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Email Interview with  Ken Knabb

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Ken Knabb cuke page

My main memory of Shunryu Suzuki is "nothing special". He was, of course, rather special, but his specialty was being unspecial, low-key, modest, unobtrusive.

click on thumbnail to enlarge - Ken at the 12th annual San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair (2007).

Here's Ken with Mel Weitsman on the 2002 Mountains and Rivers camping sesshins mentioned below.

Below are selections from some recent and one old emails with Ken Knabb which includes Ken's auto-bio and then, a few Buddhistically social engaged articles from BOPSecrets

I have long been a fan of Ken Knabb and his massive and impressive BOPS (Bureau of Public Secrets) web site [Making petrified conditions dance by singing them their own tune.]. He and I had some email correspondence recently about the Early Tassajara Alumni Reunion and it took this turn in which I learned some interesting things. - DC

DC: So tell me please - when did you first come to ZC?

KK: 1966. I attended perhaps a dozen times. Then I shifted to Berkeley Zen Center when that opened in 1967 and went there moderately often over the next few months. Then I stopped, and for the next two decades I only popped in to BZC on very rare occasions. In 1985 I started going to BZC regularly, and have practiced there pretty steadily ever since, in addition to doing one Tassajara Practice Period (Fall 1988) and some Mountains & Rivers sesshins with Ring of Bone Zendo. Inspired by the latter experience, I helped introduce the practice to BZC, and have been organizing BZC's more moderate Point Reyes M&R sesshins over the last several years.

DC: Like what do you remember of Shunryu Suzuki and Katagiri or anyway, any tiny anecdote or special memory appreciated, of ZC and anything back then

KK: It may sound sort of funny, but my main memory of Shunyru Suzuki is "nothing special". He was, of course, rather special, but his specialty was being unspecial, low-key, modest, unobtrusive. (At least that was my impression as a newcomer. No doubt he manifested himself more incisively to closer students.) I heard a few of his lectures and did one one-day sitting with him, but I don't remember much of what he said -- just the sorts of things you can find in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", which I consider to present him very much as he was.

Katagiri was his assistant. The only thing I remember about him was that he would sometimes come over to BZC to lead the services. At times he was like a one-man band, being doan, kokyo and fukudo at the same time. BZC had very few people at first -- sometimes there were only four or five of us at the morning sitting. I dropped out after a few months and didn't take it up again with any regularity again till 1985 (though I occasionally popped in, and sometime did zazen at home).

DC: Feel free to bringing it up to where you are now. I'm intrigued by "Inspired by the latter experience, I helped introduce the practice to BZC." Sounds like it would be an interesting area to be illuminated.

KK: I took part in three of Ring of Bone Zendo's "Mountains & Rivers sesshins" in the 1990s. They are 7-day backpacking trips which include hiking in silence through rather remote wilderness areas plus some campsite zazen in the evenings and early mornings. Strenuous but quite powerful experiences. I suggested to Mel that BZC try doing a more moderate version suited to us city slickers. We did annual 2-day M&Rs in the late nineties (all at Point Reyes), experimenting with different forms and schedules. I've been the M&R sesshin director (i.e. I organize and coordinate everything) since 2000, and due to popular demand we now do two 3-day M&Rs per year. Mel has taken part in nearly every one since that time, and still carries his own backpack at age 78. Rather than try to describe them, I am going to send you (in a separate message) the Guidelines and a typical schedule (in this case, for the one that's coming up next week).

Mountains and Rivers Camping Trip Guidelines Etc

DC: That's great. I wish everyone would be so responsive. Of course not everyone has a web site like you. Now, how about images? Can you email me a photo of yourself or photos now and then? I would really like to get that for as many people as possible.

For lots of great photos of two M&R sesshins (by Kokaku Blix) go here -- -- and scroll all the way through. Then go here -- -- and do the same thing. There are a few of me, plus lots of various of us doing zazen, hiking, eating, etc. [And check the photo of Ken up top after clicking on the thumbnail in order to recognize him in these photos] Here are more great photos by Ko (Brian) Blix of the 2002 Mountains and Rivers camping trip.

DC: And you could tell how you got into BOPS and anything you want and you could just link to places that tell about your past if you do that.

KK: That is described in my autobiography ("Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State"), which is included in my book "Public Secrets" and is also online at my website.

Part 1 (childhood through early Berkeley years) is here --

Part 2 (beginning with "How I Became a Situationist") is here --

Part 3 (which includes a chapter on "Zen Practice") is here --

The latter chapter, in addition to some introductory matter aimed at giving readers some notion of what Zen practice involves, includes a couple pages about my Tassajara experience.

That's probably more than what you bargained for. But feel free to ask if you want any further info or clarification.



6/9/99--Dear David, I finished your books and find them both excellent. My only complaint is that I wish the American portion of the Suzuki bio was about twice as long. It seems to me that there remains a lot of interesting material from that period. But perhaps that would be better covered in some later book (and/or your website) either as assorted anecdotes, transcripts, etc. supplementing your bio or as part of a more general history of the SF Zen Center as such (including post-Suzuki developments). Cheers, Ken Knabb

[Hi there. Thanks for the kind note. I will try to cover more Suzuki ground but not the post Suzuki stuff in the way you might mean. I'm more interested in what happened to people personally than in SFZC history at that point. And I just don't want to deal with it. But, I am trying to figure out what to do next and a number of people have made suggestions like yours, specifically for more Suzuki stories. I'm also thinking that a book of selected and edited interviews with folks who knew Suzuki might be a good thing to do. So I plan to feel all this out on the website. Thanks and yoroshiku onegaishimasu (please be good to me--sort of--with a hint of keep helping me in this regard)--DC].

Some BOPSecrets articles for the discerning Buddhist with Situationist leanings

In 1993 Ken Knabb wrote "Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists," a leaflet welcoming the emergence of socially engaged Buddhism while pointing out a number of its shortcomings. The leaflet was widely distributed and reprinted, and stirred up a certain amount of (sometimes heated) debate among Buddhist groups.

In a follow-up text, "Evading the Transformation of Reality: Engaged Buddhism

at an Impasse" (1999), Ken elaborated on his earlier criticisms and renewed his challenge to more public discussion of these issues. Both of these texts have been widely reproduced, as well as being translated into French, Spanish and Italian.

"Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists" is online at

"Evading the Transformation of Reality" is online at

* * *

Texts of related interest at the same website:

"Buddhist Anarchism" (Gary Snyder)
- one of the first expressions of what later became known as socially engaged Buddhism.

"Advantages and Limits of Nonviolence"

"The War and the Spectacle" (on the Gulf war)

"War Is the Health of the State" (Randolph Bourne) --

"Designing Pacifist Films" (Paul Goodman) --

"More Interesting Problems" (spiritual aspects of a liberated society)

"Lafcadio Hearn and Japanese Buddhism" (Kenneth Rexroth)

"On the Tao Te Ching" (Rexroth)

"Zen Practice" (from Knabb's autobiography)

2002 Mountains and Rivers Camping Trip Guidelines Etc

SCHEDULE (approximate, may be modified as necessary)

THURSDAY (July 26) 6:30-7:30 pm -- Orientation meeting in Community Room (guidelines, procedures, job assignments, carpooling arrangements, divvying up group gear). Please bring your already-packed backpack.

FRIDAY (July 27) 6:30 am -- Meet in front of BZC. Load backpacks (which will have been stored overnight in Community Room) into vehicles and head for Point Reyes. 8:00 -- Meet for breakfast at Station House Café (11180 Route 1, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-1515), about 2 miles north of the junction of Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Blvd., just after a left curve as you enter the town from the south. 9:45 -- Gather at Palomarin Trailhead. 10:00 -- Trail meeting (clarification of hiking procedures). 10:10 -- Hike in silence. Rest stops every 30 minutes or so. 12:30 -- Lunch. 1:30 -- Hike in silence. 2:00 -- Arrive at Wildcat Camp (5.5 miles). Bring all food and group gear to Site #3A-B cooking area. Set up tents. Free time for wandering around beach, etc. 4:15 -- Cook starts preparing dinner. 4:45 -- Meeting (demonstration of meal and zendo procedures). 5:00 -- Zazen at campsite. 5:25 -- Service (Heart Sutra). 5:30 -- Dinner. 6:30 -- Hot drinks and break. Dishwashers do dishes. 7:20 -- Head to beach.. 7:30 -- Zazen on the beach (two 40-minute periods). 9:00 -- Refuges. To bed.

SATURDAY (July 28) 5:00 -- Wakeup. 5:30 -- Zazen at campsite (two 40-minute periods). Cook skips second period to prepare breakfast. 7:00 -- Service (Heart Sutra). 7:10 -- Breakfast. 8:00 -- Hot drinks and break. Dishwasher does dishes. 9:00 -- Mountains & Rivers Sutra (reading & discussion). 10:30 -- Free time. 12:00 -- Lunch. (Meanwhile, any who were unable to come Friday morning will have hiked in to the campsite Friday p.m. or Saturday a.m.) 1:00 -- Free time. 4:30 -- Cook starts preparing dinner 5:00 -- Zazen at campsite. 5:25 -- Service (Heart Sutra). 5:30 -- Dinner. 6:30 -- Hot drinks and break. Dishwasher does dishes. 7:20 -- Head to beach. 7:30 -- Zazen on the beach (two 40-minute periods). 9:00 -- Refuges. To bed.

SUNDAY (July 29) 5:00 -- Wakeup. 5:30 -- Zazen at campsite (two 40-minute periods). Cook skips second period to prepare breakfast. 7:00 -- Service (Heart Sutra). 7:10 -- Breakfast. 8:00 -- Hot drinks and break. Dishwasher does dishes. 8:30 -- Mountains & Rivers Sutra (reading & discussion) 9:30 -- Packing. 10:30 -- Trail meeting. Hiking in silence. 12:15 -- Lunch. 1:15 -- Hiking in silence. 3:00 -- Arrive at Palomarin Trailhead. Closing meeting. 3:30 -- Drive to Berkeley. 5:00 -- Arrive at BZC. Sort out group gear. Go our various ways.



Please pack these items and bring to the orientation meeting:


backpack (with hip strap) tent (or arrange to share with someone) sleeping bag sleeping pad

CLOTHING light clothes for hiking, plus enough layering (sweat shirt/sweater/jacket/scarf) for chilly early morning sitting hiking boots sun hat warm hat change of socks

EATING two bowls (something light and sturdy, not heavy oriyoki bowls) drinking cup (or use one of the bowls) spoon wiping cloth small spatula (optional) cloth or plastic bag for storing all of the above

MISCELLANEOUS Mountains & Rivers Sutra rakusu (if you have one) water bottle (filled) small flashlight sunscreen hand towel personal hygiene/health stuff (toothbrush, pills, etc.) $40 sesshin fee (if you haven't already paid) plus $10-12 cash for restaurant breakfast

OPTIONAL sandals or light shoes (for around camp) change of underwear moleskin sunglasses pocket knife insect repellent energy bars or trail mix toilet paper (for emergencies; but there are restrooms at the campsite) rain gear (only in the unlikely event that rain threatens - director will let you know about this)

Be selective and pack as compactly as possible since you will also be given a share of the food or group gear to carry.



BACKGROUND. Buddhism has a long tradition of "wandering monks" and walking meditation. Berkeley Zen Center's Mountains and Rivers sesshins have been most directly inspired by Ring of Bone Zendo, the Nevada City group formed by Gary Snyder and others in the 1970s. ROBZ members have been developing and refining this practice since 1978 and regularly do two 7-day M&R sesshins every year in the Sierras or other wilderness areas of the West. BZC has been doing more modest M&Rs since 1995. So far they have all been two- or three-day ones in Point Reyes (plus one two-day one in Sunol Park). Our general orientation is much the same as ROBZ's, but we have made some modifications appropriate to our different conditions and styles of practice.

SESSHIN SPIRIT. A Mountains and Rivers sesshin is indeed a sesshin, not just a camping trip. However, the different conditions mean that there are more complicated logistical matters to deal with than in an ordinary sesshin, involving equipment, supplies, weather, meeting places, safety issues, camping techniques, and inevitable unexpected problems. This means that more things need to be explained and that there needs to be more ongoing communication. Because of this increased need for communication, there is a greater challenge not to drift into unmindfulness. It's up to everyone to help maintain a sesshin spirit.

FEE. The fee is $40. No one will be turned away for lack of money. If you cannot afford the fee, talk to the sesshin director (Ken Knabb).

ORIENTATION MEETING. The orientation meeting normally takes no more than an hour, but it is important. If many people miss the meeting it becomes increasingly difficult to get things organized -- much of the group gear remains to be divvied up and packed the next morning, the director has to individually repeat information to several people, etc. So please do not ask to skip the meeting unless it is really necessary. If you do have to miss the meeting, try to show up at BZC a few minutes early the next morning so that you can pack your share of group gear and catch up on any necessary information.

EQUIPMENT. Some of us have extra tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, etc., so it will probably be possible for you to borrow one if you don't have it. You might, however, first see if you can borrow one from a friend. It is also possible to share a tent with someone (less privacy, but also less to carry).

CARPOOLING. We carpool to and from Point Reyes (specifics to be worked out at the orientation meeting). It is good to take as few vehicles as possible, so consider volunteering yours if it is large enough to carry several people and/or packs. If you take your car, be sure that the director has got your car model, color, and license number (which have to be given to the Pt. Reyes headquarters to avoid getting an overnight parking ticket). If you are leaving your car near BZC, please park on one of the side streets (not on Russell St.).

BACKPACKING. Each person is normally responsible for carrying their own things plus some group gear (food, pots, etc.). People with physical problems can carry less group gear, or none at all.

There is no shortcut to Wildcat Camp [which is where we're going this time]. Everyone must be capable of hiking the 5-1/2 miles each way. There is a 2-1/2 mile shortcut to Coast Camp. This may be used by anyone who cannot hike in with the group Friday morning, or for anyone who has a significant physical problem (as opposed to mere sore muscles). Everyone else is expected to do the full 5-1/2 mile hike in and back.

FOOD. All meals are provided. You may bring some trail mix or a power bar if you want something to nibble while hiking, but it's not really necessary. (More often than not we end up lugging back extra food that was not eaten.)

Lunch is served in an informal picnic style along the trail. Dinner and breakfast are served in silence in a semi-formal style, somewhat like our usual sesshin meals (bowing to servers etc.) but without the oriyoki forms. Details are explained at the campsite.


If you are not in very good shape, or if you have just got new hiking boots, it is a good idea to do a little practice hiking the week before.

Do some stretches just before hiking -- this may help prevent pulled muscles, etc. Don't hesitate to ask someone to help you get your backpack on and off.

Drink a lot of water before you start hiking. Carry at least a quart of water on hikes. Tap water at all Point Reyes campsites is okay to drink. Do not drink from creeks etc.

Stay away from cliff edges. Point Reyes rock is not very solid and could crumble at any time.

Use sunscreen.

Watch out for poison oak. (Ask someone if you don't know what it looks like.) It is usually no problem as long as you stay on the trail, but there may occasionally be overgrown places where you need to step around it.

Check yourself periodically for ticks, particularly if you have walked through brush or sat under trees. A little insect repellent around ankles, waist and sleeves may help ward them off.

If you feel a hot or sensitive spot developing on your foot, put some moleskin on it before it develops into a blister. Ask someone if you don't have any, or don't know how to apply it.

There is a group first-aid kit. During hikes it is carried by the "sweep" (the person at the tail end of the line), which means that no matter where you are it is on the way toward you if you have an injury. In camp it is kept on one of the tables near the food, or with the camping consultant.

Let the director know if you have any significant physical problems; or if you have any first-aid or other medical skills.

One or more camping consultants will be available to answer questions or to help inexperienced people set up tents, pack their backpacks, etc. Don't be shy about asking for help. We're all in this together. We'd rather help you tend to a developing blister than have to carry you out because it got so bad you couldn't walk! The same applies to any emotional or "spiritual" problems that may come up.

HIKING PROCEDURES. We hike at a moderate pace, in single file, spaced somewhat far apart (if possible at least 30 feet apart -- try not to bunch up). Feel free to walk at your own pace, even if it is slower than most of the others, or to stop for a few moments, or to pass someone if they are going slower than you wish to go. Other specifics will be explained at the orientation meeting and at the trail meeting just before we set out. There are brief rest stops every 30 minutes or so, and a lunch stop. Please maintain silence during both hiking and rest stops. Talking is okay during the lunch stop.


Talking is fine during break periods. Have fun and get to know each other, but be mindful of others who may want to maintain a relatively quiet sesshin ambience.

Feel free to roam around the beach during nonscheduled periods, but be sure to be back well before the next scheduled event so we don't have to go searching for you. During the middle day (of 3-day M&Rs) there is time for longer day hikes for those who wish. If you're going any distance, let the director know where you're going and when you expect to be back.

When you hear the clappers, please report promptly to the next event.

For zazen, rolled up sleeping bags serve as zafus, sleeping pads as zabutans. In camp we sit in a circle facing inward. On the beach we sit in a line facing the ocean.

Dinner and breakfast are served in a semi-formal manner -- there are the usual series of bows during serving, but none of the usual oriyoki rules apply. The meal is eaten in silence. After everyone has finished eating and hot water has been served for bowl cleaning and then offering water collected, we shift into a brief "talking is okay" mode in which we clarify the next events on the schedule and discuss any sesshin-related questions or problems.

Specifics about serving, eating, zazen and service procedures will be explained at a brief campsite meeting the first afternoon.

CLOSING MEETING. When everyone has arrived back at the cars, there is a closing meeting where people can share their feelings about the sesshin. These are usually positive, but this is also the time to bring up problems or suggestions for improving future M&Rs.

[These guidelines are a work in progress aimed at reducing the need to explain so many things at the orientation meeting.]

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