On Bob Watkins
Bob's cuke page
Much of this material comes from interviews with Bob.
Bob Watkins was Tassajara's first work leader at the first practice period and for months before. He was a decade older than most of us. Had been involved in the movie business on the logistics end. He said one task he had for a while was to bring Frank Sinatra a fifth of vodka every morning. With import earnings from a trip to and from Mexico via sailboat, he had bought a truck and fitted it with a camper that was his and wife Sandy's snug home. Lost the sailboat though because his partner was so happy with their earnings that he made another run that Bob begged him not to do - and got caught. There were lots of little drawers in the camper and boxes with essentials perfectly packed They were strict vegans back in a time when that was more of a rarity. They had driven that '51 Chevy into Tassajara over the snow-covered road in the winter of '67 just a couple of months after the Zen Center had bought it. In the lower parts it was raining, slippery and in far worse condition than at any other time in our history with it. Watkins said that on their way in he kept sliding into the side of the mountain to avoid sliding off the side. He remembered when I came to stay in late March and when Bob Halpern first came walking in with a heavy back pack on a trail from the coast. He remembered fondly my culinary skills. There were only about a dozen of us then and I got into testing what I'd learned at Loring Palmer's and was making weird conglomerations of gruel and casseroles and bread and Bob and Sandy Watkins were the most appreciate of those experiments.
Sandy had a green thumb and so from the first was in the garden which she worked on preparing for the spring and through the summer. He worked on tearing down the dilapidated old wooden building that was where the kitchen would go up. There was still a deck when I moved there and I'd sleep on it under the night sky in the cold until it too was demolished. I missed that stargazing deck as soon as it was gone.
After that he dug footings to pour the foundation for the new stone structure. He said, "We were digging and I was down in this ditch with a pick and here comes Suzuki Roshi. I said, 'Gee I waited all this time to meet a real Zen master and I can't think of a thing to ask or anything.' I was totally blanked out. I wasn't embarrassed or confused. In fact I was surprised.- It was like somebody reached up and turned off the lights. There just wasn't anything to say. And he laughed and went on."
Watkins remembered how Suzuki and Katagiri would sometimes wear white gloves when they worked. That's common in Japan. Reminded him of Mickey Mouse.
"One of Suzuki's one liners," he said, "that I really applied a lot in my life was 'Just do it.' Just do it was like this little island in my stream. Sandy and I came out of high desert where we'd been isolated for a couple of years, and I see a kid on the streets one day with a tee shirt on that said 'just do it.' It blew my mind.
"Another one was 'little by little.' He used it like it's how things happen, how you can accomplish something. Little by little you can do it.
"Roshi and I both had a sweet tooth and sometimes after last sitting period he would come to my cabin and sit on this stump by my bed and pull some candy from his sleeve. We would eat candy and talk for about ten or twenty minutes. Those times were wonderful." Watkins had shaved his head like many of the men at Tassajara at that time. "One night after sitting we were watching the full moon which was very bright and he said, 'Heads, minds, moons, all shinning.'"
At his New Mexico home he told me once, "You remember that Ruthie used to pick yucca flowers and we would eat them in our salads? Some of the leaves had fallen off and the base of the leaf was kind of frayed. Suzuki Roshi said it would make a great sumie brush and so I grabbed a handful of them and he made up some sumi ink and he did two pieces of calligraphy and gave them to me and one of them is hanging in the other room and one of them is put away. One of them says Everything is absolutely perfect and he signed it and put Tassajara Zenshinji 1967 and years later I got these things mounted and the other one was two characters that said Pure Wind. Do you remember how he used to use the word pure a lot? If you get up from zazen and leave the zendo in that frame of mind, that's what he called pure action - without thinking - you just do it - the Nike slogan - if you just do it it's shikantaza. It's the same attitude that you had in the zendo and he used to refer to that as pure practice. I notice Bill Kwong, Jakusho Roshi, using that teaching.
"So he did a few things on the newspaper and started giggling and got real happy and got out some good white paper and did those two pieces of calligraphy and then he laughed and gave those to me and said, 'Now don't tell anybody.' In other words, what I used for a brush. And then years later I'm here in New Mexico and I get his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and there's this calligraphy on the book and it had to be made with those yucca leaves."
"We were working on that wall under the dining room and a couple of guys were talking about something and we were down underneath the bridge and just as they crossed the bridge one of them said, 'Don't make any waves, don't make any waves.' And Suzuki Roshi said, 'What does that mean?' and I said, Don't make more of it than it is. Don't excite the situation. Let it be. And he went, 'Oh,' and he went ahead working. And that evening he used it in lecture."
Bob had been meditating for years but not with any group or teacher. He had trouble with sitting on the floor though due to a knee wound he got in the Korean War, shrapnel. Had a lot of pain but he stuck with it. He would ask questions in lectures that showed he knew something about Buddhism before he came. But he didn't know the correct pronunciation which led to some humorous moments in the zendo. I asked him where he'd learned about Buddhism and what's his story.
"Looking back in time from my viewpoint now is that everything is perfect as Suzuki Roshi said. I spent my first nine years with my father’s mother who was in her 70s, way back in the woods. In rapid time there were boarding schools, military, Catholic, etc. Then a few years on the streets in LA with my aunt, then the Airborne at 16, out a few years, then in prison 3 years where I read everything I could get on Buddhism. I took a pencil and made a dot the size of a dime on the wall of my cell then sat in front of it until things went away. Tried corpse asana lying down but was too much like a trance. Finally I got hold of a D.T. Suzuki book and saw there was a school of sitting. Then I heard of a place near Big Sur and found Tassajara. That's it."
That prison time was for armed robbery. He was against the guns and didn't use one himself, tried to make sure no one else did and no gun was ever used but that counted against him in sentencing which was less than he'd have gotten in subsequent years.
The Watkins contributed so much to Tassajara, we were sorry to see them go. I told Sandy at the time that one good result of them leaving would be she'd be able to get further away from poison oak which it seemed would infect her from the wind. I always called poison oak Tassajara public enemy number one and her poison oak victim number one. Everyone wanted them to stay but they moved on in the fall. Richard Baker tried hard to get them to stay and was mad at Bob for leaving. They were more savvy than most of us and we appreciated their maturity and experience. Suzuki of course was sorry to see them go and told them, "You may leave the monastery but the monastery won't leave you."
In 1969 on a trip with my sister and Bob Halpern looked up tall red-bearded Bob and short, sweet Sandy in Studio City next to Hollywood. It was at that roast beef dinner that Bob Watkins told the story of Suzuki deviously switching his double meat hamburger with two years vegan Bob's grilled cheese sandwich at a Carmel cafe, a story attributed to Bob Halpern in Crooked Cucumber due to something Watkins had said about not wanting his name used. I guess I should have checked back with him one more time because later he let me put everything on cuke.
Before we left that night, Watkins told us be sure to look up his old friend Robert Boissiere in Santa Fe. We did and spent the night with him and his wife on New Year's Eve. Boissiere was a Frenchman who'd become a Hopi shaman. The Watkins knew that area well and moved there not long after our dinner. At some point they broke up but stayed friends. I would visit with Bob in Arroyo Seco above Taos when I was in the area where I'd often stop on my way to or from my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
Bob could often be found working at the Buffalo Dancer, a Southwestern Indian and other jewelry, art, etc. shop on the plaza in Taos. It seemed he managed it with his close friend and owner Duane Hopper who founded it 1972. In recent years when I've seen Bob, he was living in a trailer on Duane's property. We'd talk and smoke a little pot, go to the main house to talk some more and say hi to Duane. Bob always treasured his memories of Tassajara and Suzuki and would bring out memorabilia from that time.
Bob had a long relationship with Duane's brother Dennis. He talked about driving to Mexico and back at high speeds to buy art and other wild times. Dennis could be crazy wild, Duane and Bob, soft-spoken and calm. Dennis could also be abusive if he was drinking. I'd seen that at a party at Maggie Kress's. He told Bob and me to come hang out with him and I said I'd do it right after he woke up so we woke him up at ten in the morning. He reached for a beer and opened it while still in bed. We took a walk in the woods and it was quite nice but later after more drinks he got abusive again, this time with Duane . I told Bob years later that I still felt bad about just sitting and doing nothing when he got that way a few times I was there. Bob said it wouldn't have helped. He said that it would just make things worse. He said that Dennis had even more than once gotten drunk and taunted the Hispanic cops in town till they'd come after him and that he'd drive like a maniac to the Mable Dodge House in the Taos Pueblo where they couldn't follow him - and if they caught him before he got in the car he'd keep yelling degrading things at them till they beat him up. But Bob and Maggie and Duane and lots of folks loved Dennis and said he could be the sweetest, most sensitive person, a recognized expert on art, especially modern art. Bob said he gave everyone the opportunity to be forgiving.
Bob was ordained by Kobun Chino and his home in Arroyo Seco above Taos became the groups’ temple, Hokoji. I went there for zazen as recently as 2013. Bob gave Kobun a great deal of financial support through the years even though he didn’t have a lot to spare.
Steve Jobs had been sitting at the Los Altos zendo and had taken on Kobun as a teacher. He gave Kobun a place to live on his estate. Kobun brought him to Tassajara one day (I don't think Jobs ever practiced there at all as it says in his bio). Kobun performed a marriage ceremony for Jobs and his fiancÚ. Bob said he once called Steve Jobs asking for some financial help for Kobun and that Jobs said he’d only give Kobun money if he came back to live there. Bob asked Kobun why hadn’t he ever asked Jobs for money and he said it had never occurred to him.
Bob, Kobun, and I walked to the site for a home for Kobun in the pine woods beyond the Arroyo Seco zendo. I wonder if it ever got beyond the foundation we admired. Bob told me, "Kobun gave everyone the medicine they required - it was person specific. You had to be careful not to take another person’s. The teaching for me was to hang with Kobun and Suzuki."
Bob had a fall earlier in the year and seemed to be declining some. During treatment it was discovered that he had liver cancer. He was still up and about well into November. He died at 3pm on the 8th of December, Buddha's enlightenment day in our tradition, surrounded by friends. Fifteen minutes before he died, Vanja Palmers and Bob's mate of many years Sandy recited the Maka Hanny Haramita Sutra. Duane was there and his son Dylan, other close friends, and the family dog. In the evening there was a service at Hokoji dedicated to Bob, the co-founder.
Bob was always giving too, a gentle soul, wise and kind. Last contact we had was in October of this year when he had that Suzuki calligraphy scanned by a friend and sent to me. We had some good back and forth but not a word of complaint from him. He didn't like a big deal made of himself. The present priest at Hokoji said that Bob wanted to die well and he did. Darn. Can't visit him anymore. Thanks Bob.