Judyth's Experiences in a Zen Monastery
Interviewed 9\28\95 by DC
I came to Zen Center in September of 1968 [67?]. I'd been in Japan for two and a half years, the latter half in Shofukuji studying with Yamada Mumon Roshi in Kobe. I left Japan to go on a pilgrimage with Yamada through Southeast Asia and then I went to India and then to Mexico to help start a Zen Center in Mexico City with one of the monks from Shofukuji, Ejo Takata. Richard Crowley had also gone to Mexico with him to help. I wanted to come back to America to get married and have a family so before I left Japan I asked Yamada if I should go to the San Francisco Zen Center - an old friend had sent me their flier for Tassajara which was just getting going (67). I knew about Muira Roshi in New York and I knew Ruth Fuller Sasaki and had spent some time with her and went to her funeral in 67 in Japan. So when I left I asked Yamada Roshi what should I do? Should I go to the ZC in SF? and he smiled and said, "No. Go find Miura in NY." I think it was because he was Rinzai.
For many years I had been going to Japan - studying pottery and for various reasons. In 1965 I went there to study Buddhism and dance. The first year I was in Tokyo studying dance with the emperor of the kabuki dance world. Nihon Buyo is Japanese classical dance and the kabuki stars and geisha studied there with him. And then I saw noh drama and started studying it too. And during that time I was studying with Omori Sogen Roshi, the great kendo master. He had studied at Tenryuji with Yamada Mumon. He taught kendo and zazen. I sat with him for a year. I was getting ready to go Ryutakuji to sit with Soen Nakagawa Roshi and I went to say goodbye to Omori Sogen and he said why don't you go visit my friend Yamada. So I said, okay - in Japan a letter of introduction is better than air. I went to Shofukuji for a week in the summer of ‘66 and then went back to Tokyo and quit all my classes and went back to Shofukuji for a year and a half.
There had been two other foreign women there who hadn't worked out. One was a woman from Germany who had been there and had disrupted the entire monastery - wearing silks and diamonds and perfumes in the zendo but she insisted and she went back to Germany and wrote a book called "the master, the monks, and me." and made a fortune. And so they didn't want any more Caucasian women and I learned years later from Ejo Takata that they'd been watching me very carefully ready to kick me out if I made just one mistake.
I got them to let me do takuhatsu (monk’s begging) with them by accusing them of discrimination. I'd been sitting all the zazen and following the whole schedule with them. So Yamada said, "Okay, you can go begging, but keep your hat very low."
I'd been friends in Kamakura with DT Suzuki and his beautiful secretary, Okamura Mikoko and he died and I'd even helped her in his library. But she was in London studying with the potter Bernard Leach and I visited her on my way from India to Mexico. And I dropped by New York and it smelled worse than even Calcutta so I said I'm not coming back here I'm going to SF when I leave Mexico.
I went to the ZC office on Bush Street across from Sokoji, walked up the stairs and met Yvonne. John Steiner took me over to see Suzuki Roshi and John and I sat on the steps and talked for an hour - it was his first day also [if so it was 67]. And then I went up to meet SR and Okusan and they were thrilled because I spoke a little bit of Japanese. And he loved the fact that I had studied dance and tea ceremony and my school was Omotosenki, the same as Okusan. So we mostly talked about Japan and Japanese culture. I had no burning questions - I'd been through the fire of koans. He was more like a benevolent uncle to me. Mumon Roshi was without question my spiritual father. It was nice to meet this very kind, very soft-spoken, easy Roshi without getting hit on the head with the stick like in the Marine Corps of Zen Buddhism as Rinzai is called. Yamada Mumon was definitely one of the generals of that.
Our visits were always more social - we'd have tea and talk and giggle - he'd tell jokes. And he always asked me about my dance study. It wasn't like the serious Zen interviews that I was used to with Yamada and Sogen and Shibayama Roshi at Nanzenji. He died quite early on - in sixty something. The master who hanged himself on the first day of Rohatsu sesshin at Nanzenji was the next one I think. Uh! Think about his students.
At the first sesshin that I was at at Sokoji, I was wearing my blue kimono and hakama and my rakusu. I was in the kitchen in the back washing dishes. In the monastery in Japan I'd learned to take a cord and tie the sleeves of my robe back over my head so they wouldn't interfere with my work - you tie a figure eight with the cord. Suzuki came by and snapped the cord gently and said, "That is Zen everyday mind." That's one of my biggest memories of him. It delighted him to see people do that and things like that - I think that, being freshly out of Japan, I brought him a lot of memories.
He was supposed to do my wedding ceremony - I married Ben Weaver who was the manager of Esalen in Big Sur. But he was too ill - it was May of 1970 - so we came up and Katagiri married us.
I would talk to Suzuki Roshi a lot about Zen Center and my concerns about it. One day in the spring of 1969 a whole bunch of us walked from Bush Street to see the new building at Page Street with the Jewish stars and the wrought iron - I don't think it had been finally decided whether to buy it or not. So I was talking to Roshi and I said that I was concerned about what would happen to his students there - I think I was the only one who was against it. I told him I was afraid that people would become too insulated. People wouldn't even have to go out on the street anymore. They'd get up, sit, do their thing, go back to sleep and they wouldn't be living in the world. People will get too dependent on ZC. He said, "That would be very terrible if that happened." And of course it happened. I was always considered an outsider by people at Zen Center - and I was.
Yamada Roshi will always be my teacher - he's still teaching me now. I would talk to Suzuki Roshi about many things rather than be involved as a student. I had trouble sitting Soto style. I'd never fallen asleep before in Japan but when I started to sit in SF, bam! And it wasn't the posture or that we sat facing out in Japan - it was the vibes. At Shofukuji they did the Hannya Shingyo [Heart Sutra] first thing in the morning in one breath. At Zen Center it took twenty minutes - I thought I'd faint. The whole pace was so different.
I have few memories that I can put words to. I'm not a word person. I have feelings. I remember going up the stairs and entering into his apartment and sitting there. And he'd always call Okusan in so we could talk together. It was very very comfortable. Almost like I was a little girl sitting in his lap. And every time when I left he'd say, "Come again, come again." But I didn't go much because I didn't want to impose.
I remember him sitting on the stage downstairs [at Sokoji] giving lectures and it felt so comfortable. But I don't remember what he said.