Interviews (emails etc) Index
How I came to Zen practice
I graduated from St. John’s College (“Great Books Program” – very much Western philosophy, theology, etc.) in Santa Fe in 1968. When I was coming back to visit in the fall of 1969 – driving across New Mexico – some hitchhikers left a coverless book in the back of my little camper truck. That turned out to be Three Pillars of Zen, which I later read.
I was on my way to Berkeley to attend Starr King School for the (Unitarian-Universalist) Ministry. It wasn’t that I saw myself as a potential minister, but it seemed like a good program, mixing social science, pop psychology, and Eastern philosophy and religion. A course there was labeled an introduction to Hinduism-Buddhism, though I don’t remember what we actually did in it.
During my year at Starr King I had a weekly “internship” at Napa State Hospital, after which I started volunteering full-time on the autistic children’s ward. During that time I also read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. After a few months I got hired for a 9-month temporary position on the autistic ward.
I loved the work, it was extremely challenging and rewarding, but also stressful. One week we had only one day off, the next week three days off. Sometimes on 3-day weekends I went somewhere “exotic” in search of rest, relaxation, and inspiration.
A St. John’s friend was a bread baker, and somewhere I had bought her a copy of the Tassajara Bread Book. Before sending it to her, I read about Tassajara, and decided I’d like to visit.
One weekend in the summer of 1971 I drove down from Berkeley (from which I commuted to work at Napa). On the way I picked up a hitchhiker. But the engine of my truck had a problem and, as we got closer to Tassajara, it wouldn’t pull the hills, it lacked power. We got out and hitched a ride with someone else.
The person who picked us up had also already picked up a hitchhiker, so now there were four of us – and it felt like a regular pilgrimage train. We got to Tassajara late in the afternoon. Someone at the gatehouse took our day-use fee and gave us towels for the baths.
I remembered that I had a small boil on my leg, and asked if that would prevent me from using the baths. The gatehouse attendant responded enthusiastically, “Oh, a healing!” So I used the baths.
The four of us had split up, each going our own way, but we would occasionally cross paths. At some point, someone said, “You know, we can join them for meditation now if we want to.”
I’d been reading Zen stories and such, but knew nothing about practice, and felt it would somehow be sacrilegious for me to attend without knowing how to do it or what it was about. So I didn’t go in.
Meanwhile it had gotten late into the evening, and perhaps the driver who had brought us in had already left, or was staying overnight (I don’t remember). In any case, the fellow I had picked up and I had no way to get back out, and it was late. We explained to the gatehouse attendant (not the same person as earlier, I believe), and he was also understanding. We could sleep in the gatehouse, he said, as long as we left early so no one would know.
Of course we had no bedding or anything, and I don’t remember how we managed to sleep, but we did, and caught a ride out with two women leaving very early the next morning. My truck could run downhill, and I managed to get back to Berkeley with it.
There I decided to go to the Berkeley Zendo for zazen instruction, which was held perhaps half an hour before evening zazen one day per week. Somehow I got the time confused and arrived too late for instruction, but someone encouraged me to go in anyway.
The zendo was upstairs in the attic of the old building on Dwight Ave. As I came up the stairs, Mel was sitting facing me, and nodded me to a seat along the wall towards the far end. I sat down without noticing much about what other people were doing.
Since I’d missed instruction, I didn’t know that one should sit up straight, have one’s eyes slightly open, etc. I sat hunched over with my eyes closed. Eventually my back started to ache so I started moving my back this way and that, trying to find a comfortable position.
I came the next week for instruction and wondered what the person next to me must have thought about my behavior the time before, but of course no one had said anything about it.
I don’t remember if it was the first time I’d sat (before instruction) or sometime soon thereafter (after instruction), but early on a “psychic” experience confirmed that I was in the right place. I had my eyes open – I remember looking a bit off to the right, at a spot among the rafters that I wasn’t actually seeing – and had a “vision” of some sort, maybe just a strong feeling, because I don’t recall any actual visualization – but something very intense happened – I felt transfixed – and I felt that I was home. It felt like I’d been away from home for 1000 years, but now had found where I belonged.
I started sitting regularly at Berkeley zendo, and also at home. Often when I felt lost and didn’t know what to do next, I would sit until I felt clear about the next step in my day. During this time – inspired by my work at Napa – I was taking pre-medical classes at Grove St. College in Oakland, intending to apply to medical school with the idea of going into psychiatry.
In late spring or early summer of 1973 I started taking pre-med classes at SF State and moved into an apartment on Page Street just down the hill from City Center, where I shared a room in an apartment (rented from an elderly Russian lady) with another Zen student, who had come from the Rochester zendo and had a brown robe, as that’s what they wear there. During the summer I shaved my head – just to see what it was like – first selling my (quite long) hair to a wig-maker.
I didn’t have a sitting robe so when, a few months later, my roommate decided to leave, he gave me his brown one, and I started wearing it to zazen. Perhaps Baker-roshi wasn’t around so much at that time, or I hadn’t seen him, or hadn’t thought about it, but after awhile I realized that he and I were the only ones wearing brown robes. But it didn’t seem to be a problem for anyone. I moved into City Center in September.
In May 1974 – although I was on a waiting list for at least one medical school – I decided to go to Tassajara instead. Since black robes were provided there, I sent the brown one back to the fellow who had given it to me.
I was a cabin cleaner during the summer at Tassajara. Feeling naturally somewhat mechanical – and having taken a plumbing merit badge in Boy Scouts – I noticed and fixed several small plumbing problems, and then was appointed plumber during the two following practice periods.
After that (in May 1975) I returned to Alaska because my mother was feeling distressed as my father hadn’t filed their income taxes in several years because of a complicated record-keeping problem, and I thought I could help (which eventually I did, after first working as a professional tax preparer for a tax season).
But by then I’d gotten involved with a woman whom I then helped start a daycare center which I ran for two years (she dropped out before we even opened), and I never got back to living at Zen Center, though I returned to Tassajara as a summer work-student for short periods a few times, and once for a month at Green Gulch as well.
Göteborg, Sverige (Sweden)