Interview with Katherine Thanas

main page for Katherine Thanas

Katherine died June 24, 2012

DC on Katherine's passing

Katherine Thanas
Interviewed by DC

Katherine has been the abbot of the Santa Cruz Zen Center since 2002 - see this page on their website. That's where I stole the photo.

At first Katherine was worried about this being in the archive and asked me to send it back to her so I emailed her a copy and then we went over a few things and she agreed to let it be included as it is here. - dc

He said, "a teacher doesn't teach what he thinks he's teaching. A teacher teaches himself."

DC: What do you remember about Suzuki Roshi?

KT: One of the strongest memories I have is when I asked if I could live with Bill Smith at Page Street. I asked Yvonne and she sent me to Katagiri and he got very uptight and passed me on to Suzuki Roshi. We had to make a formal appointment and go present myself. I was forty years old. And Suzuki Roshi was very upset that here was this person, Bill, who was divorced and had just had a very intense relationship with Marian Derby and was just starting practice and now he wanted to take on another relationship. Basically he said no. He drew a diagram of a vessel with holes in it and he said if there are holes in it that the water spills out. I thought that he meant we should be dharma friends first and having a sexual relationship would dilute that. I was hurt and angry but still Suzuki Roshi was my father, symbolically, and I was committed to being there with him and I remember the next time I saw him in the hall he came up and smiled and bowed to me and I had a hard time because I was pissed off. So Bill was moving in and he had to stop and moved out and that was a much better idea. I had just decided that I wanted to have a relationship and try that out and the man happened to be Bill. We did stay together later and Baker Roshi ended up sending me down to Tassajara.

I had a rich fantasy life the first year and the second one it was oh dear and depression set in with the realization of the problems in our relationship and Baker Roshi asked me what was happening and I told him and he offered to send me to Tassajara and I took him up on it.

I remember the first time I came to Sokoji in 67 on January third, I came with Mary Quagliata and Katagiri Sensei gave me instruction. So we went to zazen. We were at the [San Francisco] Art Institute together in a drawing group so we went to zazen together. It was her long term interest in zazen that got me into doing it. I remember thinking in the first week that oh I can't do this and it looked like everyone could do this but me and I thought they're not going to let me stay because I was moving and I felt kind of ashamed and bad when I would bow to him as I went out. I couldn't sit for forty minutes without moving and I had to keep adjusting my posture. Moving was frowned upon back then. But the third time I was there he saw me sitting all sad and he came by and touched me on the shoulder and I did zazen on the ceiling the rest of the period. Whatever transmission of energy happened there, it was real. I went wow, this is pretty good stuff.

I remember hearing all these fabulous things about Suzuki Roshi but I went to a talk and when I heard him it wasn't like fireworks, it was like you had to have a relationship with him. There was nothing dramatic. It was very ordinary. I could follow it. With Katagiri I couldn't even understand his lectures. It was always a relief when it was Suzuki Roshi talking. But little by little the real quality of his teaching had a tremendous impact. He said, "a teacher doesn't teach what he thinks he's teaching. A teacher teaches himself."

I remember it was on the third or fourth day of a sesshin maybe in the spring of ‘68 and Suzuki Roshi said in a lecture, "The suffering you are experiencing today, you will remember for the rest of your life.” And I had been crying every period. Every period was so painful and then he said that. It was like a real shift in the level of his teaching.

I remember the incredible power of meeting him in Dokusan and the feeling that you were completely accepted and completely seen through. But I don't think he saw through us in the way we thought he did. He may have seen through us in another way but not in the psychological way.

At some point I realized that I knew he was going to be there for me and I had not made a comparable commitment to him. That helped turn me toward making a deeper commitment.

At that first shosan at Tassajara in the first sesshin I was in, I said, “Inside there's a yes and a no,” and he said, “Follow the yes.” That was a powerful turning point for me because he pushed me to figure out what yes would mean to me and that was complete commitment.

And in one shosan I went up there to bow and ask my question, I couldn't get a clear take on him. He seemed to be becoming a woman, my grandmother, himself - it was all getting mixed up - so my question which arose at that time, was, “Who are you?” and he said, "I don't know." And I didn't know about the Bodhidharma answer then, but it was a genuine response - the intensity of those meetings!

My first summer I went down to Tassajara in ‘67 for two weeks - went with Pat Herreshoff. It was very painful for her to be at Zen Center and I was sorry when she left - it was years after Suzuki Roshi had died but she felt like he didn't fully acknowledge her - she didn't like the name he gave her - she took it as a criticism.

DC: I always felt like she was too critical of herself. I remember when she left she said that she just didn't feel like she could keep up with all the youngsters.

KT: I thought, how could anybody leave paradise?

I was rooming with Pat that first two weeks and I did Tangaryo for two days and then I stayed to work and then I got sick and couldn't get out of bed for two days and Suzuki Roshi came by with a pot of tea. Our cabin was cabin 9 which was right next to the abbot's cabin at that time and it was just fabulous to have that kind of attention. The next day I asked Pat, do think he'll come again? And she said, Zen masters are unpredictable and of course he never came again. That was sweet that he even noticed.

I arrived at Zen Center just before the inundation. It was January of ‘67 during the mailing of the brochures for Tassajara. Because of that everybody just descended on Zen Center and I was there just a few months before all that happened so we had a chance to get to know Suzuki Roshi a little so he knew my name. I never worried about Suzuki Roshi noticing me because I was older and I guess that made a difference. I was forty. How old! But it was a whole universe of twenty year olds. There were about three of us in our forties - Pat and me and Irene - Blanche came later. [I think Pat was in her fifties]

I had one of those experiences. It was a year later. I didn't know what happened but I thought I really like this. I enjoyed it for a couple of weeks and then my consciousness became ordinary again. I kept on with my life and then a year later I don't know what it was but it had never occurred to me to talk to Suzuki Roshi or if it did I can't remember. Anyway one day a woman was talking to me about something or other and in that conversation I remembered that I'd had this experience and so I went and asked him about it. I had it in October of ‘67 and it followed upon an emotional thing that had happened in my life and I penetrated some delusion in my life about painting.

I was going to art school, schlepping my canvases up to Davis. I was renting U-Haul trailers to do that. It was really hard. I was studying with Bill Wiley at Davis and that's where I met Dan and Louise the first time. They were in Bill Wiley's graduate class. I was already doing zazen.

In ‘67 I was living in San Francisco and I was enrolled in the graduate program and sitting zazen and I realized that I was spending my life collecting college degrees. I had a BA in journalism, a masters in sociology from the New School in NY, a BFA from the Art Institute and I was then enrolled in a MFA in painting. I was having a hard time because they were painting differently at Davis than the Art Institute which was abstract expressionist which was not what was going on at Davis and I had to spend a good deal of time defending my work and Dan was helping me to carry my canvases from the trailer - they were five by six or so. It was at the very end of the semester which would have been in December?

I felt terrible. I had a headache and I didn't want to continue the painting it was too hard. I felt I'd been grabbing for accomplishment and recognition and I stayed with the sensations in my body - my headache and the sick feelings in my stomach until I understood that I didn't have to paint. It was my going through my delusions through my body of my ego being rid of this idea of being successful and I it got to be I was all sick and I felt awful and I stayed with the sensations all the way to the bottom and the thought came though it wasn't a usual thought - it was a thought from my stomach: I don't have to paint.

And after that I went to Zen Center to sit zazen and that was when I saw something and when I talked to Suzuki Roshi about it a year later he said was that in sesshin and I said no - for me, sesshin was always too hard - but penetrating my emotions and delusions like that seems to be my way. I first penetrated that delusion at home and when I got to the zendo the result of that release was a state of insight and awareness and realization that lasted for about two weeks and then went away and when I talked to Suzuki Roshi and described it to him, he confirmed it. He said, ‘that's what we call kensho.’ I said, ‘I think it lasted about two weeks. How long did yours last?’ And he said, "About that long." And then he said, "How's your zazen?" He completely dropped it. And from that I got the idea that it wasn't a big deal.

I tried to recreate the conditions of that awakening for about two or three years and then I gave up because it doesn't happen. I'd been telling myself for two years that I didn't have to paint but it wasn't in my stomach mind - it was because of staying with the sensations in the body. And that's one of the main things I think I can teach.

I remember having meals with Suzuki Roshi at Zen Center - dinners. People would come up and talk to him and I remember he was embarrassed when he didn't know the person's name and I think he expected himself to know.

Once at Page Street there were some Japanese teachers coming and we were all running around crazy cleaning and painting rooms and as soon as we'd get something all set up then Okusan would come by and change it and we'd have to redo it and it was kind of irritating and frustrating and we were anxious because there were an endless number of things that made us wonder how could we do it perfectly enough for the Japanese. And I sat next to Suzuki Roshi at the dinner table totally preoccupied with how much more I had to do and my anxiety about it and he was looking out the window looking at the birds and it was such a teaching. His mind was free of that kind of problem and all of us were just scurrying about.

I would say fundamentally that I was one of those people who were scared of him. And I didn't try to have a zillion different connections with him. He knew who I was though he chose me to be his anja early on at Tassajara. Louise taught me how to be anja and the first time I went in there to do it with him - the old little cabin before we moved it. It was where the kaisando is now and became cabin twenty which is next to the garden - but it's turned around - the toilet is north and when he was living in it the bathroom was south overlooking the garden and the rocks. And I went in and the first thing I saw was this little dessert piece on the altar which was clearly the offering to Buddha. He was telling me to do certain things and the only question I had was, what should I do with that? He said to leave it. An hour later I was outside in the garden and he invited me to come in and he made a pot of tea and he served me that peace of cake. I was so embarrassed.

DC: He found the time to do so many little thoughtful things like that for so many people.

KT: I never saw him in a hurry. When they moved his cabin and turned it around and he got up in the morning and ran into the wall. That's the only story that comes to mind about him having that kind of mishap.

DC: I remember something about him walking into a nail or something sharp in Japan once and he said that that was a big experience for him - it went into his eye or next to it.

KT: In his cabin he was very tidy - there was nothing to do. He always had his cups together. And I remember how he made tea - he'd put the hot water in the cups first and then poured that into the teapot, swished it around and poured it back out. I'd never seen tea done that carefully.

Once he had dokusan with Stanley and as Stanley left Suzuki Roshi said at the door that they should meet again and I asked him when that might happen in case I had some kind of responsibility to help him remember. I asked him about it and he said, "Oh, sometime." He'd already forgotten it. I learned to be appropriate and clear in the present and at the same time kind of vague. I thought if you said something that you had to follow through and he clearly had a different sense of how you handle things. It was more like, let's do it again sometime.

I was editor of the Wind Bell and I had occasion to go into Suzuki Roshi's guest room and read the copy to him. And I don't think he particularly enjoyed it. It was the issue on the city center which was a lot about people's feelings and I think he was a little uncomfortable with that. But I didn't really know how he felt because after I'd read everything to him twice and he didn't say anything and I said, should I read it to you again and he said, no you've already read it twice. I think that somebody told me that he was uncomfortable with it though. At the same time we were practicing not having feelings.

DC: What was it of him that you see as Japanese and what as Buddhist?

KT: How would I know? I couldn't distinguish between the two at the time. He totally accepted what the doctor said. He never questioned it. With my mother we tried to get the best doctors and kept trying. Richard or Yvonne told me that the Japanese are very respectful toward doctors and they don't question them.

Just like Katagiri Roshi. Tomoe-san would let the doctor just tell him what to do. And his students were offering him a zillion alternatives which he rejected for a while until a Japanese person came up with some holistic alternative. I went there about three different times during his illness.

When I think about it now I think, we were crazy. We'd just dampen our feelings. I wasn't angry. You remember. We denied our feelings about everything - you know, just practice emptiness - no feelings - deny the self somehow. And what I'm teaching now and my actual experience is the opposite - that you have to acknowledge your feelings and get into it and embrace it and penetrate it. He said things like that - depend on yourself - penetrate the self and when you do so it becomes all things. The teaching he put out was that you had to go deeply into something in order to have it be transformed but I never understood the teaching. I never understood the precision necessary, the attention to detail - I couldn't believe you were supposed to pay that minute attention to your breath, your thoughts, your feelings. Now I know you have to pay that minute attention and really notice your sensations, your thoughts and feelings that you're working with. We weren't taught that - we were just taught to sit there with our backs straight, not attain anything and do what you're told and it's my predisposition anyway to do what I'm told.

I fell in love with the community and the teacher - it was my life - it was fantastic.

DC: Do you think we were a community in a certain amount of denial?

KT: Yes of course. We turned ourselves over to him and to the practice. And certainly more so around Richard - it's so much more clear around Richard Baker. But I was just continuing what I was doing around Suzuki Roshi and I was so grateful that somebody came along to rescue us from not having a teacher and to continue the lineage. By then I think all my dependency came out. I was always afraid I had this tendency to become isolated or to become a nun or a missionary or something and it scared me but when I found that in the midst of a community and in normal relationships you could actually practice surrendering and turning yourself over, that felt like a really viable way of life. One could do it without becoming really warped or in total denial so that's what made it possible eventually to become ordained. I really hesitated. I didn't know what ordination could mean for my life. So I think the fact that it seemed like a broad based experience and it seemed like you could have a normal life in the community and you could have relationships. You had to get up early in the morning.

I had completed all my worldly tasks I would say and my sense was when I came to Zen Center I'd already gotten three degrees and was working on the fourth, I had about a twenty year work history and it was interesting. I worked in journalism and editing - I was editor of my high school and college newspapers. In New York I worked for a non profit travel organization. I went to Europe three times with them. I did administration and teaching with that group. I worked in Paris and traveled in Europe for three summers and studied French at the Alliance Frances. And then I opened up their San Francisco office and worked there for a couple of years and then I worked for Cal Extension in the liberal arts section and that's where I met Dick Baker. That was when he was doing that poetry program. And shortly after my four years at Cal Extension organizing workshops and conferences [same as what Baker did there] I met quite a few interesting people like Nelson Algren. Then I was at the Art Institute for a few years and then I went to Zen Center. I didn't have a lot more career objectives.

I knew that I needed to work on my emotional issues but I didn't know how to do that at that time. I kept having relationships that didn't work out and I came to Zen Center just when one more wasn't working out and so it was a feeling of failure in that area again - everything else worked fine. Career was okay but my personal intimate life I didn't know how to work on. That's one of the things that brought me to Zen Center. It seems superficial now.

DC: How did Suzuki Roshi help or not help you work on your emotional life?

KT: He was my father. And the same thing with Richard - he became a father substitute. It was an archetypal thing.

DC: Did Suzuki Roshi offer a way whereby people could deal with their problems?

KT: Not for me. For me it was a devotional practice that I was quite willing to do.

DC: How did you come to deal with your problems?

KT: Well, Richard had this little accident in ‘83. And that was the beginning of untangling the knot. I began to see that my relationship with him was this complex archetype thing and I hadn't seen the power of the archetype.

DC: What did you do? Did you turn to Buddhism, to psychology?

KT: I had had six years of therapy that started when I was thirty. I'd get really depressed over my relationships with men. But I felt like my experiences at Zen Center were so much deeper than anything that had happened in therapy for me that there was no contest because in zazen I was experiencing the ground of existence. I was connecting with the ground rather than my feelings. I think also I was so tight and so scared that I wasn't a good candidate for therapy cause what would happen is I would have therapy with men and recreate my problems with them. They were male authority figures, archetypes, and I couldn't function - I was too embarrassed. I couldn't admit that I found them attractive - I wasn't in any place to work with it. I understand it now but this is my stream, my karma, my life, unfolding in this way - somebody had to be this one. I just stopped conventional talk therapy again and I don't think it's so good for me cause I think the work I do on my own body and myself, listening to my body, is freer and deeper than telling somebody about my hurt feelings and fear and anger. Something about that is vastly uncomfortable for me. I just quit six years with a woman and I felt so disappointed and angry - I didn't feel like she could hear me.

DC: But you didn’t end up angry at Suzuki.

KT: The relationship around Richard was not psychologically healthy - it was terrible. But I don't feel that way about Suzuki. If I'd been a different emotional type I might not have taken to it in the same way - but I'd been living alone for twenty years when I came to Zen Center and the hardest thing for me to do was move into the community and be with other people. And I knew that was what I had to do. I had to go through the painful process of learning to listen to and respect other people and to be respected by them with all my warts. So, for me, being with Suzuki Roshi was a mix of the teaching, the teacher and the community.

It was totally all connected. And the power of the community life was the glue that held it all together. Betsy Sawyer was important for me - there was warmth there - we needed human relations. The relationship with Suzuki Roshi was this other kind - you had to let your hair hang out. She expressed her feelings so well and I wasn't honest or so in touch with my feelings.

It took me a long time to admit how hard it was to be with Reb and it took me a long time to admit how awful it was to be with Richard. I got transmission from Reb and there was a lot of denial and self blame. If things didn't go right it was always my fault.

Suzuki Roshi was being a human being but also a carrier of the tradition - looking at you, being present, being kind.