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Marc Alexander

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Interviewed by DC August, 2008 at Tassajara 

I remember Marc up on the rafters of the kitchen roof with Paul Discoe and Niels Holm. Niels and Paul would typically be yelling at each other and Marc was always quiet, working away intently. He was good at anything he did. Excellent with details. I mention admiration of his eye for detail in his woodwork in the interview. Thus I knew he'd be an excellent dentist and he was - careful, thoughtful.

Marc showed up in the summer of 69 and went to Tassajara in the fall of 70, was ino (head of zendo activities) two years later. In 1973 he was a co-director of Green Gulch Farm with Paul Rosenblum. In January, 1975 he was ordained as a priest by Richard Baker with ten others. His shuso ceremony was at Tassajara in the fall of 1977. He was the director in the spring on 78 as well as jisha, attendant to abbot, when the zendo and office burned down. He continued those roles through the year. He was working on installing the standpipe system when the fire happened and felt responsible because he hadn't finished it but abbot Richard Baker assured him it wasn't his fault.

Marc was not tall but he was muscular, strong. Here's something from Cuke's Tassajara Stories:

One group of four young drunk cowboys came in on horseback whooping it up and shooting their guns in the air. One took his horse down the steps into the swimming pool. Two of them went into the women's side of the baths. This was 1971 guest season when I was assistant director. The director was away. I found them and said they'd have to check their guns and do not shoot them here. They complied. I'd seen one of them at Lambert's and told him if they didn't behave I'd make him give them a spanking. They were on their way to go camping and boar hunting in the woods and rode out over the Tony Trail. I think you'd have to walk a horse a lot of that. Five days later they came back. Before I could deal with them, Marc Alexander just went up to them as soon as they got there and told them to keep moving. They did.

- DC

Interview with Marc Alexander

[Marc spoke so softly that a lot of what he said couldn’t be understood. A lot of it didn’t matter. There are some places with ??? indicating of course that we couldn't hear the words there. - DC]

DC: Here we are, we’re with Marc Alexander here at Tassajara, August 17, 2008, down in the “suburbs.”

[by which I mean the lower barn and barn which we’re sitting downstream from, accompanied by David Lueck.]

DC: When did you first come to Zen Center?

MA: I came in the summer of 69 and I came down to Tassajara for a couple of weeks during that summer, but basically I was staying in San Francisco, living in one of those apartments on Bush Street, and doing overflow work for the Longshoreman’s Union in San Francisco.

DC: Oh, cool! And where did you come from?

MA: At that point I was coming from finishing college at UCSB, Santa Barbara. Actually that’s not quite true; I hadn’t quite finished. I had one more semester to do. I went back and completed that after that summer, and then came back up to City Center, pretty much as the plans I think that they were moving from Sokoji to Page Street.

DC: They moved from Sokoji to Page Street like in November of 69.

MA: November of 69…about mid-November.

I remember [Lewis Lancaster? - UCB Buddhist studies prof.] talking here.

DC: And you came back to live then?

MA: Yes, the idea seemed like 6 months in so that, I could come back to Tassajara.

DC: And when did you come back to Tassajara?

MA: It was when Tatsugami Roshi did his first practice period.

DC: You didn’t wait six months because that was January of 70. When he was here.

MA: Okay, then it would have been on account of my three months during the summer when I was at Bush Street. I’m not sure,

DC: You know a lot of those rules could be bent. He did winter-spring 70, fall-winter 70, and then winter-spring in 71. And where do you come from originally?

MA: Los Angeles.

DC: And, why did you come to Zen Center?

MA: I had a philosophy instructor at Santa Barbara, but had spent some time in a Rinzai monastery in Japan and knew of Zen Center. And, actually he had a graduate student who had moved to Zen Center, Jack Weller. He recommended that I come up.

DC: What was that professor’s name?

MA: Holden

DC: Oh yeah, well he’s well known. And, what was he like?

MA: Well…he was a very humble professor.

DC: What did he teach?

MA: Philosophy.

DC: Did he teach any Eastern philosophy?

MA: Not so much. It was mostly Western philosophy.

DC: Why did you choose to come to the San Francisco Zen Center?

MA: Just because of that connection. And I was interested in Eastern philosophy.

DC: Well you had two Zen centers down in LA.

MA: Didn’t even know of them. And, I wasn’t in LA at the time, I was in ….

DC: Well, I mean, pretty close. But, did you know…he knew about Zen Center.

MA: Um, huh.

DC: Did he come here?

MA: I don’t know if he’d ever been here. Maybe he knew of it because Jack Waller was here.

DC: When you came to Zen Center had you heard anything about it? Or you just knew it was a Zen Center?

MA: David, you’re stretching my memory. I don’t remember!

DC: Doesn’t matter…. Usually people have a little more motivation—there is something that...that...was it just something to do or did you have some strong reason?

MA: No, I was very attracted to Eastern thought, and I had even studied some Chinese, classical Chinese.  And, I figured there was a Zen teacher here that was well respected, and would have connections I could use.

DC: Okay, when did you first meet Suzuki Roshi?

MA: Well, the first time actually was probably after zazen when we bowed every morning. He had us do that as you know, at Page Street.

DC: No, I don’t remember that—I’d forgotten. I remember him doing that at Sokoji on Bush Street but I was at Tassajara until after he died – though I visited some.

MA: He tried for a little bit, but it didn’t last very long.

DC: Didn’t work, huh?

DC: That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s one of those things that many many people mention, you know, in their memories it ranks very high.

MA: We were like this momentary exchange, but you felt there was real contact.

DC: Ah hah. What was your first impression of the Zen Center?

MA: I was very attracted and thought it was something I wanted to be part of.

DC: Is there anything you remember about Suzuki Roshi that you’d like to share?

MA: I never had any formal practice instruction with him.

DC: Never had dokusan with him?

MA: No. I was quite a new student at that time.

DC: Were you there? What practice periods were you here? Were you here 70, spring, 70 fall?

MA: Yes.

DC: Were you here 71 spring?

MA: Yes, I was here for three years.

[DC - Some discrepancy here because board notes say he was work foreman at the City Center spring of 71. Maybe started after the practice period was over.]

DC: Yeah, well, he wasn’t here much then, and then he got sick and died. So you had the full Tatsugami trip. 

MA: Yeah. When I came to Page Street, I became the work leader. Dan Welch was there and Dan Welch came down here, and I took over as work leader. So I was—

DC: What year?

MA: It would have been, oh wait, Fall 69.

DC: No kidding. When you first went there you became work leader?

MA: Yeah. I had been around in the summer previously. But, I’m still foggy on these dates now, because I thought I went back—no, no, I’m not sure when I finished….I’ll have to go back next ??? records and see when….

DC: It sounds like it wasn’t that fall. If you were work leader in the fall and you were there when they moved, that’s November, it’s like the second half of November, I think.

MA: Anyway during that period that I was work leader I had some interchanges with Suzuki Roshi. One is, I was organizing this ??? party, between closing, you know ??? at the end of everything, and so there were a lot of people that were interested in helping that weren’t necessarily strictly imbued in formal sitting???, and people were interested in having a keg party afterwards. So I presented that proposal to Suzuki Roshi. ??? said, if you want to do that, you have to get a keg. And ??? we did that and we had a keg of beer in the kitchen afterwards.

DC: Wow, that’s something. It was a one day thing?

MA: Yeah, a one day event.

DC: Huh, that’s very interesting. That’s also rather exceptional….That’s a feather in your cap. You know, he wasn’t really into things like that.

MA: I talked to Gallagher ??? [There was no Gallagher but that’s what it sounded like to transcriber]. He thought it was a great idea.

DC: More, anything else you remember?

MA: There was a time when we were setting up tatami mats in the Buddha hall for a ceremony, and I was adjusting them and readjusting them and make them all straight. He came in and moved it, so it wasn’t straight anymore. In preparation for some type of ceremony.

DC: So, you got all the tatami straight and he came in, like while you were working?

MA: Yeah, I was just fiddling back and forth lining everything up ....I was fiddling too much.

DC: That’s funny….So, were you at his Richard Baker’s Mountain Seat Ceremony?

MA: Yes.

DC: What do you remember about that?

MA: The most powerful memory I have is Suzuki Roshi shaking that staff

MA: But then of course the exchanges [people asking the new abbot questions – here he mentions the question and answer between Philip Wilson and Baker, Phillip challenging Baker.]

MA: I don’t have anything to add.

DC: How long were you fully engaged with Zen Center?


MA: Thirteen to sixteen years, something like that.

DC: Were you a doan under Tatsugami?

MA: No, I was doan, but it was right after he left. Mary Williams was Ino.

[Doan was a person with duties in the zendo – hitting bells, taking attendance]

DC: That was the fall when Suzuki Roshi died. So, you stayed with Zen Center till what year? You left to go to dental school, didn’t you?

MA: Yes.

DC: I remember that. [As I recall, his father and father’s father were dentists]

MA: Could be ’84.

DC: Oh, really. You stayed till after Dick left.

MA: I was president for that year, and then there was all the reorganizing.

DC: You were president of Zen Center then? Wow. Heavy duty.

MA: I was sort of a caretaker.

DC: I forgot that. And then…and when did you and Meg get married? 

MA: It was in 1980. At Green Gulch.

DC: And, now you’re sitting with Norman?

MA: No, I’m not. Uh, Meg is.

DC: Meg is.

DC: So, do you have anything to say about your years at Zen Center? What you got out of it? Or, how it affects you now?

MA: I don’t know. It changes from time to time. I left shortly after the whole catharsis around Richard Baker. And, that was very difficult too, I look back at it as wonderful history and deep friendships. Another is, I’m still interested to calm my mind to some extent. I’m just happy to be back here at Tassajara.

DC: I thought you’d be a good dentist cause you seemed to me to come to Zen Center being already a very concentrated person, a person who had really good, I guess, what they call brain hand-eye coordination. You made really really fine cabinet work, and you made some very interesting objects while you were here. You made this stick, it was a bent stick that you carved to make it look like it was a board. It might have been 5-sided too. That it bent. Do you remember that?

MA: I’m not sure. I remember making a wood vase, with 4 or 5 sides virtually like a double helix.

DC: Yeah, I remember that. Didn’t you make a sort of like thing that looked like a ball but with all square flat surfaces, like a number of them? Didn’t you do something like that?

MA: That doesn’t come back to mind, but my memory is not what it once was.

DC: I understand from your daughter Jeanine that you still do…

MA: I’ve always enjoyed a fairly myopic focus on very small things.

DC: Is there anything that you felt you learned from Suzuki Roshi? Even if it wasn’t directly?

MA: I was very impressed with him teaching ??? And always felt some difficulty in what  I felt was the lack of ???

DC: Is there anything else you can say about him? Or anything else to offer in that area?

MA: Nope.

DC: No, all right. Great! Then, we will close this session. Thank you very much.

Thanks Layla Smith and Peter Ford for transcription.


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