Interview with Fran Keller
Interviewed 6\23\93 by DC
This interview was one of the first I did. Look at the date up there. Fran is still living near Santa Fe and is still working at the local hospital – in primary care. She says this is her last year. I visited with her last year when I passed through and look forward to the next time I see her. I always regarded her as a wise and solid person whose practice and understanding continues to deepen through the years. - DC
DC: I’m thinking of doing a book on Suzuki Roshi when I finish the one I’m working on (Thank You and OK!) and so, since I’m living here in Santa Fe this year I thought I’d better talk to as many of the people here who knew him as I can. When I came to Zen Center you were one of the older students, one of the pillars. I remember how straight and steady you sat. So, what do you remember that you’d like to share?
FK: I don't think there's anything I know that others don't know.
DC: No matter.
FK: It was Esteban [Blanco - her husband] who took me to Zen Center. He studied painting with Elizabeth Campbell who I eventually studied with and she had a connection with a group of women who were connected with the Vedanta Society. Then we heard about these Tuesday night lectures [or maybe Wednesday night]. It was 1962. We started going to them and Suzuki Roshi [called Rev. Suzuki or Suzuki Sensei back then] was lecturing on the Blue Cliff Records. We set up chairs and he was lecturing at the Sokoji zendo and his English wasn't so good.
I came one morning to sit finally in 1963 and Suzuki Roshi whispered in my ear at five thirty in the morning. He showed me how to hold my hands and pushed in my back and whispered about counting my breathes. And that sufficed for the next three years until Tassajara.
DC: I’ve heard a lot of people mention that when they first sat at Sokoji he came up and did something to recognize them.
FK: The publication of Phillip Kapleau's book [The Three Pillars of Zen] in about 1965 was a big revelation. Before that there wasn't very much on Zen practice and meditation. The other books weren't about practice. I look back on that three years of sitting in abject ignorance as being wonderful. We just went and listened to the heater going on and off in the zendo at five thirty in the morning and Suzuki Roshi would come and whisper in your ear. There were two periods. I was working at the UC Medical center and I used to walk up Laguna Street from Haight and Laguna to Sokoji every morning. It started at 5:30 in the morning. I got chased a couple of times.
After zazen you'd file through that little room and bow to Suzuki Roshi and he'd look at you and he'd give me this piercing look that deflected off me in a poignant way. We'd walk through the little anteroom and bow to him and then go out to where the coats were. At some point people got to looking so weird in the zendo that he put a mirror up so you could see yourself before you went into the zendo. That was at the height of the wild hippie looks like ‘65 or ‘66.
Bill Kwong was there and Mel and Dick Baker I guess but I don't recall him so often.
Mel and Silas and Stan White and I used to go sit with this Chinese master that was in that same neighborhood - Dow Lun [sp?]
DC: Later called Master Hua Tim Buckley lived with him. He went on from being an obscure teacher who was a tough landlord and sitting with a few people to having his Taoist Zen place in Chinatown then to the Mission and their translation society and Gold Mountain Monastery then got the mental hospital in Mendocino which they called the City of the Ten Thousand Buddhas. http://www.drba.org/branches/cttb/
FK: He was incredible. I sat sesshins there. It was only three or four blocks from Sokoji. There would be three or four Chinese women cooking furiously and we'd be eating fast. He'd get out his sutra charts. We couldn't get enough so we were looking for places to sit. We were amazingly stupid. It was wonderful to have the freedom to not know.
I've had two teachers who were able to teach me in indirect ways. Suzuki Roshi and Elizabeth. She never said, this is a theory and we're going to do it. We did it from the ground up. It was wonderful. It didn't fit with our time conscious semester ideas. It's a very luxurious way to learn. It's the old master student relationship in which you learned without explicit theoretical constructs. It was very nice.
I think there are some drawbacks too. I think in my early training I wasn't countered. I had a lot of energy and I didn't know what to do with it. It's difficult for me to have a relationship in any kind of depth. I don't move toward groups. I also think that Suzuki Roshi was pretty overwhelmed with us. He had all these crazy Westerners searching for something mental that would illuminate our lives rather than a spiritual understanding.
When I came in ‘62 I was coming out of a pretty heavy drug scene. Acid and peyote. I'd been drinking a lot in North Beach. And I started reading Thomas Merton and I wanted a form to relate to, a practice. I lived in North Beach. It was still a beatnik hangout.
DC: When did you come to San Francisco and from where?
FK: I left Omaha in 1959 and drove a rental car with my friend to San Francisco and I got a job and went to San Francisco State but mostly I was into the night life at North Beach. That's where I met Esteban - he was a bartender at the Anxious Asp. As opposed to the later hippie scene, these were intelligent people. I remember Stan White playing chess at the Coffee Gallery. There was a bar called the Gino and Carlos which was the place to be - it was on Green Street and was like a clubhouse - you played pool and Janis Joplin used to come there and Esteban played pool with her. The Anxious Asp was a few doors up. It was this cool little Italian neighborhood and I lived in a little hotel above an Hawaiian bar. There was a lot of alcohol and coffee and a little grass.
Then Esteban and I moved to the suburbs in ‘62 - Haight and Laguna. It was very quiet. The convent was there and a block away was a Jewish girls residence that became the Zen Center [in ‘69]. We lived right across from UC Extension. [right where Chris Pirsig was killed.] They had the big LSD conference there at the extension that Alpert and Leary went to. I'd heard about them from friends of mine who'd been with them in Mexico.
DC: Dick Baker put that on.
FK: I was very influenced by peyote. It gave me a glimpse of a gentler way and I really wanted a way out of all that drug and alcohol and night life scene. So I was reading Thomas Merton and I liked the idea of a liturgical calendar - that the year is divided up into spiritually oriented practice. I'd read Alan Watts and DT Suzuki and was into the beat Zen but then when I started going to Suzuki Roshi's lectures it didn't seem to have anything to do with any of the stuff that I'd read.
DC: And how did he strike you? I guess that’s not a good way to word it considering he carried that little stick. How did he impress you?
FK: Suzuki Roshi was a very solid trustworthy person. I used to say that everybody starts Zen practice for the wrong reason. Whatever my needs were at that time I projected into that, but certainly I never had any real doubt after sitting there that that's what I wanted to be doing and that it was something important and most of it was just stirred on by this rather unique person who never affirmed or negated what I was doing - he was just there and I didn't ask a lot of questions and didn't receive any answers that I recall but it was just what I needed at that time - it was quiet and steady and it just planted a little seed that had to be tended very carefully.
Suzuki Roshi didn't speak English very well and you'd only catch every few words and the Blue Cliff Records were very opaque to me. I had no idea what this was all about. But I liked the lectures.
DC: I wasn't so interested in them but I didn't care. I just liked listening to him.
FK: I was using it as a place to get my life together.
What a contrast Three Pillars was.
He had to be very careful at that time about what he said. There were two generations there. One, this older group of women that had some experience with other things like Vedanta - Betty Warren and Della and Jean.
It wasn't Suzuki Roshi's style to talk about enlightenment. He was responding to the two generations. I was in the second one which was the post beatnik pre hippie drug experienced group confusing what they thought Zen practice would be with some sort of attainment of drug induced experiences - special states of mind as he said it wasn't. Three Pillars might have fed into that but I think it was helpful.
DC: Suzuki Roshi didn't usually say so much about drugs one way or another and Yasutani and Kapleau I think were more outspoken against them. There are times when Suzuki said if you wanted to practice you shouldn’t; use drugs.
FK: I ended up in the American Church of God here in Taos for a couple of years - the Peyote Church. It's the Anglo version of the Peyote Church.
I had a real problem with Zen Center when I left there. Suzuki Roshi in as much said to me that he did not know what to do with female students. I was there at the first training period and I never felt that I lacked for being able to approach him or work with him but I think culturally it did confuse him wondering how to work with female students. He initially envisioned Tassajara as being only men and Dick Baker said no that's not going to fly here. So he had already expressed some reservations - it just never occurred to him. There were strange things like how could women experience a deep hara type experience when they have other things in their abdomen.
DC: That's a Japanese type way to think. Reminds me of a lot of things I’ve heard over there.
FK: It came through the system but I don't know who to attribute it to.
DC: Tatsugami Roshi said that women had more smells and so should bathe more - like during sesshin.
DC: But in 1974 when I left Zen Center, ostensibly to come to New Mexico and study with Elizabeth, I was getting pretty uptight about the whole patriarchal imposition on the practice. All the male priests. I wasn't a radical feminist though I have no problem with that term but something seemed amiss to me and I think it was built into the structure of Buddhism. I feel a lot more comfortable now - Rita Gross's book, Buddhism after Patriarchy is wonderful. It's something every woman student has to look at and has to feel comfortable about.
DC: Zen Center and Buddhism in general in America these days has a very strong female component. I bet half the teachers are women. Maybe more.
FK: I found the succession extremely problematic. I had trouble with Dick. Don't forget that Grahame Petchey was initially his choice but he went to Japan and never came back.
I couldn't ask questions. I'm very critical of myself for how I was in my first years of practice. I used a lot of Buddhist dogma to not be as decisive as I could. Even in my marriage. There was a certain dullness I justified in that way. I needed to be woken up. I needed a relationship with a teacher that would make that apparent. We didn't come out of Suzuki Roshi's death with the thought that we can think for ourselves. We were very yea-saying and we were sleepy.
DC: Good, good. But see – it wasn’t permanent. You’re no yea-sayer now and I think generally people have woken up some about all that.
FK: I was talking to some women at Zen Center about the patriarchal overtones at Zen Center and Dick talked about monkeys forcing others off the limb and I thought it was time to go.
DC: I remember that. He was saying he saw a picture of some monkeys on a limb and he could see their competition and delusion and all and how we were like that.
FK: Esteban had told me I'd never leave - I had it too good. Zen Center supported me, I lived in the building, I had a place to paint. It was very very comfortable. Thank god I left. It was too comfortable. It took me years to get over Zen Center - much more difficult than a divorce. Very few places are run as smoothly as Zen Center. It set the standard. And a lot of that came from Dick.
I got a tremendous amount also from Tatsugami. He said a lot of things to me that changed my life. One day he said to me, "you chant very well" and I said I didn't feel it was so good and he said, "it doesn't matter how you feel." He wasn't self-congratulating and he would laugh at us - all of us and he broke down a lot of that serious style. He taught us all that doan stuff. There's a sort of protestant streak in Zen, self-searching, critical, more concerned with form than substance.
Buddhism would become allied with the earth oriented sort of practices in Asian countries like Shinto in Japan and Bon in Tibet but here it was very heady and didn't have the earthy practice to ally itself with.
DC: Gary Snyder and others have tried to bring that in.
FK: When I started using peyote in a ritual form, it's very powerful stuff and I really felt that it would be better for Zen to have some sort of body centering experience rather than some mental construct that was leading us on. We got a militaristic black robed protestant thing but I think of Suzuki Roshi dancing with a lampshade on his head at the New Years party at Tassajara when we all got very drunk. It might have been the first year.
DC: Yeah, I think so – at the New Year’s Eve party.
FK: Suzuki Roshi had a natural affinity for Trungpa. They greeted each other with an intimacy that was very touching.
I think Suzuki Roshi got swallowed up by the institution that grew up around him. He was a lot looser person than Zen Center became. That tends to happen. But he remained a kind of mild farmer type teacher. I'm not sure that's what he meant to happen but it did. I don't think it's a reflection of his personality.
We really fell for that hierarchical thing. Very few people can handle that kind of power. I think we have to sacrifice a generation. It will be strong manure. We were all extremely individualistic group of people who were trying to do something that went against our grain. We'd grown up with strong ego development and I just think that we have to be generous with ourselves and we may be the manure it grows out of.
DC: Maybe this is the meeting of the Japanese way and the American way.
FK: That will come will come out of the mistakes we've made and we shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes. I had to learn to forgive the institution and myself. I'm more aware of group dynamics now. I think I need a teacher and I think it's hard to see what you're doing without a teacher. I'd be happy to have a male teacher but I think we need female teachers. You need someone to knock you down to size sometime - you need feedback.
I was in a cabin at Tassajara in the fall and Tatsugami threw open my door and he was such a powerful presence standing there and I don't know what he said to me but I got some feedback. Suzuki Roshi would give me feedback when we'd bow at the anteroom. I think there are problems with practicing alone.
Suzuki Roshi's teaching was, like he said, walking through the mist and your clothes become wet - enduring practice. He expected you to clean every corner even if they weren't dirty. It was an extremely luxurious to have him as a teacher. I thought I will do anything that was required. I wasn't expected to get a job or be ordained or get enlightened.
He and Elizabeth were great intuitive teachers and they did not have a system and didn't hand you a teaching with a progression on a platter. It was very formal but there was no beginning course. Non systematic and very intuitive.
DC: We tried to make it systematic and always asked for more rules.
FK: Tatsugami would say, if you're going to ask for a role I'll give you one. He broke my idealization that Zen was Suzuki Roshi. I loved to see the practice reflected in different personalities. Katagiri would translate for Tatsugami but nobody would translate for Katagiri.
DC: Katagiri hated doing it and he didn’t like Tatsugami who treated him like an inferior. Yoshimura was better but Dan was the best but then who knows how much Dan understood. I went to Suzuki Roshi and said that Dan translated for Tatsugami and it was so superior. Can't he translate for Tatsugami? and Suzuki said, no, it's better for Katagiri or Yoshimura to do that and I said that at the UN they always try to have people translate into their own language from your second but no matter what I said he wouldn't give in.
Do you think of yourself as a Buddhist?
FK: Yes. I didn't when I was in the peyote church but I've come back. I'm not doctrinaire. I try not to get involved in new age things. I'm 52 and I figure I'm in the last third of my life. I explored pretty widely in the middle third so now I want to focus on my priorities. Gertrude Stein said it takes a lot of doing nothing to be able to do something. I consider myself a hermit. I have time to read and ride my bicycle and sit. And I have an intense job in the emergency room two days a week.
DC: What else do you remember about the old Zen Center?
FK: I remember Neville Warwick and he came with his girlfriend who had black hair and bangs and he wore some sort of robes. [Warwick was a real character who went on to for a group of hiking Shingon Buddhists who, among other things, had a bus in which they went to fires and helped people out. As the head of this group he was called Ajari San.]
Sometimes I think the Tibetans have more to bring and it may have a deeper influence in the US. And when people ask me about Buddhism I direct them to Vipassana. I'm very impressed by the Dali Lama and I like Trungpa's writings more and more. Trungpa underestimated the incredible strength of Western culture and it devoured him. Trungpa thought he was on top of the negativity of the West and he thought he was too strong. We tend to think we don't have a culture.
Something that I’ve hesitated to say because I don’t want to discourage students is that because Suzuki Roshi's way was so gradual and intuitive, when people did have special experiences or big experiences, I'm not sure he knew how to deal with them. When I look at koan practice, it does at least give people something to chew on. I know there were students there that when something illuminating would happen to them, there didn't seem to be a way of maturing them and of making that insight deepen and mature and that's my main criticism of Soto from my experience.
Something happened to me at Tassajara in which I didn't know anything had happened because I was not very cognizant and Suzuki Roshi sent for me and acknowledged that something had happened but I didn't know what was going on and I didn't know how to follow up with this and koan practice would have been a way of illuminating it. People had experiences they didn't know how to handle.
DC: So you think working with a koan would have helped you then?
FK: But I have a hard time relating to koan practice - I don't know anyone who does it who I'd really trust. I went to that Catholic priest's lecture - the one from Amarillo. I don't know. How can he wear two hats?
DC: I was glad to have heard him. He wasn't arrogant.
There was a fellow at the first practice period who Katagiri went on to ordain later – Tim Burkett [now, 2005, the abbot of the Minneapolis Zen Meditation Center http://www.mnzencenter.org/] He was pretty intense.
FK: Sure, I remember him.
DC: We were doing the meal chant one day and the part where you say we should reflect on whether our virtue and practice deserve it, he folded his bowls back up and refused food. Just that meal. Anyway, he had some sort of breakthrough experience and he was dancing around babbling outside. I think Suzuki Roshi had given him a mantra which I don't remember ever having heard of his doing before. And my impression of it was that it was out of control. But I’d like to hear what he has to say about that now. I wonder what he’d say about how Suzuki dealt with it. Mainly when people had experiences Suzuki just encouraged them to keep sitting, keep practicing, and not to be attached to them.
FK: When I look at Tibetan techniques they seem to know what to do. In Soto it seemed more like a twenty year experience and I'm not sure that style is appropriate for Western time frames.
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