Jeanie Stearns on her early ZC memories - emailed to DC on 1-21-07
(entered 1-24, minor correction made 1-25)
Correspondence between Jeanie Stearns and DC mainly concerning Phillip Wilson
The first time I sat at Sokoji was sometime in 1962. Phillip Wilson brought me there. I had no previous knowledge of Zen or Buddhism, other than a photo in a book in our high school library of a row of monks sitting cross-legged facing a rock garden, something that had intrigued me very much by its stark serenity. I was a student at Berkeley, a friend of Phil’s wife J. J., and returned maybe about 50 times up until I graduated in 1964. From that first foggy late afternoon up till now, 46 years later, I’ve really appreciated meditation, though I haven’t set any world records doing it. Before that first zazen session, I’d tried some formal Christian contemplative prayer, but the way that zazen included the body, made it part of the process via breathing and posture, and the non- expectant silence shared with a group really brought the experience into focus for me. I still remember that day: the darkish, medium sized meditation room, a few metallic objects gleaming from the altar, dry tatami, incense and chrysanthemum smells, the gong, cars whooshing by outside on Bush Street, our chanting from those soft green cards, syllable for kanji, as we went through a sutra. The statement “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form,” flickered on the edge of my understanding like an intense little visual migraine light: now you see it, now you don’t. The whole experience had unexpected similarities to religious settings I was familiar with, but some distinct and intriguing differences as well.
What was it like to be with the San Francisco group then? Betty Warren’s photos on your site, two of them in particular, brought a lot of it back for me with a jolt. The first is the one in the kitchen. The details that grab me are the small number of people, typical of the time, the humble physical surroundings (that 50’s refrigerator -- our parents’ kitchens!), the scroll hanging in the background nevertheless, and Reverend Suzuki’s posture and expression. I recall him as generally very serious then, more so than later. My memory is that until his wife came over there weren’t a lot of smiles, though of course he could always be quizzical and charming when making an especially Zen point. For me, his watchful expression in the photo connects with something I realize now and wasn’t aware of then: the assignment to San Francisco wasn’t a star job in the Soto Zen firmament, and adding on non-Japanese Americans to the Japanese American congregation was probably an unusual thing to do. He was clearly very serious about Buddhism and willing to share its depths with those who were interested. His face in the picture reminds me of a particular way he seemed then: not so much a venerated master as a humble priest, exiled to the provinces and doing his job with more than the required dedication. Due to my later experiences, there are ways I’m ambivalent about him, but I really appreciate it that Suzuki as reverend then sensei then roshi seems to have been one of the very few Zen teachers (or Buddhist priests or Asian gurus or charismatic leaders of any religion of his era) who didn’t descend to using his position to get students into bed with him or to live high on the hog. To me, that says a lot about him.
The other picture of Betty Warren’s that evokes a lot of emotion in me (more that than specific memories) is the row of ladies sitting meditating in their white blouses. Coincidence, I think, those blouses, very 1950’s, which the culture still was for a few more years. I don’t remember any discussions then of wearing uniform clothing. Students with Zen titles and in Japanese costume would have been surprising at that point, at least to me. I think it’s true, though, that there was a women’s side and a men’s side for meditation. That wouldn’t have been a big issue in those days, though I imagine everyone’s probably aware by now that one cultural assumption Reverend Suzuki didn’t transcend was a tendency (not limited to the Japanese) to take men more seriously than women, especially as students.
These days it wouldn’t happen as a matter of course that formidable women like Betty Warren and Jean Ross would remain handmaidens, and even later, for far too long, Yvonne Rand would be only the secretary. Young, totally dedicated and somewhat charismatic men were clearly what Suzuki favored: Dick beating the drum for his parade with broken hands, Phil Wilson, who probably would have cut his hand off if Suzuki had asked him to. The samurai code. That may be why some excellent possible successors such as Grahame Petchey and Claude Dalenberg got overlooked and Bill Kwong’s transmission took the confusing course it did. I don’t remember that in the early 1960s anyone was very concerned with transmission or thought about whether Suzuki could or would give it to some chosen one of the group of Americans that had started sitting there. That Pandora’s box wasn’t open yet. Having as many women students as men probably came as an unanticipated part of Reverend Suzuki’s openness to our slowly growing presence, a part he never fully dealt with. So those ladies sitting there in their white blouses send a complex message to me.
I graduated from Berkeley in 1964 and, thanks to a connection with the Episcopal church I’d been raised in, found a job teaching English at a prep school in Japan. I felt very lucky to have found a job in a country that interested me so much because of the sitting I’d been doing at Sokoji. As you probably know, Japan wasn’t affluent then; no cars being made yet, still pretty much the post- Occupation economy for them, so jobs teaching English there weren’t as easily come by as they were later, and they didn’t pay much. My school was in Kamakura, one of the old capitals, an exquisite small city about an hour south of Tokyo. Soon after I arrived, I met Phillip and Delancey Kapleau, who also lived there. Phillip Kapleau was mildly critical of my interest in Zen, saying he didn’t think it was the best way for a really young person such as me to spend her time (a sort of “get a life first” message, I think). But he did introduce me at Engakuji, a nearby Rinzai temple where I could sit any day, and at Zuisenji in Kamakura where an informal Soto Zen group sat about once a month, usually with Yasutani-roshi. Delancey Kapleau , a meditation adept herself, befriended me and nobly helped me through some of my problems, complications with a boyfriend, religious dilemmas, etc. Once, after a day of sitting at Zuisenji, a man I never saw again came up to me and said, very intently, in excellent English, that I had just as much right to be there as anyone else and I should keep coming. I don’t think I fully got then how much insight, and what unusual initiative, were involved in his doing that. I hadn’t accepted yet that the right to pursue Zen on equal terms with anyone else was an issue for me.
I had left San Francisco without saying good bye or even telling Suzuki where I was going. Despite my being at Sokoji for a while, Suzuki-sensei (as we were calling him by 1964) had never once spoken to me or even looked at me with any acknowledgment that I was there. If I thought about it at the time, it was only to assume that I just wasn’t worthy. Right before I left, he did tell J.J. Wilson to tell me to come talk with him about going to Japan. At that point I’d given up my apartment in Berkeley and was staying with my parents, who weren’t too happy about the whole going to Japan venture anyway, and up until the day of my departure made it difficult for me to get back up to the Bay Area. And by then the thought of talking to Suzuki made me nervous anyway. I was still young (22), looked about 15, was extremely shy and pretty obviously depressed. As I know now, thanks to your biography, David, young females and their psychology (wife 1, wife 2, emotionally distraught daughter) had not exactly been the comfort zone of Suzuki’s life up to then, which may have been why he’d avoided me.
Knowing what I do now about the Japanese in general and Zen masters in particular, I think that my not going to talk with Suzuki-sensei when asked, put together with the later coincidence that I ended up spending some time at both Rinsoin and Eiheiji, neither visit under his aegis, caused some of the oddity of our relationship later on. Doing things on your own isn’t common in Japan, neither is not consulting your teacher. I remember that when Grahame and Pauline Petchey came to Kamakura for a brief visit, I took them to meet Phillip Kapleau, and he was unexpectedly rude to Grahame, saying something like, well, why did you come to see me if not to accept me as your teacher? And that was from an American who didn’t have his own temple yet, though obviously he was already steeped in some of the Zen mores. I also remember the students at my school standing up and bowing to me every time I entered the classroom. I got clued in pretty quickly that I shouldn’t bow back to them as deeply as they were bowing to me.
When Phillip Wilson came to Japan in 1965, he went first to Suzuki’s family temple of Rinsoin near Yaizu-shi. The plan was that Suzuki’s son Hoichi would prepare him to go to Eiheiji and conduct him there. Soon after Phillip arrived I got a phone call from him. He was having some difficulty making himself understood, being sure he understood what was going on. So I took the train down and showed up at the temple. Whatever problem he’d been having was quickly sorted out (or maybe had been even before I got there. I can’t remember exactly what it was). Suzuki’s daughter and his mother-in-law were very kind to me (the daughter and some other family members took me to the local beach one day). They were pleasant to be around, but Rinsoin itself was dank and depressing. The zendo seemed to have become a storage space. No zazen going on that I could see. I didn’t realize until years later that Hoichi-san was a priest, though I do remember the meticulous way he shaved Phil’s head and got him suited up in begging monk’s garb to go to the monastery (that was what I sent you some pictures of, David, which I’ll try to find for you again).
Holding the fort for his father at Rinsoin at that time can’t have been an easy assignment for Hoichi-san. When I arrived at Yaizu-shi and was trying to find a ride out to the temple, people were curious about what a young female foreigner who spoke some Japanese was doing there, so I spent a little time talking with a few of them while the search for someone to drive me out there was underway. Their advice to me was that Rinsoin maybe wasn’t a good place for me to go. When I said I had a friend there who needed a little language help, they dropped the subject and I never did find out what their reasons were, though I think I can guess them now. After a few days at Rinsoin I saw Phil and Hoichi-san off at the train station and then went back to Kamakura myself.
A few months later Phil called again from Eiheiji. He needed some extra -large size warm clothes (underwear, socks, sweaters) that I guess weren’t available in Fukui-shi, so I got him some in Tokyo and took the train to Eiheiji. Much consternation when I got there. It took them a while to get it that I was Phillip’s wife’s friend, not some girl friend who was stalking him, and that he’d asked me to come. They put me in a waiting room with chairs, where I sat quietly for an hour or so -- I had heard of tangaryo -- till consensus was reached and they decided to let me stay for a while, putting me in what they called the Danish lady’s room. I still remember the thick striped icicles hanging from the eves outside my room like cats’ tails, the constant, bracing cold, the huge zendo and chanting room. One morning during the chanting after early zazen I had my transcendent Eiheiji moment, a sense of the monks’ chanting being part of an unbroken succession all the way from the time of the Buddha. It didn’t occur to me until later that the morning hymn singing in the Japanese Episcopalian prep school where I taught could be seen in a similar way.
As it turned out, the most important insight I had while at Eiheiji was that with all the ranks of priests, the robes and other gear, the full folderol of rites and ceremonies, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism included, was just as much a religion as the Episcopal stuff I was used to, with the same complement of hierarchical politics and personality clashes attached. I also learned from talking with some of the young monks that many of them were at Eiheiji mainly because they had to be. They were the designated heirs of their family temples and had to do the training to inherit them. Not so different from Jane Austen’s brothers. Some of the monks there probably had profound connections with Buddhism, but not all, and few seemed to take it with the killing seriousness that Phil and other Americans who tried the full training there did. I think many of the young Japanese monks understood it as a kind of Japanese manhood test, like getting through Marine training for an American. In a way, that might have made it easier for them.
When I came back from Japan in 1967, after three years in Japan and after meeting his family, etc., etc., Suzuki -- roshi by then -- accepted with no expression the present I brought him and instantly turned his attention to the next person in line. I knew enough by then to realize that that was the Japanese equivalent of an American going off on you. What I didn’t begin to get then was why he would be reacting to me that way. It seemed surprising and cold and rude, not at all natural, and looking back on it I still think it was, despite the fact that by now I can get my mind around the possibility that he thought I’d been rude to him, not a properly deferential student. It’s also occurred to me that he might have been afraid I’d heard from his family and from other people in Japan who knew more about him than he was comfortable with our knowing. (I hadn’t. Not a whisper.) At that time, living in San Francisco as I was, and busy digesting the experience of living in Japan, I thought of myself as still connected with Zen and with him. I kept coming to sit for the next three years, went down to Tassajara as a student worker quite a few times, and even lived in the housing across from Sokoji for a while. But Suzuki Roshi and I never once spoke. Seems pretty bizarre now, an eight year student- teacher relationship in which the two parties never speak to each other, but at the time I just repressed that it was happening. It was confusing and disappointing, and I needed (and need) to think that total spiritual worthlessness on my part couldn’t account for it. After all, I was a sentient being, and there we were at Tassajara taking a vow to save them all, ourselves included. It’s true, though, I wasn’t an ideal Zen student. I was going to graduate school, working, had my own apartment, had other friends and activities, and didn't even dress or act in the style of the Zen Center culture that was evolving at that time. I had also let it be known that I had thought the Japanese costumes and names were unnecessary and silly, potentially self-deceiving.
I wonder if other people like me had similar experiences there. There are certainly many good people who came and went, as well as ones who stayed. There are a lot whose names I don’t remember, but I do remember particularly John Steiner who, despite the Zen Center’s emerging code of hip non-responsiveness to other people’s personal problems (like Zen students weren't supposed to have those), brought me a cup of water as I was coming down with the Asian flu near the end of the 1968 -69 new year’s session at Tassajara -- best drink of anything I've had in my life.
I also remember a painter named Jane, who (I think this is her story and not someone else’s) had gotten very stressed out in the Peace Corps in Indonesia and insisted on giving me two of her paintings, saying she was done with painting. I think she had put them out in the hallway to throw them away. (They’re wonderful paintings; I've kept them. I wish Jane could e-mail me and get them back even though I won’t like parting with them). Other people who stand out for me in memory as kind, intelligent, substantial people who kept their own balance in the midst of all our rapid and exciting sub-culture growth, are Louise Welch, Peter Schneider, Jim and Rick Morton and Rick’s wife Carolyn, and Deborah Madison, who deserves every bit of her success; I've learned a lot from her recipes. There were other people I had a harder time getting along with (and I’m sure some who didn't like me). The guy who insisted on feeding only brown rice to “our” cats who lived under the Bush street house I stayed in was one (I fed them cat food anyway), and a couple of others who disapproved of my working but touched me up for loans. The sub-culture at its most cultish -- pretty mild at that point -- was such that, when I got offered a job at Cal Arts in Los Angeles after finishing graduate school, some fellow students pointed out to me that a serious Buddhist wouldn't take it. I'll always thank Katagiri-sensei (I could speak with him) for saying to me when I asked him about it, something on the order of “Why are you even asking? Of course you should take the job! There’s a Zen Center in Los Angeles.” Again, without saying goodbye to Suzuki, reverend, sensei, roshi, whatever he was to me by then, I left San Francisco and have been here ever since. I didn't keep up the Zen involvement, which is not to say I stopped sitting . At various difficult points in my life since then, either doing it or just remembering it, tuning into its mind set, has hugely helped me out, and it’s great to do on good days too.
One closing chunk I want to add, though it’s not a memory and may be disagreeable to people heavily involved with Zen. I have a serious problem with Zen discourse, the Zen way of talking. (Not yours, David, but what I call roshi talk, or, if I’m feeling edgy, roshi prattle.) It began in those last three years in San Francisco and continues to this day. I think that the Zen way of speaking, even as Suzuki does it in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is too often coy, evasive and manipulative. I remember that before the book came out we used to shake our heads over his speeches at Sokoji, openly admitting we didn't understand a lot of them, could never get hold of their structures, and that all that was probably due to his lack of command of English. Looking back on it all, though, I think his English was actually pretty good, and he was saying things the way he wanted to. Keeping people from fully understanding you can be useful (we've all heard the skillful means argument), and our Santa Claus was collecting a pretty wild reindeer herd of young Americans. Who knew that a lot of people would turn his book into their functional equivalent of Mao’s little red book?
Here’s my problem. I can’t go along with the hagiography of, “Ah, I asked roshi a question and he pointed at a fly on the ceiling. What a sublime comment!” That kind of stuff, minimalist mirroring language, or language reduced to gesture that throws the burden of making sense onto whoever receives it is a style of discourse that seems to me to lead straight into “the emperor’s new clothes” land. And I’m not tone deaf to poetry. To me a lot of contemporary Zen talk isn't poetry at all. It seldom has poetry’s freshness. It’s not fully an attempt to find the image and language equivalent of a feeling state. Too often it is (or was by the time I left Zen Center) stale and imitative, people going around trying to talk like Suzuki Roshi. It’s a way of speaking that implies that if you don’t agree with what’s said, or at least pretend to enjoy it, it’s because you don’t understand it.
The deliberate obscurity of Zen talk and the skillful means rationale for it aside, some of the things Suzuki Roshi said were straightforward enough, and, without being a boneheaded super rationalist, I didn't always agree with them. For example, his advice on how we should deal with the prolonged demonstrations going on then at San Francisco State in an effort to establish a black studies program. For several months in late 1968 that was a huge event and controversy in San Francisco, lots of upsetting violence, headline story in The Chronicle every day. At one of his talks, Suzuki Roshi told us we should learn from how the Japanese dealt with conflicts between people by avoiding merging, keeping the different foods on separate plates. After enduring three years of Japanese culture’s hypersensitivity to the foreignness of foreigners, their almost always keeping the gaijin (and Koreans and burakumin) on separate plates, I thought what he was saying was an unintentional variant of the separate but equal doctrine that had done so much harm in our country. I mean, there on campus the delighted press and police (brought in for “protection” but busy arresting students when not just thwacking us with their batons), and there at my wisdom pit, the place I hoped to get perspective on things, my Zen master, really not getting it that a long overdue change in American culture was working itself out -- messy at it was, then and for a long time after. As Suzuki Roshi was giving that speech, I decided that if I questioned him he wouldn't actually consider the possibility he could be wrong. I thought he’d probably just make a joke of any question raised about what he’d said -- ever seen that happen in a zendo? --and that the rest of his audience would have thrilled to the joke.
Even if I was somehow wrong about that incident, having a situation where anything the teacher says or does is true and right, no matter what, prevents a good discourse community. I think the way people had come to use language with each other in the San Francisco Zen Center around the time I left in 1970, and continued to use it at least through the Baker years, had a lot to do with the sordid socio-political situation that played itself out there -- and to the community’s credit got resolved. I can see that what I call Zen discourse still goes on somewhat. I also appreciate it that discussions are potentially more open now. I wouldn't be writing this if they weren't . Many thanks, David, for pursuing facts at the cost of communal legends in your biography, and to other people who've said what they think in interviews on your and other websites, even at the risk of a community not agreeing with them. I’m weirdly private and don’t really like writing about myself. But your and other people’s openness have made it easier for me to do it here, in the hope that one or another of the things I've recalled may shed some light on their own experiences for others who were or are involved in the Zen community, in San Francisco.
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