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Zen Moirés

by Leland Smithson

What draws a seventeen-year-old Logger from British Columbia to study Zen Buddhism in California?

How does a kid with raging hormones and no experience of life sit motionless on a zafu in a Soto Buddhist Zendo for hours on end? Really?

These were the doubts I faced from everyone I encountered during my eight years at San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Springs. I was an anomaly and always felt like one. I was too young, too inexperienced, and too arcane to grasp. I was too much of so little to interest anyone. Eventually I left because of the utter lack of contact with any teacher who understood me, or who I could understand. I regretted wasting those critical years in a practice that didn’t seem to facilitate any useful education or skill development that would have made my life easier. For several years after I partied in a driving attempt to expunge it all from my system. And when I finally did manage to blur this former Zen student into an Industrialist Punker guy, the scales tipped the other way. At the point of burnout, the soil was turned, the attachment severed, and new sprouts began to emerge. That past started to return and resonate with me. Those I had known in ZC began to resurface as the teachers they had always been and the jewels in my Indra’s Net I will carry to the end.

I arrived in San Francisco in 1973 around the first anniversary of Suzuki-Roshi’s death. I was Issan Danai’s (Tommy Dorsey’s) first guest student. His second, and my dorm mate, was a tough-looking red-haired hippy/carpenter guy who drove around in an old pickup truck with a steam trunk full of work tools. ‘That’ was Peter Vander Sterre, a graduate in Economics from Harvard.

We were two very different novices sharing the same dorm during a transition year, chaperoned around by a cheerful, caring, former transvestite entertainer and later Zen teacher, and founder of Issan-Ji, Tommy Dorsey.

A strange sadness and energy filled the air back then. Something big had passed and something else was taking its place. New developments were underway after the installment of Richard Baker-roshi leaving numerous early Suzuki students confused and meandering. Zen Center was in a state of flux.

My intent had always been to get to Tassajara Springs. I learned about it from the Ram Dass book, "Be Here Now", calling Tassajara Springs the next day on the camp radiophone. Inside a week, with four months pay in my pocket, I was flown out of the logging camp on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in a three-seat propeller plane to Vancouver, where I took a Greyhound bus to California.

The dorm was only good for a month after which I had to live outside the building. I found a place, applied to go to Tassajara Springs, and after remaining in the city for another three months, returned to another camp on the Queen Charlotte Islands. A few months later I was back in San Francisco, and inside six, on my way to Tassajara Springs.

Memories of those times have blended throughout the years from when I first arrived, went to Tassajara, came back, returned to Tassajara, and came back to SF. For the first four years these cycles incorporated British Columbian logging camps. On my return trips to those coastal bunkhouses and mess halls, I carried my zafu and a black robe. On several occasions I had the bed removed from the room to retain my tatami mat experience of Japanese Zen Buddhism. The practice ended on my third tour after telling my roommate (two men to a room in bunkhouses) why I was removing the bed, sitting on a round black pillow, and facing a wall in a black bath robe. After explaining some rudimentary points of Buddhist philosophy, I went back to my business of achieving enlightenment.

There was a knock on the door.

"Come on in," my roommate said.

The door opened and twenty loggers piled into the room with beers, coffee, and Whiskey bottles.

"What are you doing?" someone asked.

I swiveled around to face the crowd, still sitting in lotus position.

Some of the guys were genuinely curious, others skeptical. And then there was the asshole Bullcook: "You’re fucking crazy!"

I attempted an explanation. ‘Life is suffering . . .’

"No it’s not. Here, try one of these . . ." said one guy, handing me a beer.

"You’re a fucking idiot!" pronounced the Bullcook, and stormed out of the room.

My explanations did not impress. They slowly filtered out of the room shaking their heads. I avoided ridicule only because I was the hardest working Rigging-Slinger in the camp.

I decided to forgo the Japanese aesthetic for a while.

Then the problem solved itself.

Within four years of my entering Zen Center, I was able to stay in California working for some of its businesses. There was work at the Green Grocer under Charles Cagnon, at Tassajara Bakery under Peter Overton, and then painting work outside with George Chakos. I was soon to discover the 191 Haight Street parties to lighten the Zen rigors. After a while I even got out to see David and Steve play in various punk rock clubs around town. Of all the Priests in Zen Center, David Chadwick was the most Texas cowboy Zen got. He stretched the limits of what it was to be a Buddhist. He was the first punk-rock Anarchist Buddhist, and probably inspired the movement.

At around this time Green Gulch Farm was donated to Zen Center and I went to work helping David Schneider and others turn a cow barn into a Zendo, and the fields into the organic gardens they ended up becoming through Wendy Johnson and Peter Rudnick. Japanese carpenters came in from overseas to work on Green Gulch Farm buildings and facilitate Japanese craftsmanship in American carpenters.

Then came Greens at Fort Mason, with Debra Madison as chef, now with Annie Somerville as executive chef. By this time Peter Vander Sterre was helping with Greens construction and working on the nearby Cowell Theatre. From that rough-cut hippy economist and dorm mate came the Priest, then the contractor/developer. Many other people in ZC were even more radically changed by their experiences there. Here was a place in ferment, continuously driven forward into new territory by the visionary Richard Baker-Roshi.

Artists of all kinds contributed. From the wall paintings and redwood sculptures at Greens, to those of vanished Tassajara Bakery, to the color-conception hallways painted in buildings around SFZC, to the benches and stonework at Tassajara Springs, artists added their stuff to the growing Japanese tradition in America. (The bathhouse at Tassajara Springs is a stunning example of the possibilities). Green Gulch Farm, Tassajara Springs, SFZC have featured troves of art and artist contributions that have shaped each place. The evolution of the SF Zen Center Library and all those extraordinary individuals who made it happen is yet another story to be told. Where is it now, I wonder?

But much of this happened later, long after this young logger headed to his first real monastic experience in Zen Mountain Center.

The weather was the worst in over thirty years the year I went to Tassajara. Snow covered Jamesburg the day John Bailes, Eric Larsen and myself arrived. Lew Welch and Blanche Hartman managed the outpost back then. After a big meal by the potbelly stove they filled us in on the current conditions.

David Chadwick, Peter and Ann Overton, and some others, had just hiked into Tassajara a few days before. They had suffered for over twenty hours on the road in. Word was sent back NOT to proceed without snowshoes as the snow on the ridge was over two feet deep. So Blanche drove us up as far as the Jeep would go, and John and Eric and I got out with our backpacks and snowshoes to begin the trek in. It was snowing, cold, and we were tired when we finally reached the ridge to look over the mountains. We marveled over David and his crew’s feat. Tired and grumpy now, and wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into, John Bailes suddenly stopped and broke out into a Li Po poem recital.

You had to be there. Exhausted and sore, and now Li Po?

There’s that first moment of hearing a crazy thing, and then the moment after when you actually absorb it. John’s words remade the landscape. We were now three drunken monks snowshoeing through the mountains to some ancient Chinese Monastery. As poem after poem unfurled in the snowy air, our trek got easier and easier.

Linda Cutts, the Ino of Tassajara, greeted us when we finally did make it through the gate after nearly eight hours hiking. If any of us had ever needed a warm and cheery mom in that moment, she was it.

Tassajara was magic to me. Coming from up North I had seen snow, but not lit by kerosene lanterns strung around the settlement like Christmas ornaments. All through the night and day you heard cracking limbs and falling trees because the sycamores and oaks couldn’t take the snow. They were breaking all around us. (This was the fuel that stoked the Los Padres National Park fire two-thee years later)

When the snow finally did melt the cleanup began. Now the handy cowboy logger could shine with his chainsaw and axe. Ted Marshal and I were often partnered around chainsaw work. Eventually it was the two of us who started felling the big Oak tree next to the old zendo, kitchen, and library complex years later. (Who doesn’t recall that amazing tree the Ino often greeted us under, where we sometimes met for work meetings, or sat with our bag lunches?)

Unfortunately, before all that could begin, it was time for Tangaryo with Dana Dantine. Between the odd passing of air, the belches, and those painful groaning sounds between our leg adjustments and the whacking sticks, Dana and I eventually bonded in that endless dull silence. I really didn’t know I had an ass until I sat Tangaryo, or that being able to move around and see something other than a wall was actually refreshing. But nothing quite beats the first bath you have after Tangaryo . . .

The phone lines in and out of Tassajara were down for months. The road to Jamesburg was often closed. Later, after the fire, when the mudslides and falling trees continued, road clearing was a daily crew activity. Come spring, John Bailes headed off through fields and mountainsides covered in poison oak to clear the phone lines, after which he returned a delirious red man to spend weeks groaning under various medications. At least he was no longer reciting poems. As his neighbor, I vouch for John’s excruciating sacrifice to clear the phone lines.

Tassajara was my University. Where almost everyone else had already graduated from college, I now began the task of catching up. Richard Baker-roshi granted me the privilege of continuing my reading past fire watch, so for a period of close to a year I managed on four hours sleep a night reading book after book. This special privilege ended however when I pushed the envelope well past the time I had agreed to and was reprimanded. As the teacher, he was obliged to stay up until my light went out.

I thank Baker-roshi for staying up with me for so long before the take down.

Not all the reading revolved around Buddhism. If Tassajara had originally been Spanish and before that a Native American healing place, then I should research Native American culture. Native Shamanism became a topic of study. Sweat lodges, cold streams, and vision quests became the rage. Wait a minute . . . didn’t Tassajara have a steam room and a creek?

I stopped eating for days and snuck out in the middle of the night to the Bathhouse. Alone under a full moon in the steam room, I drummed for hours on a plastic yogurt container in an effort to find my special spirit. The cold plunge in the creek made my head light. After four nights of continuous drumming and sweating and freezing water, I started to hear voices. The thing was so freaky, I never returned to those midnight vision quests.

That is only one vignette. There are as many stories as there are people who have been to Tassajara Springs. With so many moments and conversations to recall, so many people who have had other adventures, Tassajara is drenched with histories few of us have shared. Here are a few other teasers:

Roasting marshmallows over a kerosene lamp with Ed Brown and discussing the relative merits of carbon in one’s diet.

Summer dining room work and days off with Ted Marshal, Jane H. and Teresa Rivera.

Howard Dewar’s community poetry readings on the Big Rock.

The Narrows sun tanning adventures.

Talking Nietzsche and Kierkegaard with Keith Meyer next to the Stone room Sycamores.

Heading into the mountains to sing and chant as a practicing Doan.

The spur off Tassajara creek leading to the ‘three bowls’.

Suzuki Roshi’s gravesite and the waterfall on the other side.

Learning to drum and chant with Ulysses Lowery.

Sneaking into the Stone rooms in winter to read Teilard de Chardin, Chinese Buddhist Monasteries, and fantasy novels.

Kitchen beam leaping.

Early morning gruel making in the old Tassajara kitchen.

Birthdays in the old Tassajara kitchen courtyard.

The endless list of moments that others have had in this microcosm of Zenshinji, SFZC and GGZC, would fill a library. Sadly, accounts have vanished with the people who have passed.

One more for good measure: The forest fire was among the most dramatic events for me at Tassajara.

The alarm bell begins to ring as the Forest Service orders the evacuation of Zenshinji. Billowing black clouds have begun to appear in the direction of the Narrows. Everyone races to get their belongings and assemble for rides to Jamesburg. At Jamesburg roadblocks have been set up to stop people from entering the Park. Meetings are held to decide what to do with Tassajara: Go in and defend the monastery against the fire or leave it to the Forest Service fire crews. Richard Baker quickly organizes a group that includes Jay Simoneux, Ted Marshal, myself, and several others. We were breaking the law going in at that point.

Several trips are made where we cover the main building roofs with blankets and set up sprinklers to keep them wet. The alarm bell goes off again and we leave, only to return when the wind shifts. The entire top of the ridge has huge Caterpillars clearing away trees and brush with firefighters back-burning on either side of the top to stop the fire. Somehow the fire misses Tassajara by going up one valley instead of another. Various Zen Center teams are left behind to manage and watch over Zenshinji as the fire rages elsewhere.

For miles around the entire sky is blank with smoke cover. Most of the wildlife has long since fled. A strange limbo hangs over everything there as we go about our fire watches or see off fire crews. We soon learn the fire has jumped the ridge and again have to evacuate, this time in early evening. The fire has already passed across areas of the road leaving a fired out desolation of trees without limbs. Trees have been burned out inside but still stand, their trunks glowing like jack-o-lanterns all over the hillsides. Reaching the ridge and again gazing out over that great murky expanse of smoke that has turned the sun into a moon, we watch burning embers falling from the sky and fires flickering to life on distant slopes. The thing is like some hellish, medieval landscape inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.

Long after this chaos there will be a moonscape of leafless stumps and ash, yet Tassajara was spared.

The mudslides afterward went on endlessly. It was one of the toughest training periods on record for pick and shovel work.

Nothing remains of me at Zenshinji now other than a few parts of that old rock wall I helped build with Dan Gourley. The wall faces toward the old dining room and creek.

Next to being a Doan for one training period, stonework was one of my favorite jobs at Tassajara. Searching for stones out on the Flats or in the creek bed. Moving them with the old green truck. Finding a shape that fits. Fitting the shape to a face of other stones. Experiencing that moment when a face you have worked so hard on meets another face, and they form a perfect kiss.

If there is anything to draw from my experiences in Zen Center, it is that a place’s absences the things that have passed and are no longer visible, are its most valuable. Each of Zen Centers three places has its sunyata and its ghosts.

That big Oak tree that once stood before the old Tassajara kitchen and library is one of these for me.

Unseen now, it has reclined back into the seed of all that Tassajara is.