Interview with JACK VAN ALLEN
by DC

Jack's Memorial Page

Photos of Jack's ordination by Gempo Merzel

Excerpt from this interview

2009 In Memoriam

He looked like a small dynamo in operation.

To the left is an Amida that Jack sent me once. He's sent me lots of Buddhist art. I see Jack once a month or so. He's an old friend who is a terribly talented Buddhist artist. He made thousands of Jizo's out of - bronze I guess - and tons of other stuff. He made belt buckles and all sorts of stuff for the Grateful Dead and other luminaries. He was heavily involved in the acid scene. He's got tons of great stories.  He's studied with lots of teachers and known lots of people. I've been trying to get him to add to this brief interview because he's always writing, but he just sat on this forever so I'm putting it on and hope to add to it. He's mentioned quite a bit on this site. He's got MS and is in a wheelchair now and can't do his art work anymore, but he's still quite active and didn't let his condition hold him back. - DC - 2006


When I first started doing serious casting about 1969, I went to Suzuki Roshi and said I'd like to make a bronze bell for Tassajara and he looked at me kinda funny and he said, "What does the bell sound like?" and I thought about it for a minute and I said, "Gee, I don't really know."

It felt like a koan, though I had no knowledge of koans.  I had just started sitting very intermittently around '67 at Sokoji.  Then I said, "What should it sound like?" and he said, "What will it sound like?"  And I said, "high or low?" and he said, "deep," with a deep voice.  I carried that around for the longest time and I could never get him to talk about it.  I'd ask him about it and he wouldn't say anything.  There was no response - well, he did laugh at one point.  But he'd gotten me engaged with... with... something. 

It even comes up for me today.  Years later after a long sesshin at Ohai I sent a hand bell to San Sunim and he sent me a letter which is almost identical to the same kind of framework that Suzuki Roshi used.  In the letter he said, "I have one question for you.  You made a bell.  How do you catch and bring here this bell's sound?  If you attain that then you are also the bell's mother." 

I once took Suzuki Roshi a bunch of the bean cake pastries they make in Japan Town - with the nice fillings in them.  He was very to happy to receive them.  And just as I was leaving he came running around the head of the stairs and called me back and handed me a little calendar - the kind you turn with aphorisms on each page. 

I'm a trained singer.  I was with the opera in New Orleans.  I remember getting on my feet after zazen and we'd chant the heart sutra and he was up there hitting the mokugyo and bells and he started looking at me out of the corner of his eye with his hand cupped around his ear.  I eventually got the message not to chant so loud.  And then I started noticing the small sign on the alter that said, "chant the sutra with your ears."

He looked like a small dynamo in operation.  I sensed intense energy but no real outward manifestation of it - it puzzled me a lot.  It was interesting and drew me to him.  I could feel it, I could almost touch it.

I was a tenuous student but I had a real connection with him. He kept me from becoming a psychedelic basket case.  There was some influence there that wasn't so specific but it made me want to clean up my act.  Something about him just sort of generated something that I knew in very short order that what there was in my life wasn't all that there could be.  I can't express it any more clearly than that. 

He married Ellen and me (July 1968).  He delivered a lecture on drugs at our wedding.  I was doing a lot of psychedelics at the time - none at the wedding.  He said that it was very possible for us to attain enlightenment should we give up drugs.  I was wearing a dark black hand-made velvet Indian style shirt with beads, classical Haight Ashbury - but my head was shaved.  My wife was four days from having our son.  Alan Cohen was a witness.  Loring Palmer was there.  Steven Levine was my best man.  He was puzzled by how ordinary Suzuki was.


I read in the Diamond Sangha newsletter about Dick’s Mt. Seat Ceremony and it reminded me of that day and how we were all wound up in a huge grief. I’d torn a cartilage in my knee and had to sit there for two hours. When Suzuki‑roshi took the shakujo and took the staff between his hands and rotated it once one way and then the other -  I have dreams about that.

From Jack's memorial page:

6-22-07 - A small service for Jack Van Allen's and cremation will be held this morning at 9A.M. A few friends and family will attend. Jack is survived by his wife Ellen, his children Michael (8/2 1968) and Lea Van Allen Sweet (7/16 1970), his grandchildren - Michael's Haley (8) and Kelsey (6) and Lea's Dein (2) and Elizabeth (6 mo.). Yesterday at his house I met Lea and her kids and Jack's half-sister, Dotty Finfrock, whom he has just made contact with in recent years. He always kept up with so many people. - DC