Tassajara Stories

DC: This is the prior version before making the podcast. There are always some changes and edits when I do that. Would have to listen to the podcast to see what they were because that version was lost.


Taizan Maezumi 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.

Maezumi came from his LA Zen Center to Tassajara to help with the first month of the two month first practice period. I'd met him before that in LA and he was friendly with me. 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 (like him) because the older ones get too kind and soft (like Suzuki). 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.

During his time at Tassajara’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'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 when I was on shopping trips setting up the Tassajara dining room and buying stuff for the 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.

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. Bob has a gift for hyperbole. Charlene came to Zen Center a few times saying she was seeking refuge from her husband. There were many troubles in his early years. When Maezumi was at Tassajara for that first practice period, he asked Bob 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.

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.


Togen Sumi arrived in 1965 and became the chief priest at Zenshuji in LA and the Bishop of Soto Zen in America, filling the vacancy left by Reirin Yamada. That didn't mean anything special to us zazen students who hadn't yet learned the meaning of respecting our elders. To us the whole Japanese Soto Zen establishment was just some church trip, a formality that Suzuki had to deal with. But to me Sumi’s visits were fun and educational. Sumi being bishop, he'd come to officiate some ceremonies in San Francisco - mainly with the Japanese-American congregation but he'd lead the services for us too when he was there. Suzuki, who had declined the time-consuming role of bishop from the time he'd arrived in America, always treated Sumi with deference. We all liked Sumi. He was friendly and smiled a lot. I don't think that Katagiri liked him. He'd grimace when he heard Sumi was coming. He didn’t seem to like any Japanese Zen bigshots. Yes, I sigh and reflect, Togen Sumi. Dare I tell what I remember of him?

At Tassajara I quickly became someone who dealt with guests. I went beyond the call of duty however. Since I was an overly friendly and talkative Texan, I tended to meet just about anyone who came down the road and Sumi was no exception. In the late spring of 1967 when we were getting Tassajara going, he brought his nephew with him and they stayed in one of the stone rooms. Suzuki would ask Sumi to give a talk when he came and would introduce him with respect, treating him like some great Zen master.

I remember taking Sumi on a walk up the hogback and showing him the waterfall across the ravine. He taught me then one of my first Japanese words: taki, waterfall. Sumi was nice but he was also smarmy with a big toothy smile. He was thin, tall for a Japanese and gangly. I kept thinking he looked like Dracula. He'd invite me to his room. Being alone with him gave me a little tingling fear that soon he'd have his fangs in my neck. Ominous feelings of danger have always had a certain allure for me though.

I met his nephew who was an artist and who complained to me on a walk to Grasshopper Flats about what a tyrant Sumi was over him, making him sit zazen and follow the schedule at Tassajara which he wasn't interested in. He also told me he wasn't really Sumi's nephew.

Sumi had years of training and discipline in the Soto Zen realm and I think that anyone who can put up with all the demands of that training and that outfit deserves some respect. I learned from being around him and listening to the few lectures I heard him give. I remember a lecture Sumi gave about the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra where he said that the bad guy in that story wasn't all wrong.

In this famous Zen story, the fifth patriarch asked disciples for poems to express their understanding to help him choose a successor. Shen Hsiu posted a poem about wiping the mirror mind clean of dust. Illiterate rice washer Hui Neng had that poem read to him and dictated another one saying there was no mirror or dust etc. and that all was empty. So he got the robe and bowl and is the hero of the story. The point of the lecture that Sumi gave was that Shen Hsiu's understanding was also good - that the practice of wiping the mind clean is also important, that purification and transcendence are not mutually exclusive.

Later he sent me letters and gifts such as a sheet of stamps, some of which I could use to write him letters. He asked me to visit him when I came to LA. While doing research on food and materials sources for the Tassajara kitchen and dining room, I called Sumi from Maezumi's home and zendo where I was staying. He invited me to lunch. We met at a Japanese restaurant. He brought two young American students whom he introduced as his disciples. We ate and talked and had a charming time. He asked me if I'd like to stay at Zenshuji and, when I said I had a place to stay, invited me over for the evening, but I said my schedule was full. When he went to the bathroom his students immediately grabbed me and begged me to ask if they could come shopping with me. I did and Sumi said okay. He went off and they joined me driving here and there. The first thing we did was to get some ice cream. Both these guys were in their early twenties and had come to Zenshuji independently just because it was a Zen temple and they'd read about Zen and enlightenment and wanted to get enlightened. No one had recommended it.

John, had studied in Stockton with MacDonough whom he called MacDonough Roshi. He'd stayed with MacDonough for far too long he said and had found it to be a bizarre and unrewarding experience. I asked why he stayed so long if his experience was so bad. He said that he thought that the problem must be his and kept at it till he finally got physically ill and had to leave. So then he went to LA and discovered Zenshuji and Sumi. John had been there a while when the other fellow came to the door. He said that Sumi normally shoed away enlightenment-seeking Westerners but, since they were both insistent, he had accepted them. This seemed to be in accordance with the Zen tradition of telling prospective monks to go away till they'd sit steadily outside the temple gate for some days or weeks. That's the origin of the tangaryo practice.

I asked them what their schedule was like and they said that Sumi made them get up early in the dark and sit zazen for a couple of hours and that he'd have them join him for a morning service and he made them eat mainly white rice and miso soup alone and told them not to talk and would have them clean the temple and copy Chinese characters for hours in a small dark room. They had no idea what the characters meant or how to write them. He gave them only a moment's instruction and they didn't know about stroke order or the meaning of what they were writing.

A few weeks later I returned and, after lunch he let them go with me again and they were like crazed hermits come down from the mountain, ravenous for sweets and conversation. They said that they hadn't been out since I was last there, that I was the only person that Sumi would let them be with or talk to. They said he'd put them through a grueling seven day sesshin with zazen morning to night and never joined them except to come in and hit them with the stick. They implored me to return soon when we parted. The next time I returned was some months later and there was only John. The other fellow had left. John said that Sumi had given him a koan.

Koans are not typically given by Soto Zen priests but there is a long tradition in Soto Zen of studying them. Dogen, Soto Zen’s founder, had completed koan study when he was a Rinzai monk and he wrote tons about them. Suzuki frequently gave lectures on koans, mainly from the Blue Cliff Records. But I was most intrigued that Togen Sumi had actually given John a koan to practice with. I urged him to tell me more.

He said that he had accompanied Sumi to the home of a wealthy lay family in order to assist in a memorial service. This is one of the principal tasks of Japanese priests. The home was a good hour drive from Zenshuji so Sumi suggested that they stay in a motel for the evening. John thought that was great because it would give him more time to be with his teacher and maybe he could glean some insight that had, up to then, eluded him. That night when it was time for bed, Sumi confirmed John's assumption and said that it was good for master and disciple to be close to each other but John was a little taken aback when Sumi said, as he pulled back the covers of one of the queen beds, that this meant that they should sleep in the same bed. John said he slept better by himself but Sumi insisted on leaving no blanket unturned in pursuing the course of being mind to mind and body to body. Maybe this does make sense, John thought. Sumi then said that they should have no clothing between them and, as he disrobed, told John to do the same. John felt resistance arising within him but labeled that as a barrier between him and the enlightenment he sought. Don't resist, he thought. Say yes to the master. If you don't obey you'll never break through to a realization of buddha mind.

"What a dedicated student you are," I said. "Please go on."

Alone and naked they stood in the motel room facing each other. Sumi told John that he was going to give him a koan.

"A koan?" John asked with eager anticipation.

"Yes, a koan. And this is the greatest of all koans. This koan," he said, "is called the diamond koan." He told John that if he penetrated this great koan that he would know the mind of the buddhas and patriarchs. "Are you ready," he asked?

"Yes, I am ready," John answered, trembling with excitement and awe that his long months of torturous Zen practice had brought him to this moment with the promise of breaking through his ego to the infinite.

With that, Sumi reached forward and grabbed John's penis and testicles. John took it as a classic example of the unexpected act from an enlightened master and sloughed off an instinctive quiver of revulsion. He breathed heavily and called out bravely, "It's Buddha!" No, he thought, as Sumi fondled his privates, not good enough. "It's no-mind! Mu! The oak tree in the garden!" He kept trying to give incisive non-conceptual, intuitive Zen answers to the koan but nothing seemed to work. Finally he realized that he'd failed and he didn't want Sumi to be touching him any more so he pulled back.

"Don't give up," said Sumi.

"I give up," said John, and he went to the other bed, crawled in, and pulled the covers over his head.

I asked John what his take on it all was now. "I mean," I said, "Don't you think that maybe he was just horny?"

"Yes, sure. I guess so." He told me that that wasn't the first indication he'd had of Sumi's predilections. He said that the reason his fellow student had left was what had happened to another Westerner that Sumi had taken in. I said I thought that Sumi sent them all away and John said that was true but that this fellow had come to him saying that he was plagued by fears that he had homosexual tendencies and that Sumi had taken him in and seduced him and that the guy had gone berserk and had to be taken to a mental hospital.

So I told John a story that I knew about Sumi, one that had been told to me by Maezumi.

Maezumi didn't get along with Sumi or with Yamada, the bishop before him. The main reason was that Maezumi didn't want to spend his life being a temple priest for family ceremonies and all and wanted to offer daily zazen to Zenshuji members and Westerners and neither Yamada nor Sumi were interested in that and wanted him to do lots of ceremonies and temple duties. And they wanted to lord it over him. Maezumi got sick of the scene there and had been on his own for a few years. He told me that he nevertheless helped Sumi out with important ceremonies and events and that they had to deal with each other about various issues. The most divisive he said was that he wanted a zendo to be sanctioned as an official temple by the Soto sect. He told me that he and Sumi used to have yelling, screaming arguments with each other in which Sumi would threaten him with one thing or another - expelling him from America or whatever. Maezumi said that he'd yell back at Sumi that his connections were more powerful in Japan than Sumi's and that he could get Sumi on some sort of shit list. He said it was all a bunch of stupid, empty, petty threats, but that the main thing was that they had a very unpleasant relationship and that he couldn't get what he wanted from Sumi or get Sumi out of his hairlessness. Then one night he got a call.

It was very late. So late you'd call it early. Sumi was breathing heavily and his voice was shaky. He asked Maezumi if he would come to the police station to bail him out. He couldn't get out on his own. Maezumi drove straight to the station and soon Sumi appeared before him - in drag.

As Maezumi drove back to Zenshuji, Sumi clutched his dress and sobbed loudly and so wetly that his mascara ran down blending with his pancake makeup and his lipstick was all smeared. He ran into the temple crying and holding his high heels. He was probably worried that Maezumi would tell on him - to Zenshuji's Japanese American congregation. Japanese-Americans back then were a very conservative group, not puritanical like mainstream America but more conservative in many ways and, according to my sources, more so than Japanese in Japan. Katagiri’s wife Tomoe called Issei, the first generation, Meiji. The Meiji imperial era ended in 1912.

I've had gay friends tell me that Japanese aren't homophobic and I've told them that Japanese don't snoop but that they can only continue to believe the average Japanese isn't homophobic as long as they don't let on that they're gay. In my adult English conversation class in Okayama back in the early nineties, I brought up the topic of AIDS and safe sex. A housewife said, "We won't have AIDS in Japan because we don't have homosexuals."

Sumi's predilections weren't totally unknown to others. Once Richard Baker accompanied Shunryu Suzuki to a meeting of Soto Zen priests in LA. At some point they were walking by a window on a staircase landing and caught sight of Sumi passionately making out with another man in a car below. Suzuki quickly turned his head while saying, "Too much, too much."