Tassajara Stories


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last edit 2-26-18


Our home temple, Sokoji, is a weathered old character. A mysterious, sturdy, ornate wooden synagogue built in 1895. Shunryu Suzuki with his wife Mitsu up there in the right tower or a flight below in his office, adjusting a flower arrangement in the adjoining zendo, eating in the kitchen under the left tower. An auditorium sprawled further back with tall stained glass windows spied from the balcony wrapping three sides. Basement rooms below it all. More in back. Cavernous, dusty. From the street we see the towers, Byzantine columns on the 2nd floor porch outside the zendo, round-arched windows on three floors, arched front doors each with its own number of steps from the sloping sidewalk. The huge central ones are opened on Sunday for the Japanese American congregation's services. The left door to the dark, smoky Go Club, the opposite side entrance for everyday use, the ground floor office close to busy Bush Street and its traffic waves rushing uphill toward downtown San Francisco. And through that right front door straight ahead the stairs to the zendo climbed six days a week by Suzuki's zazen students. The polished railing.

During the original fundraising drive to buy the Horse Pasture, the downstairs front office of Sokoji became a busy hub of activity. Yvonne Rand, a friend of Richard’s wife Ginny, was often there at a desk opening mail, collecting donation checks to be deposited, answering correspondence. Lots of people were sending small checks, many which would be considered tiny now in 2016. Back then five bucks was more than thirty-five now. Richard Baker was in and out and when in, writing letters, on the phone, in discussions with Yvonne and Silas, others, and Suzuki upstairs. Prior to this recent activity, the office was mainly used now and then by Katagiri for Japanese congregation business which he still took care of without any territorial conflict.

There had been no interruption of the zendo schedule. We were there with the black and brown robed Suzuki and Katagiri early morning darkness and later at 5:30 PM sitting silently together then bowing and chanting the Heart Sutra. We were there for lectures and the Saturday program. And most of us were plugging away when we could at the fundraising goal to buy a place for more intensive practice with our teachers and with each other. What was this practice? According to Suzuki it was learning how to be ourselves. Katagiri called it settling the self on the self. They also indicated that what we thought of as self had no fundamental reality.

They had titles that we always used – with some variation. Katagiri was mainly called Katagiri Sensei. They had been both called sensei and sometimes reverend, but that fall when Suzuki returned from a visit to Japan, it was decided, thanks to a letter from Alan Watts, to call him roshi. He had been called that some before, but now it was official. He didn’t ask for it and laughed hard when informed but he went along with it. However, some people who’d been around a long time still used sensei and reverend for him because that’s what they were used to. So in the office I’d hear Yvonne on the phone refer to Suzuki Roshi, then Phillip would walk in and ask about Reverend Suzuki and Kathy at a desk would say Suzuki Sensei is upstairs. More and more though roshi caught on and dominated to an extent that he’s usually referred to today as Suzuki Roshi. That works with those of us who know whom is being referred to, but Suzuki is a common name in Japan, and roshi is mainly just used by Zen people as a title of respect so without his given name Shunryu, Suzuki Roshi could be referring to any of surely hundreds of Japanese priests. But of course we didn’t know any of that. We were not living in Japan but in our own small subculture.


Twenty-two thousand dollars doesn’t sound like much now, but it was a whole lot then, like 164,000 2015 dollars being raised by a small group of Zen students whose organization’s budget for the whole year was about $8,000. It was not assumed we could come up with the twenty-two. I wanted to give some but was just earning enough at the Post Office to get by. I had a very small trust fund which I didn’t draw from for day to day living and also didn’t control but my mother who did control it was most understanding and sent me a $500 check made out to the SFZC. I enjoyed Richard’s shocked expression when I, a scruffy slightly long-haired twenty-one year old new student, walked in one day and handed it to him.

After we found out we’d bought Tassajara rather than the Horse Pasture, we went into overdrive. We now had the prospect of a functioning retreat in the near future plus a looming giant next payment of $45,000 due in three months. There were concerts, poetry readings, art shows, and a skillfully created brochure that went out to 80,000 people. There was a huge response. The bulk of it though would, as usual in fundraising, come from a few wealthy people with one way out in front – Chester Carlson, inventor of electrophotography renamed xerography which would be called Xerox. Some of us did a lot of leafleting for events. Bill Grahame was happy to let us hand out flyers to concert-goers at his Fillmore and Winterland venues, both close to Japantown. And he’d graciously invite us in to see the concert for free when our stock ran out. Fellow home-towner Chet Helms the same at the Avalon Ballroom.

One day three of us, Gil and Karen Pomeroy and I left the ZC office with a bunch of flyers and posters for a fundraising concert featuring Big Brother, the Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. We headed to the Haight Ashbury to place and hand them out wherever we could. First stop, the Littleman’s Supermarket at Haight and Stanyon at the edge of Golden Gate Park. It was chilly and windy and I had a trench coat on. We needed tacks and tape. Hands full in an aisle, I stuck the tacks in a pocket to walk to the cashier.

I’d been with others who stole things when I was a kid and didn’t join in or feel comfortable about it. In the fourth grade there was an older kid, a new neighbor with a single mother. We took a bus downtown in Fort Worth. He got caught stealing little toys for fun in a department store. He put the plunder back with an, “Oh – I’m sorry,” as if it were an accident and casually said to the department store detective who caught him, “My mother’s right over there – would you like to speak with her?” The store employee said no, just stay out of trouble. Wasn’t impressed with the theft but it was quite a lesson in nerve and human relations.

I’d like to say that I forgot the thumb tacks were in my pocket, but that wouldn’t be true. I remembered them while standing in line and had the devilish thought that, okay, I’ll steal this one thing in my life. Just ten cents worth of thumb tacks. As soon as I’d stepped outside the door, two men got hold of me and whisked me into an office where they had me sit next to several other longer hairs they’d just apprehended. The Haight Ashbury back then was mobbed with young people who spent whatever money they could get hold of on pot and so forth. Walking down the sidewalk there, approaching youth would inquire “Spare change” with such regularity that I’d say it to them first to keep them quiet. That ragged crowd kept security at Littleman’s busy and the holding cells at the nearby Park Police Station populated.

I sat cross-legged on a bench in a cell at that very police station, practicing zazen with eyes half open and unconcerned about my fate. A portly policeman walked by and then stepped back and looked at me. In a friendly good-ole-boy manner, hands on hips, he asked, “Are you a Hindu or a Buddhist?”

“I’m a human being,” I replied loftily.

“No, I’m serious,” he said. “There’s some what comes here are Hindus and some Buddhists and I just wanted to know which you were.”

“I’m a Buddhist.”

“Any particular type?”

“Zen Buddhism, Soto Zen.”

“Thank you,” he said, “I hope everything works out for you,” and he walked on.

I got to ride in a paddy wagon to the central police station, the only time I ever was in one of those vehicles. They booked me and then sat me in a room with a table and chairs. There was a phone on the table. I picked it up and called Loring, not to ask for help but to share my experience. I made a couple of other calls too. It seemed funny to me that I who didn’t need a phone call could accidentally have the opportunity to make unlimited calls while I imagined others behind bars desperate to contact relatives, friends, lawyers. I wondered if there really was a one call rule like in the movies. Next they took me to an office with a social worker who asked me questions and said that my case would come up the next morning and that if I didn’t have an attorney one would represent me and since I had no record I’d get a fine and be able to walk out and it would disappear from the records in a year.

Then to a cell. Not a big one. Four or five other men, older than me and blacker. None of them there for anything serious. We compared backgrounds, jail experiences. They’d each been in jail before. All their male friends had been busted for pot or loitering or drunkenness or petty theft. Almost none of mine had. But I’d been in jails a number of times. They were surprised at that. I’d used jails to sleep in in Latin America and small towns in the US when hitchhiking. Doesn’t count. OK. I was thrown in jail when I was sixteen after being chased down by a bunch of cops that I didn’t even know were chasing me. They found an almost empty fifth of scotch under Carol’s skirt. Cop told me he’d never seen anyone drive so recklessly and not get into an accident – weaving in and out of cars on a freeway and exiting like a rocket, sliding sideways around corners on a country road. When I finally noticed a light behind me and pulled over, a half dozen police vehicles followed. Mother was not pleased bailing me out. Got a ticket for going 70 in a sixty – no other charge. A cellmate said if it had been him they’d have locked him up and the key thrown away. Told them about getting thrown in jail in Jackson, Mississippi on bogus charges during Freedom Summer. That definitely earned me points. One more arrest. I was a prisoner of war. No! Yes. They assumed it was in Vietnam but I said I’d never been and would never become a soldier – by mutual agreement with the Selective Service. But I’d been a POW. How the hell?

I first came to California to stay with fellow pot heads whom I’d lived with in Mexico City. We would get high and go tripping around the Bay Area. One evening we went to the Marin Headlands overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and walked around in the dusk. We got so close to a Nike Missile site there that we triggered flood lights and caused German Sheppard guard dogs to bark menacingly. Noticed that they were in cages with openings facing out toward us and tiptoed away not wishing to see those gates open. Checked out a couple of concrete artillery batteries that had been built to defend San Francisco from Japanese invasion. Smoked more pot and went running around in the grassy, sandy terrain. Slid down into a sandy pit like a golf course sand trap, and there I was indeed trapped - by two soldiers in uniform with helmets and rifles. They said they were taking me prisoner. Really? Let’s see. What country are we in? Turned out they were from the Presidio army base in a war game and took me for a spy from the other side in disguise. They dismissed my assurances that I was an innocent civilian caught in crossfire. Finally convinced them by asking if any soldiers were allowed to grow hair that long. They told me to find my buddies and go back the way we came from unless we want more trouble.

I sang some civil rights songs to my cell-mates.

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave.
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Moved on to gospels and folk songs and fifties rhythm and blues. They’d join in and guys in nearby cells were adding voice and rhythm. Then a terrible thing happened.

“Chadwick!” a policeman called out interrupting.

“Yes,” I said startled.

“You’ve been bailed out.”


“Someone paid your bail. Time to go,” and he opened the cell.

“I refuse,” I said. “I want to stay.”

“You can’t. Come on.”

After he threatened to come in and forcibly eject me, I said goodbye to my new friends who called out as I walked off to freedom.

Tammy was there to pick me up. Tamara Robertson. She’d become concerned and borrowed twenty-five bucks from Silas for my bail. I knew her from Austin College in Texas where I’d gone briefly three years earlier. She was married to the band leader there but now was single and among the young in San Francisco. Tammy became a well-known concert harpsichordist, at least in those parts. She helped me develop muscles as I helped her move her harpsichord when she’d move from one third floor apartment to another and she moved a lot. She had met Silas when she was visiting me in a basement apartment I rented before moving to Loring’s.

Silas was so friendly and nice to visit like that. He was about thirty and had an air of wisdom and kindness. I remember two things he said that evening – that life after death would be made up of the same stuff and non-stuff that life now is, and that writing things down has shrunk our memories. I’d asked how on earth did monks preserve all those Buddhist teachings before there was writing and there wasn’t any for the first few hundred years. He said that pre-literate people had memories that would seem to us like a super power. One other thing. He said when you're sitting zazen and have some idea and wonder what to do with it, put it in a box marked ideas and let it go.

There was a knock on the door, me reaching into the fridge, selling a guy a few tabs of acid for a dollar each. It wasn’t illegal yet but that made Silas’ eyebrows rise. He didn’t say anything but I got the message that it’s best if we leave that sort of business behind. I did before long. The story of our lives can be seen as the story of our habits, the changes and the tenacity.

I had my last acid trip with Tamara at Muir Woods a month before going to Tassajara. It was my eighth and her first. I turned lots of people on to psychedelics before coming to the ZC and a few shortly after but that petered out. Never had any problems. Had rules. I’d only do it if the person agreed to take it in a natural, non-social setting when they were feeling fairly good, no talking – that’s where almost all the problems came from - and an empty stomach except for water, and meditate beforehand. Tamara and I climbed up to the top of a meadow above the redwoods. A view overlooking trees and the Pacific Ocean. Nobody else there. She took it first and I sat with her. She had a stretch of discomfort and finally settled into it. Didn’t have a lot to say later. Psychedelics open up mountains and rivers more in us than we can imagine or report. We brought sleeping bags. It was cold. Took mine at sunrise. Sat full lotus without moving for eight hours. I recall Tammy going down the meadow a ways to speak to a park ranger who then walked on.

My trip continued. In a transition from comprehensible consciousness to indescribable, the word “angfanger” represented in sound and glorious color repeated over and over. At some point  there was an opening in the sky and what looked like people from another realm in a semi-circle rather close, looking down at me, entreating me to come on and join them. Had a vision of Suzuki and Katagiri standing in their brown robes, waiting for me, bathed in halos. I wondered why I couldn’t join them then realized that it was because I saw that union of form and emptiness as an event happening in the future that I was headed toward step by step whereas that union was complete already and it could only be found in this immediate shining present. It wasn’t something that actions and thoughts led up to. Suddenly I wanted to tell Tammy that I realized I was living with an idea of enlightenment being something to move toward but only got out the words “I was living” when in a powerful bright flash I was blasted physically backwards onto the grass.

That night back in the city at Loring’s we wondered about the word anfanger that had been so impressed on me. A woman staying in a room there had studied German in college. So had I – for a few classes and remembered nothing. She said it's anfänger with an umlaut or could be written anfaenger and it meant “beginner.” Appropriate. Suzuki had mentioned beginner's mind in lectures as something not to loose. I marveled at the insight that had come to me on the trip but could see that, like other psychedelic experiences, even though it opened me up to possibilities of mind greater and clearly more real than normal waking consciousness, it wasn’t sustainable. That’s it, I decided. No more tripping. I’ll forsake seeking mind blowing epiphanies. A curious understanding nestled in my mind. I’ll sit zazen and study with Suzuki and Katagiri and keep it up for the long haul and also will try not to aim my practice at the future. Suzuki said that Buddhism was about uniting opposites, a teaching of contradiction.

I also vowed to follow the Buddhist precepts as in not to take what was not given.


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