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DC on the East Coast, Zen Center, and Suzuki

an Introduction to the East Coast page

Shunryu Suzuki had visited the East Coast already a few times before 1966 and exchanged letters and received guests from there as well. These relationships centered around encouraging practice opportunities on those shores. Once the drive began to buy and maintain a monastery at Tassajara, the focus shifted to fundraising. The contacts Suzuki had nurtured responded most positively and other connections were strengthened and cultivated. Richard Baker, from those parts, sprung into action. Alan Watts helped a great deal with East Coast ties - not only through preparing the way for years with his wit and wordsmithing but with introductions and enthusiastic support. Richard Baker said Watts could make people feel comfortable about Buddhism with a few sentences and that his East Coast ties were invaluable. Peter Schneider arranged a talk in New York. Baker spent a month there then brought Suzuki back. David Padwa, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, introduced them to Xerox founder Chester Carlson. Elsie Mitchell's father Edward C. Johnson II who'd built Fidelity into a financial giant, was already familiar with Suzuki through his daughter and enjoyed greatly his time with both him and Richard Baker. Carlson and Johnson donated generously. Through Johnson's son, major support has continued. Carlson died in 68 having been the major contributor to Tassajara and is credited with being a donor toward the purchase of the ZC City Center in 69 through his wife but her interests soon turned elsewhere and she came to see, at least for a while, these Zen groups as being too interested in real estate. John Nelson wrote her a letter around 1973 thanking her for the family's support of Zen Center and got back a letter with scathing disgust resulting from too much giving and too many requests. Through the years East Coast connections continued. Pat Phelan has a thriving center in Chapel Hill NC, John Bailes is now a Zen priest in Boston, Brian Unger in New Jersey, and Tim Buckley (RIP) started a sitting group in Main in recent years - to touch on a few examples.

Back home in the Bay Area and Tassajara, the Zen students and friends were enthused by all the support. Some felt uncomfortable about the concentration on people of fame and fortune, but generally it was understood that these individuals were seriously interested in the dharma and fostering the dharma, that this is traditionally how emerging institutions get going in many societies, and that such support was crucial to establishing this pioneering Buddhist monastery. It is often the case in fundraising that one or two big donors contribute more than all the others combined. Donations large and small were happily given because the sincerity of teacher and students was palpable. And many close to the action were giving a high percentage of what they had or everything they had toward the Tassajara goal. In the Zen in America brochure that went out in late sixty-seven, of the hundreds of donors listed at the end, there were three donors listed as Patrons: Edward C. Johnson II, John and Elsie Mitchell, and Silas Hoadley (Carlson's major gifts were to follow). Silas was from a quaint little town in Connecticut, was one of Suzuki's closest students, second only to Baker in getting the Tassajara ball rolling, and had an importing business. He told me back then that if the fundraising falls short, he'll make up the difference. Within a few years he'd given away almost everything.

A number of East Coast women had studied with and related with various Japanese teachers who arrived there. They knew each other at least a bit and each had their own place and story. For years, Mary Farkas ran the oldest group, the First Zen Institute of America - after Ruth Fuller Sasaki went to Japan. Elsie Mitchell was Shunryu Suzuki's original East Coast contact and was close with D.T. Suzuki whom Shunryu called "the big Suzuki." Elsie founded the Cambridge Buddhist Association in 1957 and, as the cuke article/interview on her and other links in her section reveal, she was well-connected to the Buddhist scene on the East Coast, especially in Boston and Cambridge where she lived. Dorothy Schalk was close to Elsie and in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was part of a sitting group there along with Helen Walker and they wanted to start a center over the border in Vermont. The plan was for Suzuki's early student Phillip Wilson to go there but then he was needed at Tassajara. Nancy Wilson Ross was the best-known among them as she had written some of the earliest and most popular books on Asian wisdom. She and Margot Wilkie had gone to India together on a spiritual quest, and were in a discussion group in the fifties that included Ann Morrow Lindbergh. Ross maybe and Wilkie for sure had visited with Suzuki in the sixties and he visited with their discussion group in New York more than once and led them in zazen. Loly Rosset was married to Barney Rosset who founded Grove Press and Evergreen Review. She was close with Eido Shimano for the early years before coming to Zen Center. Millie Johnston came to Tassajara, wore a long flowing pleated beige skirt, and performed tea ceremony for all comers in her cabin. There's a humorous story about her, tea ceremony, and Suzuki in Loly Rosset's interview. Marjorie Bragdon was the mother of Emma Bragdon, a Suzuki student. She and her friend June McKnight had been to Tassajara and practiced zazen. Suzuki's last trip to the East Coast was to perform a funeral ceremony for Marjorie Bragdon in Vermont.

Shunryu Suzuki's path crossed with these women in the East and in the West. They are a few of many. More can be found via the East Coast page, . The First Zen Institute is still alive and Eido's Zen Studies without Eido and other Buddhist institutions and practice centers. Nothing that these women and Suzuki envisioned took hold in terms of a group or what they had in mind, even the Cambridge Buddhist Association folded after Elsie's death. The results of their efforts though, manifest is myriad ways and helped to fertilize the eastern garden for other dharma plants to spring up and flower.

 

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