Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-21

Shosan is a formal ceremony that we held at the end of the practice periods in which each student would ask the abbot a question. During one of the first shosan ceremonies a student walked to stand in the proper place before the seated Suzuki, dramatically bellowed the customary address of "Docho Roshi!" (Docho is abbot) in a voice reminiscent of a Kurosawa period piece, heard Suzuki's affirmative "Hai!" and asked, "Are impulses okay?" Suzuki said that yes, sometimes they are. The student then turned around without closing the exchange with the customary gassho and "Thank you very much," walked out of the zendo and came back to his spot eating a cookie saying his garbled thanks with a mouthful. That student was Bob Halpern.

It seems there were more extreme people at Tassajara in the old days. Students there seem so sedate and mature now. I guess some of us were sedate and mature back then as well, but Bob and I were not two of them. Bob came to Tassajara before the first practice period in '67. I met him on the back porch by the old kitchen at the samovar, the coffee and tea area. He bore the countenance of a samurai, posturing dramatically while quoting the Sixth Patriarch, then started talking like a car salesman and getting buddy-buddy.

He’d been sitting with Maezumi down in LA since 1965. Had had a bookstore on the Sunset Strip in LA called the Satori Shop, was one of the first people to sell those psychedelic concert posters that go for so much today. He’d read a lot about Eastern religion. We’d talk about all that stuff and zazen and what teachers were the most enlightened, who were the coolest spiritual heroes from the millennia gone by, tell our stories, and speculate on the future. We were fanatic about everything. When the bell rang or the han was struck we’d get on our robes and go to the zendo and be fanatic about that. The schedule would exhaust a lot of people so that they’d nap when they could and get in their beds as soon as possible after evening zazen was over. Bob and I might go to our rooms and sit for another hour and then maybe go to the kitchen for a clandestine snack and then nod away sleep deprived at morning zazen.

Early in the first practice period I was sitting on a massive stone in the small creek below the bridge on a moonlit night after the fire watch had gone round hitting the clackers for all lights out. In time I settled down and then felt as if floating. I started seeing an Indian dancing on the stones in Tassajara Creek that flowed not far in front. In a state unconnected to the world around me, suddenly there came a great intrusion, a painful attack that knocked be back – it was sound that penetrated and unsettled me so that I screamed out, “No! No! No!” I found myself lying sideways on the rock looking up at Bob who kneeled there with the bowl-shaped brass bell and striker from the zendo altar. He had snuck up behind me and struck the bell once hard a few inches from my ear. Now women’s heads were sticking out of dorm windows. I had recovered and was sitting up. Bob grimaced and shook his head with hands holding bell and striker up in the air indicating he’d had no idea what the results of his actions would be. I made a mental note to try to cultivate meditation that did not render me so vulnerable to changes in the environment around me.

Bob and I followed almost all the rules. We followed the guest season schedule and the more demanding practice period schedule. Up in the dark and in the zendo on time for the first forty minute zazen which was really more like fifty or at least forty-three because one is to get there before the third round of the han, the wooden sound board struck with a mallet that called us to the zendo. After zazen kinhin, second zazen, enthusiastically chant the chants for service, oryoki breakfast which was up to an hour still sitting, break, study period, work meeting, work, noon service, oryoki lunch in the zendo, break, work meeting, work, bath time, oryoki dinner in the zendo, break, zazen, kinhin, zazen, bedtime. Except for a relaxed schedule on four and nine days, we did all that day after day. Sometimes we'd add to it though and gently break the rule of silence after the last zazen and the rule of go to bed, jabbering about what we thought was the dharma in our rooms or take walks and jabber about our teachers and fellow students and other teachers and their students. Sometimes we'd go to the baths in the dark dead of winter, leap into the 108 degree plunge, get under a cold shower and leap into the plunge from the railing, then to the steam room and freezing cold creek hanging onto a cable that ran across the creek - back and forth with the temperature extremes.


Bob and I were asked to skip the winter-spring practice period in early 1968 but we were free to come back for the spring interim and guest season. They said they wanted to start rotating people but we knew they also wanted to give Tassajara a break from us. We were bummed out but agreed. We were just too much together. But why not just send one? All they did was move the problem. In the city Bob and I continued to be hyper and distract people from their pure practice. We were some sort of co-dependent, saw every movie in town during that time. We seduced every woman we could - that was mainly him. He had a knack. We didn't drink or get stoned hardly at all so that was good. That's on him. He didn't need chemical aid to be crazy.

We didn't miss zazen either. And did stuff for the Zen Center over at Sokoji. We ate oryoki but not in the apartment's communal kitchen and dining area, in my room (his was too messy) for the privacy - so we could chant the whole long meal chant and play Zen without interruption. We'd make strict Macrobiotic meals - brown rice, miso soup, cooked vegetables.

A typical evening would be for us to go to a movie after that then weaken and get a hamburger and milkshake, go back sit zazen till late at night and then go out and run around. Rise for early zazen, kinhin, zazen, service at Sokoji in which we'd be nodding like those little dipping drinking bird toys. Surely we had long naps in the days. It was only for three months so neither of us got a job.

Once after a late post theater zazen he wanted to go walk around and I didn't. He begged me to come but I was tired so he went and I stayed in. Later I was awakened by a slam of the door downstairs, the sound of footsteps, and then an effeminate voice from below calling out, "Bobby! Bobby!" A knock on my door. It was he.

Bob had met a woman hanging out late night on Polk Street. They'd talked, closed a bar, and gone into the bushes outside the Episcopal Church at Gough and Geary. That's where Bob discovered that she was a he and he lost interest but she as he'd preferred to be called I'm sure was still interested and now downstairs calling up and waking our neighbors for sure. Finally he went back down, they had a nice chat in which the former object of his desire was calmed by his Platonic sweet talk. So just as I'd seen him lure all sorts of females into hasty togetherness, he made this faux maiden accept their separation. I always said Bob could sell sun lamps to Tahitians.

Like most people, Bob and I wore cheap zories, but we preferred wearing zories that were short so that the toes stuck a tiny bit over the edge. Almost anything we did would have a dharmic or health related reason. The reason for the short zories was mindfulness. As a result, we frequently had bloody toes, especially the big one, from stubbing them on some protrusion - especially at Tassajara where there was so much uneven rockiness. Bob said that we could know our state of mind by looking at our feet. One day on a shopping trip for several of the railroad apartments full of Zennies, we drove to Oakland to the Oakland Food Mill which was one of the best places to get grains, nut butters, and other wholesome, nutritious foodstuffs. Then we drove to Telegraph Avenue to enjoy the scene with hippies and students. Bob went barefoot and shirtless, saying, "Let's go with the flow, be natural," in a less than sincere tone. While strutting around thus, he stepped on a piece of glass from a broken bottle of cheap wine that lay next to a reclining figure. It was a bad cut. Lots of blood. Went to a clinic where they sewed him up. I looked at his bandaged foot and asked, "What's your state of mind today?"

The car we drove was a ten year old Volvo I'd bought from a guy in the East Bay who said he was Ed Fox. "Ed the Fox," he said, "Ring a bell? I said no I don't think so. Turned out I had heard of him. He'd stowed away on a flight from Australia to LA and made the headlines because he'd survived. As I recall it was in with a wheel but I don't know if that's really possible. Anyway, Bob and I decided I should have a car so one of us could be on call to drive Suzuki Roshi or Okusan wherever they wanted to go. Ended up doing a lot of errands for Yvonne and Gloria Coonan in the office. Whatever was wanted, we were on call. And people could borrow it. It was such a communal, sharing era. We look back on those days when we put so much into making Zen Center thrive and joke we were slave labor. But we were slaves for each other and it was a great time.


Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was so upset. I'd become aware of and inspired by King in 1963 in my brief experience of college and had some involvement with the civil rights movement in 1964 in Mississippi. I stayed in my room and looked out the window for hours. I could hear other students crying, people on the street, everywhere, talking about it, sharing, angry. But others were more upset. Things were heating up three blocks away in the black Fillmore district. There were crowds of angry people in the streets, windows getting broken. Bob and I got worked up worrying that a full scale riot would ensue and that it might spread to this area. We ran over to Sokoji, went upstairs, and found Suzuki in his office. I called his wife Mitsu over from the kitchen. We told them what was happening and insisted they let us get them out quickly to safety.

Suzuki's response? "Oh, I think I'll go take a walk down to the Fillmore and see what is happening. I'm not afraid of black people. They like me. They like to reach down and put a hand on my shaved head, sometimes just a finger." And he demonstrated by placing an index finger on his head and smiling.

"No, no, no, no please don't, please, please, please don't," we begged. Finally we ended up with a compromise. He and Mitsu would stay there at the temple and we'd go away. And the commotion in the Fillmore subsided as well. But sadness and anger from the death of King would long linger in the soul of America.

A week later we were back at Tassajara.

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