JOANNE KYGER from an interview with David Chadwick,
September 29, 1995 in her Bolinas home.
Shunryu Suzuki arrived in San Francisco in May of 1959. Bill
McNeill, an artist from Black Mountain College, told me
about him. His wife had gone to Sokoji, a Soto Zen temple on
Bush Street, in San Francisco, and met him. He said bring
your husband and once Bill started sitting he really liked
it. He hit it off temperamentally with Suzuki. He was
Suzuki's first student. So I started to go over and sit in
the morning with Bruce Boyd. He was a poet, who was around
the North Beach scene and a friend of Jack Spicer's. We went
at some ungodly hour like five thirty in the morning. I was
living at the East-West House and was getting ready to go to
Japan so I thought I should learn how to sit. The EW House ,
on California Street, was very social at that time. Maybe
because I had moved in. There was Claude Dalenberg, ( who
was the character Bud Diefendorf in Keroauc's DHARMA BUMS) a
long time student of Buddhism , who found and started the
East-West House, and Albert Saijo, Lew Welch, Gia-fu Feng,
and Philip Whalen among others. It was established as a
co-ed housing alternative for people who were interested in
Asian studies. The cost of rent and food was shared. It was
one of the first successful communal dwellings in San
Francisco and exists to this day. The only rule being that
you had to get along with everyone else. There was a very
nice library of the Buddhist books that were then available
in English. The Hyphen House soon opened with the overflow
on Buchanan Street - it was the hyphen between the East-West
So Suzuki was starting his sitting group a couple of blocks
away. There he was in the morning and he had hardly any
English at all - he pantomimed what to do. It was difficult
for me to get up and be there on time . Once with a great
deal effort I got there with some roses for Suzuki Rosh, and
the temple was closed. After much knocking He came to the
door and with difficulty explained there was no sitting on
days that had a 4 or 9 in them. That was my first formal
sitting besides at Gary Snyder's who had a little zendo over
in Marin - Marin-an.
During that time there was a real focus on the Zen of
'enlightenment,' koans , all those expectations of the late
fifties. We were reading the books of DT Suzuki ; but here
was a guy who really showed us how to 'just sit.' Then I
went to Japan for four years and sat with the Rinzai Zen
group of foreigners at Ruth Fuller Sasaki's temple,
Ryosen-an, at Daitoku-ji.
I am sorry I didn't resume sitting with Suzuki when I came
back from Japan in 1964. I met Jack Boyce, a painter, who
had been up in the Siskiyou Mountains with Lew Welch. They
had been following their own sense of Zen from Huang Po's
writing, which was available in a Grove Press translation. A
lot of intellectual interest. Jack started sitting with
Suzuki who had a real sangha by now. It was a well
established little sitting group with sesshins. Donald Allen
was then practicing with them. He'd spent some time in Kyoto
when I was living there where I saw him frequently, and
greatly appreciated his style and dry humor. He'd just
finished editing his NEW AMERICAN POETRY.
Kyoto's big temples were mainly Japanese Rinzai Zen. It was
ver difficult for foreigners to study Zen in Japan and Ruth
Fuller Sasaki's First Zen Institute in Kyoto was the rare
place that allowed foreigners to sit and practice. One had
to, of course, learn Japanese in order to study with a
teacher, who usually spoke no English. And then there was
the whole structure of koan study unique to Rinzai, which
meant traveling through Japanese and Tang Dynasty Chinese
texts, which Snyder was involved in at the Daitokuji
It all seemed somewhat inaccessible to me. I was studying
Japanese but couldn't speak it really well or read it. There
was a strict formality inside the zendo. I first sat at Ruth
Sasaki's little meditation hall and at home every day. Mrs.
Sasaki also had a group of American and Japanese scholars
who met in her library to translate Zen texts into English--
Snyder, Phil Yampolsky, Burton Watson, Professor Iriya
Ruth Fuller Sasaki was often a difficult, autocratic woman,
somewhat old fashioned in her sensibilities, from a wealthy
upper middle class Chicago originally. She had met D.T.
Suzuki on an early trip to Japan in 1930, and subsequently
started her practice of Zen with a Japanese Zen master in
Kyoto-- sitting at Nanzen-ji monastery. She was one of the
first foreigners in Japan to practice Zen. On returning she
became a student of her future husband, Sokei-an who taught
students in NYC. She founded the First Zen Institute, buying
a building and starting a zendo. Her only child, a daughter
Eleanor, meanwhile, in London, had met the charismatic young
Buddhist, Alan Watts and married him. Eventually, in 1961
her translation group experiencing difficulties with her,
Soko Morinaga, known as Ko-san, the main monk at Daitoku-ji
temple offered the main Buddha hall of the Daitoku-ji temple
to me as a place to sit in lieu of Ryosen-an-- and any other
foreigner who wanted to practice zazen.
During 1961 Bill McNeill arrived in Kyoto. He'd gone up to
Shunryu Suzuki's home temple, Rinso-in, and had stayed up
there. He'd been ordained as a priest, whatever that means.
In Japan it usually meant that you'd better take care of the
real estate of the temple. He was way up there by himself so
he left and came to Kyoto and started to sit with the
Daitokuj-i group. And then he just gave it all up. His wife
wasn't going to come over, he'd decided he was gay, he had
an affair with a Japanese businessman, and he just dropped
out of the whole Zen number. He'd say, I'm a homosexual and
the way he'd talk about it, I'd say, that's not a real
identity. It has nothing to do with your meditation
So coming back to SF and seeing all these gaijin sitting
zazen, I was amazed and a little bit critical because it
wasn't done in the Japanese forms I knew. I had an attitude
about it. And I had a hard time doing that full body bowing.
And facing the wall while sitting - all the little
differences in Soto Zen. So I never did get into their daily
practice although Jack Boyce continued.
In Ju1y of 1965 Dick Baker put on the Berkeley poetry
conference -- coordinated through the UC Berkeley extension
program, where he worked. It was a very big gathering where
he got all the 'New American' poets together for readings
and lectures, using tremendous tact and diplomacy. Very
difficult to get them all in one place. He was also a
student of Suzuki Roshii's.
Dick Baker had to make a lot of decisions - people had to
pay to get in. Students were lined up at the windows peering
in and Bob Creeley wanted them to be able to come in for
free. Suzuki Roshii sat in the front row and Bob was
convinced Suzuki was trying to give him the evil eye, that
Dick Baker had told his teacher to go sic him.
Earlier Michael McClure decided he wasn't being given
enough time so he dropped out and persuaded Philip to do it
too. It was a status thing - I don't want to just give a
reading - I want to give a lecture AND a reading. So they
invited Lew Welch instead of Philip. This made me very
unhappy because I had to read with Lew instead of
Philip--"He always cry when he reads".
Then Jack Boyce and I went to Europe for nine months and
then went to NYC where we stayed for a year. We'd become
very friendly with Dick-- I had been on the phone with him
every day before the conference trying to get Phillip to
join back in. So when he was on a fund raising campaign with
Suzuki in NYC to raise money for land for the Tassajara Zen
Center they came to lunch. We were living in a loft in what
is now the SoHo. I remember how charming Suzuki Roshi was.
Robert Duncan was there, having done a reading at the
Guggenheim. I remember Suzuki sitting at the table and all
of a sudden he put his napkin on top of his head and sat
there with it. It was such a tension breaker. We were
wondering how to act around this teacher. So we all put our
napkins on top of our heads.
I last saw him at his funeral. It was very peaceful. There
wasn't a lot of anxious energy. He was the first dead person
I ever saw. The coffin was open and his skin was a blue
purple color. I remember Chogyam Trungpa being there. He was
this new exotic light who had a close friendship with
Suzuki. Although his Tibetan Buddhism was different they had
a mutual and empathetic understanding of the dharma and
At an earlier occasion at the Zen Center I remember a
question and answer period with Trungpa and nobody knew how
to ask him any questions. They didn't have a Buddhist
vocabulary yet. I do remember someone asked "What is
reality". The Zen students there did know that he liked
Rainier Ale, the 'green death', and they brought cases of it
Sasaki always said what you are experiencing is the Japanese
adaptation of Zen. American Zen will be different. But
Japanese sensibilities were always so attractive to people
on this coast - the wabi-sabi aesthetics, the landscaping,
the bonsai, the tansu, pottery, the 'natural' look.
In the sixties things started to heat up a little more.
Acid came on the scene. I learned how to get high in Japan.
We grew some grass there under the guise of growing asa
(hemp) for clothing. We got these seeds from a guy named Don
Crow from Marin County and we grew the plants in the yard.
We were kind of nervous about it. Mrs. Hosaka lived in the
house with us the entire time we were there. We said this
hemp is for clothing we are going to make. There were a
handful of people we'd get together with and try to figure
out how to get high. We'd smoke a little and then everybody
would start to laugh -- there was a lot of cultural release.
And then we'd gobble down a great deal of food. We were
careful, then, not to get any Japanese high, as we weren't
sure how they would act, and we didn't want to get deported.
Suzuki Roshi had a charming kind of mischievous smile. And
back then this garbled English which was incomprehensible.
I'd just sit and try to count my breaths one to ten. That
was the basic practice for everybody. I had trouble getting
to two without a thought interrupting. I hadn't learned what
I learned later from psychedelics about the nature of mind.
I didn't know if it was an enemy, demonic, or what. In
Japanese temples things always looked dark - the statues,
deity figures. I loved visiting the Buddhas and going behind
them to see what propped them up, and sometimes they
wouldn't be painted in the back. We called him the 'Big B'.
Snyder and I took a trip to India in 1962 and went to all
the historic archaeological Buddhist sites (Buddhism was no
longer practiced in India ) and visited the Dalai Lama. We
saw for the first time Tibetans, fleeing the Chinese
invasion, who had come down there to visit the Buddhist holy
places. And also saw the Hinayana practice in Ceylon and how
the monks lived. You realized religion was some kind of huge
historic phenomena --but what did it have to do with ones
self --one's own own quest and struggle.
My own interest in Zen came about because in the late 50's
I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger when a
student at UC Santa Barbara. Heidegger had come to the study
of 'nothing.' Then I found DT Suzuki's book on Japanese Zen
and I thought oh! this is where you go with this mind. This
'nothing' is really 'something'. My philosophy teacher was
Paul Wienpahl and I studied with him for practically four
years - I was infatuated with his style and his teaching. I
introduced him to Gary Snyder and later, in 1959, he went on
to Daitoku-ji, studied with Goto Roshi (Mrs. Sasaki's
teacher) and later published a book called "ZEN DIARY".
If Western philosophy had come to a real dead end-- where
did you go for illumination or insight ? It was a very
natural kind of progression into Zen Buddhist teachings.
Like what is the study of nothing? How do you start to open
up that mystery? Many poets - like Ginsberg and Kerouac had
started to find books on Buddhism. Everybody was reading
about Zen but Gary was the only one who had figured out how
to meditate although early on he hadn't had any formal
teacher. And R.H. Blythe's books on haiku were important
too. What is this mindless mind, this Zen mind? It was very
attractive to everybody in the sense there was some
illumination at the end, an enlightenment 'carrot', not like
the dead end of Western philosophy then. The Logical
Positivists were analyzing language and looking at questions
like "if you have a headache and you take an aspirin where
does the headache go?"
There were almost no teachers of Zen here in U.S. except
for Nyogen Senzaki in Los Angeles and Sokei-an in New York
--and the First Zen Institute--which was one place you could
visit and meditate, but was so high 'faultin' evidently it
put off a lot of people.
Another friend of mine had been a student of Miura Roshi,--who was sent by Mrs. Sasaki to be the teacher at the
Zen Institute in NYC. Bill Laws. He took his wife and child to Kyoto
and on Muira's recommendation went to Myoshin-ji monastery
to practice with the monks there. He found it very very
difficult--a hard practice. His wife, used to make him
donuts and he'd go and crouch in the benjo (toilet) and eat
about a dozen donuts in great haste. Everything had to be
eaten very quickly during meal time - it was very cold and
very strict. He thought he was dying of malnutrition and so
went to another temple and that worked out better for him. I
remember walking down a street once with his wife, who was
very supportive of him. We were talking about 'reality'. She
said this isn't reality, reality is much better than this.
When Bill McNeill got back to the states he got right into
the swing of things and started making a movie with Helen
Adams who was a great Scottish balladeer poet . I came back
a little after him. Everybody was getting high and the
Beatles were being played everywhere. There was a whole
cultural flowering in San Francisco. Poetry, music, style.
Bill McNeill had various jobs in SF. But always continued
painting. He went to NYC and lived there for some years and
came back out here and got very much involved in the gay
scene and the Castro and the Stud Bar. Then he was one of
the first to get Aids--nobody knew what it was then. He died
in 1985, and his ashes buried north of Bolinas at the end of
a lane of daffodils overlooking the ocean. Philipe Whalen
and Issan Dorsey preformed a final Zen ceremony. But he
always kept what he got from Suzuki Roshi. Very open to
people. And in his paintings he had a direct style, with a
quick sure brushstroke, an economy of line, and a beautiful
For the people studying in Japan, you had to learn Japanese
to do the koan study and have a teacher. One could sit at
Mrs. Sasaki's zendo, but the goal there was to learn how to
sit and learn Japanese and go on to get a teacher. A lot of
people came and sat there and went on to do something else.
A very small handful learned enough Japanese to do koans.
But with Shunryu Suzuki's Soto Zen there was 'just sitting.'
Suzuki Roshi always kept a modest demeanor. I was always
watching to see if people were going to be 'human' in the
roles they were taking at the Zen Center, which was getting
more hierarchical. But I never saw that in Suzuki Roshi. He
wasn't carrying a lot of baggage, that's what was so
Note from Joanne
to the editor of the English magazine Beat
Scene which published the interview:
Some names I’m unsure of…
Giaf-u Feng--Born in Shanghai. Taoist teacher and Tao Te
Ching translator with Jane English.
Phil Yampolsky--Scholar and translator of Zen Buddhism
texts; Head librarian at Columbia's East Asian Library
Burton Watson--Award winning translator and teacher of
Chinese and Japanese poetry and literature.
Dick Baker--Zentatsu Richard Baker -- Roshi and Abbot of SF
Zen Center after Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971. Then
became founder and teacher of Crestone Zen Center in
Colorado and Buddhistisches Studienzentrum in Germany's
Black Forest. [Dharma Sangha US and Germany - DC]
If you think any of these people need a footnote?