Dennis Samson

"How much ego do you need?" Suzuki answered, "Just enough so that you don't step in front of a bus."

Podcast with Dennis 🔊

First posted in Brief Memories: Dennis Samson remembers Suzuki Roshi in a lecture at Sokoji on Wednesday around the time he was being asked by the Sokoji board to decide between them, the Japanese-American congregation and us, his zazen students. He said he'd been thinking about something intensely. Dennis remembers Suzuki saying, "I think so hard I don't know where I am."

Posted in Suzuki stories on this page:

3/25/02 - Dennis Samson told me this story he remembered that Suzuki mentioned once in a lecture. I remember it too so I embellish on what Dennis told me. This happened when Suzuki was quite young, early teens I think. 

He was out working with his master, Gyokujun So-on on a bitterly cold winter day. They were cutting firewood. Suzuki's mind was wandering and he didn't notice as So-on pulled back the thin steel blade of his saw so that it bent into a U shape and let it snap onto the unsuspecting face of poor little Crooked Cucumber. It was an extremely painful bit of shocking feedback that Suzuki would never forget.

I wanted to use that story in Crooked Cucumber and even wrote it up, but I wasn't sure if I'd heard it from Suzuki or Dainin Katagiri, his assistant teacher at Zen Center, so I set it aside. It really points out the marked difference between what was permissible back then in Japan and in America today where it would be written up in Buddhist magazines and the general media as an example of abusiveness. Anyway, I'm glad teachers can't do that here now. Maybe we're limiting the scope of eye-opening teaching options but I think it just wouldn't work here. - DC

3/12/02 - from Dennis Samson: Once Suzuki Roshi was asked by someone, "How much ego do you need?" Suzuki answered, "Just enough so that you don't step in front of a bus."

Dennis Samson Interview: Sebastopol 2002 - Went over it with him over the phone 12-07-14 for a couple of hours plus.  - DC

PDF of the 2002 notes

Dennis says that his memory is mainly visual. I'd say that there's a lot of feeling there too.

Dennis was born in 1946 in San Francisco. Dennis remembers his mother saying at the dinner table, "Emily Post would frown on that." Her father was from Irish immigrants. She said to always wear clean underwear in case you're in an accident and have to go to the hospital. His father was the son of Swedish immigrants, was in the maritime, a sailor during the depression, in the ILWU, the longshoreman's union, a ships clerk. Was around for Black Tuesday. He knew Harry Bridges and said even though he was a communist he'd done a lot of good for workers. Dennis' mother was to him a spiritual person but not religious. His father's religion was politics.

Dennis' mother died in 1960 when Dennis was 13. His father died in 1966 when he was 19. Both parents dying so young influenced Dennis as Dogen's mother's death had him.

He was a football player in high school and at the University of Hawaii. More undergraduate studies at the College of Marin and then Sonoma State. Couldn’t stand the neauvou penitentiary architecture there he said. Kept changing his major. Dropped out in 69. Since 68 he'd had a job at an import store and head shop in Mill Valley, the Sundancer - owned by the same guy who had a couple of head shops in San Francisco like the Phoenix in the Haight.

Dennis says he was curious about life in general and it's brevity, fragility, a serious curiosity. He got into psychedelics. His first acid trip was in September of '66 when he was 20. He continued taking psychedelics for a couple of years. He liked going to the Haight in San Francisco to hang out but says he didn't see it as tripping for fun, did it as a spiritual quest. Eventually it seemed like a dead end. He said it was like going up in an elevator, the doors opening on a high floor, he could see through but couldn't get out. Insight but not connected. It was very physical in nature as well. Incomplete.

He read some books about Buddhism and Zen.  Alan Watts' Nature, Man & Woman made sense to him.

In April of 68 in a bookstore in Sausalito, Dennis saw a flyer about zazen in Mill Valley. It was for Bill Kwong's sitting group which met at the Almonte Recreation Center near Tam Hi. Started going there to sit and going to the city for the Saturday morning schedule at Sokoji and Wednesday nights to hear Suzuki Roshi's talks. On Saturdays there was zazen, service, cleaning, a formal meal, and a lecture. Bill Kwong was always the cook and he served the silent meals with a dramatic flare. Dennis got to meet and have contact with older students at Sokoji. He says, "Dwight Brown and I were cleaning up the zendo at Bush Street and he said, " I get so mad at what Zen wants I want to throw my zafu at the altars. It takes more than it gives."

About Suzuki's talks, Dennis says, "a lot of what I got was not what he said but way he said it, his comportment."

He read more. Three Pillars of Zen. Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Blofield's Huang Po. He felt supported by Bill & Bill's wife Laura.

Katagiri Sensei in a talk at Sokoji told a story about how there was an odd duck monk everyone made fun of named Suzuki, another Suzuki, and there was a sesshin at a big temple, maybe Eiheiji, with a lot of big roshis. There was an earthquake during zazen and all the monks and roshis ran out of the building but this weird Suzuki monk stayed and put out all candles. Katagiri said - you never know.

DS: Several times I drove people to Tassajara, would spend the night, work for a day. I was a fast driver - probably scared people.

In June of '68 I had a personal interview with Suzuki. I had a much younger girlfriend. I was 22 and she was 16. She talked to him too - separately. I told him about my background and parents and that this is something I wanted to pursue because of that. I said I wanted to go live at Tassajara but Suzuki Roshi said I was too new a student and then he started to tell me about his problems. He made me wait a year so I went to the '69 fall practice period

When I first got to Tassajara, I brought a zafu and zabutan and was setting them up in the zendo and Peter Schneider introduced himself. He was friendly and asked why I was there and I told him about my parents. During zazen, Peter was sitting on the altar with one leg hanging over the edge from chill blains. Ed would shake and Meg would cry uncontrollably. Margaret Crowley and Dianne Goldschlag were there. Paul Rosenblum sat on my right and to my left Roovane, Donnie Crockin, and Bob Halpern who'd fall asleep all the time. Sometimes he'd hit his head on the wall. So he started to sit in only a tee shirt.


DC: You mean under his robe.


DS: Only a few people had robes.

DC: We all had robes when I was there and I was almost always there. I was in Monterey studying Japanese that fall but I always remember Bob with a robe on. We had them from the first.

DS: You came in to visit sometimes. Once you brought a giant pizza. It was consumed in minutes.

Steve Brown was my cabin mate. Bill Shurtleff and Donnie were behind. They'd get a lot of lanterns to heat their room up. Almost asphyxiated us.


I was scatterbrained but followed schedule & made it work.


I remember serving in the zendo in sesshin. We served Suzuki Roshi first. The first time I did that, I set the rice bucket down, hesitated for a second – the spoon (wooden paddle) was pointing towards him. He gently reached out and turned it to its side – maybe I’m a visual type but that meant a lot to me.


At the bath house Suzuki Roshi was in his room. There were two female students outside. I didn't realized it was his room and flung the door open. He looked at me, then covered himself with washcloth. There was a humble, human quality to how he reacted.


I was standing in front of the bathes at the bridge when Suzuki Roshi and a visiting teacher passed by on the road. I gashoed & from a distance they both caught it and bowed back as they walked on.


Someone asked Suzuki Roshi what's the difference between you and me and he said it's the difference between the little I suffering and the big I suffering.


About four days into a sesshin I was bowing during service and the bowling got easy, like floating. It was the most effortless thing I'd ever done. When it was my turn for dokusan I told Suzuki Roshi about this experience. He said, "Yes yes, keep sitting."


I enjoyed working with him. We'd get rocks out of the creek. He was like a little kid in some ways. He'd get excited about the rocks. "Look at this one!" We used the old Toyota four wheel drive with the wench. Put the large rocks on a metal sled made from a car hood with chains and pulled them up the bank. Suzuki Roshi showed us how use levers and pivots. He'd stand by watching us then step in saying, "Why not do it like this?"


Audrey and Bob Walter were carving stone lanterns from the rocks we brought up. One had a quarter moon shaped in it.


I worked with Paul Disco. Had learned some carpentry from dad but got more from Paul He was very patient.  Bob Halpern was a hard worker. We went out to load chicken shit for the garden into the flatbed. Shoveling chicken shit & hot. Everything smelled & tasted like it for a few days. Afterwards Maggie Kress and Niels got pretty plastered with it after a chicken’ shit fight. I worked with Elden Pura who'd come down with his D8 caterpillar tractor and work down by  the flats.


DC: He was making a damn in the creek - or a wide berm across it to divert the water to the other side so that it wouldn't erode the Grasshopper Flats side.


DS: He said he used the D8 for fire fighting. Said he'd mostly go to fires and sit around seeing if they needed him.


E.L. would be wandering around everyday saying, "I’m leaving."


DC: At the next practice period led by Tatsugami, Tatsugami had him driven out right away. Suzuki had let him stay there and be pretty non functional - though he did have an earlier period when he ran the shop. I remember him putting on his robes for work period and his work clothes for zazen and standing on the hill above the zendo looking down at us. One day he took me way up on the ridge on the other side of the creek behind the bathes and showed me a cement pyramid about two feet high. He lifted it, smiling at me like he was revealing some great secret. It was hollow and there were some symbolic objects inside there on the ground - a crystal and... and that's all I can remember. He was from a little town in west Texas, said he grew up on his Daddy's pea patch. Was in the Korean War I think. Everyone liked him. He was sweet and soft-spoken.


DS: As the days got shorter, the work meetings moved up into the parking lot to catch the sun. People would be sitting waiting in a car which was like a solar heater.


Food was one of the main focuses at Tassajara. The day off cream cheese and date sandwich seemed pretty exotic. The bowls we ate from in the zendo were warmed by the food - one of the few warm things outside of the baths. I remember people hopping over the wet towel at the entry to the zendo because it was frozen. Someone wiped their feet on it and Paul Rosenblum said,  "That guy's pretty tough." Another place that was warm was by the wood burning stove in the dining room. I got a deluxe Eddie Bauer sleeping bag. After zazen I'd go to the dining room and I’d stay by fire then run to my sleeping bag.


I appreciated the older students - Jean Ross was shuso, the head monk. Phil Wilson.


DC: He just came in for her shuso ceremony. I did too.


DS: That was my only practice period but I went back in the summers. I'd see Suzuki Roshi then. He'd give lectures.

After Tassajara I went back to Mill Valley and we started a Zen house next to the library - with Ken Berman and Doug Bradle. We would ride bikes to sit with Bill every weekday morning and go to Page Street. on Saturdays. We met there in 68. Drove Roshi over and had breakfast at Bills. We'd go to a pancake house afterwards. The fellow who rented the house to us had been a poster salesman I'd met at Sundancer. He went to Japan to study Japanese carpentry, came back with the head carpenter's daughter, and recreated a Japanese house next door - just the interior.

I went back to work at the Sundancer and became the manager. Hired Doug and Ken. A girl who worked there in the afternoon lived underneath a house where Leidy lived. She'd come into the store. Her college roommate was Paul Rosenblum's sister. We got married in December of 1970 by Katagiri at Page St. Ken and Doug were the ushers at the wedding. Leidy and I moved to Strawberry on the other side of the freeway. Ken, Doug, and I were still sitting with Bill.

I did jukai with Suzuki Roshi in August of 1971.


DC: That was the last and a large lay ordination.


DS: Suzuki Roshi wasn't well. Katagiri Sensei had to write the characters on a lot of the rakusus but someone told me that Suzuki did mine.


I was at the funeral. That was pretty grim. His body looked so terrible.


After that put most my energy into Mill Valley and moving up north to Bill's group. Trudy had passed away [in 69]. Norman Steiglemeyer was no longer showing up regularly. Stephanie Flagg wasn't there any more.

Ken and I visited E.L. at Napa [State Mental Hospital]. He'd tried to kill himself. He was getting shock treatment.

DC: He eventually did kill himself after a few failures. Once he was found burning his hands over the stove at Page Street. Another time he was found rolling in the gutter. He jumped out of a building and broke his back. I always have noted that Zen Center is not a good place for people who are mentally disturbed, or at least some of them. With a ratio of 65 of us to one of him we couldn't help. But one thing he did I loved. He was living at Green Gulch and turning his Aid to the Totally Disabled check over to the office every month and then one month he disappeared. He'd cashed his check and flown to Rio.

DS: In '73 a guy off of Calistoga Road offered Bill land to build zendo on. Johnny Thorn and Steve Hanna were up there living in tents and working on it. We were getting everything ready to open and the guy pulled out.

DC: I remember him. He was a guest at Tassajara I think. Met him somewhere. He told me the story. Said he liked the idea of having a little monastery on the other end of his property. He said that after doing months of work everyone was working around the clock to get it ready to open and he walked over while they were working at night, went up to Bill, and said, "Bill, I can't do it." Said he hadn't realized how overwhelming it all would be and that he was feeling uncomfortable more and more and then finally realized it wouldn't work. He said that he paid them for their work and materials and that Bill was really good about it.

DS: The ditches were open and lines not complete. I gotta hand it to Bill. He just said, "Well, we're going to finish it." And it was finished.

Then the DeRopp place. [Robert S. DeRopp] He leased the old Kennedy place. His acolytes were living there. He had a place across the street. It belonged to Sterling Bunnell who was getting a divorce and needed money. Leidy and I put up the most. It wasn't that much. That's where Sonoma Mt. Zen Center is now. Sterling would come back time to time. Put sunfish in the pond. Would get in there naked with a net. We moved there in '74 to Bennett Valley Road to a small ranch. I'd go sit in the mornings and evenings in the old barn. Once I was sitting and could see something moving. A skunk came in through a hole. He looked up the altar. Walked behind everyone. People sat still. Eventually he walked out. The place was primitive. People started to build houses. There were a couple of rooms in the barn. It had that frontier spirit like at Tassajara. Went along pretty well for quite a while. Eventually Bill had ideas of taking it in a different direction. That was around 77 - 78. I could feel an up-swelling, especially in sesshin. Bill started asking the original students to leave - Johnny Thorn, Bob Walter, Steve Hanna, Richie Domingue. Doug had left - moved to Kenwood but was still involved. Patrick was one of the first to be asked to leave. Eventually he asked me to not to come - when I was his oldest student there. We had four kids and a vineyard and a house on Bennett Ridge. Leidy had gotten to where she couldn't handle the kids. I wasn't regular enough. Someone talked to Bill about my situation and he asked me to come back. But it was never the same. Bill opened doors for me - Zen Center, the Mill Valley Zendo, Tassajara and jukai with Suzuki Roshi. And Genjoji.

I grew grapes for 20years. Quit in 99. It was demanding. Had to fulfill the peasant part of my nature


I'm teaching zazen at a senior citizen's center in Sonoma County. Ken Berman is doing that up north. People so open minded. A sweet experience.


DC: And Dennis has sat regularly with Darlene Cohen (RIP) and Tony Patchell in Healdsburg and Guerneville. He went through another lay ordination with Darlene eight years ago or so. He also has sat regularly with John Tarrant on Monday nights in Santa Rosa. He continued to go to family reunions with Leidy and their offspring in Idaho though he and Leidy divorced decades ago. A second marriage of a couple of decades ended a few years back. He lives now on a bunch of acres way in the woods at 2300 feet in Sonoma County in a cabin he built.