Annie Schliffer

The year was 1970 when I had just finished college, and instead of waiting around for graduation, my friend and I hopped into her VW camper. It was outfitted with tie dye curtains, a little kitchen and a generous bed. My parents were wary as we took off, with my long red hair and her long blonde hair. Where were we we going? What were we searching for?

Up north through Canada, and then west over the great lakes, and hiking in the mountains above Banff, and finally a month on a remote island off of Vancouver. Experiments with mescaline, LSD, pot, and all of it yielding great insights, but eventually  a dead-end.  I always returned back to my disconnected state and confusion.

We headed down the west coast, now searching for the perfect community,  where all my problems would be solved. I was convinced that if I found the right place and all the external conditions were to my liking, then I could achieve peace and equilibrium.

The grand illusion!

Each community that we visited was either into drugs and/ or rock music, and had a very undisciplined life style. No one was even remotely enlightened! There was no search, no compassion, and only the short-lived joy that drugs give. I left my friend at one of these communes with rock music and grass in Northern California. We parted good friends, and I didn’t see her until 30 years later. Her search went towards Christianity and the Bible, and she’s a terrific artist.

I hitchhiked down the California coast, alone. I was given a ride by a man who told me there was a practice that might give me what I was searching for. He told me about Zen Buddhism and most importantly about Tassajara, a place where I could learn to practice.  He was getting ready to go there in the fall and was leaving his little Zendo in the redwoods of Mendocino.

So like an arrow to its mark, I headed to Tassajara!

By hitchhiking I arrived at the top of the mountain before the descent down to this mysterious monastery. To prepare myself, I camped out among the live oaks, sat quietly and at sundown witnessed a complete lunar eclipse. It was so unexpected and remarkable.  Was this a sign?

And then trying to sleep, all night I heard the wild boar rummaging,  a little scary!

Next day I hike down to the gate where I announced my intention to live there.

Of course they said, no, no, you must sit with a group for 6 months first. But can't I stay for a visit?  I will help with any chores.

So I stayed for a month, falling in love with Tassajara. Kitchen, garden, cleaning,  anything that needed to be done. And Zazen, chanting, the beauty and rigor of the practice. It was everything that I had been looking for.

But then they told me I must go and prove my serious intention to practice,  and find a Zendo to practice in.

I reluctantly left and moved to Berkeley with some new friends who had been visiting Tassajara. Jill and Jerry invited me to live in their garage in exchange for some child care.

A wonderful exchange. And I began at the Berkeley Zendo with Mel, a stern, slightly remote, but wise teacher. I was very young, naive, and under so many illusions! I was imagining that enlightenment was not so far away and did not understand suffering or the necessity of paying for what I was searching for. 

As soon as they let me return, I was back at Tassajara for the 1971 winter-spring practice period--January to April.  It was cold, I had to do tangaryo alone in the zendo for five long, long days. It was excruciating! And then I could join the community, work, sit, chant, take those incredible hot baths, and enjoy the beauty of the mountains and streams. I felt very happy and also pushed the edge of my comfort zone. It was not easy, and yet the call was profound.  The path opened for me. 

So many myriad impressions.  The starlit sky, the rushing stream, the bird called the dipper that I would visit downstream, sit quietly, and sometimes he would jump up on my legs. Hello!  Practicing chanting at the top of mountains, picnics with Roshi, both Suzuki Roshi and Katagari Roshi. Their immense kindness and compassion. Their wisdom.

I worked in the garden, and then in the kitchen with wonderful Tommy, a Saint disguised as a kitchen tenzo. So many lessons learned from him.

I was on a special diet, inspired by Roovane, only fruits and vegetables,  crazy with all the good food being offered. Tommy teased me over and over, telling me I was on a trip, an ego trip, and it would hinder my practice. (He was right!) 

I took lessons in the Tea Ceremony from Suzuki Roshi's wife,  and we practiced over and over. At the final lesson each one studying served tea to Suzuki Roshi, alone with his wife looking on but not interfering. In my nervousness, I remember making several mistakes in the preparation and serving of tea. Roshi simply smiled benignly and let me continue. I knew he was being kind to a novice like me.  I knew he could yell and get furious at his more senior students, I had heard it, but I was so green and naive, he was gentle with me.

(Later in my life in my Gurdjieff community,  our teacher would not spare me, and I grew from her severe criticism even as the ego suffered)

So many memories!  Once sitting in front of a large sunflower, an activity that I loved to do quite often, watching it open day by day,  Suzuki Roshi was giving Alan Watts a tour of Tassajara. They walked by me, and Alan explained in his very intellectual way that this was a certain practice, and he called it a very erudite name. Inside I laughed,  I was simply enjoying the unfolding of a flower. Why define it? Just do it! I offered my stool to Alan, but he walked on by. I saw a twinkle in Roshi's eyes and together we shared a moment.

A man named Van who lived in the cabin next to me used to gather branches of poison oak in vases outside his cabin as decoration. Yes, it was beautiful,  but I was and am terribly allergic to poison oak or ivy (in the east) so I would inwardly shutter as I walked by.

The long summer of 1971 was very hot and in the evening the zendo stayed hot, but we were graced with evening talks by Suzuki Roshi. Oh, the cool stream afterwards letting the teachings sink in and be digested. Little did I know of the precarious state of his health.  But those talks like sweet flowing music washed over me and remain forever as sweet nuggets of truth.

Once Chogyam Trungpa came for a visit. I had dokusan with him in one of those stone rooms by the stream. I asked how do you let go of the ego? He said it is like a pair of shoes, eventually they wear out. ( Oh, not so simple!)

That night he sat up in Roshi's place in the zendo and gave a talk.  But he was very drunk and could barely sit upright.  I felt sad, disappointed,  and even angry at what I felt was a sacrilege.  But he and Roshi were close dharma companions. So I also respected this connection. And he was there at the funeral, saying almost in tears that he had lost his closest friend.

More to come...

Here's how the story played out in Crooked Cucumber. It's followed by an edited version of the last words Shunryu Suzuki spoke in his lecture that evening.

One day while walking in the vegetable garden at Tassajara, Suzuki noticed a student who was sitting on a stone looking at a sunflower growing nearby. He went over and sat by her.

     "What are you doing?"


     "Meditating with the sunflower," she said. "It rotates with the sun."


     Suzuki sat with her for a long time. That night Suzuki referred to his garden visit.



Unless you get through to emptiness, you are not practicing. But if you stick to the idea of emptiness, you are not a Buddhist yet. Someone was sitting in front of a sunflower, watching the sunflower, a cup of sun, and so I tried it too. It was wonderful; I felt the whole universe in the sunflower. That was my experience. Sunflower meditation. A wonderful confidence appeared. You can see the whole universe in a flower. If you say, "Oh this is a sunflower which doesn't really exist" [laughing], that is not our zazen practice. [71-08-12]




DC note: I got the story from Roovane Ben Yuhmin. Annie, whom I've just recently gotten in touch with, confirmed it and now from her telling, we know that that's the day Alan Watts came to Tassajara. I'm working now on the 2nd edition of Crooked Cucumber and audiobook and, since this story immediately follows the piece about Alan Watts, I'll link them and that will add a nice touch.

posted April 13, 2021