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ZC Stories



The Summer of 74

- Danny Parker

In the spring of 1974, I had decided I was going to find out about authentic Zen practice.

Like most American 19 year olds in that era, I had plenty of problems. Would Zen be a way to somehow end all that? Two years earlier, in 1972, I had read Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen and then Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. While Kapleau’s explosive descriptions of enlightenment were tantalizing, there was something so authentic and moving about Suzuki’s writings. 

I decided this was the Zen guy who really had something to say. The strange part was, however, that while it moved me, I mostly couldn’t understand it! I was reading more about Zen– Alan Watts and the usual books, and the other Suzuki, D.T. Suzuki, seemed to be saying in that practice with a Zen master was often needed. Maybe you needed to meet these guys to “get it.”

I felt strangely driven by something altogether foreign– like Zen magnetism.  Looking at pictures and magazines in the local library, there were photographs of monks sitting meditation before manicured rock gardens with captions like. “In deepest thought...” Enlightenment: a knowledge beyond knowledge, beyond words and even human understanding.

That’s for me!

Anyway, seeing that Suzuki was in San Francisco, I came up with a plan. I would save a bunch of money, buy a car and drive out there and get enlightened. I was living in Florida with my family and just out of high school so all this was a tall order.  Still, I did pretty much as I had planned. I accumulated a bunch of cash. My father helped me buy a car and decided I would tent-camp my way to San Francisco.            That was my brain wave.

But could I pay Suzuki to take me on as a fledgling distant monk for a summer before I started college?  I called them on the telephone.

The first shock was learning the Suzuki Roshi was dead.

There was no internet in those days and I wasn’t on a mailing list. Florida really was the Zen wilderness then. The other bad news was that there was no way to become a monk for the summer.  I could come for three days and no more; there was no summer study program. You could pay for your three days for food and accommodation, but that was it. I was completely flummoxed the news on both counts. What now?

For a time, I despaired. Suzuki was gone, but I did get a newsletter from the Zen Center showing that a successor, Richard Baker, was now leading the organization. Maybe the enlightenment teaching was still in play!

Being a precocious kid, I wrote San Francisco Zen Center and proposed that I pay for staying the whole summer at their standard rate. I would call them on the telephone and confirm the possibility.

Sure enough, I called and spoke to a helpful person on the phone who located someone else who had received my letter. While what I wanted was highly irregular, they told me, it could be done. I must send a check for the amount to come for the summer and propose the dates. I agreed to all that, eventually figuring out that I could send them a money order larger than any financial transaction I had ever managed. 

Then there was a huge problem, however. My parents, in particular, my father went ballistic when he learned what I was planning to do. Why was I doing something so crazy?  Why was I wasting all my money? 

I was joining a cult! I could be killed, or even worse, brainwashed. He forbade me to go. No arguments.

And for the first time in my life I crossed my father. If I respected him, he said, I would not go. “I do respect you,” I told him, “but I am still going.” Even against his wishes. We went through an argument over this daily until the day I departed. It was a very terrible series of weeks and I think my sisters who were left at home after I left never really forgave me for leaving that summer. They suffered even after I was gone.

The trip went fairly well. Driving across the United States for the first time over a ten day period and alone was a fantastic experience– even after having transmission trouble in Norman, Oklahoma. I ventured south. The southwest was an alien and enchanting land unlike anything I had ever seen and reaching the coast I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the Redwoods and Big Sur.

Then just a couple of days after reaching California, I drove into San Francisco and managed to find my way to the big multi-story brick building at 300 Page Street. This was the San Francisco Zen Center.

I parked my car in a hard to find spot nearby and knocked on the door. “I am here to do Zen,” I announced after someone opened the door. I gave them my name. “Who is expecting you?” I didn’t know. I mentioned that Mr. Baker was the teacher, maybe I should see him. “He’s in Japan!” the puzzled receptionist told me.  “I am here to spend the summer studying Zen,” I insisted. They shuffled off and were gone for quite a while. A fellow came back. He had a shaved head and looked young and thoughtful. He talked to me for a few minutes after someone came in from the office with some papers.

I learned that the man seeing me was Dan Welch, who was the acting head of the Zen Center while Baker Roshi was away. “This is highly unusual,” he told me, but seemed to understand that I was going to be there. “We have no room for you,” he said. “For the next two days you will stay with the other visiting guests.” He was happy to find out I had a sleeping bag. “After that, we’ll find something for you.” He gave me some papers to look at about the schedule and said, I should read them and plan to follow it.

The next morning I was shocked by the sudden noises that woke myself and two other “passing through” practitioners to go down to the zendo. It was very early; totally dark. I don’t remember if there was any instruction, but I was making so many mistakes that I am not sure it would matter. “No,” someone whispered urgently, “don’t cross in front of the altar.” I started to ask a question. “No talking....sh-h-h-h.”  I had read enough about the Zen posture to soon figure out how to get on the cushion.  And enough “monkey-see-monkey do” came in handy.  The first meditation period seemed very long, but I wasn’t prepared for how interminable the second would seem. There was this very slow walking between the periods, although it was dark and gloomy in the zendo. Outside, there was early morning San Francisco traffic– didn’t seem like a monastery.

I tried to do zazen, concentrating all my effort on my breath, but most often found my mind veering off in crazy loops. Why were the buses and cars so noisy!  And didn’t these people walking outside know to be quiet? People were trying to get enlightened inside. Trying to hold my legs in full lotus, I was on fire and in terrific pain by the time merciful bells allowed us to untangle. My legs were completely numb, however. I could hardly feel anything below my waist. 

Everyone else was up and standing with folded hands.  I told my disembodied feet to stand up so I could do the same. I fell awkwardly and someone helped me up. I bowed along with everyone else and shuffled out of the zendo. Then it was upstairs to a big room with tatami mats and lots of ornate Buddhist accouterments.  We did a long series of chants– most of which I knew nothing about and which seemed oddly surprising. How did everyone know all these strange phases and words? And what were we saying?

The short silent work period, soji, before breakfast seemed appropriate to a Zen practice place as did the meal chants: “Innumerable labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us....”

The whole mealtime sequence was somehow reassuring– I seemed to be doing fewer things wrong. Moreover, the big dining room with its big curved tall windows overlooking the edgy San Francisco neighborhood provided a steadying backdrop. Silence while eating seemed somehow appropriate and the food was good and plentiful. What was this delightful Gomashio? A strike of clappers and we were talking and I was getting to know some of the “monks” and regulars who seemed to live here. At first I was careful to not let anyone know how little I knew. It was already embarrassing enough making all the mistakes I seemed to be managing.

There was more work later in the day– a lot, in fact, in the afternoon. Moreover, I found that these monks were really picky. Everything had to be done just so. And these steps were already clean before we were sweeping them. Where was going with the flow?

There was more meditation in the late afternoon and then an optional period at night. The first day, I did all of these, but each time finding that forty minutes on a black cushion could seem an eternity. Moreover, at night, everyone seemed to be fuddy-duddies.  I like to read until late and I decided to continue that practice– at least at first.

Yet, at 5 AM, each morning someone came around with a wake up bell. It was so early! And as I learned early in the first week, getting up and showing up at the zendo was not optional. If you didn’t show up, they’d come and get you. So each morning, I was down in the zendo for the two meditation periods, struggling with the pain and discomfort and trying my best to stay with my break and break through!

When would I reach kensho? Not the first day.  Not the second, or even the third or fourth. Was I doing something wrong?  In fact, each day the pain was the only dependable companion on the zafu. In the first period, moving down to the cold zendo in the dark, I would nearly fall over on the cushion, nodding, bobbing and weaving on the cushion.  When the observant attendant saw that, he would run over with the stick– the kyosaku– and place it on my shoulder.

Warning: a whack was coming. 

“Whap!”  One shoulder. “Whap!” the other shoulder. Don’t move; don’t flinch. Lean over to give them a good target. After a while, I was always bowing and asking for the stick each morning. That masochistic sting was at least something to punctuate the boredom

DC note: SFZC stopped using the stick years ago

When there was time for work in the morning and the afternoon, I was getting new jobs. Washing dishes, or cutting vegetables or the interminable periods of cleaning the zendo or sweeping, moping or dusting. I did like work in the kitchen a lot, having been taught to enjoy cooking by my mother years before. And these Zen cooks knew how to make some very tasty vegetarian food. But there was no way to stay in the kitchen. There were meetings each morning and evening where jobs were passed out, but the key thing was everyone ended up with work and the job was always changing. I mentioned to someone how that didn’t seem the most efficient way to do things; people couldn’t adjust to their job– or find the ones for which they had the most natural skills.

Another rookie mistake: “That’s not the way we do it.” My desire to work for the head cook soon had me off cleaning bathrooms. That was benji, someone told me. It was a great job. Who were they kidding?

You got what you got. Regardless of how clean those tatami mats seemed, we would be brushing them again. There was no end to it.

By the end of the week, I could no longer stay up at all at night. I was going immediately to bed with the others. I was totally exhausted at the end of the day. I soon realized that when you weren’t meditating, or working in the kitchen, or sweeping or doing some other job, there was just a minimum of time for yourself. I used most of that available to rest my aching back or to find some more food in the popular anteroom off the kitchen that was home to endless bread, apricot jam and peanut butter.  Being a skinny kid, I ate my fair share.

What was this?  I was paying them, but I was working all the time, or going on errands (the best of jobs) or meditating. Every week you got a day off and rather than exploring the tantalizing sights of San Francisco, I found myself sleeping and doing laundry.

As my situation at the Zen Center was pretty unusual, I had someone who was put in charge of me– at least to watch over me.  He was a large, rotund man with the proper Zen shaved head, robes and a pair of very thick coke-bottle bottom type glasses. While I was trying to be serious about my Zen practice, this guy seems casual, almost indifferent. He laughed a lot and I couldn’t tell if he liked me or was just making fun of my ignorance. I didn’t think he did. I was very self-conscious around all the Zen experts that seemed to know a lot more about all this than I did.

His name was Philip Whalen. Never, during the entire summer, did I learn that he was a famous Beat poet. To me, he just seemed a strange curmudgeonly fellow who seemed like my uncle– but with an even more odd sense of humor.

For a time, I was working for Philip in the afternoons in the Zen Center bookstore. That seemed a great job compared with some of the other options.

At one point, it was quiet in the store, I was reading a few lines from one of the books. 

Suddenly Philip spoke up from across the bookstore. "Oh, so you're buying that book!"

"Oh, no," I said, "I am just looking."

"We don't have any books for looking, just for buying..."

He came over and took the book from my hand, with a smile wrapped it up and wrote out a careful receipt. I thought it was a joke. "Would you like anything else?" he said.  "No," I said, "I didn't want that....I was just looking at it."

"You need to go to a library.  We have a book store."

I went back to work.

One thing Philip did do was help me get new quarters. I was out of the guest bunk area where new people came through each day and given a room with another young fellow. His name was Joe Cohen and that summer he was trying to learn to play the sitar. Joe was nice enough, but I soon realized that he was like many of the others at the Center. He was not all that interested in my story, telling me his, or talking in general. Mostly when we got the room, it was to go fast asleep as quickly as we could.  I did like Joe’s practice on the Sitar, but soon learned that other music was frowned upon. Indeed, even humming while working with these people would soon earn a reprimand. They were serious?  Did being a Zen person mean the end of fun?

My conversations with Philip Whalen and some of the other black robes left we mystified only a week after I’d been there. From what I could tell, none of them were enlightened. Certainly not in the way Alan Watts had prepared me for. I did sense something from Dan Welch, the practice leader that summer, but my conversations with him didn’t help with my confusion. He would talk and it was poetic, but I didn’t understand what he was saying.

Philip Whalen seemed happy enough. But was that enlightenment?  I didn’t think so. Still, I was not getting enlightened either. After a week of supreme effort with legs burning like fire and a back shaking in spasms, I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. In spite of my efforts to stay with my break and break loose from all thinking, I seemed to be thinking more than ever. Lots more than before!  What was this?

By the beginning of the second week at San Francisco Zen Center, I’d decided that I hated the place.

They didn’t seem enlightened; I didn’t seem to be getting enlightened. And I was working hard at this place I was paying for. And I didn’t like it! 

If I could get my money back, I would have left. Still, this was one place where my ego helped me. One thing I was not going to do was to show my father that he had been right.

Each week, I made my minutes in the telephone booth by the office and talking to those at home. The conversations were tense; my father would not even speak to me. My mother relayed the messages and played nice. I described my time there in glowing terms. Everything was perfect. Precept busting; I lied like hell.

I would stay and tough it out as I didn’t want to suffer that humiliation. Still, there was no way, short of feigning illness that would allow one to escape going to Zazen in the morning. You had to go down into the bowels of the 300 Page Street and sit on the black cushion with the other nodding monks.  Trying to drop thoughts and follow the breath wasn’t working. Nothing was working!

Then I had an idea. Rather than dropping thought and following the breath, I’d do the opposite. I would conjure up thoughts and follow them. I would fantasize about everything I had ever wanted to consider: sexual fantasies and conquests, real and mostly imagined. Planning the future. Plotting revenge; getting even. I indulged in something like food pornography. I often reviewed the best times of my life: pistachio ice cream was a recurring theme. I pondered all kinds of situations gone wrong or that were difficult to fathom. Unrequited love was a frequent loop. I had my own name for it– sabotage Zen– which I carefully told no one about.

They were struggling to stay with their breath. I was out exploring Mars as a future astronaut with my future hot girlfriend. What would sex be like in weightlessness?

This went on for a long time.

Each day I would sit on the cushion and try to start up where I left off. I would review the fantasies; perhaps refine them. Make certain changes. Agree to make mental notes for good ideas and plans. I would play some of the particularly good tapes over and over. The really juicy tapes were good time after time.

But then it happened.

After about three weeks, I grew tired of my material. In spite of jazzing up each considered thing, fantasy, memory or plan, I grew weary of them all. Yet, they still made me come down to the zendo. And so, I just went through the motions there on the cushion with no aim or objective. I asked for the stick a lot. I bowed and did kinhin. I did my job and gave up talking to people to see if someone could help me with my failed fantasy of enlightenment. I collected recipes from the cooks as I learned more about the cooking. I even met Ed Brown, who had written a famous book about making bread. That was one thing that certainly impressed me about the place. Where had bread been like this all my life? My mother made biscuits, but nothing like this bread. Wow!

One day while I was sweeping the hallway just after morning zazen, something happened. It was so long ago that my memory of it is stale– like a lot of old bones to tell the story now.

It wasn’t complicated. While I was sweeping at morning soji, I burst into tears. And not just crying, but a flood. Inside me a voice spoke: “Danny, you have suffered so much in this life...trying not to suffer...but....you’re still a good guy.” I wasn’t just words; I felt this deeply in my body. While I held on to the broom, images of my grandfather and then my mother and father floated before me– people I was trying to escape from. Now, they just seemed like love. There were other images; I can’t recall. And that simple realization was totally overwhelming. Nearly unable to see from the waterworks, I put away the broom. In spite of the breakfast gong, I sat in the hallway by the phone booth in catharsis. I felt like I was having a breakdown. And there was Philip Whalen. He was kind and surprising. “You might be tired,” he ventured, “Why don’t you go up to your room.”

I wasn’t good for anything for the rest of the day. He came up to visit me later and brought me some lunch. There was an odd twinkle in his eye. I was touched by his simple kindness. “You will be down for zazen at 5:15 won’t you?” he said smiling. I nodded. By 5 o’clock I had settled down enough and sitting on the zafu whatever the strange feelings had been, they evaporated in the familiarity of the echoing wooden clunks of the Han, the drone of the strange hollow fish and the bells.

“What happened to me?” I asked him the next day. “Just do more zazen...” Philip said.  I didn’t tell him about sabotage Zen. “I think that was just a bad dream,” I said. Some of these dreams were really bothering me. I really was tired. “Dreams are real,” he countered. “as real as this.” He threw up his beefy arms out of the long robe sleeves. Then he laughed, as he often did and disappeared. Often, I wouldn’t see him for days.

The summer went on like that. I was learning the chants by heart; I particularly liked the powerful morning chant. Everyone’s voice seemed to drop down several octaves. “Dai sai geda puku. Muso fukuden e....”

In the middle of the summer, a project threatened to suspend my new practice of just sitting like bump on a log during morning zazen. The floor of the zendo was going to be re-floored. It involved a frame building in Marin county that was being razed. We were going to the site and collecting the wood flooring and returning it to San Francisco Zen Center where carpenters would install the new floor. My job was to go a long on one of the trips and pile wood into an old pickup and then bring it back.  With the lumber piled into the area just outside the back of the kitchen, all of the nails needed to be removed before the carpenters could use the wood for flooring. For days, I used a claw tooth hammer to remove nails. “R-rrr-rrp....R-rrr-rrp,” the nails came out with a loud screeching sound of metal pulled from the hardwood planks. Sure, the job was boring, but as jobs went around the institutional setting at the Zen Center, I had learned that there was worse.

Meanwhile, down in the zendo in the morning, I was still sitting after my Sabotage Zen project had failed. I was just sitting with nothing to do. But after three days of removing nails, I suddenly found that nails were still being removed in my head.  “R-rrr-rrp!” I couldn’t believe it. After lunch the first day that went on, I ran into Philip. How were things, he wanted to know. I told him about the annoying sounds that were plaguing my zazen.  Were there any tricks to get rid of that?  He shook his head. “I guess you’ll just have to do squeaky nail Zen,” he said. Besides, he announced, that job was nearly done.

And he was right. I was near the end of my stay, but all the nails had been removed and the wooden planks, sanding was completed and they had been moved down to the zendo for the carpenters. The zendo was closed for business that last week. But someone said there would be a big shindig coming up.

I was popular with some of those at Zen Center as I had a car. There was a new Zen Center in Marin County , that would become Green Gulch Farm.  There was a two day celebration “session” there that we could attend. Afterwards, we would all come back and go to Hamburger Marys on Folsom Street. Was I up for that and could I drive?  Sounded like a big party, and after a summer of vegetarian fare, a big celebration (I had visions of a Zen Woodstock) and a hamburger sounded pretty good. Needless, to say, the naive 21 year old soon learned that the weekend party “session” in Marin was something else.

The real word for “session” was “sesshin” and we would sit zazen before dawn until 9 PM!  After learning what fate was in store, I distinctly remember the immediate doubts first morning. Sitting on the black cushion for one period of zazen after another I thought I would certainly go crazy.

What would I do when I went crazy?

What would I be like? I had a new thought loop in zazen. Would I jump up and throw my hands up and say, “I can’t take it anymore!” and run outside? Like a crazy person? That seemed most likely. I sat zazen, waiting for the moment when I would lose it. I figured it would certainly come by 11 AM. My legs were painful. But there was the end of the morning and I was still just sitting. After that was lunch and a short pleasant break. And then the afternoon in spite of more pain and my back even shaking finally the night came and zazen by candle light was over. Sleeping in the zendo. Nope, I didn’t go crazy that day nor the day after. Zazen, zazen, kinhin, a talk, more zazen....

The late afternoon of the second day, the sesshin was over. Indeed, there was a little celebration outside of the meditation hall after it was done. We had tea and cookies. Then we drove back to San Francisco. I didn’t tell my companions about my surprise at the event and nor did they venture. We were all in that mode of post sesshin silence where speaking is somehow astonishing.  Sure enough though, someone guided my driving down the confusing San Francisco streets (I hardly ever drove there). 

Hamburger Mary’s was a strange place. Psychedelic music out of a juke box and plants growing out of a ruby slipper– but the burger was good. I relished a coke and later there was ice cream. As I came back to sleep in my room upstairs, I reflected that the weekend really had been weirdly satisfying. The following morning, there was no wake up bell for zazen. I slept in with great enjoyment. Yet, on the second day of no morning zazen, I noted something really strange– I seemed to be missing it. I was completely confused by my reaction. Wasn’t this what I was trying to get away from?

Meanwhile, the object of all my summertime fantasies?  A grand hook up with my hotly anticipated hot blonde girl friend? Oh, but that rendezvous died a cruel death. I was a worse phone call than those with my parents. She was not going to be able to come out and join me for my trip back across the U.S. Only worse, she was going to Texas instead to meet some other guy. Strictly platonic, of course. Crumbling cookie.

That failed plan was a new last minute disappointment. I would be leaving San Francisco Zen Center and driving back to Florida on my own. No romantic interlude on Route 66. More failed expectations for the summer of 1974. That was the theme.

The last day I was at San Francisco Zen Center was oddly melancholic. Dueling disappointments. There was no zazen in the zendo; it was still under rehab, although we did sit upstairs. And there was service; the usual chants that I had somehow memorized without knowing what they were.

Work period was as usual. I got the job of sweeping the steps which I now enjoyed, looking back up at the tall handsome brick structure behind me. There was my green metallic Chevy Malibu, parked out front, already filled with stuff and provisions for car camping on the way back.

Lunch inside the dining room was also the same. Soup and salad. It was sunny that day “We venerate the three treasures and give thanks for this food...”  What were the six realms anyway?

While I was finishing my seconds, Philip Whalen came in wearing his robes and holding soup. Many others had already left my table. He came to the place across from me. He bowed and I folded hands in response and he sat down.

“I hear you are leaving soon,” Philip began without hesitation.

“Yes, I go first thing after service tomorrow morning...”

“You’re driving back...” “Yes”

“Wasn’t someone meeting you?”  “Plans have changed, she’s not coming...”

He took a bite during the awkward silence that followed.

Then Philip leaned forward, appearing earnest. “How has the summer been for you, Danny?”

In my head, the unspoken thoughts flew up like a flock of birds. Little late to be asking...He seems so genuine. Can I tell him?

“Frankly, Philip....it’s been disappointing....”

“Disappointing?  What has been disappointing? The friend?”

“Well, that didn’t help, but to be honest, my experience here has been disappointing”

“Oh really?” He seemed surprised. “Why is that?”

I was feeling emotional, even if I didn’t cry. “Philip, I came here, hoping to get enlightened.” 

There, I had said it.

“Oh,” he said approvingly. “How did that go?”

“It didn’t work....”

“You didn’t get enlightened?”  I think he was feigning astonishment, but at the time, I thought he was sincere.

“No, I didn’t.”

 

“Really?....Hmmm.” He mumbled to himself. That felt even worse.

“No...”

Then Philip raised his large right hand and curled his index finger and thumb until they were slightly apart. He held them over the middle of the wooden table.

“Not even a little?” as if to indicate a pinch.

“No, not even a little” I had a gloomy feeling; something was missing.

Then Philip’s smile broke into a grin and he started laughing as if I had said the funniest thing on earth. It was more a guffaw than a chuckle. I was happy no one else was around. I was embarrassed and vaguely uncomfortable as if he knew something I didn’t.

Maybe he noticed my discomfort as his laugh settled down. He was serious again.  “So, where will you be practicing after you leave here?”

I wasn’t going to tell him what I thought on this one: why would I do that, I don’t like this practice. “Philip, you don’t understand, there are no places like this in Florida to practice.”

“Well you could start one.”

I can’t recall what I said in response to that altogether outrageous suggestion. “Patience will always be a problem for you,” he pronounced, “but what a good problem to have!”

I did tell him I would soon be back at college; I would just be a 21 year-old kid again. In some ways I was shutting down our conversation and maybe my entire experience at San Francisco Zen Center.

Philip changed his demeanor just as quickly. “I think you may become a teacher...”he said confidently. I didn’t respond. I was sure he was saying that to help me feel better. It made no sense.

We got up from the table and he looked me in the eyes from behind those thick horn rimmed glasses. He smiled as we bowed gently towards each other. I offered to take our plates.

“Wonderful,” he said and like that and he was gone.

I never saw Philip Whalen again.

I left the next day and drove and camped across the United States. I hiked across western mountain meadows and streams. And the countryside and places I ventured seem indescribably beautiful. Colors seemed to be playing music; sounds seemed to be touching my body.

And strangely, very strangely, I was missing meditation– a lot. And I started sitting by myself as if sitting in secret. Even at my lone camp sites, I was meditating alone in the morning.  I was so surprised. Obviously, there was some mysterious thing about myself that I did not understand at all.

Maybe I would never understand it.

Forty years go by. I did eventually create a sitting group in Florida and there are two of them where we practice today. I was fortunate to be re-united with Ed Brown in 1994.

Even with my uncertain feelings, Ed encouraged me: “Wash your face,” he told me early on,  “Study and see for yourself what you can find out.” One thing after another. I was ordained in August 2011.

Practice goes on endlessly– even if I hardly know what I’m doing.

Now, to be able to even tell you about this, however, I feel such great appreciation to everything up till now that allowed me to be here today.

Yes, as Philip Whalen said, when I last saw him: “Wonderful.”


Philip Whalen Cuke Page