Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-28


Bob and Audrey Walter were at Tassajara during the visit of all those Zen teachers. They were students of Tai San's who had been eager to try out Tassajara after hearing Richard Baker give a talk at the Zen Studies Society in the fall of 1967. They hadn't been with Soen or Yasutani before.

"Just watching Soen walk I was blown away. The first day Yasutani talked and I got emotional. All Soen said at that time was, 'No tomorrow.' It was so powerful." Bob would sit sesshin with both those teachers in time to come. He would know many teachers, all more exciting than Shunryu Suzuki.

"When I first met Suzuki Roshi I was disappointed. He was a little guy up there on the altar speaking softly. I had doubt. But little by little I got impressed and saw what he had to offer. He didn’t make a strong impression like Soen Nakagawa Roshi. But Suzuki treated us like family. He was inclusive."

As far as that inclusive aspect, we had an East Coast student who'd tried to sit with Tai San first but been told on the phone not to bother to come if he couldn't sit full lotus. Bob said that Tai San would show great favor to zealous sitters, attractive women, and the wealthy. Sometimes his discrimination would be embarrassing as when he made the only black student sit in the kitchen.

The Walters arrived early in the 1968 guest season. Their son and daughter were just old enough to work in the gardens. Audrey was assigned to cabin cleaning and Bob to get stones and wheelbarrow cement for Dan Welch and Bill Shurtleff who were building walls for the new kitchen. Bob mentioned to them that Audrey was a stone sculptor and she got the job of making the corner stones. Suzuki watched Audrey working, saw she knew what she was doing, and began to spend time with her on that and other stone work.

"For me," she said, "it was a special period of learning - sharing the love of stone, mindful hits, the slow revealing of form and the opportunity to speak with Roshi about Zen practice just by a brief reference to the work at hand. One day he suggested we look for a river rock to cut for a lantern. I was amazed at his agility and quickness as he happily stepped from stone to stone along the dry creek bed, asking me what I thought here and there then spotting without hesitation exactly the right one for the job - a long somewhat rectangular rock. It was winched up then dragged by sled to its work location and stood on end. A four-sided opening was cut near the top allowing space for a candle. Where was the lantern going? What should it look like? Roshi wouldn't say. He was coy. 'Just cut.' Of course. Later I found out it was sent to New York as a gift for Tai-san's zendo. Never during the cutting process was I given room for the attendant anxieties that might arise from thoughts such as where, when, for whom, or is this work adequate."

Before the Walters left to go back to the east coast Suzuki asked Audrey if she'd make a buddha. She said she'd bring one back when they returned. On the east coast she found an old granite gravestone that she thought was just right. In the library she studied books with Buddhist iconography to get the dimensions right. The granite was so hard that she kept breaking her chisels even after she bought special carbide tips.  When she got to the mudra she broke a thumb off and had to carve in deeper to redo it.

The next summer they drove their van across the country and brought the statue to Suzuki who was delighted. He placed it on a base stone on the dorm side of the bridge over Cabarga Creek that the stone came from. Several years later Bob was back doing stone work on the wall outside the dining room and overheard a student showing some guests around say that the statue was very old, probably 13th century Chinese.


Bob said his first steps on the path were at the age of eight when he had a sense that everything was a dream. It was a deep opening that frightened him. He thought of that epiphany when he first read the Diamond Sutra. As an older child he had an out of body experience, a half sleep, half wake state, feeling like a ball rolling around the room. It was pleasurable but it frightened him too because he didn’t know what was happening.

He went to Duke University on a baseball scholarship. His grades weren’t good enough but he said they had the best college baseball team in the country and the coach wanted him. He'd play semi pro in the summers. Got into philosophy and especially liked Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and George Berkeley’s mind only approach. He had a major in Sociology because he wanted to do social work but became a psychologist whose mentor was the eminent Rollo May. I recall May as a quiet and dignified Tassajara guest.

Bob came to have doubts about psychiatry which he likened to DDT, looks good but doesn't help in the long run, can even worsen mental disturbances. He and May attended a week of lectures by R.D. Laing that strongly reinforced the direction Bob's thoughts were already heading. Do less, prescribe less, be supportive but leave the patients alone more to transform on their own.

Bob's professional lineage traced back through May's mentor, Erich Fromm who had published a book on Zen and psychoanalysis with Di Martino. He valued the guidance he'd received but knew he had to push ever onward toward the unknown. RD Lang was inspiring but clearly unstable himself. The director of the clinic in New York where Bob worked jumped out of the window to his death.

Bob went to a workshop with Alan Watts in Connecticut. Watts said that psychotherapy is prostitution. Bob knew there was truth in that but also that Watts was being flippant. He drove him back to New York and found Watts had another side - inclusive, charming, and humble. Watts actually valued psychoanalysis and like Fromm wrote about the synthesis of it and Zen. He also valued psychedelics. So did Bob.

Bob took LSD which gave new meaning to the term fantastic. Everything was brilliant. It opened up doors. He only took a couple of trips, thought it was a great key, was grateful for the experience, but thought that’s enough of that.

Bob made a friend whom he called his first Zen teacher - Jack Kerouac. They met playing softball with artist friends in Northport on Long Island. Due to the company he kept and the paint on his clothes, Kerouac thought Bob was an artist. Kerouac hated therapists. Bob said one reason for that was he'd been kicked out of the army for “inadequate personality.” Bob said they had instant contact. When Kerouac learned Bob was a psychologist, he went, “Oh my god!”

Bob said Kerouac was a fantastic baseball player who did zany things on the field, would do flips, twirl around, and fall on his face. Audrey got along well with Kerouac and was impressed not only with his athleticism but also with his broad knowledge of literature and the literary scene. However she wasn't into going out drinking with him like Bob.

"We’d go off on drinking trips. He called me his psychiatrist and him my Zen teacher. He was very spontaneous, very dramatic. He was disturbed and an alcoholic. He had the ability to create great social situations, a bit like Halpern. But also he was frightened to death of people. He’d hide under his bed when someone knocked on his door. I’ve seen him be defensive and hostile on TV but he could be beautiful. Like watts, get below their defenses and they can quickly change.

"Coming back from Fire Island one time Kerouac said to me, 'You’re just like Neal Cassady,' and he started to cry." Kerouac saying that to Bob gives a peek into Bob's personality. Cassady was Kerouac's best friend and principle subject of his On the Road, a frenetic, impulsive, wild man. There were always traces of that in Bob no matter how much he matured and mellowed.

Bob said Kerouac would play with people - like Halpern. But unlike Halpern Kerouac would get drunk and into fights and then he'd disappear and Bob would have to deal with the situation. Once they'd gotten separated and Kerouac got arrested after an altercation in a bar. He had no money because he'd give it all to his mother to dole out to him and then he'd give what she gave him to Bob. Bob used it to bail him out. Kerouac also carried no  identification. He'd told the police he didn't need any because he was the famous Jack Kerouac. They didn't believe him. Bob told them and they finally believed.

Sometimes he'd stay with Bob and Audrey. And sometimes then he'd bring someone home from the bar. Either sex. One night they also had other friends visiting whom Kerouac kept up with the racket he was making getting it on with someone. In the morning he emerged with what Bob described as an old alcoholic man.

Bob said they’d do things such as listen all night to Handel’s Messiah. Or Kerouac might call up Alan Ginsberg and have long talks with him. "Alan knew that Jack’s mother was a bigot who hated blacks and Jews. Jack handed Bob the phone and Alan said, 'Tell Jack the only thing he should do is fuck his mother.'"

I told Bob when he was visiting in about 2010 that I thought I remembered him telling me that Kerouac was filled with guilt from having had sex with his mother. But Bob said no he didn’t, but that there was that sort of talk. Kerouac married a woman and moved to Nantucket. He was hoping she’d take care of his mother but it didn’t work out. They moved to Florida with his mother because his sister lived there and he wanted her to take care of his mother. He’d promised his father he’d see she was taken care of but he also wanted to be free to travel. He didn't get away. "And he died the same as Trungpa, pretty young and with cirrhosis of the liver."

Bob started talking to his patients about Zen. One of them went to the Zen Studies zendo, started sitting there, and told Bob to stop bullshitting and start sitting. Bob talked to Audrey who eagerly went first. She arrived an hour early. Tai San gave her a brief instruction and she sat full lotus for an hour then joined others for the forty minute period. When Tai San met Bob he said, “Your wife is a zazen genius. You, we’re going to work on.”

A Jesuit priest struggling with his homosexuality and considering leaving the order came to bob who suggested they sit zazen together. The priest said it was the first time he'd had any spiritual feeling and decided not to quit. He had to do a retreat every year to fulfill a Jesuit requirement so he came to Tassajara in the summer of 69 when bob was there and worked with me in the dining room. Bob wouldn't relate to him there as his patient. When he had first come in 68 he'd offered to council students and baker had told him while there to forget psychology. He decided that was good advice.

He and Audrey attended the practice period in the fall of 1969. "I remember an exchange between Suzuki Roshi and a student, a teenage male, idealistic and sincere. Ken Berman. It happened during the shosan ceremony at the end of the practice period, a ceremony in which students ask the abbot dharma questions. We were all quite conscious of the War in Vietnam and this student was a pacifist. Speaking hypothetically he asked something like: I'm married and have a wife and children and an intruder comes into our home and wants to kill us. What do I do? Do I kill him? Do I let him kill my family? Suzuki Roshi responded: “Kill your self." Hearing that was like a lightning jolt to Bob who saw then that by dropping the illusory self, one wouldn’t have to ask someone else what to do whatever comes.

Bob left Tassajara to do sesshins with Alan Raybold. they sat a week long sesshin with Maezumi in LA and then did the same with Chinese Zen master Tao Lun at his Gold Mountain temple in San Francisco. From monks there they got the idea to do a hundred day sesshin which they did at Fil Lewitt's Big River Farm in Mendocino. The general attitude at the Zen Center was that this was not Suzuki Roshi’s way. That was true. Suzuki encouraged daily sitting and said a single one week sesshin a year was enough. But he could appreciate enthusiastic extremes as well – if he thought it was done in the right spirit.

"I returned to the City Center and said I wanted to talk to Suzuki Roshi and was told I was not a real student so I was way down on the list. I was working in the building a few days later and had to go to the Suzuki’s apartment and ask some question. Suzuki stuck his head out after I had rung the bell and said 'Just a minute.' Then he returned and asked with visible excitement, 'How was it?' I said, 'I’ll tell you when I see you,' and bowed. When I did see him and tell him about it he was totally supportive.

"I told him about the inner sound that I was experiencing and he said that that was enlightenment and I’d taken good care of myself and now I had to take care of everything. I said what do you mean by that and he picked up a pencil on his table and said, 'You have to take care of this,' and he picked up something else and said, 'and this,' and he kept picking up things and saying that. My interpretation was that he was saying you have to take care of all sentient beings."

"I wanted to go to LA to join Soen in a sesshin. It was the last summer Suzuki Roshi was at Tassajara and he was giving everything he had. I could feel a sense of urgency. I went to see him about going to the sesshin with the idea in mind that there’s nothing he could do to stop me. He said, 'The reason you’re not going to the sesshin is that you’re my student now and when I die you can be Soen’s student.' I walked out stunned. No way was I going to that sesshin. I felt good about it."

Bill Shurtleff and Dan had taught bob about stone work when he was there in 68. Each time back he'd learn a little more. Shurtleff was work leader when Bob returned in 1971 and put Bob on stone work, some of which he did with Suzuki. Suzuki had said in a lecture that he only gave talks because he was expected to but that he'd rather just sit zazen and work. Bob was happy to oblige. He helped to move the heavy stone up the hill for the ashes site with Mel, Reb, and Dan, and a motorized winch. The massive stone was on a steel sled made from the hood to an old truck. Slow going, moved it a few feet at a time. They got to the very top and the chain broke. Bob said they were scared it was going to slide down but it didn't. Sighs of relief. Suzuki was there to make sure the stone was set just right in the exact spot he wanted. Suddenly bob was aware that Suzuki was setting his own gravestone.


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