Interview with Liz Wolf-Spada

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Cuke Podcast with Liz 🔊

Back in June of 2005, Liz Wolf-Spada and I had a bit of email communication that I now put here in the archive. I leave in most of the personal stuff because it tells a bit about the process of collecting these memories. Toward the end of this correspondence I joined her and her husband Sam for lunch in Santa Rosa. It was great to see her again and to meet him. Liz was even younger than even most of the rest of us back in the early days at Tassajara, and she wasn’t so much of a hippie. What I remember is that she always spoke her mind, often saying what hovered just below the surface in the group as a whole. She didn’t, in other words, go along with group think quite so easily. We all do to one extent or another, but thank goodness for those who resist. She’s a “king has no clothes” type of gal. Or like the monk who said that whereas the sutra says no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, “I have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind.” This email interview ends with a wonderful sermon she delivered at her church. Thanks Liz. - DC

DC: Hi there. I was talking to Jack Weller about you and he sent me your address. What's up?

LW: Hi. I am teaching school, living in S. Cal in the mountains in Wrightwood and have a 23 year old son finishing school and living in SF. I am married and counting the paychecks till I retire, probably 7 more years.

DC: Hi. Great to hear from you.

Wow. A school teacher. I've been married to one and lived with another and I've  taught in Japan where teachers get more respect. It's a noble profession.

I've been collecting an oral and written history of the Suzuki Roshi days  of Zen Center for ten years. I'd love to have any memories of yours that you'd share. Whatcha think?

LW: -My mind is an open book. I did read your first book and loved it. Harriet Hiestand and I are still close. She lives in Washington State and is remarried and involved in community theater. Where are you living these days?

DC: Hi there. Great to hear from you.

My computer has been on the blink. I finally started taking it apart and  putting it back together till it worked again.

Thanks for your openbookmind.

Harriet Hiestand - she goes way back to the Los Altos Zendo. I'm living in Bennett Valley south of Santa Rosa. I remember  visiting you in Santa Rosa in the early seventies. I'm living with John Tarrant, a Zen teacher in the Yasutani line. You can  check out his group at the Pacific Zen Institute web site.

My youngest son, Clay - 14, and I may be coming down your way later this summer. If we do I'd love to say hi.

So how are you at writing emails as opposed to writing letters or talking  over the phone or in person. Those are the ways I get people's memories.  The easiest for me is if they email me. That way I don't have to do anything. But whatever you're most comfortable with. Most people are best  at talking in person then on the phone. That means I have to transcribe but  I'm happy to do that too. Actually, Liz Tuomi (Okamura) does most of that  for me [or used to]. Let's try email for a sec to see how it feels to you. I'll ask one  question with two parts.

When did you first meet Suzuki Roshi and what was your first impression of him?

 LW: Hi David, I lived in Santa Rosa for many years, know the area well. I would love to hear from you if you come down here, we even have a spare room and a spare room trailer you could stay in with air conditioning. I am hoping to go to SF to see my son, Josh for a few days in August, but am not sure when. We may drive up, actually.

As to your question. I can probably do email, not a problem.

I first met Suzuki Roshi in May of 1967. I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. I don't know how I knew, but Paul Lee, a philosophy professor and friend of Dick Baker, had arranged for Suzuki Roshi to come down and speak. I went to this lecture somewhere on campus and then asked Roshi if he would mediate with us. He did. I was very drawn to him and wanted to study with him. I had already been doing Zen mediation in Pasadena at the home of Martha Rose Bode (yes that was really her name) and had read The Three Pillars of Zen. After the meditation and lecture Dick asked me if I would be interested in going to Tassajara to work to get it ready for the summer opening. I couldn't do that because of school, but I applied for summer training period and was very excited to be admitted, having absolutely no idea what I was really committing to.

DC: That's cool you asked Roshi to meditate at the talk because he usually initiated that. People usually wanted to hear about Zen and get enlightened or whatever and he’d say, “Let’s sit.”

So how old were you then and what year of college, how classified? (Freshman etc)  Where did you come from? And what were you committing to and how did it go?

LW: Well, I was 18 and a freshman at UCSC, had actually just started my first quarter that spring and it was my last, because I ended up living at Tassajara for two years. I don't know why Roshi didn't initiate the meditation part, but it was after the lecture during the question period when I asked if he would mediate with us. I was pretty tuned in to mediation, so it was probably the peacefulness of that mediation with Roshi that encouraged me to want to continue, plus the fact that this was the only Zen master I had ever met.

What I was committing to was training period with the three day tangaryo and then the schedule of getting up at 4 AM, working, mediating. I had a very hard time with tangaryo. I was not in the best of health and was probably suffering from depression. By the end of that summer I had also injured my back serving from huge aluminum pots that were much to heavy for my 100 pound body and from then on was in frequent pain from my back, plus had horrible insomnia and couldn't sleep. I don't know what I expected, probably people going outside to sit and mediate as the sun went down, you know, things like that,  I had spent three weeks living at a Vendanta Ashram in La Crescenta before moving to Tassajara, so although I knew the Hindu approach did not offer the grounding I needed, I think I had expected a gentler approach.

DC: Excellent. What's your strongest memory of Suzuki?

LW: I have so many, many important memories of Roshi, I think I could name maybe 3 that stand out the most. The first is the first session, at whatever you call that question session at the end. Many people had expressed concern about Roshi's health, even though he seemed healthy then. I asked him, "Roshi, what will we do when you leave us?" (or something close to that). My heart was beating so fast and I could feel the silence. Roshi looked at me with such love and said, "I will never leave you." And he never has.  

I remember getting ready for lay ordination, the first one we ever had, and asking Roshi, "What if I decide I want to become a Christian later?" He told me that was fine, as long as I felt sincere about what I was doing now. I did become a Christian later on, when I was 31, and have been ever since and Roshi gave me permission to seek God in whatever way I truly felt I needed to do so.  

Another memory I have is after that lay ordination, going upstairs at Page Street and as I passed Roshi as he was about to go into his room, he said to me, "like moonlight in Tassajara Creek", which was an explanation of the Buddhist name he had just given me.  

Another question, at the end of sesshin, I don't know exactly what was happening, I was probably on the edge of some great enlightenment experience, but I kept feeling like I was drifting, spreading out into the air. When it was my turn to ask my question, I couldn't stop laughing. I was terrified. I asked him something like, "Roshi, I feel like you are going to disappear, like I'm going to disappear, like everything's going to disappear. What should I do?" He told me, " You don't need to disappear if you don't want to."

DC: Thanks for sending me those memories.

Have a stunning July 4th!

LW: Hi David, It was great to visit with you when we were up north. I was wondering if you get into the City much. I will also send you my first sermon from last week at my Methodist Church.  It's the weekend after the first few days of school and I'm done in. By the way, Angie Runyon is also teaching third grade and lives in San Francisco, teaching in Fremont.

Here's the sermon. Phillipian 4:6-8

Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and mind as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, let me say one more thing as I close this letter. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise

I’ve always loved that song, but it really puzzled me. Why is praise a sacrifice? I enjoyed praise and worship songs, they uplifted me. When I looked up sacrifice in the dictionary, I discovered that I was using the word as it is defined in the second meaning: to deprive oneself for the sake of another person, purpose or ideal. The first meaning is an offering. So praise is a sacrifice in that it is an offering. But I think it is also a sacrifice the way I had first thought of it, as depriving oneself of something.

It was in about April, in our church one morning when I had gone to the altar to kneel in prayer with our pastor that I heard God give me words that I believe were meant to be shared.  I had been praying for peace in Iraq and feeling the overwhelming hopelessness I often feel when even thinking about that war. God told me to praise Him for everything I could find to praise, to praise Him for the people who weren’t killed in Iraq that day, to praise him for even the little things all the time. I felt that this was a message given not just to me, but for everyone who feels hopeless and despairing, a way that we could through our prayers and praise actually make a change in large situations that we feel we have no control over. In Hebrews 13:15 We hear that, “With Jesus’ help, let us continually offer our sacrifice of praise to God by proclaiming the glory of his name.”  In other words, we can’t do this on our own, we need Jesus to help us to praise God, and praise is a sacrifice.

I would like to share some of my own context for this sermon. I wasn’t raised as a Christian or an active Jew although I had been born into a Jewish family and named in a Jewish temple.. Praise and prayer were not part of my family life, although we went to the Unitarian Church from the time I was about 6 years of age. My mom was someone who I used to describe as an ostrich. If she didn’t look, maybe it wouldn’t be there.  As the oldest child and someone who was somewhat obsessed with honesty, I had a problem with that and would always be the one to bring up the elephant in the room that everyone else was determined to ignore. I certainly didn’t want to be a Pollyanna. And as for those weird people who went around sayings things like, “Praise the Lord,” well they were just weird. As an adult I also gained some insight into my family and cultural traditions from watching Fiddler on the Roof. Part of my family comes from Poland and Russia, the same area where Fiddler was set. In the movie I saw something that made be aware of what seems to be a Jewish tradition of intentionally not talking about how good things are, because if you do, someone will take it away from you. I know my mother used to say, “Knock on wood” a lot when things were mentioned that were good things. If someone would say something like, “Isn’t it good that no one is sick.” My mom would say, “knock on wood” to ward off the evil that could come from speaking about things being good in our lives.

So, my journey to become a Christian and someone who loves praise and worship has been a long journey.  Before I chose to become a Christian I was a Zen Buddhist for many years and lived at a Zen monastery for two years when I was 18. As part of our chanting, we would prostrate ourselves on the floor. We weren’t really praying and we weren’t worshipping Buddha, as Zen Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, but what we were doing was ridding ourselves of separation and pride. We were humbling ourselves and opening ourselves up to understanding and compassion. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but that action was also preparing me to open my heart to the living God, to move aside so that God could be inside of me.

Even when I became a Christian, I wasn’t always comfortable around people who said things like, “Praise God”. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to praise a God who seemed to always want everyone to be praising him. I mean wasn’t that some kind of weird flattery thing? As God has worked in my life I have learned that I love to praise God, but it wasn’t until God gave me words for this sermon that I seriously gave thought as to why God wants us to praise Him. I don’t think God needs our praise, but I think we need the experience of praising God and He know this, so He asks us to praise Him, not for his sake, but for ours. When we praise God we can move past the suffering and darkness of life on an Earth that has been darkened by sin,  so that in praising God we open ourselves to His glory, His light, His goodness. We can drink deeply of the good water God is offering us when we are parched and dry, because as we praise we become thankful. Praise God for the sun and the sky. Praise God for family and friends. Praise God for a place to live, food to eat, clean water to drink. Praise God for bringing us into a church family.

As we focus upon what IS right with our world, we strengthen that which we focus on and diminish that which we do not focus on. In education we talk about praising the approximation. As parents we do this naturally. When a child takes a step we don’t say, “Well that’ll never get you around the bases!” No, we glow with love and excitement and praise that first baby step. When a baby babbles we look for sounds that could be words and we respond with more sounds and more attention. We praise the approximation, and as we do so, we strengthen that which we recognize as emerging.

I believe that God is asking us to strengthen what is good, by praising the approximation. This isn’t always easy to do. When my back is hurting, it is hard to remember to praise God, so I need to remember to praise God for those moments when I am free of pain, to thank God for what is going well on a day of catastrophes, small and large.

Sam has always done this. If I’m in a car accident he doesn’t dwell on the damage to my car. He says, “Are you OK? That’s all that matters.”

It is not always in our natures to praise God. It is more human to complain, to dwell on the negative, to be overwhelmed by the tragedy of life, the individual tragedies and the huge tragedies like war and famine, disease and death. So when we make the effort to turn away from the overwhelming darkness, the tendency to sink into feelings of despair and self-pity, we are making a sacrifice. We are making an offering and we are depriving ourselves of something too. We are depriving ourselves of our human negativity and we are offering to God our praise and by doing so we not only lighten our burden, but hopefully, together, we can lighten the burden of the world.

When we were in Hawaii this past summer, I purchased a book by Robert James entitled, “What is this Thing Called Aloha”? If you have had the great fortune of being in Hawaii, you know the magic, the healing, the spiritual power that the Hawaiians call Aloha. James defines by saying, “Aloha is balance, patience, harmony, peace, tolerance and boundless love. Aloha is the epitome of the perfect alchemist. It can change evil into good, cruelty into caring and hate into love. The world needs the light of aloha. It needs the peace of it, the blessing of it, and the purifying qualities it possesses. The more you are able to let aloha pour from yourself through your thoughts, wishes, prayers, and external actions, the more you brighten the world.” Through praise of God in all things we bring harmony, balance and love into God’s earth and we nurture that within us that is strengthened and nourished by God’s presence in our life. Let us remember to praise the approximations and to recognize God’s holy presence in our daily lives.

2/2/06 - Reading through the interviews on

Hi David, I decided to revisit what I had previously emailed you and then read Rueven's piece or at least part of it. I want to read everybody's. It is fascinating, really, like the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Everybody describes a slightly different part of the elephant. All are correct, but none of us can see the whole elephant.

Because you asked about memories of Roshi, there is one special memory I didn't share, because it isn't actually a direct encounter with Roshi, or maybe it is.

The afternoon that Suzuki Roshi passed away, I called Jack Weller. I had had an incredible dream about Roshi that early morning and wanted to talk to Jack, although I don't know if I ever got to the dream. The first words out of his mouth were, "You don't know, do you?" So, of course, immediately, I knew. But I had had this incredible dream that morning, very early. It was my birthday, I think. My birthday is December 6.  I don't really know what day Roshi died [Dec. 4] , but that's how I remember it. Anyway, I had been, like everyone else, very, very sad about Roshi's approaching death. That night I dreamt that I was with many other Zen students marching around the lower level of the building on Page Street, wearing our robes and raksus and doing walking meditation, somberly in a funeral procession for Suzuki Roshi. I was just passing the wide steps that come down from the residence floor when I saw Roshi in his brown robe, creeping down the stairs with his finger to his lip as if to say, "Shhh, don't tell anyone," as he joined his own funeral procession with this silly gleam in his eye. He looked young and healthy again. I felt so OK, that when I learned later that day that he had left his body and gone on, I felt that he had stopped on his way, to once again, reassure me. And he had.

I also vividly remember his funeral. We were all so grief struck, so very sad and everyone was being so stoic and holding it all in, rigid postures and so and so on. Trungpa Rimpoche spoke and I don't remember his exact words, but his message to me was, " What's the matter with you? You have all lost your beloved teacher. Why aren't you crying." I felt he was giving us permission to feel and share our grief and I was so grateful. He was already someone that I had become friends with since he and Diana had first visited Zen Center and I believe that that moment during Roshi's funeral was a turning point for many of us, who began to look to him as our teacher, as someone Roshi loved and had been close to and someone we could learn from.