Rick Wicks cuke page

A Memoir by Rick Wicks 
Zen Center and Tassajara Stories and beyond

I first visited Page Street for a Tibetan lecture -- Trungpa? -- in the fall of 1971. I remember hearing that Suzuki-roshi was upstairs sick, and I never saw him.

Received from Rick 12-07. He added:

You asked what I'm doing here. I'm (slowly) trying to finish a doctorate in economics (I have to get some papers published to prove that they're "legit" -- since they're rather unorthodox -- before the department will grant the degree), and meanwhile I do freelance copy-editing to make a little money (often of other people's theses, or journal articles, World Bank or SIDA papers, conference presentations, book chapters or books, etc. -- sometimes also in surgical research, physiology, or nursing). I even do a little translating from Swedish, though my spoken Swedish leaves a lot to be desired!

September 2002

[Originally this was a letter to Linda Ruth Cutts. The opening comments to her are now at the bottom. Comments on Shoes Outside the Door start near the bottom here.]


In what follows I first recount my chronological history with Zen Center, Zen practice, and Buddhism more generally, then go briefly into some related impressions and feelings.

In 1968 I graduated from St. John's College in Santa Fe (which also showed up briefly in the book), then spent a year teaching in an Indian village at home in Alaska. When driving from New Mexico to California in the fall of 1969 (after visiting Santa Fe), a hitchhiker left a coverless book in the back of my camper-truck. It turned out to be Three Pillars of Zen, which I read later (as well as another Zen book or two, including Zen Flesh, Zen Bones) when I was in Unitarian-Universalist theological school in Berkeley. (I've been told that Lew Richmond attended the same school and also dropped out before ending up at Zen Center, though as I was much in awe of more senior Zen students, I don't believe I ever discussed it with him.)

I visited Tassajara as a day-guest in the summer of 1971 (while spending a year working with autistic kids at Napa State Hospital, commuting from Berkeley where I was still living, and looking for inspiration on the week-ends). I had bought the Tassajara Bread Book as a present for a college friend who liked to bake bread, keeping the book long enough to leaf through it, which inspired me to visit Tassajara. On the way in from Monterrey I picked up a hitchhiker also headed for Tassajara, but my truck started having engine problems and couldn't pull the hills so we had to leave it. We got picked up by someone else who had also already picked up a hitchhiker, and now had three, all bound for Tassajara. It felt like a real cooperative pilgrimage.

At the gatehouse they said we could use the baths, and I remembered that I had a boil on my leg and told them about it. The gatehousekeeper said "Oh, great, a healing!" In the early evening I ran into "my" hitchhiker on the grounds, who had heard that we could attend zazen if we wanted to. I didn't, feeling strongly that it would be a sacrilege for me to do so, not really knowing what it was (perhaps "what it meant"?) or how to do it. But it was too late to hitch a ride back out that night, so he and I asked at the gatehouse if we could sleep somewhere, and were offered the gatehouse itself, as long as we left quite early, before the morning gatehousekeeper arrived, which we did.

After that I started sitting at the Berkeley Zendo with Mel. I called and was told to come for instruction at a certain time, but somehow came too late so was told to just go up and sit anyway, which I did. I didn't know how to sit, so sat slumped over with eyes closed. My back started to hurt so I rolled my back this way and that to relieve the pain -- not realizing (at the time) that everyone else was sitting straight with eyes open, and that both my neighbor and the priest (Mel) might be aware of my movements. But it felt great to be there. I felt like I had returned to my original practice after an absence of 1000 years.

Baker-roshi came to visit one evening and I fainted after the bows. It turned out that I had a serious infection which I didn't know about, and I had been fasting besides, but at the time (and despite the fact that I'd been to Tassajara) it felt like shock at the realization of hierarchy, since I'd mostly only read before about solitary Zen monks and their lone disciples.

I first visited Page Street for a Tibetan lecture -- Trungpa? -- in the fall of 1971. I remember hearing that Suzuki-roshi was upstairs sick, and I never saw him.

I spent the summer of 1973 living down the block from City Center, then was invited to move in by Deborah Madison, who was manager. Dan Welch gave me zendo instruction. When my sister visited at Christmas and a bunch of us went out for Chinese dinner, I introduced Dan to her as the "assistant roshi", and he laughed and said no, there was no "assistant roshi", he was "assistant "to" the roshi". I was infatuated with Yvonne Rand from a distance, like a first-grader might be in love with his teacher.

One early morning on my way to zazen I ran into Ed Brown, who asked me (and someone else too, I think) if we wanted to learn how to make bread, and we did. He and we each made batches of bread. But, as he later realized and told us with a laugh, he forgot to put the yeast in his batch. It can happen to anyone.

Before Christmas I used Zen Center's kitchen to bake what in my family we call "orange bread" but is really a fruitcake made with candied orange peel, made from a recipe passed down from my Dutch ancestors who emigrated as a religious community to Iowa in 1848. I baked over a hundred loves and mailed them out to relatives and friends, occupying the kitchen with the project for several days (just candying all the orange peel was a big first step). For Sunday breakfast I also baked orange bread for the residents. Baker-roshi came by when I was in the midst of the project (probably smelled all the baking orange bread?) and the next year he started the (now infamous) fruitcake project. I've always assumed there was some connection.

My roommate at the time was David Schneider, who introduced me to the Mountains and Rivers Sutra which I later copied at least 10 times during study periods at Tassajara, by hand onto butcher-paper "scrolls" which I gave away as gifts to family and friends. Later Zen Center printed greeting cards with pictures of the mountains around Tassajara and quotes from the Mountains and Rivers Sutra.

In May 1974 I had dropped out of school (I was taking pre-medical sciences at SF State) and gone to Tassajara, working in the cabin crew under Pat Phelan for the summer, then as plumber during two practice periods.

During the summer Steve Weintraub was my roommate, and I remember teasing him unmercifully because something about his priest routine seemed odd to me. Later, when he was walking with the stick in the zendo (what's that called?), he got me back with a powerful blow to the shoulder that partly missed and nearly took off my right ear (at least it felt like it). You weren't supposed to peek to see who it was with the stick but of course I did. (I was angry, but when I saw who it was I figured I deserved it, too.) *

I was new to oryoki practice. As head of zendo practice, Linda, you told me (very politely) that I was one of the slowest eaters and should hurry it up, so I did.

During Christmas vacation I saw Baker-roshi outside City Center looking for a couple of students who wanted to make some money working for a few weeks in Paul Lee's new restaurant (the Wild Thyme?) in Santa Cruz. I and another fellow went down there, staying at the Santa Cruz zendo where people were very nice. Paul wanted us to add some "Zen class" to the place; I mostly washed dishes. For some reason there was a problem getting my last paycheck, but Baker-roshi spoke to Paul and it came soon after.

The next May I returned to Alaska for the first time in six years, to make some money and tend to some family business. (My father had gotten overwhelmed by complicated details and hadn't filed tax returns for years, which was putting a lot of stress on my mother and on their relationship. During the following tax season I got a job as a tax preparer, worked very long hours and learned a lot, then caught up my parents' taxes.)

I put up flyers around Anchorage and found a couple of others interested in Zen and we rented a house together, where one or two other people occasionally also joined us for zazen. I got interested in a woman I met at a foot-massage workshop, and thereafter wasn't very regular with zazen (often not being available in the morning, or at any other time for that matter). We had one memorable event however: For no obvious reason, as a fund-raiser and publicity event we sponsored a showing at the local Unitarian (log-cabin) church of Humphrey Bogart's old movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The advertising flyers were headlined "Bogart and Zen!" To this day one of my favorite quotes is "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"

In the summer of 1976 I started a non-profit preschool/daycare center in Anchorage with the woman I was involved with, and continued as director after she dropped out of it (and out of our relationship). The following summer I spent a vacation month at Green Gulch, working day after day with a ditch-digging machine digging a trench in the hard stony ground in which to lay water pipes for some purpose that I don't remember. On the way to California I visited Maui for a week, staying at Robert Aitken-roshi's zendo.

In 1978 I spent five months traveling in Japan, China, Thailand, Burma, and India, returning via Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, some of the South Pacific islands, and Hawaii. China had just begun to open up to westerners after Mao's death and the fall of the "gang of four", and I had been lucky enough to get a spot in a tour group to China sponsored by the Alaska World Affairs Council (which was my excuse for the whole trip). Very few members had applied for the trip (thinking that it was pointless, as it wouldn't be approved), so when I heard that it had been approved I immediately applied and was accepted.

When we were in Beijing a friend and I wanted to go on our own to visit the headquarters of the Chinese Buddhist Association (before leaving home I had read that a CBA still existed and had gotten inspired to try to visit) but the official Chinese tour guides wouldn't let us. They insisted that we stay with the group but we refused. Finally they said we could take a taxi back to our hotel, so we called a taxi and went to the CBA. The tour guides had also refused to help us find the street address for the CBA, but in the lobby of a fancy restaurant I tried the telephone. I didn't know how to get Directory Assistance but tried 112 (as at home) and it worked. I couldn't communicate with the operator but succeeded in explaining what I wanted to a restaurant waiter, who then communicated with the operator and we got the address. The monks in the office at the CBA were quite puzzled I'm sure as to who we were and why we were there (as I recall there wasn't much if any successful verbal communication). I gave them a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind which I had brought for the purpose.

I spent the first month (before China) in Japan, visiting a big Zen temple in Yokohama (I believe) where I spent a couple of days as a guest student and talked with them about their day-care center. I also visited Eiheiji briefly, and traveled around generally.

Of course in Thailand and Burma we visited lots of Buddhist temples, including ancient capital-cities full of pagoda ruins. In India we visited Bodhgaya and planned to visit other pilgrimage spots, but we had gotten conned out of our traveler's checks in Calcutta, and decided to go to Darjeeling (where it was cooler) while waiting for replacements (which took a long time). There a very kindly Tibetan restaurant-owner gave us credit to eat and later even lent us a bit of cash ($25) so we could do a few things during the days, until we were finally able to repay him before we left a week or more later. I loved the long vertical prayer-flags attached to poles in the mist…

After returning to Anchorage I heard about Paljor, a Tibetan monk in Fairbanks who wanted to come lead a meditation workshop in Anchorage. He and I and some other people started a combined "Zen/Tibetan" meditation center (our earlier group had long since disbanded) which continued for a number of years and sponsored occasional visits by lamas for meditation workshops. Some of us took the "three refuges" with one of them; the Buddhist name he gave me (in Tibetan) is Konchog Chopel. Later for awhile there was also another Tibetan group in town. Still later our group split and the Tibetan half mostly died out (as well as the other Tibetan group, though now I've heard that there's actually a small community of Tibetans living in Anchorage, including a nephew of Paljor's). A Zen group continues, currently with a Japanese teacher (formerly in Milwaukee) in residence.

In the summer of 1982 (or 1981?) I visited Tassajara with a friend for a week as a work-student. I'm sure I had also been there at least once earlier since leaving in 1975 -- I don't remember which year. I remember washing a lot of dishes in the clean-up shed by the creek at the corner of the old zendo.

I spent all of 1983 traveling again in India, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, initially at 3-month intervals (each time my Indian visa expired I went out to get a new visa), but after six months in India they wouldn't give me another visa so in Nepal I "lost" my passport and got a new one, then came back into India from Bangladesh. I had traveled to India with Paljor and Mark Reiss (another of the "originals" who had met Paljor when he first moved down from Fairbanks). We went to Dharamsala and had an audience with the Dalai Lama (who seemed to remember Paljor from other meetings), and to Bodhgaya, as well as visiting Tibetan refugee settlements in the South of India, where Paljor had relatives. Our headquarters was the Tibetan refugee settlement outside of Delhi, where his immediate family lived. Paljor and Mark went back to Alaska after 6 weeks, and I continued traveling, visiting lots of pilgrimage places and temples (mainly Buddhist and Hindu, but also Jain, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim), including active Buddhist centers in Kerala and Bangladesh. A highlight in Bangladesh was the ancient temple complex at Paharpur, which resembles Angkor Wat though smaller. A final highlight in India was flying into Ladakh for a few days in mid-January, verrry cold.

The real highlight of the trip, of course, was meeting my wife Ellinor (who is Swedish) in Bangladesh. (Another highlight was getting inspired with the idea of union of democracies while trekking in Nepal.)

I returned briefly to the States for my grandmother's 100th birthday, then flew back across the Atlantic and spent 1984 traveling in Europe, staying about half of the time in Göteborg [Sweden] with Ellinor, sometimes traveling around northern Europe together, sometimes all over Europe by myself. In early 1985 I returned to Alaska, where Ellinor joined me a few months later. In August of 1986 we visited Green Gulch and Tassajara as work-students, and then got married in September. The Anchorage meditation group had a weekend sesshin with an American Zen priest from Minnesota who performed our wedding ceremony at the end of the sesshin. (Coincidentally, he was later revealed as a power-abuser and abuser of relations with women.) Paljor died in 1989 in an accident at the Port of Anchorage, where he worked unloading ships along with Mark. By then we were living in Washington D.C. and I flew to Anchorage for the funeral.

In October 1986 we had moved to D.C., where I had virtually no contact with any meditation groups (none were conveniently close), though when we were later packing to move to Sweden in 1992 we donated a prayer-flag block-printer to a D.C.-area Tibetan group. I had asked the Tibetan restaurant-owner in Darjeeling (to whom I occasionally sent a $25 donation as "interest" on his loan to us in time of need) to send me a prayer-flag (thinking of the long vertical ones), but instead he had sent a big wooden block for printing the square kind of flags that are hung on a line and give the appearance of a used-car lot. In Alaska we had printed flags on rip-stop nylon so they would last forever in the wind.

Here in Göteborg there is both a Zen group and a Tibetan group, but they're located on the other side of town and I've only visited a few times. When a nature-film-maker in Alaska (Bill Bacon) made a beautiful film about Tibet for which Paljor's widow (Denise Lassaw, another of the "originals") did the screenplay and gave us a copy of the film, we gave it to the Tibetan group here.

I haven't had much sitting practice for years. For a long time I only sat when I was quite upset, but my wife took to asking me "What are you upset about now?" which, though perhaps good for communication between us in the long run, didn't encourage me to sit more often in the short run. But I started sitting again some years ago when recovering from a terrible cramp in my back, and have continued, though only for about 5 minutes per day, in the mornings on days (like school days: I fix breakfast for the kids) when I'm up before everyone else so it's quiet and I'm undisturbed (our apartment is quite small).


And now comes this wonderful book, Shoes Outside the Door. I first heard about the problems of 1983 when Denise sent me an article when I was in Iowa for my grandmother's birthday in 1984. Later I got a few more details (also about Reb's escapades) from various Windbells and other official Zen Center announcements. Since I've remained an occasional small contributor, I've stayed on mailing lists and thus been informed at least minimally. But it's never made much sense until now.

I've always vaguely still thought of Baker-roshi as "my teacher" (you notice that I still habitually refer to him as "roshi"), since I had "acknowledged" him as such, and never withdrawn it, nor officially given the title to anyone else. Once when we were in D.C. and I learned that he had a place in Colorado, I called on the telephone to see what was up, but they didn't take my name and address so didn't seem too eager to get me on their mailing list where I might have become better informed (I guess I didn't suggest it either). When I heard that he had a center in Santa Fe, I thought that St. John's College should invite him to give one of their regular Friday night guest-lectures, and may have suggested to them to do so (I don't know if they ever did). In 1998 when we visited Santa Fe for the 30th anniversary of my graduation from St. John's I called the center and was given an address on a dusty road up an arroyo, but when I went looking for it (immediately, the first day we were there) I couldn't find it, and didn't try again during the rest of the month we were there, being busy with the family.

Now it's wonderful to read the whole history of Zen Center, from before I was there, through the period when I was at City Center and Tassajara, through times when I returned to visit (when the Bread Bakery was new and I visited it, the Green Grocers was new and I visited, Greens Restaurant was new and I went with friends, etc.), through 1983, and then through all the aftermath that I've only heard about in various reports and fund-raising letters. It even filled me in on some events in Santa Fe; next time I'm there I'll look for the Cloud Cliff Bakery.


As I mentioned, when I was first at Zen Center I was quite in awe of the older students. Looking back now it seems funny, because it was still quite early in Zen Center's history, but everything already seemed quite established (in ways that I took to be fixed forever, unchanging). In any case, I felt quite screwed up, confused personally, trying to deal with things intellectually (which I had cultivated at St. John's), without much emotional awareness or ability (which I cultivated later in Anchorage, through years of pop-psychology workshops and counseling with a psychologist; I also studied counseling psychology myself at the university there, and worked for the Salvation Army for several years as an alcohol counselor in a residential treatment facility).

So even when I began sitting in Berkeley I felt quite awed by the whole thing and didn't talk to people much, and that continued throughout my time at City Center and Tassajara. I didn't really find any friends or girlfriends, though I was wildly (and desperately, dependently) infatuated with Pat Phelan the summer that I worked with her.

I was very much in awe of Baker-roshi, but never felt close to him personally. I remember being aware of Lucy and later of Karin as his special assistants, and felt vaguely jealous of their status (but certainly not aware of their problems).

I was very much "into" the whole "developing Buddhism in America" thing, as well as the communal aspects of life at Zen Center, the social and political involvement, the businesses, etc. I bought into Baker-roshi's vision completely (and still do, really; I'm quite sad that it hasn't all worked out so well). But personally, although I think I did a good job as plumber at Tassajara, I guess I felt a bit powerless and incompetent and invisible.

Once when I was serving dinner in the old stone zendo a small bird flew in and perched near the side door. As I served him Baker-roshi whispered to me: "Tell [the head server] to go outside and open the side door so the bird can fly out." But for some reason I gave an incomplete message to the head server, who went up and opened the door from the inside. Another time Baker-roshi saw me as I was entering the cabin where I lived and bowed to me from a distance. No one else was around but I didn't bow back because I didn't really believe that he could be seeing and bowing to me.

Personally I did better at a distance from Zen Center, but always had it in my thoughts. When I learned how to drive a front-end loader on an industrial job the first summer I was back in Anchorage, I thought maybe this will be useful to know at Zen Center sometime (not that it would be hard for anyone else to learn, of course).

When the preschool/daycare center I started in Anchorage became quite an operation, with 40 preschoolers, another 20 or 30 after-schoolers (in a separate location), and a staff of about 10, I developed a rather egotistical style, very reminiscent of many of the descriptions of Baker-roshi in the book (was I imitating my teacher?). I guess I felt that I needed that energy boost (since I was really beyond my competence, not knowing much about either child development or staff management), and also believed that I deserved special treatment (because I was so good as to have created this enterprise, was working incredibly hard, etc.) -- but the staff didn't like the way I sometimes treated them, and when I returned from traveling in Asia in 1978 (having been gone from the daycare center long enough for the staff and parents to realize that they could run it without me) I was asked not to return to work. This was just as well, it was time to move on; but it was a wake-up call and initiated a long period of self-searching, counseling, etc.

I have been involved in a fair number of exploitative relationships with women -- both ways -- and it's really rather ugly (both ways). Often I've felt so lonely, lost, and needy (as I did, for example, when I first went to Tassajara) that I've thrown myself at someone (as I did at Pat Phelan). (Fortunately for me she wasn't feeling exploitative -- being otherwise involved herself -- as I would have been an easy mark.) The woman I started the daycare center with in Anchorage was quite willing to exploit my emotional dependence -- but at least we produced the daycare center, which survives to this day.

On the other side, because I've often felt very needy, I've sometimes taken advantage of women who've shown themselves willing to be dependent upon me. And, truthfully, this has happened more often -- and gone on for longer periods of time -- although I don't think I've ever treated anyone in a degrading manner. (They might disagree. In the emotional fog, it's hard to know.) But I recognize a lot of that behavior in the descriptions of Baker-roshi in the book. As the author points out, it's certainly human, but would one choose a person who displays such behavior as one's spiritual authority and role model? I think not.

So, again, I want to thank all those who contributed to the book. I was very much moved by reading through so much of my own history, slowly realizing what stage Zen Center was in, what was going on with Baker-roshi, etc., at various points along the way.

In conclusion, I want to congratulate you all on your painful but I think relatively successful efforts to truly forge "Buddhism in America". The tradition will perhaps be quite different, with much more democracy, and without as much emphasis on authority. This was perhaps inevitable in America, but it's you who have begun the accomplishment of it.

With deep gasho,


The following was originally at the opening of this piece which was written as a letter to Linda Ruth Cutts.

Hi Linda! (copy to Michael Downing)

First I want to thank whoever put the book review of "Wind Bell" including the reference to "Shoes Outside the Door" in the May "sangha-e" (issue #2). I looked for "Shoes Outside the Door" through the university library here but no library in Scandinavia had it, so I found a used copy on Internet, had the bookstore ship it to my mother in Oregon (because they wouldn't ship overseas), got my mother to forward it to me, and devoured it within four days of its arrival. I was fascinated, though on the third night I polished off a bottle of Bols Advocaat (egg liqueur) that needed to be finished (can't keep egg products too long after opening) and I still feel a bit of hang-over nausea five days later (but not all from the alcohol, I'm sure).

Linda, I very much want to thank you and all the others who spoke openly about all the events described (and Michael Downing, of course, who did such a sensitive job of collecting and reporting it all). It means a lot to me to get a complete picture -- not only of what happened in 1983 (which I'd never had before), but also of the decades before and since.

Shoes Outside the Door niche on cuke

* Steve Weintraub hit everyone hard - DC