Interview with Steven Allen, Kijun Tenryu, Shunryu Suzuki student, dharma heir of Issan Dorsey and abbot of Dragon Mountain Temple in Crestone
Joined by his wife Angelique Farrow
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By DC on May 6, 2007 at Tassajara
Check out Dragon Mountain Temple in Crestone, Colorado - great photos.
Steve was also abbot of Hartford Street Zendo
Sesshin is like a magic turtle. You pull your legs and head in and you settle completely. - Shunryu Suzuki
Steve and Angelique were at Tassajara for the Noh Race, an annual event for ZC friends and supporters. Before they left they graciously agreed to let me talk to Steve for cuke.com and the archive of those who were around in the Suzuki era. First we took a walk out to Grasshopper Flats and saw the new and quite impressive bridge. There should be a photo of it on the SFZC site but there's not. Not yet. Anyway, we went back and sat down in front of the office in redwood chairs on the lawn and it went something like this. - DC
DC: You can edit this interview in the future anyway you want – after it’s already gone up, you can completely reverse what you said, you can change anything.
SA: To exactly the opposite of what I really said.
DC: Yeah, so now you can say anything and later you can say anything. I don't care. I'm not into fixed truth, or rigid facts.
DC: Anyway we're here with Steven Allen. What's your Buddhist name?
SA: Kijun Tenryu which means Penetrating Joy, Dragon of Heaven. So that's Tenryu. Now that I've you know, established a temple, I just call myself Tenryu, and the temple's name is Dragon Mountain. It actually I took the two characters san [mt.]and ryu [dragon] from Issan Tommy Dorsey and Ryufu Phil Whalen, so it’s so I named the temple after the two of them.
DC: And it’s in Crestone -
SA: Colorado and it’s a - the mountains actually look like a dragon to some of us, it’s a finger off the Rockies called the Sun Group Crestones [?] and when I got there, I saw you know, this would be a good dragon, [laughs] and so I call it Dragon Mountain, and we're the temple for Dragon Mountain.
DC: Do you ever go to Sand Dunes. You can see Sand Dunes from there.
SA: Yes, indeed.
DC: National monument.
SA: Yes, from the temple you can see the sand dunes and Mount Blanca behind it, which is very beautiful and Mount Blanca has been there, one of the four sacred mountains of the Navahos and the Hopis.
DC: Oh really?
SA: It’s their eastern mountain. They have the same kind of mandalic system like the Tibetans, but there are four mountains in the four directions, that's - and they are, they live in the center between those four mountains, that's how they put the world together.
SA: I feel that way too, you know, that -- when I built the temple I wanted it to be oriented towards the directions and the seasons, time and seasons, so I know where the, when the winter solstice rises so that that's the winter solstice is the dragon's tail, and the summer solstice is the dragon's head. So and there's a scope of the dragon.
DC: Yeah, it’s a beautiful place. Well the zendo you had in your home was really gorgeous.
SA: So we used that as a seed model to build a temple essentially.
DC: Did - well, I'm sure you've gotten pictures of that on your web site.
DC: Or if you don't you can Email me pictures or
SA: There's actually lots of pictures on the web site
DC: Well, backing up a little, I, what I'd like to ask you is, you know, how you came to Zen Center, what your experience at Zen Center, memories of Suzuki Roshi, you know, and then backing up, you know where you came from, what led you into Zen Center. Then what's happened since Zen Center and you know, what you learned from it, what the, you know, whatever shortcomings there were, and anything you have to say about any of that but just again, how did you come here?
SA: On foot.
DC: And where from on foot?
SA: I started sitting on my own in, at, when I was in college at the University of Virginia and so ( Roshi P.) Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen came out in '67 '68 some time. As soon as I found it, I started sitting, and so for the last three years I was in college I sat every day by myself.
SA: Then when I graduated I, my plan was to get to the West Coast, earn enough money to get to Japan and study Zen. That was my direction at the time, and
DC: So you started sitting what year?
SA: Around '68 I think.
DC: Mm-hmm [as in "yes"]
SA: And then I took my father's old '58 Ford Station Wagon and it did make it to San Francisco and then it died [laughs]. I didn't know about the San Francisco Zen Center. This was before Zen Mind Beginner's Mind came out, and I really hadn't heard about it, and I just knew that there was a lot of Zen stuff happening in Japan and I wanted to go. I was living in a little apartment with eight other people there. And the lady upstairs had just come back from a weekend at a place that she said was near Big Sur. She had gone as a guest to Tassajara, and she said you know I think those people have some place here in San Francisco you should check them out. I was reading Zen books at the time. She saw that, so she said I think there's some place in San Francisco. So I started looking around and ended up at Page Street.
+This was January 1971, and then I heard that they were, there was going to be a sesshin in February and I thought boy, that's what I've heard about - sesshin. I should try sit the sesshin, you know, I had been sitting for three years on my own, and so, I took - at the time sesshin was sixty dollars for the sesshin. I had seventy-five dollars to my name. [laughs] I was going to do this sesshin, so [laughs] I threw an I-Ching at the time and to ask it because, I thought this is really crazy, you know, I've only got seventy-five dollars to my name. I couldn't even pay next month's rent. But anyway I threw the I-Ching and I got double mountain [mountain over mountain?] which is all about sitting. Hmmm! And it’s one change line changed it to wandering or travel or something like that]. But anyway the change line was all about a magic turtle, so I said, well, hell. I'm going to go do this sesshin. This is the direction I want. Here's a sesshin. I'm going to do it.
So I [knocks on wood] signed up for that sesshin, and in Suzuki Roshi's first lecture he said sesshin is like a magic turtle. You pull your legs and head in and you settle completely. I made the right decision.
DC: Wow, really!
SA: This is the - the timings were right, and
DC: And that sesshin was when?
SA: February of '71.
+SA: And there was a famous, what's become a famous event, happened in that sesshin, which was that Mel Weitsman I think it was about the fourth or fifth day, rang the wake up bell an hour early and then realized his mistake and told everybody that it was an hour early and they should go back to bed and come back in an hour, so but I was already up and so I decided well, I'll just go to the zendo, and I walked into the zendo and there was Suzuki, there was nobody in the room except Suzuki Roshi. This is very strange, because you know, Suzuki Roshi always came in last when everybody was there. We’d all be there and he would come in. So anyway Suzuki Roshi was sitting on the altar and he was in his usual place and everybody came in and everybody got settled. Then Suzuki Roshi said something like, “When the wake up bell rings, you should go to the zendo!” And then he leaped off his zafu and start hitting everybody with his stick. [laughs] Wap! Wap! Wap! Wap! He really clobbered those first people. [laughs] Fortunately, by the time he got to me, he was a little tired.
DC: That's funny!
SA: But it was very dramatic in a very I don't know - it’s a kind of event that wakes you up.
DC: So he waited until the correct period to do that, so you had sat with him for quite a bit of time there.
SA: Yeah, about probably about 40 minutes and then everyone else started coming in right because it was the regular time,
DC: And you don't remember anybody else being in there?
SA: Not at first. Not at first, it was just a shock when I walked in there and there he was. I had this feeling something was up, I couldn't figure out what the hell he, he gave us a lesson.
DC: Wow. Yeah, that is a -- highpoint, a, you know, I've heard that from a number of people.
SA: People yeah, if you were there you're going to remember that event.
DC: I wasn't there, yeah.
SA: It was strong, it was direct, it was real, and it was just what a, 22-year old boy wanted to [laughs] wanted to experience
DC: Yeah! Yeah, so I was 21 when I came to the Zen Center, so you're 58.
SA: Yeah, just turned 59. My birthday is in April.
DC: So that was your first experience of Zen Center.
DC: And so, tell me more.
SA: Well, then, it was very powerful sesshin for me of course, and a shock to my system because I'd been sitting for three years, four years and so I thought I had a grasp on zazen and but the sesshin was just, it was like hitting a wall - I mean going, sixty miles an hour hitting a wall, it’s bam, it just stops you, and you, and it’s not very pleasant.
SA: It was so unpleasant that I had to talk myself into the next period for days, and it was something like: I'll stay here until breakfast and then the breakfast and there would be a little relief and so I'll stay until lunch, and then I'll stay until tea.
SA: I'll stay -- and then this continued.
DC: You were fooling yourself?
SA: Yeah, I had to trick myself into
DC: Wow, that's great.
+SA: Into doing it, but then at about the fifth or sixth day I had dokusan [private interview] with Suzuki Roshi and I walked into the room, I was just like in agonizing pain and I sat down and it all disappeared. It was just like a weight lifted off of me and like you entered into yourself in a new way in a capacity to let you into yourself in a new way and in that new place there was no pain, it was quite extraordinary and allowed me to open up to become a new person, and it showed me there was a way that I could be a new person and to me that was a great gift from Suzuki Roshi. I didn't know there was any way to be a new person and I couldn't think my way through it, you know, I was an intellectually oriented person. I had read just about everything there was to read at the time in Zen and existentialism and Yeats and so on.
SA: So there were lots of alternate worlds, but there wasn't this new world. There wasn't a world that I didn't know until I met Suzuki Roshi and I knew that there was a world I didn't know. And that was for me the great gift which is not to be taught me anything or that he did anything, he just allowed it to be, and then I knew the rest because it was up to me, I knew enough about myself and about Zen to realize that I couldn't depend on anyone else but I felt supported and the sangha in a sense the inner sangha supported me. I felt very supported and dedicated and I never felt very connected to Zen Center in those days for some reason I wanted to be in this new world.
SA: And it just I knew I had to find it myself and so I was very reluctant to join Zen Center, be a part of Zen Center and very slowly it took me years to open up to the Zen Center and the sangha. I tended to refuse to allow Zen Center to take care of me in that sense but then at a certain point I realized I had to take responsibility for Zen Center and to pay back to…
+SA: Yeah, to give back, because I had received so much, and of course there was incredible drama around the time that Suzuki Roshi died. I was at the sesshin that he died, that December and…
DC: Anything in particular you remember?
+SA: Well, just a powerful, very powerful, this experience was, and how unprepared I was for encounters with death. I was, you know, a young man, and hadn't been around anyone who had died or at that point. I remember you know, he died during the first period of zazen in the sesshin and arghh, I remember he -- again, sort of being swept into another world - some, other place, and then we all went upstairs and bowed to - they had put - Suzuki Roshi's body was in his room and the major disciples were around him and the sun was coming in through the window - I remember that. It was quite and other-worldly experience because you're sort of in this dark hallway, right. We were all supposed to come up, do one bow, and we'd go through, but anyway when it was my turn, I was doing one standing bow as I was leaving right, and I just I got to that point and I, and the room opened up there was a feeling of his aura [?] in the room. I did three full bows. Mel [?] who I didn't know, went to stop me.
DC: Oh, people weren't doing that?
SA: No, they weren't doing that. We were supposed to do one standing bow you know, there were 100 people so [laughs] - but it was spontaneous
SA: And he realized the spontaneity of it and just pulled back when he saw me do it.
SA: You know, so there was an openness there that allowed things to happen outside the way it was supposed to be. We sat for five days essentially you know with Suzuki Roshi upstairs.
DC: No, they took him away that afternoon.
SA: That shouldn't have happened.
DC: We shouldn't have done that.
SA: Yeah, it shouldn't have happened.
SA: But that was those days,
DC: Yeah, and my understanding is that it was for the Japanese people and Okusan and you know, I really liked the trip that Yvonne got into of dealing with taking care of bodies and sitting for three days with people’s bodies after they’ve died.
SA: Very powerful, it really should be done. There's no question.
DC: I believe in spreading that practice far and wide and making it clear - promoting it and you know, it should be put on the web sites and talked about so that it’s not something new when it happens that some people are prepared for it. I do have stuff on my web site about it but there should be more and it should be prominent so it’s easy to find.
SA: Yeah, it’s a very powerful experience and it’s cathartic and it shields some of your relationship with that person and something happens that's if you have an intimate relationship with somebody you I think it’s just kind of crucial almost for that transition to be sustainable [?]. You know, to be with, to stay by them. So we sat with Issan for three days and then did that cremation ceremony and that was very powerful and very real and very soothing in some sense, we're now in a place in Crestone that we're creating only the second authorized open cremation site in the country.
DC: Oh goodness!
SA: And it’s fortunately because we're in sparsely populated country - where we are I think it’s going to work, the papers are now into the county and into the state and we're hoping it’s going to go through.
DC: You mean like in Bali? I've been to a cremation in Bali.
SA: That's right.
DC: Where they stack many logs and put the person on the logs and burn them.
SA: That's right. We have a lot of Tibetan groups in our area, and they're all interested in this and to tell you the truth, many people in the area are interested in this, non-Buddhists too. For some reason there’s something that's unfolding in Crestone. There's been like seven or eight cremations in the community in this very small community up in the mountains, but none of it has been official and they've actually gotten in trouble with the neighbors and so on. So we're looking for a place outside of the neighborhoods where a cremation site could be established so we're now working with that group of people. And hopefully within the next year, there's going to be a cremation site.
SA: And we're interconnected with this process. This end of life process.
DC: Did you go to the Baker Roshi's Mountain Seat Ceremony?
+SA: I did, but -- no. I did not go to his mountain seat ceremony. I was thinking about the funeral. I was at Suzuki Roshi's…
DC: You were at the funeral?
SA: I was at the funeral.
DC: What do you remember about that?
+SA: It was one of those. It was raining. And I didn't actually see the funeral because I was, there were so many people. I was about half way down the hall, and a very interesting experience occurred to me. The funeral ceremony for Suzuki Roshi, even though it was new, it was very powerful and it opened up my life, so at the end of the funeral when everyone came in and offered incense and his body was there in a coffin, an open coffin. When it was my turn and I came to the coffin and I saw his body there, then instantly the thought went through my head, this is not Suzuki Roshi, where is Suzuki Roshi? Right, I went, this is not Suzuki Roshi, where is Suzuki Roshi, and my gaze went up and it was eye to eye contact with Richard, and it sealed my relationship with Richard at very moment.
Which is why I was able to deal with all the commotion years later but there was this direct almost direct experience that Suzuki Roshi was now with Richard and that it hadn't died, that it was continued, and it and that was very vivid to me that it was not dead. And it sustained me through all the years that I've spent at Zen Center and sustains me now - I actually experience, I experience it now here at Tassajara, I, every time I come to Tassajara I feel this timelessness that is embedded in time, which I experience as Suzuki Roshi myself, that somehow he was able to, I really feel that image, you know, that Buddhist image of reincarnation being a candle that lights another candle that lights another candle that lights another candle.
DC: Ah yeah.
SA: I mean that's
DC: I like that because that's a good explanation because there's no ideal of a continuous entity,
SA: That's right but it stays alive, that flame, in that flame, in that flame – each one of the candles are made up of the same constituent parts but they are sustained through a whole different set of conditions. This candle is to -- I feel that right now, I feel it right now here at Tassajara.
+[SA from notes- not recorded: When I come here I can always feel Suzuki Roshi. I feel him here and up on the Hogback when I go to the big stone where his ashes were put.]
SA: And to me they are, I don't know how to explain this rationally, but I know it’s not going to go away. You can't change it.
SA: But you know, with the flow of life changes and the opening experience is so alive that for those of us who know how to - I don't know how to say it but, what happened to me I think that's what our practice does, I think our practice makes us sensitive to those - I don't know - awakening energies and even though it’s outside of our personalities obviously it’s outside of our karma, we're all, you know the fuckups that we are you know, it’s a lovely thing, it’s so forgiving.
SA: It’s so alive that it can forgive.
DC: Did you go to the cremation?
DC: I missed the cremation. It was, I was not told about it and I always felt bad about it but too bad.
SA: I went to Issan's cremation, I did Issan's cremation, which was bizarre again, it was done in a warehouse, I mean basically all these bodies were just being taken out and put into the fire but we took his body there and we refused to leave.
SA: His body was put into this refrigerator and then he was on this timetable, you know, to be put into this furnace, I just stayed there and actually the person who was there was moved by the fact that I don't think anyone had ever stayed.
DC: How many of you were there?
SA: There were about eight of us. Something like that that came over. And then we did a ceremony with Kobun. Kobun was there. And he sort of led us through this whole process which was great and but then they all left and Shunko [Mike Jamvold] and I stayed, I was not going to leave until this was done, and so we -- we got to see him cooking
DC: There was a glass window?
SA: Yeah, you could actually see - there was a little window.
DC: Well, was he wrapped up or
SA: Well, you know, he had his robes on,
DC: So you actually saw him burning?
SA: So this is the link to this new thing that's happening in Crestone – having open cremations, because it’s strong and it’s very powerful. With Issan I actually had this - at one point, at one point in the process, his body you basically could still see the structure of his body but there was a flame right at his heart, it was the most amazing experience – a bright flame rising from his heart.
DC: Have you asked any Tibetans about that?
SA: No, I haven't
DC: Yeah, they'd be the people to ask about that, it sounds familiar to me having read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying a couple of times – to Ananda.
SA: Yeah, just this concentration of fire at the heart, and then, I forgot how long it took, it must have been an hour or hour and a half. And then the process was over. I guess in this process what they do is they take the ashes and there's still some bone, and they grind it up, and they put it into a plastic bag and put it into a cart and then put a name on it. So but before they did that process Shunko and I got some pieces of his own bone which I still have and we have the ashes.
SA: The relics, yeah, and but then you know, some days after this, we had most of his ashes, I had already separated out some of the ashes to keep, it was actually on the altar downstairs in the zendo and they were stolen.
DC: That's right were they ever recovered?
SA: They weren’t, not as far as any of us know.
DC: I remember that. I was in Japan.
SA: Somebody, a friend of mine was just horrified that about Issan having stolen ashes? And I said, well to tell you the truth, all they got were the ashes,
DC: Yes, right.
DC: Well said.
SA: But you know, there are obviously I think really deep deep connecting energies in this dying process and cremation and taking care of these transitions are extremely important to our mental health and psychology and that why we did the hospice for four years and had Hartford Street Zendo students learn about this with help from Yvonne. It was hard because of all kinds of crazinesseses happening there but I really believe in that work and I certainly believe in this process of sitting with the body of the deceased for three days and doing a cremation ceremony, and creating a monument to hold that image in your heart that keeps open what normally closes off I think for most people.
DC: When you say monument what do you mean?
SA: Like a stone.
SA: Like we came to Tassajara nine months later and found a stone for Issan, which has been in the back yard of Hartford Street.
DC: Are any of his ashes here at Tassajara?
SA: We did a ashes scattering ceremony up on the hogback where we brought Suzuki Roshi's ashes.
DC: One thing, Jordan brought up with me is we need a map of who are those stupas for? And Susan O'Connell suggested we should have a list of people who's ashes are there because there are people who's ashes that don't have any stupa, like you just gave an example.
SA: I went up there yesterday to pay my respects.
DC: Yeah, we're going to go, Katrinka and I are going to go up later today. I always like to go up there. Going back to your first sesshin, from then until the sesshin where Suzuki Roshi died, you did say you felt some distance from Zen Center. Did you live there at any of that time?
SA: Not during that time. I first came to Tassajara that April, so April 71 I came down here for the first time, and it was a surreal experience. Everybody in black robes and all the form, you know, everything was chanted in Japanese in those days, even all the meals chants were in Japanese.
DC: They didn't do any English here?
SA: No, not at that point.
DC: Hmm. Really?
SA: I think it changed literally the next year. But I actually got used to the Japanese. It was actually quite beautiful and I rather got attached to it and had a little trouble going to the English translation - but anyways it was a completely different world. I was sort of like leaving the planet for Tassajara in those days. In April they were laying the foundation for the gate house.
[Angelique Farrow, Steve’s wife and partner in Zen, brings us tea.]
DC: Thank you. That's very kind of you. [chatter] thank you. So any more about your first impressions of Tassajara in April of '71. I was here then. I was the work leader and then the assistant director.
SA: Yeah. And…
DC: I hope I wasn't making too much noise, disrupting your experience.
SA: You weren't
DC: Good good good.
SA: You didn't.
DC: Must have been in a hike.
SA: It was - it was not a normal experience also I have to say, in fact the reason I knew it was not normal was because I didn't know it until I actually had a normal moment. [giggles] which is when I was, we were getting stones out of the creek to lay the foundations.
DC: Of the gatehouse.
SA: Of the gate house and Paul Disco was there, he was organizing that but after getting, after the work period was over, I was just down by the stream and then all of a sudden I sort of woke up and I realized oh! This is a stream, this is a real world. This is the first time I’ve felt that here.
DC: Your mind was sort of blown by the social strangeness that you had come into, cultural strangeness.
SA: Yeah, and it was what do you call it. Cultural…
SA: I was having…
DC: Novelty. Yeah.
AF: You were having a shamanic moment?
SA: Yes, I was having a shamanic moment. Yeah, it was like going to a foreign country, that's how it felt, but anyway I got used to it, got initiated into it.
SA: And I was willing to enjoy it.
DC: And how long were you here?
SA: I was here for just I think it was just a weekend or something like that in April and then
DC: You said "we"
SA: Well, whoever it was that I came down with I don't know who, it wasn't a group of us. But you know, then I came January of '73 and did my first practice period. I did three practice periods before they sent me back to Green Gulch.
DC: You did three - January, so you were here when I was shuso [head monk]. My apologies.
SA: [laughs] We survived these things.
DC: Yes. Indeed. Moving back, I want to see, I want to squeeze as much as I can from you but not more than you know, when you're ready to move on from the year you were around when Suzuki Roshi was alive,
AF: Let’s go over there.
DC: You want to move to the shade?
SA: Yeah, maybe.
DC: Moving to the shade.
[Moving into the shade I accidentally turned my little digital recorder off and so we talked for like thirty more minutes till I noticed it. Damn it damn it damn it. And then we just started up again and recovered all the territory we’d just covered. That was awfully gracious of Steve and Angelique because they were all packed and ready to leave and had postponed their departure for this interview. – DC]
+AF: You were saying that you experienced Suzuki Roshi in three ways.
SA: Yeah. There was a kind of worn out old man, and a highly cultured man, and then the Zen master.
DC: Mm-hmm maybe the, I think the cultured Japanese man would be shibui.
+DC: Yeah, that's what -- Kobun said that Suzuki Roshi was the perfect example of shibui which is the sort of highest aesthetic, it’s a word that originally means something like second hand, or maybe somewhat aged, like say an old book or a rock with moss on it. Or something like that.
AF: Has character or something because of…
SA: Wabi sabi.
AF: Wabi sabi yeah.
DC: So, yeah, well, wabi sabi – the sweet,beautiful sadness of life or something like that. And then, yeah, god I should have looked at that thing when we moved over here. But in once we moved here,
SA: Mostly just talking about history.
DC: We talked about your history which started with you know the easiest thing would be if you just gave me a verbal quick synopsis of it and then, so like you stayed at Zen Center for a number of years - I remember you being treasurer.
SA: Yeah, I was treasurer when I left. Right, the last thing I did was put the Zen Center accounting system on the computer, the first computer
DC: Oh yeah.
SA: At that point in Zen Center's history I was the only one who could possibly do it. I was the only one who knew it, and so I spent two months after I resigned as treasurer - I took two months and just put the system onto the computer.
DC: Wow, '83.
DC: Which computer?
SA: It was '84 by then.
DC: '84 - which sort of computer?
SA: It was a one of the first sort of professional Macs.
DC: A Mac in '84.
SA: It was called a Lisa I think.
DC: I think it was pre-Mac
SA: It was yeah, pre-Mac it was
DC: Yeah, and so Suzuki Roshi died in '71.
SA: Right, and so I was there 13 years more.
DC: And you stayed, till '84 and you know one thing you talked about was how you really appreciated the students as your teachers - like Issan. [?]
SA: In the, the invisible pathways that are established by the officials pathways, and the officials ones are there, and so everyone's mostly seeing the official ones, but then between them are all these little capillaries and energies going, and that that, I was saying that that's what sustained me because I was so anti-institutional.
DC: What did you do all those years?
SA: At a certain point, I had to face up to the fact that I mean basically what we all called ourselves Zen slaves, right, you were just put someplace, you were just moved from various places, you know, you wanted to be at Tassajara but they needed you in Green Gulch, so you went to Green Gulch, OK, so you're at Green Gulch, well then you don't stay, they move you to the city, so obviously, chattel. [laughs] that's about all, and I just I completely gave up, I just completely did whatever they told me to do, and so from the fields at Green Gulch where I was head of the garden, I was shipped off --
DC: That's right.
SA: I was shipped off
DC: That was '73 when I was there.
SA: Yeah, right.
SA: And so I got my original training with Allen Chadwick, in the garden there and then I came to Tassajara and then I set up the gardens here,
DC: How'd you get along with Allen?
SA: [laughs] I was one of the few people who could get along with Allen. [laughs] No, I loved Alan Chadwick. But you know, I sort of I like old irascible people, I always think they've got something to teach me, right, so I just did what Alan said. He was the Zen master as far as I was concerned about gardening and so I was there to learn and I just did what he said.
DC: That's great.
SA: And so from Tassajara I went to Green Gulch in the spring and was head of the garden and Steven Stucky was head of the field. And then eventually we brought the two together.
AF: Being moved around.
SA: Yeah, being moved around, yeah, and the contrast was great. I spent a year and a half every day in the fields, and then I was shipped off to the city to work in the accounting office with Gloria Coonan and Arnie Kotler and so I went.
DC: Arnie was the treasurer?
SA: Arnie was treasurer, and it was just at that point that Ned Johnson had given a donation to have Coopers & Lybrand set up the accounting system for the Zen Center so I was trained by this guy to set up this system and that was the point I was getting to the fact that I was the only person who actually understood the system
SA: Even Arnie couldn't figure out the system because he was sort of well - he had so many other responsibilities as treasurer so it was all on my shoulders to actually put the system in place.
DC: And that was like seventy- six?
SA: That was somewhere in there, because I think I went to yeah, '76 and I came over and he spent six weeks with me just tutoring me on how to do this system.
DC: That must have cost Johnson a ton.
SA: But anyway I learned the system. I was assistant treasurer for four years, and then I was treasurer and there was a little stint in there to be shuso down here and you know, but essentially I became treasurer
DC: You were shuso here?
SA: I was shuso here in '81 Spring of '81. You asked me a very embarrassing question when I was the shuso during that time.
DC: I did!?
SA: [laughs] but I side-stepped you.
AF: what did he ask?
DC: What did I ask?
SA: [giggles] it was something like you know, it was a take on a old Zen story about you know, if you're hanging by a thread over a cliff and somebody asks you a question how do you respond, but you had done it with, you're on the moon, it was a whole, wonderful fantasy story about, but it used that kernel of idea about you're in this impossible situation and somebody's asking you a question how do you respond. And it stopped me and all I said was I'd complain to the author -- damn! [laughs]
DC: [laughs] well, my apologies.
DC: I want you to say again, what you saw your role as when the shit hit the fan with Richard.
SA: OK, so originally felt that yes, this was a mess and it was a situation which we should all take responsibility for and take care of I mean we're a community right? And we're doing Zen practice and shouldn't we just take care of this, but and I understood that there were conflicts, I understood the discrepancy in the understandings and perceptions and so on, but I thought let's just deal with this in a mature way and take care of it, right, but as I said before the energies were too strong and the structures were too weak to be able to bring them back together, and
DC: Yeah, and you said you encouraged him after a number of months to leave.
SA: I finally, you know I went to all those meetings - I remember we had endless meetings.
DC: I just went to one or two.
SA: That's really surprising [giggles]
DC: Well, I was mainly living in Bolinas you know.
SA: Well anyway we had endless meetings.
DC: I came and talked to Richard personally sometimes.
SA: Endless meetings about this and so I was on the board so I knew the board's position I knew the community's position from going to all those meetings. I knew Richard's position from talking with him and I thought this is hopeless. There's no way that this is going to ever come back to a resolved situation. There are conditions under which it could have come back, but nobody was budging from their position and certainly Richard wasn't and so I just saw the writing on the wall. So I encouraged him to leave because I could see that it was not going to be helpful to the community for him to stay, it wasn't going to be helpful to him to stay. I really saw the position I took myself was hopeless because you're sort of like being quartered, these energies are going apart, they're not coming back together so I suggested to him that he leave and that I would be willing to work with him to set up a whatever it was that was going to be the next thing. Well, anyway, it turned out to be Santa Fe and David Padwa’s place.
DC: Oh yeah, David Padwa. I really leaned on him to give Richard a good price for the house and the stupa, the chorten all walled in with the room that was used for a zendo. I’d visited David there a few times. You moved there right away?
SA: Yeah, I lived in the a little monk cell next to the chorten for a year and a half.
SA: Very tiny.
DC: Not the front room?
SA: No, not the front room.
AF: The tiny little closet-like rooms on the side of the meditation room.
AF: He lived in one of those and Miriam Bobkoff lived on the other on the other.
SA: Yeah. He lived on the other side and then when Issan came he took the front room.
AF: They built that little room in there with the little bathroom across from the living room for Issan.
DC: It has heating pipes in the floor. I always loved that.
SA: Yeah, right, yeah, heating so that's nice.
DC: Yeah, nice construction.
SA: Yeah, it was a beautiful place, I enjoyed living there. And I worked as a waiter for a year and a half.
AF: He was working at Sara Grayson's Restaurant.
SA: It was the only way to survive, to support myself in the zendo, but basically I took my money and gave it to the zendo.
AF: Michael [Shunko] was there for a little while.
DC: Oh yeah,
SA: But after a couple of years, it was clear that Richard's energy had shifted towards the restaurant and he wasn't interested in the chorten. He had two interests, one was the restaurant, and the other was Germany.
DC: Germany – where most his students are now.
SA: He was not interested in the small little chorten. It sort of made me feel small or something. But anyway Phil was there, Issan was there, I was there and Angelique came and then Shunko came and it was a good feeling. It was a good feeling, I really enjoyed it, I did four sesshins a year, it was good, but then again, Richard’s energy just went away and he kept trying to get me involved in the restaurant. I didn't want to be in the restaurant. Finally, I threw a phone at him. I just didn't want to hear about this any more. I resigned and you know went off to South Africa.
DC: In what year did you go to South Africa?
SA: That was '86.
DC: '86 and how long did you stay?
SA: Well, we were there for four months at that time and then set up a small group and then I kept coming back. Once every year or year and a half whenever they could get enough money to bring me over.
AF: We went to South Africa we also went to Japan and stayed at Rinsoin.
DC: Oh, so that was '87.
SA: '87 yeah.
DC: You went to Rinsoin. I want you just to say again about establishing relationship with Hoitsu. [Rinsoin was Shunryu Suzuki’s temple in Japan, Hoitsu his son and now the abbot there.]
SA: Yeah, so we went to Rinsoin '87 and stayed at Rinsoin. We were only going to stay for a little while and we were sitting there and they were getting ready to do this charity bazaar that's what they called it, a charity bazaar and it was all this cleaning and stuff to do and Chitose [Hoitsu’s wife] had to do it all.
AF: The kids were young.
SA: Hoitsu had to have tea with danka [temple members] so it was all on her and she had to clean this enormous place, right, I mean there were like I don't know how many rooms.
DC: Did they have monks down there or anything?
SA: No, nothing, nobody there. And the kids, you know the kids were ten and twelve and…
DC: Because I had been there and helped clean and later years and there’d be one or two monks come to help.
SA: But anyways we just all - we could be helpful so we decided to spend another week and just clean that temple from top to bottom and then stay for the charity bazaar and then there was a big feast that night and anyway the process of that really bonded us in some real way and we went off. We wanted to go to Eiheiji while we were there, the mother temple and so on, so and he helped set that up for us, and then when we got there, they didn't want us there. Long story but we wanted to be there for three days and they but they didn't want us to be there for three days because on the third day they were doing a shuso ceremony.
DC: So they had a lot of guests coming for it?
SA: There were 12,000 people there that weekend that we were there.
DC: Yeah. It’s all coming back..
SA: Busloads and busloads and busloads
AF: But it turned out they didn't want us to see them having a morning off.
AF: Because there was a morning off on the third day and they didn't want us to see that
SA: But they didn't tell us this, right. So I went in to the guest office and I said you know, I set this up specifically four weeks ago and we're here for three days and he says oh, we only have a one day program and I said we're going to do, we're scheduled to be here for three days and we're going to use a one day program for three days. He immediately got on the phone to talk to his superior who was in Tokyo for a few days and his superior called Rinsoin and I was now on the phone with a three-way conversation about who I was and why I was there.
I'm on the phone with Hoitsu and them saying what the hell is going on here? You know, we just want to be here for three days and enjoy the place and you know, we don't care and we finally talked him in to it. I said to tell them that we wouldn't spill the beans and they got up an hour later on after the day after the shuso ceremony – that’s all we noticed. So anyway over the years we stayed in contact. Every time Hoitsu came to San Francisco, if we were there, we would have lunch with him.
DC: Oh yeah that was funny. So you've continued having a relationship with Hoitsu?
DC: He came to Crestone.
SA: Twice now, he came originally to dedicate the land when we bought the land. There wasn't a thing on it. So we created a little ceremonial site and then we did a land dedication ceremony and then two years later, he came to actually dedicate the temple and do the Mountain Seat Ceremony.
DC: And he's coming for a sesshin.
SA: And then sometime in the next year or two he'll come and do a sesshin.
DC: Oh in the next year or two.
SA: Well, yeah. This was the conversation we were having like I thought it was after he was through with being tanto.
DC: OK, so you went on this trip. You would you went from South Africa.
[Steve starts coughing and holding his throat.]
AF: David, you want any more tea? [She goes to get some for Steve who’s still gagging a little bit.]
DC: Oh, no, thank you. To India. To Japan. To Sri Lanka, India all right. Get your voice back, I'll wait.
SA: I swallowed a bug.
DC: Oh, you swallowed a bug. Oh poor thing, I'm sorry.
SA: OK, he's not in my throat anymore,
DC: So and you had this trek around Asia, India and Japan and you came back to Ojai and
SA: And then we went - that was the first time we saw Crestone in June of '87. decided not to stay there, we got an offer to be at Ojai, so we were there for a while.
DC: Oh because Joan had run into some sort of problem and everybody was asked to leave.
SA: They were asked to leave and they needed a caretaker and so we needed a place to stay and they needed a place, they had a place for someone to stay so it all worked out. So anyway we were there for six months before Issan made the request for us to come up and help him with Hartford Street and the Maitri Hospice which we did.
DC: And you did that for how long?
SA: Four years.
DC: Oh my god, man, and you were there when he died in ninety?
SA: '90 December of '90
DC: And then you ran it for a year which didn’t go perfectly.
SA: [laughs] It would say be like a white man in a black church, or a straight man in a gay church.
SA: They didn't want me to be straight.
DC: Yeah. Did they try to convert you?
SA: Yes, they tried to convert me. [laughs]
DC: Really? Did you tell them it’s a sad thing but you were born this way?
SA: Yeah, something like that. You have your ways and we have our ways.
DC: And then you talked to Phillip about taking it over.
SA: Yeah, and so Phil became the third abbot and he was resistant at first but he went on and did it and everybody was happy with him because at least he had been gay when he was active. I told him he had to do it because his publishers would be unhappy if he didn’t because it looked so nice to be the abbot of a Zen Center on your résumé.
DC: Now why would his publishers be unhappy?
SA: If he didn't do it, I thought it was a nice completion of his publishing career. He never made any money. I think the last check that he received from his publishers in the year that I was there in '96 I think was $23.58
DC: Yeah, I used to make money but I'm not making money now but I like the Internet.
SA: God, the Internet is great.
DC: Yeah, I think it’s great and it’s a great release, I can publish things and I know a lot of people will read it, a lot to me. Not a lot to publishers I guess. But if one reads it then I'm happy, and you know, I'd love to get a big advance for another book, but I'm not willing to do what I have to do to get that, I just want to do what I want to do, I'm a spoiled brat, but back to you.
SA: You're used to having it your way.
DC: Yep. My way and the bum’s way. So you left Hartford Street there in Phil's hands and you went to, and you were going to South Africa now in there?
SA: Yeah, I had been going back and forth
AF: He had gone every year.
SA: From '86 '88 '89 '90 '91
DC: Where did you go when you left Hartford Street.
SA: Actually Issan had asked me to finish the dharma transmission work with Richard.
DC: Oh yes.
SA: In Crestone. So we were for three months and I think I completed what I could complete since nothing is complete but anyway we continued for a while until things exploded because there were once again various issues going on between Richard and his sangha and he asked me to, he pulled me in, to help and…
AF: He made him tanto.
SA: So I was forced to hear all this stuff that was going on, and then
DC: Is this Dirty Laundry days?
SA: Yeh, this is Dirty Laundry days, exactly.
DC: Did you like that book?
SA: I enjoyed parts of it. Yeah.
SA: Now what? OK. Let's say there was a falling out.
DC: Yeah, a falling out.
SA: Yeah, and so then I went to South Africa, tried to set up a retreat center there, but there was a fear of civil war, people were leaving the country - you can't build a house in a hurricane, so we left. We came back, and Angelique’s father had died and left her some money.
DC: When did you get together with Angelique?
SA: In '86 just before we went to South Africa.
AF: We got married.
SA: We got married in '86. we got together in '85.
SA: In Santa Fe. She had been studying with Aitken Roshi in Hawaii.
DC: Did you know John Tarrant?
SA: Oh yeah.
AF: John was at Aitkin’s when I was there. He was his tanto or something like that.
SA: OK, so we were trying to set up a center there in South Africa, we couldn't do it, because of conditions. We should write a book about that. So we came back. We went on pilgrimage looking for a place to establish a temple. Went to the Southwest, the northwest, northern California. Ended up back in Crestone, feeling the conditions there were good, I mean essentially you got into the mountains and it’s tough because it’s redneck country and the only way people are supporting themselves is usually through drugs or I don’t know. And it’s difficult so we never found another situation that felt calm enough or clear enough or solid enough.
DC: Because it was so difficult to be successful there doing anything, you either had to be a drug dealer or a hermit.
SA: That's right.
SA: Yeah. And at that point you know, it was just Angelique and I, and so when we got to Crestone, we felt this is pretty good because there was a spiritual community here. There's a feeling of acceptance.
DC: There are so many different spiritual centers there.
AF: There were other Buddhists around and it was a pretty dropped-out kind of place, not threatening or anything like some small mountain places can be.
SA: Anyway we ended up there, we built a zendo, starting doing sesshin, did four, did six, and then got to this pattern of doing eight a year for the last six years.
DC: Where did the students come from? Because you're like, in Crestone.
SA: Yeah, exactly. I don't know where they come from.
AF: South Africa, America.
DC: Build a zendo, they will come. All right.
AF: Mark came. Vidian. [Can’t hear what she’s saying – naming students. - DC]
SA: Right, and then a young lady Ann Ross who is from Alaska, essentially had come to Crestone to do a - massage school. She finished massage school. She liked the area, she stayed around, she wanted to practice sesshins, and then there were a few people who came down from Boulder. There's a nice Boulder/Crestone connect and so a few people came that way. It’s always been small and stayed small.
DC: So, and that brings us up to the present?
SA: Yeah, pretty much, we built a hermitage, were there for four years before we found the new land to build the temple, Hoichi [Hoitsu] came out for that to dedicate the land, he came out to dedicate the temple
DC: And I think one interesting thing about that land is that was the land where the group with that channeler in Albuquerque wanted to build a pink pyramid.
SA: That's right and they’re gone. So there's a lot of funny stuff happening. OK. Then so we did the mountain seat ceremony march 2006, which reconnected me pretty much with Zen Center through Michael Winger.
AF: And it was at Michael Winger's suggestion that we even do that ceremony. He thought it was a good idea for us to do that.
SA: And so Michael's been great, you know.
AF: He's on the board.
DC: And Michael has kept me informed you know with what was happening with you guys.
SA: Very good.
SA: So little by little as [?] used to say.
SA: Little by little.
DC: Michael Phillips [who we’d just said goodbye to] praises Wenger all the time. He says Wenger’s been holding ZC together.
SA: He really is a treasure.
AF: He is a treasure.
SA: But a neglected treasure I'm afraid.
DC: Yeah, well he's the person I've dealt with the most closely on the Suzuki Roshi archiving and all of that and you know, we've had our struggles and our arm wrestling but without him nothing would have happened.
SA: Yeah, he gets things done and he understands the beast that he's working with just like you. I see the other side.
DC: I don't know let's see, I just you were saying something like about your vision of that might be too strong a word, but you know, your thoughts about how you'd like to see more communication between the San Francisco Zen Center and the different groups like yours.
SA: Sure, I just feel that the next step is for establishing diversification at the level of independence. It is the need to be at Dragon Mountain Temple and Katherine's [Santa Cruz] and Chapel Hill but there needs to be a coordinated interconnected… a feeling of interconnectedness that comes from both directions and the lack of this has been my concern. I understand this, because we're self-absorbed too but it takes time to set up a place and to get things going so that the communication channels can be real, so there's a flow of energy that is connective and establishes energy, that creates energy. I just feel like there's on the verge of another step, of doing that and now that Dragon Mountain is in shape you know, is there and has gone through a few turbulent times, had to deal with a few things, Having done the hospice thing and having done the retreat centers in South Africa, I always say if you're going to do anything real, expect the demons to show up. And they always do, they come and they check you out, they challenge you, they make sure that you know what you're doing, so if you don't know what you're doing, you're going to chuhhh!, they’ll knock you away.
DC: Hmm, hmmm,
SA: And if you're strong, and you know what you're dong you'll come back, and you'll know what you're doing and you'll know why you're doing it and you know what you have to deal with, so demons are important. I believe. I really believe it, and we've now faced that situation a few times. And I made the effort to come here this weekend and to connect and to be with people and let people know that we're there and let's stay in touch. Let's make something work.
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