Suzuki Roshi was behind me, and he came up to me and said, "Oh, you must give a lecture on that." and I remember thinking, "Wow!, how could I teach Suzuki Roshi?" Then I got some feeling, very big and vast, something study in college wasnít touching, didnít reach. And, I had a sense of that possibility. And, I also had a sense of his humanness.

I remember the next Summer I worked in the dining room. And then they had me back in the kitchen and I remember one day somebody said Ďwould you bring some cookies and some tea to Suzuki, because he was depressed.í I couldnít believe the guy was depressed!(laughing)

DC: Wonder who said that?

PR: Could have been Edward, who was depressed. I donít know.

DC: Yes

PR: But basically what it was, when I brought it to him I realized, you know, he was - he was having a hard time. You know he had trouble with his throat, he had a bad cold and he couldnít get rid of it. And, it was very nice to go see him.

It was something about that dynamic of how he was very little - he was physically smaller than I thought he was supposed to be. You know, from looking at a picture of him, I couldnít believe he was really that short. But, he also seemed much bigger than a very little person. So, there was something going on there about just the physical experience of him.

I had some experience with him that Summer - which basically for me cemented my practice. And, maybe the most important initial experience I had with him was when I had something happen to me in morning zazen. After breakfast I went into his garden and I talked to him about this experience. And he asked me more about it and confirmed the experience. He said something like "this is what we're doing here." After that I went to work Back then, if you werenít in the kitchen, there was a period of zazen late morning before noon Service and, even though I was in the kitchen, for some reason I went to that zazen before lunch.

DC: Yes, I'd fall asleep in that one. And it would be so hot.

PR: The evening zazen was the hottest. I'd get pools of sweat at the corners of my knees.

DC: Yeah.

PR: So I went to that zazen and he came up next to me - there was no one sitting on that zafu - and he kneeled down there and he started to give me a zazen instruction the same as if I'd never sat before. And I started to laugh. And he started to laugh.

I had some experience that I shared with him. And, then basically what I got was to go practice it now - (laughing) - so this is what practice is and this is not like something happens and now thatís the basis of some understanding - the way things are - or thatís some experience that you now have - itís yours - thereís some attainment - thereís some sense out of the mutual recognition that I have something.

DC: I see. It was more like, okay, you've had that experience now start all over from the first again.

PR: And, it was very important for me. That and another experience - because it was really a couple of experiences that I had that Summer and he would come and gently take the experience away. It was an acknowledgment of something, but there was kind of a taking away.

I had an another experience of something coming up in the sitting, a luminous blue Buddha appeared - it was all - I wasnít there - luminescent glowing big blue Buddha. I talked to him about it and he said, "You should tell this particular experience," and then he blurted out: "Iím sorry I have to go sit zazen now, I canít spend time with you!" (laughter) And it wasnít a denial of the experience, but it wasnít feeding something, that itís important - it was like, huh, okay, and now you have to say, "Now I have to go back Iím sitting zazen." It was makyo and I continued my practice of paying attention to posture and breathing.

So, it was an important time for me getting to know him - and I went back to college, I finished college and rather than go to graduate school I came back to Tassajara.

There was a college professor who was at Tassajara and there were questions in the zendo at night after the lecture. He'd talk, it felt like, for ten minutes and then at the very end he'd make it into a question.

DC: You mean yeah - his question was a ten minute lecture.

PR: It was a ten minute statement about his understanding of the way things actually were. And so then he knew he had to make it into question in the last sentence. And Suzuki Roshi was very patient with him and he said, "Oh, very good." And then he took the next question. Another thing I remember which was very striking for me, was when JB stopped a cat from killing a mouse.

DC: Around the kitchen?

PR: Right between the kitchen and the dining room. And he said Suzuki Roshi got furious with him. Suzuki Roshi said, "Donít you know that the mouse is a bodhisattva? Giving its life to the cat. Why should you stop the mouse from being a bodhisattva?"

I came back to Tassajara in 69 and I stayed through the fall practice period when Jean Ross was head monk..

DC: I wasnít there during that period but I came in to visit some. You and I had a conversation about whatís Zen, whatís Japanese. You thought you might want to go to Japan to find out.

PR: Interesting. So, I had a very hard time with the cold. I had a very hard time with my hands, with the chilblains.

Another experience that cemented my practice. I remember Suzuki Roshi in a lecture apologized to us, because he wasnít a very good teacher. And then two days later, he told he was Buddha. I was amazed he could say both.

DC: Different sides.

PR: In Shosan ceremony after the sesshin at the end of the practice period, I said to Roshi that sometimes I feel like Iím sitting on my cushion and sometimes I feel like my cushion is sitting on me. And I said, are we practicing Buddhism or is Buddhism practicing us? And Roshi was standing there and he had that big kyosaku [stick] which was like as big as he was The center divider had been taken out for the ceremony and he was standing at the base of that little step up to the alter and he said, "Sometimes Iím standing here before you as your teacher and sometimes Iím sitting there for you as your student. And, weíll be true friends and travelers together." And, it was like I got hit with something - After the ceremony I wandered out into the garden , the upper garden - it was a shock. I had to reinterpret something - I looked at the sky and I realized Iíd never look at that same sky again.

I went back to the city after that practice period. Not many people left. Most people stayed for the spring. I moved to building and Issan and I remembered Tassajara the same way. We said, 'Itís cold!" Ha ha! I was having a lot of trouble with my hands - I said I wanted to move to the City - and thatís when I worked for the cabinetmaker. But, it was like another thing that was very important for me. Could be the most important thing for the couple of years. I moved into the building. Do you remember the big table with the white lions bases and the parquet top?

DC: Yeah, certainly.

PR: Suzuki Roshi used to sit at that table for dinner. There was the rug area behind it and the brick flooring in front of it. And I used to sit at that table. If Roshi was sitting there heíd be facing toward the kitchen. I used to sit down the table from him. It was the most important thing for me to be able to sit at the table near him. Maybe every two or three weeks or something when he was there when he come back from Tassajara, and after dinner people would talk and I wouldn't say anything and then he would say ĎWhat do you think, Paul?í

DC: laughing

PR: Because he knew like Iím like white on rice with the guy, but Iíd never sit across from him. Iíd always sit down from him. And Iíd always be in that relationship . In that field of attention.

DC: He made people feel recognized, understood.

PR: So I got a job with that cabinetmaker and a girlfriend. And she was, was - she was great! She was so sweet and devoted. She worked at Magnins. I went in one day and saw her and she became my girlfriend and she lived on Hyde and California, right near the Cala Market. I had a room with Patrick Johnson. You know who Patrick Johnson was? Patrick wore thick glasses.

DC: Yes.

PR: We had this constant debate, whether you could do zazen with your eyes closed. Patrick was great. So, when I first lived in the building, he was my roommate. But, I stayed at Annieís house. And, Annie, she was the most devoted person. And she would get up at four oíclock in the morning and sheíd make me breakfast and drive me to zazen.. She was not a Zen student.

DC: Nice girlfriend.

PR: So, one morning I came in the side door. And I donít know how this happened - Suzuki Roshi opened the door for me. And it wasnít light. He didnít ever use that door. He walked into the zendo from the other side where the drum was. I donít get it. He opened the door for me and he saw her and after zazen he waited and stopped me and said, "Iíd like you to come and talk to me tonight." He knew the Mortons and I used to go to the first part of service and weíd bow out at the back of the Buddha Hall and then we'd eat and go to work. So he couldn't have caught me after service, only by getting me beforehand.

So, that night he gave me a story from the last sutra of Buddha. It was on a piece of black construction paper. I read it. It's the story of a young boy who has a pot of honey and he told everyone met about it. He was so happy that he told everyone and when he got home there was none left. And then Suzuki Roshi said to me, "If she really loves you, she'll know what you have to do." It was quite amazing to me.

That was around the time he wanted me to go to Japan.

There was something about him in the building. Sometimes he would block me which was very strange. I'd be spaced out or confused which I was most of the time. He would bump into me and it would be a little like rearranging me. It was an interesting physical feeling for me.

So, Iíd been in the building for maybe a year and then he told me that I should start to study Japanese, because he wanted me to travel. And I said I didnít want to leave the country right now.. He had asked his son Hoitsu-san to build a wing at Rinsoin for American Zen students so they could live there. As I understand, Hoitsu-san was not very excited about the possibility of having to take care of his father's students.

DC: That would be right.

PR: Suzuki Roshi would say to me, ĎNow, youíre saving your money and studying JapaneseÖ," and I wasnít saving my money and I wasnít studying Japanese and I didnít want to. But, I ended up studying Japanese.

DC: This was what year?

PR: This was í71.

DC: Oh, early í71.

PR: It was going to be - I think - Dan, Reb, Bill Shurtleff, and me and one other person, donít remember who the other person was. I donít think it was Paul Disco because I think Paul was going to do something else.

DC: Paul was already there studying temple carpentry.

PR: But, that all fell through. And then what he did was -

DC: What do you mean it fell through?

PR: Well, this wing wasnít getting built. And Hoitsu-san was not really excited about having these people go there.

DC: I donít understand this. I think there wasnít any intention to build the wing. I mean, thereís already a wing there. Plenty of room there. There was a zendo there and rooms for guests on that side of the temple.. I would imagine the idea was to fix it up or get it ready or get him to agree to do it. I donít think you Ďd have to build anything.

PR: I remember that he had arranged for us to go but that, in the end, it wasnít gonna happen.

DC: Was he gonna go over there?

PR: No. And what he arranged was for Hoitsu-san. He knew he was not strong. And this was in the spring. And what he said to me was that he couldnít make a commitment to me because he made it to you and to others. I received my Ďnameí from him and my lay ordination. And he said that he wanted me to study in Japan. And he knew because of the scholarly background I had that I could study. He wanted me to go to Tokyo and stay at Eiheiji Betsuin. Niwa Roshi was there. I didnít really know what he was getting to at the time. Because, he didnít teach much. He didnít talk a lot about details. But, he wanted me to go to Komazawa University and study Buddhism. He wanted me to live in that temple and study at the same time with Niwa Roshi. And this is when I said no. I didnít know he was going to die so soon, but I knew I didnít have that much more time to be with him and thatís when he said, "I have a commitment. I canít take you on - I already have more than I can do and I canítÖ" I donít remember how he said it, but it was like he couldnít extend himself anymore, but he wanted me to continue my practice.

Was he getting yellow - was it jaundice?

DC: I don't think anyone noticed that until August. And after his gall bladder operation he hardly talked to anybody. Sounds like it was probably around May or something.

PR: I started to study Japanese. There was an immersion course in Berkeley. And I went in the summer to do the immersion course. And then what he said was, "I would like you to go to Tassajara for two practice periods." So, I would have more of that temple practice in Tassajara. And then I would go to Japan. - and he passed away in December. My father passed away in October. I left the practice period. It was the practice period with Katagiri Roshi visiting at Tassajara.

DC: Yes, right.

PR: So, I left the practice period to go back to be with my mother and brother so I wasnít there at the time of his funeral. I didnít see him. But, I was sorry that I didn't get to see him.

Oh, the other thing he said was that the reason he wanted me to go to Japan was that I didn't want to go. He felt because I didnít want to go to Japan that there would be no expectation, no ideal. He liked the reluctance.

DC: That sounds like him.

PR: He said many of the people, particularly the people who were ordained, had some strong feeling about going to Japan. He said, "Because you donít want to go, you should go."

DC: He said that students who practiced because they were forced to - that didnít want to - did better. Like the sons of temple priests who had to go to Eiheiji to put their time in before they took over their father's temple. I always thought that was funny. And he said Dogen said the same thing. Not really the American way.

PR: (laughing) But I also felt strong enough about practice and I was moved.

DC: Yeah, youíd have been one of the sacrificial lambs. You would have done alright.

PR: But, I think he didn't want to send me to Eiheiji. He wanted me under the wing of Niwa roshi [who did Suzuki's funeral and later became the abbot of Eiheiji]. And he also wanted me to go to Komazawa University. Different from what most others have done.

DC: Yeah, you would have been there in a cosmopolitan setting. And, also, youíre a survivor. You would have made friends. A lot of people get totally isolated. Itís something that could drive you crazy. And the people that have gone to Japan who've just done Zen in a temple, a lot of them have had a really hard time.

DC: So, you went to your fatherís funeral in October?

PR: My father died on October 28. And there was going to be a Halloween party at Tassajara for the Day of the Dead. You drove me to Carmel and I got a bus to San Francisco and a plane back home.

DC: I drove you to the Monterey airport and got you there just in time for the connecting flight. I drove so fast on all the winding roads that I had to pull over so you could vomit.

PR: So, I missed Suzuki Roshi. I wasnít a disciple. So, itís not like, and I think itís part of what he was feeling in making the arrangements in Japan for me. I think it was his way of taking care to whatever degree the relationship existed between us. He was taking responsibility for the relationship as it existed - as it was possible.

DC: Of course even his disciples - I mean, he would say, I have disciples and I have students. But, he treated everybody like they were the only person in the World. (laughing) - And , even his disciples werenít having much - werenít relating to him much at that time -

PR: This is an off the total different topic. Another thing I am grateful for back then is the time I spent with Baker Roshi. Baker Roshiís incredibly generous. He was astounding. And I felt very committed to Baker Roshi and felt that my practice with Suzuki Roshi carried on with him. I feel a continuity with Suzuki Roshi and Baker Roshi.

DC: One last thing. Would you tell your UFO story? I'd love to get it down.

PR: I was living at Green Gulch. It was in '76 or '77. Winter - well, anyway, it was cold and that could be anytime. It was dark - early evening. I was on my way to Muir Beach to have dinner with Gary and Trish and was driving down Highway One overlooking the Green Gulch fields and my attention was pulled to three lights at a distance - red, green, and white. I pulled over and looked at them. They were up on the ridge it seemed and I thought it couldn't be one of the ranchers that have keys to the roads cause they have cows up there. What would they be doing up there at this time? Then all of a sudden it turned on its side and there it was - it was shaped like an arrowhead. And it took off and rose very quickly. I had an empathetic feeling that communicated "don't be afraid."

The next morning I called the FAA and someone answered, saying, "FAA," and asked them what it was and they sent me to someone else and I was sent from office to office and each time someone would answer the phone, saying, "FAA" or whatever the name of the office was, and then I got a number up in Oregon and the person who answered it just said, "Hello." He wouldn't say - or didn't say - who he was or who he was with, but he was interested in my story. He took it down and that was the end of that.

DC: You continued his relationship with Zen Center and Baker roshi though you ventured out into the world. Worked for Jerry Brown's administration in the Governor's office and went on to become Treasurer of the California Democratic Party. After that you went into business.

PR: Right.

DC: When did you receive transmission from Baker Roshi?

PR: On August 25, 1999.

DC: Anything else?

PR: Thank you.


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