John Tarrant

One of the Zen teachers I was most eager to meet when I undertook my pilgrimage was John Tarrant.

I had been taking a medication for osteoporosis – Fosamax – which had this peculiar side effect: it resulted in spontaneous femur breaks. One didn’t fall and break one’s leg; one’s leg broke and then one fell. In my case, it took 25 months and three surgeries—each to implant a stronger bar down the middle of the bone—before the leg was finally declared healed. The book I took with me to the hospital for the first surgery was one that had been sitting on my shelf for some time but I hadn’t got around to reading, Tarrant’s The Light Inside the Dark. When, at last, I did open it, I enjoyed it so much that I brought it with me for the next two surgeries as well.

It is a study of the interplay of Spirit and Soul in human life. Spirit, in Tarrant’s terminology, is what connects us to the Source from which all of Being comes—call it the Void, Dao, or God. Soul is what links us to and relishes the world of time and the particulars of both enjoyment and the inevitability of suffering. It is a distinction I first encountered many years earlier in Lin Yutang’s translation of the opening poem of what I still think of as the Tao Te Ching:

Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion

In order to see the Secret of Life;

Oftentimes, one regards with passion,

In order to see its manifest forms.

Zen is generally considered a spiritual activity, but Tarrant stresses the importance of both Spirit and Soul. Spirit without Soul can become cold, ascetic, and subject to that sudden upsurge of the denied elements which Jung called the Shadow. That, in turn, can result in “a fall into appetites swollen because so long suppressed—this is why we find scandals in the lives of so many religious figures.” [The Light Inside the Dark, p. 19] Conversely, Soul without Spirit may become base and prone to despair.

It was as much the book’s style as its content that made it a satisfying recovery room companion. The author was obviously intelligent and well-read and had a poet’s facility with language and imagery which made it enjoyable to read his work slowly. As I prepared for my trip to the west coast, I brought along my copy in the hope of having it autographed.

Some writers, when met, prove be very different from their literary personas. John Tarrant, however, turns out to be much as I had imagined he would be. He’s Australian—his ancestors “transported in chains to the desolation of Botany Bay”—and his accent would cause me occasional difficulty when I worked on the transcript of the interview although it was a pleasure at the time. There was the same irreverent sense of humor I found in the book. He grinned mischievously throughout the interview, and his frequent chuckles easily burst into a chest-heaving belly laugh.

He is the first of Robert Aitken’s heirs, which places him very early in the process of the transference of Zen to the West.

After he was authorized to teach, he established a zendo in California which, at first, he ran fairly traditionally. But over time he began to wonder how many of the Japanese elements were really central to the practice. Did it matter if people wore Buddhist robes? Did it matter if they had shaved heads? Slowly the forms began to fall away; what remained central, however, were the koans. These formed, he felt, a “designed learning system” which transcended the culture in which they had been developed.

He worked with students who wanted to go through traditional koan training, but he felt it was more interesting to work in less formal structures. A student who comes to his Pacific Zen Institute may not necessarily be taught formal meditation posture and sitting. They can sit in chairs and then, even at their first meeting, after a few minutes of becoming aware of what’s going on their mind, be given a koan to think about. It could be any koan—a monk asks the Zen master, what’s the meaning of Zen? The master answers, “The cypress tree in the garden.”  Tarrant asks the students to just reflect on the koan and then to share, in a group setting, what it means to them.

I remark that that is very different from other centers where students are specifically told not to discuss their koans with others. “Oh, they lie about it then do they?” he says with a grin. “We’re Americans; we discuss everything. Of course we’re going to discuss our koans.”

He did autograph the copy of The Light in the Dark I’d brought and, as a parting gift, gave me several cards with art work by students on one side and commentaries written by him on the back: “OK. Here is one koan method for happiness in all its simplicity. Just find a relationship with the koan. You don’t have to get ready or settle yourself down. You just start living inside your own life and let the koan keep you company like a good dog or a friend. The koan doesn’t go anywhere else or ever leave you . . . You can keep company with a koan without assessing, criticizing or judging yourself. The koan doesn’t find fault. And even if you do criticize yourself, don’t criticize that. Compassion finds an entry. This is important.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp: 146, 155-72, 173-74, 175, 178-79, 182, 184, 191, 196, 197, 198, 212, 213, 231, 390, 417-18, 423, 468, 487.

The Story of Zen: 196

Zen Conversations: 86-87

Other links:

Pacific Zen Institute

Tarrantworks

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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_Weitsman

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

               This is the story Blanche Hartman told me about how she first became engaged in Zen practice: “One day in 1969 I was at the house of my best friend, and we were just having coffee. She had a headache, and it was so bad she asked me, ‘Could you see that?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘That headache.’ I said, ‘I can’t see your headache.’ She said, ‘It was so bad, I thought you could see it.’ The next morning, she went to a doctor and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She went into a hospital for radiation treatment, went into a coma, and died. That was all within two or three weeks.

                I was 43, and she was about my age. We both had kids about the same age. And I thought, ‘I’m going to die! Me, personally. It’s not just later, when you get old. Oh, my God! How do you live if you know you’re going to die? Who knows that?’ So I started getting interested in a whole bunch of stuff I had never paid any attention to. Somebody told me about the Berkeley Zendo, and I went there for zazen instruction on July 3rd, 1969, and I started sitting every day after that. And I would sit there thinking, ‘What am I doing? I don’t know anybody else who does this. This is weird. What will my friends think?’ Finally I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. There’s somebody in there that wants to do it because she gets up at 5:00 every morning to go to the zendo to do it before she goes to work.’

                Then Suzuki Roshi used to come over to Berkeley to give a talk on Monday mornings, and when I met him, I thought, ‘He knows. He knows what I need to know.’

                Shunryu Suzuki was the Japanese monk who established SFZC. He had been an obscure village priest in Japan with no particular stature within the Soto hierarchy, but, in 1959, he was sent to San Francisco to be the resident minister at Sokoji, the Soto mission which provided for the spiritual and cultural needs of about sixty families of Japanese descent. His duties were much as they had been in Japan, to carry out ritual activities, weddings, funerals, and memorial services. He was expected to chant sutras on behalf of the community and to conduct a weekly Sunday service. Zen might be the meditation sect of Buddhism, but, as far as Suzuki’s congregations in Japan and California were concerned, meditation was an activity for monks.

                It was young people from the mainstream culture who—inspired by a combination of psychedelic drugs and their reading of Zen popularisers like Alan Watts—first sought out Suzuki as a Zen Master and meditation teacher. Traditional Zen training molds men of strong character, and so while Suzuki had been a relatively ordinary figure in Japan, he proved to be extraordinary figure in America. “‘He knows. He knows what I need to know,’” Blanche continues, her voice almost a whisper. “I don’t know why I felt that, but I definitely felt it. And that was a total gift for that question that had come up for me when Pat died.

                And I had had an experience at a student strike at San Francisco State College when my son was a student. I had an experience of a face-to-face encounter with a riot squad policeman, who I would have said—had anybody asked me—was the opposite of me, but I had an experience of identity. We were this close together, and we made eye contact, and I had this experience of identity with him. And it was sort of like, ‘What was that? Who understands that? What happened? And how can a riot squad policeman and me be identical?’ But it was clear, no question about this is the way it is. It was just, ‘How can I understand this? Who understands this?’ And I thought, Suzuki Roshi looked at me like that. He didn’t make a separation.

                The day I had lunch with Blanche and the other two abbots at SFZC, the atmosphere at the center seemed friendly and inviting. Several times people would come up to me and ask if I was enjoying my visit. This hadn’t always been the case however. Steve Stücky described hitch-hiking across the country to visit the center the first time. “I came to the door, knocked on it. Someone opened it a crack. ‘Whadda you want?’ And I said, I came here to practice Zen. And they said, ‘Well, did you make some arrangements?’ And I said, ‘No, I just came across the country here,’ and they said, ‘Wait a minute.’ And they closed the door!”

                Blanche, who eventually became the first woman to serve as abbot at SFZC, lowered her head between her hands and shook it. That’s what it was often like in the early days, she admits, “My entire focus when I was abbess was to get people to smile at whoever they opened the door to.”

                It was not a trivial thing. The first Zen centers in America were often austere and were all, without exception, male dominated. The rise of women to positions of authority within American Zen is one of the most significant factors in making it what it is today.

                Blanche Hartman died in 2016 at the age of 90.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 24-35, 323

The Story of Zen: 358, 371

Other links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blanche_Hartman

https://www.sfzc.org/

Myogen Steve Stücky

I begin this new blog during the Covid-19 crisis, a time when many people are in self-imposed quarantine, air travel between countries has been virtually suspended, and there is fear that the medical system is inadequately prepared to respond to the situation. The crisis brings to mind the basic Buddhist teaching regarding the Three Characteristics of Existence. These are constant. They have always been. They will continue to be. However, humans have proven very good at ignoring them. What is different today is how self-evident they have become.

According to the Buddha, existence is characterized by: 1) annica – the fact that all things are impermanent; 2) dukkha – the fact that suffering is inevitable; and 3) anatta – which can be understood as the fact that all things are interdependent.

Given that these have always been – and always will be – the characteristics all people face, is there any way to address this reality? Zen practice suggests there is. And so this seems a good time to reflect on what Zen teachers have to say about these and other fundamental issues.

What I will be providing in this blog is profiles of the Zen teachers I have met over the last seven years.

It was once traditional for Zen students, at a certain point in their careers, to go on a pilgrimage – an angya – visiting temples other than the one at which they trained. So it was that in March 2013, as the result of a small inheritance, I began a tour of the major Zen centers of North America.

I began with the San Francisco Zen Center, not the first to be established in North America, but certainly one of the most important in helping to establish this Asian tradition in the West.

When I arrived at the center, a chanting ceremony was taking place in the Buddha Hall. I waited outside by a large statue of Kannon, the female Bodhisattva of Compassion. The original Bodhisattva of Compassion in India had been male and was named Avalokitesvara. The figure changed name and gender as it was imported into China and later Japan. Such transformations are inevitable when a system of belief or thought travels from one region to another and is adapted to a new environment.

When the service ended, I was introduced to the center’s Central Abbot, Steve Stücky, a big, robust, healthy-looking man whose shaved head suited him. He had a warm smile and the rough hands of someone who had worked on farms and earned a living as a landscaper. Two former abbots also joined us, Blanche Hartman and Mel Weitsman.

Although Stücky had a Buddhist name, Myogen, he was generally known as “Abbot Steve.” He had achieved near-mythic stature at Zen Center as a result of his role in staying behind to protect the center’s Tassajara property in the Ventana Wilderness Area during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire.

This was the first interview I conducted, and I was still finding my way in the process. But by the time left, I left with a sense that Abbot Steve was a man I’d like to get to know better.

Less than six months later, Steve Stücky was informed he had stage four pancreatic cancer. A few days after receiving this diagnosis, he gave a talk in which he explained his condition to the community. It began with a reflection on a private practice which revealed something of his attitude to both life and Zen:

For some years I’ve been doing a practice of waking up with gratitude. First thing, sitting up at the edge of the bed and putting my hands together and just saying the word “gratitude.” And then it’s an open question, “For what?” And whatever comes up in my experience is that for which I am, I’d say, grateful to have this meeting. Whatever it is is who I am, and whatever it is is supporting me and this life. It’s completely beyond judgment or preference. So lately I’ve been grateful to have that practice.

At the time of the talk, he still didn’t know long he had to live. The situation, he admitted, was challenging.

I think of it as a little bit like the Tassajara fire. It’s an engagement, and there are certain things that I can do to take care of this side, and the fire or the cancer will do what it does, and it’s a matter of paying close attention and keeping attentive and responsive, with the thought of being most helpful with what’s most immediate. And so I’m learning fast, and a lot.

He went on to reflect on a passage from Japanese teacher, Dogen:

“The entire earth is the true human body.” The entire earth is the true human body. So each human body is also independent and simultaneously the entire earth. And sometimes you may really see that when you let go of your particular attachment to some small identity and realize that the tree is as much a part of me as my shoulder. The sky is as much a part of me as my eyelashes, And the sound of the ocean is as much a part of me as the sound of my own breathing. To actually experience it that way is something that shows up in our practice. I think it’s not so unusual particularly for people who are doing this practice of sitting. I’m very grateful to have this practice. It sustains me and will continue to sustain me to the last moment of conscious.

He reflected upon the need to care not only for one’s own body but also the greater body of the Earth of which we are all part.

On November 20, after completing the first of three scheduled rounds of chemotherapy, Abbot Steve chose not to continue them. In mid-December he stepped down as Abbot, and, early on the morning of the last day of 2013, he died.

All things, the Buddha taught, are impermanent.

[Cypress Trees in the Garden, pp. 24-37]


More information about Steve Stuckey:

Dharma Talks

San Fransisco Zen Center