Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-19


While looking through Grahame Petchey's photo album of the great root monastery, Eiheiji, he pointed out Kobun Chino as a monk assigned to watch over him. It's interesting to hear Grahame talk about Kobun back then in the early sixties because it's not the Kobun we knew in the States. Grahame says Kobun rode him and Phillip Wilson hard, would chastise them for the tiniest infractions. Grahame says Kobun was "the perfect monk, the epitome of Japanese militaristic Zen." Wow. Not at all so here in the States. I guess our hippy magic worked on him like it seems to have on Shunryu Suzuki whose children described him as strict, severe and distant.

I first saw Kobun at the top of the stone steps by the big old oak tree when he arrived at Tassajara in June, 1967, wide eyed, eager, and in a new element. Bob Halpern and I showed him around and pestered him till late at night asking him about everything we could think of from zazen to a monk’s diet. He had a yellow robe so we thought he must be completely enlightened. When? Where? What was it like? He told us of sitting alone reading poetry then walking in moonglow in his master’s garden and disappearing into a subtle light.

Kobun had been brought over to be a priest for the Los Altos Haiku Zendo, but we needed him more at Tassajara which hadn't been on the horizon when he was invited. Kobun was a wonderful addition to our fledgling Soto Zen Buddhist monastery. His English was adequate from the first. He taught us a lot quickly and language wasn’t a problem. He fine-tuned the services, was an exemplar of how to chant, hit the bells, and use the Oryoki bowls and cloths for formal meals in the zendo. He taught us a great deal about what the words meant – of the chants, objects, monastic positions. There's tons of technique and artistry in all that stuff and one can never get it all down but he got us deeper into it. He trained us in form yet was informal and asked us to call him just Kobun.

Kobun Chino and Shunryu Suzuki‘s cabins were the only two at Tassajara with tatami mats. I hardly knew how to use a saw, but with Paul Discoe as an advisor, I quickly made each of them a low desk to use while sitting on the floor. Kobun was most grateful and offered a sumi painting in return. I expected him to create it on the table but he did it on the tatami which he protected with newspaper. He kept going till finally one was selected. A year before I’d been a stoned hippie in the Haight and now I was sitting in a Zen monk’s cabin drinking the special green tea he’d brought from Japan as he hypnotized me with a brush. I showed him my penmanship, a letter I’d written my sister. He said if he sent something that messy to his brother, it would go unread into the waste basket. Later I would spend many hours studying the kanji in our chants and he was always available to explain the shades of meaning.

Kobun liked to work in the kitchen. He taught us how to make traditional Japanese daikon pickles and pickled cabbage. I found it curious he thought white noodles were healthy. Driving him in from town he asked me to stop near the top of Chew’s Ridge so he could pick ferns to cook for a unique day off dinner side dish. He gathered mushrooms from the woods and prepared them as his mother had. They were sumptuous though some of us were nervous that he might be poisoning us.

He brought with him a bit of magic and animism from the old country. He talked of spirits and when we laughed he asked then why were we afraid to walk in a graveyard? Driving him out of Tassajara another time he had me stop to move a dead rabbit off the road. He gently placed it on an embankment, covered it with leaves, and said, "Or else he cannot become Buddha."

He extolled the virtues of an occasional cigarette which gave me the opportunity to join him. Soon after his arrival in the city at the kitchen table with Suzuki, Bob Halpern pulled out a pack of Camel non filters and offered one to Kobun who accepted till Suzuki raised his hand and said, "No, Chino Sensei doesn’t smoke."

He liked to go for hikes in the woods in his samue, monk’s work clothes. He inspected a raspy tubed grass and said it was akin to a plant used in ancient Japan as sandpaper. I taught him to keep an eye out for poison oak and warned of rattlesnakes, showed him how to chew a bit of a small top Yerba Santa leaf for the sweetness and calm feeling, showed him a century plant bloom rising into the sky and served him on of the flower buds. Bob and I took him down creek to the narrows. He sat on the side as we showed off diving and jumping into the pool. We ignored his pleas leaping off the side of the cliff from a high point, barely clearing the granite ledge below.

I drove him to Monterey for day trips, to and from San Francisco, and would spend as much time as possible introducing him to friends, beaches, restaurants, and sights along the way. Peter Sellers in "The Party" brought us to tears laughing. He kept slapping my thigh to share his delight. Got him in six hours later than expected at Tassajara and the head monk said he felt sometime he couldn’t trust me. I said, "That’s okay, Kobun can." Kobun found everyone and everything in his host land fascinating and when out of the monastery would accept a drink and, in time, a hit off a joint. I couldn’t get him to wear a seat belt till one day I had to slam on the brakes on the freeway smashing him into the dashboard. He quickly buckled up after that.

He was patient and understanding of our foolishness. Serving soup in the zendo one lunch in the first practice period, there were so many people we had to fill the four large steaming tureens to the top. Suzuki and Kobun were served first. Holding the heavy pot high, I walked down the aisle, clumsily placing it before Kobun with a thump as a tidal wave of sizzling soup sloshed out into his lap, drenching his sacred okesa and surely burning his body under the cloth. He didn’t flinch. After the meal I ran to his room to apologize and offer to clean his robes. He let me follow him to the creek. He had taken his kimono and koromo apart and washed them and his tablecloth-shaped okesa in the gently flowing water. They were dry in a hot summer hour and he sewed them back together with long running stitches.

Sometimes he’d get exasperated with me. I had been insisting that I speak directly with guest teacher Tatsugami who'd told Kobun to correct me about how to get up from sitting in seiza. "You have no mind for teaching!" he finally yelled at me when I wouldn’t listen to him. That hit me so heavy I went off and cried.

He spoke very slowly, with pauses between his words at times, especially in lectures. His voice tended to tremble. I suggested to Wako Kato, an early Sokoji priest, that maybe Kobun’s halting speech had something to do with him wanting to make sure his English was correct. Kato said, "No, he speaks Japanese the same. It makes me want to beat him up." Like all the Japanese priests, Kobun would sometimes sleep in zazen. But he loved his private time and his cabin light would shine so late he’d be exceptionally sleepy the next day. Once during the guest season, as he gave a lecture to students and a number of guests sitting in chairs, he spoke slowly, softly, long spaces between words, then a longer space till his head dropped and in a moment drool slid from his open mouth finally waking him up when it landed in his mudra. He composed himself and continued the lecture.

At first Kobun had no defenses against exotic temptations he’d never experienced, at least not without the pressures and limitations of his home culture. One student who was away during a winter break, was shocked to see his own wife answer the door to Kobun’s cabin when he came to pay his respects upon returning. He quickly sized up the situation, scooped her up, drove to the city, and went straight to Suzuki. The times were incredibly permissive. The husband didn’t hold it against him. Nonetheless I could see for a while how bad Kobun felt about it. Being from another culture he couldn’t necessarily tell if people were mentally stable or not. He had a brief encounter with an older woman, the sultry one who’d sold me pot the first time I was in the Sokoji Zen Center neighborhood. Soon after that she entered the zendo nude during noon service, walked right by us who were standing chanting. When the service was over she stepped up on the altar, sat on a zafu in the center, and started giving a lecture until she was gently asked by Peter Schneider to stop and was escorted out.

That was the beginning of a period when Kobun refused to leave his cabin. It went on for a long time, over a month as I recall. I’d go talk to him. He’d stay in his sleeping bag and barely respond at all. I suggested we take him to a doctor. He replied, "No doctor can treat this illness. I am the victim of evil desire." One day while carrying the stick, I walked out of the zendo to Kobun’s cabin and knocked. Kobun opened the door. I gently tapped him on the shoulder. He gasshoed with me and I returned to the zendo. Bob told me one that that he'd helped Suzuki torture Kobun by working on a rock garden outside his door. Kobun agreed to go to the baths with Suzuki. A Volkswagen was driven up the path to near their cabins. They both got in and were chauffeured to the bridge to the baths. Later they were driven back. Finally, one day, Kobun got up, went to the zendo and the era of the cabin hermit was over.

Kobun didn’t seek after rule breaking in the monastery. It would come to him. Alan Marlowe offered him a hash brownie a friend of his had brought in. He didn’t tell Kobun what was in it till it was too late. In the city a woman turned him on to LSD which he later called spiritual masturbation.


By 1970 Kobun was the resident priest at the Haiku Zendo. He and Harriet fell in love and wanted Suzuki to marry them. Kobun’s father was abbot of a large temple on the West side of Japan. He did not approve of the marriage. Suzuki asked them to wait. They agreed. Suzuki asked them to wait another time and they agreed again. I don’t think they knew that on his last visit to Japan, Suzuki made a special trip to see Kobun’s father to urge him to accept Kobun and Harriet’s wish to wed. They came to Tassajara to talk to Suzuki again about their wedding. There was a tension in the air. Suzuki’s wife asked me where Harriet was staying and I told her to mind her own business. Kobun and Harriet came out of Suzuki’s cabin distraught. Once more Suzuki had asked them to postpone the wedding. Harriet was sobbing. I suggested they leave, go to a motel, and find a justice of the peace. I carried Harriet to the car she was crying so hard. They got married the next day in Monterey.

Later I’d go visit Kobun and Harriet in Los Altos. She had a reputation for giving his guests a hard time. She got fed up with the way people from Zen Center and other Suzuki lineage groups groveled before him and asked him for favors that he’d always grant – help with ceremonies and translations. She’d come in to the room and chew them out or even kick his guests out at times. I never had that problem. I’d walk in, quickly say hi to Kobun as I walked by, and then visit with Harriet and her mother together.  Harriet never forgave Suzuki for taking Kobun’s father’s side. I enjoyed the way they’d put down Suzuki whom her mother called, "That nasty little man." I didn’t get to hear opinions like that often. I’d get lost in the conversation with them and forget Kobun till she’d suggest maybe I should go visit with him.

Through the years. I’d look Kobun up in New Mexico or Los Altos or see him at the San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center or Green Gulch Farm where he’d be briefly to help with something. He moved around a bit - sometimes without telling his students. Bob Watkins had been work leader at the first practice period at Tassajara. Later he was ordained by Kobun and his home in Arroyo Seco above Taos became the groups’ zendo. He gave Kobun a great deal of financial support through the years even though he didn’t have a lot to spare.

Steve Jobs had been sitting at the Los Altos zendo and had taken on Kobun as a teacher. He gave Kobun a place to live on his estate. Kobun brought him to Tassajara one day (I don't think Jobs ever practiced there at all as it says in his bio). Kobun performed a marriage ceremony for Jobs and his fiancÚ. Bob Watkins said he once called Steve Jobs asking for some financial help for Kobun and that Jobs said he’d only give Kobun money if he came back to live there. Bob asked Kobun why hadn’t he ever asked Jobs for money and he said it had never occurred to him.

Bob, Kobun, and I walked to the site for a home for Kobun in the pine woods beyond the Arroyo Seco zendo. I wonder if it ever got beyond the foundation we admired. Bob told me, "Kobun gave everyone the medicine they required - it was person specific. You had to be careful not to take another person’s. The teaching for me was to hang with Kobun and Suzuki."

I took Kobun to Ken and Treya Wilber’s home in Marin County. They’d mentioned several times they wanted to meet him and were close to and admirers of Sonja Margulies who was both a lay disciple of Kobun’s and secretary of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology group Ken was associated with. I’d stupidly bought a fifth of vodka and Kobun who wasn’t much of a drinker got pretty drunk there. When we said goodbye he demanded he drive and I refused. He insisted. I said no. He hauled back and slapped me in the face. I shook my head no. Ken and Treya stood and watched as Kobun slapped me hard a few more times. Finally I picked him up, walked him over to the other side, and put him in the passenger seat. Then I took him to the nearby home of an outrageous lover of mine who found him delightful. As we left she whispered in my ear, "He’s a biter." After that we went to an all night dinner for French toast and coffee. He wanted us to fly immediately to Japan. It was hard to convince him that wasn’t possible at the moment. Police at another table eyed us suspiciously.

Kobun introduced me to a room full of his students as "a very evil monk" in Arroyo Seco. It was February of 1988 and my mate Elin and I had dropped by in the late afternoon without calling which wasn’t always useful anyway. It was the last hours of a seven day sesshin which he ended on the spot when we arrived. Elin, Kobun, Alan Marlowe, and I then went out to a balcony and smoked a joint. Alan was coming on to everyone there regardless of gender and I asked him if he was being careful in light of the recent death by AIDS of his boyfriend. He said his attainment was so great he could neither get nor pass on AIDS. Several years later, as Alan lay dying from AIDS and cancer in Kobun’s arms, his memorable last words were, "The Udumbara taxi has arrived."

Tozen Akiyama founded the Anchorage Zen Community and the Milwaukee Zen Center. Like Kobun, he likes to be called by his Buddhist name, Tozen - with no honorifics. He has the distinction of getting stood up by both Suzuki and Kobun in his first attempts to Zen it in America. Tozen got interested in Zen later than most priests, as an adult, while teaching Japanese at the University of Hawaii. He heard there was a good Japanese Zen priest in San Francisco so he flew there and took a cab to the Zen Center. Mrs. Suzuki informed him that they were preparing to have the seven day memorial for her husband and that if he wanted to study Zen there he'd have to study with Suzuki's dharma heir, an American she called Baker Roshi. He flew back to Japan to find a Japanese teacher and found a good one, Kosho Uchiyama. He studied, got transmission, and decided to go back to America. But this time he'd do the responsible thing and prepare. Kobun had agreed to be his sponsor and was to pick him up at the airport. Tozen arrived and waited and waited, but no Kobun. Tozen tried and tried to get hold of Kobun with no success. Finally, just before his return flight to Japan, Tozen got a response. They met. Kobun apologized. Tozen asked him again if he would be his sponsor upon his return. Kobun said yes and details were quickly agreed on. When he flew back, Kobun didn’t show, and couldn’t be located. Tozen found another sponsor. But he still remembers Kobun fondly.

Kobun was a big hit at some of the events around Richard Baker and Marie-Louise von Baden's wedding. His disciple Vanja Palmer brought him from Lucerne to Schloss Salem in Germany. Baker insisted Kobun not wear robes to the wedding. Kobun said he didn’t have anything else to wear. He and Vanja skipped the wedding. They came to a later event. People were in one costume or another – there was royalty and deposed royalty from all over including Russia and Ethiopia from which came a woman in African garb. There was a man calling himself Napoleon Bonaparte V in an old fashioned military uniform with medals. People asked me where’s that charming Japanese man? Wrong costume. Kobun and Vanja made nothing of it. Later I visited them at Vanja’s retreat Felsentor in the Alps. Vanja drove the three of us to Oktoberfest where he put us up at an exclusive little hotel next to the King’s Park. I was impressed he could get us each such a nice room with a call made on the way. We hung out for a few hours in the Wine Tent in his brother’s area. We didn’t drink that much but Kobun danced on a table with a barmaid. We rode the rollercoaster with five loops.

On that trip I talked to Kobun about getting down his memories of Shunryu Suzuki and those times and he laughed at me and said I wasn’t going to get anything from him to put on the Internet. Later he called me up and nostalgically waxed on about what a wonderful time it was in those early days at Tassajara and how it and all that had happened since were. "Thanks to Suzuki Roshi."

Kobun lived with Stephanie for some years. Stephanie told me Kobun devastated her when he announced at the dinner table at Jobs’ place that he had a new love. Kobun introduced me to Katrin, his new young German wife, at Taizan Maezumi’s funeral in LA in 1995. He was smitten. She was smiling. Five years later in a traditional Japanese home near Santa Cruz, Katrin and Kobun together wrote the kanji for the word "shine" that was used as the frontispiece for a book of vignettes I'd collected about Shunryu Suzuki. They were always pretty broke and didn’t go out much. Katrin said his favorite restaurant was in Half Moon Bay. The last time I saw Kobun I treated them to dinner there – a stylish Japanese place - with their little kids and my younger son Clay.

Kobun was an artist monk with a poetic soul. He was everyone’s friend. He didn’t like to be tied down. He was there and then not there for people. Rick Fields told the story of a young man knocking on Kobun’s door and desperately begging for help, for teaching. Kobun let him in and said first let me use the toilet. After waiting for a while the visitor knocked on the bathroom door then entered to find an empty room with an open window.

There are many mentions of Kobun on cuke dot com, a website I run. Here’s Stan White, an old Shunryu Suzuki student who moved to Taos and whom Kobun ordained: "Kobun is a mystic He's an existential teacher. He does not know what he's doing, but what he does makes people practice Zen. He has students who would crawl from Albuquerque to see him for five minutes. He comes here and he disappears into the woods and we never see him - but we practice. People involved with Kobun practice."

In November of 2009 my then mate and now wife Katrinka and I offered incense with Vanja at the memorial shrine for Kobun at Felsentor. Kobun’s death by drowning with his daughter there was a true tragedy. Everyone was so sad. Everyone loved him. Once again he has left us with an empty room, an open window - and warm memories of Kobun.


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