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Interview with Deborah Madison

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Deborah's cuke page

Deborah Madison
Interviewed with Pat McFarlin by DC at their home in Santa Fe

Pat’s part of the interview separated

I talked to them for four hours and so much of it was highly personal that I didn’t transcribe it. Here’s what remains. - dc

Talk about a person being elevated. He himself wasn't intimidating. He was incredibly gentle and kind and unarrogant and unassuming. There was nothing that he did that would suggest he expected us to behave in a certain way. But there was an excitement of the community about having him in their midst.

I've been thinking about Suzuki Roshi [because I was coming to interview her] and I actually don't have a lot of memories of him. I came to Zen Center when I was 21 or 22 sort of by happenstance. All these people were abuzz about this wonderful man. My first experience was a seven day sesshin and I sat next to Tommy Dorsey and he had long hair and a serape and tons of jewelry and petulia oil. We sat on the stage. [I think here she means the elevated area outside of the zendo, the gaitan, which she calls the elevated ledge below] Afterwards it was back to listening to how people would speak in an altered voice about Suzuki Roshi and how great he was and he did this and he did that. In the balcony of Sokoji there was this big ledge - it was several feet off the floor. I was just standing there and there was this man I'd heard of and I was so nervous when I saw him and so nervous about being in his way that I stepped off this ledge without noticing. I thought oh here's this wonderful man - I gotta get outa here. I might be in his way or something. There was nothing about him that suggested I ought to feel that way - it was the buildup and mystique around him. So my first meeting with him was falling down in front of him because I was so bowled over by his reputation.

A year later I went to Tassajara and a stellar kind of thing happened. Walking in the garden, I looked up and Suzuki Roshi was right there in front of me and instead of being able to say hello or good afternoon or gasho or whatever I just like kind of lost it and turned around and went in another direction. How do you face such a great man. He was so elevated by others - that's my main impression of him - so elevated - that he was virtually inaccessible as a human being. And to hear his words in lecture was wonderful and the most you could expect and then there was the fear of being a disturbance or being in the way or acting inappropriately because how you were to behave was very codified. I never felt that was anything he was requesting or putting out there but there was an expectation that mediated between myself and him that was generated by the student body.

I know I saw him a lot because I was on the rokuchiji, the staff, but I was still just in awe of him but the type of meeting we had there wasn't really an exchange. Lobsang here you can go talk to and have a glass of wine and talk about the birds and the weather and he's a lot like Suzuki Roshi but the experience is so different.

DC: He doesn't wear robes and they can be intimidating.

DM: That's part of the deal.

DC: In Japan a lot of people really don't like priests. Better not to wear robes there I think.

DM: My parents came to Tassajara the first summer I was there. I had become interested in Zen in the first place because of my father. I grew up with Alan Watts type of thinking in my house. It meant a lot to my father that I was at Tassajara. I was able to arrange for my parents to meet Suzuki Roshi and we met in my cabin and he talked about the prices of real estate in California the whole time and I was just shocked. Why is he doing this? My parents didn't give a hoot about that. He was very charming and you couldn't help but love him but I didn't know why he did that. They were trying to be polite and they were in agony being on the floor. It was so backwards.

I didn't feel the inaccessibility in terms of not having some experience of his teaching - I felt very much that I was the way that every other student was. I'm interested in this aura of inaccessibility because I think it has to do with the entire tone of what Zen Center became. I didn't have a hard feeling about Suzuki Roshi but in the one on one experience I didn't feel comfortable. He was so holy that I'd better not be talking to him.

DC: It was hard to get an appointment to see him. Often people would be scheduled to see him near the end of a sesshin and then he'd have to go to the city to do a funeral and they wouldn’t get to see him. He had to do that almost every time.

I had that experience. I remember signing up to see him and it not happening. That's how it was. We had lots of dokusans with Dick.

DC: He was much healthier and also believed in verbal communication more.

DM: These problems had nothing to do with Suzuki Roshi the man inside. It was the trappings around him. Talk about a person being elevated. He himself wasn't intimidating. He was incredibly gentle and kind and unarrogant and unassuming. There was nothing that he did that would suggest he expected us to behave in a certain way. But there was an excitement of the community about having him in their midst.

People in the community were so reverential and protective, that those who got to spend time with him must have felt pretty special. That must have felt like a privileged position. People would assume the feeling of greatness that they imposed on him. Very few people had close access to him. They would say, Suzuki Roshi told me when I was with him, blah blah blah - you weren't there.

One of the things I don't like about Zen Center is they operated from a different reality than anyone else and have different truths, better truths.

I wasn't allowed to possess what I'd created at Greens. I couldn't have ownership of that till years afterwards. Three weeks after the restaurant opened I was so happy about how the Dali Lama dinner had gone and I was called into dokusan and scolded for being hard to work with. I'd work very hard very long hours and would always be expected to be pleasant to people and the tenken would knock on my door on Sunday morning to go to Zazen after I'd worked till late the night before. My life was hell. I was so tired I didn't know if I was coming or going. I'd tell Reb to come see what it was like. He apologized to me for all that last year.

DC: And we're programmed to say that everything is our own fault, our ego.

DM: All this emphasis on the ego being bad is bullshit. We need to develop a healthy ego. We had it backwards and got it all wrong. And I don't know if I've used it well. I'm still trying to get over Zen Center. They never acknowledge what I created or thanked me.

The people who came to Zen Center with talent did the best. They had something to give and could get into it knowing who they were.

DC: People see you as a highly accomplished intelligent person who contributed a great deal to the community. But often what people at Zen Center contributed wasn’t acknowledged or they’d feel like what was they thought was theirs all of a sudden was not. I used to say, “What Zen Center giveth, Zen Center taketh away.” The higher up people got, the more they resented loosing it. And it turns out this applied to the abbots as well.

DM:  People need to feel like they contributed something.

DC: We should thank each other more.

DM: I'd do dinners for Richard at Green Gulch that would start off being for four and I'd go shopping and then it would be eight and finally it would be 18. I took it and thought it was my job. I wouldn't put up with it for one minute now.

Richard was often very nice to me and would introduce me to people but it was sort of like working for rich people here - it's this is my cook - I'm something they own.

I'm more in sympathy with Richard than with Zen Center. But he's very strange. He's very out there.

Pat was one of Bill Kwong's original guys - he was work leader and director. People started coming in late so they put a lock on the door so that people couldn't get in late. And then one day the lock disappeared and Bill said he wasn't going to come to any function at all till it came back. The assumption was that Pat did it - there was a meeting where everyone talked about it. It turned out it was his son who did it. He'd written a note and tacked it on the door that said something about locks on your minds. So Pat and his son left after that. In Helen Tworkoff's book, Bill dismissed Pat and his early students as worthless students. We both have Zen nightmares.

DC: Getting away from Zen Center is not easy because of economic and social security. How'd you get away?

DM: I was shuso at Tassajara and then the thing with Dick happened. Dan and I thought we'd be there forever but things were getting exposed to us and we were getting disturbed and we went to Hawaii and had a great vacation and when the plane was landing we started to feel the oppressive feeling coming back and by the time we got home to Green Gulch we knew we were going to leave. We left two weeks later. Dan would be fine and then someone would come over and start talking about the problem with Dick and he'd get furious. We left and went to work for Alice Waters at Chez Penaisse. She's the kindest person in the world. We went to Flagstaff to see Dan's relative who was building that artwork in the crater. I decided to write another cookbook. We went to Santa Fe next. Then we met these people in Albuquerque who through a series of coincidences hired us to go to Rome for a year and cook for this place. Then we were in several places before coming to Santa Fe – Fresno briefly and Berkeley.

DC note: The most significant thing about the Italian venture of Deborah and Dan is to me that Dan was cast as a cowboy in an ad made by Federico Fellini.

Pertaining to the following, Deborah was one of the people whom Zen Center, Baker Roshi really, sent to help Nancy Wilson Ross on the East Coast.

DM: I loved Nancy Wilson Ross - she was into loving kindness. She was hard to live with and we didn't always get along and after Dan came we really didn't get along. A lot of people didn't get along with her but I loved it. I was so happy to be away from Zen Center. I got to go to lunches and have Manhattans in the afternoon. Dan didn't want to drink at cocktail hour and I said you have to so he got into it. When John Bailes first arrived he was depressed and she'd say at breakfast I see you're wearing your lead suit but he got closer to her than anyone.

We were coming out of the extremely disorganized sixties and we wanted order. You put your shoes like this. I see signs now at people's houses "please take your shoes off" and I freak out.

DC: Dick would talk about how Japanese would come to Zen Center who had studied Emily Post and we'd be eating baked potatoes with chopsticks and spoons and they'd be so confused. They'd come to a place where you were supposed to take off your shoes and then you had to walk on the dirty floor before you entered the shoeless area or the shoeless area would be dirty too and we wouldn't have slippers for them which they use in Japan except on tatami. Like when Arnie Kotler came to our house in Japan he wore the toilet slippers around the house and I freaked out because I’d been conditioned and had students coming over.

DM: Zen Center wasn't hard - it was my life. And I got out and life became much more exciting and diverse. But Suzuki Roshi wasn't my teacher as much as the community. I felt I learned from him by his teaching infusing into the community.

DC note: Deborah Madison called the next day and said she’d been having all these positive memories of being with Suzuki that she hadn’t expressed and said that she thinks we tend to remember the negative more than the positive and that there were a lot of positive things she could have said that just didn’t come to mind. Like she just remembered the following.

DM: At Tassajara during kinhin [walking zazen] Suzuki Roshi came up to me - I had this habit of walking with a lowered head - and he put his hand under my chin and held up my head and walked with me during the entire kinhin doing that. That was pretty impressive - how our bodies reflect our minds and things we learned from our parents and it was amazing for me to have someone do something so simple and to spend ten minutes with me doing that. At first I felt that I was walking with my head tipped toward the ceiling. It was so direct and helpful and meaningful.

Growing up in a California walnut orchard and having a dad who grew a great garden meant that farms and food were in my sights from the start. I first put that awareness into motion at the San Francisco Zen Center where I was a student for eighteen years. While there I held a host of kitchen positions, from head cook, to guest cook to private cook for the abbott and his guests. What began as a mild interest in cooking grew to a passion that included stints at Chez Panisse and the opening of Greens restaurant, one of the early Bay Area restaurants to have a farm-driven menu. Since my years at Greens, I have been largely known as a cook, writer and cooking teacher whose specialities are seasonal, vegetarian recipes with strong emphasis on farmers markets produce and heritage fruit and vegetable varieties.

Connecting people to the food they eat, its source and its history has long been my work, and writing is one way to reveal the deeper culture of food, whether through recipes or through profiles of farmers and ranchers, producers and cooks, and even a humorous book on eaters, called What We Eat When We Eat Alone. My interests lay with issues of biodiversity, seasonal and local eating, farmers markets, and small and mid-scale farming. I am on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, have been involved with Slow Food for over a decade, and am presently co-director of the Monte del Sol Edible Kitchen Garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

For the past twenty years, my home has been in New Mexico, where I live with my husband, artist Patrick McFarlin.