|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
Interviews with Philip Whalen
notes from interviews [bracketed
notes by DC]
Interviewed by DC in 1995
PW: The first time I saw Suzuki Roshi Albert Saijo and I were looking out the front window of the Hyphen House [a residence in Japantown in San Francisco where poets and artists and people interested in Asian culture lived - it sort of took the overflow from the earlier nearby East West House] and this little guy with brown robes and overseas cap came walking down the sidewalk and he said, "Oh there's Suzuki Roshi. [probably said Suzuki Sensei or Rev. Suzuki back then] He's the new priest over at the Sokoji." [So we're talking 1959]
I said, "Is that so?" I grew up here on the West coast and saw Japanese and Chinese all the time. It wasn't anything special.
In 1960 I was invited to a wedding ceremony for some friends of friends of mine that Suzuki Roshi was doing and I was introduced to him at Sokoji. Saijo introduced me to him. I'd seen him around but never met him before. I was used to meeting Orientals and I didn't get a big flash or anything like that. He just seemed like a very nice little Japanese man and I said that was nice and I'm not interested. He was hooked up with this outfit [Sokoji temple] that I didn't know anything about and I thought that the real Zen was Rinzai from having read all those fucking books that are mostly misleading and it was all nonsense and I really gorked myself but it's all over now.
In early 68 or late 67 Claude Dalenberg asked me if I wanted to go up and look at some land in Nevada County that he and the Bakers and Dick Wertheimer had bought a piece of - it was a big chunk of land [where Gary Snyder lives now - not sure Claude ever bought any of it]. Richard Baker had thought it might be a place for a monastery but shortly afterwards Zen Center got Tassajara. So I went up. We sat zazen at Sokoji that morning.
Another time I went with Gary or Claude and Suzuki Roshi was in his little office and I bowed to him and went through one door and out the other and nothing happened.
Those were the only times that we met but I went another time to hear him give a lecture. That was just before I went back to Japan very early in 1969. Gary Snyder was living in the neighborhood and he said why don't you come over for Sunday breakfast and we'll go over and hear Suzuki Roshi lecture and I said okay and I had breakfast with him and Masa and we went over to Sokoji and he was lecturing in the big auditorium on the main floor and there were a lot of people there and we sat near the back and could hear okay and he was lecturing there on the Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha. I thought it was very wonderful. Hearing that lecture made me feel I'd made a big horrible gaff by not hanging around over there and talking to him. Gary had introduced me to authentic type Zen masters in Japan and he impressed me like that. And I did another gaff again because when I went back to Japan I was sitting on my own and I went one day over to a coffee shop near Kyodai [Kyoto University in Kyoto] and stopped off at the Hyakuman Jinja [shrine - sp?] near Imadagawadori [a street]. I went up to look at the famous Buddha in the small hall by the gate - this Buddha was carved in heaven and I looked in there and bowed and put a penny in the box and I started circumambulating the building and I looked out to the North and the sun was shinning nicely in that little graveyard and I thought, oh my goodness, I'm getting old and that's where I'm going to be one of these times and I'd better shape up about this Buddhism business and things and I saw how things looked and how I looked and I started to cry and I was walking around and around the building and crying and I walked off to the coffee shop and wrote in my notebook having coffee and croissant and I told myself that what I've got to do is find a teacher and be a monk and do this thing though I had no idea what that meant.
Irmgard Schloegl took me to meet the guy who's now called Morinaga-roshi [RIP] and we talked and we had a wonderful interview and his vibes were good. I had the feeling that if the building blew away he'd still be sitting there calmly attending to business and not be bothered and I thought that was great and she said now you can come here and sit and I said I can't do that. I can't speak Japanese - I can't do it. She said, you big dummy, all you gotta do is come sit and it'll probably be hot and uncomfortable and a lot of bugs but just do the sitting and I said, waa! waa! urah! urah! and she got mad. So that was the second time I missed the boat. That was in 69.
Later on when I came back and tried to do the thing at the Zen Center I realized what a fuck up I had been twice in a row.
DC: To quote you Philip, "Just enough survives." I've used that in all sorts of ways when we feel we haven't saved or done enough.
PW: He was a little Japanese man. I saw him around on the street. On that day he looked very small and tired. I thought what he said was very interesting and useful and marvelous. Among other things he said, "Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha, if I live it's alright, if I die it's alright." I thought that was wonderful that he wasn't going to worry in either direction.
The importance of his coming to America is that he brought an authentic teaching and presence that was quite real and which I felt later on when I went to Tassajara for the first time in 1972 in the fall that something had been founded there and settled - something which I somehow associated with him. It was just a feeling. The other thing that was persuasive about him was that when I first came to live in Page Street, Ananda [Claude's Buddhist name] was still there and I heard he was doing dokusan with Baker-roshi and I asked him about it and he said he saw him once in a while so I made an appointment and saw him and nothing was happening and I didn't know what to say but after a couple of times I thought, that fellow was put there by Suzuki Roshi who I think had a whole lot of marbles and so he must have something to work with and QED - quid erat demonstrandum - that which has been shown - so that's what I did and still do. I had to see him a number of times before I could figure out what was happening. So as Henry James says, "Here, in a manner of speaking, we are." I was pushing fifty and had a mid-life crisis, that's all.
Suzuki Roshi's teaching was that he was just there and doing his job. Morinaga-roshi had that same sort of feeling. He was called Daishuin-san because he had that little sub-temple at Ryoanji.
DC: Got any advice on the bio on Suzuki Roshi?
PW: Handle the book factually, flat, straightforwardly.
On the phone October 23, 1995
DC: So you came from Beat Zen to Rinzai Zen in Japan to Soto Zen in America. You're Zen trip goes way back.
PW: Beat Zen was an hallucination. It didn't exist. It wasn't a movement. It wasn't a whatdoyoucallit when a bunch of artists publish a position paper - there's a French word. It was no such thing. It was a lot of talk. Allen Watts knew Gary pretty well and later on I got to know him. Gary and I had dinner with him and I saw him now and then and before he wrote the Beat Zen thing that Lawrence Ferlinghetti published. The main point was that Square Zen you do in monasteries in Japan and honkies can't do that because they don't need that Boy Scout discipline and they shouldn't bother. The Beat thing was probably a misapprehension on the part of these dumb poets who didn't know what they were doing and Zen Zen is what you do if you tend to your own knitting and take care of things and you don't have to put your feet up in your lap and you don't have to do this or that. It's so wonderful - you're all free. Marvelous. Now that the Beat generation has become fashionable again and they publish things.
In 59 or 60 David [Haselwood - and I think this is more like 64] was working on my book, the Memoirs on an Interglacial Age, and he told me he'd been going over to Sokoji to sit with Suzuki Roshi and that he'd been doing dokusan with him but then I saw him later and he said he'd had one interview in which the old man told him, You don't ask enough questions. And this sort of crushed David and he kind of dropped out at that point. Not long after that he got involved with Alex North which cost him $300 a month that he didn't have and somehow he got it for the privilege of pruning vines or something at that neo-Gurgieffian heaven that North had set up in Sonoma or somewhere. Davey was up there for a long time and in recent years he got into Bill Kwong's garden and sesshin and he's going to have tokudo [ordination] up there.
Dick said Suzuki Roshi dropped his koromo and then you can't figure out which end is which but Okusan had it sorted out for him because he was too tired to mess with it.
Gloria Coonan said Suzuki Roshi was standing watching some guys move rocks and he just broke up because they were doing it in such a funny way that it knocked him over - he didn't say anything. He just laughed and let it go.
DC: What do you remember about Suzuki's first student, Bill McNeill? You knew him from the art scene, right?
PW: Yes. Not from Zen Center. Bill McNeill was in the famous ward up in General Hospital - people told me, that's where they put people with AIDS. I didn't know about it at the time but that's what they told me.
Just before he went to Japan I ran into him on the corner of Post and Buchanan and he had this large woman with him and a couple of kids and he said this is my wife and kids and I didn't see him till he came back from Japan. He split with his wife and kids when he took off for Japan.
[I put something into Crooked Cucumber about this and later Joanne Kyger told me McNeill had no children]
He went off to the Rinsoin and pretty soon he was ordained by the Suzuki Roshi [No - Suzuki didn't go to Japan for this. Suzuki said that another priest there did it for him]. From what he told me he got ordained in Japan - Suzuki Roshi was there and he had the ceremony there and got robes and the whole bit. And practically the same day or the day after he realized from a bunch of Yamabushi [mountain monks - walking monks] who were coming around that maybe he should do that and he followed them a little bit or thought he should but didn't but they got to him in some sort of funny metaphysical way and he looked at himself and Rinsoin and thought, all I want to do is paint pictures. Then he went off and got a job with Matsushita Electric like a lot of people did - teaching English to executives and showing them how to write letters and whatnot. Finally he went back to San Francisco.
He came back here and got into painting a whole lot and painted and painted and was carrying on with various affairs with other gentlemen and having a lot of fun - drinking, cooking and taking dope and painting up a storm and having a great time of it all. I think he showed some paintings on Buchanan Street maybe at Eba Beauragard's gallery. He thought the Zen thing was interesting but not for him. So that's why he quit - he wanted to paint.
I was living on Deaver Street when he came back. He had a studio on one of those alleys parallel with Market Street and it was a great big flat with lots of paintings and a guy named Ernie lived with him. He was working at the hospital when he died.
I was in Japan early 66 to Thanksgiving 67 and I saw Bill then too and he did a portrait of me wearing a strange costume that I'd constructed out a dope illusion that had overtaken me in Kyoto. It was wonderful. There was a strange woman who a character had carted off to North Beach to be his love slave and she ended up having a whole flock of Bill's paintings. She had that portrait.
I saw Bill at a party when I got back. I was living with Albert Saijo in Buchanan Street in that big gray building that occupied the whole block between Post and the alley. It was called the Hyphen House. The East-West house was up around the corner on California Street very nearly across from the big Synagogue.
Bill was totally involved with the gay scene.
He died in 82 or 83 and we did his funeral up above RCA beach in Bolinas. Steve Allen and Mike Jamvold helped me. We set up an altar on a table. There were fifteen twenty people there. That's where he wanted his ashes spread.
DC - I remember it now - I was there. I was living nearby and you-all needed some support. But I didn't know who McNeill was.
From Philip Whalen on Bill McNeill - 6/17/02
I made a big magic memorial service for him at RCA Beach. Steve Allen and Mike Jamvold, Shunko, were my assistants. Issan, Joanne, Glenn, and Dave Haselwood were there.
[Glenn is Glenn Todd who I had visited before Philip. Glenn has lived for many years next door to the old Sokoji temple which is being remolded. After being shown around the construction site there awash in memories, my friend Cecilia and I went over to Glenn's and he showed us paintings by McNeill and talked about him and said to give his regards to Philip which I did.]
The ocean roared and the wind was cold and everybody stood still and it was very nice. We went through the whole forty minute death and rebirth ceremony. It was Zen straight out of the book - same as Suzuki Roshi's I bet. I used a flame - two pieces of paper painted red and glued together.
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