Paul Shippee interviewed by DC
This interview was done, as said below, last Spring at my home in Sebastopol CA. I visited Paul in Crestone CO in February where he was working on his home, a fantastic solid domicile with a rammed earth 1st floor and a straw bale 2nd and a spectacular view. He's got a way to go and is totally involved. - DC
DC: So, here we are with Paul Shippee on the sixth of April, 2003. I just wanted to ask you what you remembered about the old Zen Center, you know, how you came there, and memories of Suzuki Roshi and what’s happened since them.
PS: Hey, that’s a long list.
DC: How you got there, how it went, and people always want to know, well what are they doing now.
PS: Well I’m sixty-five years old now. One thing I’m doing is being that old.
DC: But start back at the – how did you come to Zen Center?
PS: Well, there’s a long story and a short story. Which one do you want?
DC: Oh, long story’s fine.
PS: Okay. The long story begins in childhood even. I’m just going to summarize this quickly but – I was new – yeah, actually I did need to say this, yeah. Ever since I was a child I had this perception that my vitality and my perceptions were being denied by the adults in the world. And I always felt that that happens to everybody. But for me I was determined not to --- somehow in my nature – I don’t know if I was determined, it just worked out that way, that I didn’t want that to get smothered up or frozen in time. I wanted that vitality and different perception that I had as a child to be part of my life. So I guess you could say I went on a search. In other words I felt that the adults around my life were lying, basically, that they didn’t know the true nature of reality and that they had made something up and they were offering that to each other and to me as the way to be. And I didn’t want to be trapped in that way to be. So I wanted to expand. That’s all I can say about that.
So I went on a long search --- ten years, or something. The first part of it was in college. I studied science. I got a degree in civil engineering. I studied deep science as a preparation for the application of those sciences which is called engineering. Got a degree in civil engineering in 1959. Soon after I graduated, or even while I was graduating, I began to see through that. See that that was a repressive kind of a culture. That even though it was a good money-maker, I was sort of handed the keys to the kingdom so to speak. If you’re an engineer you can go out and do a lot of things. But still, the engineers that I knew were kind of narrow and repressed and rigid, and I thought that there’s got to be something else. And my nature which I spoke about before wanted to come through.
The next thing I tried was acting. Because I felt like I was restricted and I needed to learn how to make a gesture. I wanted to make a gesture. This occurred to me one day and so I happened to be married to Sandra Archer who was an actress. And we went to Mexico and hitchhiked all around and finally some guy came up to us – he was actually a friend of hers at San Francisco State and he wanted to make a movie. He wanted me to be the subject of the movie, but not me personally, but me as sort of a Walt Whitman character. So I started into acting, and I was in several plays. Met Peter Coyote and various other people around the city who were interesting in San Francisco.
By the way, out of college --- this is important stuff, how you get to Zen Center --- right out college I was hired as a civil engineer to work on the reconstruction of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. I hitchhiked here right out of college, a week out of college, and I arrived in San Francisco in June, in the early summer of 1959 and was totally enchanted by this city. So lived in the city for ten years basically.
So after trying science, when that wasn’t satisfactory, I tried art, being an actor. I was in many plays and movies and various things for four years around San Francisco, even including street theater. Anti-Vietnam street theater stuff in San Francisco and New York both. . . . plays in San Francisco and working with Nina Landau, which is Saul Landau’s wife, in some street theater in San Francisco along with Joe McDonald, Country Joe. We had a band and everything. So street theater is what we did, anti-Vietnam plays.
So that was art. I did that for four years. It was satisfactory, and I did learn how to make a gesture. I studied dance with Anna Halprin at the same time. I worked with Lee Brewer. And all these people were liberating to me in terms of how to make a gesture and how to be authentic. But gradually as I became more deeply into acting I found that most people were not authentic. So I began to get disappointed with that.
So then I tried drugs. That was the third step. The third searching. Science. Art. Drugs. In San Francisco, in the mid ‘Sixties if you’re an artist or an actor you could hardly avoid drugs. So I started doing drugs. I got into hard drugs with some of the really creative actors in San Francisco, especially people in The Committee. Spontaneous improvisation. It seemed everything seemed to depend on drugs. So I got very sick with drugs. A little hepatitis. Hard drugs, needles, whatever you want to say. And it was fun to go deeply into these sort of partying or getting high with various creative people. That was very illuminating for me in a lot of ways. But on the other hand it was dangerous. And I almost killed myself. So I realized that I had sort of hit a brick wall after trying these attempts to become liberated.
Interestingly enough, at the same time, early on, going back to in college, I had actually been attracted to this book called "Hinduism and Buddhism" by A.K. Coomaraswamy. That was a book that I kept on my shelf and I read even in college. I didn’t know anything about spirituality, but that book somehow spoke to me. I remember I kept that book, it was all frayed, it was hardcover. Then, of course, in the early ‘Sixties, or maybe even 1959 I read "On the Road" and "Dharma Bums" and Kerouac was talking about Buddhism. So I was aware of Buddhism through these means. And at one point I was living in a communal house on Pine Street, and I was living on the back porch, I had made a bed for myself and I was in different plays and I was doing. My back porch, the window of my back porch looked straight down across, right out at the Zen Center, at Sokoji.
DC: Pine and Laguna.
PS: Yeah. I would be in a play at night, and I couldn’t sleep by the time I got home, and I would maybe take a little speed to do some art work at night, and I’d be up all night long. I remember at dawn looking down and watching the black-robed people, people in robes, I knew they were going to meditation. Maybe they weren’t wearing robes, but I just knew that --- I watched them go along the sidewalk and up into the building right from my bedroom.
DC: What year was that?
PS: That was maybe ‘Sixty-five, ‘Sixty-six. Anyway, then I found out I had hepatitis, so the whole, my whole acting career kind of crashed.
DC: That’s from shooting up, huh?
PS: Yeah. And I had to go in recovery for that. I was actually in Berkeley when I found out I had hepatitis. And I was in the first sitar class of Ali Akbar Khan. The first one. I was enrolled in that. And I had to quit in the middle of that because I got sick. So part of my recovery, I was back in the city, and I was staying with these two actress ladies that I had met, that I had knew, cause they were in the theater in the Actors’ Workshop as well, and I knew them. And I was staying with them, cause I needed a place to live after I got sick, so I came back. I broke up with this girlfriend and these two actress ladies were taking care of me. And one of them happened to say, it was in the winter, would you like to come with us. We’re going to a lecture by Suzuki Roshi. And I said, sure. So they drove me over there, we all went over there together, the three of us, and we walked into Sokoji, and up the stairs to the second floor, we walked in this room. The smell of incense. There was a shrine there, on the second floor, and I walked up and I sat, as I usually do when I go to talks, sat in the front row, or second row, close up to the front. And I happened to notice something on the shrine there that looked like a human being, but they weren’t moving. And I watched and watched and this guy was sitting there with a bald head and these brown robes, and he wasn’t moving. The stillness was like capturing my attention. Never saw anybody be that still before. Anyway, after awhile I was sort of observing this, and looking at the shrine, and the bell rang. Donggg. And this fellow got up, who was a small Japanese man. And he straightened his robes and he started talking to us. And he gave a talk. And during the talk --- I never saw a person laugh like that. It was the most open, incredible laugh. I mean his expression was so full of humanity, or anything that I thought was missing in my life, that the contrast between the stillness that I had observed moments before, and this incredible expression of himself through laughter and talking --- I mean it was like --- I never saw such a broad expanse in a human being before. And the feeling I had, even though I may not have been aware of it then, I became slowly aware of it over the next year – and the feeling I had was, I’ve been looking for you for a long time, and oh, there you are! It was like --- some people say it was like coming home. For me it was like, oh there you are. It was like a part of myself that I knew was possible, that I wanted to develop, there it was, I mean, an expression of it. Somehow there was a mirroring quality like that.
So I went back there a couple of days later and asked for meditation instruction. They put me onto Katagiri Roshi and he sat me down in the hall there and he sat across from me, we both sat on cushions, and he just told me, sit still and follow your breath. That’s it. And he said, and come to group meditation. So the next day I went to the five o’clock meditation – five or five-thirty, whenever it happens in the afternoon – at the temple, at Sokoji. I remember there were a lot of people sitting around. We were facing the wall. And we were to sit there for forty minutes. And I had never sat anywhere for forty minutes. But interestingly enough – while I was an actor I was studying one day for a scene. I was doing some blocking movements on myself, practicing, maybe practicing lines as well. And all of a sudden I just had this curiosity – I wonder what it would be like to stand still and not move for five minutes. So I walked up to the window and I just determined I was going to stay there and not move and just look out the window for five minutes. Just to see --- I’d never done that before, never had a thought in my life to do that, all of a sudden it just occurred to me. Nothing to do with meditation, nothing to do with Buddhism. But I did remember that I did this as an experiment. So there was some kind of attraction there, mysterious attraction toward meditation obviously.
So sitting in that first group sitting that I went to at Sokoji, the one thing I remember about that was it was not only excruciatingly uncomfortable, but all I could remember is it felt like my ears were on fire. The longer I sat there the more my ears felt like they were burning. And maybe it’s because there was a huge amount of pressure from thoughts inside, and they couldn’t get out, for once. So the feeling was the ears on fire. It was amazing.
Anyway, I left San Francisco. My brother sent me a plane ticket and decided to bring me back home to meet my parents who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in five years. So I was in San Francisco at the time and my parents were in Connecticut. So my brother sent me a plane ticket. And I took it and I went back and he presented me to my parents. You know I had long hair and earring. I hadn’t seen them in more than five years. I was 28 at this time, or 29, something like that. I hadn’t seen them for quite a long time, five, six, seven years.
DC: Had you corresponded with them any or talked on the phone any?
PS: Not talked on the phone. But maybe I would write my mother a letter once in a while. Very rarely. I hadn’t seen them. Not talked on the phone. So I went back there and I started sitting. And I got this job while I was back there as an attendant in a psychiatric ward of an experimental hospital. They were having seriously screwed up people, mentally, people that were institutional cases that they usually would keep locked up. They were experimenting with unlocked wards. So I got a job there baby-sitting these people I was like a psychiatric aide. I remember I would sit, every day. I couldn’t sit for more than twenty minutes. And sometimes I couldn’t even sit. So I had a little pot with me. And I would smoke a little marijuana because that way, when I sat, I could drop into my experience and not try to get out of it. So that was one of the initial things that helped me sit for longer periods was to do that. But I didn’t do that very much. I just did it once in a while.
Then I moved to New York City and got a job as a social worker for the New York City Welfare Department working in Brooklyn. And every day I would come home and sit. Put a piece of incense there and sit for thirty minutes. That’s how long it takes for an incense stick to burn down in New York at sea level. Then I began doing that and studying with Tai Shimano who is now known as Edo Roshi, I would go up to his zendo. So I kept this practice up for a year in New York City.
I remember reading some publication while I was in New York City --- oh, here’s another thing that’s interesting to me which was kind of a leap of faith or confirmed that meditation was something that I wanted to do. I had spoken to Gary Snyder earlier before I left for New York. He had just come back from Japan. And I asked him, what about sitting, and what not? And he said, well have you read any books? I said no. He said, well I think you should read some books. You need to learn about Buddhism as well as sit. So he introduced me to --- what’s that guy who wrote "The Essence of Buddhism"? The British guy?
PS: Edward Conze. He told me to read that book. So I read that book and then some others. But I was pretty religious about sitting. I tried to sit every single day. So in New York I remember sitting in my room one Saturday afternoon and thinking about Buddhism. And I kind of like closed my eyes and I had this really amazing feeling, like after having read some books now, having sat for about a year, I had this incredible feeling one day. It was like a stone dropping right into my heart. Yes, meditation is the way. Is the only way that you can find what you are looking for in this world. It just was like this certainty that just dropped right into my heart. And at that moment I just accepted the whole thing. I no longer was like questioning or searching or trying to find out if this was that or what Buddhism meant or anything like that. If teachers were valid or not, it just boom, it just happened. So a little while after that it was spring, and I was reading in some publication that my friend, my old college friend --- well we didn’t go to college together but I went to college with his brother --- Peter Schneider, was now the director of Tassajara. And I said, well, if he can do it, I can do it, and I really want to learn how to meditate. So I said, I’m going to Tassajara, cause my friend Peter is there.
DC: ‘Sixty-seven, huh?
PS: That was probably ‘Sixty-eight. Summer of ‘sixty-eight. Getting into the summer. So I got a truck, and I outfitted it, and I went up to Maine for a few weeks to hang out with an artist friend of mine up there, and I had a girlfriend from New York, and I invited her to come out west, and we drove across, and we stopped visiting people in New Mexico and here and there, but we finally got to San Francisco. I had a motorcycle in San Francisco, and I sold it. It had been there since I had left. And I got enough money for my first training period and I was accepted to go to Tassajara that fall.
I only planned to go for three months. One training period. So after I stayed for three months, one training period, I turned to one guy when I was . . . . in the middle of the morning when we were doing some labor shoveling out of the back of the dump truck and I said to this person --- it might have been Jerry Fuller or somebody like that --- I said to him, this just gets better every day. That was my feeling. So I came back for three more training periods. Basically for years I was at Tassajara. Why I went to Tassajara is because I wanted to --- a very strict purpose --- I wanted to learn how to meditate. I felt that meditating for half an hour at the end of a work day every day wasn’t doing it. I felt I wanted to go into a pressure cooker and really learn how to meditate. I thought it would take three months. But it took two years for me, there, and a lot of practice, and it was great. It was wonderful.
And while I was there --- it came to the fourth training period --- and I was thinking deeply that I need to make a decision here. Cause people are giving me so much, being at Tassajara – you know the teachings and the whole set-up --- that I felt like I needed to start giving back. So I thought that maybe I need to become ordained as a priest. And that would be my means to give back to the community some of the incredible gifts that I had received. I was thinking over that. And then I went to the city one time, in that winter of I guess it was ’68, ’69, and I think that was the time when Trungpa Rinpoche came to give a talk at Zen Center at Page Street.
DC: That was probably ’70.
PS: No, because --- it could have been ’70. It could have been ’69, ’70. Yes, that’s when it was. It was in my second year there. That’s exactly right. And I just wasn’t that interested in that, but I remember that all the time at Tassajara I was reading Tibetan books in the study period. I always had, like, "The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism" by Lama Govinda, or "The Life and Teachings of Naropa" or one Tibetan book or another I always had that for my reading.
So I went to the talk and sat way in the back. There were a lot of people there that night. There was a talk by Trungpa Rinpoche at Page Street in the hall. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I didn’t personally witness this. But later I heard these stories that Trungpa’s visit there was amazing in that he found in Suzuki Roshi, on this North American continent, he found almost like a blood brother of enlightened mind. They just hit it off perfectly. At least from Trungpa’s point of view. He felt he’d found ---
DC: He felt he’d found his father.
PS: His father. He found his father. And they made, at least from Trungpa’s point of view, they made a very powerful connection. Father and son, like that. Cause Trungpa I don’t think was even thirty years old at the time. So I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but I heard a lot about that later. But I was pleased of course to hear that later. So, let’s see, but anyway I was sitting at that time. I don’t know, I raised my hand, like I usually do at talks, to ask a question. And I was sitting way in the back. When he called on me he pointed to me and I spoke my question, and he spoke the answer. I had no idea what he said in the lecture, or what he said to me, nor what I asked him. But what I do remember is the feeling that I had that when he answered my question, that he was talking directly to me. Like he almost was an old friend or something. And I remember that it was like a very distinct experience that I had. A lot of people have said that about Trungpa. Anyway, that was it. I wasn’t interested in finding a new teacher. I was in the training period at Tassajara. I was just about to begin another one. So I went back there.
DC: Well if it was ’70, that would have been Tatsugami.
PS: Back to Tassajara, sure. Tatsugami was there most of the training periods I was there. He came on the second training period I think. And Suzuki Roshi was there for my first training period. Then Tatsugami came as the training master from Eiheiji. Yeah. Because I had left Tassajara after the spring training period in ’71. So I was there for three training periods with him. He kept coming back. Yeah. So anyway, I had known Trungpa Rimpoche through that very brief encounter in sitting in his lecture that time. So I went back to Tassajara for a fourth training period right after that. When I got there, we were waiting for the training period to start, I arrived a couple days early. And Van – you remember Van? – he was my roommate. And he came stumbling along the path there, arriving back to the training period, and he turned to me, and he said to me, Paul, he said, I have some tapes of Trungpa Rimpoche, would you like to listen to them. I said, no. Cause I was already on something that I was focussed on. I said, no, not interested. So we started the training period. And I was pursuing my studies there of the Tibetan books. But there was one thing I was doing that was separate from the Tibetan books which was I was pursuing on the study of what the Six Paramitas are. I was reading – in the Tassajara library I was getting books that read to me about the six paramitas -- they seemed to me to be English translations of Japanese translations of Chinese, or something. The descriptions and the study of the six paramitas was coming to me as if through a glass darkly. Through these translations I could get a sense of it, but I couldn’t quite get it, what they really were, what they really meant, to my life, to me. So one day I was in Van’s room, he was my roommate, and I was in his part of the cabin. And I looked on his desk and I saw a tape that said Six Paramitas. Chogyam Trungpa. So the next morning I was resolved to listen to that tape. So instead of going to study hall I went to the cabin. I had arranged for a tape recorder, and I was sitting down listening to this tape of Trungpa talking about the six paramitas. It was some lecture he had given in America shortly before that.
All of a sudden there was a tap on my shoulder in the cabin. It wasn’t even light out yet. There was a tap on my shoulder, I was listening. So I stopped the tape recorder and looked around. There was the monitor from the study hall saying, Paul, you need to be in the study hall. I said, well, I’m studying here today. No, you can’t do that, you have to go to the study hall. I said, well, I have to listen to a tape, that’s what I’m studying. I can’t listen to the tape in the study hall. It doesn’t matter you have to go to study hall. I said, Look, I’m not going. Leave me alone. So the person left and I started the tape back on again. And it was listening to that tape that was the pivotal turning point for me to consider taking Chogyam Trungpa as a teacher. Because the way he explained the six paramitas in there was like crystal clear to me. It was like he had learned the American idiom. He knew how to talk to Americans. The way he explained the six paramitas was something I felt like I could actually relate to as a practice and understanding and really make it mine so to speak.
So I considered this for a few weeks, and I developed this plan to write a letter to Trungpa Rimpoche expressing my – I sort of felt like I was in a dilemma. I had been considering that I needed to be ordained as a priest now, and give back to the Zen community the gifts I had been given. But at the same time here’s this other thing that’s coming after me, and I had been reading these Tibetan books in study hall, and all of a sudden, and I heard this tape, and all of a sudden I’m thinking, hmm, well maybe I should do something different. So I sat down and I tried to express this in a letter, and I sent it to Trungpa Rimpoche. In the letter, the main thing that I remember that I wrote in the letter was, the question that I asked him, which I was leading up to in the whole letter, which was, do you think that it’s reasonable or appropriate for an American to go from Zen Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism. Do you think that’s a path that is reasonable for an American, given what we are. And given what Japanese Zen, how that strikes us, and how --- anyway, I don’t know what it was all about, but I just said those things to him. And I never received an answer from him. But it was like I was asking the question to myself obviously. I was getting clear about what kind of question I had.
Somehow I resolved that that was going to be my last training period. Throughout the three months it came that I needed either to become a priest or --- I needed to stop just being a student, and just taking all this stuff. So I left Tassajara. And as I rode my green truck --- or whatever the color was --- through the gates I felt a deep sadness that I knew that I wasn’t coming back here. And I was going to some unknown place, as I drove my truck through the gate of Tassajara to leave I just had that kind of feeling.
So I got to the city and I found out that Trungpa was going to be giving a talk in Oakland in a week or two. So I went to Page Street and I stayed there, I lived in a house next door up above Katagiri Roshi. And I lived there for a month or so. I was determined to do something to make a closure for my experience with Suzuki Roshi. So what I decided to do was sew a rakusu. By that lady who was teaching people how to sew a rakusu. What was her name? That Japanese lady?
DC: Yoshida Roshi.
PS: Yeah. She was teaching us. So I took teaching from her about how to sew, exactly how to sew the rakusu. So I spent a month there as a practice of formally closing this chapter of my life with Zen Center by sewing a rakusu. I thought that was an appropriate ceremonial activity for me to do. At the same time I was determined to go and meet Trungpa Rimpoche cause I had found out that he was going to be staying with Henry Schaeffer in the city and Henry Schaeffer was a long-time friend of mine since early ‘60s. And Trungpa Rimpoche was going to give a talk in Oakland, so I went there to the talk. And I sat right in the front row, again. This was in like April or May of ’71. As soon as the talk was over, I jumped up and went up to the stage and I got his attention right away and I said, did you get my letter?
So I talked to him there, and I asked him had he got my letter and he said, Yeah. I told him I said you know I’d like to --- and I found out that the words that people used in those days was have an interview or something I don’t know. So anyway I asked for a meeting and he said, well, that’s fine. He said talk to one of his helpers and arrange to come over, find out where I’m staying. He was staying at Sam Bercholz's house, actually at that time in Berkeley. He had stayed at Henry Schaeffer’s for two nights, and then he was over there.
So I decided to go over there and have a talk with him. And I walked in the house, and all these people are sitting around. It was like total chaos, in a way. It had a rich feeling, but it had a disorganized feeling as well. And he was there, somewhere, and I found him, and I said, here I am, I want to talk with you. He said, okay., let’s go sit on the back porch. So we went and sat on the steps on the back porch and I talked with him. One thing led to another. And actually he was the second person that I ever met in my life that had this quality about the way he is. In other words, it was like Suzuki Roshi. When I saw his body. Not read something, or hear something, but I just looked at their body I got this feeling that this is an enlightened --- I didn’t say enlightened, but this person has what I want, somehow like that. I had the same feeling with Trungpa, exactly the same feeling. There was some quality of being liberated or spontaneous or not fixated or not rigid like all the adults that have lied to me all my life. You know? So I just was attracted to that feeling that I got when I was looking at him. That was the draw.
So gradually I became a student of his and I decided not to be involved with Zen Center any more. And found out that he was giving a seminar on the bardos in Colorado at Allen's Park that summer. Allen's Park, which is up near Estes Park. It’s like a little town near Estes Park in Colorado. So this was the first big seminar that he gave in America. He had given talks a night at a time here and there, but this was going to be a week-long teaching. And I was then, as part of gathering my wherewithal to find out what I was going to do after being a monk for two years, I reconnected with Peter Coyote and some of the Digger guys and I was going up to Olema and then they closed that down and then found out to my delight that a lot of the Diggers were planning to have a caravan and journey to the East. Leave San Francisco and go out through the desert and points further. That sounded really great to me so I joined up with them. I brought my truck over to the red house in Forest Knolls where Ron Thelin lived, and everybody there was working on their trucks and making plans on how we were gonna pull this off and have this big caravan and head out of Marin County for the East. With no particular destination in mind, as usually the Diggers would do, being sort of extreme anarchists. And I injected into this group that I wanted, my goal was, whatever we do, I don’t care what we do, but I want to be in Allen's Park, near Boulder, Colorado, for that seminar.
There was a Chinese lady who was a medical doctor, she rode with me, she and I became friends, she traveled with me, and we had this caravan, and we all went and camped in Nevada and Utah. We just took our time. It took us a whole month to get there. And it was a great communal caravan. That was my exit from California, and I’ve never been back, actually, to live.
DC: That was in ---
PS: That was in spring of ’71. Within two months after the training period ended. Summer. Interestingly enough, there’s an interesting thing that happened with Peter Coyote. I was going up to Olema where he had a little ranch up there. A lot of Hell’s Angels used to go up there and hang out. And Lew Welch and all kinds of people passing through there. But Peter and a bunch of people lived there. I remember one morning I was there staying in my truck and Peter was playing some music in the morning. And I had my shaved head there, and Peter had his long hair, and at one point he stopped and he turned to me and he said, you look like your mind is crystal clear and my mind feels like broken glass. I thought that was great.
So anyway, we’re in this caravan and we go out there and I peel off from the caravan We get to Boulder, we’re actually camped above Boulder in the caravan, up in the canyons there, near Gold Hill. They actually waited while Mai Ting, the Chinese lady doctor who was riding with me, she went to the week-long seminar . . . in Allen's Park. That was like a huge amount of people. Total chaos. And who shows up there, much to my great surprise, comes rolling in in his milk truck, Bob Halpern. He had journeyed all the way from San Francisco to come to this thing. And of course he was at Tassajara with us all the time. I think Alan Marlowe could have shown up there too. Two or three people from Zen Center came out to that talk. It was amazing. Beverly Horowitz.
Anyway, that was a wild time with all kinds of crazy people from all over the world practically at this seminar. Easily two hundred people. And he gave these mysterious talks which hardly anybody in the room understood about the bardo teachings in Tibet. But again, it was the presence of this guy that people were attracted to. This Trungpa guy.
So I left there and went down to Boulder and went down to another red house in the canyon, and tried to get Trungpa to come up to the Digger caravan camp, which was up in the mountains, only about ten minutes away. We were just about to go out the door, he was gonna meet all these people around our campfire, and his wife, Diana, stopped him and she wouldn’t let him go, because she thought these people were dangerous, cause she had seen a couple of them. So he never went with me that time.
Anyway, I decided to become a student of his. But went back to the caravan, we went down to southern Colorado to some communes that I knew down there, mainly Libra and Triple A in Huerfano Valley. I knew those people from before cause I’d already been there. So I encouraged the caravan to go down there. And Peter Coyote knew some of the people too, he had been out there. So we decided to go down there and make a big camp there and stay there.
DC: Peter Rabbit.
PS: Peter Rabbit, yeah, he was there.
PS: Yeah. David Gnaizda and his sister Lynne, who married one of the Libra guys, Steve Raines. But anyways, it was a good place, it was wide open country and we were able to --- Peter Coyote was interesting in this caravan because he was the one with the good manners. In other words, he wanted to go camp somewhere in the national forest and send just a couple of people into the valley, into this commune, to see if it was okay, rather than just dump on them and overwhelm with fifteen trucks and forty people. So it was interesting developments there. And we had many campfires and music sessions. We even painted one of the houses we were staying in. There was an abandoned adobe house and just as a paying back to the community some of the good things they did for us. Again, that was Peter’s idea.
So we wound up there, and we stayed there, and then it started getting cold. And people were at a point of decision. And the caravan at that moment, at that point, broke up, and several of them went back to California, some of them stayed in the valley – Mai and some of the other people stayed in the valley and rode horseback up in the mountains. They just wanted to get into this really primitive life and whatever they were looking for. She was actually a medical doctor. Myself and Peter and some of the other people went back to the East Coast, cause Peter’s father had died while he was on the caravan, so he needed to go back to the east coast. His family had a farm up there, called Turkey Ridge Farm, something like that. So I went there and stayed there for a month, two months maybe, while he was grieving for his father. We had some interesting visitors come through there.
Then I decided that I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do which was assemble a book of poetry that I had been writing for some years. It was too distracting there. So I decided I was gonna fulfill a life-long dream and go to Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the wintertime, and live there. So I drove my truck back there, and stopped in . . . to spend time with my family again, my mother and father, and then went off to Provincetown right at the tip of the Cape. I stayed there for the whole winter and spring and wrote and self-published the poems that I wanted to do, and got a lot of help from people there to do that. And worked as a carpenter, and was on welfare, and different things, food stamps and everything, to get by.
So what do I do now? I’m out here in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and I’m going up to what was then known as the Tail of the Tiger. It’s only a few hours away, so me and some other people would drive up there ---
DC: That was in Vermont?
PS: Yeah, Vermont, Barnet, Vermont.
DC: Was it just a community of Trungpa’s group? One of their communities?
PS: Well it was a farm that somebody gave to Trungpa Rimpoche. Some philanthropic woman student, through her family, gave this farm to him. And at that time he thought he was just going to be this little country monk and live at this farm for the rest of his life. Little did he know he was going to become this peripatetic teacher, dynamic teacher. He didn’t know that at the time. He thought he was just gonna live at this farm. But all kinds of people kept showing up. Rick Fields was there. All kinds of people kept showing up. And I would go up there for a weekend, or a talk, and just --- later they named that Karme Choling.
And Tsultrim Allione was there also (she's a well known dharma author now, with Tara Mandala, a buddhist retreat & program center near Pagosa Springs,Colorado). She was a Tibetan nun, American girl, married a good friend of mine who lives in Crestone. She was traveling with Ram Dass at the time. They were trying to raise money for something, I forget what. But she came there and she encouraged me. She said, you know, there’s lots of land out there in Colorado and they really need people who can help them build. I was somewhat of a builder at the time, being a civil engineer. So based on her invitation to go out there, I decided to journey to Colorado in the summer of ’72 and leave Provincetown. Cause it was filling up with people for one thing. So in June, me and a girlfriend named Mary Newton (who later became the mother of my children) got in my truck and we drove up to Canada. We went up to Canada to go to Emmett Grogan’s wedding first. Cause Peter had invited us, cause he was going up, and we went to Turkey Ridge, got in some trucks, and went up to Montreal where Emmett Grogan was getting married. Went to the wedding, had big parties in the French Quarter, playing music outdoors late into the night around a fire in the middle of the street in front of the hotel.
Anyways, finally we left there and we drove across Canada, me and my girlfriend, and we came down into the U.S. through North Dakota and down through South Dakota into Colorado, and right straight through Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, which is now known as the Shambala Mountain Center. But it had just been purchased the year before. In fact I went up with a group of people from Boulder while we were in Boulder the year before to look at it just before they bought it. It seems like Trungpa was getting the idea that this community was gonna actually expand because so many people were coming there. And when he was invited to Boulder, Colorado to give a talk at the University one day, he took one look at Boulder and said, I want to live here. It reminded him of Tibet, because it was mountainous. The next thing he did after he moved to Boulder was --- this is while I was away, no, actually this was around the time of the seminar --- and he decided that we needed a place nearby, within a couple of hours maybe, that could be a contemplative retreat center. Almost like people in the city, at Sokoji, like Dick Baker and Suzuki Roshi had felt like they needed a place like that and they got Tassajara. It’s not that far away. Well he felt that he wanted a place, and he had spent time at Tassajara, so he wanted a place like that in Colorado. So some people went out looking all over the state, all the way into Wyoming and stuff. Finally settled on this one piece of 250 acres in northern Colorado which we named the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. So one of the benefactors, one of the students put down $40,000 as a down payment. So we had this land. And we moved out to it. And the ranchers around there threatened to kill us. We didn’t move off of it. . . . everybody had long hair. And they came at us with shotguns. They didn't want. long-haired people in the community. That winter they moved on the land and started building these buildings. This was raw land. No one had ever built on it before.
So we established that there through that winter by this other group called the Pygmies which I wasn’t part of. They’re the ones that moved --- cause they needed a place to live, they were living in buses and it was getting cold. They had been living in New Orleans and they somehow found out about Trungpa and they decided to come up. Anyway, they’d built a few shacks and a few buildings. And I arrived there the next summer. And Jeff Ellis was living there, who was a Zen Center student for some time. He was living there at the time and he was building. So I got out of my truck and they handed me a hammer and I started helping them build stuff and wound up living there and building a house of my own there for --- built the first solar heated house in the county there, in ’72 and ’73 and ’74.
So then I --- I don’t know if you want to go on with this --- how far you want to go with this talking today?
DC: Long as you want.
PS: I basically left there in ’74 because I was invited to be one of the founding teachers of Naropa Institute. I was teaching solar energy. I was reconnecting with my engineering background and starting to explore and do research and experiments in solar energy while I lived at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. I started teaching a course that I made up at Colorado State University that spring. It was right when the energy crisis his. I made up this class called Alternative Sources of Energy and the Human Environment. And Naropa invited me to be part of that first summer. So I taught at Naropa for the first two summers. And gradually moved to Boulder. Got married --- well we didn’t actually get married, had children, and lived in Boulder. Had a solar energy career, and meditation involvement for many years.
DC: You were saying a while back when you first came to Zen Center you had to sit for forty minutes. And then you said, oh yeah, I want to tell you this other stuff. So could you come back to when you first came to Zen Center you said you had to --- I mean it sounded like you were saying something about that.
PS: Well, I couldn’t sit for forty minutes, so I used to sit for as long as I could which was twenty minutes. And I remember when you – we were out on the sidewalk and you showed me how I could sit, and you said it was possible to sit in this lotus position I couldn’t do it. It was really painful. And you wanted to demonstrate to me it wasn’t that hard. So you sat right down on the sidewalk and crossed you legs and sat up straight and said, look, this is how you do it.
I know I couldn’t sit for --- even when I went back to New York in the first whole year of practicing sitting I couldn’t sit --- twenty minutes was max, I was maxed out at twenty minutes. Then in New York I talked to Tai Shimano about that and I said, you know, I can sit for twenty minutes, but that’s about it. Do you think that’s okay? He says, thirty minutes better. So I started sitting thirty minutes. And then gradually worked my way up to forty minutes.
DC: Right after you came to Zen Center you went to a practice period at Tassajara so you were doing something.
PS: A whole year afterwards. When I first came to Zen Center I then left and went back to visit my family. I spent a whole year in New York City working --- more than a year, a year and a half in New York and Connecticut.
DC: Then you heard about Peter Schneider being at Tassajara and you went back to the practice period.
DC: Do you have anything more to say about Suzuki Roshi, do you remember anything about him?
PS: Oh, yes, I do, indeed. I’m glad you reminded me. Okay, great. Sitting at Tassajara – we sat two sittings in the morning, one before lunch, and then sometimes two after dinner. I remember – this was an amazing experience, actually --- and an encounter with Suzuki Roshi as well --- I remember – let’s see, how long was I there when this happened --- it could have been the second training period, let’s say, maybe. I was getting into sort of a --- sitting was becoming less painful, more comfortable. I was starting to experience these vast spaces of stillness which I had never experienced before. It was getting interesting, you know, interesting. Very interesting. So one day we sat for forty minutes before lunch. Then the bell rang, and you could smell the food cooking in the kitchen coming into the zendo. And then when the bell rang and we turned around in our seat and opened our oryoki set and put it on the board there that went by the tatamis. I was just sitting there, after one hour of sitting, after forty minutes, I was just sitting there, and I was looking over at the floor waiting for the food to come in. And there was just a spot of sunlight on the floor. All of a sudden, I felt this incredible stillness happen in my body. And I had this realization of like brilliant, it felt really bright to me, and all of a sudden I realized, it’s always now. It just came on me like a flash. I had the realization that it’s always now. That may not sound like much to somebody who’s not involved in this, but this was a major --- it was like explosion or something. It was very peaceful. It wasn’t uncomfortable at all. A lot of people might get terrified by this, but I was --- it was like a flower opening or something. I had this realization that it’s always now. It was so liberating to have that flash of insight come down into me. It didn’t have to do with thinking, it was just like a flower opening. It was amazing. Then I thought about it later. I said, I wonder if this is an enlightenment experience. I said, there’s only one way to find out, go ask Suzuki Roshi.
So I told Peter Schneider or somebody that I needed to talk to Suzuki Roshi. So I went in there, it was winter, he was sitting there and he had this little charcoal fire going in that little stove that he had. Sat down, and I started telling him about what happened. I asked him, I said, is that an enlightenment experience and he said yes. I said, what about you, do you live in that --- does that happen to you a lot or do you live in that space the whole time or what about you, how do you experience that. He said, it’s kind of like a bird singing. You just hear a bird singing. What I got from that was it comes and goes. It’s not a constant thing. But that it happens. You have this flash of realization, it’s like hearing a bird singing. He knew exactly what I was talking about. But the way he answered it was so neat. Not a lot of explanation, just, like a bird singing.
So that was my most memorable moment of course both at Tassajara and with him. That doesn’t happen all the time by any means, but it happens some times. I’m sure many meditators have experienced things like that.
I guess another time in the city --- oh yeah another thing I remember about him at Tassajara, after the first sesshin at the end of the first training period, I was there. He was there the whole time. Then – what’s that ceremony that happens afterward where the students come up and ask him questions?
PS: Shosan. It was during the shosan ceremony, he was giving a little talk before the shosan thing began, I think, or after, he was standing up there talking. I’ll never forget this, he was standing there and he said, I don’t know where I am or who I am. I just want to say these things to you. It was really amazing because I never heard anybody say that before in such a sincere down-to-earth way. But it was more like --- what it meant to me was that --- I don’t know what it meant to me, it just was like --- what it said to me was there are other dimensions in life besides knowing where you are and who you are. That’s what it was saying to me actually. And he knew what they were, and he was trying to communicate them to us in a gentle, non-complicated way. So that was another time.
And one other time --- I think this was after I had left Tassajara, but I wanted to talk with him in the city. So I arranged that, and the time came, and I went into his room, his apartment there. There’s a neat little picture I see once in a while of him sitting there with some tea cup, and that’s exactly where I was sitting, talking to him. Flowers in the background, in his apartment, there were some books, anyways I guess I had --- I don’t even remember what I tried to ask him then. Oh yeah, I think it had something to do with --- in the shosan ceremony I had asked him about pride. That while I was sitting in the sesshin I felt like I was gradually being victorious over the sitting situation. That I wasn’t feeling bugged by it, or resentful, or in pain. I felt like I was learning to enjoy it. And the more we went the more I wanted to do. I felt like I can do this. I noticed I was developing some kind of pride with that. So I wanted to ask him in the shosan ceremony. So I made up this long poem or something that I had presented to him, and I asked him at the end of the poem I had presented to him, and I had memorized it. The question is, how shall I understand this pride. After I described to him how the pride was. And he said, it’s really not a problem. It’s okay to show pride. Until you become a teacher. I wanted him to explain more about what he meant. I think that’s why I went to see him in the city, cause those encounters with the teacher, right after sesshin, are pretty powerful. You don’t forget them.
So I went there and asked him, I think I asked him what it’s like to be a teacher, I can’t really remember. But I remember his answer. What he said was, and I may be paraphrasing this --- but he said, you have to kind of --- it’s really not that hard, you just have to stay one step ahead of the other people. It’s like there are steps or stages and if you’re one step ahead, then you can teach somebody what the next step is, something like that. That’s what he said. Not a big deal.
So those are kind of like --- oh I remember one time I was driving the truck, the big power wagon down the road, right between the cabins. And he was crossing the road. How old was he then – 65?
DC: He died at 67.
PS: Oh was he 67 when he died? Anyway I was not even thirty yet I don’t think so I thought of him as --- well he was the Zen master, but he seemed like an old man. He was like the old one. So I was driving this truck down and I started to slow down. He stopped walking, he turned around and did this little dance in the middle of the road, like just to have some fun, just to make me laugh. He did this antic little dance in the middle of the road, right in front of the truck as it was moving toward him. He started doing this little dance. Then he just kept on going. He was really playful. I experienced his playfulness, and his depth and vastness of mind, and his whole bearing in life.
DC: At the point when you got involved with Trungpa Rimpoche --- we only have a very brief amount of time here --- he was at Tassajara then. I figure at the point that you went off Suzuki Roshi was at Tassajara. And then he came back in August to the city, gave one lecture, did one brief ordination, and then pretty much he was in bed after that, and died. Do you remember, how did you hear about that?
PS: I was in New York at a presentation of the Living Theater I think. And Alan Marlowe was there. Alan Marlowe came up to me and said Suzuki Roshi died.
DC: You mean, you didn’t even know he was sick, just heard he died.
PS: I didn’t know he was sick. I mean, I knew that he was sick, but people said he had stomach ache or some kind of digestive problem or something . . . .
DC: Well that's all the tape we have. Thanks.
PS: Thank you.
Paul Shippee's website: http://www.healthresource2000.com
It's Health Resource, a Smart Health Store - Prevention Works - Take care of your health.
His email: firstname.lastname@example.org
And he suggests the site for Tsoknyi Rinpoche http://www.pundarika.org