Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-26

On that trip with Bob and Mary in '69, we first went to LA where we conducted that interview with Joshu Sasaki. We spent an afternoon with psychic Fred Kimball whom I'd seen a few times before and would continue to know into the nineties when he died in his nineties. That day we spent three hours with him, got personal readings and then ran names by him to get his hit on people. Like I just said, "Reb," and Fred paused a moment and said, "Boy is that guy ambitious. He ought to get a motorcycle and ride up mountains." Reb turned that ambition toward the Dharma. "Richard." "Now here's somebody who can get knocked down three times and get up. Most people stop at one or two." And Richard is still up and running. "Shogaku." Suzuki's Buddhist name is Shogaku Shunryu. "He's not having sex. That's not good. I have sex every day with my wife. But he says he's found what he was looking for, he's satisfied, so okay. People come to him and say why am I unhappy and he says because you want too much."

I asked Fred if his power waned in time after we'd gone on for so long. "Not as long as the money keeps coming," he said. His charge for a reading was $25. He was nationally famous for reading animals and the cheapest and most powerful psychic I ever met. [Note to so-called skeptics: I know this is all foolishness. I'm just pandering to the superstitious]

One thing that changed because of that meeting is that Mary stopped sitting zazen. She'd always sit with us when we sat. She'd done a one week sesshin in full lotus without moving at Zen Center. Suzuki told me she was an older student from the day she arrived. But she really had another insight type spiritual practice that she'd been involved with for years and that I also respected a great deal. She didn't say anything to Fred about herself. Just sat there. He said. "You can't practice two religions. You've got to choose one." Bob and I sat alone on the trip after that. Later Suzuki asked me where Mary was and I said she'd decided just to be a friend of Zennies and not practice with us. "Sorry Roshi, but you'll have to settle for me."

"You have your good points," he said.

We also looked up tall red-bearded Bob and short, sweet Sandy Watkins in Studio City. Watkins was a decade older than us. He'd been in the Korean War. Had been involved in the movie business on the logistics end, had a longtime association with Dennis Hopper. He said one task he had for a while was to bring Frank Sinatra a fifth of vodka every morning. With import earnings from a trip to and from Mexico via sailboat, he had bought a truck and fitted it with a camper that was their snug home. There were lots of little drawers and boxes with essentials perfectly packed They were strict vegans back in a time when that was more of a rarity. They had driven that 51 Chevy into Tassajara over the snow-covered road in the winter of 67. In the lower parts it was raining. Slippery and in far worse condition than at any other time in our history with it. Watkins said he kept sliding into the side of the mountain to avoid sliding off the side. He remembered when I came to stay and when Halpern first came walking in with a heavy back pack on a trail from the coast. He remembered fondly my culinary skills. I got into testing what I'd learned at Loring's and was making weird conglomerations of gruel and casseroles and bread and Bob and Sandy Watkins were the most appreciate of those experiments.

It was at that roast beef dinner that Bob Watkins told the story of Suzuki deviously switching his double meat hamburger with two years vegan Bob's grilled cheese sandwich at a Carmel cafe, a story attributed to Halpern in Crooked Cucumber due to something Watkins had said about not wanting his name used. I should have checked back with him.

Bob was Tassajara's first work leader. Sandy was in the garden. He'd worked on tearing down the dilapidated old wooden building that was where the kitchen would go up. There was still a deck when I moved there and I'd sleep on it under the night sky in the cold until it too was demolished. I missed that stargazing deck as soon as it was gone.

After that he dug footings to pour the foundation for the new stone structure. He said, "We were digging and I was down in this ditch with a pick and here comes Suzuki Roshi. I said, 'Gee I waited all this time to meet a real Zen master and I can't think of a thing to ask or anything.' I was totally blanked out. I wasn't embarrassed or confused. In fact I was surprised.- It was like somebody reached up and turned off the lights. There just wasn't anything to say. And he laughed and went on."

Watkins reminded us how Suzuki and Katagiri would sometimes wear white gloves when they worked. That's common in Japan. Reminded him of Mickey Mouse.

Would visit with Watkins in Taos after he moved there.

"One of Suzuki's one liners," he said, "that I really applied a lot in my life was 'Just do it.' Just do it was like this little island in my stream. Sandy I came out of high desert where we'd been isolated for a couple of years, and I see a kid on the streets one day with a tee shirt on that said 'just do it.' It blew my mind.

"Another one was 'little by little.' He used it like it's how things happen, how you can accomplish something. Little by little you can do it.

"Roshi and I both had a sweet tooth and sometimes after last sitting period he would come to my cabin and sit on this stump by my bed and pull some candy from his sleeve. We would eat candy and talk for about ten or twenty minutes. Those times were wonderful." Watkins had shaved his head like many of the men at Tassajara at that time. "One night after sitting we were watching the full moon which was very bright and he said, 'Heads, minds, moons, all shinning.'"

"You remember that Ruthie used to pick yucca flowers and we would eat them in our salads? Some of the leaves had fallen off and the base of the leaf was kind of frayed. Suzuki Roshi said it would make a great sumie brush and so I grabbed a handful of them and he made up some sumi ink and he did two pieces of calligraphy and gave them to me and one of them is hanging in the other room and one of them is put away. One of them says Everything is absolutely perfect and he signed it and put Tassajara Zenshinji 1967 and years later I got these things mounted and the other one was two characters that said Pure Wind. Do you remember how he used to use the word pure a lot? If you get up from zazen and leave the zendo in that frame of mind, that's what he called pure action - without thinking - you just do it - the Nike slogan - if you just do it it's shikantaza. It's the same attitude that you had in the zendo and he used to refer to that as pure practice. I notice Bill Kwong, Jakusho Roshi, using that teaching.

"So he did a few things on the newspaper and started giggling and got real happy and got out some good white paper and did those two pieces of calligraphy and then he laughed and gave those to me and said, 'Now don't tell anybody.' In other words, what I used for a brush. And then years later I'm here in New Mexico and I get his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and there's this calligraphy on the book and it had to be made with those yucca leaves."

"We were working on that wall under the dining room and a couple of guys were talking about something and we were down underneath the bridge and just as they crossed the bridge one of them said, 'Don't make any waves, don't make any waves.' And Suzuki Roshi said, 'What does that mean?' and I said, Don't make more of it than it is. Don't excite the situation. Let it be. And he went, 'Oh,' and he went ahead working. And that evening he used it in lecture."

Suzuki got a lot of material that way. The "Just do it" might have come to Suzuki the same way. He was enormously creative but would take material wherever he found it. I've heard him credited with "First thought, best thought," when that was like a mantra to Ginsberg and Kerouac before Suzuki came to America.

Watkins would ask questions in lectures that showed he knew something about Buddhism before he came. I asked him about that and what's his story.

"Looking back in time from my viewpoint now is that everything is perfect as Suzuki Roshi said. I spent my first nine years with my father’s mother who was in her 70s, way back in the woods. In rapid time there were boarding schools, Military, Catholic, etc. Then a few years on the streets in LA with my aunt, then the Airborne at 16, out a few years, then in prison 3 years where I read everything I could get on Buddhism. I took a pencil and made a dot the size of a dime on the wall of my cell then sat in front of it until things went away. Tried corpse asana lying down but was too much like a trance. Finally I got hold of a D.T. Suzuki book and saw there was a school of sitting. Then I heard of a place near Big Sur and found Tassajara. That's it."

The Watkins contributed so much to Tassajara, we were sorry to see them go. I told Sandy at the time that one good result of them leaving would be she'd be able to get further away from poison oak which it seemed would infect her from the wind. I always called poison oak Tassajara public enemy number one and her poison oak victim number one. Everyone wanted them to stay but they moved on in the fall. Baker was mad at Bob for leaving. They were more savvy than most of us and we appreciated their maturity and experience. Suzuki told them, "You may leave the monastery but the monastery won't leave you."

Before we left that night, Watkins told us be sure to look up his old friend Robert Boissiere in Santa Fe. We did that on the way back. Got to Santa Fe on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, called Boissiere who immediately invited us to spend the night. He was French, had come to the US in the late thirties. Married a woman from the Hopi reservation and became a shaman with his own clan, the Banana Clan. Now he had a French wife. Just before midnight he got out his rifle and when the fireworks and bells started going off, opened his front door and fired it into the air till it was empty. I've been in that area for several other New Year's Eves and I always cringe at midnight wondering if a stray Hispanic or Indian bullet will come my way.

The next day, Boissiere took us to the Santa Domingo Pueblo for the New Year's day dance. First we went to the home of the chief for lunch. Before we went in, Boissiere turned to us and said, "Don't say anything and eat as much as you can." Mary might have eaten a second helping of something, but Bob and I complied with enthusiasm, shoveling in as much government surplus beans and white bread as was humanly possible.

That was the first time I'd been to an Indian dance since I was a kid with my parents. One feature of the dance that day which I later witnessed in some others was the participation of clowns or jokers. In that Santa Domingo dance they played the role of US Cavalry soldiers going around with rifles pretending to shoot the dancers and audience. At a Hopi dance I was at in another year there was a man dressed up as a fertility spirit who went around hunching against dancers and audience - including children, even a baby. I told Suzuki student Jonathan Altman about that at his Taos home later. A friend of his there who studied Tibetan Buddhism said there was a role like that in some Tibetan ceremonies. I said I'd never heard of anything like that. Jonathan said, "That's what you and Bob are - the court jesters." Charitable of him.

Continuing the way back to the Bay Area on back roads pretty much straight west from Taos to the Hopi reservation. We were there to meet Chief David - that's what he was called by the hippies and Indian culture loving people I knew. Yvonne Rand had told us to look him up. The year before, she'd brought Hopi corn seeds to Tassajara and said she was told how to plant them and what sort of short ceremony to do so that they'd grow up tall and healthy. She did that and before long some dark clouds came over us and it rained, a highly unusual event in the Tassajara summer.

There are thirteen Hopi villages on mesas in the northeast of Arizona. David Managa lived in one of the more conservative villages, but was the most well-known and outgoing of the Hopi. Driving on the dirt road to the humble abodes of that mesa, stopped at one with a man on the roof. Asked if he could tell me where David's house was. The man told me where to find it, "If he's not out talking to some white people." We knocked on the door. He answered it and before we could even introduce ourselves said, "Welcome. Come in. Would you like to have dinner and spend the night?"

Managa was an exception in that he was quite talkative. He explained the Hopi myths to us. Showed us a map of the world according to the Hopi - Turtle Island. He talked about the future of Turtle Island based on Hopi prophesy. I noticed he really believed in the myths. He and his wife were so friendly and nice - she was quiet. Later in '92 when I lived a year in Santa Fe, I heard they were still together with possibly the longest running marriage in the world, both at a hundred and five and having gotten married in their teens.

In '73 Jonathan Altman took me and Dianne to the Taos Pueblo to meet Little Joe. He was an old peyote road man who had the most wonderful calming vibes - and a much younger heavy wife from the Bronx or and also shared a similar ethnic background with Dianne. We sat on the floor on blankets before a wood fire in a corner fireplace in the wall. Little Joe gave me a cigarette and said it's best not to inhale it and to put it in the fire rather than putting it out. To me he was a universal Zen man. No talk of things to believe in. I don't remember anything specific but it was like he was saying the great spirit is the tree in the garden. Later Trungpa would meet Little Joe and say that finally he'd met a sane person in America other than Shunryu Suzuki.

On the way to Texas I'd had my first experience with Indians on that trip. We stayed in a motel in Gallup, New Mexico, on the border with Arizona. Got a cot which I was happy with in addition to the twin beds. We saw a good movie, the Gypsy Moths.. Back at the motel Bob did what he always did, take off all his clothes and strut around proclaiming absurd profundities. Remember - we were all in our mid twenties and it was the sixties. Mary who was never sixties would just read a book and ignore him. One thing we did that night was to get in a corner and pretend to be frightened of Mary. We'd put up our shaking hands, quiver all over, beg for mercy then revert to frightened grunts and squeals. Mary finally shouted, "Stop it! Stop it! I can't stand to see men act weak!"

The next morning I got up early and went for a walk. It was just getting light. There were some Native American men on the street ahead of me. As we walked others came from side roads and joined them. After a while there were about twenty. We got closer into the commercial part of town and they took a side street. I did too. They all went up to a window on the side of a building and stood there in a line quietly. The window opened. One by one they bought bottles of alcohol. It was six am.

Last Indian memory for the trip. That night after staying too late with David Managa, we drove out in the dark, dark beautiful, clear starry skied night, Milky Way so bright. No city lights. Almost no lights at all. Picked up two young Indian guys who were hitchhiking. They were a little drunk but said that they're not alcoholic like so many, just home from college. They took us to the shrines on their mesa and talked about how they still follow the teachings of the elders. One of them looked at the gas gage and asked how many miles you get a gallon. Then said there was no station open for the next hundred miles. We went to the one station on that whole stretch of road by the mesas. It was 2am. They woke up the owner who lived in a home in back. I apologized and thanked him for going to all this trouble for us as he pumped the gas. He was quiet and refused to take extra money. I asked him how often this happens. "Every night," he said. Eight years later I stopped at his station, reminded him of his prior kindness, and gave him an abalone shell, the type they prize for making jewelry. He laughed and thanked me

Mary, Bob, and I stayed a night on the less well-traveled north side of the grand canyon very off-season freezing cold in the magnificent old lodge for nine dollars.

The rest of the way home, Bob and I sang a sang with a thought that came out of our continuous conversation.

There's no hope for us all.
No hope for us all.
We try so hard to do what we can,
But there's no hope for us all.


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