Interview with Jack Tjeerdsma

a brief bio of Jack on his Mediation Resources site where it mentions his study of Tai Chi which he doesn't mention in the interview.

Interviewed by DC about 9-15-11


[Suzuki Roshi had] a great feeling of compassion and at the same time, utter detachment.

D – So here we are.

J - (Laughing) So what’s on your mind?

D - I just wanted to hear anything you had to say about Suzuki Roshi, your memories of that and Zen Center back then.

J – Well, I connected with Dick Baker when I was a senior at Berkeley – in 1962 He introduced me – took me to see Suzuki Roshi. At any rate, I would go over on the weekends and sit with Suzuki Roshi It was an unusual experience for me because I’d had no experience whatsoever in meditation or Zen, though I’d read some books on it at college. The first impression I had was this very detached, calm, older Japanese man – and I was a little bit in awe of that

I had done consulting for Japanese banks on their investments. That was my new job out of college. And I was just getting acquainted with the Japanese financial community and he was quite a counterpoint to that to say the least. And I found him a more connected, calmer Dalai Lama, an interesting way to put it I guess. They both had similar spiritual auras or senses. But there’s a connection I had with Suzuki Roshi that I never had with the Dalai Lama. Something just happened. And he would greet students individually after a sitting.

I don’t think you were there quite that time were you?

D – What year are you talking about?

J – I’m talking about early ‘62.

D – No. I came in ‘66.

J – OK.

D – You said that the Dalai Lama and Suzuki Roshi both had what?

J – The awakened spiritual presence and calmness. But there’s a different flavor. It’s like Thich Nat Hahn. I can’t really deeply relate to Thich Nat Hahn. I had the same problem around the Dalai Lama. Whereas with Suzuki Roshi, there was a different form of compassion. More of a personal kindness. I don’t know how to say it better than that. Because it felt very personal, very kind, and very soft.

So I would appear on and off during those early years at the Soto temple, and somewhere just after Tassajara was purchased – cause I’d been working on a side project with Dick Baker since ’62

D – What was that?

J – It was an idea of a scientific magazine, keeping people up to date on stuff. I forget the name but there were four of us involved. It never really got off the ground and published.

But Baker and I got closer and that’s when he was suggesting that I come and check out Suzuki Roshi and the scene. So I would often sit in the auditorium at Sokoji by myself and then have a two minute conversation – it wasn’t really a dokusan – or maybe it was a dokusan. Just a very short conversation with him. He checked everyone out one by one. Just said goodbye and a few comments.

Then I’m trying to remember whether it was Baker or John Steiner who suggested I go down to Tassajara and spend a week. Now this – oh before that – probably 64 or so - When all the financial stuff was going on, the community needed help in obtaining a bank loan in order to perfect being able to take control of and develop Tassajara.

D – That’s not 64. That has to be 66 at the earliest.

J – It could have been, because I went down in 66.

D – We didn’t buy it till the end of 66 – a few days before 67.

J – Well I was down there in 66 and in 67, but anyway, the piece that I remember is Baker Roshi and Suzuki Roshi coming to the bank to see me in full regalia, and the natives were a little bit rattled by all this – to see Suzuki Roshi come in in robes and it caused quite a stir to say the least.

D – And Baker in robes too?

J – Yeah.

DC note: Richard Baker received his first robes the day he was ordained as a priest, July 4, 1967 at the beginning of the first practice period. Either Jack’s memory is putting the robes on Baker now, or they went for a loan after the first two payments had been made. There were ongoing expenses and start up costs as well as the payments.

J - Now, what they wanted to talk to me about was getting financing, and because by then I had become the senior consultant to Bank of Tokyo and Sumitomo Bank and other banks in California. By that time I was one of the three or four largest money managers on the West Coast. At any rate, we had a short discussion and I referred them to the senior officer, I forget his exact title, but he was the number two man at the Bank of Tokyo and also responsible for loans. So I sent them over there and heard that they had gotten the financing. So somewhere after that it was suggested, probably by Baker Roshi that I go down to Tassajara and spend some time. And this is the time when everyone was clearing the creek, getting stones for the septic system, and so on and so forth.

So, one of the most interesting things that happened to me is that I was told to show up at the Soto temple and that I would be driven down to Tassajara. And you know, bring some clothes etc for a week. And I was – do you know Phillip?

D – Sure. Phillip Wilson.

J – Yeah. Anyway, he was there driving an old tear-shaped Volvo. And I said are other people going down with me and he said just one and I said oh who are we waiting for and he said Suzuki Roshi.

DC note: Phillip would have said Reverend Suzuki or Suzuki Sensei.

J - So this is rather humorous. I was on the right hand back seat of the car and Suzuki Roshi got in on the left hand side. He looked at me, bowed, I bowed to him and not a word was spoken on the entire trip to Tassajara. Complete and utter silence. Anyway, I found this a bit unusual. And I’m sure my mind had many thoughts and I sometimes wish I had recordings of my own thoughts – because it was a ve3ry powerful experience. It felt extremely connected and personal. And – these days I don’t talk so much because my voice is bad, but I’ve always been a real talker. And to actually sit with him for four hours was an amazing experience. Just trying to give you the flavor of it. It was very very connected, very personal – a great feeling of compassion and at the same time, utter detachment. I mean he was just there – in the Suzuki Roshi way. And I was doing my best to emulate that – when I wasn’t monkey-minding around. And I felt no urge to say anything and he obviously had his own purposes for not saying anything to me. And I’ve never been able to figure that out. It was – you know – one of those life experiences. We get down to Tassajara, get to the gate, drive on in. He gets out of the car, bows to me, I bow to him, and he walks off.

So that was the trip. The real trip was yet to come. It was late afternoon or evening – and someone said we’re going to get you fitted up with a robe – and da da da da da get fitted with an oryoki and all this stuff. And I’m just going along with the program now. They said get up next morning and eat and then after that he [Phillip] said come with me and I said where are we going and he said you’re going to sit tangaryo and I said what the hell is that? And he took me to one of the pine rooms and he said, you’re going to sit here all day. I said you’ve got to be out of your mind. I said, I didn’t come down here to sit all day. And he said well that’s what you’ve got to do. And I said when is there a bus back or when is someone going back out? Cause I can’t see sitting here for a day. And he said no one’s going out so this is what you have to do. It’s what Suzuki Roshi wants you to do. And I said, oh my god.

[In tangaryo] I proceed to do a review of my life from day one. I had a very funny – I’m sure many other Zen students have had that experience – of just reviewing my life. And somewhere in the afternoon I got to my college days which were only a couple of years back – and I just got completely bored. And I said stop. And I still had thoughts as I recall, but I wasn’t following a discursive path. And it was physically like anything else for someone who’d never sat except the few times at the Soto temple. I was uncomfortable. But for some reason I just decided to do it. So when this was all over – ah, now I remember. When that was all over – now we need to get you a robe and an oryoki – because you’re going to sit with the rest of the students in the zendo and I said, well, what does that mean? And he described it.

And the next morning, Suzuki Roshi introduced me to the temple. He didn’t do anything – it was more informal – but it was like an introduction to the community and he was accepting me as a monk. I haven’t talked about this very much over the years, but it was a pretty weird experience to come in off the ground – and I know this has happened billions of times across the world – but to come in on ground zero, get a robe on you, be taught to use the oryoki and then marched into the zendo as a monk – now everyone knew I was only there for a week. I was a commercial banker. I was going back to do that thing which I did. That was pretty powerful. And then of course when it came time for work – I remember that John Steiner and maybe one or two others were assigned to Suzuki Roshi – to go pick up stones out of the creek for the septic system. I remember several days working silently with Suzuki Roshi picking up stones. And it was a very sweet experience. That’s how I got to know John Steiner. We were rock pickers together.

Anyway, it’s not that my memory is bad because of age, it’s that I haven’t remembered these details for years. Life went on. I was a monk for a week, and then I went back to San Francisco. I was told once again by Phillip to meet him at some damned obnoxious hour like four thirty or five o’clock – well before sunrise. And I said okay. Is anybody going back with us? And he said, just Suzuki Roshi. [laughing]. So here I am again in the back seat of this little Volvo . Suzuki Roshi climbs in, bows at me, I bow at him, And he starts talking. And we never stopped talking, just like I’m talking now, for the four hour ride back to San Francisco. Now I’d never heard of him doing that before. It seems very unusual to me – particularly to the counterpoint of silence on the ride coming down. If I had that conversation on tape, it would be worth gold – because he just opened up on everything. And the only thing I particularly remember was Richard Baker. There was a long conversation in depth about Baker and what he was doing and what he was going to do and ta da ta da ta da. And I was quite surprised to hear this conversation and to participate in it and he’d ask me what my opinion was of this or that. And it was a dialogue that I’ve wished forever that I had on tape – because it was pretty wide ranging. And that’s why I told people around the troubles at Zen Center that Suzuki Roshi really knew what he was doing, he knew what he was taking on. A lot of people had the opinion that Baker hoodwinked Suzuki Roshi or got away with murder or did lots of stuff that Suzuki Roshi didn’t know about etc etc etc – and that definitely was not my conversation with Suzuki Roshi. It wasn’t like, this is the perfect human being. But he chose, and I think he chose well to have someone who could build Zen Center and make it stable and sustainable.

So I was really influenced by that. I went back to my banking. I’d show up occasionally at Zen Center – that building had been purchased. And I went back to Tassajara for a weekend or two. In ‘67 I got married again and at my wedding Richard Baker and Suzuki Roshi were there and I had dim sum and nigiri sushi in the food for the wedding – which all my Western friends thought was hilarious. And I don’t remember when the discussion took place but there was an invitation to take my oryoki and my robe and go back to Tassajara, jump back in – and that’s what I did. But my conversations with Suzuki Roshi that week were limited.. I wasn’t training with him but I still had the same feeling of connection and it was wonderful. He was realized and compassionate. In a different way than the Dalai Lama and Thich Nat Hahn who had similar auras – their personalities show up. The Dalai Lama is more open, friendly, political, all that kind of stuff. Their basic natures were similar and yet I had no attraction to them like I did to Suzuki Roshi.

So I don’t remember when I saw him last before he died. It must have been when Baker Roshi was installed. I’m sure I was there for that because I remember bringing Baker Roshi a present. So I didn’t have any direct interaction with Suzuki Roshi at that though I could see him and see his frailness and his illness But other than that he was unchanged to my eyes and to my feeling. So what I observed, and this was only occasionally when he got ill, was that the illness didn’t change him, didn’t change his energy. I don’t know how else to say it. I still felt connected to him. I still felt he was the same. He was just a suffering buddha rather than a happy buddha.

I’m trying to think if there’s anything else – cause my observations of him were set the first time I met him – when I saw who he was and what he was. It’s very evident to me.. And of course those two trips – the silent one down and the chatterbox one back were – rather unusual to me. And I haven’t talked about that except to a few people. I’m sure it’s something you haven’t heard. It’s not like I was part of the inner circle. I was always connected to Richard Baker. And John Steiner became a close personal friend. And when I went back to Tassajara as a full time monk in ‘77, that was due to Steiner and my conversation that he encouraged me to ask Baker Roshi if I could go to Tassajara. And that was terribly unusual because in those days you had to have been practicing for two years – there were some real requirements – and I just violated them all. That was between Baker Roshi and myself. But that’s not what you’re asking me about.

D – No, I’m happy to hear anything you have to say.

J – That’s a continuation of the connection of Baker Roshi to Suzuki Roshi and I was able to transition from a friend to a student because I could connect very deeply with Richard Baker.

[Jack’s been ill and his voice is getting weaker]

And I had just been going through a divorce and Baker Roshi invited me to Tassajara for the weekend, and John Steiner was already down there and he and I were standing outside the gate and he said, ask him if you can go and I went wa wa wa wa wa wa wa – I’m 235 pounds, a soft banker – I hadn’t been meditating and so on and so forth and other students might remember – there was actually a book on how long I would last. Nobody thought I’d make it through seven days of tangaryo, least of all me. I mean – I thought I was going to die multiple times. It was the experience of my life. But I’m so goddamn stubborn, I’m not going to give up. So I toughed it out and barely made it through tangaryo by the skin of my teeth. But made lifelong friends in that process. I knew John Steiner but did not know John Bernie or Dave Flegel (sp?) and they were in tangaryo. Half of the new group sat against one wall and half sat against the other. And I looked over there and checked people out energetically and I’d go [humming] whoa – I’ve got to check out that person – they’re going to be important and [humming] whoa! What do we have here (looking at someone else). And I identified Bernie and Flegel as life long friends just by looking at them across the zendo.

D – You mentioned the Dalai Lama and Thich Nat Hahn. Did you have some experience with them?

J – You know - I was the original project manager of Spirit Rock and hired all the people, supervised the early construction, all the roads and infrastructure, the first series of buildings were all my doing. I took it to the board of supervisors and the planning commission, did all that. I don’t know if you know that stuff.

D – Oh. No I didn’t.

J – I had started sitting once a week with Jack Kornfield at the urging of John Bernie. John and I had a life long association. He would take me to all of his spiritual finds like John Kline and Robert Adams, - I went to Sedona to spend some time with Robert Adams etc and we’d have these experiences. And I figured it was only just that I was the one who introduced him to Adyashanti. And because of Spirit Rock I got to organize speakers. I was the major domo I guess. I heard Thich Nat Hahn talk but I could not make a connection with him. I could recognize him as a very spiritual man but I just couldn’t get there. I had the same experience with the Dalai Lama because some years ago he came to Spirit Rock and met with all the board members and teachers and yada yada yada. I’d met him earlier in the late sixties with John Steiner. He just didn’t click with me. There are certain teachers who I can go deep with and click and others who I can recognize who they are I’m not going to meet their kind of spiritual penetration.

D – How about Adyashanti?

J – Oh, absolute depth and immediacy. Yeah. Yeah. I’ve described him as the leader of the third school, sort of in the third generation of Buddhist teachers. And he learned from American Buddhists. And he had the fortune to be raised by good parents, loving parents and he did his thing you know – bicycle racing, whatever. When I met him he had just started teaching in Berkeley. One of my ex lovers had taken me to that. The first time I met him there was an instant connection, a dissolving, So it’s been that way with him and no accident that he and Bernie – and John’s always been an extremely close friend of mine and I relate to him as I related to Suzuki Roshi or Adyashanti. I’ve sat and dissolved with him and gone to some pretty deep spiritual places.

So this is the genesis of it. It was a combination of Suzuki Roshi and Richard Baker that got me - very different people, but very much of one mind. Dick’s something. He’s a very complicated case.

D – I was just in touch with him.

J - I haven’t seen him since a year ago at that thing underneath the Golden Gate.

D – I was there. Paul Rosenblum and I were his assistants. I did absolutely nothing. It just got me in free.

 J – [Laughing] That first connection was the big connection. And of course when Richard Baker got into all those troubles I became nobody’s friend. Because he had his own apologies for it and I said, you just don’t understand. Yeah they’re adults, yeah they’re free to choose, yeah you have an arrangement with your wife – that doesn’t cut it. And I’d also say to people at Zen Center, for Christ’s sake, you can’t just throw a roshi into the street like that. If he misbehaves, you retrain him.

D – I don’t think it was students. I think it was student – Lucy. Uncool but not the crowd he’s accused of. Anna was part of his ivory tower.

J - His explanation was that these were worldly women and I believe he was genuinely in love with Anna.

D – Yeah, an adulterous affair for sure – that lasted one weekend.


 J – It didn’t endear me to anybody. I’ve told plenty of people at Zen Center, you’re wrong throwing him out.

D – He wasn’t thrown out. He quite. But many people were angry and very conciliatory.

J – Not in the least.

D – But like you say, he didn’t make it any easier.

J – And you notice that when Norm Fischer did that reconciliation, that Paul Rosenblum sat on one side [of Baker] and I sat on the other. And by the end of it I was sitting next to Steve Weintraub.

D – He was the angriest.

J – Yes. So I sat next to Steve. In essence what I did throughout the whole thing, being a mediator, that was my way of mediating it. Showing my support for Richard Baker and showing my support for Steve Weintraub. People didn’t notice that I’m sure but I made an unannounced effort to show that I really was impartial. And I am impartial. Richard Baker did things he shouldn’t have done and the community did things they shouldn’t have done – but they did. It is what it is. It’s sad because it’s had a huge effect. And I’ve always appreciated Norm’s ability to put that thing together.

D – There are other things that have happened. Like Lew Richmond instigated the disciples meetings and those went quite well with Richard and most others who were ordained by Suzuki who were alive. Everyone but Grahame and Silas and Angie came at first. Some who weren’t disciples came like Yvonne, Steve Weintraub, Jane Schneider, Della, Betty, Katherine Thanas. Then a smaller group continued meeting. We had about five or so meetings. Dick came to all of them and they went very well. Initially there was some grumbling but they were overall quite harmonious. Lew started it but Peter Schneider kept it all together.

J – You’ve never interviewed me because I was not an integral part of, never part of the upper levels of discussions of all kinds of stuff.

D – Well, I have no criteria like that. I interview anybody who met Suzuki Roshi.

J – I understand. It’s just that my connections to Suzuki Roshi and Zen Center are extremely personal and at a distance.

D – I’m very happy to have your memories and there are many other people I’d like to get to but it’s a matter of resources and time and everything. So what else?

J – I’ve mentioned the important groups I’ve been involved with. Obviously the big one outside of the Zen Center was Spirit Rock. I spent about four years on that and when I got final approval from the board on what I had crafted I told Jack Kornfield I’d done my thing. And as usual I’d stomped on a lot of toes. That’s my style. I can’t stand it when people don’t understand things. That’s my style. It’s a weakness. Not enough compassion. There were times when I was the only one on the board who wanted something. Jack Kornfield agreed with me. At times he was the only one who agreed with me. We went through the public hearing without one single dissenting voice from the audience. And with 400 acres – a negative declaration, never an EIR. That was sort of a capstone and I’ve been a mediator ever since though I’ve dabbled in a few other things.

D – And you didn’t continue banking?

J – [No] After eight years or so I became assistant to the president of Crocker which became Well’s Fargo.

D – What year were you born?

J – ’38. In Rochester New York.

D – How about a quick summary of what happened then?

J – I spent the first year and a half with loving parents. My father died. My mother lost it. So I was in foster homes till I was about seven and in an orphanage till I was about thirteen.

D – How was the orphanage?

J – A snake pit. For example, the girls were stripped naked and beaten with rubber hoses. It was the Hillside Children’s Center. There was a bully and if a boy misbehaved, you were put in a boxing ring and knocked senseless. And another punishment was a belt over bare back and buttocks.

D – Was it run by a religion?

J – No, it was run I believe by the county. It was a snake pit. When I graduated at seventeen, half the children I’d lived with since thirteen were already in jail.

D – What happened after you were thirteen.

J – My mother who had remarried, took me out of the orphanage to live with a cruel stepfather, a neurotic ex NFL football player.

D – What was his name?

J – Joe [can’t understand last name]. So that was a traumatic few years. One night when they were really into arguing he was really berating my mother in the living room and I got out of bed and loaded my carbine with seven hollow points and waited and thought if he lays a hand on her he’s going to get a body full of lead.

D – Did you warn him?

J – Nah. I kept the gun in the bed with me and when I heard he was asleep I left the house and that was the end of that. My mother got an apartment and my last two years of high school I was fairly close to the school.

D – And you went to college.

J – That’s the fun part. I had the most prestigious scholarship in the United States. National competition. There were five of us at Cornell and we lived in the scholarship house complete with liveried waiters, linen, all nice stuff, our own wine cellar, And we entertained everyone who came to the campus. I got Martin Luther King drunk at four in the morning. I have a lot of stories. I stayed there a year but I had very bad health. Before I was the third or fourth leading encyclopedia salesman on the East Coast. So I had my own crew and was driving all over New York state selling encyclopedias – before college. But I was also sick and I had to give up after a couple of months because I couldn’t breathe. It was asthma, very bad asthma. But I finally figured it out. I couldn’t take the East Coast. So I applied to Stanford and was accepted and when I hit California that was the end of asthma. That was ’57. I dropped out of college for a year – sold encyclopedias, pots and pans, worked for a gas station and re-entered at Berkeley. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa with my own major. I was allowed to take any upper level graduate course I wanted.

D – Didn’t you have a general area of study?

J – No. There were 13 of us who were chosen as guinea pigs for UC Santa Cruz and we were given free reign on the campus, Berkeley campus. They were studying how to organize Santa Cruz and used us as sort of a test thing. It was called a humanities field major. We could take anything.

D – What happened after you graduated?

J – Before I graduated I convinced my professors to give me tutorials and I went to work for Crocker. I had the biggest scholarship at Berkeley for graduate work and the bank paid me more than a Harvard MBA. The bank gave me any courses I wanted. That was a very very very fast pass. Within three or four years I was one of the largest money managers on the West Coast.

D – Did you continue to go to classes?

J – No, I’d just crib texts (tests?). Like the first job I had as assistant to the bank was to make a budget. The bank had never had a budget. They had great bean counters who knew where all the beans were, but nobody had ever attempted to budget or control it. I made a few enemies because I uncovered all the slush funds, overdone areas, deadwood. I did a thing that had only been done at Chase Manhattan called liability management.

D – How are you doing financially right now?

J – Terrible.

D – How come?

J – [Laughing] I got caught in the downdraft of 2008. I was right but my timing was off. Too many eggs in one basket. At the same time I was getting ill and my business was failing because of the circumstances, nothing I could control. Every Joe turned into a mediator, every lawyer turned into a mediator. I used to be one of the leading mediators and trained mediators in the nineties. I trained judges at mediation.

D – So when did you become a mediator?

J – Back to the timeline. I left the bank in ‘72 and went into vineyards and art projects. I went to Tassajara in ‘77 and was there and the City Center through ‘81. Then from ’81 through ’86 I did my own business deals – venture capital etc. And then in ’86 I started doing Spirit Rock. In ’89, ’90, I started doing mediation. A woman I knew who was one of the leaders in the field I ran into at a party and she said, you’re better than anyone I know already and you haven’t done a thing. So I did training with her for a year and we started doing cases and here I am. I haven’t found anything else that excites the hell out of me. Every time I do a mediation I go into states with people but if I told them that they’d run like hell. By the time I’ve finished, the magic has been done.

D – And right now you’re pretty ill, right?

J – I’ve got congestive heart failure and peripheral arterial disease and multiple blood clots in my lungs and some cancer. Other than that, I’m healthy as a horse.

D – What type of cancer?

J – Skin cancer, fortunately.

D – But you’re not dying.

J – The doctors say I could die any day.

D – You could also get better.

J – I’ve been trying for years. It’s a little hard to do business when I sound like this. [raspy voice]

D – You sound alright now.

J – [laughing] It’s early in the morning. It’ll get weaker all day. And then I’ll take a nap in the afternoon and it will be normal again.

D – But you had bad cancer fourteen years ago, right?

J – I should be dead. I had a lymphoma wrapped around my heart and lungs the size of a small football. I was pronounced with less than a day to live three separate times. The oncologist came in and said we’re going to take you to the operating room and I said explain to me what you’re gonna do and he said they were going to go in through my throat and I said do it here, that I’m so weak you’re not going to put me under. Then after that he said I had to go to the operating room because they couldn’t do enough and I said, dig a bigger hole. [laughing] So they did it and gave me a cocktail and it was working and the cancer started receding, spent another couple of weeks in a private room and walked out the door.

D – Alright.

J – Nobody thought I’d ever do that.

D – Where are you living now?

J – I’ve been living for the last fourteen years in a condo across from the Civic Center in Marin County.

DC note – Jack and I chatted some more. I said I’d try to come visit him, and we said goodbye.