Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-25


I had some urgent business that took me from Tassajara to San Francisco. I'd gotten a letter. Went straight to Suzuki and said I had to go and I'd be back as soon as I could. He accepted it. Had more trouble with the director but was adamant and with no explanation. Got a temporary room in the Page Street City Center. I'd be there a lot and gone some too.

Was hanging out a good deal in the entranceway with Bob who'd been given the task of front door greeter, a role that did not exist before or after. He didn't seem to be able to focus consistently on mundane tasks and wasn't suitable material at the time for a stodgy position with normal responsibilities. He knew it. But Suzuki wanted him there in the building and so did almost everyone else. He did go to zazen and services and meals and was entertaining and insightful. I enjoyed watching him relate to those who came, would marvel at his ability to make someone feel welcome, and cringe at the way he'd toy with other people's assumptions and identity.

Sometimes it seemed as if how long a person stayed at the ZC was in inverse proportion to how determined they were when they arrived - if their investment in assumptions was stronger than their flexibility and openness.

The doorbell rang. I answered it. A tall guy with a backpack and beard. He started to say something but I interrupted him with, "Wait - you must speak first with the official greeter," and nodded toward Bob just inside in a chair behind a dark wood table.

"How can I help you," said Bob matter of factly.

The young man stood erect with his heavy back pack still on. He spoke with serious precision and resolve. "I left MIT shortly before finishing work on a PhD in astrophysics. I have hitchhiked from Big Sur where I've been camping for three months in the wilderness, living off the land, contemplating the course my life should take. Now I have arrived at this temple to end my wandering and devote myself to the study and practice of Zen."

Bob looked a him blankly. He tilted his head. "Oh yeah?" he uttered. An empty pause. Then Bob's mouth slowly opened, top lip going one way, bottom one other, his head jerked back, tongue protruded, slobber dripped out. He started moaning and shaking, gurgling, grunting, head wobbling. His eyes rolled. His arms began making spastic motions. He fell to one side, the chair overturned. He lay on the floor vibrating violently, wild eyes open, writhing, flopping about.

I took the arm of the poor perplexed guy, said, "Come with me," and walked him down the hall. Loring was just coming up the stairs from the basement. I asked him with a tone of subtle urgency to please take our visitor to the courtyard and speak with him. Loring is a generous, kind, and sympathetic listener with no dramatic flare. I went back to find Bob sitting at his desk looking at the morning paper as if nothing had happened. I took the section with the funnies and bridge column and sat in the chair next to him. Never saw that guy again.


Jack Weller was the first person to stay in the building after the ZC had bought it in the early fall of 1969. He slept there all alone until Claude and Bob and then Niels moved in. He had some incense from Eiheiji. That first night he walked around the whole building from room to room sanctifying each with the smoke of that incense. Weller had made an impression on me in the spring of '67 when we met loading demolition debris into a pickup truck from behind the kitchen dining room which became the zendo. He was twenty-one or so and told me about how the year before he'd gone into a hospital for a routine test and was told he had to have immediate open heart surgery. He said it didn't bother him till they described the procedure afterwards - sawing down the middle of his chest and cranking the rib cage open before getting to work with knives and so forth. Maybe that had something to do with him getting interested in practice. Fifty years later he's teaching Buddhism at the California Institute of Integral Studies which grew out of the old American Academy of Asian Studies where Shunryu Suzuki attended an Alan Watts class and met three of his earliest students not long after he'd arrived.


The neighborhood was scary back then, on the edge of the Fillmore, a high crime area. After we moved in and things started getting gentrified for various reasons, it got less and less dangerous. A few people I knew were fairly fearless and would walk around that neighborhood anytime they felt like it: Bob, Reb, and Niels. Bob was doing high rise iron work. He'd walk a couple of blocks to a bus stop. Saw the same hookers and shady guys when he stepped out of the bus around sunset. Was casual with them. No problem. He knew how to hold himself.

That iron work paid well. He'd get a check every two weeks. One day he cashed it on the way home. Got out of the bus and there were the same hookers and shady guys. One thing was different though. Bob had a lot of cash in his jeans pocket. He thought about it. They could smell it and started walking toward him calling out. He ran. They ran after him. As he ran up toward the Page Street building he realized he'd left his key in another pair of pants. They were gaining on him. He ran up the steps and banged on the door visualizing the vastness of that building and the possible whereabouts of his two roommates. By fortunate chance Claude was standing by the door. He opened it. Bob thrust a wad of bills into Claude's hand, pulled the door quickly shut, again locking himself out, turned around as two pursuers reached the bottom of the dozen steps, opened his arms and once again fearless spread his arms wide and called out a welcoming, "Brothers!"

Chuck Hoy was sweeping the front steps. A young black teenage girl across the street had put her radio in the second floor window pointed out and blasting into the ghetto. She was boogieing and hollering out the window to the rhythm of the music. Suzuki was in the front hall and stepped outside to see what was happening. Betsy Burgess was just walking up the steps. The student with the broom shook his head and said he couldn't see how to fit this into his practice. Suzuki laughed and roared up at the girl somewhat with the beat, spun around on his heels, and went back into the building.

One day there was a young kid outside with a gun that scared the heck out of some students. Bob went out to check. Walked up to the kid and took it from him. Then he saw it was a toy gun. Looked pretty real. Bob smashed it to pieces on the sidewalk. The kid cried. A small crowd gathered. Opinion turned against Bob. Mine didn't. Guns were a serious factor in that neighborhood. Someone from the building gave the kid money to cover the destruction of his toy. The crowd dispersed.

There was a sad guy while I was there who had wanted to live in the building and couldn't. He wasn't stable. We'd learned we weren't qualified to take on someone with mental problems. I'd talked to him some. Someone always had to be with him if he came by - listen to him and try to be sympathetic but firm. He told me he was going to go live in the woods and was all packed up and ready. The next day I was sitting at the desk while Bob was on a break. Bell rang. It was a plain clothes policeman. He said that a man had committed suicide a block away and asked if any of us might have known him. He warned me that to answer his questions I'd have to look at a couple of unpleasant photos. I agreed. It was the same guy. The photos were two angles of him sitting in the driver seat with a rifle in his mouth and blood, his car stuffed with camping gear. I answered the detectives questions. Bob came back and answered more. Nobody knew anything about the man except his first name. Later Bob told me that he was the last person to see him at the building and that he'd yelled at him to go away and not come back.


It was not an easy trip to the city. I wasn't being loud and obnoxious but my mind wasn't on Zen practice. After a few days I was asked to find a place to stay outside of the building. I agreed and understood. That was no problem. There were many apartments with good Zen friends in the neighborhood.

The letter I'd received that precipitated my unexplained trip to the city had opened with, "Dear David, I'm pregnant. I know it. I knew it as soon as I woke up this morning." It was not from Dianne. That letter came a week after I'd returned to Tassajara from a quick trip to the city and back. I went right back there to the young woman who'd sent the letter. I liked her a lot and wanted to be there with her to deal with this. We both knew that we were not going to be a couple and that this was not the right time for her to have a child. I urged her to confide in female friends only and to stay away from Katagiri whom I didn't trust in this matter. In my view, that life would return later when the timing was right. I stayed until she was no longer pregnant and she said it's time now for me to return to Tassajara. It was sad. We're still close friends.


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