Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-26

Most who wanted to see Suzuki would thoughtfully ask for an appointment with his jisha or, in the city, jisha or Yvonne, his unofficial secretary and advisor. That might take time. Bob and I would tend to ambush him, Bob more cleverly than I. He'd do things like bring a gift to Okusan and then ask to use the toilet and then open the other door saying, "Oh excuse me Roshi" who was 99% incapable of saying, "I'm busy" except to his wife. This time Bob wanted to tell Suzuki to forget about ordaining him. He said Suzuki understood. Bob told me it was hopeless. "I'd just strut around for a few weeks in my robes, and then I'd fall apart and wouldn't be able to do what people with robes are supposed to do."

I'd talked to Suzuki a couple of times about what's holding up my ordination and he'd said that Bob was too - indicating with his finger - up and down, and he said he didn't want to make Bob jealous of me and resent that I'd been ordained without him.

"No Roshi," I said, "Not me. He wouldn't mind if I got ordained and he didn't. It's Reb who he grew up with that he'd have feelings like that about. So it's too late - you've already done that." Suzuki made a mea culpa grimace.

I did get ordained by Suzuki - twice. The first time was a lay ordination with about fifty of us in 1970. It was the first lay ordination since the one with thirteen students in 1962. He hadn't done one since then because he said he'd realized he'd done that too soon. In Japan he'd done several mass ordinations after the war and he didn't have to worry about the appropriateness because those people had grown up with Buddhism. And Japanese are dependable. They follow through to a high degree. Not Americans. One person had given their rakusu back. So the requirement was that we had to have been practicing for at least three years.

And then what we called the priest's ordination came a couple of months before Suzuki died. He was too sick to do it so Katagiri did it for him. There were four of us including Ed Brown, Lew Richmond, and Angie Runyon. Craig Boyan was going to be a fifth but he decided against it the day before. He was out sobbing in the hall while we were in the rehearsal. He'd been torn between the ZC practice and that of the community of Meher Baba of Sufism Reoriented and decided to go that more devotional route which was fine with everyone and seemed right for him.

Katagiri didn't feel completely comfortable about the arrangement and said maybe we should wait to get ordained when Richard Baker comes back from Japan which was going to be soon. Probably best to be ordained by him later he said. It was a sad serious time and no one wanted to force themselves so they agreed. Everyone but me. "Absolutely not," I said. "We're getting ordained here tomorrow as planned." I said the wheels were already turning, people were arriving from out of town. Everything's prepared and Suzuki wanted to ordain us and "You doing the ceremony for him is the only way to complete what he'd started, what he wanted." Katagiri nodded.

That night Reb talked to me about the importance of what I was embarking on. He emphasized that it's a serious responsibility and priests should conduct themselves with dignity, sincerity, and be role models. He might as well have been talking to the wall. I just nodded and waited for him to stop and said thanks.

I'd been five years with Suzuki and soon he would die. In my first dokusan with the new abbot, Richard Baker, he said that I would always be a disciple of Suzuki but that now I would have to also be his disciple too. I said, "Suzuki Roshi is dead. I'm your disciple now."

I spent the next five years as a ZC company man priest. Had various positions. Work leader at the City Center for a year, Baker's main jisha the next - MJ he called me. Was head monk at Tassajara for a practice period and through the guest season then director for a year. I enjoyed being with Baker. There was mainly sitting, standing, walking, eating, sleeping as usual but it was a dynamic period of growth.


"You sure talk a lot," Baker said to me in a dokusan. Have you ever considered a vow of silence?" He said I'd find it a relief not having to say anything and others would find it a relief too. I said, "Yeah, sounds like a good idea."

"Why not start now?" he said.

I had a complicated position that required communicating a great deal, was work leader in the building and had to assign jobs and relate to people all day. Ten to twenty guest students and a number of residents. Kitchen, office, shop and shopping, residents' house jobs such as keeping the bathrooms clean, officers' meetings. First day I went down the street and got an Etch-a-sketch so I could write something, lift the sheet which erased it ready for the next words. During a seven day sesshin was in charge of afternoon work period. Had to get sixty people off to tasks quickly. I'd prepare. Let crew leaders know what to do beforehand. It went remarkably smoothly.

The whole building was being repainted inside and out. Wanted to get a lot of that done during sesshin. Rather than have 20 people go to the shop to get the paint and brushes and then clean them in good Zen fashion at the end, I had what they needed waiting where they'd paint and instructed them to leave it all there when finished. Then I'd spend the afternoon cleaning brushes. Also, no taping windows and trim. Just be careful, wipe any mistakes with a rag, clean it up when it dries with a razor dipped in thinner so as to not scratch the glass.

We used a lot of oil based paint back then. I'd clean the brushes in five gallon paint buckets, would collect the thinner used to clean, let it settle, pour off the clear thinner, and collect the thick paint deposit that was left and let it settle. Saved a high percentage of the thinner that way. That year I delivered twenty gallons of that sludge to the city dump's hazardous waste site. We did a lot of painting.

I didn't use words but grunted a lot so that anyone who remembers that time says it was the noisiest vow of silence they were ever around. Actually it wasn't a vow of silence, just of not talking. I got permission from Baker to play the guitar and sing which I did a lot of but never to communicate as a substitute for talking. I'd written songs since I was a kid and mainly improvised them. But that winter I'd stopped improvising and started writing down and recording songs. For sure it was due to the vow of not talking that that was an intense period of song writing - 118 songs that year. I sang one for Ken Sawyer and Betsy Burgess at their wedding in Carmel surprising some people who thought I was a deaf mute.

That was a normal assumption. When I'd go out shopping, people would assume that and be so kind. I saw the best side of everyone. In Safeway people would bid me to go in front of them in line. I sat on a barstool on Market Street pointing toward a bottle and the usually gruff bartender was suddenly eager to help - "This one? This one?" Like I was a little crippled kid. As soon as people thought of me as handicapped, they gave me their full attention which I found streamlined communications. One thing that was irritating is that people would speak very loudly to me, even those who knew I could hear fine, even people I was with every day.

I found that almost nothing I say was necessary. It's all just a habit. Relationships were immediately improved. My Aunt visited and she enjoyed me not going on about the Vietnam War with her conservative friends. Speech wasn't even necessary in emergencies.

Jed Linde and I were walking down Polk Street and he saw a fire in an apartment building and pointed it out to me. He went to a pay phone and I into a restaurant, took a pencil off the counter, wrote FIRE on a piece of paper, pointed across the street, picked up the phone, and handed it to the cashier who immediately called the fire department. A fire truck was there in one minute. Couldn't have been quicker. I thought about that because in the room the smoke was coming from, an old woman died. There was a gunfight on the street outside of the City Center and I managed to communicate that in a jiff to a policeman who happened to be driving by - making my hands into guns like kids do and pointing.

After six months, Baker told me that I could talk again. I spoke the first words with Okusan at a little tea with the two of us at her kitchen table just for that special occasion. Ten years later I got all hoarse from singing. Had to do some recording in a week. A doctor told me not to make a sound so I had a true vow of silence for a week which was the best. And both times I returned to pointless excessive verbalizing.


I was invited in from Tassajara to attend a class on Suzuki's teaching given by Mel and Lew. I was asked by a student what the difference was between now and then. The assumption to me seemed to be that those were the good old days and this is second best. I said that the attrition rate had gone down since Baker took over. There are more opportunities for students who are staying longer. It was hard to get to see Suzuki for dokusan. People left to go to other teachers because of that. Baker is more available. Suzuki was sick a lot. A number of students left after Suzuki died but many more new ones have come. The practice is alive and well. There were difficulties and we were of course under-compensated and all that, but it was to me both a profound and a fun time. Baker alienated some with his more forceful modus operandus but he also gave us lots to do while doing nothing in the core. He brought so many interesting people around. Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan gave readings. Philip Whalen moved across the hall from me.

My last job in that era was running the fledgling Green Gulch Green Grocer catty-corner from the City Center. I loved doing that but I was getting a little outrageous and Baker and I had been arguing about the store and my behavior. I'd gone a little tipsy to a neighborhood meeting with more ZC people than usual talking nicely about problems in the neighborhood with crime and poverty and what to do about it. I spoke up and said that the root of the problem is racism. Young black men especially don't feel like there's a place for them in this world, that anybody cares for them. People here are at a huge disadvantage and that's going to change easy. And I went on a bit more. At the spring head monk ceremony at Tassajara Baker mentioned how I'd made a scene at that meeting and we had a you're fired I quit meeting.

Dianne and I were also not doing well as a couple. She was very dissatisfied with me as a husband and her life in general. I'd been working long hours in the store and she had been doing much more than her share of taking care of Kelly. At a Saturday evening dinner with my sister and her husband we were going over how we felt - not arguing, quite civilized. We'd just come back from Tassajara with the news that I was no longer in the store. I suggested, considering how we each felt at the time, that I take Kelly and go off for a few months and she can work and be free and then we'll see where we stand. I could take the car because she wouldn't need it in the city. There were gasps but she agreed.

Next day Baker wanted me back in the store, just got mad but please stay. I said he was right to fire me and I have no problem with him but that it's time for me to have a break and find my own strength. Dianne was immediately offered the job of being the buyer for Zen Center, a demanding and invigorating task she excelled in.

Monday morning I was in the driver's seat, car packed, two and a half year old Kelly in the child seat in back. Dianne was at the window saying goodbye. She asked where did I plan on going. I said I thought I'd go to Big Sur and see a woman there I liked.

"No no no," she said, "Don't go there. Go to Bolinas and see Liz. That's who you like."

So I drove to Bolinas and I lived there with Liz for nine great years.

From that time in April of 1976 to when I flew to Japan in April of 1988, I continued my relationship with Zen Center and Baker including after he resigned as abbot in 1983 having come to an impasse with the board and much of the community. I'd wear robes to the zendo or for ceremonies but I was really off the priest track. I have not worn robes since I came back from Japan in 1992. I've been forced by friends and circumstances to do a few weddings and funerals that went well, but I really don't want that role.

I do feel bad about a couple of funerals I didn't do - one for Dick Wertheimer who was early Zen Center's kind and generous lawyer who also helped so many students with immigration and personal matters. The other was Roger Sommers, kaleidoscopic architect, musician, and Alan Watts' landlord at his magical Druid Heights enclave. I had good memories of being with both but said I don't do ceremonies and connected them with the ZC to get someone else to do it. In both cases I didn't follow up and get involved and be helpful as I should have - they both did not use the ZC - and I've always felt bad about that. I can't remember why. Maybe I went out of town. Maybe I was in a bad place mentally.

When I look back and wonder why I got ordained I see two reasons. The positive one is that it was something to do with Suzuki whom I'd been so close to. It seemed like the obvious next step. But I didn't think of the implications which Reb tried to talk to me about and they became more apparent in time. I had no interest in being a role model and discovered how much people can project. The other reason has to do with this projection - status. It did confer that and still does somewhat. I could still be priestly. It's like having a driver's license. I'm just not driving that car anymore.

I did not get ordained in order to be more attractive to women but that was definitely one of the perks. "Robes," to quote a colleague, "Are a chick magnet." Dianne and I were a recognized couple that first year of Baker's abbotship when I was work leader in the city, but she was at Tassajara. I've had women come talk to me about their strong attraction to a particular robe wearer. I also had young women with that for me - come to my room and throw themselves at me. I can remember once saying, "Just let me get my robes off." There were a number of trysts that year. I tried to be discrete, would keep their sandals inside the room, but nobody really cared.

I was guilty of taking advantage of an underage student during that time. It was very wrong and I'm ashamed of it. I did not realize that it was so wrong at the time. The only person who cared enough to try to stop us including her parents was Richard Baker who later called it a public event. Saying the times and values were so different back then does not excuse it now but it's more true than most can imagine. Greed and delusion.


Right before the second guest season Herb Gold had included Tassajara in an article of the best places to date for a weekend in northern California. Decades later he'd remind me of the angry letter he got about that from ZC secretary Yvonne.

At Tassajara we all wore robes to the zendo, lay and priests of which there were few. The place has a mystique to it that can increase the desirability of the people who live there. Almost no students even thought to take advantage of this increased appeal or had the time or energy to do so but there were those few with stronger urges and more flexible discipline.

Jake was walking down Tassajara lane between the cabins and an airline stewardess opened her door and invited him in. I had to defend Jake in a few officer's meetings. He was an earthy Sicilian from New York City without a vow of celibacy. The fire watch back then was started before the sun went down, walked the trails upstream and downstream looking for possible illegal campers whom we and the Forest Service didn't want around due to extreme fire danger. One day Linda was on her fire watch rounds and came upon Jake doing the two-backed beast with a guest in the path. I had to defend him again. Somehow he managed to control himself or be discrete enough not to have another incident that summer. Everyone was more tolerant back then. I don't think a student today would survive being caught like that.

Joan Baez came in a number of summers. Once came on a vow of silence, once drinking and singing till late with friends, once leaving with one of our guest students. Hard not to envy him. Upon leaving she sang Amazing Grace by the big old oak above the central steps.

Then there was Walter and Bill. The summers that I was shuso and director, those guys worked on the stone wall and sitting area outside the dining room - not at the same time. Everyone walked by there and some guests would stop to admire - the stones and the stone masons. Most students didn't notice but it seemed to me those guys were involved constantly with women guests. People in the office knew because there were a couple of calls for reservations contingent upon whether Bill would be there. Or Walter. They were also following the full schedule. I didn't care at all and didn't mention it to other officers or in a meeting because it would have just caused trouble. And also it would have cramped their style.

I was living there with Dianne then and all of my adultery was vicarious, but I did hear that Claude had brought up at a board meeting in the city that he'd heard I was leading groups of guests downstream to sit and drink wine and play music. I never heard anything officially but was told by my spies that someone said, "I get nothing but good feedback from people I know who've visited, and we all have some skeleton in the closet." And it was left at that.

Katagiri was giving a lecture at Green Gulch on Sunday and I was the jisha. Mid eighties. There were around three hundred people in the barn zendo for his talk. I walked behind him in robes, handed him the incense at the altar, walked back with him to where we'd sit, bowed to our zafus, turned around to bow toward the assembly. As I stood there I instantly spotted a few women looking at me with what I interpreted to be desire in their eyes. I was promiscuous back then and most trysts began with such a glance. But I didn't want any lovers from that crowd even though it would be much easier than out in my civvies. I stopped wearing robes in public after that day.


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