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Sandokai page

Brief discussion with a few Suzuki disciples about the time of the Sandokai talks.


I wrote this piece late in 1993 when I'd first started to work on Crooked Cucumber. Michael Wenger asked me to do it to see if it might be appropriate for an introduction to the book on Shunryu Suzuki's Sandokai lectures that he and Mel Weitsman had been working on for years and which others had worked on since the lectures were given - Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. I'd forgotten about it till today when I was going over some notes. I've just reread it and added a few comments here and there. - dc - 4-24-11

Reading these pages brings me back to that time in 1970, from late May to early July when Suzuki Roshi spoke to us, his devoted, diverse and hard-headed students, about Sekito's five hundred year old poem, the Sandokai.

At the time, bombers were pounding Hanoi. Four students had been killed at Kent State that spring while protesting Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, and those deaths had triggered the first national student strike in the nation's history. The largest oil spill up to that date was washing Chevron's signature onto the beaches of Louisiana. The FBI was killing Black Panthers from coast to coast. Ralph Abernathy led a "march against oppression" across Georgia. The first MIRVS were placed in underground silos. It was the year of the original Earth Day. Reagan was running for his second term as governor of California and Salvador Allende was running for president of Chile. Cigarette ads were banned on TV and radio. Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature. "Patton" won the Oscar for best film. Bertrand Russell died. And a mysterious ancient Buddha-like statue was unearthed in Monte El Dore in Guatemala. From deep in the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest, we'd hear about these things and we'd care - but we were trying to get ourselves straight before we took on the complexities of the world.

The place was Tassajara, an isolated hot sulfur springs nestled in a narrow valley on the eastern slope of the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains that run along the coast of central California. Those springs had been used by Native Americans for untold centuries. After the Gold Rush it became known to the white settlers, and it had been a popular rustic resort in the Carmel area since the late eighteen hundreds. After Tassajara was purchased by the San Francisco Zen Center in December of 1966, Suzuki Roshi had given it two additional names: Zenshinji (Zen Mind/heart Temple - the Japanese Zen name which is seldom used), and Zen Mountain Center (the American Zen name). It was one of the first Buddhist monasteries or training centers in the West.

Usually there were about fifty students residing there, and in keeping with Buddhist tradition we developed a schedule of two ninety-day practice periods a year: one that began in the fall and another that ended in the spring. These concentrated, quiet yet invigorating periods were at the heart of our calendar. And then from May 1 until after Labor Day weekend in September we modified our schedule and continued Tassajara's tradition of serving overnight guests. The guest season became a reality check for us, a syncopated part of the yearly rhythm and a balance to the practice periods when the gates were closed. Our visitors were enthusiastic about the quiet and efficient way we ran the place, the scrumptious food we served, and the fact that, aside from some robes and bells here and there, there were few outward signs of our purpose and no attempt to push our way on anyone.

By the spring of 1970 a number of us had been at Tassajara most of the time since its purchase. Some alternated stays of three months or longer with life in the outside world. A residential center was established on Page Street in San Francisco. This deepened and broadened the opportunities for Zen practice in the city and made the transition from Zen Mountain Center to city life smoother - and vice versa.

The guest season of 1970 was a great time to be at Tassajara. It was the fourth summer that Zen Center had students there. In the year when the Pope declared priestly celibacy to be a fundamental principle of the Roman Catholic Church, at Tassajara there were women and men together, separate and married, practicing like monks - a first (as far as I know) for Buddhism. And during the summer the place was alive with kids. The disparate group of hippies, housewives, business people, artists, scholars and seekers that gathered around Suzuki had managed to get along and get on with the practice and study of Zen with far greater harmony and cooperation than seemed possible when we had first started. By 1970 Suzuki was no longer calling Tassajara a "baby monastery" and he seemed somewhat pleased at how things were going.

During work periods the bangs and echoes of hammering could be heard as work on the buildings progressed. A crew of carpenters led by Paul Disco was finishing the stone and beam kitchen and the adjoining entranceway and library. Meanwhile, Suzuki worked steadily on his garden, planting black bamboo and moving stones with the help of a galvanized pipe tripod, chains, long iron bars, and eager assistants. Suzuki's cabin was moved to make way for Ed Brown to set the stone foundation for the new abbot's quarters which were only to be completed years later as the Founder's Hall. With power wagon, wench, ropes, blocks and tackles, Suzuki's little cabin, one of many redwood tents as we called them at times, was lifted to be positioned on a makeshift trailer - a task that had to be interrupted briefly to allow for an oversight: Suzuki and his Jisha, Mel Weitsman, had gotten so exhausted from moving stones that afternoon that they were taking a catnap on the tatami of the empty cabin floor when it started to move. They had a rude awakening, and the moving crew themselves had a start when the door to the cabin opened and two heads peeked out.

One development that greatly affected Tassajara and all of us was that in January of that year a guest teacher named Sotan Tatsugami Roshi arrived to lead the winter-spring practice period. Richard Baker (soon to become Baker Roshi and Suzuki's successor) was living in Japan and had arranged for Tatsugami to come. For thirteen years Tatsugami had held the position of Ino at one of Japan's most famous and ancient monasteries, Eiheiji, the ultimate boot camp\finishing school for Soto Zen priests in the mountains of Fukui prefecture north of Kyoto. The Ino is the officer in charge of ritual and discipline and tough old Tatsugami (once Eiheiji's sumo wrestling champ) had come to shape us up. That he did, adapting rather quickly to his new environs and tuning our schedule and activities with patience and good humor. He added more form to the practice, more ceremonies, established the rokuchiji, the traditional group of six officers to run the temple, and another group under the Ino called the doan-ryo to take care of the zendo, ceremonies, chanting and related matters. I was one of the doan-ryo and well remember being drilled to the marrow on chanting and bell ringing.

Almost all of us there were, first and foremost, students of Suzuki's and we accepted Tatsugami as a teacher whom Suzuki had asked us to study with. Some enjoyed the tighter structure, the more precise definitions, more to chant (such as the Sandokai), more elaborate forms (still rather simple by Japanese standards), the increased emphasis on position and role. Others did not like this new turn of events at Tassajara and resented the increased institutionalization and the addition of more hierarchy and so many old forms. A few people left.

At the time of Suzuki's Sandokai lectures, the first of three practice periods with Tatsugami was over, the guest season had begun, and we were delighted to have Suzuki there with us. Even though it didn't have the intensity and isolation of the practice period, it was a sort of peak in our experience of practicing with Suzuki. He still coughed a little when he spoke, but he was over his bad flu of the year before, and was energetic and attentive to his students. It would also be the last time he would practice with us in such relative good health.

Suzuki was following the whole schedule with us - going to morning zazen which began in the darkness of five am, leading the morning service, joining us for the ceremonial oryoki breakfast and lunch. During the day he met with the officers of the temple, worked in his rock garden or prepared for an evening lecture. Sometimes he would pop up unexpectedly to watch the Dane, Niels Holm, sharpen his chisel, or step into the small, old kitchen where head cook Angie Runyon might be cutting vegetables or guest cook Frances Thompson preparing chicken in the last season we served meat [really? I thought we stopped that year because Tatsugami told us there was no meat in a Zen monastery], or he could be found with Dianne Goldschlag transplanting a shrub. He might spend an hour fine tuning the chanting Reb Anderson had learned from Tatsugami. At the afternoon tea break he could be overheard saying hello to a new student or laughing during an exchange with a guest. He always joined us for dinner outside at picnic tables where we tried to be civil to the Stellar's Jays that hopped about brashly looking for an unguarded morsel.

With the last round of whacks of the wooden plaque, the han, Suzuki Roshi in his soft brown robes would make his way to the zendo to give the evening talk. Behind him in black robes followed his Jisha, carefully holding incense in front of his face with two hands. Tall Alan Marlowe, the anja, the abbot's cabin cleaner and tea preparer, would also follow. Suzuki was less than five feet tall, his retinue each added another eight inches to that and so the three of them looked almost like a staircase walking along. Outdoor Coleman lamps would be lit in the twilight as the mosquitoes and bats would be swooping about. Guests would be left with almost the run of the place, a few of them lingering over the red tablecloths in the dining room. A server, eager to get to the lecture, would inform them that the last person to leave should blow out the kerosene lamp. Some guests would decide to try out the lecture and see what we were all about. Stan White, the head of the office, would often stand outside the screen door to the zendo so that he could smoke, listen to the lecture, and still answer the old crank phone at the end of the ten miles of wire over the mountains or take care of a late arriving party of guests.

Suzuki would step up to the alter, take the incense from Mel, put it in a bowl of ashes before the Buddha, and bow three times to the floor while a deep brass bell tolled. Then he would walk over to his seat, pull his robes up some, sit on his round brown zafu, throw his robes over his feet, cross his legs and get into position, rocking back and forth, coughing, clearing his throat, moving the lips of his expressive closed mouth - settling in for the lecture. On either side of a three foot high wooden partition, four rows of students would sit before him on black zafu on the tatami and the shiny, time-darkened magenta linoleum aisles would fill up near the front so he wouldn't have to talk too loud. We would begin a brief chant at the prompt of a small brass bell and then there would be silence except for the sound of the creek, frogs, crickets, guests walking by on the road and the rustle of the last of the dining room crew, guest cooks and dish washers bowing in and sitting down at the last minute.

Suzuki Roshi's seat was on the elevated section at one end of the room which also held the alter and ceremonial instruments. Next to him was a blackboard upon which were written the kanji, Chinese characters, for the lines on which he would lecture that evening. I would eye those kanji critically because it was I who was writing them down every afternoon on my break from running the guest dining room. In the afternoons I would copy the characters out of one of the thick volumes that Suzuki had in his cabin and he would explain to me the literal meaning of the lines. At night I would study the text, sometimes till the wake-up bell came round.

One thing I liked about the Sandokai was how it used the images of "light" and "dark" in just the opposite way from what I was used to. For in this text, light signified the world of events, multiplicity, our small mind and limitation, whereas darkness stood for the dharma world, oneness, big mind - that which we had yet to know. But it wasn't as simple as that - especially when Suzuki spoke - dark and light were not just independent, they were interdependent. One did not exist without the other and by the time each talk was over, neat little separate ideas of enlightenment and delusion would have been mashed into mochi.

It seemed right that Suzuki was lecturing on the Sandokai at that time because we'd just started chanting it during morning service. In so doing Suzuki was giving his blessing to the new forms that Tatsugami Roshi had instituted, giving them more life and relevancy. Shunryu Suzuki brought out how the Sandokai was written by Sekito to help balance some of the misunderstandings of the way of the Sixth Patriarch. He said there was a lot of bickering going on at the time between the northern and southern schools of Zen, and Sekito was trying to elevate the dialogue so that everyone would feel included and that no one side could exclude the other. It was quite related to the sorts of concerns and opposing views that had grown more pronounced due to Tatsugami's influence. To me, one thing Suzuki was doing, was to tell us not to think of Suzuki Zen versus Tatsugami Zen, not to look for the weak points of this or that - to integrate what Tatsugami had taught us and not fuss about it.

The mornings were cold, the afternoons hot, and although the creek was running high for that time of year, there was a desert dryness in the air. The upper and lower gardens were flourishing. Amidst the flowers and bees, one could find in those beds sweet potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, peppers, gobo, daikon, lettuce, cucumbers, summer and winter squash, pumpkins and turnips. Our trusty dog Noah guarded the crops, roamed the woods, and longed for just one master.

Our neighbors were raccoons, deer, fox, wild boar, bobcats, a rare mountain lion, rattlesnakes, stinging scorpions, Nuttall's woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, ladybugs, crickets, flies, no-see-ums in the eyes at dusk, mosquito’s by the creek, crayfish and trout, yerba santa, poison oak, oak, pine, madrone, manzanita, sycamore, and yucca on the steep slopes - some with tall blooms shooting up over head height.

Reb Anderson remembers, “That summer Suzuki Roshi brought down the statue of Prince Shotoku, the regent of Buddhism in Japan who imported Buddhism in 522 ‑ brought over a lot of Korean statues and Buddhist texts ‑ he's the patron saint of Buddhism in Japan. We thought the statue was Zendai Doji, but it wasn't. It was a statue which Suzuki Roshi had in his cabin and people would take turns bringing to their cabins on a four and nine day (day-off) and have tea and people would come visit. That was the last time Suzuki Roshi was healthy at Tassajara. It was a rich and wonderful time. A lot happened. He was giving everyone a lot of attention.”

There was a lay ordination that summer for children - the only such ordination we ever had – complete with rakusu that looked like little bibs. Suzuki Roshi's wife came down from the city and invited us to attend her tea ceremony which she performed in lovely kimono. Millie Johnston came from New York and did the same, except she wore a long flowing pleated beige skirt. A segment of the 35 mm color movie on gurus, "Sunseed," was made that year at Tassajara and someone else filmed Suzuki Roshi giving one of these talks in black and white with no sound. Trungpa Rimpoche visited and hit it off well with Suzuki and students, Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks held a Sensory Awareness workshop, Sterling Bunnell came in and gave a talk about the geological history of the land and said that Tassajara was a meeting place of three major California ecological zones. Robert Bly read The Tooth Mother and other poems. Cloe Scott taught dance. A long-haired fellow named Organic John walked in over the road with a sheathed knife and made a superb salad. Roovane Ben Yuman, after insisting that he carry a Teddy Bear rather than a gun, convinced his superiors to let him complete his Army Reserve obligation by sitting zazen all day in an empty room on the base and they finally let him come back and do his Reserve duty following the schedule at Zen Mountain Center as the gardener. The snow had been high that year. It was heavy on the road till May. The Buckeye Fire burned 44,000 acres and got to Willow Creek just over the Tony Trail.

Twenty three years later, 1993, Tassajara still has two practice periods and a guest season every year. The summers are hot, the winters are cold and the waiting list is long. Mel Weitsman and Reb Anderson are co-abbots of Zen Center, Richard Baker has hundreds of students in Europe and a center in southwest Colorado, Alan Marlowe died of AIDS in Boulder, Angie Runyon got a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley and is a counselor in San Francisco, Frances Thompson spent twenty years with EST and is an illustrator living in Mill Valley, Dianne Goldschlag changed her name to Daya and does body work in Spokane, Ed Brown is teaching cooking and Zen north of San Francisco, Stan White quit smoking – sort of - and is a septuagenarian priest taking care of the Taos Zen Center, Paul Disco is a Zen priest builder in Berkeley, Roovane Ben Yuman ran a farm in Northern California for a while and then moved to Taiwan where he became a scholar, has a large family and is once again called Bob Front, Niels Holm is a carpenter in Port Townsend where he is trying to integrate Buddhism and Voodoo. Two years after Noah the mongrel had disappeared into the woods, we held a funeral; a few years after that he was found happily living with a single family in Fred's Camp at the end of the phone line.

It was a rich and wonderful time for Suzuki Roshi and his followers. Reflecting on that period and these talks reminds me of his harmonious and direct way, of his encouragement to find the deep mind that's not always saying "I like this and I don't like that." Even though we were practicing together, we were learning we couldn't always have what we wanted, including Suzuki - we had to grow up and find our way within "things as it is" as he would say in his skillful and charming English.

This sentence from the above piece caught my eye: The Buckeye Fire burned 44,000 acres and got to Willow Creek just over the Tony Trail. After looking into that a little further, added it to the History of Fire at or near Tassajara.

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There's a lot of old material that's as good as new if you haven't read it. -DC

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