Interview with Layla Bockhorst Smith

Cuke Memorial Podcast for Layla Bockhorst 🔊

I loved sitting with Layla's group in Larkspur one morning a week when Katrinka and I were living in San Rafael in 2011 - 2013. As far back as the late 1990s Layla did a lot of transcribing for Cuke Archives, tons on early interviews. Earlier this year she did her last transcribing for us, working with one of the newly discovered Suzuki lectures. She was a lightning fast accurate transcriber. Thanks for everything Layla. - dc

Layla obituary

DC Facebook RIP post and comments

Chris Fortin writes on Layla's last hours

Layla's sitting group - Mt. Root Sangha in Larkspur

You might not notice this link on the Mountain Root Sangha page to mountains walking.

Mt. Root Sangha Readings

Montana Zen Meditation Center

Rowena's great photo of Shunryu Suzuki - with comment by Layla

Interview with Layla Bockhorst Smith


DC: So! Do I need to ask you a question?

LS: Well, maybe. I feel like I, you know, I didn't have much; if it's specifically about Suzuki Roshi there wasn't much... I didn't have a lot of contact with him.

DC: What's your way-seeking mind story? Where does it start?

LS: It starts probably when I was three years old. I was sitting on the clothes hamper in our laundry room and I realized that... that was the first time I realized that people actually die. That there is an end to life.

DC: At three!?

LS: At three, yeah, I think so. Maybe four.

DC: Yeah.

LS: I was pretty young. You know? And I suddenly realized, "Oh!" Something made me realize people die—that this doesn't go on forever, it's... this is not unchanging, you know? And so I think that set in motion my way-seeking mind. [Laughs]. But, more specifically, you know, Zen, it was reading The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. And trying to meditate. And finding it extremely meaningful, and important, and impossible to do on my own. So another couple years went by, and I fussed around and... and then at Reed College there was Lenny Bracket, Richard Baker's brother-in-law, and he lives in the Sierras, the foothills.

DC: ...Nevada City.

LS: And his good friend Sammy Schrager, so they had been down to Tassajara I think the first summer after it was bought, or maybe the second summer.

DC: Lenny was here some the first summer. I remember him, he played guitar, he played really good guitar.

LS: So they came back and started sitting zazen, and so for the first time there was actually a place to sit... to meditate. That was the beginning and then I came down here from Reed for a month in the summer. I lived in the lower barn with my roommate, who was Meg Gawler.

DC: You said Lenny and Sam came down here?

LS: Oh, yeah. They came down here.

DC: And then they went back and started sitting zazen?

LS: Yes, they started an off-campus Zen house called "Cosmos".

DC: Right!

LS: One of the rooms was a zendo. In the house. They gave people zazen instruction and they sat. I don't remember how often they sat. Might have been every day, every morning, that they sat. And out of that a number of people became interested in practice. So the next summer I came down here for a month and I lived in the upper barn. With Meg, and Katherine Thanas; we all lived there in the upper barn.

DC: And Marian was there.

LS: And Marian was there, yes.- Marian Derby. And Frances Thompson. Frances Thompson was the tenzo.

DC: She's the only person from Zen Center who still relates to... who... who is allowed to rate... relate to Marian Derby.

LS: Oh, is Marian Derby alive?

DC: Yeah, she's up in Northern California. I'm in touch with her sometimes... Through Frances, or through direct letters from Marian. But, I can't answer. I have to go back through Frances.

LS: Why, does she not want to? Why's it private?

DC: Her husband doesn't want her to have relations...

LS: Any contact?

DC: ...with people from Zen Center.

LS: Oh.

DC: He doesn't let her drive.

LS: Wow.

DC: [Laughs]. I just considered it another one of Marian's trips. She's a pretty strong woman, I never can see her as a victim.

LS: I hope so. Yeah.

DC: So I remember you all there, I remember that group...because I'd go visit Marian down there.

LS: Yeah. Dan Welch... Dan and Louise Welch were here. Paul Rosenblum was the office person. So I was here a month and then I went back to Bush Street.It was '69, summer '69. Roovane was here. Bunch of people.

DC: Oh yeah, a lot of people.

LS: Yeah.

DC: Now, in '69 I left in the middle of the guest season to study Japanese. So I might've missed you.

LS: Yeah. I... I don't remember you so I think maybe so.

DC: Yeah, so I was in Monterey studying Japanese.

LS: Uh-huh, the last half... I was there maybe... I think the last month... the last month. And I think Suzuki Roshi was in the city the whole time. Maybe he came... no, no, he did give a lecture here, I remember going to one or two lectures of his, here.

DC: So that was the first time you saw him?

LS: I don't actually remember it very well, I... I don't remember completely. The first time I really remember seeing him was over winter interim, over Christmas. I came down to Page Street, Page Street had just been purchased.

DC: Yes.

LS: And there was a big party in what's now the Buddha Hall which was still a sitting room, a ladies sitting room. And there was a fireplace and there was a big party, I think to celebrate getting Page Street. People were just sitting on the floor cause I guess we didn't have chairs...

DC: Well, people moved in that building like mid-November... November 19th comes to mind. You said around Christmas?

LS: Yeah, it was around Christmas. It was over Christmas vacation. And he was there, he was there at that party and he was around the building. And I think that's when... no, that would've been later. So then I went away back to Portland and earned the money to come down and do practice period, and came back in August of 1970 to the city, spent a month in the city, and that's when I actually had the most contact with him. Because he was there and I was there, and I never, like I said, I never had dokusan with him, but he was always around the building. I would see him. I was very shy, I was afraid to approach him, but he approached me once, as I said, when I was sitting on the front porch steps, the front steps of Zen Center. I was very poor so I was making all my Christmas presents, so I was whittling, a set... a salad set, a spoon and a fork out of wood. He was very interested in that. Wanted to know what I was doing, how it was going, and came and sat down next to me and he looked at it. And then there was... the only other thing, and I think I told you about this before, was... there was a black kid just boldly knocked on the front door and came marching in and wanted to know, "What do you guys do here? What do you guys do here?"

DC: There was awhile there they didn't lock the front door.

LS: And he saw the Buddha Hall, it was then a Buddha Hall with tatamis, and he turned a couple cartwheels across the Buddha Hall, this little black kid. You know, he was a youth, a black youth. And then he was standing there, he was demanding to know... maybe before he turned the cartwheels he said, "What do you do here? What're you guys doing here? What's going on?" And Suzuki Roshi was there and came over, and he bowed to him and said something like, "We practice Zen here," and... and, "You want to know what that's like?" The kid was being kind of snotty, I think, and so Suzuki Roshi turned him around and he whacked him with his kyosaku, real hard, you know, a couple times on his shoulders, and he turned the kid around and bowed to him. And that... I think after that is when the kid went and turned the cartwheels. You know, he wasn't put off, he wasn't upset, or hurt, or anything. It was like, "Whoa!" He went and turned these cartwheels in the Buddha Hall!

DC: Oh, that's great! That's great...

LS: ...and he left...

DC: ...that's a nice image.

LS: And then I came to Tassajara and Suzuki Roshi was not here because he was sick. And... So it was Fall '70 when I came here to live. Where you here, then, Fall '70? Tatsugami-roshi's first...

DC: Yeah, yeah, I was here.

LS: Tatsugami's first practice period?

DC: No.

LS: ...wasn't his first?

DC: ...'69.

LS: Oh... oh, wasn't his first.

DC: Spring of '70 was it first? In Fall of '70, then Spring of '71...

LS: Okay.

DC: ...was the three he did.

LS: So it was his second. It's a little hard for me to talk out of the blue. Especially when I don't think I'd... just didn't have that much contact with him, you know?

DC: Well, it didn't matter, tell... talk about yourself. I mean, just what happened after that.

LS: So, it was my first practice period, and it was really a hard practice period 'cause I was cold, and scared, didn't have enough clothes and I was rooming with Janet... Janet...

DC: S_.

LS: S_.

DC: Oh! That would've been interesting. [Laughs].

LS: I think she was having an affair with Tatsugami Roshi at the time. So, she wasn't there actually a heck of a lot of the time.

DC: She said, "He's more man than any of you."

LS: Ha! Well, he was quite a man! I mean, he was pretty solid there. So I was just, you know, concentrating on trying to get through daily fall schedule and.... And that was Fall '70. And then spring... did he die spring '71?

DC: No, he did not.

LS: Died Fall '70?

DC: No, his death was later, it was later.

LS: Okay.

DC: It had nothing to do with that. He was.. I was, you know, I was on the board then and he'd been here enough and we begged Suzuki Roshi to do the fall practice period and he said that he'd do it if Katagiri helped him. Katagiri was gonna leave, he said he'd do it if Katagiri helped him. And so Katagiri said, "All right," and we went from... we were tired of Tatsugami, most of us.

LS: Yeah, yeah.

DC: I mean, we liked him, but, you know. If... we wanted Suzuki and we went from... from thinking we were gonna have Tatsugami again to all the sudden having Suzuki AND Katagiri. In the Fall that's what we thought we were gonna have. And Suzuki wrote Tatsugami a letter and uninvited him and that was the end. And he was over in Japan telling people that he had an American monastery.

LS: Yeah, yeah.

DC: An American disciple, Janet...

LS: Yeah.

DC: ...who was gonna come to Japan and go into a nunnery, but she'd already gone... you know...

LS: Elsewhere.

DC: ...she had to sort of run to Suzuki to get out of that.

LS: Oh.

DC: And Tatsugami ordained her here.

LS: Yeah.

DC: You know, Tatsugami.

LS: I remember that. Yeah, I remember that. Yeah. Hmm. So... so why didn't Suzuki Roshi come and... he and Katagiri come and lead the... lead the practice period?

DC: Suzuki was dying.

LS: 'cause he was sick again.

DC: Katagiri led the practice period.

LS: Right. Yeah. And maybe that was when Kobun Chino helped?

DC: No, Kobun was gone.

LS: Yeah. He was earlier, I remember him in that Summer... remembering giving lectures that Summer.

DC: I'm... I mean... he was gone for months, he was... he went back to Japan and then he was in Los Altos. And .

LS: Yeah.

DC: And... and Harriet was mad at Suzuki for not marrying them because he kept putting it off.

LS: He wouldn't marry them?

DC: They eloped. I can tell you about it when we're not recording.

LS: Okay, all right. That's right, we're recording! [Laughs].

DC: In fact, I just wrote about it for Vanya’s book on Kobun.

LS: Huh. Ah, good, okay. You could write another book on the history of...

DC: No, I will not.

LS: No??.

DC: My websites are enough. Books are a lot of trouble.

LS: All right.

DC: [Laughs]. I might do something, but we'll see! [Laughs]. So, you were here then you... then you were here in the Summer, is that...

LS: No, I went back to Los Altos in the Summer.

DC: Oh, you'd been in Los Altos?

LS: Yeah, Jim... Jim Bockhorst. He didn't want to come to Tassajara. He wasn't ready to come to Tassajara but he came down to Los Altos and started practicing there.

DC: Did you know him already?

LS: Yes, I knew him from Reed. We met at Reed.

DC: Oh!

LS: At the Zen House.

DC: Was he your boyfriend?

LS: He was my boyfriend for four years, yeah.

DC: Oh, but I... yeah!

LS: Yeah.

DC: Oh, how... romantic!

LS: [Laughs]. Yeah, we were both at Reed together and after my one month here in the Summer I went back to Reed and set up a Zen House; me and Rick Levine set up a Zen House. Another off-campus house, 'cause I guess the Cosmos wasn't functioning, anymore. And we had a real scene going, you know? We had about this huge old off-campus house... old house, you know.

DC: That's the one that Suzuki came to with Reb?

LS: Twelve people lived in... no.

DC: That was different.

LS: That must've been something else.

DC: Because he went to Portland...

LS: He went to Reed! At some time.

DC: He went to Reed.

LS: And gave a lecture.

DC: That was in... that was in like January of '71. Right? February? and that's when he had to, all the sudden, have that gallbladder operation.

LS: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

DC: Like, he got like...

LS: Sick.

DC: A LOT of pain, and...

LS: Yeah.

DC: ...and, you know, had to come back and go right in the hospital and get his gallbladder removed.

LS: Wow. Yeah. No, I don't think that house was there, anymore, after we all left for Zen Center. Whole bunch of us left for Zen Center. But we had, you know, we had oryoki meals and [laughs], amazing. Lots of sitting, lots of zazen.

DC: Mm-hmm. Lots of zazen, when?

LS: I think we sat every morning, and I know we sat every afternoon.

DC: Really?

LS: Yeah. Yeah...

DC: Wow!

LS: ...we were quite... quite gung-ho there for awhile.

DC: Almost all the sitting groups sit, like, once a week.

LS: Well, we were young college students.

DC: Yeah.

LS: Into it.

DC: So then when... when Suzuki Roshi was dying did you come to any of his last lectures? Where you there for Dick Baker's Mountain Seat Ceremony?

LS: Yes, I was.

DC: What do you remember about that?

LS: Yeah, well, like everyone I remember Suzuki Roshi looking so... so... so sick, you know? So yellow and... What did someone say, that he was just almost smaller than his robes? Coming in, with that ringing staff. I remember him more than anything else. I remember him coming in with that ringing thing, and then... I don't remember too much about the ceremony itself.

DC: So, what's happened since then?’ve

LS: Oh boy. Heh heh. Mmm. I got a migraine.

DC: Oh you do?

LS: It's hard to think, yeah.

DC: Well, maybe you should go rest.

LS: No, I get them all the time. And I just... I have medication for it, and it works to stop the pain, but it's hard to think. It's hard to think very well.

DC: Well why don't you do the meditation to stop the pain?

LS: I already took it, so I'm not experiencing a lot of pain, I'm just... it's just hard to kind of think really clearly [laughs].

DC: Well, maybe...

LS: No, no, this is fine. We should...

DC: Really?

LS: Yeah. Especially if you ask the questions.

DC: Oh, well...

LS: It helps.

DC: Like... like... just getting a picture there of, you know, like.... You have a Zen group, now.

LS: Right.

DC: Where is it?

LS: Larkspur-Corte Madera.

DC: When do you sit?

LS: Twice a week!

DC: I'll come sit with you. Maybe Katrinka.

LS: Yeah, if you live in San Rafael.

DC: Don't expect us to be regular, you know, we'll just drop by the center.

LS: Yeah, well nobody's regular, sometimes it's just me.

DC: All right, good!

LS: We sit Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6:30AM for 35 minutes. Yeah.

DC: That would be just me, not Katrinka. She works late.

LS: Okay.


DC: 6:30AM... that's it?

LS: That's it! And then we have half-day sittings four times a year.

DC: And what's your... what address?

LS: Oh, it's at the... Aikido Tamalpais center. And it's 142 Redwood, in Corte Madera, and there's a map on my website. And there's a map on my website which is It used to be a more vital group and... and people have been doing it for twelve years so people... a sangha grew and people really got to know each other and felt support from each other, but one by one people moved away, for various reasons.  So every once in awhile we get together a few of us, you know, we're trying to get together more, but now there's only, locally, there's only three or four people left. So it's pretty small.

DC: Well you go to... you go to Idaho?

LS: Montana and Idaho.

DC: Boise?

LS: I go to Boise, sometimes...

DC: John Connor's thing?

LS: Yeah, yeah.

DC: And Montana?

LS: Helena, Montana.

DC: Yeah.

LS: I go there twice a year and one of those time I do a one or two week practice intensive where we sit zazen three times a day... we offer it three times a day. People can come according to their schedule.  And then we do a... a longer thing on the weekend. So it's... it's quite nice, you know, there's not much happening there and... the people really appreciate it. I'd like to go there more. I really would, and... and I've been invited to go to another little town in Montana called Kalispell and do a Zen event there. There's just these isolated people here and there in Montana who are interested in practicing.

DC: Mm-hmm. So who've your teachers been?

LS: Suzuki Roshi is my root teacher. And then after that pretty much everybody. You know, just, life in general, practice and sangha. I don't actually say that I have another specific teacher. I can't say right now I have a teacher. Norman gave me transmission. But I don't feel particularly close to Norman. I love him. I love Mel, Mel was the preceptor for my transmission.

DC: Wow! What's that?

LS: The preceptor?

DC: Mm-hmm.

LS: They're the ones... the ones who do the precepts part of the transmission ceremony. You know, where you take the precepts again. And you have a special teacher, you know, it's not just the transmission teacher, there's this other second teacher who's the preceptor for the ceremony. And they give you the precepts and they give you a little speech about how important it is to follow the precepts.

DC: All right!

LS: It just adds, you know, weight and gravity to it.

DC: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Oh. Mmm. Do you know about the... up on I've been putting up examples of Suzuki Roshi's use of the word "precept"?

LS: Huh.

DC: So Michael Katz's wife, Jenny Wunderly, asked me about precepts, and I'd just done this thing, putting up examples of his use of the term "most important" for Steve Stucky. And that was... that was really neat. I think there were about 225 times...

LS: Most important?

DC: ...he said "most important", and it was... it was usually the... "the most important point is" or "the most important thing is".

LS: Right.

DC: So the precepts is... was... every time he said the word "precepts", well, it's half his lectures.

LS: Wow.

DC: ...but Jenny's doing it and I've been putting it up and, it's like... I mean, it's like a thousand pages, or something!

LS: Wow. Yeah.

DC: It got to be too long, so I've started the second, you know, website page.

LS: Precepts are important! Obviously.

DC: Niels used to say, "Suzuki Roshi's teaching is precepts!"

LS: [Laughs].

DC: But this is really pointing that out.

LS: Huh, yeah.

DC: And then for Steve I searched for "money support", some different words like that – what Suzuki said about priests and lay and support. So... so, you... you... you lived in Zen Center until you were at Green Gulch, right?

LS: Yeah, we... we lived there a total of eighteen years.

DC: Wow! And then you and Jim moved to Mill Valley?

LS: Yes, we moved to Mill Valley.

DC: And Mill Valley... you moved to Mill Valley in like, when?

LS: 1987, Fall '87.

DC: And then you moved to Larkspur?

LS: In 1990.

DC: Uh-huh.

LS: Yeah, 1990. Maybe '91.

DC: Anything else?

LS: I don’t think so.

DC: Well thank you.

 Transcription by CM beginning of November 2012.

Layla's sitting group - Mt. Root Sangha in Larkspur

Mt. Root Sangha Readings

Chris Fortin writes on Layla's last hours

one of the things that stands out to me about layla is that she had come to rest in the importance of the simple act of being with and caring for her sangha .  she simply and deeply wanted to devote her life and practice to sangha ( in the bay area, idaho and Montana ) and the practitioners who had come together to practice with her 
the sangha sat with her both in person and on zoom as she was dying . 
the evening of thursday nov 3 denise ( a senior practitioner in the sangha ) and i were sitting with layla in the bockhorst home, along with the sangha who was on zoom.   layla was breathing softly and evenly and peacefully just a few feet away 
we  chanted the metta sutra which layla loved and  a dedication of merit . 
as we closed, denise turned the computer screen so the sangha could see the soft and gentle candle lit space where layla  was  and encouraged people to silently send her love and whatever was in their heart 

we closed the zoom at 8 and robyn asked us to come over to layla because something was changing in her breathing . we walked over - just a few steps across the room -  layla took 2 deep breaths and she was gone . her time of death was a few minutes after 8 .

effortless and  simple , layla fully let go and leapt free

we chanted and bathed her,  dressed her in her robes and rakusu with flowers everywhere around her body  . the bockhorst  home was opened friday and sat. for visitation . she was carried up the steep stairs out of her home on sat. evening  with a group of us following close behind chanting with wholehearts,  joy and grief  'gate gate’ over and over 
the cremation was 11/15 and layla was attended with chanting and ritual by long time dharma friends  and mountain source senior practiioners.