Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-23


Back in 67 on one of my LA trips I looked up buddy Warren Lynn from Fort Worth. He was selling pharmaceuticals and had unsavory comments about that biz which he soon left behind. One complaint was they had him pushing pills with known side effects to get rid of that stock before pushing the new type without.

We went to sit zazen with Joshu Sasaki on a Saturday morning in a gymnasium. There were twenty people or so on a couple of rows of zafu. While I was sitting a monitor tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Roshi will see you for sanzen now." Oh. I hadn't counted on that. I was told how to bow and sit before him. He was tough looking, gruff, exuding an aura worthy of the reputation of Myoshinji, which I'd heard called the Marine boot camp of Rinzai Zen monasteries in Japan.

He looked at me, shook his head muttering, "Very poor," a couple of times, then told me he would give me a koan: "Who am I when I'm driving my car?" I didn’t have anything against that or any koan but didn’t take it to heart. I was just visiting.

After zazen and the Heart Sutra, Warren and I were invited to join Sasaki and his students at a home. We shared refreshments. A couple of older guys, which means they were maybe in their forties, inquired about us. I said I had been sitting with Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco and was in LA shopping for our new monastery.

One of them, standing next to the door, said, "Oh you've got that Baker guy there. He's quite a businessman."

Now everyone was listening. "He's more of a university guy," I said, noting Richard Baker had been organizing conferences for UC Berkeley and had never been in business except he was a merchant marine.

"Well, he sure knows how to raise money and buy real estate. But does he know anything about Zen?"

"Gosh, I don’t know."

"Roshi knows," he answered. "He's told us all about your Suzuki. That guy has got you all fooled."


"Yeah" the other older guy said, "Roshi has told us how your Suzuki isn't even a priest. He just bought robes in Japan and came over here to masquerade as a Zen master."

I just sat there feeling like I'd stumbled into a hostile party at a rival high school.

This razzing went on for a few more minutes. I turned to Sasaki who was paying attention. Gave him a look that expressed, are you really going to let your students treat a guest like this? I got an answer.

"Tassajara Zen, play Zen!" he said strongly. "You want real Zen, come Sasaki! Until then, Go!" and he dramatically gestured to the door.

Warren and I walked out past a group of silent students.


After that I’d hear about Sasaki now and then. Maezumi had  paid him a visit and told his students that Sasaki had been dismissive of him. Heard Sasaki’s fellow Rinzai monk Eido Shimano got more or less the same treatment. Sasaki had some public appearances in the Bay Area and made critical remarks about our local ZC. Nobody much cared. Some went to hear him and a few ended up being his students. ZC’s never had a competitive or defensive Zen culture. Suzuki didn't bill himself as the best or only and people there when confronted with criticism are as likely to say, “Maybe so,” as anything.

When he was about 103, a couple of Anglo Zen teachers I know met with Sasaki and asked him a question relating to war, peace, terrorism, human conflict vis a vis Zen or something. The translator said she hated to say what the answer was, namely that If only George W. Bush could have had another term, he would have been able to finish the job.

Sasaki died at 107 years old in 2014. He had just recently stopped teaching. He left no dharma heirs. One of his disciples became the new abbot of Rinzai-ji in LA. His reach had extended to Mount Baldy monastery in the mountains of Los Angeles county and affiliated centers around the US, Canada, and Europe.

Traveling from Texas to the Bay Area in 2013 I sat and met with some Zen groups on the way and heard from a number of students who'd studied in the Sasaki lineage. They talked about their founder's misdeeds, the scandal about his pursuing women students. I said that it wasn't new to me. I’d heard about it now and then, remembered long ago being told that some senior students and his board of directors had asked him to stop groping at women in sanzen and so forth and that he'd not been cooperative or repentant. I’d heard of women being warned when they first arrived. It lead to national news articles toward the end of his life with groups and individuals disassociating themselves from him. I know that’s all bad, but I can’t totally discount the value of his teaching because he still got lonely, horny, and didn’t care about taking advantage of his authority in that way. Some teachers have bad conduct. He wasn’t my teacher though so I haven’t dwelled on this at least seeming contradiction that has so disturbed his followers. Rather I recall another visit.


In December of 1969, after we'd left Monterey, Bob Halpern, my friend Mary, and I dropped by Sasaki's Cimarron Zen Center. His group had grown larger, then with residential facilities. I said we wanted to interview Sasaki for the San Francisco Zen Center's Wind Bell. I just made that up on the spot so we could see him. It worked. Before long we sat at a table across from Sasaki. Two translators at his side - James Yamamoto and George Stanicci who mainly just listened. That’s not how any Japanese name would be spelled, but I find him (with both parents born in Japan) in a record of Japanese Americans who were in internment camps during WWII.

Sasaki started off with something to say about the upcoming interview. He didn't want to get superficial questions like a reporter would ask. "Don't ask me why I came here and when did I come. Don't waste my time. Ask about the dharma."

Bob looked at Roshi and asked, "Why did you come to America?" and I followed it up with, "And when was that?"

Without hesitation or complaint, Sasaki answered those questions and more. He arrived in 1962. His sponsor, Dr. Harmon, had written Myoshinji requesting a Zen teacher and they’d sent him though he thought about it for six months before agreeing. He tried to study English but said he couldn’t muster the courage to use it - compared his reluctance to put effort into learning English to Americans’ hesitancy to learn Zen. But he thought, “Well, I’ll do what I can and maybe become friends with a few of them.” There were difficulties at first but due to the early constant assistance of Dr. Harmon especially, problems were solved, his center grew, and we were able to be having that meeting. He’d had to change locations several times due to neighbor complaints about traffic, chanting and bell sounds, and his acceptance of hippies. But, “Zen welcomes everyone.” So in 1968 they settled in to Cimarron Street where the center still resides.

He answered more questions. No plans. People come and practice. If there’s a problem we’ll deal with it. This isn’t a business. I don’t want to build temples and expand. No other Japanese priests wanted. Better to develop local people. At first he only taught zazen. Things picked up after he added koans and sanzen (dokusan in Soto Zen), a one on one meeting with the teacher. He said there were two types of students –  the ones interested in hearing lecture and knowing history, and those interested in Zen training and practice. “The latter I will give koans and they can confront me in sanzen. True Zen of necessity includes sanzen and koan practice." Without sanzen, he stressed, it’s just curiosity Zen, adding that if we were merely journalists he’d not say all this but are we academics and journalists or students? “You might be dead in one hour so I wish a correct answer from you.”

Bob said, “We came here because there is a Buddha here.”

“I’m not a Buddha,” and he quoted Basso, “Not mind, not buddha,” then added, “I don’t like people who are looking for Buddha here. You’re hooked on buddha and must be free from even such ideas. Entangled in that word buddha you will be no more free than a believing Zen student. You must be free to accept or throw away buddha. The attitude should be that you will neither affirm nor deny buddha or god, free from any such notions.

He went on to say that it’s difficult here because people In the US need a symbol such as a god-savior or a Buddha and it appeared that we came seeking buddha like we were Christians seeking god, that as long as you depend on someone from Japan your Zen will remain weak. Maybe all that can be expected was that people here would just be interested in doctrine and theory.

I wanted to protest that we weren’t theists - but thought better of it. The translators suggested we might bring it to an end then, but we kept asking and Sasaki kept answering.

Bob asked if Sasaki planned to continue the Japanese form of separation of priests and lay. Sasaki answered there’s no difference between priest and lay, men and women. He named it Zen Center on purpose rather than Zen Temple with its hierarchy and said cats and dogs could come practice there. “I welcome all – particularly hippies.” He wouldn’t transplant the Japanese hierarchy but would include practices and disciplines that were appropriate. I asked like what and he said come join us in a sesshin and you’ll find out.

Sasaki said what he was doing was teaching zazen and “thinking 24 hours how to make people enlightened Zen students, whether by pulling their noses, hitting them, or pushing them. I am just combing my brain trying to find ways and means to produce such students.”

I asked if he saw any other problems with Americans. He said the Western mind was well developed at dealing with data and had produced wonders in the fields of science, philosophy, psychology. Yet there’s a split there between subject and object. Zen has no object or goal. However, Zen does include everything from sutra study to journalism.

I’d been studying Japanese for the prior half year and was just starting to look at the Japanese for some of our chants. I asked about translating the chants. He said that since it has no meaning at all, it’s not necessary to translate sutras for chanting. The key was to manifest oneself. Better to do them in a loud voice, he said, and imitate sounds of animals than chanting without belief that you’re manifesting yourself. Whatever you do, believe that you’re manifesting yourself. It’s better not to think that one must understand what one reads. While not fully understanding, adhere faithfully to what one is doing, chanting or chores, and realize one is manifesting oneself in these activities.

One must also go into the secular world to earn a living. Then the much more full type of Zen practice begins. One of the problems of Zen doctrine is that one is apt to become isolated from the world of social responsibility. Since the self doesn’t exist, one can harmonize with whatever situation and environments one finds oneself in.

We kept asking questions, asked if he was getting tired. He said he could answer this type of question half asleep, suggested some high class twelve year old scotch would help.

Towards the end of our time with him, Sasaki said, “I am very appreciative of Tassajara and the San Francisco effort towards helping the American people, and impressed.”

Left that day quite pleased and up, a distinctly different experience than the prior visit. I had expected and was almost looking forward to receiving a bashing like before, but the meeting was friendly and comfortable with no-nonsense, encouraging edges. Profound and inspiring.

The interview was kindly transcribed in early 1970 by a fellow student at Tassajara, a female is all I remember. Thanks a lot whoever you are/were. Passed a carbon copy on for Wind Bell use but that didn’t happen. Found my copy of it going through and scanning boxes of my archives in 2013. Old buddy Warren did the actual scanning. Glad we did that.

And as he suggested when we first met, I do often go "Who am I?" when driving a car or taking a walk.


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