Interviews with Bob Watkins
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Bob Watkins Interviews
Bob Watkins told DC 3/19/10
SR told him, "You may leave the monastery but the monastery won't leave you."
"I found a better word for you than patience. It's constancy." Suzuki Roshi to Bob working under the bridge over the small creek
Little by little was a big teaching of his. Big things are accomplished in small increments.
Kotoku Bunryu. Bun from Kobun and Ryu from Shunryu. [Given to Bob by Kobun Chino when he was ordained]
Bob Watkins at the Taos zendo interviewed by DC 6\23\93
Sandy and I drove into Tassajara in an old 51 Chevy pickup truck in a snowstorm.
DC: It had a camper on the back that was full of vegetarian food and supplies loaded in quite exactingly.
BW: We actually circumnavigated the place. Howard Campbell was there. We'd just got back from Japan shortly. Howard went away.
DC: He was the first director. He went down as soon as we bought it at the end of December of ’66. He was there when I first went down in February but gone when I returned in March to live there and you and Sandy were there.
BW: Howard was real nice to us and I heard years later that he had a lot of problems and his wife committed suicide.
BW: Later people would talk to me about what went on and I never knew - who was who's lover and all.
I remember quite distinctly when you came and Bob Halpern came. He walked in from the coast. And Loring Palmer and Ed Brown.
We were there and we were digging the footings between [what was then] the guest dining room and the zendo. Then there was a deck out there We tore down the roof and left just the deck
DC: Where the kitchen is now. I slept on that deck when I first came.
BW: We dug footings to pour the foundation for the new stone structure
DC: This was later in the spring. After that deck had been torn down.
BW: I got some great pictures of that and the mochi party we had there. We were digging those and I was down in this ditch with a pick and here comes Suzuki Roshi. Four or five of us digging in the ditch and a thought came to mind which is what I said to him - I just took it off the top. I said, Gee I waited all this time to meet a real Zen master and I can't think of a thing to ask or anything. I was totally blanked out. I wasn't embarrassed or confused. In fact I was surprised.- It was like somebody reached up and turned off the lights. There just wasn't anything to say. And he laughed and went on.
Coming toward the zendo from the cottages across the little creek. We had to replace some rocks that were washed out. There were several things that I did there one of which was to assign jobs. Made a list that I still have.
DC: You were the first work leader.
BW: I made a list and I wrote down what people were capable of doing and what they preferred to do.
DC: Yes - but some of us like me aren't on it. Phillip and me. I guess I was sort of independent, doing stuff that had to do with the dining room and errands Peter would send me on.
BW: I would have so many things - ongoing projects, certain things that would come up emergency like plumbing and guys worked in the garage a lot of the time. I'd do this work meeting and usually Suzuki Roshi would come right as everybody was pretty much sent out. He would come and we would go work on the path from his cottage or on a wall.
DC: Yeah, like the walls in in the creek below the dining room. That was the first stone work I remember. Was being done before the first practice period.
And that's where I got the one finger Gutei hamburger teaching. It was really great we were down in that cool creek bed putting mortar at the base for a footing for the wall which was pretty loose, no mortar. And so we're working one day and Suzuki Roshi smashed his finger. He really nailed it and he quit work. Work period was over and he was really swelling up to the extent that it was starting to rupture - you know around the end of the finger - it swells up and then the pressure starts to make it throb. So it was decided that I would drive him to town to Carmel where we had a doctor who was doing freebies. I drove him in in the old pickup truck. We went to the doctor's office and the doctor came out right away and I sat in the ante room and he and Suzuki Roshi went in the back where his tools and stuff were. And he put a hole in the base of his nail and wrapped it up and he had to keep it elevated for a while cause I'm sitting there and he comes out and he's got his finger held up with the bandage on it. We leave and we're walking down the sidewalk and I said something about Gutei. When he was asked about Zen he'd hold up one finger no matter what it was and his disciple did it and Gutei cut it off. His disciple did it when he was away and some guests came, visitors and said what do you know of your teacher's way and he held up one finger and another monk saw him do it and they told the master when he came back and he cut it off and he started to run out of the room and he called him and when the disciple turned he held up one finger and the guy got enlightened. So I saw Suzuki Roshi with his finger up in the air and I laughed and I said you remind me of Gutei with that one finger teaching. And he laughed at that. And a few minutes later he said, "Let's stop some place and have a hamburger." And I said, okay. And there was a funny little place right on the sidewalk kinda and it was real small like about six phone booths with French windows all the way around it - real open. Six tables or something in there, real sterile lookin little hamburger joint and we sat down in there and a waitress came and we ordered and she puts the hamburgers down and Suzuki Roshi opens up his hamburger and takes the meat off it and puts it on mine.
[DC note: Photo from 1967 fundraising brochure. Suzuki and Bob doing stone work after returning from Carmel where Suzuki had seen a doctor about his finger. Note bandaged finger. As I recall, before first practice period. There's more to this story. See below. -dc]
BW: He come over to me and ask me to make him a little desk at the head of his tatami where he slept. There was a small alter there where he'd work with the light on and stuff so I went scrounging around and I found an old school desk and I cut it down so he'd sit seiza at it.
He made a little rock path and we got to work on that together
One of his one liners that I really applied a lot in my life was "Just do it." Just do it was like this little island in my stream and years later I see a kid on the streets one day with a tee shirt on that said "just do it." It blew my mind.
DC: I remember you said you’d been living way out in the sticks when that happened, cut off from news and everything, and that your first thought when you saw that was that Suzuki had become awfully popular.
BW: Were you there the first time that Katagiri Sensei came out to help with sesshin? And he used to wear his samue all the time, his monk’s work clothes. And sometimes the rubber boots and sometimes the while gloves. It was crazy to see him like that. They both wore white gloves sometimes - it reminded me of Mickey Mouse.
DC: White gloves are common in Japan for work. Not just monks – cab drivers and service people.
BW: At that point the zendo was the old building but we'd torn down a bunch of stuff at the down creek end of it and left just a bare deck. It was misty and rainy and everything and we were getting ready to go back in the zendo and Katagiri Sensei said that thing about practice as if your hair was on fire and you were putting out the fire. And he told the story about heaven and hell. They're both places where people sit across from each other at tables trying to eat and they have chopsticks that are too long to eat with and in hell they can't feed themselves and in heaven they feed each other. I've heard other people mention that their teacher told them that. It must be a popular story.
Katagiri’s family lived upstairs above their restaurant and there was a little Japanese calendar with art and he got to looking at it as a child laying there in bed and thinking about that story.
"Little by little" was an expression Suzuki Roshi used a lot. He used it like it's how things happen, how you can accomplish something. Little by little you can do it.
I was in LA and I ran into this old friend of mine - his dad owned a nursery in orange county where I got the bamboo for Tassajara
We went for a walk one day on my day off and we went up in the mountains and we found a yucca plant and you remember that Ruthie used to pick yucca flowers and we used to eat them in our salads? They were all dried out but some of the leaves had fallen off and the base of the leaf was kind of frayed. He said, this would make a great sumie brush and so I grabbed a handful of them and he made up some sumi ink and he did two pieces of calligraphy and gave them to me and one of them is hanging in the other room and one of them is put away. One of them says “Everything is absolutely perfect” and he signed it and put Tassajara Zenshinji 1967 and years later I got these things mounted and the other one was two characters that said, Pure Wind. Do you remember how he used to use the word pure a lot? If you get up from zazen and leave the zendo in that frame of mind, that's what he called pure action - without thinking - you just do it - the Nike slogan - if you just do it it's shikantaza. It's the same attitude that you had in the zendo and he used to refer to that as pure practice. I notice Bill Kwong, Jakujo Roshi, using that teaching.
He giggled. He practiced on newspaper. He did a few things on the newspaper and started giggling and got real happy and got out some good white paper and did those two pieces of calligraphy and then he laughed and gave those to me and said, “Now don't tell anybody" In other words, what I used for a brush. And then years later I'm here in New Mexico and I get his book after he'd passed away and here's this calligraphy on the book and it had to be made with those yucca leaves.
DC: It says so in the book – in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. So you're responsible for that?
DC note: Now Bob is showing me some old photos. If we don’t already have them we’ll get copies of them from him the next time we visit – and scans of the calligraphy.
BW: Jane had that big mountain scroll stamp that she gave Suzuki Roshi. She and Peter got together I think after I had left. Here's the old kitchen where we used to work together.
DC: I was cooking a lot there before Ed Brown came. You liked the food I made.
BW: I sure did. Here's one of the Morton brothers and Kobun and myself and Sandy making mochi. Everybody had left Tassajara and we were all alone and Suzuki Roshi and I went to town and got sweet rice and borrowed Mrs. Obana’s, his friend, an older Japanese lady. We borrowed her thing to make mochi in and we came back and there were only a few of us at Tassajara and we all made mochi. We rolled it out and did it in the zendo.
[Shows me pictures of Kobun and Dan Gerber and Kobun's master - father.]
I don't remember any serious type problems at Tassajara. There were people who came in who were totally insane. They came in with bells on their toes. People would talk about things in meetings and have different opinions and Suzuki Roshi would be the last deciding factor.
I still have all the work lists. Here's the schedule of the training period in August. Here are my lists.
DC: I'm not on it. I was doing a lot of work to get the kitchen and dining room in order which was sort of independent of you but when I was wasn’t doing that I think I was on the general work crew for the first practice period. I remember chopping a lot of the old wood from the buildings that had been torn down. I worked with Nelda Foresta who didn’t want to chop so she just picked the pieces up and held them for me. I loved it. And you liked how much we were going through so you left us there.
BW: We were working on that wall and a couple of guys were talking about something and we were down underneath the bridge and just as they crossed the bridge one of them said, "Don't make any waves, don't make any waves." And Suzuki Roshi said what does that mean? and I said, Don't make more of it than it is. Don't excite the situation. Let it be. And he went, Oh, and he went ahead working. And that evening he used it in lecture.
Good to see you in Taos.
I've got some notes from what you've told me in the past, but they're pretty sparse. Would you write me something about your coming to Tassajara and Suzuki Roshi etc.? As little or as much as you want from one memory to your whole life story. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Hi David I heard about Tassajara somewhere in LA and taking a lot of good Sandoz I thought or didn't Sandy and I would go see. Actually if my memory serves me we were lost and then met someone in Carmel that told us how to get to Jamesburg and then they told us just keep going to the end of the road. That sounded cool. so away we went, it started to rain and I was driving a 1951 Chevy truck that was old slid into the side of the mountain to keep from sliding off. When we got there, there was the caretaker from the previous owners Bill and his wife, a young man named Campbell. They said we would have to be screened by someone from Zen Center, so in about a week someone came from the city and said I should write a letter stating why we wanted to be there. So we were allowed to stay. Then Silas Hoadley started coming on weekends with a load of people in the back of his truck. The first time I met Roshi I was in a ditch digging with a pick and looked up and he and Baker Roshi then just Dick were standing there watching me. I said I've been waiting a long time to meet a Zen master but now I can't think of anything to say, Roshi burst into laughter and then Dick told him who I was etc. . David I don't type or write much but if you have questions I will try to answer. I remember some of his sayings as we used to work together. LITTLE BY LITTLE was one of my favorites.
I remember you came in when there was a lot of snow on the road. My first trip was coming in with Silas in the back of his Chevy pickup.
I got into making weird conglomerations of gruel and casseroles and bread and you were the most appreciate person.
How about a little more?
We can go little by little.
On 9/19/2013 11:29 AM, Robert Watkins wrote:
Hi. I remember the kitchen with bare floors around it. Roshi came once in a while, the next Sanskara was when Bishop Sumi came up from LA and we were having lunch outside the zendo on picnic tables, you were serving hot water to clean our bowls and you spilled some in Dick Bakers lap, he was sitting across the table from the Bishop and Roshi, I was on that side at the other end and saw it go down on everyone’s faces, you in shock, Dick in total confusion and maybe some pain, Roshi and Bishop were watching and Roshi had that twinkle in his eye and a slight smile, couldn’t read the Bishop face. Dick held his cool and things went on. I always thought of you as Ananda. Roshi and I both had a sweet tooth and sometimes after last sitting period he would come to my cabin and sit on this stump by my bed and pull some candy from his sleeve we would eat candy and talk for about ten or twenty minutes those times were wonderful. One night after sitting we were watching the full moon which was very bright, he said HEADS, MINDS, MOONS, ALL SHINING!
On Sep 19, 2013, at 8:33 PM, David Chadwick wrote:
Hey. That is really good. I do remember that spill. Ouch. I remember once going to serve Kobun sitting on the raised tan in the zendo - big hot pot of soup. I placed it down too hard and a bunch came sloshing out right on his meal board, bowls, and lap. He made no big deal out of it, wiped some up and after the meal I tried to help him wash his robes which he did in the creek. Yes that's Bishop Togen Sumi.
I of course have your story of taking Suzuki Roshi to town to get his finger fixed and on the way back him saying I'm hungry let's eat and you started looking for a place that had vegetarian food but him saying "Let's eat here," at a hamburger joint. You said you'd been vegan and hadn't had animal food for two years but the closest you could come was ordering a grilled cheese sandwich and him a hamburger with double meat and then asking you about your diet and you saying you hadn't had any animal food for two years. Him saying, Oh that's very good. Then when the food came he took one bite and said I don't like this let's switch and he did so leaving you with the hamburger. You told me that at your place in Studio City I think over lamb dinner.
It was 69 when my sister Susan, Bob Halpern, and I took a trip in December to Texas. We were going to Santa Fe and Taos and you told us to see Robert Boissiere. We ended up spending New Year's Eve with him and his wife. Was she French? This was in a home in the suburbs. He opened the door at midnight and shot his rifle into the air. He took us to a chief's home at the Santo Domingo reservation. Before we entered he said, "Don't say anything and eat as much as you can." I visited with him many times through the years and even spent another New Year's in his Banana Clan kiva near Camel Rock - heavy snow that New Year's Eve in 92.
I remember that Dick was mad at you for leaving.
Oh - that hamburger story in Crooked Cucumber I said was Bob Halpern for a couple of reasons. One is that there were too many characters so I did some combining to keep the narrative easier to follow and the other is that when I interviewed you in 93 you told me not to use your name. I don't think that's necessary anymore.
Tell me more.
On 9/22/2013 11:02 AM, Robert Watkins wrote:
Here’s one! JUST DO IT ! Roshi liked to use this expression. Years later Nike started using this in their adds and I felt like they stole it . ha ha Another memory, Dokusan with Roshi, he would always say do you have any questions, and I would say no, then we would just sat their facing each other for a few minutes and the room would become very bright with what Kobun called the mysterious light. These are most of my main memories and they surface once in a while... if I think of more I’ll send them. And you can always ask questions. Namaste, b
On Sep 26, 2013, at 8:42 PM, David Chadwick wrote:
Excellent as always.
I have a question.
I remember you asking questions that showed you'd read some about Buddhism but didn't necessarily know how to pronounce the Sanskrit terms. What sort of contact had you had with Buddhism or Hinduism or any sort of religion or way? A sort of way seeking mind story. What roots or early signs do you see in your past that helped to bring you to practice?
And do you have an email for Sandy?
On 9/30/2013 8:53 PM, Robert Watkins wrote:
My looking back in time from my viewpoint now is that everything is perfect as Suzuki Roshi said, I spent my first nine years with my father’s mother who was in her late 70s, way back in the woods, but in rapid time, boarding schools, Military, Catholic, etc. then a few years on the streets in LA with my aunt, then the Airborne at 16, out a few years then in prison 3 years where I read everything I could get on Buddhism, and took a pencil and made a dot the size of a dime on the wall of my cell then sat in front of it until things went away, then tried in corpse asana but was too much like a trance. then finally I got hold of a D.T.Suzuki book and saw there was a school of sitting , then I heard of a place in Big Sur and found Tassajara, that's it.
On Oct 1, 2013, at 9:35 AM, David Chadwick wrote:
That is terrific.
I think you told me - maybe it was someone else but I remember it now as you - a couple of things. One, that you were the sole survivor of a group that were dropped behind lines in Korea, that you got a knee injury there that made it hard to sit. Two, that the prison time was the result of some guys asking you to sit in a car in front of a bank that it turned out they were robbing and maybe that they got away and you got caught. Any truth there?
On 10/1/2013 9:22 PM, Robert Watkins wrote:
Nope, no behind the lines stuff, knee yes, prison for being an active member of an armed robbery, did 3 years in the joint and learned to sit, no glamour... I went in the places we robbed just to make sure no one was hurt, foolish! what’s this got to do with Suzuki Roshi ?
On Oct 2, 2013, at 9:48 AM, David Chadwick wrote:
Thanks. I'm just curious and remember you telling me interesting stories. It has to do with you but I won't use anything you don't want me to. To me it's all relevant. I think if Suzuki Rosh’s life is seen in isolation, it doesn't connect as well.
if you look at the interviews and other areas on cuke.com, it's an oral history surrounding Suzuki Roshi and those who knew him and what led up to it and what's happened since to some extent. For some people there are just a few brief memories of Suzuki and for some there is where they came from and what happened after. Some wish to share nothing - Sally Block said it's personal - Chick Reader sent, "I was born," - and that's part of the mosaic too. It's a multi-dimensional view of a wide ranging phenomena of people interconnect. If one wants only Suzuki Roshi himself, there is shunryusuzuki.com with the most complete collection of what he said both in transcripts and audio, of the film with him in it and a collection of over 400 photographs. There is work going on in each of these areas making the collection more complete and better presented.
On cuke.com there are about 6500 text files and about 5000 images. Much of this relates directly to Suzuki Roshi and much of it is about those who knew him or were around him or passed through, their lives and the times. For stories only of Suzuki, there's Zen Is Right Here (a book and a section of cuke.com), Brief Memories, Suzuki Stories, and more. Also there are many entries in the Current Events/Engaged Buddhism section cover environmental, peace, and other issues. There are diversions and nonsense. There's a section on keeping in touch with those of us who are lonely, isolated, ill. There is a section on the history of fire at Tassajara. There's a section on stopping eating and drinking as the natural and traditional method of death with dignity. There's a section on the history of the involvement of Zen schools in Japan with militarism and war. There's a lot on Suzuki's family and Katagiri and Kobun and other Japanese priests who knew him. There's a whole other website for Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, zmbm.net, which includes the Afterword I wrote for the 40th anniversary edition with additional notes. We're in the process of posting much from the SFZC's publication, Wind Bell. Those from Suzuki's life are already up and now a fellow in Texas is scanning all those from the Baker era and then selections from the Wind Bells after that. He's going to scan all the SFZC board notes from Suzuki's lifetime.
Of all that is posted on these sites, I get more letters and emails about how people were inspired by the stories of people's lives who were touched by Shunryu Suzuki. Your story can inspire people too - the more complete the more inspiring. That you started sitting and studying Buddhism in prison and then went on to became a Zen priest, that you helped start Tassajara and what you did with Kobun and that you've had and continue to have a life of awakening could be inspiring to others, not just some of the millions in prison. You have many colorful stories and things to say that one could say had nothing to do with Suzuki but which make the spirit of the practice we shared with him more accessible, give it a human touch that people can relate to. If the Zen just stays in him, then there's less for others than if we can see how his spark helped to spread warmth in the cold through many unlikely and inspiring characters.
I appreciate all that you've shared. I'd like more such as what you've done since you left Tassajara. A brief bit on that like you did on your life before would be good. But only if you want. I don't post anything people don't want me to.
Hi I understand and think what you are doing with the writing and recording is wonderful. I just don't like to talk about myself, nothing to hide any more, just like the big picture of it all flowing together...
DC note: Gonna tell a bit more about Bob tomorrow or soon. (12-31-13)