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My friendship with Marian Derby Wisberg

by Fran Thompson

Marian Derby (Mountain) Wisberg cuke page

Meeting Marian

Marian showed up at Tassajara after I’d been there for a year or so. A straight figure with long dark hair walking to the baths with a burlap bag she made out of brown rice sacks, with "Brown Rice" printed on it. Very cool in 1969. I heard that she had started a Zen group at her home in Los Altos, and drove up to San Francisco once a week, bringing Suzuki Roshi down to give a talk to the small sangha. When she decided to come to Tassajara, I heard that she had given her house to the Los Altos Zen Group, got rid of most of her stuff, and with only a small knapsack had walked the twenty miles of dirt road to Tassajara, arriving like an old Zen monk in China to a new temple. I was very impressed. She had completely committed herself to her new life, while I always hung on to something outside. Only much later did I find out that she had a family trust which would give her a lifelong income! Oh! Not so brave a risk after all. Lots easier to give away everything if you know you’ll still have an income.

We became friends at Tassajarashe was in her 40s and I in my 30s, and both of us older than almost everyone else there, being young hippies in their 20s. Then she went into that period of silence and finally was asked to leave by Tatsugami Roshi.

The Coast Ridge Cabin

Marian ended up in Big Sur and married Jack Wisberg, whom she met there. After Tassajara I had moved to Monterey, and later sublet my house and became a caretaker of a house in Big Sur for two years. That transformed me into a Big Sur local, and Jack and Marian called me up once on one of their town trips and invited me to visit them up at their cabin high in the mountains, about 2,000 feet above Esalen. They gave me the lock combinations so I could get through the gates blocking Coast Ridge Road from the public.

I’d drive my old Volvo up there; it had low gears like a tractor. Mile after mile almost level along the top of the Coast Ridge, after a steep climb of switchbacks to get up there. Big Coulter pines and some yellow pines along the road, with the usual bay, madrone, and oak. Hillsides of green grass and blue lupine in the spring. The glittering Pacific on one side, and miles of steep ridges and canyons on the other. Tassajara was down there somewhere. Deep, deep silence. Way at the end of the dirt road. Jack and Mirian were caretakers of a piece of property owned by a city person who never went up there.

Jack had built a nifty little cabin, with a big metal fireplace (made by him, he was a skilled metal worker, carpenter, builder, roof fixer, car mechanic, you name it). In this one room, a cast-off sofa they found somewhere, a table and chairs and two beds that lifted to the ceiling by ropes during the day, and dropped down at night. An old gas stove, and a gas fridge, for of course there was no power way up there. They would take empty tanks for propane gas and refill them in town.

Opening from the one-room cabin was another open-air screened room, to be in during the very hot and buggy summer. Outside there was a level area with a picnic table and benches, and a hot tub Jack had built. He set an old claw-foot tub on rocks, with a firebox underneath, and a smokestack with a flue you could work with a lever while in the tub to adjust the fire. There’s a photo of Marian in the tub on the dust jacket of "The Zen Environment." A trail led around the hill to the outhouse on the east side of the ridge, with a splendid view out over the Ventana Wilderness. Jack had found a spring a little down the hill to the west, and pumped water up to the house. I can’t remember whether the pump ran on propane or was powerless. We all just loved to live out off the grid like this. Life at Tassajara had given us a taste and this was the full feast. I was only a brief visitor, so it was even more fun, not having to do many of the constant chores. At night we could see the tiny headlights of a car moving slowly down the Tassajara road, way far off across the ridges. While we sat around the outside table eating venison steaks from a deer Jack had shot and drinking a glass of wine, we looked down at Tassajara where the monks were sitting on their knees eating rice gruel. We felt very superior, like graduates of a tough college.

Later, when they decided to leave that life, after the terrible Marble-Cone fire (which did not burn their cabin), they said it seemed to them that they were always either preparing for a long two-hour trip to town or recovering after a town trip, putting things away, working on the car. Every two weeks they went, even in winter with the rains, slippery mud and sometimes snow, on a winding old dirt road. After a few years it stopped being fun to live like that. Or perhaps the owner wanted to reclaim the property. They packed up and moved to Idaho.


Marian grew up with Christian Science, as did I. All her life she still had a sort of magical mind. In her writing she often said "I was led to…". Christian Scientists talk like this, they mean God led them, God put the idea in their heads. Marian used the word ‘karma’ a lot—"My karma led me …". She did believe that her life was influenced by past actions, past lives, and she traded "God" for "karma." I was the skeptical scientist, not Christian Science but western science, which I grabbed onto as a lifeline of straightforward sanity. Karma, to me, is an interesting idea but who knows if it is so? During phone conversations from Crescent City, Marian would start off on a ramble about the Mayan Calendar or some such nonsense (as I saw it). She and Jack always half believed in what I call magic, powers other than what we can see and understand. In those hippie days of the late 60s and early 70s there was magic in the air. We all read Carlos Castenada and his tales of Don Juan. Maybe Indian ghosts were hanging around the hot springs at Tassajara. And were the fierce figures we saw in Tibetan paintings real? The Ventana Wilderness has always been a place of ghost stories, and sometimes even hard-headed me has felt deeply spooky hiking through certain wild canyons there. So living out in the middle of it all, as Jack and Marian did, could easily turn one’s mind to magic.

Once a doctor told Marian that she had an irregular heartbeat and prescribed a drug. Marian decided not to take the drug and to refer to her irregular heartbeat as a ‘jazzy’ heart, putting a positive spin on the words. She never lost her Christian Science belief that thoughts could influence physical reality. She also read many books about how the mind and brain worked, and sent me magazine articles about scientists’ studies of meditating brains.

Lifelong practice

Marian kept up her Zen practice through all her adventures with Jack and her homes in Big Sur, Idaho, and Northern California. She kept her zafu and sat every morning. She’d get up early before Jack, and do her meditation until Jack got up. She and I had a long correspondence, often about Zen practice. She thought long and hard about our Japanese practice Suzuki Roshi taught us, and how it could be better adjusted to suit us Westerners. Neither she nor I had wanted to be ordained and wear official robes. She was concerned that by being ordained she might end up only seeing the traditional path of Zen. Never wearing the robes, she felt open to any change she thought might make Zen practice more accessible and possible for Westerners. She imagined both of us were not so interested in following the beaten path, but we liked to wander off into dusty side paths and then cross-country into the wilderness. Her deep commitment was to offer a practice of Zen Buddhism that anyone could take up, whether there was a Zen teacher around or not—"Zen Without a Teacher." She experimented on herself early in the morning. By the time they got to Crescent City she had worked out a morning routine which included mindfulness and breathing exercises, some of Charlotte Selver’s sensory awareness, and then sitting meditation and bowing. She always thought more Westerners would be open for Zen practice if it did not start with cross-legged sitting on a mat. So she started another book, "Snail Zen," describing her practice and thoughts on practice. She died before completing the book, but asked some of her Zen dharma brothers to edit and complete it. I hope it is eventually published.

Old Age

Much later, when we got really old, we would share our various physical troubles and mental lapses. Jack could still drive, and I last saw them in 2010, when they drove down from Crescent City with their trailer and I met them in an RV park in Petaluma. We sat outside under the trees and ate lunch and talked together. I think we knew it would be the last time we’d see each other. By then I’d moved from my ridge top cabin on Mt. Tamalpais into San Francisco, and although I hadn’t yet sold the car, I was no longer up for long-distance driving way up to Crescent City. So we kept in touch by letters and phone, less often as the years went on. She lived to be 90. Then Jack called me on May 16, 2013, to tell me Marian had died in her sleep the day before.

Fran Thompson, July 2013

Marian’s books

"Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind," by Shunryu Suzuki (Weatherhill, 1970).
Marian taped Suzuki Roshi’s lectures at Los Altos Zen Group and suggested a book be published. Others edited and organized the lectures.

"The Zen Environment" by Marian Mountain (Morrow, 1982). [more]
Zen woven into Big Sur life.

Posted 7-14-13