Interview with Steve Tipton
Steve's email about the death of his colleague Robert Bellah and more
Steve and I are close. We’ve kept up through the years. Clay’s mother Elin’s mother’s family is from Atlanta so I was there now and then from the late eighties through the first few years of this century and would see Steve then because that’s where he lives with wife Christen who’s an African scholar and son Evan who’s in his twenties now. Steve and I have also gotten together through the years when he comes to California to visit his family. He was a close friend of Niels Holm and the three of us got together every few years or so until Niels died. Steve is a professor at Emory University and has written books, listed here, one of them which includes a good deal about a bunch of us Zennies. It’s called, Getting Saved from the Sixties. Steve has been a loyal supporter of the work I do to preserve the legacy of Shunryu Suzuki. He’s given me letters of support at various times. Here’s one. I remember first getting to know Steve at Tassajara. He knew everything. He’d been into the People’s Republic of China (just a bit from Hong Kong - I think I've got this right) and I asked him about that and rather than say oh that was neat, he made an appointment with me and gave an hour and a half lecture on it and it was all fascinating and informative.
ST: What does it mean to actually be able to do this stuff? We tried to do it so maybe it made us interesting to him compared to a lot of other people. He was interested in what was going on. He wasn't so interesting to himself. In some ways he didn't fit in Japan but in a whole bunch of ways he did fit. He fit in terms of their monastic and religious institutions. He wasn't so mysterious if you were Japanese or about his age of his generation or for people who'd grown up in a family with clergy in it whereas for us we couldn't see much of that. And we were asking: What's a good community. What's a good church? What's authority that you can trust?
DC: So what do you think about doing a book on him?
ST: Would he want the public acknowledgement of a book?
DC: I know he wasn’t interested in that when he was alive.
ST: Don't use too many voices.
DC: I’ll do my best.
ST: How do Japanese create the stories of their saints?
DC: I don’t know, but I’d say fairly simply, concentrating on dharma stories, pretty idealized.
ST: I didn't really know Suzuki Roshi so well.
In the spring of 1970 I was at Tassajara working at the end of the stone room digging a big hole for a septic tank and there was almost no room down there so it had to be in one place at least that's what Niels had decided and we had some other people working on it and we got down six or eight feet into the ground and a ten or twelve foot wide hole and we found a Nevada stone boulder that had been carried down the creek a century or two ago or whatever - it was a big composite granite boulder - maybe seven feet long, five or six feet tall and three or four feet thick.
And I said we can't do it - we'll need a jackhammer or dynamite.
Niels said no keep digging, we can break it open and I've seen them doing it in Greece with hand tools.
Everyone else left the job because that was all we could do till we got the boulder out and it wasn't at all clear that we were going to get it out of there in any way except for breaking it up. I was working for a week or so on it. I was wasting a lot of oxygen on an acetylene torch trying to get it out of there.
So Suzuki Roshi came down there. This was April or May. And he was walking along one afternoon when I was by myself working on this boulder and I'd knocked some pieces off of it but I wasn't really getting anywhere with it and it was sort of kidney shaped and it had a crease in the back of it where you could see fault lines coming out and the other side of it was big and solid and humped out and he was going to the baths and he came over and said, "Hi, you're going to break up the rock?"
And I said, "That's what I'm trying to do - you have any ideas? It's coming slowly."
It was two or three feet from the edge of the whole to the top of the rock and he came over to the edge and sort of folded up his robes and didn't say anything more and he walked along the top of the edge and looked it over. It was a six foot hole - and he leaped over the gap and asked me to get off and he was energetic and interested and he said yeah, this is a problem and he walked around on it and bent over and put his hands down and patted the rock and he was going, heh heh heh - he appreciated it, and I was just standing there watching him and there was a fault line that was kind of like the spine of the rock and after a while he said, "here and here and here" and so I got the holes drilled where he indicated and I put the spikes in them and I got the sledge hammer and started knocking it in and hairline fissures formed and I kept hammering into those three holes and it broke into a dozen pieces - three or four big ones that we winched out.
He'd worked with rocks in Japan so he knew something about them. He knew not to hit them in the guts where it looks cracked, hit them in the spine.
Niels enjoyed problems and he thought it was great what Suzuki Roshi did. Suzuki Roshi seemed very young when he was working on that and to him it was very simple.
Terry Gragg and I roomed together at Tassajara.
I was with Tai-san [Eido Tai Shimano] when he was pretty young and he was impressive and had a sort of presence and I went back to San Francisco and was between college and graduate school. I was a CO in the war and two years in Massachusetts.
DC note: I remember that at some point there Steve was a murder investigator in Harlem.
ST: I was an old fashioned Bohemian in a lot of ways. While I was at Page Street I was running a street school in the Fillmore for illiterates. I knew I was going to Harvard graduate school.
I was sitting in the Buddha hall at Page Street at a lecture - it was the first time I heard Suzuki Roshi talk and compared to Tai-san I didn't find him terribly impressive and I thought Zen Center was flakey, half-assed, undisciplined - it was my own naiveté and Tai-san's influence. He was in a relatively small apartment on the West Side up until like ‘69 and I went a few times there but after he got into real estate he had a very slick operation.
DC: Bob Walter said he had one black student who he made sit zazen in the kitchen.
ST: Yes there was a kind of caste system - inside outside. To get in they had a sit-off and people who wanted to members had to come sit together and compete. Compare that to Zen Center it was like San Francisco State Community College - you could always get in.
DC: If you said you couldn't sit or even that you didn't believe in sitting you could get in whereas I talked to someone who called Tai-san's Zen Studies Center and was told not to bother to come if they can’t sit full lotus.
ST: I thought about Zen Center - this is a flakey half-assed institution that this person has let grow up around him but what's interesting about him is that compared to Tai-san I wasn't particularly impressed but I was kind of inspired by him and I'd engaged Tai-san intellectually and asked him some fairly engaging questions but he didn't answer them to my satisfaction.
And I'd ask Suzuki Roshi questions and [unclear here but he says he was in a hurry and was impatient for answers and Suzuki was clear that he wasn’t going to get any answers overnight and Steve thought he didn’t have time for that and needed to get back to school and it seems by the next thing I have to say that he talked to Suzuki about it and Suzuki understood.]
ST: One of the best things about Suzuki was the clarity with nothing extra added.
DC: He'd always tell people to stay if they said should I stay or leave but if they said I'm going to go do so and so then he'd reluctantly say okay. So you knew what you were gonna do so he didn't get in the way.
ST: The reason that I would have stayed at Zen Center were all the wrong reasons anyway - I liked some of the people - I would have stayed for you and Niels.
What's the story about? It's about this guy and his life - it's a biography - but about relationships between alumni - good students working at their practice and bad students - one on one relationship - Suzuki Roshi and relationship also what does it mean that this is a person church or a practice religion. The idea of a person church or a transmission outside the scripture got amplified [in Zen?] Good people hardly ever come along - they're all assholes except for a handful - who is this person and his relationships inside of a social field or setting and it's also a question about big ideals that people have about what a big person is. There's a saint in the midst - pay attention.
Trudy's [devotional, idealizing?] thing and Dick's some too in the intro to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind feeds into that - there's a kind of truth to it but there's a kind of mistake to that - that finally to see who he was is to step out of that mistake. He's just a guy and a guy who comes out of and in a way embodies a whole world and a tradition that from its own angle might be a lot clearer about what it means to be a good person.
It's not just what he is but it's what the tradition means - what it means to belong and be a member and - not be so special.
Here you've got 250,000,000 Americans [studying Buddhism?] each trying to be as special as they possibly can. They are convinced that they are special in a very peculiar way. There's something there that's important and can listen to people say why he was so special and by listening to what did he say he was doing here?
Wherever your story ends there's so what? It doesn't end with Dick. Where are we now. Some of this stuff about masters and authorities and being good friends has something to do with it. It's also a story about a community of character and practice, of shared practice but shared character and ideals and for most of the people in that community that's part of what you're there to learn.
Suzuki Roshi's right at the top of Zen masters in terms of benignness. So what? What did you learn?
DC: I visited with Maezumi once when he was staying at the guest house of the City Center and asked, "Has one person benefited from Zen coming to America? Can you name one thing that it's done to help?" And he said, "I don't know."
ST: What kind of community did people try to have and what the hell is going on here anyway? A lot of projection, a lot of transference, a lot of cultural construal and misconstrual about being with and becoming the person [church?]. You can take a lot of that away and there's still something there. What you're going to get is who am I? Who are we? more than who was Suzuki Roshi?
He embodied lots of institutions and traditions and histories that were relatively opaque to most of us and unreadable. We can say this guy isn't responding like other people I know - my mom my dad Lyndon Johnson - how and why he responded as he did. What did I learn? I can get mad now and get over it.
DC: He said just do what you're doing without having to talk about it or think about it. A lot of people have a sense of failure, that they didn't take advantage of it, missed opportunities but that's part of being alive - that's a common experience - being human is having long periods of waste but it's holding an artificial standard up to yourself but it seems that part of our lives are spent with difficulty.
ST: If you should be so unfortunate as to meet a saint then you should stay around as long as possible. What are we to make of somebody extraordinary. What should we go on to do?
DC: Why call him a saint? He was a Zen priest and that was his job.
ST: I train ministers and [I tell them], this isn't going to get you out of difficulties and this isn't about getting you out of anything and that's true about all religion - it's not about how to avoid suffering, it's how to suffer well, live well, die well.
What about the people who got off of the educational trolley and couldn't get back on? But things wouldn't have worked out anyway.
The romantic ideal of being a Bohemian and leading the artists life is part of our tradition.
DC: There’s an idea that the artist is special, better and has to suffer.
ST: And that they should live a life of direct feeling and experience and engagement as opposed to instrumental bottom line product - if you read it from a Western Bohemian, romantic ideal, you can get a lot of fit with some sort of Zen literary stuff like DT Suzuki and Gary Snyder [check out those] sources and how you can use them.
One time when Dick was getting his temple tea house fixed and I was living with an artist guy and so I got hold of Lucy and she said sure come up and it was a big weekend and Gary took a bunch of people around to visit hippie architectural wonders and there were 15 or 20 people and they were all in an old Willis Jeep truck with a cab on front and no one sat with him - but if the guy wasn't Gary Snyder [they would have].
There are reasons from our own culture - you're upper middle class and a folk intellectual because you have much less college education that a lot of other people from your background. You've studied art appreciation [not meaning me DC] and you know you can be only a few things in this world - an artist, a poet, or drop a step to a college teacher or down to a corporation lawyer and all those guys making a buck like your parents and do the music and art on the weekends.
DC: You had a student who wrote a paper on how the church now is your friends and Elin and I liked that idea and had a little get-together sometimes in Santa Fe based on that. And I liked sitting at the Chorten and Cloud Cliff and some other places there a lot. That's one model of Zen I like.
DC: You say you wish Silas and Niels and I were around and Jonathan says those were the best times and his best friends and best teacher and he's still looking for that and we all do but I also feel that at some point our sangha has to be just whoever is around and it's a mistake to try to return to that oh what a time!
ST: If Suzuki Roshi had fit into the world he was in he wouldn’t have come here. He was crooked. The cucumber is nothing extraordinarily powerful. It has a kind of sweetness to it. He was a very good son to his father. You have to be strong and pure to go through the training he was in and he was sweet. I have a sense that he had a kind of impatience to do what he wanted - I've got Steiner's story in Getting Saved from the Sixties. Anyway, there's the crooked part but there's the cucumber part - this person who comes out of that old world and embodies it and the way he connect with us is partly in his relationship to that world.
A lot of things were hard for Katagiri and that made him a better teacher for some students.
DC: Natalie was doing a signing in Santa Fe and I went and she said, oh David you knew Katagiri better than me tell us about him and I refused and she insisted so I said, well, everything was hard for him.
ST: Sitting was hard for him. He tried so hard.
Some things weren't so hard for Suzuki Roshi - he had anger or impatience but he was this playful guy with a lot of playfulness in him and that was a way to be engaged with him.
I never had a feeling that Tatsugami was profoundly interested in any of us - we were amusing but there was nothing going on there. Katagiri was third best so he made up for it by giving 110%. As far as Katagiri was concerned Tatsugami was a bull elephant - he's the shogun and he's the preacher with the purple Cadillac and we're all cleaning Charlie's kitchen but in that sense Suzuki Roshi is a little bit crooked, a little bit to the side, a little bit playful, a little bit not caught by the you gotta bust your ass. He’d say, "I wasn't smart enough to get away from my master. I stayed." He stayed not to be such a big deal.
Juxtaposition and contrast. How did what was fixed in your life interact with Suzuki Roshi?
Zen Center is two miles as the crow flies from my grandmother’s. I'd seen all the far out stuff happening in San Francisco for a long time so I wasn't so interested in that stuff.
Think about how saints get amplified in our culture.
Dick had a way of processing Suzuki Roshi for public consumption - look at the Wind Bells that Dick did - he'd write and rewrite it. Don't do it to that point of contrivance whether it's Dick or Trudy's style.
What's the shape of the story? Where does it go? What kind of story is it? I hope it's not like the lives of the saints with projection and transference. It can be a bio or a collective bio and the social setting - who did it and what is it and why? If the lives of the masters and the saints are not the answer, they're still part of the question. What do you mean saint? Most people aren't interested in masters or saints - the path of enlightenment. The good person has no shape but everyone's got some form so what do you do about that? It's a kind of mystery. People are made in the image and likeness of god and god is a mystery. How'd you get from where you were to where you are today? Who was that masked man? How did that get me where I am now? How did I get involved? How did I stay involved? How did I get out?
I trusted Suzuki Roshi. Dick was too smart for his own good.
It's about being together and being equal but not equal. What is the way to be together that doesn't need lightning etc? A good sangha is an answer to that question. A church is a shining city on a hill that shows us the way - how we should live.
We're here in a common disguise we have a common disguise - it's the practice and theory of virtue - what breeds practice in a Zen setting isn't completely different from what breeds a good carpenter or a really good basketball player or a really good essay writer and the teacher-student relations are mediated through that. And the student partly learns by watching the teacher in the practice and knowing what is this person really like - that's unknowable and not quite the point. You learn through the practice your own way of being like them and then you get to do the rest on your own.