Interview with Tim Ford
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I first heard Suzuki Roshi speak in ‘65. I went with an ex girlfriend and sat in front and he looked out at the audience and said, "If you can't understand anything else, just try to remember to try to do the right thing," and he looked directly at me.
A couple of years later, I was living in Santa Barbara and I came up for a Saturday sitting and in June of ‘68 I put everything in my truck and drove up and started living on Pine Street with Steve Weintraub, Maggie Kress, Bill Deroos, Susan Garby who had a daughter named Garnet Tree - I just saw her give a concert at the Point Reyes Dance Palace - she's a singer.
Anyway, I was interested in sitting. I'd been sitting but I didn't realize the importance and impact of Suzuki Roshi and thought it was great everyone was sitting together and gradually his personality revealed itself.
Sitting there in the evening on your porch you realize that if you sit there a fox will come to the rock every night. Foxes are prevalent and have a kind of power. I saw one recently that was half eaten - only the front quarters were there - at the ranch and close to the place where my father was killed by a root. He said that a tree came up and threw him through the air and when he fell his leg was broken and a few months later he died of cancer and he always insisted that the root did it.
Once Suzuki Roshi was lecturing at Sokoji downstairs and I was sitting in the pews with everyone else and all of a sudden he pulled out a fan and stuck it behind his head and he said, "And tomorrow, it's New Years!" and he started making funny faces and I thought, okay he's lost it. That must have been January first of 1969 coming up.
He was giving a lecture downstairs at Sokoji about being careful and doing things carefully and when he got up and left, everyone sat and he walked down the central isle when it became clear he'd forgotten his zoris which he'd taken off to sit up on the altar. There was a big pause and everyone wondered what he was going to do. Bob Schuman ran down and got his zoris and sprinted up holding them and Suzuki Roshi just put them on and continued out.
I remember moving Reb's stuff over there in June of ‘69 in my truck and he had a large assortment of very fine articles - a lot of Japanese stuff and potted plants and I wondered how he'd acquired all that. I had watched him drive up in his fifties grey and white Cadillac hearse when he first arrived. He drove down Bush Street and pulled up to Sokoji.
The next morning after a seven day sesshin at page street in the summertime - 1970 Suzuki Roshi came in for the first zazen and I noticed there were very few people in the zendo. He suddenly stood up and said, "Just because it's the day after sesshin, there's no reason why people should not be here. Furthermore, I'm tired of people living on the edge of society with dirty feet." And he stomped out of the zendo.
I only had dokusan with him a couple of times and one of them was kind of informal and we never really talked about practice.
I was all primed to go to Tassajara in the winter\spring of ‘70 and I applied and put my photo on the application and I got a call from Yvonne saying that Suzuki Roshi wanted to talk to Betsy and me and we went into his room and Okusan was in there with him and he said, "I understand that you want to go to Tassajara and also that your wife is pregnant and that last time she had some difficulty." She'd lost her child in ‘67. She'd fallen while getting some vegetables and had crushed the babies skull inside of her and she'd gone into depression and gone to the funny farm and she'd been back there quite a few times and she had a tendency to schizophrenia. So he said, "My wife says that it's not a good idea for you to go so I think you should stay here." As it turned out she didn't have any problem during her pregnancy but she had to go back to the funny farm three weeks after Jonas was born. I got into the carpenter's union and never did go to a practice period at Tassajara.
The last time I saw Suzuki Roshi he was in his casket and I was impressed with how still he was. He'd always been moving. And Dick Baker was in some kind of samadhi, his eyes were very strange, and he was staring at everyone looking at the body.
It's good to have a teacher and Suzuki Roshi was my teacher and he always will be. A lot of his teaching was when he'd go "mmmmmmm." He'd always do that when he'd speak and I thought it had some sort of import. The mmmmmm's carried just as much weight as his phrases. He did his job as a Zen master and there was none of the bullshit, hype, charisma that one might expect.
I remember when Tatsugami came Suzuki Roshi said, "A typhoon just blew in from Japan yesterday."
He didn't try to do anything special with his personality. He kept it simple and extremely digestible. I found his teaching difficult to follow. I wish I could study with him now but I guess I can even though he's dead. I've founded a little cult of Suzuki Roshi in my mind and I bow to him at the memorial site for him at Green Gulch and at Tassajara and for me it's a very emotional issue and I think it's wonderful to have that kind of relationship with someone who had as little hype as Suzuki Roshi did, to be able to touch that place inside myself where I can feel tenderhearted about somebody. I think he was the only person I've ever believed in my life and he didn't say anything. There was something about him that I just believed what he said. There was nothing dramatic about what he said but it was impenetrable.
At Pine Street where I first lived, Susan was not like part of the group - she was strange and had a reptilian feeling. She was an actress who'd had some role in Hollywood when she was 18. She'd leave Garnett's diapers in the toilet. She once asked Suzuki Roshi from the audience, "Suzuki Roshi, for the last time, is there reincarnation?" And he said, "Mmmmm mmmmm, I don't think so."
DC: Dick always said that.
TF: Another time she said, Roshi can you say something about dreaming?" And he said, "Mmmmm - I could but I think if I did it would be kind of dreamy." And I was really impressed with his English. What facility.
Evelyn Pepper lived with us too - she was very thin, from the Bronx, about 21 in ‘69. She said that someone gave Suzuki Roshi a cookie that was actually a hash brownie and he ate it and someone asked him later how he liked it and he said, "Mmmmm, it's okay if that's what you like."
I remember Okusan watering the plants at the top of the stairs with old tea.
Someone came to Page St. lecture and taped Suzuki Roshi and Yvonne was standing at the door and said we want the tape and will give you a new one for it. Right there inside the front door or in the Buddha hall a lot of important ZC history took place. That's where Dick stood over Suzuki Roshi's body.
DC: I get a lot of stories there.
TF: It emanates out of the Buddha hall and losses the silly sacred aspect of the Buddha hall and becomes the down home hallway.
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