Interview with David Schneider

David Schneider cuke page

David Schneider

July 17, 2016

DC – I asked David for his way-seeking mind story. Typed these notes while David spoke. We were at Johanneshof in the Black Forest of Germany after his seminar with Richard Baker was finished. Thanks to Rick Levine (RL) for some corrections, additions, and brief commentary.

David Schneider came to Johanneshof mid July, 2016 for a two day seminar on lay and monk practice he and Richard Baker did. It was hosted by the DBU (German Buddhist Union). ------------  See photos here at cuke blog.

Spring 1970. I was at Reed College in Portland Oregon. I had been a cross-country runner, but had now decided to learn to meditate. My connection to Zen came about because I was in a sauna at Reed and in there I saw a guy stretching and pulling his legs up into full lotus. I asked what are you doing? He said “I’m a meditator,” and I said I do that too, though I didn’t really know how to do it. I had only tried from a book, called Meditation: the Inward Art by Bradford Smith. Another guy was with him and said you should meditate with us. 

They were Rick Levine and Ron Sharrin, the latter who went to ZCLA later.

I sat with them once in a while at their place on Clinton Street and did a one day sitting.

Other residents there included Jim Bockhorst and Layla Smith, Pat McMahon, Rick Levine, Jackie Warshall, James Collins, who never came to ZC, Barbara, Lynelle Jones?

RL: Deborah Green (later an entomologist) and Terry Palmer (later a SF MD after brief residence at SFZC.  Also Drucilla (for awhile wife to Patrick McMahon), Barbara Young, girlfriend to JC, later married to Norm Randolph & moved to Minnesota w/Katagiri

The following autumn [RL-when some of us moved to Harrison St from Clinton St.,] I got to know them better. Maybe they had moved to another house by then. Wherever it was, we had a Thanksgiving party, and celebrated with Takara plum wine and sake. I guess we got kind of loaded and eventually went to the bluffs above the Willamette river at night— there may have even been full moon. We were up there carrying on and screeching at the moon, and then Rick drove Lynele and me home. When he dropped her off, she asked, “Do you want to see new book by Suzuki Roshi ?” We said yes and went inside and she showed us the book – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind - and I looked at the Boni photo on back and went “That’s It, that’s the guy – whatever it is he does, I want to do.”

The next vacation from school, I hitched from Portland down to the SFZC City Center, and rang door bell. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming or anything.  Steve Weintraub answered the door— he was wearing moccasins, a V-neck sweater-vest, and sporting a pony-tail. I said I wanted to practice Zen and he said they had guest student program but I would have to stay somewhere else for a three days, and he mentioned an apartment just down the street. [RL-maybe 191 Haight St, corner Laguna]

Maybe it was until a space became available in the men’s dorm. So I stayed in this other place and went to zazen – maybe this was January 71. First saw Suzuki Roshi for lecture in the Buddha hall. As he was going into lecture I watched him walk in. I had two simultaneous thoughts— I wished a puddle of mud would appear in front of him so I could lie in it and he could walk over me; and at the same time, I thought, “This guy is made of iron and doesn’t need anything from anybody.”

His talk was slow, with long pauses, and it felt as though I could see almost thoughts crossing his mind—not coming terribly fast, just an orderly procession of them.  He spoke into a kind of clip-on mic, and had a cup of hot water before him. His jisha was Pat Herreshoff. She fussed with the mic getting it attached on his okesa. He had a little nyoi. 

Every break from Reed from then on I went to the Zen Center. I was there when Trungpa Rimpoche visited. They were together in the dining room. Suzuki Roshi was sitting in a wing back chair and Trungpa Rimpoche off to the audience’s right. Suzuki Roshi tucked his robes in and crossed his legs sat like— he looked like a picture of those Chinese Zen masters in chair. Composed, settled, his eyebrows would go up sometimes at what Rinpoche or someone said, but otherwise he didn’t emote much. Trungpa was drunk—at least he seemed so at first— but when questions started it was like he’d just gotten a Jedi sword. The dinning room was full to the back with people standing on chairs. I asked a question: “Don’t we have to try to take care of ourselves?”  When Trungpa Rinpoche said to me “There’s nothing to protect, I looked up at Suzuki Roshi and he looked at me with raised eyebrows, like “What areyou going to say to that?” And all I could think to say was, “Thank you.”

[See David's full account of this exchange in his piece on Trungpa Rinpoche and Zen. It’s also in the introductory material to The Teacup and the Skullcup, which are two seminars from 1973 on Zen and tantra, given by Trungpa Rinpoche]


Steve Weintraub was work leader and he had me and another student painting a closet in Suzuki Roshi's bedroom. We scrubbed it with TSP and painted. Suzuki Roshi and Mrs. Suzuki were not in evidence while we were painting. To end work period someone went around with a gong in the afternoon. We had almost completed the painting, but hadn’t thought about cleanup and we would have to walk out through the bedroom and into the apartment just covered with paint. Suzuki-roshi saw us and indicated we should just wait. He came back with a stack of newspapers and he started to spread out newspapers in front of us, for us to walk over. There was just such a terrible physical contrast—between us in our dirty paint clothes and him bending down in front of us, and backing up, spreading out the newspaper for our paint-spattered shoes.  It was like he had to bow down in front of us. It was SO embarrassing - it was like walking on hot coals.

Suzuki Roshi came to Portland for a two day sitting with a Friday open talk at Reed. Saturday and Sunday we were at a rented place—the “Hillside Center”. Suzuki Roshi was staying with Rowena Pattee and Reb was with him. His talk at Reed started with him saying, “Usually when I give a talk, it’s to my students and we’ve been practicing together and now I’m speaking to you whom I don’t know and am not sure what to say. He talked about the four noble truth and started with suffering. As I remember it, he only gave the one public talk, and it was at Reed, on this Friday night, 12 March, 1971. It was held in the dining room there, which was officially called The Commons. The two-day sit started the next morning, Saturday, up at the Hillside Center, a different place, not at Reed.

 [Shunryu Suzuki's talk at Reed College, March 12, 1971]

I went up to Suzuki Roshi after his talk. The dining room had two levels with him speaking from raised level. After the talk he was leaning on a railing that separated the levels - like a cowboy on a corral rail. I said So are you going to give dokusan to all of these people? and he looked at me and said, "I will try."

The next morning in the zendo he did a jundo (a walk around the sitting students) and half way through the period he got up and hit everyone on the shoulder twice - like a blessing. I think for Rick Levine he had to stop and move Rick's love beads to hit him.

RL-Well...Well, well, well.  Something like that did happen but it was at Tassajara during summer of either '69 or '70--I don't remember at the moment.  (I think I told this vignette to dchad for his book of Suzuki-roshi recollections--I don't remember if it made it into the book or into the "Out-takes"  These "love beads", as you charmingly describe them, were actually a Very Fine 108-rudraksha seed mala given me by my then brother-in-law Rick Berman (who later produced and otherwise ran-the-show of Star Trek from 1987-2005 or so).  Rick was wearing it during a private audience with the Dalai Lama who took it from him, blessed it, and attached a string holding 10 silver little ringlets ("the ten perfections") and a tiny dorje before giving it back.  I later gifted it to a Tassajara girlfriend named Peggy Rague.

We had oryoki breakfast and sat the morning then there was a work meeting after lunch. Pat Mcmahon was work leader that weekend and Suzuki Roshi asked him if someone could rub his shoulders and Pat took that job.

DC: That's a most unusual request. It's clearly because he wasn't feeling well.

And then during work period he left and went to Roweena’s in a lot of pain and according to what I've heard, Reb asked him if he wanted a wheel chair when the plane got to San Francisco and he said, "No, I’m a Zen master," and managed to get to the car on his own but then when he got in bed said,  "Now I can be a little baby."

RL-.I gather this is correct as you have it, occurring at arrival in SF. What I know, and have told before, is this:  Rowena told me that on the Saturday afternoon when he left sesshin he arrived at Rowena's and crossed her threshold with fortitude & bearing, then fairly crumpled and said "Now I can be a little baby, I don't have to be a Zen Master".  Then went to bed.

Suzuki Roshi died the next December fourth. I couldn't make it to the funeral.

RL:  I was there and passed through his room to pay respects that first morning of Rohatsu. But I didn't make it to the funeral.  I had just completed my thesis and flew up to Portland within a couple days to present it.

I was trying to practice as a Zen and college student and I couldn’t do both so dropped out of Reed. I didn’t know what to major in and said if have to choose one I'll do Zen and went to Pittsburg and stayed with my folks.

Went to a Korean Zen temple in West Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. A guy named Don Gilbert who was a student of Seung Sahn had a big barn whee I stayed for a couple of weeks. The students stayed in a loft and we would wake up to someone singing the Heart Sutra with clackers going around the barn. There was kimchi on the food table always. 

I applied to be guest a resident at the City Center and arrived in the spring of 72. Philip Whalen had moved in Feb 1st. You were the work leader.

DC - You were a great guest student. Super good worker. You organized all the closets and put calligraphed labels to show where things go and put calligraphed signs on all the valves in the boiler room. The officers were telling me I was taking advantage of you - giving you too much responsibility when you should be doing something more practicey like sweeping.

DC: Was your calligraphy the result of studying with Lloyd Reynolds at Reed?

Lloyd had retired a year or two before, but was around and visitable sometimes. I mostly studied with Bob Palladino — a great guy, who recently was made famous in his obituaries, because it was the work his students did—it was up all over Reed: announcements, signs, posters.—that Steve Jobs saw during his time at Reed.

When I did a reading of Philip’s bio (Crowded by Beauty) at City Center the dining room was full like when Trungpa Rimpoche and Suzuki Roshi were there. I knew almost no one, very few. I remember Laura Burges and Steve Silberman.

Outside of the interview at dinner with Richard Baker, David told about being in bed in one of the hill cabins and, in a pre-sleep hypnogogic state experiencing what seemed like beings from another realm come to him and , in a gravely voice, ask him to come with them. He said okay and started to depart with them and then thought better of it, sensed some danger, and didn't go. The next day, working in the sewing room, he mentioned that dream to Linda Ruth Cutts who suggested he tell Baker Roshi about it. In fact, she went ahead and told Roshi about it herself. Soon enough a dokusan was arranged, and Baker said something I didn’t find terribly comforting at the time. He listened to my story, and then asked me if I’d ever read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I said I hadn’t, and he said it was worth doing, but that the main point was about seeing appearances as part of/product of/not separate from mind.

David spoke with Shunko Mike Jamvold shortly before Mike died and when Shunko told him he had pneumonia, David said he should take it seriously. David said he’d had pneumonia and at one point experienced dark hands pulling him down, realized he was dying and that it would be easy, almost comfortable, to die this way. He struggled to come back. He said that experience made him realize first hand why pneumonia is called "the old man's friend."

[David Schneider will give us more later on his sesshin with Joshu Sasaki and his transition from the SFZC and Zen to studying with Trungpa Rinpoche.]

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