Tassajara Stories


previous --------------- next

last edit 9-18

Taizan Maezumi came from his LA Zen Center to Tassajara for most of the first half of the first practice period. He'd come to the States in 1956. He met Suzuki in ‘59 shortly after Suzuki arrived when Maezumi went up from LA to attend classes in English at San Francisco State College. Through the years he’d go to Sokoji to visit and attend ceremonies. He'd take Mrs. Suzuki out drinking which she liked because her husband almost never drank alcohol or took her anywhere.

I know and knew two of Maezumi’s brothers in Japan, both Soto Zen priests - Bushi and Junyu Kuroda. I asked one of them why their family name is Kuroda and his is Maezumi and learned that he had taken the name of his mother's family. In Japan men may also take on the family name of their wives to keep the name alive.

Maezumi's relation to the SF Zen Center was not so good in the early years. He wanted to be affiliated with the SFZC, somewhat because he felt no heart connection to the Soto Zen temple in LA, Zenshuji. Shunryu Suzuki didn't respond to him on this. Richard Baker was very much against it.

I met Maezumi in the fall of '66 when I was in LA to visit with a famous psychic I knew. Then and later, like when I was on shopping trips setting up the Tassajara dining room and kitchen, I'd stay with Maezumi and sit with him in the morning. He didn't have many students yet. That first fall morning after zazen and breakfast, he sat me down opposite him at a low table and ranted at me for an hour about the fact that not only would Richard Baker not allow the LA Zen Center to be associated with the SFZC, but that there was not even a mention of his center in the Wind Bell, the SFZC's publication. He had worked hard to get a zazen group going in LA, had gotten no support for starting one at Zenshuji, the Soto temple for Japanese Americans. He implored me to try to get "just one sentence" in the Wind Bell about his center. I mentioned it to the appropriate people when I got back and maybe it was going to happen anyway, but in the January-February Wind Bell, there was a good notice about him and his group with schedule, address and phone number, and mention that he'd helped Suzuki out early on.

Maezumi had a Caucasian American wife whose name was Charlene. She was a Nichiren priest. She introduced me to organic liquid soap for cleaning just about anything - Basic H. I later became a Basic H salesman in order to get a big discount on it for Tassajara. We bought it by the 55 gallon drum.

When Maezumi was at Tassajara for that first practice period, I'd go to his cabin and ask him questions. He was generous with the little free time he had. I recall him telling me that it's better to have a young teacher because the older ones get too kind and soft. I told him he didn't seem particularly fierce to me. He said that's because I'm not his student. I said, oh, then I'd better stick with Suzuki because I'm mainly here to have a good time. He asked his former student Bob Halpern if he'd come help him with a sesshin. Bob told me Suzuki refused permission for him to go and told Bob that if he didn't think there'd already been a change, he should try to reflect on how incredibly arrogant he was when he first showed up.

During his time at Tassajaa's first practice period, Maezumi gave a lecture and said something that Baker took exception to. Baker insisted that Maezumi publicly take it back which he did. I can't remember what it was about but I remember the bad vibes. Most people didn’t notice anything special. As they got older and mellower, Maezumi and Baker became friendly.

Maezumi was a gracious host. In 1973 my soon to be first wife Dianne and I dropped by the ZCLA to say hello to Maezumi and were told by a gaggle of students waiting at his doorstep that he was on his way from the airport, having just visited his home temple in Japan. When he showed up he invited just the two of us inside. We sat on tatami and talked and drank sake and nibbled on Japanese snacks he'd brought with him and he and I drank and drank and we all yakked it up for the longest time. Dianne didn’t know she was pregnant yet but had good instincts and just had tea and water. I felt bad for his students waiting to see him but he said not to worry and treated us like there was nothing in the world he'd rather do than hang out. He was between marriages then and he said he was alone and needed to unwind a little from his trip with some people who weren't students.

In 1965 a young man named Bob Halpern had encouraged Maezumi to start a Zen Center in LA. Bob had been one of his first students. Bob said that at times he and a few others would be sitting zazen downstairs while Maezumi and Charlene were yelling and breaking furniture over each other's heads upstairs. I'm sure Bob exaggerated. Charlene came to Zen Center a few times saying she was seeking refuge from her husband. There were many troubles in his early years.

He not only had problems in the early days. Maezumi sure had his share of troubles and scandal. I bought a video on the subject, an investigative documentary. There had been a lot of improper sexual conduct. One cool thing about him is that he didn't have the problem of not being able to see or deal with his own mistakes. On that video and at other times he freely admitted, confessed, and made no excuses for his preceptual transgressions. He drank a lot but got into a twelve step program as well and talked to his students about it openly, cried with them about his weaknesses. Good for him. Drowned in his brothers bathtub in Tokyo in May, 1995 after a night of heavy drinking. He’d reputedly not been drinking for a long time before that.

I was sad to hear about Maezumi’s death. I’d interviewed him one month earlier at Green Gulch Farm. His death is attributed to his being drunk. That doesn’t quite do it for me because I have slept in bathtubs and hot tubs all my life – with my nostrils just above the water line. And back when I used to drink, from 16 to almost 60, I’d sleep in those tubs even when I was drunk or very drunk. It hardly ever happened but the slightest bit of water in my nose would wake me up immediately. Seems to me the amount of alcohol in the system to be the cause of drowning in the tub would have to be at the level of general anesthesia. I think in Maezumi’s case a stroke or heart attack are just as likely but I really don’t know.

Remembering the times I've been with Maezumi, seen him in ceremonies, and stuff I've heard about him, I'd say he had an interesting mix of humility and arrogance. Mainly to me he'd seem arrogant at a distance, but close up he'd be right there not putting on any airs. I went to visit him once when he was staying at the SFZC guest house in the city. I guess I was feeling cynical at the time and started asking him if anyone in America had learned anything from studying Zen - from Suzuki, from him, from any teacher. He just let me go on and said he didn't know, maybe not. When I first knew him he'd on the one hand say he came from an important family and then say that he wasn't really a teacher, that he could only show people the posture of sitting and join them. He got transmission from his father in 1955, a year before he went to America. But he didn't ride on those laurels as he could easily have. He continued studying with other teachers after he'd started his own center and got transmission in two other lineages – from Hakuun Yasutani in the Harada Soto renegade line and from lay Rinzai roshi, Koryu Osaka.

When he talked to me in later years I noticed he tended to stress the positive about others. Any Japanese priest who knew Shunryu Suzuki could say critical things about him since, being from the same culture, they weren't so enamored by Suzuki's presence. But Maezumi would say to look at what happened after Suzuki arrived, at what he left behind, that that was the important thing. We could say the same thing about Maezumi - look at all the teachers and centers and people practicing he's left behind. He ordained over sixty priests, had twelve successors, and there are scads of groups in his lineage around the world. My relationship with Maezumi was not a particularly dharmic one, but I respect him and his students for what they are doing. I present my memories that add up to not much more than a bunch of gossip, and which cast no light on his teaching or understanding. This is what I remember. I really liked and respected him and his great effort and say to the judge in us, that our shortcomings and indulgences, our sins and our woes, need not hold us back from carrying the shapeless ball of the dharma forward.


previous --------------- next