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Falling
last edit 9-17

 

Tamara came out to California with Jerry Ray who was a friend of Austin College friends that I’d hung out with in Fort Worth in the cracks between being elsewhere. I’d taken him over to Sokoji and he was blown away by Suzuki whom he said had a joyful gleam in his eye. Jerry was living with another friend named Rick. Rick was a mild-mannered guy, more of an atheist socialist than a Buddhist. Much more. He’d sat at Sokoji a few times and didn’t see the point. Had been to Loring’s with me for a Macrobiotic dinner of which he did get the point and especially liked the smoked desert. We’d gone to a Cream concert together and spent some time with Jerry listening to a new Beetles album and getting stoned. They were living on the third floor of an apartment building. Rick suggested we all go up on the flat roof to see the stars. The way to get there was a short wooden ladder attached to the building on the far side of the railing of the back door staircase landing. The nails in it had rusted heads, the paint was pealing. I wouldn’t do it. No fan of heights. Spoilsport.

I had recalled a climb up Pfeiffer Falls in Big Sur the prior spring shortly after arriving in the Bay Area. With my friends scouting about in the damp woods. Kenny was eighty feet up there at the top of the lower falls. Ronnie took the trail around. I climbed up the rocky side ignoring a sign that forbid it. Almost to the top I got to a place where I couldn’t go any further – nothing above that didn’t just come off in my hand. Nothing to the side. Couldn’t go down. Was slipping, couldn’t maintain much longer. Looked down. Can still see those big rocks. Fear like a bolt. Wouldn’t survive that. Suddenly a voice from a few feet above. “How’s it going there?”

It was Ronnie sticking his head down, looking at me. “Ronnie,” I said gravely, “Hand me your jacket.”

“No way. You might pull me down.”

“Ronnie, do it now,” came my firm voice from a rarely needed internal reservoir of compelling command.

Ronnie took off his jacket and held it down. I grabbed the sleeve, not depending on it, just a slight bit of help there and that’s all I needed to scramble up over the top. I sat there gasping, numb, head spinning, stars sprinkled and flashing everywhere around me. Ronnie said something but I couldn’t respond to him.

“Wow,” he said looking down to the bottom, “That was serious.”

 

Late summer of 66 I’d moved away from my tripping buds and closer to the Zen Center. We got along fine but I’d grown dissatisfied and, among other reasons like near death experiences, a powerful LSD trip had convinced me to quit messing around and find a guru and a community to meditate with. I’d heard some about the Zen Center here and there like at the Art Institute where I went a few times to eat lunch and meet interesting people – and smoke pot. First time I saw the Sokoji building was when I went to score at an apartment across the street. A dark-haired, sultry woman somewhat my senior named Evelyn sold it to me. I went inside and sat in a circle of young long hairs that was passing a joint around. Indian music. Incense. Everyone quiet. The bell rang. Two men with coats and ties came in. They were looking for a particular runaway. Had a photo. Walked through the place looking for her. Good lord. They were cops. People still risked getting prison time for small amounts. One of them stuck his head back in the room on the way out and said, "Hey - don't you know that's illegal?"

On the landing outside I asked Evelyn what that interesting building was.

“That’s the Zen Center.” She went there to sit zazen. I was intrigued.

By October I was religiously sitting morning and late afternoon at Sokoji. The teacher there, Suzuki, who’d been besieged by hippies wanting to get enlightened, was tolerant. But he and Katagiri asked that we not get high before coming to the temple. My pot intake shrunk considerably.

Going there wasn’t all I did though. Lot happening in the Bay Area and no one at the ZC was demanding I cut all ties, give them all my income, sell flowers at the airport. No one said I was required to do or not do much of anything. Had to figure it out on my own.

Rick told me that he was going to go see George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party who was coming to town. I was aware of Rockwell, had read his Playboy interview. I’d paid a little attention to the nut right since my senior year in high school. Used to go to a John Birch storefront in Fort Worth to see what their latest take on the dangerous commie threat was and had heard Bircher General Edwin A. Walker speak in Dallas. Rockwell was the most extreme of any of them, glorifying Hitler, denying the Holocaust while hinting at his own plans to execute Jewish communist traitors once he took over. He had a Hate Bus that he took through the South with racist slogans, an in-your-face, articulate, fervent opponent of integration and miscegenation as the racist right called mixed marriage. He had a tiny tiny following but got a lot of press.

Out of curiosity I went with Rick who reminded me that he was Jewish on the way. I thought we’d stand in back and watch for a while. Rockwell’s appearance was to be in front of City Hall. We waited there till he and his dozen or so Storm Troopers in Nazi-looking uniforms walked out onto a flatbed stage that was waiting for them and stood in erect attention. I had wondered what on earth he was going to say. Never got a chance to hear anything. As soon as Rockwell and his Storm Troopers appeared, the crowd went nuts screaming and throwing things at them. Rick was screaming and throwing things. Rockwell and his gang stood firm amidst the strongest onslaught of fury I’ve ever witnessed – and that includes several riots. They seemed to be fairly comfortable with the response. I saw Rockwell then as a conceptual artist who had created an extreme event. He’d not only had a good East Coast education and a distinguished military career, he’d started a record company and been a magazine publisher and a graphic artist, knew how to work the media. His message appealed to a very small minority, but his performance was well-attended and followed nationwide for almost a decade.

 

A few months later I was living at Tassajara, running the guest dining room which was in the space that would be transformed into a zendo pretty soon. Ed Brown and crew were baking great bread and putting together meals that were receiving praise from the guests, some of whom were new and had come there because the ZC now ran the place, others who had been coming for years. The later were generally apprehensive, wondering if they could smoke and drink, but soon they were comfortable. No one was trying to convert them to anything. The cabins, grounds, and baths were better attended than ever and we were taking good care of the guests.

There would be two guest seasons this first year with a two month practice period sandwiched between them. The first ran through May and June. We students were sitting zazen in the morning and at night and working butts off during the day. Dinner cleanup would overlap into the evening zazen and breakfast prep with the morning sitting, so there was some sacrifice there, but we adjusted. The hot spring bathes were only for student use during an hour of the late afternoon.

Loring arrived unexpectedly. He found me in the dining room and asked if we could meet that evening after zazen. Sure. He came to my room. No sacramental marijuana was smoked – that and alcohol were not for inside Tassajara. True to Loring style we sat facing each other with a candle and incense lit between us. Obviously, Loring had something to tell me. He took his time. Finally, he spoke.

“Rick,” he said, “has gone to the other shore.”

“What? You men he got enlightened?”

“No. Rick has passed on to the next bardo.”

“Rick died?”

“Yes.”

Jerry came to Tassajara to visit a few days later and filled me in on the details. Rick had rolled a couple of joints that he and Jerry planned to smoke on the roof of their apartment building. The ladder to the top had not held. He’d fallen three floors onto the concrete below. Jerry ran down and kneeled before him. He was obviously dead. Jerry thought he’d better get the joints out of Rick’s shirt pocket before the police arrived and reached inside Rick’s blue jean jacket and felt around. He heard voices, looked up, saw a number of people on other back landings looking down at him, and realized that he must appear to be someone robbing a dead person, maybe his victim.

Jerry was going back to Fort Worth for a visit, intending to return to study with Suzuki. In a letter he wrote, “First spiritual person I’d met. I'd been raised Southern Baptist. Walked into his office with you and Suzuki Roshi was standing there in robes talking to people ‑‑ presence that filled the room. Was a short little man. Nothing needed to be said. Before had all been in books. It was real. I didn't know it existed.”

Jerry wouldn’t come back. In Fort Worth he met Alden Truesdell of the Christ Truth League which Jerry called Christian Zen. Jerry said, “His favorite guy was Meister Eckhart.” Me too. Later I met Truesdell and his wife and was impressed as well. Jerry called them the second and third spiritual people he’d met. Truesdell had an office in downtown Fort Worth where he counseled for free anyone who dropped by. He had a quiet wisdom and teaching that few knew about. Seems to me that’s true of many good wise people all over the world with varied approaches. Jerry picked up on Suzuki’s presence but many didn’t. It’s not that they were wrong, just that they didn’t connect like he did. Japanese have a word en, sometimes joined with an honorific – goen. One looks for a teacher they have goen with –karmic tie, chemistry. Not to have goen with someone is not to put them down. Like dating. I’m attracted to this person and you to that.

Sam Bercholz who founded Shambhala Publishing heard Suzuki speak and liked him alright but wasn’t compelled to stay – and he didn’t like the social vibe at Sokoji and one important person in particular. But when he met Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa that was it.

Talked with a guy after zazen at Sokoji who said Suzuki seemed like a nice man, but he didn’t get the cosmic hit he got off Hindu guru Muktananda. Anyway, he said, Suzuki shaves his head which meant he had to have the idea that he was going to do that and that meant his mind wasn’t free of clutter. He wanted to go to India to study with a naked Jain yogi who never thought to do anything with his body and ate only fruit that fell from trees.

And there were some who preferred Katagiri as a teacher over Suzuki and others who would prefer Kobun Chino.

Actually, I never got a cosmic hit off Suzuki or Katagiri or felt a special presence. That’s true of all the gurus and Zen masters and Rinpoches and god incarnates I’ve met. They all just seem like more people to me – but with teaching which I would either follow or not. My take is that teachers are just pointing to a way to practice, how to live and conduct oneself, and they manifest and express the teaching in different ways. There are different ways that goen is experienced but it’s up to us to do or not do something. I guess there had to be something intangible I picked up from Suzuki because I stayed and didn’t have any doubts about continuing. I felt a connection to his clear teaching and practice, way of being – and felt a connection to his community – to Katagiri and the other folks at Sokoji and at Tassajara. And to Loring who’d come to tell me about Rick.

Later that summer George Lincoln Rockwell whom Rick had yelled and thrown things at was assassinated outside a laundromat at a shopping center parking lot in Arlington, Virginia. Shot by one of his disgruntled Storm Troopers perched on the roof. I thought that maybe Rick’s spirit had guided the assassins trigger finger and hoped that what passed on of Rockwell and Rick might meet in the afterlife and make up.


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