Tassajara Stories


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

last edit 9-25


Americans back in the sixties typically had some pretty idealistic preconceptions of what Zen was. As Shunryu Suzuki pointed out, Japanese Zen people did too. The preconceptions were not similar. There was an early Tassajara student who had told Suzuki when he first met him that he wanted to go to Japan and become a monk. Suzuki said, “Maybe it would be better for you stay and learn our way first.” He had good reason. The crash and burn rate for Western Zen students in Japan was high.

A couple of years later this fellow did go to Japan with an independent nature and strong ideas about what practice was. Entered a tradition where you're not to say no for the first five years. He had a tough time. Now he was back, brought to Tassajara to recuperate. Last I'd seen him, he was serious and determined to get enlightened, healthy and focused. Now he was a wreck, frighteningly thin, bug-eyed. He obviously hadn't supplemented the Japanese monastic diet. He stood before me in robes, hands in formal shashu squeezed in toward his ribs, shaking slightly, talking about rules. Rules? Yes. He said we're not following them. I told him I thought we had plenty of rules.

But he said we're not practicing Dogen's strict way as recorded by his disciple Koun Ejo in the Zuimonki. Not following the Vinaya, the rules back in Buddha's time, hundreds of rules, with more for women. At Eiheiji he'd complained about Japanese monks not following the Vinaya as done in Thailand. Not supposed to eat after the sun is at the zenith, not to touch money or women. Of course no alcohol. Possessions a monk could have were few and stipulated. There was a prescribed length for the sleeping mat. But he'd seen sake served to monks in Japan. He'd seen them eat meat and they got married and so much more. He'd also not been pleased with a schedule with too much ceremony and too little zazen. Regardless of the erring path of others, he did his best to be a monk as monks should be. He would sit zazen in the monk's hall when he was supposed to be elsewhere.

Suzuki's son Hoitsu told me once, "Americans think of My Way and Japanese enter the stream with others." This was a pretty extreme example of that. Hoitsu had to go to Eiheiji to fetch him. According to my source, monks came up behind him where he sat and injected him with a sedative before he could stop them. Hoitsu took him to Rinsoin where he ran off into the mountainous woods above the temple. There was a search for him. I can imagine how distraught they were. They'd get all concerned there at much less - like when I came back late from a walk.

Now here he was at Tassajara in an altered state of consciousness like an acid trip as he later described it to me. Standing. Staring.

Suzuki gave an evening talk in the zendo. The altered monk was of course there - standing in the back. Suzuki talked about how shamelessly Japanese Buddhists flaunt the rules. He went on and on about it laughing and saying, "We're shameless," laughing at how they ate meat, got married, drank sake. It was not the usual Suzuki subtlety.

After the lecture, our friend could not be found. Next day at chosan, morning tea with the abbot, Suzuki and the officers agreed it was time to go look for him. Paul Discoe came to me the next morning and said Ron had run off into the woods the night before and that Suzuki and the officers wanted me to go look for him because I wasn't judgmental. Actually I did have judgmental thoughts but I'd not hit the poor guy over the head with 'em. I think it was more that those of us to go looking for him wouldn't be perceived as authoritarian. Sure weren't in any hurry. Didn't leave till after eleven as they kept thinking he'd come back. Six were sent out - two up the road, two upstream, and two down. Tim Aston and I went downstream. Checking spots not visible from the trail. Tim took the path up to the Horse Pasture. I kept going down.

Found him sitting zazen bolt upright on a boulder in the stream below the Narrows. I had a bag lunch for him. Each one of us did. He was famished but wanted to know if it was past noon because then he'd have to wait till the next day. I lied. He ate convincingly. I swatted a mosquito. He said I'd spend an aeon in the Avici hell realm for that. More spooky talk. We walked back.

After he left Tassajara he went into a hospital for examination and was kept there. He had severe malnutrition with dry Beriberi that can affect things like mental processing of information and cognitive functions. But he didn't regret having burned his robes before he left. He did it out of respect for the purity of the dharma and the robes saying he couldn't maintain it, live up to it.

Notable Rinzai priest Hakuin had an extended period of madness of various sorts. So have many great seekers like George Fox, the founder of the Quaker founder. Our friend would survive and excel. He became an EST leader until returning to Buddhism in its original Theravada form that he was more comfortable with, studying with monks from Southeast Asia and organizing retreats for them in the States. He heard Suzuki say to put 100% of your awareness into whatever you are doing - and that's what he is doing.


Late morning early nineteen eighties, I stood in a chilly breeze atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean with friends chanting the Heart Sutra. I was asked to don my priest's robes and lend a body. Steve Allen, Mike Jamvold, Issan Tommy Dorsey had on their robes as did Philip Whalen who led the ceremony. It was a memorial service for someone I didn't know and didn't know of. I was happy to join my buddies whom I didn't see every day. We were above RCA Beach in Bolinas, a semi-hidden village north of San Francisco where I had lived half-time since 1976. The memorial was for another Zen priest, an American. In our lineage. My windblown berobed dharma brothers were ordained by Suzuki's dharma heir Richard Baker but they said the memorial was for an early student of Suzuki. His name was Bill McNeill.

Joanne Kyger lived in Bolinas too and attended this ceremony. She a poet who'd been married to Gary Snyder, lived and studied Zen in Kyoto. McNeill was an old friend of her and Philip. So was a publisher of Philip and Michael McClure named Dave Haselwood whom I met that day. Turned out that he'd studied for several years with Shunryu Suzuki. Joanne said McNeill was Suzuki's first student and that he'd brought her to Sokoji in 1959. Suzuki also called McNeil his first student.

Philip said Suzuki ordained McNeil in Japan in 1961 but Suzuki wasn't there then and another priest did it for him. So McNeill was Suzuki's first priest. And there was another there with him who got ordained too named Bob Hense. It was a strange experience for me, like learning I had brothers that my parents had hidden from me. There were two priests from the Zen Center I'd never heard of?

I forgot about it till a decade later when I started interviewing people for Crooked Cucumber. Then McNeill's name would come up. McNeill had been not only the first but the most enthusiastic student of Suzuki, described as the leader and recruiter of the group. He'd also first come to Suzuki saying he wanted to go Japan and study Zen and been told to practice here first. Of course the idea back then of what Zen is was almost entirely out of DT Suzuki and Watts dramatic satori stories and Shunryu Suzuki, though a big fan of both of them, followed a path with less emphasis on peak experience.

Bill Kwong who came in 1960 had been close to McNeil. They were both artists who sat zazen and studied with Suzuki together, but after returning from a less than rewarding experience of Zen in Japan, McNeil had left that all behind. He devoted himself to art and film, had shows and previews, led group painting fests. He was at the nerve center of whatever he did. He was an early proponent of gay pride and key instigator of the whole gay scene in the Castro and around the Stud Bar. Joanne said she'd argue with him saying homosexuality can't be an identity.

McNeil had been in the section of SF General Hospital for the people with the debilitating disease that so many gay men were dying from. It didn't have a name yet. He rode off in one of the first waves of those to die of AIDS.

I never heard Suzuki mention Bill McNeil or Bob Hense till I listened to Peter Schneider's interview with Suzuki who didn't like to speak of what he saw as discouraging.

Joanne said, "His ashes are buried north of Bolinas at the end of a lane of daffodils overlooking the ocean. He always kept what he got from Suzuki Roshi. Very open to people. And in his paintings he had a direct style, with a quick sure brushstroke, an economy of line, and a beautiful palette."

Philip recalled, "It was a magic memorial service. The ocean roared and the wind was cold and everybody stood still and it was very nice. We went through the whole forty minute death and rebirth ceremony. It was Zen straight out of the book - same as Suzuki Roshi's I bet. I used a flame - two pieces of paper painted red and glued together."


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