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Roovane

 

It was not unusual for a young guy with a beard and pony tail to arrive at Tassajara, but that was the least unusual thing about Roovane. He came in with some students from the city.

He wasn't expected. "Roshi told me I could come," he said and not in that few words. A fast, garrulous talker with a New York City accent. A call confirmed Suzuki had given him the nod. But still it wasn't kosher to come unannounced.  He was adamant and articulate, said if he wasn't accepted he'd sit outside the gate in the cold and it was cold - winter interim. Deliberations among the officers. It was decided he had to go back to the city and then could return right away which he did - and went into a three day tangaryo the next day. It was so cold in the unheated zendo that he had trouble getting up for service - like he'd been in a freezer and had to thaw out. After it was over and he was officially entered as a student, he went on and on about how great tangaryo was, what he'd learned about himself and the world and cosmos. But he said he owed it all to Meg who'd sat there with him like a rock. He said that he'd not been sitting long, had practically not even heard of Buddhism until quite recently and had only sat in the city for a few days before finagling himself in. Suzuki had been ill with a flu but had gotten up and walked to the corner grocery store. On his return he was too weak to open the massive wood door to the temple. Roovane had been watching, had run over, opened it for him, and introduced himself.

 

Robert Front had been making a hundred 1966 dollars an hour in New York as a Madison Avenue consultant. Got dissatisfied. Wishing to know what it's all about did what a lot of people did back then, turned to psychology. Got dissatisfied with that and left a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at the University of Montana - just walked out, never told them anything. Car broke down in the snow way out beyond any services. Went to a farmhouse and knocked on the door. A naked man answered, introduced himself as Daniel Eggink, and invited Front to join their commune. There were other naked people. And guns. Eggink's wife had died young and left him a good deal of money. Front stuck around. Gave himself a new name: Roovane Benyuhmin which had roots in his family history.

Eggink had some big ideas. They had a TV studio in the house from which they could broadcast. Were planning on inviting 1000 people to come build homes on the land. They were going to invite the Beetles and the Grateful Dead. International advertising had already started.

On New Year's Eve, 1968, everyone took acid. Roovane sat with Daniel and rapped about his fledgling spiritual quest. Daniel talked about Alan Watts, said he had a Zen teacher. Revered him so much he'd stolen his teaching stick but then returned it. Concluded  with, "You want to meet this man." He gave Roovane $300 and put him on a plane to San Francisco. January 1st, 1969, Roovane walked into Sokoji. He had two names of people to meet: Suzuki Roshi and Loring Palmer whom Eggink had been close to in the Zen Center realm and known reaching back to their Minneapolis origins.

 

At Tassajara Roovane couldn't persuade the authorities to let him stay for the practice period. Came back in April as soon as it was over full of enthusiasm and with a shaved head. He threw himself into the schedule like a good student should, and then did as much as he possibly could the rest of the time. He got into gardening right away, something he knew nothing about. Paul and Ruthie Discoe loved his energy and gave him guidance. There was no limit to what he would take on. Paul suggested he make candles so we could stop buying them. There was resistance to the idea because people wanted proper looking candles for the altars. Roovane bought wax, molds, and wicks and with Paul's advice was on his way to match store bought quality. Suzuki heard about it and checked his work out. Told him, "Remember the important thing is the wicks must be in the center."

"Of course," Roovane replied and appreciated Suzuki's smile in return.

Roovane had gotten to know Suzuki pretty well for the short time he'd been around. He'd taken him as a teacher before they met and right away said he wanted to be closer, asked if he could move into Sokoji and help out. Suzuki said that would make others jealous but invited him to come at 4am so they could clean together.

"We didn’t talk, we just worked together. He always told me not to miss the dirt under the rug. We’d dust stuff and water the plants and he’d put his eggshells in with the plants - he’d just leave them on top and water them and the calcium would come off onto the dirt. Smart. We had to make sure the zafus were positioned right on the zabutons and the zabutons in place. We’d vacuum sometimes too."

Roovane said in a lecture in the city Suzuki mentioned has earlier trip to New York with Baker seeking support for the purchase of Tassajara, "and he told us that he'd had a problem putting all those big buildings into his zazen."

I said I'd heard him say that it was hard for him to accept it all as part of his mind. But then I reminded him of that later and he denied he'd ever said it. I said oh no I heard you... and he cut me off with a final, "I never said that."

"Ah!" he said, "Of course! It was his way of telling you you can't apply what he says across the board!"

I met Roovane at the coffee tea area in the evening after a lecture by Suzuki. Breaking the late night silence I asked him how he liked it. He said, "I can’t remember what he said but I feel good. It's that way with everyone. We remember a few phrases and everyone has different ideas about what he was saying but everyone feels good. Not only for the lecture but for a few days."

"And people tend to feel like Suzuki was speaking directly to them," I said.

"He was! He was speaking to me!"

Roovane said that in the city people who weren't into Zen would ask Suzuki to make predictions. "We’d sit in the velvet seats in the pews downstairs for the Saturday lecture and people would come in from the outside who weren't into Zen and at the end they’d ask questions like when is the next earthquake coming and he’d say "I don’t know."

 

Roovane would take advice from Bill Shurtleff who knew a lot about different diets. It was all new to Roovane. Bill suggested he try Macrobiotics so Roovane tried that - eating only whole grains and what Bill taught him was in accord with that regimen. That wasn't hard to do at Tassajara. But then Bill suggested he try to eat just grapes for a while. Roovane said he wasn't eating any grapes then but he tried it - taking them from the Tassajara vines and ordering more on a town trip - and found it made him feel great.

He got into most extreme food trips. Some got concerned he was going to become malnourished because he was only accepting food in the small third bowl. But he'd graze in the gardens which were exploding with produce under his newly acquired green thumb. He would experiment further. For a while he tried eating a teaspoon of garden dirt a day. After all, if it was good for the vegetables... The officers were concerned. He talked to Suzuki about how little he was eating, said he felt a guilty not accepting the same as others but that his meditation was better with this diet.

Suzuki, who did not like food trips and was always encouraging us to practice together, once again was supportive of a renegade. "Dogen always says, watch your own bowls," he said. "For Dogen, what you’re doing would not be a problem. Don’t worry about it. You have to become yourself at some point so what you’re doing is not wrong according to Zen practice. It’s maybe different but no one should be disturbed by it. Everyone can eat what they need - but don’t get sick."

Roovane got into what was growing wild in the woods. He quickly learned about the local plants - what could be eaten, what would make tea, and what could be smoked. I'd tried smoking yerba santa which had a pleasant sedating effect before bed, most subtle. I wouldn't have even noticed the effect except I was so pure from the Tassajara diet. Roovane however, after much trial, came up with a smoking mixture that was a real high - and there was no marijuana in it. I liked it but wouldn't take it again. Seemed to me like cheating. Director Peter Schneider gently told Roovane to cool it with the smokes and Roovane did.

He tried a concoction of herbs and mushrooms someone else had come up with, got seriously ill, and passed out. When he came to he heard the han for zazen sounding. Roovane was determined to go, was slow, and met Suzuki on the bridge. Suzuki looked at him sternly and told him, "Never do that again!" Roovane wondered how Suzuki knew what had happened, felt like he'd almost died, and took Suzuki's command to heart.

 

"Roshi really loved Japanese eggplant. I planted the regular and the Japanese as well and he’d go through the garden and inspect them and he was so excited about them. He’d look at them and talk about the shape - they’re beautiful. He had a very high aesthetic. He had a love of nature and plants. He spent most of his time outside at Tassajara. He liked to work outside and he liked to work. He said he’d look in the mirror and realize that he’d forgotten he wasn’t twenty years old.

"He was so childlike. He’d play with a student or find an interesting rock and get all excited. The kind of care and slowness with which he worked - he didn’t want to create some big Zen garden - he was just moving rocks - no thought in mind - just like he started Zen Center - just start sitting, no big plan. Any big plan came from the students - not from him.

"Suzuki Roshi was into stones. He’d go down to the stream and meditate on those stones for a while. He was greedy for stones, he even told me so. He’d look at the stones and think about them before we moved them. We invented those sleds to pull them back to the garden - it was hard work. He would think of the stone he wanted before we’d get them so it would take a while. Then he would plant the stone - plant it deep in the ground. This huge stone. Sometimes only a little tiny bit would be above the ground - but he would know what was underneath. It’s sort of like our Zen practice. I feel there is some teaching in his garden practice that you could apply to our Zen practice. Most of it you can’t even see.

 

When Chogyam Trungpa came to Tassajara, he sat in a chair in the zendo. Roovane was carrying the stick, didn't know who this guest was, and told him to turn around and face the wall like everyone else. Trungpa obliged. Then Roovane heard Trungpa give a talk in the zendo which he thought was most lucid. He went to the stone room to check him out.

"Trungpa and I were talking about desire and he said you've got to burn it out. We had several talks about desire. He said it's like the soles on our shoes, the only way to wear them out is to walk on them. That made perfect sense to me."

Roovane was working in the kitchen then and brought Trungpa and his group a midnight feast. We were still serving meat to guests so there was chicken. His cosmic bread which is what he'd renamed gruel bread made with various leftovers thrown in. And he made a salad with vegetables that he had just picked in the dark.

 

I found Roovane squatting in the garden one day as he worked. He said that a guest who'd lived in Asia had converted him, that this was the best way to sit and that native people do it all over the world. I'd noticed how Japanese priests and students would not touch their knees to the ground if they had to work low - they'd squat. I envied them. Roovane said it was also the best way to use the toilet. As a result of that conversation I started squatting more including on the toilet and for several years would squat when using toilets and not on the seats - I'd put them up. I wonder why I stopped. It was good. I also wonder what Roovane added to the compost.

 

Roovane tried new approaches in meditation. He said he'd spent a year meditating on the space between his thumbs and a year on his spine. And he had a lot of silent dokusans with Suzuki. "We’d just sit together. He might ask how I was doing and then - just sitting."

For a while Roovane had a girlfriend at Tassajara named Anna who had gotten him into watching birds. She told him if you sit very quietly the birds will come and be your friend so everyday after lunch he started going out near the compost pile and sitting on a big rock to wait for the birds to sit on him. For a few months he tried to see how still he could become. The birds got close but never made it to sitting on him. Still, he said, it was a terrific experience in which he'd sat so still he'd become a rock.

The summer was hot and dry. The plants needed more water, even the drought resistant ones on the hillsides. He could see the trees were thirsty.

"So I started playing with an idea and I set up a time and I said two days from now at three o'clock in the afternoon it’s going to rain. I started working on it. I meditated on it and meditated on it and meditated on it. Then at about two o'clock in the afternoon of the appointed day a roll of thunder. I thought, this is impossible - it never rains in the summertime. And there was a thunderstorm in the afternoon. I just went wow! I went wild! And I went right away for dokusan. I was so excited, I thought, this is it, I’m enlightened. And I told Roshi what had happened, the whole story of what I’d done, that I’d meditated on rain and created a rainstorm to water the vegetables. And he started to hit me and yell at me and he was real angry. He hit me many times and he said that what I did was absolutely wrong. He said if it rains here, it doesn’t rain somewhere else and how do you know where the rain should be? He said it was very selfish practice. I knew I had powers before that - everyone has powers, different powers, and I was tempted to do things after that but I never did."

That wasn't the only time Suzuki hit Roovane with his stick. In a shosan question and answer ceremony at the end of a sesshin, Roovane said, "I did something wise ass and he started hitting me and said I had to get rid of the black snake. He was hitting me and hitting me with his stick - he was really hurting me."

Suzuki, the officers, and a number of students would also not have been pleased at what went on at Tassajara Christmas eve one year. Almost everyone leaves for most of the winter interim. Those few who remained for this darkest and coldest of times happened to be a perfect selection for Loring to dig into a secret pouch and cook up what Roovane described as a powerful batch of hash cookies. They were available in the afternoon. Roovane said that before Christmas Eve dinner, they had a service to end all services. "We chanted the heart sutra like it had never been chanted before. Bob Halpern and Barbara were there. Little thin Anna of the birds. We’d all been there for a year and Loring and I thought we deserved to have those cookies. The chanting was like Tibetan chanting. We were just there and giving it our best energy. I think that service more than anything at Tassajara changed my consciousness."

 

Roovane's parents came to Tassajara. His father even sat in the zendo. Roshi invited them to breakfast one morning. Roovane was excited about the opportunity. "I never had breakfast with him alone. My parents were freaked out about their good Jewish boy in this monastery and now he’ll never get married right. And then they came out and they met Roshi and stayed a week and agreed with me.

 

Most the males at Tassajara were draft age and close to everyone was against the war. There were a few like E.L., Tommy, and Stanley who had been in the military before. Most had gotten out of it one way or another. A number were conscientious objectors whose firefighting status at Tassajara covered their obligation. Roovane had joined the National Guard. He had to go for two weeks service during the summer. Naturally he had an interesting time there.

On Sunday the guardsmen gathered before disbursing to the place of worship of their choice - Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. Roovane, holding a zafu and little bell, said he was Zen Buddhist. He was told he could have a room for his prayers. He said he just wanted to meditate under a nearby tree. The officer said that a room would be better. Roovane said that Buddha was enlightened while meditating under a tree and that was his religious practice. The officer reluctantly said okay. Immediately a handful of others raised their hands and said that they were Zen Buddhists too. The officer gave up and said okay you can go join him under that tree.

Roovane had them first go get cushions, blankets, whatever they could find to sit on. Once they were all gathered by the tree he proceeded to give a zazen instruction. He had them loosen their ties and unbuckle their belts, pull their shirt tails out, and open their pants up on top so that there would be nothing restraining their lower abdomens from freely moving in and out with their breathing. He told them to be perfectly quiet, relaxed but alert, just sit, do not move, and follow the breath.

The commander of the base noticed the group sitting under the tree. He walked over and saw that they were breaking the dress code, not presenting themselves in public as befits guardsmen, and called, "Attention!"

Roovane quietly reminded the sitters, so that the commander could hear, that they were in a religious service and were not to move or make a sound. The commander loudly called out again, "Attention!" and added that they were breaking the dress code and were to immediately tuck their shirts in, button and belt their pants, tighten their ties, stand up, and get presentable! Everyone continued sitting quietly without moving. The commander started screaming at them, jumping up and down with clenched fists. Roovane hit the bell and softly gave instruction on what to do as the period ended. The commander stormed off.

There were no recriminations for Roovane or the others. He continued to do strange things that threw the officers there off balance. He reported to duty one morning with a teddy bear and said he didn't touch guns. He was allowed to finish his commitment to the guard by meditating alone in a room for some days and was told he would not have to return.

 

Of course Roovane would bond with the most far out people who drove or walked in to Tassajara - a weathered couple with tattered clothes who'd been living in the woods surviving on wild plants, a wild-eyed visitor with news that the Beetles would be waiting for us on their secret island, a convincing crusader for the wonders of bamboo. There were rumors of a hunting cult whose goal was to eat the still throbbing heart and raw warm liver of a deer that they'd just downed. Roovane got all excited about that and, with questionable intel based on the rumors, went out looking for them in vain.

Most firmly planted in memory is three fellows we referred to as The Sheets. They came in a few times for the day dressed in white sheets that they wore like sarongs. They'd go to the narrows and the bathes. They ate only raw food which they brought with them. Roovane would join them as much as he could. We all found them an interesting variation in the flow and ebb of guests. Then one day they arrived in a helicopter, hovering over the garden first, waving to Roovane and then landing in the parking area above the front gate where there was barely enough room for them to do so. One of them had just inherited a bunch of money and they were on a mission to see how fast they could spend it. Roovane flew off with them and returned in a few days with an odyssey of tales about what they'd done including going to Vegas and the Grand Canyon, staying in fancy places, passing out money, buying gifts for friends and strangers.

 

It was Roovane's idea for the SFZC to have a 100th birthday celebration for Shunryu Suzuki.

"I think what was special about Tassajara during those days is that everyone was a little crazy and trying to manifest as best they could their Buddha nature. We were a wild, impassioned group of sitters. I dearly love the Zen Center and those who I practiced with, they are my true friends with whom I share that passion and ardency that Roshi instilled in many of us for pure practice.

"And all the great people I met in the city and Tassajara, most whose names I forget but some who were famous and whose work I knew - like Alan Watts and Norman O. Brown His Love's Body and Life Against Death were both cult books for intellectuals in the late fifties early sixties and I spent much time rapping with both of them in the upper garden."

"And we only saw a little bit of Suzuki-roshi’s practice but enough that we knew there was something special there. We could feel it - we were doing the same thing eating but a little big different - we had a garden but a little bit different. The difference we couldn’t tell. It wasn’t because he was a huge ego, he was invisible. I remember there was a time when he was in our room and we didn’t know he was in the room. He had that kind of presence, invisible in the sense that he could be silent and we could be in the room noisy and talking and he could very quietly be there and we wouldn’t even notice him. He was like camouflaged, like part of the room. Roshi had something special that we very rarely find in other human beings. I haven’t had that relationship with anyone else for sure.

"He had certain qualities. First, the exposition of the dharma whatever the dharma is - always simple, never philosophical, never mystic, always so down to earth that it’s obvious. It’s not anything you have to think about. That's a quality he had that was always direct. Also, always very warm, compassion, great compassion - for everything, whether it’s for a stone or a student or a flower or anything. There was always that great compassion. You could feel that - you could call it love, love for everything. And always an ability to be interested in everything around him. There was nothing so inconsequential to not be interested in.

"He was a kind of teacher one could hope for. How fortunate we all were,"


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