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Posted Feb. 3, 2019

Dwelling Place of the Ancestors
posted in Reflections


The way it worked was that you paid money to go labor all day at menial tasks. Some people saw it that way, notably parents of a number of the young people doing the laboring. The young people themselves saw it otherwise. To them, it was a chance to learn meditation, and to practice it in a community with others who at least looked like they knew what they were doing. More importantly, a genuine meditation master lived at the centre where all the cleaning, sweeping, cooking, sewing and painting took place—an old man of Japanese descent, who had been practicing Zen for 50 years.


A book of his teachings had been published, drawn from weekly talks to students, and a wide spectrum of readers had praised it as helpful. This slim volume, attractively designed, felt like a kind of wisdom text. It bore a picture of the master across the entire back cover; he was shown in work robes, unshaven, wearing a handsome, enigmatic, half-smile. It felt that in opening the pages you were opening more than a book. Reading even a little bit seemed to be associating yourself with something and someone positive.


The group of people who joined the master for meditation morning and afternoon had grown, and was now well beyond the capacity of the temple in Japantown where he’d begun his American career a decade earlier. The demographic had also shifted—from a congregation of middle-aged Japanese adults wanting a temple priest to lead ceremonies and do seasonal rituals, to a collection of mostly young, mostly white Westerners (some of them unkempt in the style of hippies) wanting a living, breathing Zen master to guide them to satori.


Eventually the younger group prevailed. They found a building several dangerous neighborhoods removed from Japantown, and bought it. Designed and built many years earlier by Julia Morgan—an architectural treasure—it nevertheless required enormous work to clean and renovate, especially as it was to house a meditation hall, a private apartment for the master and his wife, and private rooms, both singles and doubles, for some 50 rent-paying residents. This work had been largely, but not completely, accomplished by the time I arrived.


I hadn’t called ahead, nor written. I’d simply hitch-hiked down from college in Oregon, thinking to use the couple weeks of Christmas vacation for spiritual advancement. They didn’t let me in right away. I mean I was allowed in the front door, after a frank appraisal from the fellow who opened it, but told to go wait on a bench in an alcove while they checked about space in the Men’s Dorm. There wasn’t any. The people in the front office put in a couple calls, and found me accommodation in a flat a few houses down the hill. It was communally rented by a Zen pair and some other friends. From there, it turned out, I could easily attend the 5 a.m. sitting at the centre, and follow the schedule of devotions that developed from that: walking meditation, more sitting, a service of bowing and chanting. Afternoon meditation was also open; meals were not. Not being present for these, I missed the work meetings that followed breakfast and lunch.


Two days later though, I took my sleeping bag, and my backpack of possessions to the Men’s Dorm, as a space had opened up. I was one of six who slept in the room, each of us on a single tatami mat arranged around the perimeter of the carpeted space, with a low table in the middle, for books, glasses, clocks…This room was in the basement, though given the way the building had been set into the hill, we were actually at street level. Out one window, past the iron bars that protected it, was a few feet of ivy-covered yard, a hip-high fence, then the sidewalk, and parked cars. It wasn’t much of a view, but we weren’t there for the view. The Men’s Dorm was conveniently next to a men’s bathroom and then down a few stairs, the entrance to the zendo, the meditation hall. For most of us bunking there, that was the point. There was almost no obstruction to our getting into the meditation hall.


It is true that we paid a daily fee to be there, but we would have paid for a roof over our heads anywhere decent, the crash-pad ethics of San Francisco notwithstanding. The meals were also good, and plentiful. It is true that between these meals and the periods of meditation, we worked. It was practical work, and no bones were made about it. Chinese monks had started the tradition, centuries ago. On our daily schedule, it was called “Work Period”. Still, it was regarded as part of Zen activity, the spiritual practice with which we filled our days; and everyone—including the master himself, on certain occasions—did it.


Administrative staff might find exemptions, but only because they were otherwise employed. Working.

It was plain old work, but we did not play the radio as we scrubbed decades of grime from the stairwell walls. We did not flick cigarette butts around as we cleaned up painting equipment. We did not cat-call, whistle, or stare if we were weeding, or unloading vehicles, or sweeping the long stretches of inner-city sidewalk that bordered our building. We were supposed to put our whole minds on what we were doing—“to become one with our activity”—and as part of that, we were also not supposed to talk unnecessarily. This latter advice was challenging. As a group who’d assembled itself from all over, drawn together by the esoteric practice of meditation, we were curious about one another.


The Work Leader embodied this problem personally. He was a serious fellow, and his job—one of the traditional six big ones in a Zen temple—demanded attention both detailed and panoramic. He worked with lists, went to meetings, kept a number of interlocking projects moving forward, and dealt with an unpredictable work force, a variable crew of temporary, unknown quantities, like myself. If he had time as he floated from project to project, the Work Leader would join in for a while. He almost always participated at the set-up phase, and he made sure that things were finished well, overseeing clean-up and storage of tools. Working alongside you, he might suddenly blurt a question about where you were from, or if you were in school, and if you were, what you might be studying—as though there were no discouragement of such talk. When the work was hard, he did not hide (verbally) that he too suffered doing it with you. He didn’t pretend to be unfazed helping to lift something heavy, nor did he disguise pleasure at a task skillfully or thoroughly done. His smile lit up his face, and there was real delight in his laughter, which came easily, though it often began silently. Still, he conveyed a sense of strictness. You did not want to be late for work meeting, nor to cross him in other ways. A decision, once he had taken it, was not to be questioned, even if it seemed inefficient.

The person who had the most obvious effect on our Work Leader was the master himself. Contact between them was not rare. Master Suzuki—Suzuki-roshi—would be consulted about aspects of a project: a color choice perhaps, or the placement of things, especially, if those things were rocks. Large stones, trucked up from the centre’s rural monastery, had been arranged in the interior courtyard, as the basis for a garden there. Such work keenly interested Suzuki-roshi, and he participated to the degree that his time and health allowed. At the very least he watched, as the old technology—winches, skids, blocks, tackles, levers, and raw human muscle—brought the work slowly forward.


I saw how it took a full morning once to get a bench-sized sparkling piece of granite from the back of the flat-bed truck up the centre’s front stairs, and into the door. The afternoon of that day was given over to moving the stone across the polished red floor of the front hall. There it rested for a day, as did the stone crew, while plans were made about how best to move it from where it rested, to its final position in the courtyard. Considerations included causing the least possible damage to the interior floor, the window frames, and the exterior cement. During these discussions, our Work Leader—Steve, he was called—was fully engaged. He, other earlier Work Leaders, and several types who thought of themselves as rock-work specialists, went over every aspect of the project. They did this with Suzuki-roshi, and around him, and in the course of the talk, they frequently praised the rock. Suzuki-roshi had picked it out from a creek-bed in the mountains.


During the talking and the working, they signalled deference to Suzuki-roshi. It is not easy to say exactly how they did this, but to an outsider, even a novice like myself, it was clearly so. Part of it seemed to be in the way they spoke, in how they moved, and where they positioned themselves in relation to him. I was seeing a number of much larger men—Roshi was not tall—managing through nearness, distance, and even the altitude from which they addressed him, to communicate respect, as well as whatever practical matter was at hand. This obviously included humor. In photographs of similar work discussions, the crew, including Steve, wore expressions running from serious to adoring. Some are laughing; one or two faces glow the way a parent’s does, looking at a new-born, or watching a child’s piano recital.


I too experienced a range of emotions the first time I actually laid eyes on Suzuki-roshi. I had come in the front door—late, it was soon made clear to me—for the Saturday morning lecture. I must have still been lodged down the street, and not have understood the protocol, the crucial importance of being at least ten minutes early for talks. In any case, Suzuki-roshi came down the hall, moving in a stately way toward the entrance to the Buddha Hall. He was trailed a respectful few paces by an attendant carrying incense. Whoever opened the front door to let me in also held me back. Apparently, one did not scurry in at the last minute in front of the master. One stood where one was and was observed to be late. I also learned later that the crescendo of temple bells resounding in the building, seeming to come from nowhere, was the musical accompaniment just for the entry of the speaker.


Perched amid the dozens of street shoes and sandals and flip-flops that had been (mindfully) kicked off before going into the Buddha Hall, restrained there like a spectator at a golf tournament, I finally saw the roshi. He transfixed me as he came along. paused at the entryway, turned, removed his slippers, turned again and continued on toward the altar. Forcibly halted, I wished first that a giant mud puddle would appear in the floor, so that I could lay myself down in it and have him walk over me; simultaneously—with no gap at all—it was utterly clear that the man I wished to serve so, to offer myself to, to adore, was made of iron, and didn’t need anything from anyone, certainly not from me.


Of the talk itself, once everyone had settled—I in some wall-hugging, last-row space— I remember few, if any, of the words. It felt like Roshi knew where he wanted to go in the lecture, but his pace was slow, with many pauses and much amusement.  He laughed almost privately, almost silently. He spoke a heavily accented English that I recognized from out of the mouths of many of his senior students. During Roshi’s pauses, it seemed you could watch thoughts moving through his mind. His expression would change, then change again, and he even looked surprised sometimes at what had occurred to him. Then he would say something. This was hypnotic; we were hanging on every word, yet it seemed only to be his normal manner of expression—innocent, and undefended.


I was not part of the stone crew. That was a restricted group, and initiation came at the monastery, where the creeks supplied an endless selection of rocks, from gravel to boulders. These were refreshed seasonally, with storms and occasional winter floods. There, I learned later, retaining walls were built of stone, and stairs, pathways, some cabins, and even the four high sides of an industrial kitchen. We passed this kitchen several times daily on the way to the meditation hall, and it amazed some of us how the walls were square to one another, right-angled, as if rocks had been made to go around a corner.

But back here in the city, especially interior to a building made beautiful in another time, the rocks were decorative. This is not to say that placement of them was any less earnest, or less consequential. The rocks were core elements in a garden into which guests would be invited—a place people would spend time, have conversations, take pictures. A picture of Suzuki-roshi gesturing showed that several of his fingers had been broken. Word was, moving rocks.


The back stairs ran from the garbage cans and paint sink and delivery entrance at street level, up some four floors to a roof-top herb garden and laundry area, with spectacular views of east- and south- San Francisco. A stocky fellow called Dan and I had spent most of a week back there, washing the walls with TSP, priming them, and getting parts of them repainted. We were now up near the top, where the stairwell gave onto the roof, and parts of these walls were unreachable without scaffolding. Steve had supervised our makeshift construction of planks and ladders, and had tested it himself, before letting either of us—and only one at a time—clamber up. Several passersby on their way to the roof had admired our work as they squeezed past, and commented, perhaps with a tinge of flirtation, at our bravery. So Dan and I were a little miffed to be pulled off this job at the point where we finally had space over our heads, and light, and a bit of appreciation. It turned out though that we were given a plum assignment.


At the morning work meeting, Steve took us aside to say that Dan and I would be painting the interior of the bedroom closet in the modest suite of rooms where Suzuki-roshi lived with his wife. The Suzukis would be out for the day, because of an obligation with the Japanese congregation. They had agreed to leave their closet empty until their return late afternoon. A first coat of paint had been put on some weeks earlier, but hastily. As soon as the apartment was empty, Steve told us, we were to go in, set up, and do whatever touch-up work was necessary. If there wasn’t much, Steve would put a heater in the closet at lunch, and in the early afternoon we’d put on a final coat of paint. He wanted us done and out by the time the Suzukis returned. He also wanted to have as much time as possible to air the place out.


We assembled our materials: drop-cloths, masking tape, a couple small buckets of paint (bone white) and brushes of various sizes. These we took up to the hallway outside the Suzuki’s rooms, and stored them as neatly as we could. Then we had to wait, and the waiting was hard on Steve. He really wanted to get us started, but there was no way anything could be done until the Suzukis left. He didn’t want to assign us to other work, because we’d just have to be pulled off it the moment their little flat—living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath was free. It gnawed at Steve to have us idle, but he finally gave us a break. We could get a hot drink in the small kitchen, he said; we should be findable. We were to wait in the room where newspapers were read, informally (but universally) called the Flop Room.

Much like the Men’s Dorm, the Flop Room featured a low table in the middle. The floor was covered in carpet shaggier than the one we had in the dorm, and instead of tatami mats around the walls, this room featured a comfortable couch three seats wide, a couple armchairs, and a selection of large pillows. There were habitués, but no one seemed to stay there very long. People got a tea or coffee, read some of the paper, maybe snacked, and went. One or two mothers played from time to time with infants on the interesting rug, or nursed them among the pillows. As Guest Students, Dan and I had had neither time nor occasion to be in there. Feeling like trespassers, we knelt at the table and waited for Steve to collect us, which he soon enough did.  Down the hall, we could see the Suzukis being attended as they went out the front door to a waiting car. We all paused to watch, before mounting to the next floor.


Dan and I had never even been in the Suzuki’s wing of the building; there was no reason we would have. Next to their private apartment was a larger room with a separate entrance, Steve said, pointing to it, in which Roshi did interviews and met the staff for morning tea. Further down—this wing ran three or four rooms on each side—were offices, and the residence rooms of temple staff, whose titles I did not recognize when Steve mentioned them. At the far end of the hall,  glass doors opened to a fire escape, and sunlight slanted in through these. As a structure, the whole building held the corner it sat on well, being large and dignified, even imposing. But the interior, with its courtyards, arches, and many large windows, felt open, penetrated by light on all sides, no matter which floor you were on, no matter which part. Julia Morgan had designed it as a residence hall; a respectable address for young Jewish women in need of a safe place to be while in San Francisco.


Steve knocked reflexively on the door to the Suzuki’s flat, then opened it and stepped over a raised threshold. Whereas he frequently pointed things out to us about the building, here he was the opposite. Shoji-screens stood in the rooms, forming a kind of corridor for us to go along with our materials; but even if they hadn’t, it felt like Steve was unfurling some sort of cape, to block our possibly roving eyes, and to guide us without distraction to the walk-in closet where our work lay. He stayed with us as we spread canvas drop-cloths, and taped the edges of the baseboards and trim. He inspected the corners carefully and pointed out where we should concentrate. After we’d carried in the paint, he went off—to see about a space heater, he said, and extension cords.


Dan and I finished our morning work in time to set the brushes to soak, and to change out of paint-clothes for the mid-day recitation, the one before lunch. This was usually sparsely attended; even we Guest Students didn’t often get there, though we were to follow the temple schedule as completely as possible. Work ranked higher than this particular ceremony of bowing and chanting. If, by getting something done we went overtime a little, and didn’t make it to the Buddha Hall, no one cared, not even Steve. This was explicitly not so for the afternoon meditation period. Steve ensured that we stopped whatever we were doing early enough to clean our materials, clean ourselves, and rest a little before attending that sitting.


Back to the closet after lunch we took more paint, and more serious painting equipment. It made Steve edgy. In the cramped space we now had a folding ladder, a five-gallon bucket and another small can of paint, rollers, trays, brushes, and a wheezing heater on drop cloths covered with electric cables. Given that neither Dan nor I was small, there was no room in the closet for Steve as well. He would have to just leave us to it—either that, or paint the closet himself. He reminded us that we were in the roshi’s quarters, and that nothing should go wrong. He finally laughed a little as he said this, because it was obviously a set-up for disaster.

As usual, Dan and I had both eaten as much lunch as we felt we could get away with. Fumes from the paint rose and collected in the closet, and the heater intensified them. We were wearing painting gear over our regular clothes and Dan soon looked very red in the face and neck; I felt I must too. Moving in an enforced slow motion, we painted the closet. Steve seemed relieved when at last we rolled paint onto the lowest section of the walls, and set our tools in the trays.

We were standing thus, Dan and I in the closet, Steve just outside it, talking over the order of our retreat, when the door to the apartment opened, and the Suzukis came in, unexpectedly early. Steve went to them, leaving Dan and me standing there. We stood there more than a little while, until Steve returned, ruddy-faced and smiling, with the Suzukis, Roshi leading. He wore glasses—not the kind of double-monocles he’d put on and taken off several times during his talk. Those had been on a thin chain around his neck. He’d fished them from deep in a robe sleeve before beginning, and returned them there afterward. Now he was wearing more conventional street frames, dull gray-brown along the top and clear below. Perhaps I noticed his glasses because I too wear them, and mine were presently flecked with paint. It felt as though Suzuki-roshi was looking at the dozens of tiny spots on my glasses as he smiled in at Dan and me. His eyes traveled up to my hair and his smile broadened. It wasn’t quite a military inspection, but I watched him look at my overalls, my shoes, and then at the drop-cloths. He turned to Steve and they murmured with Mrs. Suzuki. “Mmmmmm”—mostly approving sounds, with some interrogative tones mixed in. Some surprise.


The Suzukis went out of our sight, and Steve returned to the discussion of how we would get everything out of there. He reached in himself for the ladder, which he carried alone out of the apartment. Dan and I poured the remaining paint from the trays back into the five-gallon container, and divided up what we had to carry. I was about to leave with the big container in one hand, and the trays and rollers balanced in the other, when Suzuki-roshi reappeared at the closet door, indicating we should wait. He had a newspaper in his hand, and he bent to spread open a section on the floor of his bedroom. He backed up a couple steps, spread open another section, and then repeated this. He motioned that we could now come ahead. Stepping gingerly on the paper I went toward him, as he backed up, bent down, and spread open more newspaper.

The sources of mortification were multiple. I couldn’t imagine how we’d been so idiotic as not to think we might track paint through his apartment. We hadn’t exactly painted ourselves into a corner; we’d painted ourselves into a closet we couldn’t get out of. Still worse was the prolonged choreography of our departure—the picture of this older man, bending down in front of me as I clunked forward. The master, my hero, backing away at my dumb Western feet, gesturing as if scattering rose petals, bowing and scraping, making a mockery of my mindfulness, but cheerfully. Smiling, even chuckling as he backed away and bent over in front of me. It is an image that embarrasses me to the present moment. This one.