By Adam Tebbe
Kind. Considerate. Radiant. Playful. These are words people used to describe Katherine Sobun Thanas when I told them I’d be doing this piece on her. Katherine passed away at 9:45 this morning at the ripe age of 85, this after being hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit of Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz (having slipped in to a coma stemming from a serious head injury earlier in the week). After being taken off life support, Katherine was taken home and placed under hospice care. She was surrounded by her loved ones and disciples in her final moments.
“Katherine had strong integrity about trying to live her life in a way that made sense to her. She always tried; she never gave up. She was definitely a complex woman who would explore further and look deeper into her own mind than most others did. She was tenacious in pursuit of her understanding. I admired that determination. Rest well now, Katherine; you’ve earned it. Rest well.” – Eiko Joshin Carolyn Atkinson, Everyday Zen Center
Abbot of Santa Cruz Zen Center and founder of the Monterey Bay Zen Center, Thanas was a contributor to Kazuaki Tanahashi’s book Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dōgen (Shambhala, 2006) — a followup to his book Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Master Dōgen (North Point Press, 1995). Thanas was author and Zen teacher Lin Jensen‘s first introduction to the practice of the Sōtō Zen style of meditation, known as shikantaza. In his interview here at Sweeping Zen, Jensen explains that his friends recommended he go to her place in Monterey after expressing an interest in meditation. She provided him with some instruction on how to assume the zazen posture, facing the wall as is customary in the Sōtō tradition. He recalls:
“When she was through with these simple instructions, I asked her, “What am I supposed to learn from sitting like this?”
Katherine replied, “Oh. Sitting will show you that.””
From the Santa Cruz Zen Center on June 24, 2012: “At 4 PM today there will be the ringing of 108 bells at the Santa Cruz Zen Center, 113 School Street, and at Katherine’s home, 114 Towne Terrace, Santa Cruz.”
Before coming to Zen practice, Thanas was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, pursuing a degree in fine arts, with previous degrees in journalism, sociology and art. Thanas began her Zen training at age 39 in 1967 with Shunryu Suzuki roshi and trained at all of Zen Center’s three facilities — City Center, Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm. Suzuki roshi and Dainin Katagiri roshi were both her teachers early on and, later, Richard Bakerroshi, and Tenshin Anderson roshi. In a 2002 interview with the late staff writer Nancy Redwine of the Santa Cruz Sentinel (link not available), Thanas talked about an encounter she had with Suzuki roshi at the first shosan (a kind of dharma combat) at Tassajara during the first sesshin. Thanas said, “Inside there’s a yes and a no.”1
“Follow the yes,” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi told her.
“At first I didn’t know what he meant.”
Later that day, Thanas was struck with a vision of falling flat on her face — and she knew Zen would be her practice.
“If I said yes, I could fail,” Thanas says, her soft voice full of laughter. “As soon as I saw that, I thought: Oh, is that all?”
This was a real turning point for her.
Thanas worked as the retail manager at Tassajara Bakery, which no longer exists. Again, in her Sentinel interview, she describes that period.
“My dad had run a small working-class restaurant, the Manhattan, in Berkeley, and so it was like coming home. But unlike many of the people I was working with, I’m not from the flower-child generation. I’m from the generation that was ambitious and wanted to get ahead and accomplish things. I had high expectations and wasn’t always easy to work with.”
In 1988 she received dharma transmission from her teacher, Tenshin Reb Anderson, and soon left her teaching position at Tassajara, starting the Monterey Bay Zen Center that same year. She began teaching at Santa Cruz Zen Center in 1989, where she was installed as Abbot on Sunday, July 21, 2002 in a Mountain Seat Ceremony (the final empowerment in Soto Zen).
“Abbot means to abide and maintain,” she says. “That’s how I’ve understood what I’ve been doing.”
She once described her early years at the Santa Cruz Zen Center as difficult. “I spent my first few years here feeling really isolated. Gradually, I became more comfortable. Working together with people, the boundaries began to shift. Now I’m learning to play with people.” Again, in her Sentinel interview with Redwine, Thanas said,“The Zen Center Santa Cruz is one of the best-kept secrets in town. We keep a low profile. Our lineage is sitting quietly, doing nothing.”
In October of 2009 Kokyo Henkel took over teaching responsibilities at the Santa Cruz Zen Center, with Thanas staying as Abbot. Speaking with Good Times Weekly in 2010, Thanas reflects, “I’ve often thought that what I was doing before Henkel came was creating a wholesome environment for the community. They could come and weed, paint, do some cooking, do some meditation. I’ve had really modest expectations.” Henkel turned to look at her and said, “I think it’s very profound to create [this] community in modern American culture. There’s so little sense of community. Zen Center does have that community feeling. I think we shouldn’t underestimate the value of that.” 2
Following Henkel’s takeover of teaching responsibilities at the center, Thanas transmitted the dharma to 4 successors in the years that followed: Fugan Eugene Bush, D.D., Robert Reese, Onryu Patrick Teverbaugh, and Kathy Whilden.
Our condolences to Katherine’s family and sangha.
Enji Angie Boissevain
Katherine came into my life when she moved to Santa Cruz from Tassajara and knew no one in town. It was her need for company and peers that brought us together. It was our delight that it worked out, and that we became good friends. We met once a month for years.
We were old ladies lunching together. We were teachers sharing challenging questions. We were women with painful woman stories it was good to share. We were Dharma Sisters sharing our Dharma concerns and joys.
We practiced together formally only rarely, and in conversation always disagreed on proper ways and forms of practice. She often questioned me about my teacher Kobun’s ways, but taught me many formal details that Kobun had failed to pass on to his students. Her continual questioning, continual study, continual opening herself to new truths…her presence…was an immense and precious teaching for me. Katherine was famous for her strict practice, and for her great great warmth and generosity. Her dedicated life was a gift. – Enji Angie Boissevain, Floating Zendo
Eiko Joshin Carolyn Atkinson
Katherine Thanas has been a presence in my life for more than twenty-five years. She was a friend, an acupuncture client, an exercise companion. At times, she seemed almost like a sibling. And she was truly a force of nature. Katherine moved to Santa Cruz, California, to become the Zen teacher at a little meeting house in which I was a founding member. Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi was the teacher when we began our group; then he moved away and eventually we asked Katherine to take his place. With her continuing efforts, she gradually transformed our zendo into the Santa Cruz Zen Center. She was a powerful presence in many people’s lives.
In knowing her over these years, I would say that few people have ever matched Katherine for the commitment she made to her own learning process. I watched her in the first several years of her teaching here in Santa Cruz, and Katherine always kept studying. She kept asking; she would examine and question, over and over. She worked hard to hone her understanding of Zen, as a way of living a life. And when she came up against a difficult issue, she really hung on. She didn’t stop pursuing the issues or bury complex questions. She would continue searching until she felt she had found an understanding that held up for her.
Katherine had strong integrity about trying to live her life in a way that made sense to her. She always tried; she never gave up. She was definitely a complex woman who would explore further and look deeper into her own mind than most others did. She was tenacious in pursuit of her understanding. I admired that determination. Rest well now, Katherine; you’ve earned it. Rest well.
Katherine Thanas first taught me to sit zazen. It was summer, and I was building a studio for my friends, Tey and Elliot Roberts, at their home in the Carmel Highlands on the Big Sur coast of California. The project took several weeks, and Tey, who was a practicing Buddhist, encouraged me to come and sit with the Sangha that met in Carmel. “If you come on the first Tuesday of the month,” she told me, “Katherine will teach you how to sit.” So I went, and priest Thanas taught me proper zazen posture, what to do with my hands and eyes and with the thoughts that might arise. I asked, ”What am I supposed to learn from facing a wall like this?” She said, “The sitting will teach you that.” Then the rest of the Sangha arrived and I was left to work it out on my own.
That very first night’s sitting must have already taught me something, something simple perhaps, like it was good for me to sit like this. Forty-five minutes facing a wall with my legs aching, and I was somehow compelled to continue. I sat the very next morning before going to work on the studio project, and then sat again that night, and every morning and night from then on. I’ve never quit. After a few weeks of sitting with the Carmel Sangha, the studio was finished and I headed home to the mountains where Karen and I lived in a remote mountain valley. For the next five years, I sat alone, without a teacher other than zazen itself and without any Sangha companionship other than that of a pine board bedroom wall thirty inches from the tip of my nose. Katherine Thanas was right: as it turned out the solitary sitting held all the teaching I needed. – Lin Jensen, Chico Zen Sangha
Katherine Thanas died yesterday. I met Katherine when she first came to sit and practice with Suzuki Roshi and the rest of us in 1967. She was older than many of us, late thirties, was quiet and curious. Katherine always questioned assumptions, not in a contrarian way, really sincerely. Sometimes she’d say things that challenged the general group assumptions. And she remained this way. She went to the talk of another Zen teacher in Santa Cruz where her zendo is located and when his talk was over and he was taking questions she asked, “Why doesn’t the dharma work?”
She had such questions and had criticism of some of the teaching she received from Suzuki Roshi, yet she continued to be practice and teach in his lineage.
As a student and a teacher she never assumed a higher status or pretended to know anything more than whom she was with including a new student off the street. My agent and friend Michael Katz says he felt especially close to her, that she met everyone on level ground.
Poet and friend Jane Hirshfield wrote recently, “When I feel my way toward Katherine right now, what I feel inside myself, without any foundation but there, is her strong practice spirit. That it is all right to live and it is all right to die.”
I’m sorry Katherine won’t be there in Santa Cruz to look up when I’m in town. Farewell dear friend.
- David Chadwick (cuke.com)
*All unattributed quotes of Katherine Sobun Thanas in this article were taken from her interview with the late Nancy Redwine in a piece for the Santa Cruz Sentinel dated August 10, 2002.