Interview with John Clarke Mason
Click here for Shunryu Suzuki Photo Archive images
and links to all cuke.com pages on .
Interview with John Clarke Mason
DC: I remember you well, Clarke, from Tassajara back in ‘67 and ’68 and you’re a guest student here now with your fifteen year old son, Shane. And you know that I interview people about Suzuki Roshi and also it’s an oral history of those times. So anything you’d like to say about Suzuki Roshi, anything you’ve done since, anything you’d like to talk about is great.
CM: Alright. You know when you talk about things that happened a long time ago, you never really know if what you’re saying is what happened or not, but given that caveat, I’m going to talk.
I got here through Tim Buckley [the Zen student, not the musician]. Tim had a girlfriend named Julie Ross who was a friend of mine and I went to see her one day in San Francisco and there was Tim. I had some interest in Buddhism and we started talking, and he said well you’ve got to go to the Zen Center then. I’m not sure but I think Julie lived on Bush Street. So I started going to the Zen Center. I had been married five years and the marriage had just broken up a few months before and I was out of sorts - I guess would be a mild way of saying it. So I started going to Sokoji and sitting in the morning and I was living alone. I didn’t really know anyone in San Francisco.
DC: What year was that?
CM: When was the first time we were down here? ’67?
CM: Then it was early in ’67 I guess. I’d been traveling in South America the previous year and I’d just come back and my marriage broke up when I got back and I was starting over so to speak. I was living in Berkeley before I went to South America and I decided not to move back there and I started living in San Francisco and I really didn’t know anyone there. The friends I had in Berkeley I didn’t see. I didn’t really have any friends. So I started going to the Zen Center. It was about that time that Tassajara had been purchased and of course the talk at Sokoji was that there was going to be a practice period at Tassajara and I thought, perfect, perfect. So I met Dick Baker who was sort of the gate keeper as to who was down here or not and so I pled my case to Dick as to why I should be here. I think I’d been sitting a couple of months and I don’t remember who I knew at Zen Center – probably no one.
DC: Well, you knew Tim Buckley
CM: Yeah. And so I told Dick Baker I wanted to come down here and Dick said well, I don’t know if you can come down here or not and I’d been reading Zen stories and so I said, well, if you don’t let me come down there, I’m just gonna come down and camp at the gate. He said, we’ll take care of that. Then I discovered that they had cars, trucks, and generators down here and as a kid I’d been into cars and there wasn’t anybody at Zen Center who really knew a thing about cars. I said I’ve got tools and I’m a mechanic and he said, well okay, we’ll give you a try.
DC: Oh yeah, that’s right. Can’t pass up on a mechanic.
CM: So my misspent youth messing around with hot rods came to save me and so that’s how I came down here and I met Reverend Suzuki. I liked the place the second I got here – and the practice – and so in retrospect it was very easy for me. I worked hard at it but it wasn’t hard.
DC: That’s just what I remember about you. You didn’t have issues. You had skills and liked the work and the hours and the food and you could sit full lotus forever without moving. I think you sat full lotus right away, from the first, as if you'd grown up doing it. You were what we called a strong sitter.
CM: You know, I was very happy to be here.
So that’s how I got to know Reverend Suzuki. I first met him having - what’s the interview?
CM: Having dokusan with Rev. Suzuki I think was the first time I met him. So I sat in front of him and I crossed my legs and he looked at me and he said, "How did you learn to do that?" and I said, I don’t know. That’s what you said we’re supposed to do.
So he was impressed I think with that and I don’t remember what we talked about but it was – I mean I didn’t have any deep questions – I’d just met him, but he was an easy guy to be with.
So I practiced here for a year and it was good. I worked with Rev. Suzuki, took pictures of him and stuff. Basically how I got to know him though was through the practice. And as it came to me, his strong thing was zazen. He lectured once a week the times that he was here which was a lot [often more than that]. And his thing was to sit zazen and practice and he told us how to do it and that was something I really enjoyed doing and so I did it. I don’t think I ever missed a zazen period. And I did it the way he said and I didn’t really think of anything much deeper than that – count your breath and don’t move. And that’s what I did. And though I hadn’t read many Zen books and still haven’t really, I understood in a basic way about the practice without understanding the mystery of it or anything and I just tried to practice. So I was doing that and in my own mind being successful doing it and I loved being here in the mountains and hiking. I was young and went on hikes. It was fun. I met some of the students here. I met you David and Bob Halpern and Rob Gove and other people.
So anyway, one weekend I was in San Francisco on a break staying on Bush Street across the street from Sokoji and Halpern was there and one evening he said, there’s a girlfriend of mine I’m going to visit. You wanna come with me? And so we went over in the upper Haight. And Bob’s girlfriend – David, what was her name? I wish I could remember it. She was a nanny for this woman named Marian. She was short. She'd been at Tassajara. So I went over there and she was there and Marian Ebright was there who was her employer who turned out to be a beginning Zen student. I didn’t know that Bob was taking me over there to meet Marian but he did. So Marian and I fell for each other - as only somebody who didn’t know many woman and who had been married and it was over and who was recovering – namely me – and Marian who was separated from her husband and who was very lonesome I guess you could say. So we fell for each other and I think I extended my stay for a week. I don’t think that either Marian or I left her house for about a week.
So she was scheduled to come to Tassajara. She had signed up to come down here for the summer before I met her. So she was coming down here. And of course our plan was that we should live together at Tassajara. So that of course would require the permission of the authorities – namely Rev. Suzuki and I think Dick Baker. I don’t remember who I asked to begin with but eventually I met with Rev. Suzuki and I only remember him and I told him that Marian and I are in love with each other and we’d like to stay together this summer at Tassajara. So what Rev. Suzuki thought is only my interpretation of it but I think this was something he wasn’t used to hearing.
DC: It was the very beginning of any time he had to make any decision of anything like that. Before Tassajara there was no communal living. There was only people living on the outside of Sokoji and coming to sit. It was the first time Zen Center had a place for people to live. So you may have been one his first decisions on that. When was this?
CM: I’d been here for two practice periods so this was the Spring of ‘68.
DC: Oh yeah – just before the summer. So I guess he’d had some other decisions on that but anyway, go on.
CM: So Rev. Suzuki and I knew each other and I’d driven him to San Francisco a couple of times and I knew his wife Okusan and, to my knowledge, I didn’t have any enemies here. It was to me a pretty idyllic place. And so Rev. Suzuki, he was quite a fellow and I think that what his philosophy was that he’d give you enough rope to do with what you wanted to do and see what happened was what I think was where he came from. I don’t know if he thought this way but he’d give you enough rope to make something beautiful or hang yourself – it’s up to you – is the way I think he looked at things, which was a good attitude so he said okay. And so Marian and I moved into this – it’s really ironic – this very room that we’re talkin in.
DC: The second garden cabin. The first one is now the library next door.
CM: The second garden cabin. And by that time I was, well I’d started out as a mechanic here and I did that fine. It wasn’t very demanding. I was keeping these old Willies engines running, the old Willies jeep engines that ran the generators and we had a couple of old trucks and it really wasn’t very demanding. But I did that.
But meanwhile, at Tassajara, the food in the kitchen was really to me the center of the place besides the zendo. The zendo was the center and the kitchen was important. And I got to know Ed Brown who was the head cook and Ed made great bread and I never had anything like it and I asked Ed to teach me to make bread so he did. And so I started making bread on the side. I’d make eight loaves. That was our style in those days. We’d make eight loaves of bread. I did an acceptable job. Actually my bread turned out well, so anyway, I asked Ed if I could go to work in the kitchen and so he said he’d like to have me and so that’s how I moved out of being the mechanic.
DC: Others would have had to agree. Who took your place?
CM: No one originally. There wasn’t much of a problem. If things broke I could fix them. I was still here. Maybe E.L. He was here and he had those skills. He knew how to do a little bit of everything. I guess he started doing it. He was a friend of mine too. I liked him. Until he died I never knew he had all these psychological problems. Can you believe that?
DC: Well you’re a very accepting guy. You just took him as he was. E.L. Hazelwood was definitely one of the distinctive characters of the old days at Tassajara.
CM: He just seemed like a normal Texan to me, well not normal, he seemed like a gentle Texan to me. I didn’t ever have any trouble talking to him you know.
CM: Anyway, that’s how I got in the kitchen which would have been in the middle of winter before I met Marian. So I was part of the kitchen crew and that worked well. Ed was the first to admit his volatile temper in those days. He was a moody son of a gun. It never bothered me. It bothered him more than anybody else. He did a damn good job even though he’d get so uptight at times he couldn’t talk. It never really got in the way of things. So in the summertime Ed asked me to be the sou chef and he was the executive chef for guest season cooking. So I was the number one person underneath him. I was there more than him because he was in meetings and working on menus and maybe the bread book. David, you were the head waiter as I recall.
DC: Yep. Head of the dining room.
CM: And then Marian showed up and when I met her my focus changed a lot.
DC: Oh, but you’d met her in a break between the practice period and guest season. But when not long after that, she came down, then your focus changed.
CM: Yes. And I was in love with this incredibly passionate woman who was very well educated in literature and stuff and it was fascinating to me. So our relationship quickly became I guess you could say, volatile. She was a very demanding person and I’m sure my shortcomings were glaring and vice versa. [laughing]. So anyway, we lived together here and then when the summer was over it was time for her to go back. She was a high school English teacher in Pacifica in the public school system. And she had three young girls.
DC: I remember that she said on Fridays everyone would be stoned on different stuff and that it was impossible to teach them then so she’d just play music.
CM: She never told it to me that way. The drugs wouldn’t have bothered her. She taught in what I guess was pretty much a white suburb.
DC: Yeah, she was certainly tolerant about drugs. She used to say that she taught in a suburban ghetto and that the kids there had problems as big as the ones in inner city ghettos.
CM: When the summer was over she was to go back to San Francisco and I wanted to go with her and she wanted me to go with her so that’s when I left Tassajara. And so I moved to San Francisco to live with her. Well, being with her, and not just being with her but being in San Francisco, was an enormous shock to me after being at Tassajara. This was a perfect place to me. You didn’t have any decisions to make. You had a great practice, a great teacher, you lived in an idyllic paradise. I mean it was perfect. And San Francisco was a city and you had everything to do there. So when I moved back to the city with her it lasted no longer than a few weeks I don’t think. I moved out from her place and rented a room not too far away and I was alone in the city just like before I went to Tassajara.
In the meantime some of the Zen Center guys had become iron workers – Halpern, and Chris Flynn. Chris was the first iron worker and he’d gotten some of the guys in it because it paid well. So I got into it and here I’m in a labor union making a very high wage for the time and I liked the work.
DC: Do you remember what the wage was?
CM: Yeah. It worked this way. In a trade union You start as an apprentice on an apprentice wage scale and when you go through an apprentice school of one two or three years and when you get out you’re a journeyman and they pay you journeyman’s scale. But what I did was – well, there’s structural iron work where you put up the steel girders that support the building and then reinforcing iron which is the rebar. And it was kind of like upstairs downstairs. The structural workers were the elite and the rod busters had the really hard work which was the lower end of it but that was where you could start. Most structural guys wouldn’t last a day carrying rebar and most rebar guys were afraid of heights. This was the days before OSHA. Men were men then and the structural guys would walk this six inch iron forty stories up with no handrails, no nothing. I had a normal fear of falling off the damn building. I started down below packing iron which was hard too. We built these freeway bridge decks and BART stations. Starting as a rod buster it was very simple. Either you could do it or not. If you could carry with another guy 360 pounds 60 foot long number 11 rebar – if you could carry that all day long, put it down, bend over and tie it, if you could do that you were a journeyman as far as they were concerned so I started making journeyman’s wages right away which was six bucks an hour which doesn’t sound like much but years later I rented a house in a nice neighborhood for $230 a month. It was a different economy to say the least. Six bucks was a lot of money. I lived as a Zen student and I didn’t spend a lot and I saved a ton of money. When we had a job downtown, they paid your parking.
I got tired of packing rebar and the thought that the way to get out of that is to become a structural iron worker. I went down to the union hall and said I wanted to do that but said you’ve got to send me out on a job that’s just starting because I don’t know about the heights. There were a lot of new buildings going up and there was one on First and Market which I think became a Wells Fargo which was thirty or forty stories and they were in the hole, down two stories below street level just starting to put in the first beams and the first columns up in the air. So I went to work for this old bridgeman, a veteran iron worker. The highest end of the iron work was the guys who built bridges. This guy was a bodhisattva of an iron worker and I said I want to come to work here but I’m kind of afraid of heights and I’m afraid of falling off the building and he looked at me and says, "You ain’t never fallen off a sidewalk have you?" I says "No" and he says "Well, don’t worry about it." So that’s how I got into structural iron work and as the building went up one floor off the ground and then two – these buildings are built three floors at a time with a guy derrick and we’d build three floors and they’d jump the derrick. I was working in the plumb-up gang and our job was to put cables diagonally with turnbuckles and a guy with a surveying instrument lines up the columns and we turn the turnbuckles till all the columns are straight and then you bolt ‘em up and lock ‘em up and weld ‘em.
The taller the building gets the smaller the iron was because it didn’t have that much of a load to carry. It’s an engineering deal. The upper beams when you got up high would just be six inches wide and we’d have to go from one column to another which had maybe a twenty or thirty foot span and we’d be walking from one column to another carrying one of these huge cables and you’d walk on these six inch beams thirty stories up for twenty or thirty feet with nothing to hold on to.
DC: Christ, I couldn’t do that.
CM: That’s what we used to do. It was amazing. I don’t know if I can put them together but it was kind of like being at Tassajara and sitting zazen. The zazen helped me because you had to concentrate. You couldn’t make a mistake. One of my good friends fell off the building next door for a couple of stories and injured his brain and he was never the same. His father and grandfather had been iron workers. His brain got all messed up.
Marian was a Mexican American. Her maiden name was Ruiz. Her father was a gambler, a run-around kind of guy and she was raised by her mother and they were poor and she got a scholarship to Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. She was a Yaki Indian. She was a beautiful woman.
DC: Yeah she was.
CM: And she got a job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Santa Fe. Her relationship with her husband was over, the one with me was over, the one with Philip Wilson who she was with before me was over. She was scared silly of him. Scary guy. She hooked up with a poet named Bill Withers and they broke up and she wanted me to come out and I was alone in San Francisco and didn’t want to have anything to do with the Zen Center. I would have been smart to go right back to Zen Center but I didn’t and I wouldn’t…
DC: Why was that?
CM: A couple of reasons I guess. One, I felt… I think… um. You know, David, that’s a good question to be honest with you. It’s funny that this far away I still can’t say. I guess in a way I felt like I was… Well, I’ll tell you. This stuff you never know which way is which. All you can do is talk, right? You know what I’m saying. Some people can tell you logically how it happened. I don’t know if they’re right or not. Some people can’t. Some can tell you stories of what influenced them and you have to guess – who the hell knows.
But when I was here at Tassajara we had some sister brother relationship with Esalen. And so they invited a bunch of us over there. I went and I forget who else went.
DC: I went. At least I went one time with some sort of group of us. I went other times alone or with one person just to visit but once I went with a group.
CM: It could have been the same one. We went to Esalen and we stayed there for a few nights. And I didn’t know much about it but Esalen was kind of the sexual freedom movement plus a million other things and they had encounter groups which were new at the time and Fritz Pearls which was far from my experience. And so we had one of these encounter groups and there were some of us and a bunch of them and there was some similarity between the Zen students and the Esalen people except they were coming from much more of a sectarian place and certainly nothing as structured, ancient, and beautiful as Zen. And here we are, at least as I felt, kind of the innocent Zen students where the guy next door was living with two women at the same time and they were all smoking dope . I mean it was a different world than Tassajara. So we were having in one of these encounter groups the kind of structured thing that Esalen did and I remember one of them saying to us, "You know, at some time you have to get off the cushion and go off into the real world." Well that struck a real cord with me, because when I came to Tassajara, the feeling was, I’ll come down here for a few months, get myself together and organized and, my goal was - this is gonna sound silly - but what I really wanted to do was move to the Southwest and go to work on some kind of ranch. It was this fantasy. I don’t know if I used the word cowboy but that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I thought, this is a great deal. I’ll come to Tassajara, get settled down, and then I’ll be able to leave and go to the Southwest, was my idea. Why I didn’t come back here - I think the fact that I could make it in the world on my own was what kept me out there instead of coming back to Zen Center at that point.
And my feelings were hurt. I didn’t feel like I got a lot of support with the whole thing with Marian. Probably didn’t ask for it either because I probably hooked up with her and wasn’t as big of a contributor as I could have been after that. I don’t know if I did anything terribly wrong but my attentions were divided to say the least. And I might have been embarrassed from making all this big hoopla and then the whole thing just fizzing a couple of weeks after I leave Tassajara. Probably a whole lot of different factors. I don’t really know.
DC: Well, there was that meeting we had.
CM: What meeting?
DC: We had a group meeting in the zendo when Suzuki was a way, and Peter was the director and he started it right off by saying that the purpose of the meeting was to talk about your and Marian's relationship and whether Tassajara could survive it.
CM: I wasn't there.
DC: Yes you were. You were both there and it was way too heavy. I remember that we sort of ganged up on you and complained that you guys were so into each other that it was a distraction. I remember feeling bad later that I'd said something critical like that and I swore to myself that I'd never go along mindlessly with a group against one or two people again. Anyway, I think that everyone thought it was too much, too heavy, and we forgot about it and no one talked about it anymore and I think there was a sort of mutual forgiving of everyone to you guys and you guys to everyone. But I also think that's one reason why you didn't come back for a while.
CM: I guess so. I must have pushed that way down.
DC: I've had that happen to me. I was being an interim director of Green Gulch when Elin and I got together in '85 and, once she and I hit it off, that was the end of me. I was useless as a director and clueless. It's a type of insanity. After a while they replaced me and I was a little mad about that for a while but not for long. It was pretty clear that everyone was being very understanding. They just let me stay there for free with no job for half a year when Elin left and went to Taiwan. I just wrote new songs, about fifty of them, and sent her tapes with them and old songs on them, and cried lots and lots and wrote her 700 pages of letters and made $900 in phone calls and went over there for two weeks. It was a productive and insane period and they were very nice to me. I remember Norman would tell me that there should be an artist in residence and that's really what I was but I think he saw me as lunatic in residence. Anyway, falling in love is one thing that happens to us - in monasteries and out and it's interesting to think about. I think it's best to deal with it like spiritual emergencies - just give people a supportive and safe environment and let them work through it. But go on about you and Marian.
CM: So anyway, she wanted me to move there and I wanted to move there so I packed up and moved to New Mexico in the middle of winter. And when I got there what it turned out to be was – well, I’d told my iron worker buddies, I’m going to New Mexico and I’m going to be an iron worker. To me it would have been great because making that kind of money there I would have owned the state because the place was impoverished then and there weren’t any jobs. There was nothing. So my friends told me they knew experienced first class journeymen in Albuquerque that couldn’t find three weeks of work in a year. What are you doin? Of course, you’re not gonna tell me. So I moved there and I could see right away there was no iron work so I joined the carpenters union and there was no carpentry work either. And Marian had a great job teaching in the Indian school and she had a very nice house in Tesuque and so what my job was, and which would have made her perfectly happy, was to be Mister Mom and take care of the kids while she went to work and be her lover and all that which a lot of guys would have loved and if I could have got my head into it I would have loved it too. But I hated it. A lot of what was wrong was I was by myself. I’m like you, man. I’m a guy who flourishes around others. If I’m around people it’s from good to great but if I’m alone, it isn’t my druthers. You know. And so I’m at this house and supposed to clean it up and get the kids off to school and stuff while Marian goes out in the world which is what I wanted to do.
So I was very unhappy and she was a very smart and observant person and when I was unhappy I wasn’t fun to be around. So we put up with that for about six months I guess and then in the spring just came apart and it was time for me to leave, I had this pickup truck that I’d bought in San Francisco. I bought it from a guy. The engine was worn out and he knew it and I knew it and we told each other but I bought it and I drove it to New Mexico by putting a quart of this engine additive every fifty miles to keep the thing running. So I’m in New Mexico so where do I go now? I don’t want to go to San Francisco so I thought, shit, I’ll go to Dallas.
DC: One thing I want to say here, which I told you last year, is that when I was living in Santa Fe in '92 and '93, someone told me that Marian had gotten ill and died. I know you wanted to confirm that and I guess I could on the Internet if she was using that same last name when she died.
CM: Yeah, please do. I’d like to know.
So I drove to Dallas in this old truck, got a room in the cheap part of town, went down to the iron workers hall. Sure enough they had plenty of work there and I got a job, saved my money, bought a V-8 engine for this old six cylinder truck, put the thing in by myself on the weekends, got the truck running, and then after six months it was time to go back to San Francisco. That was a time of "This is the age of the dawning of…" What was that?
CM: Hair. Hair was hot and that’s the song I remember from Dallas. I’m glad I left Dallas. It was an alright place but I didn’t make any friends there. I just worked.
So I called up Halpern at the Zen Center and said, Bob, I’m here in Dallas and I’d love to come back and he said, "Come back here. Chris is here. We’d love to have you. There’s a place for you." So Bob saved me again. He got me back.
DC: So this was later in ’69?
CM: Yeah, ’69. I came back to Bush Street and I moved into 1820 with Beverly Horowitz and Tim Aston. And remember that guy who never said anything and hardly went to zazen? He was weird, a recovered junky.
DC: Don’t remember. I wasn’t in the city much then.
CM: He was the weirdest guy I’ve ever seen around Zen.
DC: That’s pretty weird.
CM: So anyway, Halpern and Chris Flynn and I are all working iron and so it’s a good life. And then we buy Page Street.
DC: Zen Center gets the City Center on Page Street.
CM: Yeah. So I move over to Page Street. When I get there I’m not really happy but I’m not unhappy with Page Street. But I think I am because it’s just too big of a place for me. It was real nice living in 1820 with four or five people going to zazen. Page Street at the time – I didn’t realized that I didn’t really fit in, but I didn’t. Plus I was sidetracked. By then I was really kind of scattered.
And so remember at Page Street, this is my last encounter with Rev. Suzuki. I’m all confused. Well, maybe not confused. I’m thinking I should leave. What I’m thinking is, I should go back to college. What my father thought I should do, though he’s not saying anything, comes and rears its head again. So I’m thinking, maybe I can finally finish college this time and get ahead, right?
So I ask Rev. Suzuki if I can see him. So we have dokusan and by then I’ve really kind of lost contact with him I think. And so I say to him – it’s embarrassing in retrospect – I say to him, well I really consider you my teacher - and a few things like that and I don’t think he really said much and I don’t remember what he said to me, but we didn’t really make contact. I think he just kind of listened. I don’t think he had much to say. It was the last time I ever talked to him.
And then some time after that I did move out of there. And then when he died, I wouldn’t say I was embittered, but I was into another world and I didn’t want to go back to Zen Center, so I didn’t go to his funeral – which I don’t know that I regret because if I wanted to go I should have gone, but I didn’t.
DC: Doesn’t matter.
CM: It doesn’t really matter.
You know… just a couple of thoughts. What he taught me stayed with me and I never – Buddhism to me never left. Now I didn’t practice formally with any students for many years, but I did practice on my own. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t. But it was always a part – never something that I put aside ever. Ever.
I felt I made it up to him when I went to his hundredth birthday party. Cause I said, this guy he doesn’t give a damn whether you came or not. All he cares about is if you keep practicing and if somebody practices that’s all he cares about. I knew that. So I figure, I’m gonna go and I’m gonna sit there the next morning and if I sit then it will be my honor to him.
And I told Les Kaye that and Les said, Yeah well you’re completely right. You go sit with him that’s the deal. And I knew that.
CM: On a more personal matter, a lot of my stops and starts, where a lot of this came from, at the time I didn’t know it, but actually I’m an alcoholic. And I didn’t know that at the time but I could have suspected it because my father was an alcoholic and he got clean and sober when I was fifteen and so that was ten years before all this.
DC: I never remember you as a drinker.
CM: That’s because I didn’t.
CM: I didn’t. When I was at Tassajara, I decided it wasn’t good for me, drinkin or drugs and I didn’t do it.
DC: Well, there wasn’t any drinking or drugs there to speak of.
CM: I could have done it when I left but I didn’t. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to. So I could fool myself because I could stop. So when I met Marian. I don’t know if she was an alcoholic but she was a hedonistic San Franciscan which means you drink wine and if I said I didn’t want to she’d say, well that’s crazy, one glass of wine isn’t going to kill you so I said okay. [laughing]. And I was young enough then and it wasn’t at such a developed state that one glass of wine turned me into a raging drunk but it started me drinkin again. And with her, she was such a hedonistic San Franciscan and drugs and acid and booze were all part of the scene and so I started doing that again and so the fact is that I was drinking and smoking pot when I got back to San Francisco but I was very controlled and rarely ever got drunk but it could seem normal. I mean guys like Ginsberg endorsed it, people with some attainment – it just depends on how you look at it. And I went that way. When I was in San Francisco back in the seventies, my friends were all artists, and that’s what you did.
But to cut to the chase, finally by 1988, I realized that I was an alcoholic and I quit drinking. I did it on my own. I quit drinking and a year later I realized that smoking dope for me was the same as drinking and I quit that. And I was married again and she’s not a drug addict or an alcoholic but to her a glass of wine with dinner was normal and it was really hard for her when I quit drinking. I quit once and she talked me out of it. The second time I wouldn’t be talked out of it. It caused some tension with us for a while but that’s long gone.
DC: Sound like you weren’t much trouble, weren’t really a problem drinker to anyone but yourself. I sure don’t remember anything.
CM: When I got clean and sober in 1989, then my new life really began, and a couple of years later somebody introduced me to AA and I started going because it reminds me of who I am and so I go to a meeting once a week with the same people and I don’t forget who I am.
I think doing that allowed me to come back to the Zen Center because what happened was I got lucky. I got into business with a guy and we were in Honolulu trying to buy a building and we were staying in this hotel, the Almawana Hotel, which, like all the hotels back then, was owned by Japanese, and so I’m in the hotel one night and I look in the drawer and instead of Gideon’s Bible there’s a book on the teachings of the Buddha. Some wealthy Japanese guy made it his goal to put that into as many hotels as he could. I started reading it, and that’s what got me back into Buddhism.
The next thing. I went to Oregon one year and I found some books by Pema Chodrin and so those rang a bell and so at some point I started coming back to Zen Center which led me to Mel's place [Berkeley Zendo], which led me to where I am now which is Les’s place in Mountain View. Four years ago I started coming back to Tassajara. I wanted to bring my kid down here.
So really I think about it. If I had known I was an alcoholic and would have come to grips with that when I was much younger, it would probably have changed my tenure with Buddhism. I don’t know but it doesn’t really matter. It’s all just one big circle. You know.
CM: My route was the right route for me. I missed the Dick Baker years. I don’t regret that.
So anyway David, that’s about it. And I really want to tell you, without getting corny, that I very much appreciate you asking me to do this, because this stuff that I’m telling you, it’s not like it’s big and dark, but I’ve never got this out before and so maybe it’s good for what you’re doing and so it’s certainly good for me.
DC: Yeah. I hear that sort of thing a lot. I enjoy it too. I love to hear people’s stories.
CM: So my wife and I have been together twenty-five years. We’ve got two kids. We’ve definitely had some hard times but we hung in there. What saved it is that since I met her I’ve never gone after any other women and neither has she. I think if you want to stay together – you know we knew we were right for each other so in the darkest times there was still some bond that I can’t take any credit for that held us together. As much as we wanted to split up, it didn’t happen, and then the bright times come again. The Buddhism part Chris didn’t understand, but now she kinda does.
DC: You were here for the first practice period working on vehicle. Do you remember the old dump truck? Where did it come from?
CM: I don’t remember it but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t here.
DC: It was here for years. I thought from the first but maybe later.
I remember the Toyota Land Cruiser.
DC: Right. They drove it out of the Toyota dealership in San Francisco, as I remember it, and it broke down right away – they’d sold it without oil in it so they gave us another one.
CM: And we had Bob Watkins' Chevy pickup truck. We took the box off it and that’s what we went to town with to get the goodies. And I had a 1949 Chevy carryall which I parked up there. There were the old four cylinder flat head Willies engines for power which were mounted stationary which was an old farm thing. There were two of them in case one broke.
DC: They had cranks.
CM: They started with electric starters so if there were cranks they were for backup.
DC: I can remember starting one with a crank and learning not to put my thumb over the handle so if it jerks it won’t break my hand or arm.
CM: My father broke his arm cranking a Model A.
DC: Remember the electric lights we had outside. I remember the fan belt would come off of the engine and it would speed up and go so fast that the lights would get real bright and then explode.
CM: I don’t remember that.
DC: I think that happened before you came. Anything else about the physical plant?
CM: I was like the rest of us. I was a free spirit and didn’t find any shortcomings. It was an old place. That was its beauty. I remember me and Tim Buckley roomed together. I remember how nice the baths were, the stream, the hiking. To me the damn thing didn’t need anything but that we all kept workin at it. I didn’t have the big picture either of somebody who wanted to make it into something.
I remember when we were first all here as students and we’d eat outside and we used to eat on picnic tables with all the blue jays and yellow jackets. In front of where the office is. I remember when I first came feeling anxious and nervous with all these people I didn’t know but after a while that all went away because we all got to know each other pretty well sitting in the zendo all the time.
I remember Loring. He was a trip. There was the Macrobiotic camp. I remember when Niels came down the road. I remember a few people. It was good.
DC: Anything else?
CM: I remember Okusan. [Suzuki’s wife]. She was a wonderful person. You know her a lot better than me, but I knew her a little bit and I remember talking to her about Rev. Suzuki and I’ll never forget, she said, he’s a great Zen master but he’s a really lousy husband.
DC: Right. Right.
CM: She probably told a lot of people that.
CM: I got a couple of tapes of Rev. Suzuki’s lectures and listened to them. I bought the couple they sell at Zen Center – the Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha. I play them in my car all the time and I sometimes play them for hours at a time. Brit Pyland thinks I’m nuts. He thinks playing Rev. Suzuki in a car while you’re driving is not quite the right way, but I think he’s nuts too [laughing] because what the hell, man, you hear the guy. And so I really love those tapes. I’d like to have access to more of them. I don’t care which lecture it is. I don’t care if anybody edited them. I don’t care if it was a great lecture or a lousy lecture if there is such a thing. But when you hear Rev. Suzuki talk, he’s right there. The man is right there like he’s never gone anywhere – which he hasn’t – but you get him to talk and there he is and I can see him. I can hear the intonations in his voice. I can hear him saying the same things he kept sayin and sayin and sayin. It’s as real as it gets. I assume they have tapes of all his lectures.
DC: About 400 of them.
CM: So you’ve got 400 talks by this – for us a great guy, a great teacher, a Buddha – and you’ve got 400 talks where you could be listening to the man like he was here and nobody wants to get them out and nobody wants anybody to listen to them. That is insane. And books are great and I read a lot of books. I love books. But there’s something else to hearing Rev. Suzuki actually talk and say the thing. It’s like being with him or being with you or being with another person. It’s one way. You can’t talk back, but we never talked back when he gave dharma talks anyway. [laughing].
DC: Well, there were questions at the end usually, but I know what you mean.
CM: Of the things that I know about Zen Center that I think there could be an improvement, is that those tapes, at least some of them - more than the couple we can get now - should be able to be heard. I’m willing to pay for them. Any way you can get ‘em. I’ve talked to Michael and Michael says talk to the librarian and I haven’t talked to her but it seems like there’s a bottleneck. Somebody’s got their finger in the damn there and ain’t letting go.
DC: You can go to the library and listen to them.
CM: I got a wife and kids, I got businesses to run, and I don’t have the time to do that. I’m not a full time Zen student. I’ve got a couple of hours a day in my truck and I like to hear them when I can hear ‘em. I can’t be a student and go sit in the library. That’s a scholarly work. I’m not a scholar. I’m a businessman. But there are a lot of people like me. Maybe there’s no demand to listen to them but I would love to listen to them. It would mean a lot to me.
DC: Well, Zen Center is an institution and it’s cautious and getting something new done is like squeezing water from a rock. But it can be done. With bureaucracy the no energy is always stronger. So to get anything done you’ve really got to work at it. But I can sympathize with the people who are in charge because for something to be available it’s got to be edited and prepared. Some of the lectures are pretty good as they are but some of it isn’t so easy to understand or he takes a while to get around to what he wants to say. There’s been a lot of work done in archiving and preserving his taped lectures and what you want is something that could be done – it will be in time – but if you want it sooner it will just take more energy on somebody’s part. There could be more lectures released to the public or maybe as a next step to members or scholars or somebody like that who make a special request. But to get that done, someone’s got to be a squeaky wheel. I’ve gotten stuff done at Zen Center and I know it can be done.
CM: Well, you’re persistent.
DC: Well, even the people inside Zen Center who are getting things done are doing it by being persistent. You’ve got to talk to people and come back and offer to do something or come up with money or go to meetings. Or, who knows, there may be more there now than you think ready for you to listen to - you didn't go to the library - or just ready for a nudge. But there’s always the factor of Zen slow. And often the people who are slow are the ones who, in the long run, get it done. It’s a little like the Catholic Church, the scholars who controlled the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Christian Science Church’s keeping Mary Baker Eddy’s original writings under some sort of wraps, or so I’ve heard. Like that and other institutions. It’s normal. There are issues of control and tradition and resistance to change. But Zen Center’s not that controlling. And, as Richard Baker has pointed out, Suzuki didn’t want people to read his lectures without them being edited by students so they’d be in good order and have correct English. but I think people have come far enough to be able to deal with it – it’s not such an unusual thing anymore.
CM: In my opinion that was Japanese humility on his part and not necessarily the word of God. You know what I’m sayin. The quote I like better is what he says on one of those tapes that they sell. He says, It’s not important that you understand what I say. And it’s certainly not important that you remember what I say at all. You don’t have to remember a thing I say. He didn’t go on but I go on. It’s the impact of just listening and what it does to you at the time. That’s all. Which changes, right?
DC: Yeah, sometimes he’d talk about getting the spirit of it.
CM: Yeah, that’s what he meant.
DC: And I even remember him saying it didn’t matter if we slept.
CM: You know this so much better than I, but basically didn’t he just say the same things and I don’t know how many, maybe a hundred, two hundred, fifty – the same kind of things he said from every single conceivable angle I could think of over time. And the same basic kind of things. He was talkin about the same kind of things: being present, being here and now, being alive, non-duality, all these things which are deep thoughts but pretty much he was hitting the same diamonds from different angles all the time. And so if he said it in a way that hit you right good and maybe the next time it’ll hit the other guy right and maybe the spirit will hit you and maybe it won’t but having the opportunity to listen to the same thing over and over and over again as long as you’re interested is helpful. It makes me feel closer to the truth that he was… when I listen to that stuff I feel a lot closer to these truths which are deep truths that he was about, that he was trying to transmit to us. That’s what happens to me. You can sometimes get in the real spirit of the big mind that he’s talking about.
DC: I notice there’s no bulletin board up in the student dining area this year at Tassajara – it’s been moved to the back behind the office – just a few feet away. You said you talked to them about that last year.
CM: Yes. I talked to Lew Richmond and maybe some others and I said that that’s the area that was the back of the altar where Rev. Suzuki and Katagiri Sensei and Kobun Chino and so many priests sat. To me it is sacred ground and shouldn’t have a student bulletin board up there. It seemed disrespectful.
DC: That never would have occurred to me but it’s very interesting to me that you felt that way and I think it’s good the way it is.
So hey, thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
CM: I do too.
|To interviews What's New|