Interview with Tim Buckley
As soon as I saw Suzuki Roshi I knew that he was my teacher.
9-09-09 on Pamela from Johanneshoff, the Dharma
Sangha center in Germany by DC
DC: I’d just like to hear anything you have to say.
TB: Well, I was talking to Peter Schneider back in early March I guess. I’d spent a couple of days with him and Jane. And he said you really should talk to David about some of these stories. We were just reminiscing. And they weren’t so much stories about Suzuki Roshi himself but more how I got to him and some of my experiences at Tassajara.
I think that in some ways he was this absolutely flawless man who I fell in love with and who taught me a great deal, almost none of which I can put into words. Kickstarted a life in Buddhism that wouldn’t have gotten so strongly motivated without him. I’d been studying Buddhist writings since I was the youngest Beatnik or the oldest pre-hippy or womething and I was reading Alan Watts and Paul Reps and DT Suzuki when I was in high school. This was in the fifties and I was sort of interested in Buddhsim and I went to…
DC: And you were where?
TB: At the time I was in a private boarding school which was an Episcopalian boarding school in Newport, Road Island, called St. Georges. And we went to church literally every day and twice on Sundays – which I loved. It was this beautiful gothic chaple and peaceful and no one was bugging you to be this or be that. We got like a twenty minute break before supper just as you’d come to some kind of peace with yourself but I got very disenchanted by the chaplins there and the ministers that were there because they couldn’t answer my adolescent questions about what’s the meaning of all this? you know and why are people not behaving themselves? or is the world the way it is? And I was very disappointed in their answers and so a friend of mine in western New York state who’s still my close friend and a hermit for many years now and he and I are still in touch on the telephone pretty regularly. For some reason he was sort of more advanced than I was and sort of led the way into a lot of early sixties kinds of things like reading books on Zen and Folkways records and New York painters and poetry and those kind of things. He was about a year older than me and he had a tremendous influence on me.
DC: What year were you born?
TB: 1942. I graduated from high school in 1960, so this is when I was 17, 18 and then continuing on.
So I had a kind of start in Buddhism. At one point I got into quite a bit of trouble in Boston and I had to get out of the city cause of drugs. I went up to backwoods Maine. I was out in western Maine where I had a cousin who connected me to someone who had two different cabins and I went into seclusion and one of the books I took with me was a Chinese guy who wrote on Buddhism – I’ll remember it – and so I taught myself to do zazen and I’d sit on my bed in this letter cabin with the book and it said now you cross this leg and now you watch your breath. The place was full of mice and after a few minutes the mice would come scurrying out of the woodwork and crawl all over me and anyway I sort of learned how to do zazen. So I had a kind of running start on this stuff and I think that what Suzuki Roshi did was to on first sight I recognized him as someone that I belonged with and I think that he just really stamped me with the desire to be a Buddha – in simplest terms and that’s sustained me all my life. I’m still sitting when I can and reading and thinking about Buddhism so think that rather than stories about Suzuki Roshi that that sort of underlying feeling that I owe to him a whole lifetime of studying dharma. I don’t know if I would have continued on my own without spending five years with him ultimately. That’s my gratitude to him you know.
I thought in reading Crooked Cucumber you can’t really point your finger at something and say he did this or he did that. Maybe he just picked up his chopsticks one day and the whole dharma was right there. It’s hard for me to say, oh here’s a great story about him. I got a general feeling. Reading Crooked Cucumber really humanized him for me because I thought of him much more as a human being where picking up his chopsticks he put them down and went to work in his garden and sort of created the narrative for me to appreciate him more as a human being. And essentially the thing about him not answering that English woman’s letters [Nona Ransom] for all those years has been a kind of koan for me since I read the book. I’d think, “Why’d he do that?” Did he not do something?
DC: I think he felt bad about that.
TB: Yeah, he felt bad and it was the first time I’d sort of given him the possibility of feeling bad about something. That’s how I had almost deified him, idealized him – to know that there might be something that he thought maybe wasn’t quite so good that he’d done. You know, it was very helpful – because that’s the real world that we struggle in where we do have some regrets and we do mess up once in a while and we don’t always manifest our Buddhahood, our Buddha nature. And it’s helpful to know that you that is human life, that’s how we live. So that was that train of thought. 9:17
One thing I mentioned to Peter, the way I got from Cambridge and backwoods Maine to Sokoji – I decided that after a certain point, after I came back from the spirit of hermitage and you know – drugs – heavy drugs and it wasn’t so much of a problem anymore – I could walk away from it. But I decided that – after that period of – Chen, no Luk! Charles Luk. He wrote the book I was reading. And I decided I didn’t want to do academic study anymore but that I wanted to study Buddhism and I had a series of meetings, serendipitious meetings of other teachers. One was Minor White and I went to visit him and show him my photographs. He was a photographer and mystic. He was sort of the last of the really important modernists like Edward Weston and Ansil Adams and Hans Steiglitz and those people and - a very accomplished photographer and a spiritual person also and so I went to show him my portfolio and he said these are pretty good and you have no technique whatsoever but you’ve got a good eye. Why don’t you come join my – he had a kind of a commune. So people lived in his house and worked in his darkroom and I said thank you so much. That’s a great honor but I’m on my way to California. And he said, well if you have to go you gotta go but he said, do me a favor. When you get there, he said, look up this guy Suzuki. He’s a Japanese priest and he’s out there somewhere in San Francsico and look him up. And he gave me a couple of other names of photographers and I said, ok I’ll do that.
DC: Do you know why he said that?
TB: It’s just that he’d heard from Bob Boni, who was one of his students[?unclear], from a guy named Bob Brown and another guy named Conrad Forbs [sp?] and Conrad was more involved in Sufi Gurdjieff work. But Bob Boni knew about Zen Center. This is early on. This is ’64? And you know people were beginning to know about Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco – you know, among the artists and spiritual people. So, somehow Minor had heard of him but this is the first time I’d heard of him. Then I went up to Western New York state to say goodbye to my mother and I went to visit an uncle, a sort of nominal uncle and aunt – friends of my parents that I was always taught to call uncle and aunt. But these are people that I really liked. They were artists and they were crazy and they were just wonderful people and I of course went over to say goodbye to them and Philip Kapleau was there. He’d just arrived from Japan and was up near Rochester, New York. He’d come to see my aunt who was sort of a doyan of - sort of an old Theosophist or something. It wasn’t so unusual for someone like Philip Kapleau to be there his first few months in the United States. He said, I teach Zen and I just wrote a new book. It’s called Three Pillars of Zen. You gotta buy a copy and I said yes I will and he said why don’t you stay here. I’m starting a Zen group up in Rochester. And I said thanks a lot but I really want to go to San Francisco you know, because that’s where it seems to be happening. And he said well I wish you’d stay here. I need some good students. But he said, if you gotta go to San Francisco, look up this guy Suzuki – he’s a Zen teacher. So that’s how I turned up at Sokoji three thousand miles away.
DC: That seems significant that he told you that.
TB: I only saw him one more time when I was married to Emma we stopped there in Rochester and sat with him. I took a photograph that I think was in the Wind Bell.
That’s how I made the connection from reading Charles Luk to actually sitting in a zendo with Shunryu Suzuki.
DC: Do you remember when you arrived?
TB: It must have been 1965.
DC: And what was it like?
TB: It was sort of – this sounds immodest but it was sort of immediately familiar to me. As soon as I saw Suzuki Roshi I knew that he was my teacher. I just had this immediate kind of recognition. He of course just sort of looked away and I bowed to him going out of the zendo. But I knew that I belonged there with him – sitting – and I think I was really hungry for that kind of discipline – you know. Because I was a pretty disorderly kid, real rebellious and misbehaved a lot and I think I was actually hungry for that discipline – getting up every morning. I found a place to live nearby. I lived in several places in that neighborhood you know – near Sokoji.
DC: Yeah, I lived with you.
TB: Yeah, I guess we did.
DC: At Loring’s.
TB: You were at Loring’s. I forgot that. And Loring was a real Bodhisattva you know.
DC: No kidding.
TB: He sort of brought me in and set me…
DC: He’s in Boston.
TB: Yeah, we got in touch after Zen Center’s effort to start a social network thing which I haven’t kept up with but Loring and I had some back and forth. He worked for the evolutionary… Ken Wilber thing. And he’s a concierge at a hotel downtown.
DC: Marriott I think. He’s been doing hotel business for decades.
DC: I’d see him at the front desk of the Boulderado in Boulder back in Trungpa days.
TB: Really? But his real work is this evolutionary work with this group I think in Cambridge that carries their vision of…
DC: With Andrew. He’s a student of Andrew Cohen. They have the magazine, What is Enlightenment? And Andrew and Ken Wilber hit it off. They’ve done a lot of stuff together.
TB: He told me about that and I looked at their website. There are a lot of ways to get the blues. There’s the Buddhist blues and the evolution of consciousness blues.
DC: You were at Tassajara for… I remember you a lot down there.
TB: Yeah. I went there for the first members’ look around.
DC: Oh, you went there in the fall of ’66.
TB: When it still belonged to the Becks and Ed Brown was working in the kitchen and a bunch of us from Sokoji went down as a group. Dick wanted our reaction and so on and we walked up around the Horse Pasture and I took those photographs of the Horse Pasture that were used in the first brochure. And I met Ed and I loved the place. It was such a wonderful place. We bought it in ’67.
DC: Nope. Sixty-six.
TB: Sixty-six – oh – you know I – my house was burned down in 2004 – by vandals.
DC: No kidding?
TB: For purely… nothing personal. And I lost everything. I lost… I lost my past. All my records, negatives, manuscripts – everything – holocaust – burnt offering. So I have trouble reconstructing things so maybe it was in…in…
DC: When you went down with that group was in October of 1966. 66 for sure, October I think.
TB: And then when did we buy the place?
TB: Of 66.
DC: Yeah, toward the end of December. And the first fundraiser was to buy the Horse Pasture.
TB: Yeah, some of it comes back - and that’s when I was living at Loring’s.
TB: I’d had another run-in with heroin and he was helping me get cleaned up. And then I hitchhiked down there. I think it must have been in the spring, the first time the Zen students took over the place. Was that the spring of sixty-seven?.
DC: There were people or at least person there almost immediately after buying it. Howard Campbell, Jeannie’s husband, went there right away and was sort of the first director. I first went down in February. In fact I think you might have gone on that trip. We worked on the phone line.
TB: I remember going down to the hot bathes. Alan Winter was living in Jamesberg.
DC: I forgot about that. I moved there in March and there were just a handful of us and then in April more people. I think we had the first guest season in May.
TB: I think I came down to help with the first guest season. I try to connect things with weather but I was in Maine and you can’t do that so easy in California. I broke up with my girlfriend and that was real heavy and I hitchhiked in.
DC: How long were you around?
TB: I was there for a solid two years. And then I had a lot of conflict because I really liked the monastic life but was enormously troubled by sexual frustration and sexual energy and somehow I couldn’t combine them. I couldn’t combine practicing at Tassajara and having love affairs. It just didn’t work for me. I’m not that complicated a person. I’m sort of a good horse, and I can be a monk and I can be a lover and a husband, but I find it very difficult to do both and so I left with Emma, Emi Bragdon and I don’t know just when that was but it was sixty-nine I think and I had to get the first operation on my right knee – which is what I’m going back to the hospital for next week – again.
TB: That was the beginning of my bad knee karma, was sitting in full lotus at – not really the beginning but that was the first time that I had to have it attended to after struggling to sit in full lotus at Tassajara.
I left with Emma and that was so rocky I went to Europe and came back in 1970 and Suzuki Roshi at that time said, well, gee, I’d hoped that if you left that you’d see - basically he said I’d hoped you’d understand the first noble truth better. Once you’d taken a look around you’d see what human life is. But he said you’re still just wild as a tiger. And then he asked me to take ordination with the first group with Peter Schneider and Dan Welch and was Niels part of that group?
DC: You’re talking about lay ordination?
TB: No, I took the lay ordination, the jukai, and stiched my rakusu. Emma and I both did that. But then it was a little later that he started asking people to take priest ordination. When was that?
DC: Well there were a bunch of them. He just did two people at a time.
TB: There had been some and then suddenly it seemed like - I mean Phillip and Dick and Grahame had been priests and – I’m trying to remember the chronology from your book. But somewhere in the very early seventies he asked me to take priest ordination and I said, you know I – despite this tremendous sense of belonging with him I said, you know, I can’t do that, I can’t honestly be a priest because – my reason was that A - I really wanted to try to be married and make a living and see if I could actually become a man which I didn’t feel like I had. Just fuckin adolescence and also mjy family’s full of Episcopalean ministers. I’d just feel like them except I’d have a Japanese outfit. I didn’t think I understood the difference well enough.
So after that, Suzuki Roshi – that was in some ways the end of my close studies with him although I kept going to sesshins. By this time we were buying Page Street and I’d go to sesshins in the city. And as he got sicker he focused his attention more on his ordained priests, ordained disciples as I think he had to do. Jesse was born and I got more and more wrapped up in being a layman and having babies and doing carpentry and things like that. And then he died. So I think I had about five years of study with him.
DC: And when did you start studying with Harry Roberts?
TB: Well, we didn’t sit, but I met Harry in 1970 I guess – when I came back from an aborted trip to Europe. Harry and Yvonne had met through Sterling Bunnell. And they said you have to come meet this Indian shaman that we know. And I didn’t know anything about Indians. I wished them well but it wasn’t like I was one of those hippies with feathers in my hair. I had other fish to fry. So I went to meet Harry and again, I had this enormously powerful sense of belonging – with him. And we talked about this very frankly and by this time it was common knowledge that Suzuki Roshi had terminal cancer and he said, wait until your teacher’s dead. And then I can teach you – which seemed right to me. So after Suzuki Roshi’s funeral – I’m struggling with dates – anyway, I really began to study seriously with Harry. And you know, Harry had teaching for men. What he taught was men’s knowledge. Because it’s quite distinct – men’s knowledge in Yurok society. And there were three or possibly four that actually studied that stuff with him. He had a lot of students that were studying other things with him like agronomy and long range botanical planning and wildflowers and welding and all sorts of stuff. But we were actually studying medicine knowledge with him. And I was his principle student at the time of his death.
DC: He told me – you know, I was living there with him
TB: Yeah, yeah.
DC: And I built that little cabin. My main residence was in Bolinas with Liz – I just did a creamation ceremony for Arthur Okamura – and uh, but anyway, Harry told me that you were the most knowledgable person about American Indians in the country – I guess he meant the Yurok but as I remember it he didn’t specify that. Because, he said, you had done the study – I don’t know how to word it – the practice – and you’d gone to college and done the scholastic side. He was very impressed with your accomplishment.
TB: Did you say Eric?
DC: No, I said Harry or I meant Harry. I know Eric Larsen and his brother Dane were serious students of Harry, but Harry said, Harry thought you were the zenith of American Indian knowledge because you had studied both the practice and the scholastic side.
TB: Harry was given to hyperbolie. As we all are. I also spent a lot of time with the Yurok community up on the Klammath River. I essentially wrote a big book about them and I could not agree with Harry’s lovely and flattering picture of me but that’s what I did for thirty some years and it started with studying with Harry, really studying inside stuff and that gave me entre into the world of the elders when I got up to the Klarmmath River. I knew the secret handshake – and so they’d talk to me and so it was a wonderful entre into a traditonal world. I only - well I continued my Buddhist studies with Harry Roberts who was an Irish Indian guy. But I’ve only understood quite recently what that actually meant – how they really fit together. Cause Harry wasn’t a Buddhist. He wasn’t into practicing zazen. He thought that Zen students were sort of nice and well-meaing but basically fools.
TB: But now I see how they fit toether and I couldn’t begin to verbalise that but now I see that that was part of my Buddhist studies. He really worked in the form is form part of the equation – which I think of now in my studies as almost the hardest part of that Nagarjuna’s fourfold thing to get but the actual word is the actual world and how do you respond to this actual world itself without trying to see through it or see beyond it or see under it or see over it or something. And that’s really what Harry was working on.
TB: I went off quite a bit talking about how Suzuki Roshi had this very lasting impact on my life that really shaped my life in a certain way for years and years after I knew him and I realized that what I was saying was reiterating in a very personal way what Rick Fields for instance said at the end of How the Swans Came to the Lake - that Suzuki Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche really had this peculiarly powerful role in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. And that personal feelling of oh he really set me on the path I think is really a microcosmic reflection of his role in the transmission of dharma to the Western world – which I agree with Rick – it was enormous. This lasting, enormous role and it shows up often in quite trivial ways like Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind continuing to be an International best seller. But it actually goes very deep. It’s very profound. So I thought that that was really underlying what I was saying about his effect on me as an individual was his effect on Western civilization – was really quite profound.
DC: I think it’s sort of having its effect on Japan too a little bit.
TB: Yeah. Well that was an interesting thing about Rick Fields’ great work was how it really explored the dialectic between West and East and the creation of modern Buddhism.
DC: I shouldn’t just say Japan. I should say the East.
TB: Yeah. We’ve been in it together since the 18th century. I thought that was really tremendously interesting.
DC: Yeah. I love that book. He wrote a lot of it in Bolinas where I was at the time. I saw a lot of him and you know, I miss him. He did ten years ago or something. And one of the million things I want to do with the Suzuki archive is take what Rick had to say about Suzuki which I thought was really good and put it in the archive.
TB: Yeah, I knew Rick for years. I met him at Harvard in 1960 or 61.
DC: No kidding.
TB: And he was in the young writers, the young Turk writers society which I was sort of part of .
DC: Did you know Peter Warshall then?
TB: Yeah I did. I never became close friends with Peter as I did with Rick and Rick and I kept up our relationship throughout his life and exchanged poems at the very end of his life in that book called Fuck Cancer. He was a wonderful person. One thing I liked about that book was it really brought him back to life for me. It made him very present for me. I read that – it was like your book – I read it ten years after everyone else had read it.
DC: Yeah. He gave me a copy. I must have it here somewhere.
TB: The only other thing I was thinking about is something that Peter Schneider said that I should talk about – I feel nervous talking about it because it’s about Suzuki Roshi’s power – his sitis or sidhas or whatever. I don’t know if we ever talked about or if you were there at Tassajara on an occasion when – there was the young guy who’d been studying kundilini yoga very intensively and had gotten psychotic because of his study. He came walking into Tassajara and he walked down through the shop area and through the garden and hypnotized everyone he encountered on sight – instantly hypnotized them. People were just sort of knocked out all the way. He went from the gate down to the guest season office which I was managing. And finally he ended up – someone came running down and said there’s this strange guy who’s hypnotizing everybody – and finally he got down to my office and I was – none of the priests were there. I think Kobun had gone to town and Suzuki Roshi was up in the city and I don’t know where Katagiri Sensei was but he wasn’t there. So it was just me and I felt responsible for Tassajara, right? And here comes this cowboy hypnotizing everybody and so – I had kind of an advance word of this and so I sat down with him and I felt him like literally, physically getting into my brain, getting into my mind. And I started reciting the Padma Sambava mantra which for some reason had caught my imagination and clung on to this as hard as I could and it was like this guy was trying to rape me – in my mind - and I just kept saying that mantra. And finally he said, “You know you’re the weirdest person I ever met,” and he got really mad at me – because I wouldn’t let him in, in my mind. And I said well listen, we don’t do this stuff here. You’re going to have to leave and he said, “Just try and get rid of me,” and he walked away. And I didn’t know how to get rid of him and then Chino Sensei came back in the Toyota Land Cruiser – remember that vehicle?
DC: Yeah, that’s early on.
TB: And we discussed it and Chino said we’ve got to get him out of here so he talked to this guy and he was very respectful of a Japanese priest and they agreed that he’d leave and they all got in the – maybe Bob Watkins or someone went with Chino and they were going to drive him out to Carmel and they stopped up at Chew’s Ridge to look at the view the way we always did and this guy jumped out of the car and he jumped over the side of the road into the chaperel and disappeared down into the canyon. So we were kind of stumped and they didn’t know what to do and so a couple of hours later this guy shows up back at camp, back at Tassajara and Chino said well do we have a room, a cabin he can use? We’d better give him a place to sleep and Roshi’s coming tomorrow. Roshi will sort this out for us. And I said well that’s good news. And sure he can have… I was sitting there with my chart and he said whatever, 3A is open. So he disappeared into there.
And then the next day, Suzuki Roshi came and we were all immensely relieved because this guy had created this immense tension and Suzuki Roshi came and I saw him sitting outside the office and I saw this guy coming down from the parking lot and this guy, this madman, ran up to him. And I don’t know if Suzuki Roshi even said anything but their encounter was incredibly brief. It was like five seconds, and the guy turned around and ran out the driveway never to be seen again.
DC: Wow, that’s great. I was probably there then but I don’t remember it.
TB: I remember Alan – what’s his name? – Marlow, the great worldly sophistcate. He was there and he’d encountered this fellow up at the shop and I said, Alan, what’s this guy doing, and he said, “Oh he showed me a few of my past lives. It was sort of interesting.” And he walked off.
DC: Classic Alan.
TB: So it was a wild couple of days but that was one time that I saw Suzuki Roshi step out of his you know gentle everyday life is the right way kind of life and really apply some leverage. Boom!
DC: That’s a great story. You got anything else that you’re holding back?
TB: Peter told me to tell you that. I don’t like to tell that story because it sort of feeds people’s fantasies.
DC: Don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about other people.
TB: The oriental magician…
DC: You shouldn’t worry. That story, your take on that story, should be told and I’ve never heard that story before.
TB: Well it’s… it’s to the best of my recollection. And I was profoundly relieved. I felt responsible for Tassajara. I was the guest director and all of the spiritual leaders were gone and I felt, Jesus, I got to take care of this place. I was just enormously relieved. I never discssed it with Suzuki Roshi. I never said, “Hey man, show me that move. What did you do?”
Another thing that I think I have told you – which was very much more personal and also about his power is that one time I had taken a hot bath and I was in the creek, kind of rolling around in the cold water and I saw Suzuki Roshi walking across the bridge to the baths and he was looking at me and suddenly I got very self conscious about being naked in the water rolling around and Suzuki Roshi was looking down from the bridge toward one of the swimming pools – quite a ways away – and I heard this loud voice, you know – Roshi’s voice – said, “Be yourself!” And then he turned and walked into the baths – but of course, he’d never opened his mouth. It was like this pure projection of his voice somehow.
DC: What? What do you mean he never opened his mouth?
TB: He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t make a physical sound. I just heard his voice in my head.
DC: Oh oh oh oh oh. Okay.
TB: So those are the two times that I hesitate to talk about because they emphasize that side of him but I think that a lot of us knew it was there, that this ninety pound, four foot eleven man had enormous energy that he could use in very disciplined ways. It augments the kind of… I worry sometimes that roshi is made into a kind of ET figure or something, you know. I keep waiting for a Suzuki-roshi which is all one word now to made into a Cupee Doll or something. Cash to order or something.
DC: Oh well. It wouldn’t matter.
TB: No it doesn’t but it doesn’t include that he was so powerfully trained and such a professional at what he did.
DC: Some people think Yoda was modeled after him.
TB: You know when I first saw… I meant Yoda actually, not ET. When I first saw that first Star Wars movie I thought exactly that.
DC: I’ve heard that and you know Lucas’ administrative assistant of many years is a friend of mine and I could ask her but - I’m sure it’s not true.
TB: The body language was so close though.
DC: I could ask her but I don’t see where that would be coming from.
TB: Chris Rand used to work for them.
DC: Industrial Light and Magic – he is a high end metal worker - made models and a Robocop arm and did work on America’s Cup sailboats and now is making multi-million dollar ten thousand year clocks for the Long Now Foundation.
TB: I guess the last thing is I think maybe some people sort of wondered why I seemed to drop out of Zen practice and went off with Harry Roberts for all those years and it really was pretty complicated but it was basically, as I said yesterday, it was just a sense of belonging with Harry. It seemed pretty clear that I was meant to be with him.
DC: It seemed pretty neat to me.
TB: But I did write a book and it’s-called Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850-1990, University of California Press, 2002. There’s some stuff directly about Harry and some academic, some chapters more academic than others. But I do think that if Buddhists read it they’ll see the kind of connections that I was making between Yurok spiritual practice and Buddhism. It’s all there between the lines. I don’t discuss it as such.
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