|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
Interview With Betty
[Betty Warren was, as you will see, one of Suzuki-roshi's first students. She now is, along with Della Goertz, an active member of the Disciple's Group. She's in her 80's, continues to sit, and for some years has helped to lead vision quests in the Death Valley Area. I interviewed Betty way back in '63 or '64.--DC]
7-30-06 - Betty Warren died this morning with photo.
Betty Warren Main Page - lots of stuff and more photos.
DC: I'm interested in knowing anything you have to say about Suzuki Roshi -- what it was like back then, what you learned from him, what you've learned since then, what you think the good points were, what was established there, whatever.
BW: Sort of a big order. I could begin with our first meeting. I had been listening to Alan Watts on the radio and became interested in Zen so I enrolled in a class on Zen Buddhism by a Dr. Kato. One evening Dr. Kato had invited Suzuki Roshi to come to the class. Their special friends in the class, Della and Jean. We were very much impressed by his charm, and the twinkle in his eye, his friendliness. His English was not very comprehensible at that point, but we were charmed by him. He said at one point, "I sit every morning at six o'clock. Please join me." Della, Jean, and I did join him in sitting at six in the morning. We had every fifth day off -- five and nine days we had off. Also we came every Sunday for a lecture. The group was very small to begin with. Ananda was there, Bob Hense, soon Graham Petchey and Richard Baker. A little hard to remember. It was about a year before Bill Kwong came.
DC: The three of you met Suzuki Roshi at the Academy . And about a year later Bill Kwong came in.
BW: Bill Kwong came in a little later. [61 I think.--DC]
DC: Do you remember Paul? The guy who was rebuilding the organ at Sokoji?
BW: Yeah, Paul Alexander. Sometimes there would be just a few of us, and sometimes maybe ten or so. We would knock on the door -- this was the little Japanese church. We would stand at the door and Suzuki would come down and let us in. There was one morning when we stood outside, he put his head out of the second story window and called down and said, "Go away, go away!" We went away. But we came back the next day and everything was fine. Never an explanation, never an excuse. He had this wonderful way of teaching which was to pull the rug out from under his students' feet whenever he thought they needed it. At first we had very simple accommodations. The church was not set up for meditation. We positioned pews with the fronts together. We would climb up into this. And then with some pillows we would sit. It was quite a little while before we actually . . . and all the pews went downstairs. There were pews in the middle of the room for sitting for lecture. Around the edges we got tatami mats and zafus and zabutans. We thought they were sort of hard, but we went along with it. He had a wonderful way of impressing people with how to get along, how to behave. You knew that you had to sit without moving. You knew that you had to be quiet. You just knew all these things from his manner.
DC: You mean he wouldn't specify?
BW: He wouldn't say anything, you don't move. He just said to sit this way, so we sat. You didn't move until the bell sounded.
DC: How long did you sit?
BW: We began with 45 minutes.
DC: I remember he used to say he wanted to sit for 50 minutes.
BW: There was one time during sesshin he went out of the room during the sitting and maybe it was 45 minutes later he stuck his head in the door and closed it again and went away. We were sitting there alone for it must have been an hour and a half before he came back. We were all about to collapse. He would do things like this to make it so we wouldn't expect things to always be the way they were.
DC: You met him in '59?
BW: May of '59.
DC: He came in May of '59. You started sitting almost immediately with him? Did all three of you continue steadily? How long was it before you had your first sesshin?
BW: Yes. I'm very poor at dates. Maybe it was a year. We had a little ceremony when we got our rakusus. They were from Japan, strips that he sent for. That ordination was at the end of the first sesshin. Something like 1960.
DC: Do you remember Mike Dixon back then?
BW: Oh Mike and Trudy.
DC: They may have come more like '62 or '63.
BW: Yeah. The group grew and we had to keep finding more room. In sesshin we would have like forty people or something. We had to eventually clean out the balcony and put mats around the balcony.
DC: Were you sitting in the room upstairs?
DC: When did you start sitting in the upstairs room? Right from the first? Were there pews in the upstairs room?
BW: There were pews in the upstairs room. The zendo was there. There were pews in the center of the room facing the front of the room where people would sit for Sunday lectures. Then all around the room were the tatami mats.
DC: But right at first when you pushed the pews together. That was in that upstairs room? You all didn't move them out for anything?
BW: We moved them around every once in a while. I think he did it to give some of the fellows exercise. One time (he asked us to) move all these pews from the upstairs to the downstairs and move all the downstairs pews to the upstairs. I don't know just exactly what it was, but the fellows were pretty busy.
DC: How early on did Suzuki start giving lectures?
BW: He started giving lectures right away even though his English was not up to it, but he studied very hard.
DC: Did he study with any teachers? schools?
BW: I don't know. I think maybe he went to a class, but I'm not sure exactly how he did learn. He learned very quickly. At first some of his English was a little hard to understand, but he soon was able to give very profound lectures. We had Saturday breakfast. We would sit, and then have breakfast, then we would work cleaning up the place, and then we would have another sitting. On Sunday he would give a lecture.
DC: When I came in '66 it was still on Bush Street, it was like you describe it, except the lecture was on Saturday. It was part of the morning thing, and there was nothing on Sunday.
BW: He was very strict with us, and yet he was very warm and friendly at the same time. You would never quite knew if he was going to be aloof and stern, or if he was going to be warm and friendly. He taught in a unique way. He would just sort of roll your problem back to you. For instance, he told us to follow our breath, count our breath. That would bother me. So I said to him once, "The more I try to control my breath the worse it gets. It gets too fast, too slow. I become preoccupied with trying to make it right." He just looked at me and said, "Oh, just sit." That was his answer. There was no answer to my question.
DC: Do you think that's just his style, or do you think it's pretty much true that we just have to figure things out for ourselves?
BW: I think it's very true. A lot of teaching just gives answers which might have no application to your use. Or they might not be right or anything. Find the answer that is right for yourself. You have to somehow formulate it yourself. There's a story that Dick Baker told on himself. Dick was a very long and lanky person and he had a great deal of difficulty in learning to sit. His knees just didn't bend. He sat up on two zafus with his knees in front of him. And very gradually and painfully he learned to sit cross-legged, and then finally lotus. Once after about five years Dick asked Suzuki, "You know I've been sitting for five years and my legs are still very painful." Suzuki just said, "Oh?" And lifted his eyebrows as if he had never heard of such a thing.
DC: Dick came in '62? 
BW: This is the way he tossed the problem back to you.
DC: A lot of what he did was put it on the moment and the person. Give an opposite answer to somebody else, where they would be.
BW: In a lecture, for instance, one week he might say you have to put your entire effort into it., and the next week he might say, no use trying, give up and it will come. I'm not much on the technical philosophy but there's something about jiriki and tariki. No use trying, you've got to do your damnedest.
DC: He'd talk sometimes about the double-edged sword. Sometimes double-edged sword is wisdom and compassion, but a lot of times I think he just used it to mean there's two sides. If you're on one side he might just hop over to the other.
BW: One Saturday morning when we were sitting, everything was quiet, and all of a sudden he got up and with various snorts, growled, and barked at us, and said something like, "Oh so you think you're sitting! Well, you're not." He got up and picked up the stick and he went around and he gave every single person two real resounding whacks.
DC: Was that really early on?
BW: It was pretty early on.
DC: Had you heard of that? of the tradition of the teacher going around hitting each student?
BW: No. We were accustomed to the stick during zazen, if we asked, if we were restless.
DC: That's called rensaku, when the teacher goes around and does that.
BW: Ah. No we hadn't heard of that in particular.
DC: What were people's reactions to that?
BW: There was not a sound. He made the rounds and everyone was whacked and no one said a word afterwards.
DC: How often did he do things like that?
BW: That's the only time he did it that I was there.
DC: I saw him do things like that. I guess when there was more people he might have been drawn into that expression more. Not often. But maybe once every six months, I would see him, like, "You're all spineless. You're not interested in Buddhism. If I told you what Buddhism was I'd just be sitting here by myself listening to the sounds of your cars going up the road. You have no spine . . . spineless." Then the next day he'd apologize, "Oh, I'm sorry."
BW: He didn't apologize. We just took it. Like the time he told us to go away.
DC: I think probably with a smaller number of people it was more intimate and easier for him to say less.
BW: He just bawled us out, then sat down and said nothing.
DC: We've talked about his having this pull-out-the-rug teaching that you mentioned. Can you give any other examples of that?
BW: I don't remember a lot of different examples. One week lecturing on one thing. Next week lecturing the opposite. He had a way when he was lecturing, he would look right at you. He made you feel like those words were directed especially toward you. He was looking right through your eyes to your brain. But I'm sure that everyone else thought the same thing.
DC: What do you think was really happening?
BW: He just managed to speak to everyone.
DC: Do you think he really was speaking to everyone or was that just an impression people got?
BW: I think it was an impression. He really was speaking to me when I thought about that. But he was speaking to others also.
DC: I heard that feeling. Sometimes it would be remarkable. There would be some very specific thing . . . I felt there had to be a certain amount of intuitive -- maybe he wasn't aware of -- and I think we all do that to some extent. But I think he really used his -- intuitively picking up on some focal point for a person and mentioning it. It's hard to get to the bottom of. Did you notice any change in him from the time he arrived?
BW: He became more aware of our customs. One of the things he did at first -- he had a staff and he would walk around the neighborhood with his begging bowl, until we told him that wasn't done here.
DC: Would he put on a traditional Japanese begging outfit, they tear like a white sheet on the arms, and on the legs, and there's like different gear. There's a conical hat, straw her? Did he wear that?
BW: He may have worn the hat.
DC: And there's a particular type of bib worn over the rakusu. It's the only time something's worn over the rakusu. Sort of like a bag that you put the money in. There's the begging bowl, there's a bell --
BW: The staff had a bell. When he hit it. He didn't do that for very long.
DC: That's what happened when Buddhism came from India to China. India totally accepts begging. Totally respected. In China people thought they were a bunch of bums. The monks got more into farming and supporting themselves, and being supported in different ways. That Chinese teacher -- Dao-lun(?) -- he used to go and beg. Down Market Street. Do you know him? Gold Mountain monastery. A Chinese Zen master. He had a Taoist, Buddhist group in downtown San Francisco. And has a big monastery up north. He had a few people sitting with him in an apartment not far from Zen Center maybe from '64, around there. Then got a more formal place around '67, maybe. And then in the '70s they got one of the state mental hospitals in Mendicino and changed it to a big monastery. He used to do some begging. I guess there was begging in China. Maybe it was what you'd call ceremonial begging, not real.
BW: Yeah. He was trying to be noticed. Have the community take notice of him, or something.
DC: Think so? That's interesting. Sort of finding an appropriate way to announce his presence and the presence of his practice group. Takuhatsu is like a cultural thing. That was like really early on. Maybe once a month?
BW: I don't know. Talking with him in the office. I just remember one discussion of it with probably Graham and Dick.
DC: maybe Dick came two or three years after. But I don't think he was there in '59 or '60.
BW: I'm not sure just who was there.
DC: It would be interesting to find out. Dick was very enthusiastically supporting what I'm doing. I can just call him up and ask him. I like to trace down the facts. So Suzuki had these sort of like no teaching teachings. Did he have any teaching teachings? What was his teaching?
BW: just his presence. Somehow he conveyed the idea that if he gives something it was right. If he said to sit, I would sit. From the beginning. If he said to sit there was something to it that I might not understand for years, but I felt that he knew what was right for me.
DC: Can you describe that? What is it, when you meet a person, and they say something, and you want to do it? What is this?
BW: All I can say is their presence. Just something about their bearing, the look in their eyes -- that you know it's the right thing. It's rare that you meet someone like that.
DC: Have you met this elsewhere in your life?
BW: Not before Suzuki Roshi. But I would say that Bill Kwong has this quality. I would try to listen to his lectures, too, but it was more who he was rather than what he said that was so important.
DC: That's a toughie. One thing I want to do is look at the various things that people say about Suzuki, like presence -- it's very hard to write anything. What's the difference between what he had, and what some charismatic person has, like say Jim Jones, who had a very large following, and helped many many people. Jim Jones was one of the few rays of hope for lots of people. I think there was a time when there probably was something good about him. People would meet Jim Jones and go, "wow, this guy cares about me." I don't know if they thought, "I want to be like him." Maybe they thought, "he cares about me." A refuge. Like poor people and minorities. Anyway, there are other people who people meet and will follow. It's not always as noble an experience for them.
BW: I don't know if Suzuki had the charisma that some of these other people that would attract a lot of followers. It was much more subtle than that. I just knew that if I followed him I would eventually find a peace, or happiness, or a way of life, that was suited to me. I couldn't follow his way of life. But he had something to tell me about how I would carry out my life.
DC: That's a good thing to say. You felt confidence when you met him that if you followed him and continued with him that you would find a way for yourself. Not that you would find his way, but you would find your way. I meet a lot of people trying to find his way. That's maybe a trap.
BW: I don't follow his way . . . I've lived at Zen Center, taken my life into the community as much as anybody has, but ever since I met him I've been sitting practically every morning, even if I don't go to some place like Green Gulch to sit with the others. I sit here on a well worn-out zafu. I do the meditation every morning, and greet him every morning. Goes to see picture around the corner
DC: I know who this guy is.
BW . . . these are things on the trip. Lots of times people either make a little thing and give it to him, or they -- this is the medicine wheel, four directions -- or they make a little tree and decorate it.
DC: It's like Buddha sitting in a little forest here of wonderful miniature creations of twigs and straw and thread.
BW: She tied it with her own hair.
DC: and this is a stone -- herbs.
BW: Some of them are special. This is a color of the four directions, the Native American medicine wheel. He glued them on with pine sap. A Japanese man who was on our last trip. Sometimes there are special rocks we find there. There's one place where we go that has some really strange rocks. (looking at other things) . . . Jean brought that, went to Japan, and brought that back -- Jean Ross. She's cut herself off.
DC: I know where she is. I think that Jean was so hurt. When Suzuki died and Dick Baker took over it was a nightmare for her.
BW: She was gone before that.
DC: She was gone when she saw that was happening. I used to sit with her in Carmel.
BW: I've never been able to figure out where she was.
DC: I have her address near Detroit. If you wrote her I'm sure she'd write you back. I don't know if I can get her to talk about the past. I think it's painful to her what happened. It was painful then when she was still in Carmel and had a little zendo there. I was studying Japanese. . . . would come talk with us. She really loved Suzuki Roshi, and she liked the way it was then, and just the thought of Dick taking over Zen Center was really upsetting to her. . . . not really going with the flow very well. I have another friend who was very close to her, a guy named Mark, and he wrote her and she wrote him back once, and then he wrote her a long letter, and she didn't write him.
BW: I used to send her Christmas cards but she never answered.
DC: Maybe I'm wrong. That's just my impression. I was there when she left. She went ostensibly to take care of her parents. But I think in a way she went with a broken heart.
BW: Della and I often wondered what happened.
DC: I'm going to try to talk to her.
BW: Do you know Eva Goldschlag? She was a student of Suzuki Roshi in the early times and she's been very faithful to Bill Kwong. She's a very strong member of his group. She's retired from teaching school and she's devoting her life to art. Much of her art is, like this Christmas card (shows it) -- She had an exhibit and I wanted to buy this lithograph, it's called, "...? Died." . . .
I wanted to buy the picture and it was $175 and she said, I'll give it to you. So we finally settled the argument. She said, you make a contribution to ? so I made an extra contribution to Bill Kwong for that.
DC: I should talk to her.
BW: Yeah . . .
DC: Looking at Suzuki in Japan, and looking at Suzuki in America, there is a grand difference between who he was in Japan -- not that he was a different person, but he was with different people. When he was in Japan -- this is just my impression from talking to people -- when he was in Japan -- I've talked to neighbors who said he was really wonderful. I talked to one guy who's 60 now, who saw him when he was 20 and Suzuki was 55 or something, and he was very impressed, and he said he was really different. But in general he had no way to apply himself or teach. Nobody was interested. He had no students. He was with a big temple and a lot of families that he had to take care and do funerals and memorial services and stuff. My impression is he wanted to get out of that. I don't think he knew what was going to happen. But I think he had a type of faith or something. In Japan I think you'd have to say that he was unexceptional. He was not a well-known Zen priest. You can see the seeds of his exceptionalness by talking to some neighbors, but in general, --
BW: He was not the teacher with students and so on?
DC: He had neither famous students or famous teachers[wrong on the latter]. There was a guy named Kishizawa Roshi who he greatly admired and went to his lectures once a month and they got sort of close. Kishizawa really respected him. He was inspired by Kishizawa, who was one of the great lecturers and practitioners of the day. He really wanted to bring zazen and practice back into the picture, and not just have it be a funeral service. He was inspired by Kishizawa, but he didn't have any way to apply -- nobody was interested. People go into Zen over there for professional reasons, to become priests. People get ordained and have no idea of sitting zazen a lot. What is happening here -- things like zazen groups where you sit once a week, once a month -- like ladies' tea parties. There's just not the -- the way people sit here and the way they sit there, over there it's an old, decadent -- ?. . . the most conservative place. He came to America, and all of a sudden -- it's like being a priest in a Catholic Church. All of a sudden he comes to America, which he wanted to do. Most Japanese priests wouldn't want to do it. It would be like going to Antarctica. What do you do there? You can't be Japanese there. There's nothing interesting happening there.
BW: They're just a bunch of materialists anyway.
DC: Mainly they're not Japanese. Maybe the idea of being barbarians or materialists, big clumsy oafs --
BW: -- no sensitivity --
DC: Right. Mainly all those things are measured in terms of not knowing Japanese customs. So it's rather -- sounds very humorous on their end of it. But he came over here, and immediately found his place. He was here twelve years.
BW: Look what he accomplished in that time. It was unbelievable.
DC: What he accomplished in terms of an institution, but also in terms of the way he effected people personally. Do you have any suggestion? did anything happen to him when he came here?
BW: What he wanted to do found acceptance here. At first he managed to attract enough students . . . he managed to attract students who appreciated him for himself. Right in the first group there were people who immediately felt he was going to be their teacher. I don't know if they followed his way of life or not, but that was not important, he had a message for them that was very important.
DC: Maybe there was a part of him that was dormant in Japan.
BW: He needed to find people that wanted to sit.
DC: He used to say things like, the teacher needs a student. And sometimes I'm the teacher, sometimes you're the student, sometimes vice versa.
BW: He was a teacher but he had not found the students that appreciated what he had to teach in Japan.
DC: Ananda said he needed to have one student to go to a shuso ceremony in order for him to get to the next level of priesthood from headquarters, and he had to get some nephew to come sign the papers. That's not particularly any reflection on him. It might say something about -- it's where Japan was at the time.
BW: That's where the church was then.
DC: Also he had a lack of -- he didn't play the role of the Zen master like a lot of them do. He wasn't intimidating. He wasn't overwhelming. He didn't bark at people. A lot of them are like that. That is the tradition of Zen.
BW: Is he unusually small?
DC: Yes, he's unusually small for a Japanese..
BW: He was shorter than I was. At that time I was 5'3" I'm probably more close to 5'1" now. He wasn't much over 5 feet.
DC: I think he was less. Maybe 4'11". I've asked a lot of people, I asked his oldest daughter, how high was he. She said 150 centimeters. I worked it out, it was 4'11".
BW: Maybe he didn't have the physical -- maybe he was too small to impress the people --
DC: He also might not have played the role. Didn't have the Samurai side.
BW: In Japan he was a pacifist. He would go to things like youth marches.
DC: Where did you hear this?
DC: Did you hear it from him?
BW: I don't know. I can't say.
DC: I really have to know what the source is.
BW: Maybe Della would remember, but I think it was something that was said, and it was taken for granted that he had done actual work like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That he had gone there to help people or to peace march or whatever.
DC: Are you talking about after the war?
BW: After the war. But possibly before. I don't know if anyone else has clearer recollections.
DC: I've heard a lot about that, but when you try to trace it down to some proof of anything -- I've got all the lectures.
[...A break in the interview.]
BW . . . I'm ashamed I don't get up there much. [to Page Street or Green Gulch]
DC: I think it's admirable you don't. I think the example of someone who can practice without the institution is a good example.
BW: I don't go for institutional things. I find that this Vision Quest work is a way of teaching without teaching. We get five or ten people who go on a trip, and during the time -- the trip is a week long -- they're out solo for four days and nights -- you find a spot a mile or so away from base camp -- and make their little camp, and you fast during the time, and a lot of them really find some pretty deep places. I don't give much in the way of lectures, -- I give them a guided meditation sometimes My partner talks and talks. I scrub the lunch pots. It's very primitive camping. No picnic tables, no johns, no nothing. Sleeping bag on a little mat on the ground.
DC: You go to the southern Grand Canyon, the only place in this hemisphere that has deadly poisonous stinging scorpions. They're little yellow stinging scorpions. Oh, you go to Death Valley.
BW: As far as I know there are no poisonous scorpions, just rattlesnakes. Anyway, I try more indirect ways to help them. If they ask me something I try to answer . . .but I don't give lectures. I somehow feel that this is work. Sometimes people say oh, you're an inspiration for someone. I'm 78 years old and I'm sleeping on the ground. I love it.
DC: My mother is 80 and very active. She's got a boyfriend who is much younger. He's maybe 64. Now I have a whole different view of things than I did when I was younger. I know so many really active people who take care of themselves. My wife ?... he'd say, the reason we practice Zen is -- it would be different at different times -- once he said, "The reason we practice Zen is so we can enjoy our old age."
BW: It's certainly helped me. I consider myself a student all this time. I want to tell you one little thing about Bill Kwong. This was in the early times at Bush Street. Bill was in there several years. He was chief cook. I was cook's helper one breakfast time. We often had mush for breakfast with milk. This time we had rice crusts. We'd save up the dinner crusts and toasted them, very simple fare. I was setting the table. I said, "Should I put on the milk?" "No milk. Hot water." I put pots of hot water on the table. When I sat down to pour hot water on my rice crusts I started weeping for gratitude that I had hot water to put on my rice crusts. It was one of the most powerful experiences I've had. There was something to sustain me and how wonderful that I had hot water and rice crusts. This was better than blueberry waffles with whipped cream. That I was alive. That I had this to sustain me. All through breakfast tears rolled out of my eyes. I was so grateful. That's the kind of teaching Bill Kwong does. Even at that early time before he had gone to Japan and studied at Rinsoin. He was teaching people.
DC: Hard to communicate. I can appreciate it. You have to experience it. Nothing you can say. A lot of people say on you're writing a book on Suzuki Roshi, oh great, it's going to be so interesting. But most people don't have much to say. I feel like I'm dealing with -- this view out here -- Suzuki's like the water, like the bay -- there's not much you can say about it. All the descriptions of things around it, or maybe the little boats around the edge, it's very hard to get to what's there, what's in the center.
DC Kaz Tanahashi told Okusan that Suzuki has become a kamisama. That's a god in the Shinto religion. One thing I wanted to try to see -- what is myth and what is really actual? . . . Does that make sense to you what I'm saying? There's individual or collective ideas about Suzuki that might be on a romantic or myth level, and then there's something more actual. Does that make sense to you?
BW: I guess it would be hard to separate the myth from the person.
DC: As soon as I say anything I start thinking about the opposite. Well, you know, most people know his teaching was nothing special, ordinary.
BW: As far as I'm concerned he was very special.
DC: But his teaching was -- he always said nothing special. How was he special?
BW: For one thing, thinking he was nobody special. He was profound and yet he was humble. He loved little children. He would spend time playing with little children. I'm trying to think of little things he would do that were very simple, very helpful.
DC: When would you see him playing with children?
BW: Sometimes there was some big holiday being celebrated. Or sometimes when a lot of people marched around the neighborhood. He liked to hold children. He was unassuming in a way. His teaching was unusual in that he didn't claimed to know the right answers. But when he spoke on some philosophical subject he would do it authoritatively.
DC: He was special because he didn't put himself above others. But there has to be more to it than that.
BW: He was still very authoritarian in spite of that. He combined so many opposite things. He was strict and authoritarian, yet he seemed to be friendly and open to ideas.
DC: That's not a usual quality of Japanese priests. There seemed to be a two-way thing happening with him.
BW: I don't like organizations and politics and so on, so I haven't gotten into any offices at Zen Center or the board and so on. But he had this quality of attracting people to him that could carry on the organization and make it a very viable group.
DC: You say you don't like organizations, but my understanding is that you were the main supporter, financial supporter, of Zen Center when the budget was lower.
BW: At the beginning. When we just had a few people.
DC: Did you do that with your teacher's salary or did you have an outside income?
BW: No, just my teacher's salary. Seems to me I gave them $100 a month. My salary wasn't a lot then.
DC: Did you live here?
DC: You never lived in San Francisco?
BW: Yeah, I did, but that was before Suzuki came. I taught school in Oakland. I would leave here shortly after five in the morning and make my sandwich and a thermos of coffee and I'd go to Zen Center and be there from six to seven in the morning. Then I would drive to Oakland and sit and eat my breakfast in the teacher's lunch lounge and get ready for school. For about five years I did that routine. I taught in West Oakland, Hoover Junior High at that time.
DC: What was the racial and socio-economic breakdown?
BW: It was largely black.
DC: So you taught many poor black people? any middle class?
BW: Mostly poor black. I was in Oakland for 33 years and taught both junior high and senior high. Quite a bit of the time I was in west Oakland then I was at a high school in a more white area. I retired in 1976. I started in '42 or '43, during the war. My first couple of years were in the country near Marysville in a little town called Sutter. Near Chico. An area that was rather flat except for the Sutter Buttes which are an aberration of geology.
DC: Where did you come from?
BW: Los Angeles originally. I went to UCLA for the first 3 years, then moved to Berkeley and got my teaching credentials.
DC: That was the time at which there was a large influx of blacks from the south to here to build ships. You must have witnessed an enormous change in black society and community from those days to now. Right now the problems in black society are enormous. The problems are so big nobody will even talk about it.
BW: That area was quite difficult. When I first started teaching there were more whites, but gradually it became mostly black. I left before they started selling drugs in the hallways or shooting on the front steps.
DC: When you first started was it more peaceful?
BW: I guess so. There was antagonism between whites and blacks.
DC: It was integrated in the '40s.
BW: I think so.
DC: Do you have any ideas what has happened? Why things have gone so downhill?
BW: Why the blacks are having such a problem?
DC: Right. Why there's such an enormous number of poor people in general and so many poor blacks, and so many black who are not educated. Enormous societal problems. And very high percentage of black men going to jail and getting murdered.
BW: I don't know. Sometimes it almost seems like it's a plot of the government. Deliberately infecting the black community with crack cocaine to have an underclass to exploit for low wages and miserable jobs.
DC: What's happening now is that the lower echelon of society -- a lot of people -- is becoming non-working. They can't even be exploited for cheap jobs any more. The cheap jobs are being taken up by the Latinos.
BW: The mass of unemployed keeps the lower wages low. This degrades the whole working class.
DC: What about the effect of welfare?
BW: In a way it's necessary. I don't know what can be done. There's got to be welfare. What is needed is better health care and child care, day care. All through the police departments and so on they'll arrest a black before they'll arrest a white. I don't see how the situation can be improved. And they keep passing laws like three strikes and you're out, and it's partly to keep them in their place.
DC: A lot of greed, hate, delusion based laws.
[Break in the interview.]
DC: I get carried away in tangents. Is there anything we've missed.
BW: I was thinking about the location of Zen Center, on Page Street. They located in a poor neighborhood. Another example, if he was shopping in a market for fruits or vegetables he would be likely to take a damaged one -- feeling sorry for it or wanting to use it. Goes with his humility.
DC: Did you see him get angry much? Outside of the formal situation?
BW: No. He would get angry for our own good.
DC: The first two years he was there Okusan wasn't there. What did he do? Did he cook supper for himself?
BW: After not so very long there was a woman who took over and did a lot of cooking and cleaning. A Caucasian woman. I'm foggy on that. Ask Della.
DC: Della's a little shy to say anything.
BW: I always think she remembers. She's there and sees more. Della was sort of a chauffeur for Suzuki Roshi. She would take him to the airport or meet friends from the airport. Take him shopping. I think she probably did things like get his clothes to the laundromat. Little motherly things like that. Then this other woman who was much taken with him and was doing housekeeping things.
DC: I would have loved to have done it. This temple Shogoji, up in the mountains, there was a woman who took care -- there was a guy who ran that temple for 30 years -- she took care of him the whole time. He hardly had any students at all. She was never ordained or anything so she wasn't recognized. She was really like the matriarch of the temple. People try to get me to cut her out of the book. I had to cut about a third of the book. From the time that I came in '66 there was always people around him. Once Dick Baker said, "You know you should get a driver's license so you can drive yourself places." And he said, "I don't want to drive myself places. I don't want to go places alone. I like to be with people. I never want to be alone." I think he enjoyed being alone. But when he went someplace he had a different sort of relationship to be with people in other ways. I used to drive him places a lot. I loved it. He seemed to like to just be with people. Do you remember -- in what different ways do you remember being with him?
BW: That makes me think of an outing we had. I forget why we went there. Up near the Russian River. Somebody had a cabin there. I remember it was a several hour drive up there. We went walking around a bit. He found the fronds of bracken. The young, tender leaves before they unfold are something like asparagus. We cut some bracken. He knew what to do. The bracken has to be boiled with ashes before it's used.
DC: Kobun Chino used to do this.
BW: So we picked bracken. This little cabin had a wood stove with ashes in it. So he boiled the bracken with ashes and that was part of our meal. It was very tasty. Sort of like asparagus. I remember him as being very knowledgeable about things close to nature. At Tassajara he knew how to be with the earth and use it and work with it. That little man who hardly weighed a hundred pounds knew how to move a huge boulder. I don't know with a long crow bar or what. He knew how to use it and get it where he wanted it.
DC: He was very skilled with stones. He worked with them all his life. He was interested in gardens. He knew the balance point of rocks. He'd know where a rock should be drilled to make it split. People would work and work at it, and he'd go up and walk around and feel it, look at it, and say, right here. He really had skill. He also said some rocks were alive and some were dead. He was so happy at Tassajara to get back out again. I think Bush Street was a wonderful experience for him, and a very intimate experience with people, but he must have missed the outdoors. In Japan all the temples were on the edge of town and had beautiful streams and rocks. He made wonderful gardens. I'm thinking of getting some high quality pictures of gardens he made. I've got pictures of them, but some people make really great pictures. He made gardens at two different temples there. He was known for it. People thought he was nuts. He brought this giant rock into one garden -- that's where he broke his finger. How would you describe him physically?
BW: Small, but with tremendous energy. Energy in a small package. I would guess was not very much -- maybe a hundred pounds. His weight was probably O.K. for his frame. His eyes were piercing. He would see right through you. As for his physical appearance, he was always wearing robes so it was hard to tell how much was inside it.
DC: Did you ever see him without his false teeth?
DC: He wouldn't let people (tells story of losing false teeth on way to Tassajara).. (talk about blankets) Do you see a continuous line from studying with Suzuki to what you're doing now?
BW: Yeah. It might not be apparent to anyone else. I feel that this work is a culmination of everything I've ever done in my life. Meditation is a strong thread. Then my environmental interest is a strong thread. And teaching. I'm now trying to communicate what I feel about meditation, teaching it, and trying to help people appreciate the earth we live on. Try to help them establish a relationship with themselves and with the earth. We have a business, a non-profit organization: Wilderness Transitions. What we do is lead vision quests. (talks about Wilderness Transitions) One of the wonderful things about Buddhism is that it can encompass everything else. Native American love of the earth, awareness of how they're living.
DC: I've heard Buddhism criticized by a friend of mine who's an environmentalist interested in Indian approaches. He says that we need to include the traditional native peoples religions because the major religions aren't earth-oriented.
BW: My earth orientation and Buddhism are compatible. My meditation makes me appreciate the earth more. It may be my own combination.
DC: Do you feel that Buddhism as you learned it included this earth orientation?
BW: Yes. Because it points to the oneness of all things. That oneness includes earth and its creatures. Like the vows. I may expand sentient beings to not just humans, but every other form of life as well., including the rocks. The landscapes of the earth.
DC: We'd be hard put to find anything that was not included in it. Although in traditional Buddhism it was just animals. Didn't include plants.
BW: I'm not at all a traditional Buddhist. Thich Nhat Han -- he includes all other creatures. The concept of interbeing, that you cannot be alone. Including the landscapes.
DC: Thinking that our hand could walk off by itself.
BW: In our work we try to include Christians or Jews or Native Americans or atheists or whatever. Gaia, the planet earth -- perhaps our basic philosophy is that everyone agrees on a love for the earth and a love for all its creatures. This might not be orthodox Buddhism, but it is my Buddhism combined with my environmental approaches.
DC: The more you look at orthodox Buddhism, the less you might want to be associated with it. If you go to Buddhist countries -- of course there are many good points -- Buddha predicted that Buddhism would become decadent. Dogen said you don't have to take this in a long historical way. You can take it as saying right now there's the age of the pure law, the age of the decline of law, and the age of the destruction of law. A lot of Buddhists had the idea that this is an historical prediction -- like the first thousand years was great, the second thousand years not so great, the third thousand years just forget it. To me when people start interpreting religious teachings in historical ways their missing out its immediate stuff. Obviously Buddhist institutions are in no way immune from decadence. . . . been a little short on protecting the environment.
BW: I have my own little ceremonies like in the morning I greet the sun and I greet Suzuki Roshi and recite the Heart Sutra. That's about the extent --
DC: That's great. When you first started sitting with Suzuki there probably was no chanting, no service.
BW: Oh yeah. (Right from the first) we recited the Heart Sutra in Japanese.
DC: When you first went was there something for you to read?
BW: I guess it took a little while to get it printed.
DC: Was it those wonderful gray cards?
BW: Yeah, cards. It had the characters and the English. (She recites in Japanese - kan ji zai bo -- she can't remember)
DC: He couldn't either. I used to take him to people's homes to chant, because he had to do memorial service in homes, too, -- He liked to have somebody there with him because he'd forget.
BW: There was one morning I was the only one who came to meditation. Maybe I was doing the gong at that time for the sutra. Suzuki and I were reciting the Sutra. One of us would have to pause to take a breath so the other one would have to carry on.
DC: So people helped him hit the bells and drums?
BW: Oh yeah. I did the gong for awhile. I carried the stick for awhile.
DC: Did he call it jikido?
BW: My recollection is that, but my Japanese is very weak.
DC: These days jikido is the one who takes care of the zendo.
BW: We did a lot of work on that zendo. There was a time we refinished the whole floor and took out all the pews -- the sander --
That might have been before Graham -- It was when Philip and Paul Alexander ran the floor finisher, rented a sander, and refinished the floor.
DC: Philip was there earlier than Graham?
BW: I think so.
DC: Grahame was there earlier than Dick. I get the impression that Dick modeled himself after Grahame in the early days. Grahame was ordained, he went to Japan. He lives up in Healdsburg. I've gone up to see him some. -- in Occidental. I love Grahame I saw him in Japan some too
BW: I was really surprised not long ago. Dick telephoned me from Colorado. Just called up to say hello and chat a bit.
DC: Do you remember any sibling rivalry between him and Bill Kwong?
BW: I wasn't in on that, but I was aware that there was.
DC: When Bill moved to Mill Valley in '64 -- that was because of Dick. He couldn't take the rivalry. He didn't want to fight. That's what he told me when he was shuso back in the fall of '71.
BW: He had to do his own thing, which he was doing in Mill Valley, and then had the opportunity to move to Sonoma.
DC: Suzuki so obviously loved Dick, and promoted Dick, ordained Dick, gave Dick Zen Center. Why do you think that happened?
BW: I don't know.
DC: Some people think he was a little blind.
BW: Dick did a lot of showy things -- get us Tassajara. He knew the former owner -- so maybe he attributes our getting Tassajara to Dick. And Dick also got us a lot of big donations. He had the gift of financial acumen.
DC: Mike Dixon says that from the day Dick became president of Zen Center everything was changed. He said he had a plan. He started putting his plan in. Mike doesn't say this with bitterness. That was Dick's character -- expansive.
BW: He was filling the role.
DC: Suzuki apparently approved of it. From Mike's point of view, without Dick there would have been no Tassajara and there might not even be a Zen Center today. He consolidated, expanded, made the institution viable. Suzuki approved. Do you think Suzuki could possibly have given Dick such overwhelming approval strictly for organizational reasons? fundraising skills? Do you think Suzuki had any shortcomings? weaknesses? blind spots?
BW: Possibly, just like anyone else.
DC: I hear a lot of different theories. Like -- one of Suzuki's shortcomings is that he didn't see our weaknesses, our egos. He didn't grow up in America so he didn't understand Americans well. One person I know who's studying with a teacher in Corte Madera now says -- Loring Palmer, who studied with Suzuki and Trungpa -- says that he could fool them. He could hide. But studying with this guy Andrew Cohen in Larkspur, he can't fool Andrew. Andrew's got his number and is very demanding. That he takes practice, enlightenment, very seriously.
BW: Perhaps Suzuki, having not so much ego, couldn't see it in Baker.
DC: But you'd have to be totally blind not to see Dick's ego. I watched Dick very carefully. Dick would say things like only he understood what Suzuki was talking about. He would say very arrogant things, but he would say them right in front of Suzuki. I heard him do that. I did notice Dick being arrogant in front of Suzuki and sometimes it would work and sometimes it didn't. It seemed that Suzuki gave him a certain amount of permission. It seemed that Dick had a certain amount of -- I don't know if I'd say power over him -- but he'd get into talking about -- having women at Tassajara. That was Dick's doing. Chanting in English -- that was Dick's doing. I saw those things happen. Suzuki would say, you can't chant this stuff in English. Dick would say we've got to chant in English -- Dick spoke with real authority with him. On a certain level they were equals. At least the way Dick talked and the way Suzuki responded. In terms of pure Zen it was clear Suzuki was boss. When it came to cultural expressions --
BW: Yeah. Dick was very much trying to make this Zen an American Zen. Things like chanting in English were necessary to make Zen an American institution. Maybe Suzuki would give on points like that, thinking that Dick knew more about what would go over here.
DC: He really trusted Dick, to a certain extent. But he really wanted Bill to get transmission, and was very sorry he didn't give it to him. From what I can gather. He said be sure to take care of Bill. He told Ananda, Hoitsu. And he wanted other people to get transmission. Do you think that he got into making priests, etc. Do you think that was any sort of mistake on his part? creating such a big institution?
BW: Zen Center has survived and been able to go on without Suzuki. So I think that a lot of that was necessary to establish it as an American institution.
DC: You have a very accepting point of view. Anything else?
DC: Ananda's trip: His first point about Suzuki Roshi is that he was not enlightened.
BW: If you asked him he would say he was not enlightened. Mitsu would say he was not enlightened. I think he was enlightened. It means knowing that you're not enlightened. This is it. That this is it, that's all. Enlightenment is realizing the beauty, the magnificence, the sublimity of this earth.
DC: Do you think maybe people have too much idea of what enlightenment is?
BW: Yeah. Enlightenment is having rice crusts and hot water for breakfast. And being aware of it.
DC: Do you think that Suzuki increased, mellowed, worked on, developed his enlightenment in America?
BW: Since he changed so much from Japan to the United States, I think no doubt it increased his comprehension of what this world is. How people can be in this world. Having a mission and being able to fulfill it to a certain degree.
DC: I think one of the ideas people have about enlightenment is obviously erroneous, that it's some place you get to. You stop learning. You've gotten it all. Obviously he continued to learn.
BW: There's no stopping, no place to reach. I think that is a sort of enlightenment, to realize that there is no stopping place.
DC: The idea of nirvana, Hindu ideas of enlightenment, --
BW: No. It isn't a place you get to. Some people do get to a much more rarefied place. Some people said that Trudy Dixon was enlightened as her cancer progressed. One thing she said to me once was, "This blessed cancer." Implying that the cancer had brought her to a new stage of understanding, or enlightenment. She wouldn't have called it enlightenment. It had brought her to a new understanding.
DC: It seems he respected her a great deal. Once when Bob Halpern took Suzuki to see Trudy he came back to the car in tears and said, "Now there's a real Zen master."
BW: . . . facing their own mortality. I think they may get a new lease on life. A new appreciation of the value of this moment. How wonderful it is to be alive in this moment.
DC: I hope we can develop the ability to become enlightened with health. That seems to be what you're doing.
BW: On these trips we do feel we give people an opportunity to get a new lease on life. A lot of people come because they're troubled with problems of their life style, their age, their illness, their partner, their relationships, their careers -- on one of our early trips there were a pair of gay men. They were totally accepted by the group. Just before they went out on their solo, they were asked what's the problem you're going to be working on? One fellow said, "I'm only 28 but I have to face my own mortality." He was HIV positive. After that everybody hugged them both more warmly. He's now gone with AIDS. He and his partner both died of AIDS. There was whole write-up in the last issue of the journal of Earth Island Institute about him. He was a wonderfully happy and intensely alive person. You had to learn to do it yourself.
DC: Like you said, pull the rug out from under. If you gave him a problem he'd throw it back at you.
BW: I feel that that way has helped me a great deal.
DC: I think a lot of people have gained some strength from it. Some people have seemed to depend too much on him, or on some idea of him, seem to be sort of weak. Some people have some idea -- some people I talk to -- it's like they feel their life is over because they can't study with him, or that when he died the dharma died. That's unnecessary.
BW: He taught exactly the opposite of that. You have to find your own truth.
DC: He was very non-ethnocentric. Remarkable for a Japanese.
[Break in the interview.]
DC . . .Paul Alexander's friend Bob Hunt who was a record collector introduced you to Dick Wahlberg. Is he still around? I made my first recording at Whalberg's studio. He's legally blind. It was pretty far out.
BW: I phoned him just the other day saying I might want to bring him some records. What I need is a new phonograph. I can't play these now because my phonograph broke and you can't get these fixed. I have to ask him if he knows where I can buy a 78 phonograph . . .
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