Tassajara Stories


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

last edit 9-25

In the San Francisco airport Hari Krishna devotees would offer a whole big color copy of the Bhagavad-Gita and suggest a donation. They were more popular in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park where they dished out great free vegetarian meals on Sundays and danced around chanting. Moonies would bestow flowers at the airport - some of them making up to seventy grand a year for the Unification Church devoted to Sun Myung Moon becoming the head of a united world's perfect families. The Soka Gakkai folks would ask passersby on Market Street if they'd like a free meal. Bob said, "Sure." I wasn't so keen but here we go.

Soka Gakkai were evangelical Nichiren Buddhists, Nichiren Shoshu, or the true sect of Nichiren. They were the largest sect of Buddhism in America, maybe still are, and unlike Zen and Vipassana, attracted minorities and the poor. Their organization has been actively campaigning for world peace since WWII. And they were the only Buddhists I knew who said all the other Buddhists were heretics.

Inside there were a lot of people, mainly young, being so nice to us. Attractive young Japanese women sat near us and made sure we were happy with the meal which wasn't bad. We ate a lot. Then we were asked to join in them in an auditorium.

The meeting mainly consisted of everyone chanting the Gohonzan - Namu Myoho Renge Kyo - homage to the Lotus Sutra. It was explained to us that all we needed to do was to chant that and not only would we attain Buddhahood but we would get whatever we wished like a new car. Good. I'd like a new car, I said.

So we chanted with about a hundred others and the chanting went on a while. I was really ready to leave but Bob was so into it. He was chanting feverishly. I could tell that the regulars there were pleased at what appeared to be a new convert. But when their chanting came to an end, Bob didn't stop. Lot of smiles around the room appreciating his enthusiasm. He was a man possessed. He went to the aisle and kneeled, the homage to the Lotus Sutra forcefully erupting from him, spittle spraying, walking on his knees reverently toward the altar. The joy of the assembly in Bob's devotion started to wear out. There were other items on the agenda. But he wouldn't stop. Eventually they gave up and four guys carried him out still chanting like a man in a trance. He kept chanting lying on the sidewalk, pedestrians looking curiously at him as they walked by. Finally he stopped, looked up at me from the pavement, winked and said, "I'm saved."


There was a spiritual group called the Holy Order of Mans that had a house near Dubose Circle in San Francisco not far from the Zen Center. They wore black with clerical collars and were nice people into some sort of mystical Christianity. We'd see them at events and around town. One evening Bob and Mike Gilmore were walking back to the City Center through the seedy Tenderloin section of town. A few young clerically clad HOOM (pronounced home) members approached. Bob said hi. They stopped to talk. The HOOMsters were all smiling, a female smiling especially blissfully. Bob asked her what's she so happy about. She said that she was at peace, beyond desire and anger.

"Oh is that so?" he said and hauled off and slapped her on the face so hard she fell down. Gilmore told me all about it when they got back to the City Center. Bob said that he was afraid he'd hurt her, that he'd gone too far.

But before he could apologize she called out, "Thank you! Thank you! You have shown me that I'm not beyond anger!"

He helped her up. She was crying and continued to thank him.


Bob and I had spent so much time together that Suzuki wanted to ordain us together as priests. Either he saw through our erratic behavior that there would be long time commitment, or that was part of his program to promote a certain amount of chaos.

We both drove Suzuki to talks he gave, Bob more than I because he was in the city more. Once when we drove Suzuki to Mill Valley together, after zazen and Suzuki's talk, we went to Bill and Laura Kwong's for breakfast. It was so sparse. Tiny bowls. Miso soup, pickles, and a dollop of rice gruel each - really, like a heaping tablespoon, green tea. None of us minded though. Afterwards we went to a cafe and ate pancakes, eggs, drank coffee. We left when Bob had finished his cigarette - Camel non filters. On the way back, I drove. Bob asked Suzuki to clarify why he says sometimes that Zen is easy and sometimes that it's difficult. Suzuki said that anyway Zen practice is at least as difficult as quitting smoking. Bob said, "Did you hear that David?" and in the rear view mirror I could see him pretending to throw his cigarettes away. He lit one up as soon as Suzuki was out of sight.

Bob made sure that, Okusan, Mrs. Suzuki, knew he was available whenever her husband needed a ride. He didn't have a car but he would have one already lined up. Bob had the gift of persuasion and didn't mind bending facts to suit his goals. He could convince a person driving their mother to the emergency room that it was more important for him to have it to drive Suzuki to spread the dharma. Before Richard had gone to Japan, Bob saw him as a rival chauffer. He knew that Okusan didn't like the way Richard drove. I know when I drove Suzuki she'd make sure his seat belt was on and comment on how she was glad I was driving him and not Richard who went too fast. Bob would say ridiculously exaggerated things to reinforce her opinion such as that the last time he went with Richard, Richard drove a hundred miles an hour, thus sabotaging any chance Richard had of being with his teacher if there was anyone else around to drive him.

Suzuki let Bob and me drive him even though we tended to sleep a little when we drove. I remember driving Suzuki to a Quaker meeting in Stockton, invited by Dan's parents, Phillip in the back seat  kept telling me I was going to kill his teacher because I was falling asleep. A lot of truckers do that on purpose. Ted Marshall told me once he was hitchhiking and got picked up by a trucker who told him, "If I fall asleep, don't wake me." It's not like deep sleep, it's driving sleep. I used to drive and sleep a lot in my old sleep-deprived days, a situation which I'd say was encouraged if anything by Suzuki. One might even say he and many of his students were co-dependently sleep deprived.

But then Suzuki wanted us also to stay awake. Bob would always sit as close to Suzuki as he could in the city zendo where seats were not assigned. Reb did that too and when he and Bob were both there, would get to the zendo earlier to get that seat. One problem with Bob being that close was that, due to his habit of staying up late, he frequently was sleepy in zazen. Suzuki would get up during the periods and go around with his teacher's stick correcting postures and giving the nodding two quick whacks on each shoulder - after notifying them by first resting the stick on the right side. Bob would straighten up before Suzuki got to him. One day Bob was nodding so hard that Suzuki got up just for Bob who straightened up so Suzuki went back. That continued a few times till Suzuki just stayed right behind Bob and hit him as soon as he started nodding and stayed there, continuing to hit him harder and harder each time he fell asleep till the period was over.

After zazen at Sokoji students would line up and gassho with Suzuki on their way out. Bob would rehearse his bow, compose it before hand.

At Tassajara, Bob would make sure to give Suzuki the idea that he was available when Suzuki stepped out of his cabin to work in his garden. The head of whatever crew he'd been assigned to for that time wouldn't intervene if Bob told him he was "working with Roshi this morning."

"I'd help him pick out rocks in the creek. I tried to stick to him like a glove," Bob said.

Bob was strong and could move big stones well. Phillip Wilson was stronger and went way back with Suzuki. If Phillip was there he'd get the job but Bob made sure he was next in line in those early days. Of course others did stone and garden work with Suzuki, but no one else was craftily positioning themselves to maximize their chances. He said that Suzuki would play with him and Phillip by suggesting they move a stone that was probably too heavy for them to move. Bob said he and Phillip were so eager to prove themselves to Suzuki that they'd wear themselves out struggling with that task or any that Suzuki gave them.

Bob said that sometimes it seemed that Suzuki had a special relationship to stones, that he would move one barely touching it with his hands, that the stones seemed to move however Suzuki wanted them to.

Before Richard made a special bath time for the abbot, Suzuki would bathe with the men. Bob would make sure that he went in at the same time and would offer to scrub Suzuki's back. He noticed that Suzuki wore a sweater that only covered the abdomen. Suzuki called it a haramaki and said he always wore one. Bob ordered one for each of us from SK Ueda in LA, a department store that catered to the Japanese American community. Bob ascribe a degree of magical power to Suzuki and thus to the haramaki.

He'd assigned great weight to anything Suzuki said and take on new habits accordingly. He was a food fanatic in the Macrobiotic strain and asked Suzuki if what we eat is important. Suzuki, who was not eager to hear our food fetish questions, had said yes, but it's more important how you sleep and said it's best not to read before going to bed. So Bob stopped reading before sleeping.

Bob said Suzuki wanted to get into the attic to check out the pigeons that were cooing up there - especially during mating season. It was a large old building with a huge attic. The entrance to the attic was in the high ceiling above the long kitchen table. Bob thought the way to get there was to put a chair on the table. He turned to get a chair and when he turned around, Suzuki was already up there sticking his head down. Bob could not see how he got there.

Bob said Suzuki told him that instead of manifesting as a big dragon that he had a little dragon in his kimono people couldn't see. "Yeah," Bob said, "He had a secret dragon - he said that in his office not long after he flew up to the ceiling."

Building a retaining wall in the little creak by the bridge, Bob said he saw Suzuki hurl a heavy stone down at Mike Daft below and call out Mike's name when it was in mid air. He said that it was a miracle that Mike caught it and wasn't injured and that Suzuki had that confidence in him. I said I thought that he was at times an unreliable witness but he swore that's what he saw.


I think one thing that bonded Bob and me is that we enjoyed not being normal and didn't see being so as a path to salvation. And we had a history of such. I can remember being a teenager running alongside a slow moving bus screaming and making faces, would dream up with friends acts to do in public to freak out random people like inside a theater lobby walking into each other, falling down, getting up, doing it again over and over. We'd be laughing uncontrollably rolling in the aisle of a restaurant. And then we'd spend hours reading poetry, visiting wise elders to talk about profound topics, and playing bridge. It could be whacky or deep but nothing in between. Teen Bob with then best bud Reb, both robust, walked down sidewalks side by side clearing them, fists meeting at sternum elbows protruding forcing all others to hug the building or step into the gutter. But he also took care of an invalid and started reading Buddhist books. Actually, turning on to pot and acid a few years before we met had calmed us down some, allowed us to enjoy what was happening by just being there. And then coming to Zen Center had a major maturing effect. But there was still a ways to go. Bob would outdo me though. With him I'd become a spectator, sometimes a slightly nervous one.


Like on our trip to Forth Worth, he started talking to some cowboys in a car next to us at a light. I say talking but really he was putting them on, pretending to be friendly. Tough young guys who might be called rednecks. I grew up there and never got in a fight or got beat up because I knew how not to get guys like that angry. They go out, drink bear, and look for fights. I told him do not mess with them. The light turned green and I made a quick left turn in front of oncoming traffic and they went on straight ahead. I begged Bob not to do that again. My mother was in love with him because he sweet-talked her and gave her the massage of her life whenever we'd meet. I suggested he stick with that persona and drop the one seeing how far he can go with taunting the locals.

Suzuki had given a talk where he referred to Dogen's instructions to the tenzo, the monastery cook, wherein Dogen wrote of three minds the tenzo must have. They were big mind, kind mind, and joyful mind. Kind mind was roshin and the ro meant old so Suzuki called it grandmother mind. Bob picked up on that and would refer to grandmother mind in conversations with people who didn't know anything about Buddhism. "It's basically about grandmother mind," he'd say and leave it at that.

And then there was masturbation mind. He told me one day that he had attained masturbation mind in the zendo. He said that he'd successfully brought on an orgasm while sitting in the zendo with a student sitting on each side of him and that he did it so masterfully that they didn't notice. He said that he hadn't intended to but that due to some sexual fanaticizing he'd gotten an erection which stood his John Thomas up to where it touched his hands together in a mudra. He slid his mudra down over the throbbing member and then discretely, slowly brought his mudra up and down until he did experience a climax which he said was most pleasant though requiring him to do some laundry at the next break. And then he'd pull that masturbation mind card out and play it in serious dharma discussions as in, "Well it all comes down to masturbation mind,"  throwing everyone else off for a confused moment.

Bob, Mary, and I were in Albuquerque at a cafe off the road. I remember they had paperback books on racks that revolved. There was a very nice young waitress there and we were the only customers. I tried to strike up a conversation with her but she wasn't interested. Within a few minutes Bob had her ready to quit her job and take off with us. He picked a book out of the rack and started philosophizing surrealistically about it. She was enthralled. I thought, wow - I was being sincere and he's just toying with her - and she prefers that. At the table she took our order and when she brought the drinks she hung around a minute and made small talk and in so doing Bob disclosed that he and I had been practicing Buddhism. And she said she'd of course heard of it and asked him to tell her something about it.

"Well," he said looking deeply into her eyes, "It's basically about cultivating grandmother masturbation mind."

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