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5-01-12 - SFZC Alum Retreat at Tassajara

There will be lots on the SFZC Alumni page on Facebook about the reunion we just had. I think everyone enjoyed it a great deal. It wasn't overly organized, lots of time to schmooze, hike, read, nap, discuss practice and other spiritual topics, gossip. We had an outdoor skit night with the students which was full of Zen parody songs and bits, some poetry, sweet words and song from Blanche Hartman, and some cool Buddhist blues from Steve Stucky with backup. The last morning we walked up to the ashes site for a memorial ceremony for Suzuki Roshi.

It was not a Tassajara alumni reunion which is what we had in San Francisco a few years ago. See Early Tassajara Alumni Reunion. I worked on that for half a year. It was a SFZC reunion for those who'd been in a practice period anywhere (with a few exceptions) held at Tassajara.

The first thing I had to get through my head is that we were guests. I'm not used to seeing myself as a guest there. I'm always just a student - except once a couple of years ago Katrinka and I went there as guests for two days and one night. I almost always wash dishes. So we were students visiting and there were students there in residence - but we were counted as guests.

April had never been there. She was weak from hunger. I took her to the snack area in the kitchen, cut her a quarter piece of a green apple, and then an officer came in and informed us that this was the student snack area. Quickly I spread some peanut butter on the apple and we retreated.

I brought it up in a group discussion, not to grumble - just to point out our status which was a novelty to most of us. I said that when we'd been caught in the student snack area I'd  explained that this was a medicinal snack, that she was feeling queasy. And this, I continued, is the origin not only of monks in China initiating the practice of eating a "medicinal meal" after the time of the sun's zenith, it was also the origin of the student snack area at Tassajara. Especially in the early days of less protein in the diet, students would stagger in a semi-faint into the kitchen begging for sustenance to hold them over till the next oryoki meal. Blanche said her memory was that the snack kitchen began with a sheet pan of burned peanuts. Tim Buckley said he thought it was in response to students sneaking into the store room to pilfer.

So we were guests. We were enjoying it. Ate yummy guest food in the dining room. Weren't required to attend any functions in the zendo or anywhere including alumni retreat functions. Most of us did it all most of the time. It was not challenging. One morning zazen at ten to six and no evening zazen because there was other stuff happening those three nights - like the first group discussion on the the 26th of April.

John Nelson had mentioned he wanted to hear stories from the students who'd been around in the early days. We'd gone around, stated our names, when we came to ZC and Tassajara, I'd taken the names down, so we knew pretty much who that was. I remember that when I'd put someone's name down in my notebook with the year they'd come that laughter would break out because it seemed I was writing down a note about something that had just been said..

Mako, the director, after more than an hour and help from a tall young student, got the recording set up for the first time in the Retreat Hall. We depended on two tiny mikes hanging from the ceiling. I was asked to moderate that meeting on the morning of the 27th. I didn't refer to the list, just called on people - Tim Buckley, Rick and Carolyn Morton, Sandy Hollister, Naom Rader (sp?) (married name now - I'll get later), Layla Smith, Jake Fishman, me. I asked if there was anyone else and Blanche Hartman spoke up. Duh, embarrasing. No one else responded. But there were a few others. Like Nancy Sheldon. I asked her later why she didn't say anything and she said she didn't have much to say and would write it. Said she came down from Oregon with Pat Phelan. I'm just looking at those notes now and see I have Jeff Bickner as 68 or 9 - I didn't know that. Forgot I'd written it. I'll call him. And Katherine Haimson as 1970. She said she just drove in then and came back later. And then that night Leslie James gave a talk in the zendo and said she and Keith Meyerhoff had arrived just in time to see the Mountain Seat Ceremony when Suzuki Roshi passed the mantle on to Baker Roshi.

Of course other people had things to say and it doesn't matter if one was back there or not. I'm just fixated on people who arrived pre Suzuki death because those are the ones whose memories I want for the oral history - and I specifically don't discriminate between those who were there a lot or a little, who were close or distant.

I've got that tape now and about three hours of interviews done with some of those folks and Meg Gawler who came in later. I'm hoping Layla Smith will transcribe it all.. My recorder has seen it's last service, a new one hadn't arrived, and so I used an iPhone loaned by Linda Taggart. Never used one before. Liked it - but didn't know any way to get the interviews off except for her to download on her computer at home cause iPhones aren't like hard drives, are made to synch to one computer. I know there are ways around that but didn't have to go there cause Linda drove me to her place in Berkeley where Katrinka picked me up. Linda gave me the files on my thumb drive and loaned another which I dropped off at David Cohen's (Darlen's brother). He put the files in several formats. Thanks for all that Linda and David.

On the 28th in a morning meeting we broke into groups and talked about what our practice is and what we hope to see come from the alumni group. I imagine on the Alumni Facebook page and in their newsletter what we talked about will be mentioned. I can remember a little. Some of us expressed an interest that the alumni group be more than a fundraising arm of ZC, that its agenda not be controlled by ZC - somewhat would be understandable but not totally. Mark Lesser, who's president of the alumni group, said it was fairly independent. John Nelson said we might urge the board not to make any hasty divestments. Someone else then added, "Or hasty purchases." One person mentioned that the board is so controlled by the agenda of the officers that it might be good to have some oversight and peer review. Someone else said there's not just them, there are committees and the elder's group and they balance each other out in different ways at different times. Then it was mentioned that hardly anyone ever has a few minutes to comment on the Facebook page, that it's easy to say things in a meeting, but who's going to have the time and energy to follow up with all that?

There was talk of the alumni group serving and including in as many ways as possible all the students and groups in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage, not just those associated with the SFZC.

I said two areas I would like to see the Alumni group pay attention to were the preservation of the legacy of Shunryu Suzuki - of course I'd like some support or at least awareness of the ongoing work done by those of us involved with the independent Crooked Cucumber Archive Project.

And I'd like to see the alumni in some way stay in touch with and keep track of older students and those who are ill or isolated, especially those alone over long periods of time. I went on about this a bit. What I said is contained in the Zen Aluminati section of cuke.

I did a bunch of lobbying back then in 2004 for ZC to start an alumni group which could, among other things, serve those goals. Now there's an alumni group. Of course the board members and officers who are trying to keep Zen Center afloat are hoping that the alumni can serve the traditional purpose of fundraising and sustaining the institution. But the alumni should also serve the students present and past and may well expand the conscience of the SF Zen Center. May no one be forgotten.


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