Reader Comments from Dan Gourley
posting this email 10-28-17. For some reason only some comments from him in another email were posted in Comments back in July of 1999 when it was sent.
Subject: Clarification on an incident.
read your list of reader's comments. very nice to see that some of the old folks are still out there. re, one of my comments:
errata on the story about me in the book don't change a thing. the details were mostly wrong but the point was dead on. [That's this story in Crooked Cucumber about Suzuki-roshi getting angry in the zendo and whacking Dan with his stick and saying "spineless! You're all spineless!" and "If I told you the truth I'd be left here sitting by myself listening to the sound of your cars driving up the road." I was there and remember it well, but of course I don't doubt but we remember things differently and I may have details wrong. We must get the story from Dan.--DC]
I think you are combining several events. The "spineless" comment was after he had just done a summer lecture on Hakujo? and the Fox. He had combined it with a story I haven't elsewhere seen and may have mixed up in my memory. He was telling us about the nature of compassion and told us a story of an abbot famous for his compassion. It starts with the abbot refusing to go outside the walls to visit his dying mother who had been brought from her home to see her son for the last time. Then he brought her in, gave her a funeral and told the fox story.
A woman sitting up front (whose name I think was Lana Berman and who presently, I think, does a radio show on the Pacifica network about alternative medicine, healthy foods, herbal stuff, etc) was dissatisfied with the story and said she couldn't see how the story supported the abbot's reputation as extraordinarily compassionate. Roshi responded to her but I don't recall (or couldn't understand) his response. I was sitting in the back of the room against the middle partition on the creek side. I raised my hand and asked if he could expand on the answer to Lana as I was still unable to see how the abbot's action was compassionate. That was the point at which he blew up and spoke of us (I took it to mean me) as spineless. It was a blast of pure energy the like of which I have rarely if ever seen (and now consider to have been fully an act of compassion). It felt like the back of the room was likely to have been knocked down by the pressure.
After Roshi left and everyone else began to leave, one of the summer visitors, about 20 or 30 years older than me, leaned over to me, informed me that he was a psychiatrist with long experience and generally thought of himself as adult and stable but that the blast was felt by him and, in his view, by everyone in the room, as directed at each person in the room and that I should not consider myself as permanently or individually despicable. He said he hadn't felt so personally chastised since once being blasted by his father when he was about 14. I spent a sleepless night alternating between fear that the zen cops would escort me off the premises the next morning and worry and shame that I had caused an old sick man to waste so much energy on me, possibly causing his earlier demise.
Next morning was an off day with breakfast in the dining room. Roshi sat at the center of the front table. I chose a seat over on the side that was the least visible spot I could find. I wanted to be able to keep my eye on him but for him not to have to see me. After about five minutes of my pushing food around pretending to eat, I heard him say, "Who asked that question last night?" I was hoping no one remembered but then Jed Linde pointed me out. Roshi got up and walked over to me. My terror level rose rapidly but then Roshi stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, patted them gently and said something comforting, the exact words of which I have forgotten but generally to the effect that he was grateful that I had given him the chance to teach a strong lesson. I felt much better but was so teary that a few minutes after he sat down again, I got up and left the room to be by myself.
A few days later while I was working in the office checking in visitors, he came in and approached me to ask how I was doing. I blew it again then, telling him that I had never previously imagined that a zen master could become angry and that I was still trying to assimilate the lesson that zen masters are as human as anyone else. He restrained himself at that time from throttling me, only asking me if I had actually not previously considered him human, and with an expression on his face that I had last seen on my German teacher when after a semester he realized that I had only learned about 20 words and had almost no idea of how to put them together.
But not even as spineless and stupid a student as me would have worn a down parka in the summer evening zendo. The parka incident must have occurred during a winter practice period (though just possibly on a particularly cool summer morning). My memory is fuzzy on the surrounding details. Somehow I had plugged in Baker-Roshi instead of Suzuki-Roshi as the stick wielder but your retelling somehow makes me recall it with Suzuki-Roshi. But although I got a couple of whacks, maybe three, sort of testing the thickness of the parka, and heard a little muttering, mostly seeming amused or perhaps bemused, I am fairly sure there was nothing harsher said, at least at that time. It may be that there was some comment you heard in a doan meeting that involved a harsher reaction.
And finally, on the cars driving up the road comment. I remember it but somehow my memory of it is surrounded by a good feeling, like Roshi was kidding or teasing us a little in reaction to someone commenting on the intense discipline we were under. He was saying that although we might experience it as intense, in reality it was the least he could devise that would keep us on the Tassajara side of the mountain. Seems to me that it was a morning lecture and that I was sitting against the stone wall about halfway up. I am pretty sure I was not the person who made the initiating comment. Still, your version encapsulates all three of these Suzuki stories into a single brief note that is essentially true and helpful. And, who is to say about memory?
DC - To me, Dan is combining a couple of different events in talking about this story in Crooked Cucumber. He mentions Lana Berman asking a question, sitting in back and a guest commenting, and on how he wouldn't have been wearing a down parka in the summer. I stand by the story I told in the book. I still remember it quit well. It was late in the spring practice period, maybe near the equinox. Lana Berman first went to Tassajara in 1973 I think, anyway, when Baker was abbot. Dan was sitting up front for the lecture, creek-side by the partition. There was no day-off or special breakfast the next day in the dining room. His description of the teacher trying to comfort him later sounds like Baker, not Suzuki.
Leland Smithson mentioned Dan in his Zen Moires:
Nothing remains of me at Zenshinji now other than a few parts of that old rock wall I helped build with Dan Gourley. The wall faces toward the old dining room
Dan made a couple of private recordings of Suzuki lectures in the city that are now part of the lecture archive.