Interview with Sandy Hollister
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Shunryu Suzuki memories from SFZC Alumni retreat of April 2012
Tassajara with Sandy Hollister by David Chadwick
DC: Iíd like to start off with Suzuki Roshi and then ask you how you got there and stuff or you can start anywhere you want.
SH: The first I heard about Suzuki Roshi was from Ruth Bossieux my friend and housemate in a flat on Bush St. about Ĺ block from Sokoji around 1965. She had sat at Sokoji with the early groups of people including Dwite Brown, Betty and Shirley Wong, Phil Wilson, Jean Ross, Della Goertz, Bill Kwong. By the time I met her she was no longer sitting at Sokoji but she told me what is was like for her and talked about the people she lived with in the houses across the street from Sokoji.
DC: Was Betty named Wong too?
SH: Betty and Shirley Wong are twins.
DC: Right, Iíve heard of them. Phillip Wilson got in trouble for having relations with one or both of them.
Ruth Bossieux was married to someone who knew Tim Buckley. Tim Buckley was at Tassajara at that time. Tim came to our apartment to see Ruthís husband, Steve Tyler. Tim also talked to me about Suzuki Roshi, and he talked about how being at Tassajara had changed his life. He felt he had been on a downward track and this experience he was having inspired him and made his life new again. That was very inspiring to me. Before he went back to Tassajara he said why donít you come to Tassajara and just see what itís like. So I did. I went in the fall of 67 Ė maybe it was between practice periods, I donít remember. I took a bus and Tim was on a town trip so he picked me up. We arrived at Tassajara at night after dinner. Someone gave us some food and after we ate I was washing the dishes in the little sink in the original kitchen (small small kitchen) and Tim asked me if I wanted to sit with everyone. I said sure, thinking that this would take place the next day and I could say no if I changed my mind.
But he said, okay letís go, zazen is starting right now.
DC: I was here at that time.
SH: Yeah! Suzuki Roshi wasnít here at that time. I think it was in November near Thanksgiving. So he took me to the zendo. When we walked in, by kerosene lamplight I saw rows of people sitting next to each other on cushions facing the wall, not talking or moving, it was amazing to me. I had no preparation for what I saw, had never seen anything like this, no one had ever described that part to me, I had never read about it. The concept was outside of anything in my life. Tim directed me to a zafu and sat down next to me and said, so hereís what you do. Cross your legs (he put his legs in full lotus) and you just sit here without moving until you hear the bell. Donít move. Then he got up and left.
So I put my legs in full lotus, I mean I was in my twenties and was flexible, had been doing yoga, but I had never sat in full lotus for more than 5 minutes.
But he said put your legs like this so I thought that was the way everyone was supposed to do this and was already blown away by all the people sitting there without moving or talking. So the very first exposure I had to any concrete part of Zen Buddhism was this sitting which I came to with no preparation, no prior knowledge or idea of what it was. My friend Ruth hadnít told me what actually took place in the zendo. Much later it seemed that this first sitting was a microcosm of the next 40 years of my life. I experienced deeply a review of every issue that I had to work with, every button got pushed, every fear was activated, especially when I saw this huge shadow slowly, silently moving (over the top of the middle divider) with the shadow of a long stick. Then randomly I heard the sharp slap of the stick hitting someone and I literally started shaking in fear where I was sitting thinking that when the stick came to me I would be hit repeatedly until I ÖÖwhat? died? passed out? I donít know. But I didnít move! Then the person with the stick passed behind me and didnít hit me! Not to mention the extreme pain of sitting in full lotus for 40 minutes without working up to that position. That night I didnít sleep at all down in the last cabin across from the pool, no sleeping bag, no warm blanket. I couldnít get warm.
So that was my introduction to life at Tassajara. But it inspired me and I went back to San Francisco and sat at Sokoji for as long as it took to be regarded as a candidate for a practice period. Back in San Francisco at Sokoji is where I first met Suzuki Roshi. The thing about him was that I trusted him. I couldnít always trust the males in my life that had been father figures or role models but he was someone in an authoritative position who I could trust. Everything he said he also did himself and that in itself was enough for me to want to continue with the practice, to consider him my teacher. So there I was with whatever my issues were in my twenties and it turned out that one of my issues was that I felt that everyone else got Ďití and I didnít. And I didnít feel like I could personally relate one to one with him, I didnít want to because he had so much responsibility (all of us who were kind of crazy) and I didnít want to add to that. It seemed that I could get enough by just being at a distance from him.
Of course, I did also put him on a pedestal. If he was here now I know Iíd have a different kind of relationship with him. But I loved him, his teaching, the way he lived, his gentleness. I remember the scent of incense on his robes when he walked past. The first time I had Dokusan was at Sokoji during a sesshin. Again, I knew nothing about what it was, what the form was and I was so nervous that I didnít understand the instructions about what to do when I entered the room for Dokusan. So when I went into the room I did everything wrong but thought I was doing it right. First, I faced the wall instead of facing him and we sat there for a long while and then he said, ďturn around and face meĒ, so with a deep feeling of shame for having misunderstood I turned around and looked at him. He was sitting on a raised platform and there was a light coming through the window and when I looked at him he looked so tired and I just started crying for his tiredness for his huge responsibility or at least that was my projection on him. And that was my Dokusan Ė just crying.
So thatís what I did at that time. I worked my life so that I could be around him at Sokoji or Tassajara for the next few years. I had a job but I would take off for 3 months so I could come here for a practice period which I did twice.
At that time I liked observing the Japanese priests who assisted Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi and Kobun Chino for clues about Zen and what we were doing. To me the whole Ďmysteryí of the practice and the foreignness of it seemed imbued with and intertwined with the culture of Japan. I somehow had this idea that if I could understand the culture that this particular kind of Buddhism came from I would understand Ďití better. My interest and fascination of it did not come from reading about it or discussing it. In fact, the direction of my life at that time felt like it was out of control so the grounding and focus that the practice gave me turned that around. I particularly liked the concrete rituals involved in the practice, zazen, chanting, bowing, oryoki, bells, hans, offering incense.
DC: Did you have any prior inclination or had you ever run into anything that interested you like meditation?
SH: No. My interests were mostly in music. I was especially drawn to music of India, flamenco, Arabic music, Appalachian music, Greek music.
Also, palmistry, astrology, tarot, I Ching. And I practiced Yoga with Sivananda in San Francisco until he moved to Canada. But Zen Buddhism was not something I knew anything about. But if you are talking about the pursuit of the spiritual - yes, that was always there in my life.
DC: What was that, what were you raised with?
SH: I was raised with nothing. My parents were Catholic and they were excommunicatedÖ.
DC: They were excommunicated?
SH: They were excommunicated because they didnít get married in the church.
DC: No kidding?
SH: I thought that was really wild once I knew what that meant because they were so harmless. It seemed so strange.
DC: Wow! I never heard of that.
So where do you come from?
SH: Milwaukee. So my parents didnít say or do anything about any religion or any belief system. It was just a big blank.
DC: So when do you remember that you started wondering about it?
SH: Between around 6 and 11 years. I lived in a housing project during the war that was built for low income families of service menÖ.
DC: You mean WWII?
SH: Yeah, WWII.
DC: When were you born?
DC: Oh really? Oh. Iím surprised. You look younger than that.
Ah, good for you. Whatís your birthday?
SH: May 4.
DC: Oh. Youíve got seven days till your birthday.
SH: So, there were a lot of kids living there and I interacted with them every day. Almost all of them went to some church or the other with their families and my parents didnít. So I attached myself to them and asked if I could go to church with this family or that family in turn. I wanted to know what that was all about. It was a mystery. So I tried a lot of churches because I was seeking something that was missing for me.
DC: At what age? You were trying out churches!
SH: Probably around six or seven. I didnít think of it that way.
DC: You would say, ďMommy can I go to church with so-and-soĒ?
SH: Something like that. The first one was a Baptist Church. There was a hidden waist high water container in back of the altar and all I could see was the top part of someone walking. You could hear the water sloshing around, and then the minister would immerse the person backwards and they would disappear and then reappear dripping water. They wanted me to join that church but when I asked if I would have to do that and they said yes, I gave them back the bible they had given me and said sorry I canít do that.
So ever since I remember there was something that I was seeking that wasnít available in every day life Ė something spiritual.
DC: So, you werenít around the Zen Center before Tim invited you there, because I was living at Tassajara then and I can remember you back then, and I remember that story I told that I think we should include of you going to the very famous astrologer, Gavin Arthur, who lived next door to me. I lived with Tim and Loring. Tim moved in with Loring and me over there on Buchanan street and thatís the last place I lived in before I went to Tassajara. You saw Gavin and you were very upset afterwards because Gavin had told you that because you have this Grand Square in your chart that it would be impossible for you to get enlightened. And you were very upset. And I went, oh, no no no Ė Simeon Nash.
So I took you to Simeon Nash. Simeon was sort of an heir of Gavin and they were both gay. Simeon was the opposite. He was such a nice guy. I could say other negative things about Gavin but Simeon was a sweetie pie. Iíd bring people to him and he would do charts for them and Iíd give him a loaf of bread. He would do it for a loaf of bread. So he did yours and he said you had potential. He said it could be seen as a difficulty but it is great potential.
SH: I still remember some of the things Gavin Arthur said that were so scary and ominous.
DC: Power tripping. Wanting to have power over people by scaring them. This is a priest trip. Priests do that, the hell fire thing. Gavin also turned in somebody. It was a guy who lived in that building that Gavin was after, maybe he was a young gay protťgť who burned him or something, and he turned him in to the police for having marijuana.
SH: He really didnít like women.
DC: Yeah! I always associated Gavin with young men. He was not bad to me, but of course I was a young man and used to being around gay men. My mother was involved with the arts and stuff. I met Alan Watts and Jano there at his place which was a great honor, maybe Gary Snyder too I canít remember now. But it was neat having Gavin next door but he did do some bad things sometimes.
Letís go back a little way to the way seeking mind. Did you do anything in high school around that?
SH: Not really. I just always had the feeling that there was something more, something beyond every day, but not going to church.
DC: Did you go to college any?
SH: I went to San Francisco State for a while. But I was trying to major in music without a music background and it didnít work out.
DC: When I met you in í66 you would have been 24. I didnít realize then, I can tell you. You seemed to me to be about my age. So but that age in your 20ís with all this spiritual stuff happening the first thing that really happened was with Tim and Sokoji?
SH: Before that I came to California in 1962 with a woman I met in Milwaukee who was coming to U.C. Berkeley to get her Masterís Degree in art. After we came to San Francisco she met Ginny Baker. Ginny was coming to Tassajara to do the inventory after Zen Center bought it. Thatís how I first came to Tassajara. I went with her and Ginny to Tassajara to do the kitchen inventory.
DC: And I worked with Ginny because Iím the one who bought things for the dining room. Ginny selected the plates and the silverware and this and that.
But I would go out and buy it. She was sort of the interior decorator and I was the one doing the work. I was the one who made the first napkin rings. I went out and selected bamboo and this and that.
SH: This woman, Renee, who knew GinnyÖ.
DC: Renee what?
SH: Renee Luby.
DC: Oh, I know Renee Luby. You came out with Renee Luby? She ran the Montessori school and my sister was the secretary for the Montessori school.
Yvonne got Susan that job at the Montessori school. Ginny and Yvonne started that school. I went with Yvonne when she first looked at the school.
SH: Renee asked me to come and be the lunch cook at the Montessori school during the time she was the director and I did that for a while. That is probably around the time when I first met you since your sister worked there. I remember you and someone else from the Zen Center moving a used freezer or refrigerator into the kitchen at the school (a freebie) over the weekend and it turned out to be full of cockroaches! I came back on Monday and the kitchen was full of them and we never could get rid of them.
So that is probably why you remember me from before I was at Sokoji and involved with the Zen Center.
DC: Do you remember your first impression of Suzuki Roshi? The first time you saw him, what you thought of him?
SH: Not the first time. After that first time at Tassajara which was only 1 or 2 days, I wanted to go to Tassajara and was told to practice in the city for 6 months before I could go there. I practiced for several months at Sokoji every day. I only lived Ĺ block away and I sat before and after work and on Saturday mornings. Suzuki Roshi gave lectures, Bill Kwong would make breakfast and we all ate together.
DC: Did you have any involvement with the Zen Center after it moved to Page Street?
SH: Not really.
DC: Well what happened then?
SH: I moved to Berkeley around 1970 or Ď71. In í72 I had a child and was a single parent. My active involvement with the Zen Center ended around then.
DC: What happened to the baby?
SH: Heís 40 years old this year. He has spent the last 7 years in Southeast Asia traveling. Following Buddha Ė he wanted to see the birthplace, the Bodhi Tree Ė all of the places connected to Buddha. After that he settled in Thailand, got married and has two children. Heís here now and working on bringing his wife and kids here soon.
DC: Heís 40 years old this year. My son is 38 and he was born in í73 so he was born in í72.
SH: Right. I remember that while I was still living in San Francisco in the late Ď60ís I took care of Amber, Kathy and Silasí daughter, for a while until she was 3 months old. Kathy was unable to care for Amber shortly after she was born so Masa, Gary Snyderís wife, cared for her for about a month. Masa had just had her second child and the baby had to be hospitalized so Masa took Amber, cared for her and breastfeed her (that way she was able to breastfeed her own baby later on). I was helping by taking care of Kai, Gary and Masaís first child who was about 2 years old then. Gary wasnít around at the time so I lived there for a short time, cooked for Masa and Kai. Alan Watts came to see her once while I was there. When Masaís baby came home from the hospital, Silas asked me if I would take care of Amber until Kathy recovered. So Amber came to live with me in San Francisco until she was about 3 months old.
When Silas and Kathy took Amber I was bereft because we had bonded during that time. She was a delightful baby. Neither Silas nor Kathy visited Amber except once or twice during the time I was caring for her so I didnít know when they were going to take her back. A practice period (the first one with Tatsugami Roshi, the spring of Ď69) was just starting and I wanted to go to it but I was told to interview with Suzuki Roshi since it was too late to register. So I met with him. He was very gracious and served tea and gave me a small wooden bench to sit on.
I told him why I was consulting with him and said that I wanted to go to Tassajara to have something hard to throw myself into because of missing Amber.
He said if you want to do something difficult the hardest thing would be to stay right where you are. He was right, of course. But he approved my application anyway and I was allowed to go to Tassajara again. That was my second practice period.
DC: Do you have any involvement now with any practice or group?
SH: I sat at the Berkeley Zen Center for a while. In the early Ď80ís I heard from a client of mine about Ekai Korematsu who was the priest at a small family zendo in Oakland in the attic of the home of Yoshie and Kaz, the owners of Yoshiís restaurant. So I started sitting there and served as Treasurer there for over 30 years until about 2 years ago. Around 1987 Gengo Akiba became the resident priest. A couple of years later they moved a few blocks away and eventually built a small Japanese temple on the property in Oakland. I still practice there.
DC: Thatís very interesting. Iíve never interviewed anyone who said anything about Yoshiís zendo. I've sat there and visited Yoshi and Gengo a few times.
Is there anything else you want to say?
SH: I had a dream early in the morning about the time that Suzuki Roshi was dying. I was living for a short time in Oregon and didnít know that Roshi was dying. In the dream Suzuki Roshi was at Sokoji downstairs in the part of the temple reserved for the Japanese congregation. He was zooming down one of the aisles towards the altar and his feet werenít touching the ground. As he went he kept taking different hats on and off his head. When he got to the altar he fell down onto it and his head cracked open and started bleeding. After that I was in a room that looked like a room at Sokoji where they have Dokusan during a sesshin. I was standing below a raised platform where Mrs. Suzuki and Suzuki Roshi were sitting side by side. Okusan shook her finger at me and said, ďNow you have to take care of himĒ. Later when I found out that he died at that same time it didnít surprise me because he had such a profound effect on so many lives.
Transcribed by Sandy Hollister.