Sojun Mel Weitsman

During my meeting with the abbots at the San Francisco Zen Center, all three were wearing rakusus – the bib-like garment which represents the Buddha’s patch-work robe.  Steve Stücky wore his over the traditional brown robes of a monk, Blanche Hartman over black, and Mel Weitsman wore his under a worn jean jacket.

None of them were Suzuki Roshi’s direct heir. Suzuki had only one, Richard Baker. In 1971, Baker was ordained abbot in place of Suzuki, who was terminally ill and died two weeks later. It was a position everyone—including Suzuki—assumed Baker would hold for life. Everyone was wrong.

When Baker first came to Zen Center, it had had an annual budget of slightly more than $5000. Under his leadership, it grew to more than $4 million. Zen Center real estate holdings were valued at $20 million. They operated a number of businesses including an organic farm (Green Gulch) and what became the premier vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco (Greens). There was also a bakery, a stitchery—which made meditation cushions and mats—a bookstore, and an organic-produce market and corner convenience store.

Such growth is always the result of the combined efforts of many individuals, but Baker had a way of taking personal credit for each aspect of Zen Center’s success that left others feeling their contributions were undervalued. That would turn out to be as much a factor in his eventual downfall as the sexual affair with a donor’s wife which precipitated it.

Although Baker was married and had children, the affair was not his first. Several women at Zen Center had been the objects of his attention, and it was noted that he appeared to target the more vulnerable women in the community.

The affair, his management style, and the opulent lifestyle he affected as abbot all led the center’s board in 1983 to take a step unprecedented in the history of Zen. They dismissed the abbot and appointed Reb Anderson, Baker’s heir, as the new “abbot for life.” But then Anderson was arrested for waving a gun about in a low-income housing project. He had been mugged by a man with a knife just outside Zen Center, and his response was to fetch a gun and chase after the thief.

The board chose not to dismiss Anderson, but they did institute terms limits to the abbot’s position and brought in Mel Weitsman to act as co-abbot. It could be argued that Mel Weitsman saved Zen Center from falling apart.

“How did you become involved with the Center,” I ask him.

“I was an artist and working in San Francisco, so I had a lot of friends, and some of them said, ‘You know, there’s a Zen temple on Bush Street.’ One guy would go there to play Go, and someone else said, ‘I practice there, you know. There’s a little Zen priest there.’ I didn’t know what a Zen priest was, but this fellow told me, ‘There’s a little Zen priest, and I practice there. We sit zazen.’ So, little by little, you know, I got information. And one day, about 4:00 in the morning, we walked down McAllister Street to Bush Street and went to zazen. And that was my introduction.”

“What year was that?”

“1964. And then the little old man came behind me and straightened my posture, and I felt really great. So every once in a while I would go back, and one day I just decided, this is it. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for, because I was looking for something, but I didn’t know that it was Zen. But it was perfect. It was like here I was sitting all by myself in this position, and there’s something about it that was just . . . .” 

“But when you left,” Hartman reminds him, “you went and bowed to that little old man, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes. That was Suzuki Roshi. He was called Revered Suzuki then; he wasn’t called Suzuki Roshi. So he was just another priest. But I liked him. But I didn’t know who he was, what he was really about. So, as I kept going back, I decided that this was what I really wanted to do. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

“What was he like?” I ask.

Mel considers my question a moment, then tells me a story. “Every morning we’d do the robe chant, where you put your robe on top of your head after zazen; of course nobody had robes then,” he  chuckles, “and it was all in Japanese. So I asked, ‘What’s that chant we do in the morning after zazen?’ And another Japanese priest was there, and he was looking through the drawers for a translation and Suzuki Roshi” – Mel makes a patting motion with his hand – “‘Stop,’ he said. ‘It means love.’” Mel smiles. “‘It means love.’  That’s all.”

At Suzuki’s request, Mel established the Berkeley Zen Center in 1967. It is the largest of SFZC’s satellite centers and is the center at which Blanche Hartman began her practice in 1969.

Sojun Mel Weitsman died on January 7, 2021.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 24-28, 39, 468

The Story of Zen: 319, 352-53

Other links:

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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