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ZC Stories

Read Zen Moirés by Leland


by Leland Smithson




Spinoffs & Spin Backs

If you put a mirror in a box, does the mirror reflect the darkness in the box?”

He looked at me for a moment then turned to an attendant and asked for a glass of water. The Zen Center lecture hall was packed. The ‘horseness of a horse’ and ‘beingness of being’ responses all seemed to have ended with my question to Chogyam Trungpa. As a prolonged silence fell over the room I felt a sudden and excruciating embarrassment at having asked the wrong question. Trungpa was just sitting there waiting for me to say something more. Finally he swung back with a bored look, and after pondering me for what felt like a couple more minutes:

You put the mirror in the box, you figure it out.”

I was an insect pinned to the wall. I was a tiny embarrassing person in full lotus holding a little black box. My first hammer blow into obscurity. That was his answer, I realized. And as if to underline his point, the repartee of head-spinning semantics began anew with other questions from the crowd and even wittier responses from Trungpa.

This controversial Tibetan Buddhist had captured my imagination. The empty cleverness of the question was easily answered by science, yet Chogyam had speared me with his Vajra. After so many ‘profound’ Zen lectures, this simple exchange shook me up. Trungpa had reached out to tap the empty noggin, and the sound of it echoed around me for years. The exchange was a wakeup call after five years of Zendo-wall face plants and kyosaku encouragements.

Ed Brown rose out of the Soto profundity with his carbon-marshmallow humor, and then several years later with his ‘potato chip’ lecture at Green Gulch Farm in which somber monks handed out potato chips so everyone could experience a ‘potato chip’ moment together. Lew Richmond and David Chadwick gave hilarious lectures. Even the ever-serious Irishman Paul Haller, picked up the baton once in a while. Yet the serious streak in Zen Center as a whole had already begun to overwhelm the old quirks and catastrophes of the past.

One such memorable series of catastrophes occurred during the last two or three summers I was at Tassajara when alcohol was allowed monks during the July 4th celebrations. Initially things went well with our pot-smoking beer-guzzling trance music jams in the lower barn, but by the third year some of us were gravitating toward the swimming pool. OMG! Guests now witnessed the bell-ringers and chanting enlightenment seekers laughing hysterically and drinking beer in bathing suits. This jittery vision of monks letting loose in some sort of catharsis shocked them and complaints were made. Our image of calm was losing its authenticity and order had to be restored for the Zen Center business brand to survive. The Puritan response ended the practice.

But there is no replacement for seeing all sides of the monks you practice with. There is even a special terminology in Japan for cutting business deals with prospective partners only after you’ve been drunk together.

Now after eight years of practice at the ripe age of twenty-five my desire for some connection to a teacher peaked. Richard Baker-Roshi was still too busy integrating Zen into America, so I had to look elsewhere in ZC for a teacher.

Being a runner, I learned Reb Anderson also ran. I joined him a few times on his runs through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach. The usually severe Reb softened on these occasions. At say five miles in and pushing a strenuous pace he showed a remarkable mindfulness for his surroundings, and on two occasions we ran off trail to spread awareness into some of the darker places. (At the time there were reports of rapes and muggings in GG Park, and this was Reb’s way of putting a presence out there). We would talk about Zen as we went. Though we ran only a few times, these moments have stayed with me. What he was doing wasn’t kinhin exactly, but something like it and far more grueling. For the first time in a long time the feeling of being connected to someone who carried the teachings into even these kinds of activities was inspiring. (Several years later I heard the story about Reb. What stood out for me in that story was how Reb was victimized in a bad neighborhood, victimized by the legal system, and then re-victimized by not a few people in Zen Center for his lapse. That lack of compassion was saddening, and once again, Puritan). But having a running comrade wasn’t enough, and I decided to move back to Canada.

My final meeting with Richard Baker-Roshi was sad in that he offered to ordain me at the point I was leaving. But I was already in Spinoff mode. Besides, being ordained had bothered me in ZC because there were some ordained students who considered themselves more mindful than those they had started with, only after being ordained. I later learned it wasn’t a meritocracy thing – you weren’t asked, you had to ask to be ordained.

So life in Vancouver began with the creation of new friendships. For two years after I bowed and scraped before my homemade alter, sat zazen, and continued training for a marathon I never ran. Zen and Zen Center faded into a frenetic haze of work and party life.

Five years later: In my Johnny-Cash-black leather jacket and studs and celebrating life in the underground Industrial music scene with the likes of Skinny Puppy and Frontline Assembly, I started to miss something. Alien Sex Fiends, Swans, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Mortal Coil were part of my oeuvre then, but there was a sense that burnout and boredom were approaching. With my after-burners starting to fizzle, I learned had been unwittingly carrying that innocuous sounding Buddhist torch of ‘selflessness’ toward a precipice. So the Spin back toward ZC began with the need to get away from the Vancouver scene.

Contacting a former friend from Zen Center, Ernie Gundling – who was then living in Japan, I quickly jumped on a flight for Tokyo to escape the Charybdis.

Japan became a touchstone. Eight years worth of experiences in ZC were finally illuminated after I began to see how Zen Buddhism was embodied in Japanese culture. How the blend of indigenous heritage and Buddhist teachings unfurl in a dual richness cannot be anticipated without going to Japan. So still donning a blue snakeskin wristband and studded leather belt, I sat my first Rinzai winter sesshin in over six years with Harada-Roshi in Okayama. With its old graveyard, ancient Shinto shrine further up the hill, Zen bells echoing through the surrounding town, and those early morning Tai Chi moments with Harada-roshi, that temple was an exhilarating place to be.

I lived just outside the monastery with Ernie and Laurie who were having their first child, Christopher. Besides starting work on his PhD thesis on Gift Giving in Japanese Corporations, Ernie was also translating Japanese Buddhist texts. (Ernie later went on to start up Meridian Resources and lecture at UC Berkeley.)

David Chadwick stayed for three and a half years in that same residence outside the temple.

Tom Ninkovich (truck driver, radio host, typographist, and former Zen student) also followed my visit to the monastery and later stayed in Kyoto at Priscilla’s (Priscilla was an important facilitator for many Westerners who came to Japan at that time, and later helped Harada-Roshi come to America.

Those four months of adventure in Japan brought back memories of California. All those midnight and daytime bicycle rides through Kyoto exploring the city’s cultural life resonated with an equally vibrant city: San Francisco.

After less than a month in gray Vancouver, I contacted Peter Van Der Sterre who invited me down with him and Gene De Schmidt for demolition work on the old bathhouse complex at Tassajara.

It was here during the offseason period working on the bathhouse demolition that I met Arthur Okamura and Elizabeth Tuomi’s daughter, Jane Okamura.

Though passed, Arthur Okamura and Elizabeth were always a part of Zen Center, particularly Elizabeth, who spent at least a year at Tassajara cooking in the kitchen. Arthur and Liz met each other at the University of Chicago, after which they married and moved to Bolinas, where (few people know) they bought the house Isadora Duncan built there before her death. Besides Beth, who has taught at Oxford, and Ethan, a well-known Marin musician, and Jonathan, a Marin surfer star, they had Jane. If there is an inner kernel of Zen Center and Zen practice, it has always needed a social-cultural shell of people who are its advocates and sympathizers, and all of the Okamura’s have always been that.

Jane Okamura is a Japanese-American cowgirl who, in the past, won many awards barrel-racing horses at rodeos throughout California and Nevada. At the time I met her, Jane was at Tassajara recovering from that life on the frontier. My connection to Jane was a strong one, and by the time the demolition work was over and I was to return to Vancouver, I made a promise to return to San Francisco.

Within six months of that promise we were living together and working at Greens under David Chadwick. (And how strange are the parallels, but after Arthur and Liz broke up, David and Elizabeth became a pair for nine years. David renovated and expanded the studio at the house in Bolinas to become a sound studio and facilitated many events there). Two years later Jane and I were mother and father to Taro Tuomi Smithson. Little Buddha we called him. He barely ever cried. Once again, David was around for that.

Five years later I was still in San Francisco but now working for George Chakos and his Chroma Painting. Some friends in Vancouver put out the word for me to join them in the IATSE film union in Vancouver, and so again began the irregular work oscillations between two residences (much as in the logging years). I took up Shorinji Kempo at a Zen temple in Japan town where I later learned Suzuki-Roshi had first come to live in California. Though not the original building, it is Sokoji. I worked for years at the Cherry Blossom Festival for Sokoji making and serving ‘octopus balls’ and performing Shorinji Kempo demonstrations at the festival.

Jane and I separated. A couple of friends introduced me to an Irish Catholic girl from Boston working for Chanel. Susan McAlarney and I were married in the Shakespeare Gardens in Golden Gate Park, and after a few years in San Francisco, moved to New York. A training executive for Chanel in Manhattan, Susan became fast friends with Gavin Newsom’s wife Kimberly Guilfoyle after she moved to New York to become part of CNN’s court reporting following his inauguration as Mayor. Between the two of them hobnobbing between media and fashion parties, Susan and I soon ran into difficulties and decided to call it quits. Not long after that Gavin and Kimberly split.

Returning to SF, I got caught up in all the talk about the new/old Alumni gatherings that were getting started. That ZC would go back to those who had been a part of its roots was inspiring. That David Chadwick would help initiate this and establish a website ( that connects us all, I thought was a clarion call for re-emergence. How it fares for others I don’t know, but the diversity of backgrounds and life trajectories, our Spinoffs and Spin backs, has rich possibilities. (Talking with Ulysses recently about the 2012 event at Greens was uplifting. He described a whole new generation of students who are throwing off the old Puritan streak and celebrating in an open way).

Inspired, I started calling and reconnecting with some of my older alumni. One of my favorites was Dan Gourley, who I’d worked on the rock wall with at Tassajara. Always a liminal type in ZC, Dan helped to establish the need to put computers in the schools of the San Francisco School district. He was always the guy at Tassajara with cartons of coke-a-cola under his bed. We often had long conversations on topics as diverse as AI, satori, and Science Fiction that went on for hours. Always the Science Fiction go-to-guy for locals, with a library of tomes that covered the walls of his one bedroom flat on Buchanan and Haight Street, Dan told me a few stories of his personal encounters with Suzuki-Roshi at Tassajara.

I was shocked to learn he’s been fighting cancer for three years and that there is a resurgence of bad cells throughout his body. Who would have known? He is another one who contributed greatly, though peripherally, to the growth of Zen Center. Touched by Suzuki-Roshi back in the day, he spent several training periods at Tassajara and has reached back to touch ZC in many unseen, unrecognized ways. Though he could never make it because he was too sick, the Alumni gatherings have put a sparkle in his eye.

His blood and his stories may soon pass into the sea. But he is a fighter, so who knows? He’s one more bright but hidden presence – one more mirror, still flickering away in the dark Zen Center treasure chest.

Yes, Chogyam, I may have put a mirror in the box, but I forgot to mention the firefly I left inside it. So when the light is gone, is the mirror gone also?

No, because the other part of the mirror is outside the box.