Author Archives: wandaisle

The Value of Failure

When we are successful we keep doing the same thing. Often we close down around a routine or formula. We are on autopilot. But when we fail we try something new. Small failures along the way keep us open to new ideas. We remain flexible and vigilant.

Failure also teaches us about the power and wisdom of renunciation. Commitment requires renunciation. If you commit to an early morning meditation schedule then you can’t stay up late watching TV. That can be a tough renunciation for some people.

If you commit to an evening meditation schedule you can’t eat a big dinner because then you just want to veg out. It takes a lot of energy to meditate. You have to be alert. So you have to practice renunciation.

As a culture, Americans are not good at renunciation. It’s kind of a bad word because we live in a consumer culture. For years we have been treated like consumers and now it seems we’ve begun to see ourselves as consumers. Indulgence has become a conditioned cultural value. Extravagance and flamboyance are associated with American lifestyles. Our worth is measured by our possessions, status, and relationships. These values benefit corporate America but they cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the rest of us.

Renunciation protects us. It keeps us from closing down around our desires. If you go to a social gathering with a strong desire to find a romantic partner, all you see are ring fingers. You’re not interested in talking to anyone who’s wearing a wedding ring, so you are closed off.

What we want determines what we see. Since my wife retired she has been cooking wonderful dinners. But she also travels a lot since she retired. When she’s away, as I drive home from work all I see are restaurants. I don’t see anything else, just restaurants.

To stay open and engaged in what’s actually going on, we have to be aware of how much influence our desires have over us. There’s a Sufi saying that when a pickpocket meets a saint he only sees the saint’s pockets.

Any kind of commitment requires renunciation. Renunciation is a matter of putting aside our immediate desires just a little bit so we can stay focused on something bigger. When we were waiting and watching the horizon for signs of big wave, one that would carry us all the way in, it was tempting to take whatever wave came along.

Training in renunciation involves seeing our immediate desires as they arise without indulging them. If you indulge a desire what happens next? Another desire arises. And another and another. The faster you can indulge your desires the faster they arise. What happens to your life in all this chasing around? Where does it go?

But if you investigate the nature of desire rather than indulge it, the pattern is broken. When the next desire arises, here’s your opportunity again to investigate. As your understanding deepens the stream of desire slows to a trickle. It never dries up; but it loses its power over you.



The Wisdom of Humility


Humility comes from the root word humus, which means earth, soil. The dictionary defines humus as the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth.

Naturally and organically we are creatures of the earth; Alan Watts used to say that the earth is peopling. We came from the saltwater of the oceans and from the richness of the soil, which includes everything. It is aerated and moist because it’s not separate from the air and clouds.

Humility allows you to go all the way to the fertile ground, not stick up like you’re some big deal because you’ve got something that others don’t have. When you sink all the way to the ground you actually are a Big Deal—not because you are you but because you are not you. You’ve sunk down to the fertile ground of all being, which is not a solid ground. It is aerated with all sentient beings, so aerated that there’s no solidity at all. It is completely groundless.

With humility we may even experience the groundless ground from which all of reality arises and takes a particular shape and function for a little while in the conventional world. Then it returns to the groundless ground of interdependence and interpenetration. Humility is realizing in a visceral way that we are not separate from anything else. It allows us to sink down into the rich soil, all the way to the bottom.

The more naturally humble you are the more confident you are. It’s not a childish, arrogant confidence that is based on some accomplishment that you are proud of. Relaxed confidence doesn’t depend on accomplishment because it is the parent of accomplishment not the child of it.

You don’t have to be right all the time. If you worry about being right then you have a very fragile confidence. But with humility your confidence is steady, it can withstand turbulent times when things don’t go the way you thought they would. When you fall down you just get up. Falling down is no problem. Asking for help is no problem.

Confidence without humility is heavy, so heavy that it’s hard to get up when you’ve fallen. It tells you that failure means you can’t do it. You’re embarrassed and even ashamed to ask for help because that means you’re not good enough. Confidence without humility is rigid. It breaks easily because it is clinging to something specific.

Zen practice is about sinking down into the humus, where humility and confidence come together naturally to create a humble feeling of being at home in your body, wherever it is, whatever is happening. In the soil, we discover a way of being that allows us to experience the world as alive and part of who we are.



Wake Up from the Trance of Unworthiness

For many people, living with deeply ingrained feelings of unworthiness has become the norm. The veils of unworthiness—which often include guilt, shame, remorse, anguish, and resentment—can be so dense that we feel like we’re sleepwalking through life.

Feeling unworthy is behavior based. We have the capacity to change our behavior. But first, we have to see clearly that the behavior patterns that cause us so much pain are based on cognitive misperceptions and coping mechanisms that sustain rather than dissolve our of unworthiness.

The primary trance-inducing veil is fear-based thinking. When we’re stuck in fear-based thinking we are driven by a need to succeed or dominate in order to feel that we have value in the world. We act out in inappropriate and destructive ways. The more we do this, the deeper our trance of unworthiness becomes.

It’s important to recognize that fear-based thinking is evolutionary. It’s called the negativity bias and as a survival mechanism it makes sense. Imagine that one of our early ancestors saw rustling in tall grasses. If his instincts consistently told him it was a tiger rather than a rabbit his risk of extinction decreases.

Today, in first world countries we do not live in life-threatening situations. But the fight/flight/freeze response still gets activated, mostly through the movies inside our head. When our mental movies are fear-based we tend to be either overtly or passively aggressive, conflict-avoidant, or frozen through indecisiveness.

The PECSI Group (Psychologists with a Buddhist Orientation) talks about the scary movie analogy. We enjoy scary movies where we willingly suspend our disbelief and allow our emotions to flow with the content of the movie, like being on an emotional rollercoaster.

But we don’t realize that we also suspend our disbelief in the movies inside our head. As a Zen teacher the movies I hear about from my students have a common theme: I’m not good enough to calm my mind. I’m not disciplined enough. My mind is too chaotic and my emotions are too sticky.

What is going on when people think they can’t meditate?

Well, for one thing, in meditation we are alone with our patterns. When discomfort arises in the form of physical or emotional pain, our tendency is usually to fight it, becoming agitated and irritable; but we have no distractions, so we’re stuck with it. Or we try to escape the discomfort through fantasy and then feel guilty or shameful. Or we freeze up like a stone, holding our mind in a state of rigid, unfeeling blankness. In meditation we see that fight/flight/freeze is still our knee-jerk reaction, even to ordinary life situations and within our relationships.

The second veil is emotional reactivity, which is also fear-based. We often use people, food, or activities like shopping or gambling or even worshipping to help us to avoid our reactive emotions. Maybe we use spiritual objects like altars. You may have an altar in every corner of your house. Well, that’s fine if it’s meant to remind you that your entire house is an altar and that everyday life is the place of enlightenment.

If you think that religious life is separate from ordinary life, that a spiritual calm is separate from the unruly surf of life’s great ocean, then you are caught in a mental movie about living a spiritual life. In real life, it is the nature of the ocean to create surf.

Emotions are powerful. They tend to drive our lives. Drive sounds negative, but it can also be positive. Look at Barack Obama. He’s smart. He can run different narratives simultaneously—philosophical ones, psychological ones—but it’s the depth of his hope, courage, joy and love that sustains him.

Adolf Hitler was also smart. But he was driven by anger and the painful emotions of betrayal. Look at how far these unwholesome emotions took him because he kept them revved up with rhetoric and compulsive thinking. He almost ruled the world.

The key is to bring our strong emotions into our awareness without fueling them with our stories. In meditation we learn to see a strong emotion as it arises. We feel its intensity and notice where in our body it is held. Eventually, we begin to see our reactive patterns. We notice how we magnify and generalize. How we weave a web around the emotion that constrains, dominates, and hypnotizes us. When we cling to our stories we are caught.

Yes, fear-based thinking is instinctual; but human beings are not limited by instinct. We have the capacity to choose, to change our behavior, and to cultivate skillful ways of responding to the world.

It begins with an acknowledgement that unworthiness is behavior based. Living skillfully means noticing (in a non-judgmental way) our thought patterns, their associated emotions, and our reactivity to those emotions. Buddha said, “All that we are is based on our thoughts.” I would add that our thoughts emanate from our understanding of the world and our place in it. From a Buddhist perspective our world is thoroughly interconnected and your place in it is right where you are.

Through a regular meditation practice our heart and mind open up to an experiential understanding of interconnection. Gradually, our thoughts change, our behaviors change, and the trance of unworthiness begins to dissolve. It is a very natural and organic process.


Excerpted from Burkett’s upcoming book Our Mystical Reality: A User’s Guide to Living in this Interconnected Universe. He is also the author of Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are

Are You a Delusion?

When our ancestors looked into the night sky they were captivated by the heroes and villains who lived there. They traced lines around star clusters and projected wonderful characters onto them. They told stories about how these sky beings passed their stories down from generation to generation.

The constellation Orion is the most recognizable constellation in the night sky. If you live in the west, you probably know Orion as a great hunter. Over his left arm hangs a lion’s skin for a shield. In his right hand he wields his unbreakable club. He is locked in battle against his eternal enemy Taurus, the mighty bull, with splendid long horns and fire darting out from his eye. Huddled behind Taurus are the Pleiades, the seven sisters, distraught and frightened.

However, if you live in the Middle East you may know Orion as a heavenly shepherd. In some European tales he is a magic archer. The Vedic hymns of ancient India know him as the deer Mriga, who is surrounded by hunting dogs.

What stories we tell! Constellations are just stars and stars are whirling clouds of cosmic dust at very high temperatures. Many constellations are made up of smaller constellations, which in turn are made up of still smaller ones. We know that the stories we tell about the stars are just fabrications. But what if you discovered that you are also a fabrication?

Buddhism offers a model of the self that is based on constellations, or aggregates. According to this model, you are comprised of five major aggregates: form, sensation, perception, impulse/emotion, and consciousness or thought. Each of these five constellations is made up of smaller constellations and together they account for every aspect of your experience.

In Buddhist psychology, an understanding of the self as a constellation is an example of upaya, or “skillful means.” It offers a way of relating to our lived experience with lightness, buoyancy, and resilience, holding our sense of self lightly, regardless of what happens in our lives.

Through a regular meditation practice we come to realize, as Buddha did, how we fragment and divide what is ultimately a dynamic, undivided whole. Human consciousness is not separate from the great oceanic cosmos, whose form, color, taste, smell, and sound are created within our own mind.

The stories we create provide a sense of structure and security in an uncertain world. Security is important–but the fear that glues it together can be limiting. Through meditation we begin to see both the value and the limitations of our story-telling mind and discover the freedom of a mind unburdened by these limitations.

For meditation practitioners there are often two distinct phases to their practice. The first is about settling-in and it may be quite pleasant. There is more bodily awareness, more awareness of breathing, some moments of real calmness occur, along with the realization that we can be calm regardless of what’s going on. We begin to feel comfortable in our meditation and in daily life. Concentration becomes steady and the ability to stay with the breath builds confidence and resilience. Posture improves. The mind still chatters but it doesn’t dominate quite so much. We feel lighter, less burdened.

But many Zen practitioners enter a second phase. As our practice matures and our thoughts slow down, a sense of separation and loneliness seeps into our awareness. Comfort vanishes. Anxiety bubbles up and we begin to experience more psychic pain than we had before. We may quit or blame the teacher and search for a different one. This can be a difficult time for both teacher and student. It is painful to lose a student just when his or her practice is beginning to yield something deeply significant.

There’s a wonderful Zen anecdote that compares the ego to an eggshell. The student is inside pecking to get out while the teacher taps from the outside. The metaphor is another example of skillful means, helping us to dis-identify with the egoic thoughts and emotions that make us feel separate and isolated.

The second phase of meditation can be disorienting. It is meant to disorient–so we can re-orient to a self that is not contained within a rigid ego shell. This transformative stage is always marked by difficulty. It’s painful to recognize that you’re confined within a limited and constricted space, one that lacks abiding joy and spiritual freedom. To move through the pain, first you have to get very close to it. This is what’s referred to as pecking the shell.

Learning to relax into whatever is happening, even our pain, is what Zen practice is about. As a teacher, my job is to help people stay with their difficulty and experience it fully, without withdrawing. An acceptance of our own pain and suffering with an attitude of kindness allows us to connect with others. As our heart opens it dissolves our shell of separation.

In 1950, Albert Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to a grieving father who lost his son to polio. In this letter, Einstein wrote:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Three Zen Masters and an Ugly Duckling

“How far is it?” I asked, a bit out of sorts. We had just finished morning meditation at the San Francisco Zen Center and my teacher Suzuki Sensei was asking for a ride.

“Not far. I have directions,” he answered, in his usual happy tone.

Sensei, Japanese for teacher, wanted to visit a woman who’d contacted him about Buddhism. He hadn’t met her so he felt he should go for a visit.

I’d been his student for about a year but I was also a Stanford student with classes that morning so his request was problematic. But I enjoyed being with him so I did it anyway.

It was in Hillsborough, a wealthy, hilly suburb of San Francisco. Suzuki’s directions were not good so we drove around a bit before arriving at the large, spacious estate where, presumably, this woman lived.

“You stay here. I’ll go up,” Suzuki said

About five minutes later he returned.

“How’d it go?”

“Very interesting,” he said. “But not the woman I thought. Wrong woman.” “She thought I was there to wash her windows.” he began, reporting in a matter-of-fact tone. But then he began to laugh with great abandon. “But I didn’t bring my squeegee,” he quipped. His response turned the situation around. It was as if the joke was on her.

It was easy to see her mistake—a Japanese man in a simple black jacket and loose, baggy pants. It was 1965 after all, twenty years after World War II, when most Japanese on the west coast lost everything—their money, property, and stature—and were forced into re-location camps. Growing up in the Bay area, the only Japanese folks I saw were laborers, until I met “Rev. Suzuki.”

Shunryu Suzuki is one of the most famous Zen teachers in the world today but in the sixties he was virtually unknown outside a small circle of dedicated students. It’s been more than forty years since his death yet he remains the most quoted teacher in Zen. But what I cherish most are the small, everyday, often awkward but always life-affirming moments that he shared with me.

Suzuki RoshiMeeting Suzuki Roshi

I wasn’t quite twenty-one years old in 1964 as I wound through the San Francisco streets with an address pulled from the phone book in one hand, a map and steering wheel in the other. The Zen Center was on Bush Street in an old Jewish Synagogue. I rang the doorbell.

Even by Japanese standards, the man answering the doorbell was small in stature. His head was shaved; he wore a loose black outfit and slippers, and a natural, friendly smile. He introduced himself as Rev. Suzuki.

Stepping aside, he invited me in. I followed him upstairs to a tiny office. Though obviously not a young man, he had a youthful presence, a light step, and a wonderful glint in his eyes. I was excited and a little nervous about meeting a Zen master―but at the same time I felt comfortable and at ease with him. He exuded both dignity and friendliness. I liked him immediately.

I told him about an experience I’d had two or three weeks earlier where all my worries, concerns, and fears dissolved in an instant. For days, I felt connected to everything that existed, with no separate identity. This experience was my reason for seeking him out. I expected an endorsement of some kind, an acknowledgement that something significant had happened to me. Instead, he offered only two short comments about it.

“That is good,” he said, which seemed like an endorsement of sorts. Then he added flatly, “But that is not Zen.”

Immediately, he was on his feet and inviting me into the next room, the meditation room. Here, there was no furniture, only cushions lining bare, gray walls, and a nice hard wood floor, a pleasant smell of incense, and an altar, with a candle, a Buddhist statue, and a vase of fresh-cut flowers. Simple, warm, and appealing.

When we were seated, Suzuki began to explain a practice he called “sitting still and doing nothing.” It was practiced every morning and every evening and I was invited to join them.

“I will,” I told him.

He was the first real Zen master I’d ever seen and I was infatuated with him. But it was more than infatuation: I felt drawn to his presence in a deeply powerful way. I had had other good teachers whom I dearly respected, but never one as compelling as Suzuki Sensei.

I began driving to the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) three or four times a week. There were six to eight regulars, along with the occasional aging beatnik or pre-movement hippie wandering in off the street, or tourist who stumbled in out of happenstance, curiosity, or boredom. Often, the pleasant smell of incense mixed with other smells, like body odors, pot, or the minty smell of patchouli.

Once, there was a young girl wearing a see-through dress with nothing but bare skin under it and bells on around her ankles that jingled during walking meditation. As we exited the zendo, Suzuki bowed to each of us one by one. I wondered what he thought as he bowed to the jingling, semi-naked young girl.

The Zen Center owned the apartment building across the street and before long, I was living there. Once I met Suzuki on the street as he was walking home with a grocery bag. To my delight, he lit up when he saw me.

“Look what I have!” he exclaimed, holding out the bag for me to take a look.

As always, I was affected by his aliveness and presence as I gazed into the bag. Green spinach, red tomatoes, yellow squash, purple onions, a myriad of colors and textures. Yummy! I was seeing with Suzuki’s eyes and through them his bag full of vegetables looked fresh and delicious.

Then he said, “Only two days old. Almost fresh!”

What! Almost fresh? These were discarded produce from the grocery store. I was appalled. I glanced back down. Everything looked awful―brown and shriveled, maybe even moldy and wormy. Delight was replaced by disgust—big time! I thought, Oh no. What if he invites me to dinner? I rushed off.

Too bad for me. Thinking back I wonder, what if he had invited me to dinner?

When working around the Zen Center, Suzuki usually wore loose black work clothes; otherwise, it was his priest robes. I’d never seen him in anything else. Until one afternoon he turned up wearing white shorts, tennis shoes, and a ridiculous-looking hat to protect his bald head from the sun. He was going to play tennis with Betty Wong.

Betty was a concert pianist, a tennis player, and a Zen student. But often, there were long stretches when she was unable to come to the Zen center because of depression. So today, Suzuki was going to meet her on her court.

I was surprised. “I didn’t know you played tennis, Sensei.”

“I don’t,” he said. “But Betty does.”

I couldn’t resist going along. Sensei was all over the court, swinging the racket without the least bit of self-consciousness or frustration. Every now and then, he even hit the ball.

Betty looked happy. She was gracious on the court and radiant. Suzuki, in his ridiculous outfit, beamed with the simple joy of being with his student in her suffering.

Suzuki never showed his own suffering; but I saw it once when I happened by the opened door of his office. A letter lay limp in his hand as he gazed off with teary eyes and wet cheeks.

I was worried. I knew Suzuki was scheduled to give the talk that evening so I found a senior student and suggested that someone else should give the talk.

“Why? What has happened?”

I told him what I’d seen.

“Oh, don’t worry. He’ll be all right. He misses his family”

That evening, Suzuki was the same as always, light-hearted, humorous, and totally present.

Eventually, his wife Mitsu joined him in San Francisco. The first time I saw her, she was walking up the stairs of the Zen Center wearing a beautiful flowered kimono. I’d never before seen one outside a Japanese restaurant. Her hair was styled in the traditional Japanese fashion and she comported herself in a delicate way. I thought, Wow! How lovely.

Suzuki called her Okusan, Japanese for wife. Before long, we all called her Okusan. She and Suzuki had a playful, flirtatious relationship. He treated her with fondness and lightness and Okusan always looked out for him, often chiding him playfully when he worked too hard or didn’t take well enough care of himself.

Once, a couple of us were talking with Suzuki in the hall outside his office when Okusan started up the stairs. She was returning from the beauty shop with a fresh hairdo.

“Oh!” exclaimed Suzuki, in a voice meant for her, “My fair lady!”

She beamed, and then gave him a flirtatious, dismissive wave.

 Katagiri Sensei: Spreading the Seeds of ZenKatagiri Roshi

I had been practicing at the SFZC for less than a year when Dainin Katagiri, a young Zen teacher from Japan, arrived. Suzuki introduced him as his new assistant. Katagiri Sensei was reserved, quiet, and a very gentle presence. He had a great aspiration to plant the seeds of Zen in this country and encourage them to sprout. This was his “dim vision.”

     Dim vision was his way of reminding himself and us to hold our visions for the future lightly so they don’t become obsessions. Ultimately, Katagiri Sensei would realize his dim vision. His success rested primarily on a willingness to face the language barrier head-on, as Suzuki had done.

Other non-English speaking teachers in the sixties used translators. They prepared long written lectures for someone to translate. But not Suzuki and Katagiri. They did their best to communicate in our vernacular. It was very touching sometimes, boring other times, and often delightful because they used English in fresh and spontaneous ways.

They also engaged socially. On March 11, 1966, Katagiri Sensei and his young wife Tomoe attended my wedding at the Unitarian church in Palo Alto, my home town. Tomoe looked delicate and exotic in a beautiful kimono and her hair pulled up in a traditional Japanese way. She was quiet, reserved, and radiant. Her exotic appearance made her a center of attention before and after our bare bones ceremony.

The First American Zen MonasteryTassajara Zen Monastery

The land that became Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery was 160 acres surrounding the Tassajara Hot Springs, deep in the mountains an hour and a half drive from Carmel Valley. In 1966, the Zen center had no members and little money. We were mostly college students or 60’s drop outs. The below-market price was only $300,000 but even so most of us thought it was impossible.

“Well, maybe it is impossible, maybe so,” Suzuki said, thoughtfully, “or maybe not impossible. Let’s try it and see.” That was the spring, 1966. In July, 1967, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia opened its doors. It was also the first in the world to allow co-ed practice.

Soon thereafter, we began having practice periods at Tassajara. These extended retreats, often lasting three months, are meant to help people steep themselves in stillness. But in between meditation sittings, we were skinny-dipping in the hot springs.

Suzuki tolerated it for a while. He even joined us occasionally, modestly cupping his genitals in his hands whenever he got out of the hot spring. Soon enough though, he put an end to the skinny-dipping, but he did it gently and with kindness and warmth; otherwise we would have fled. Besides, he seemed to even enjoy our counter-culture values.

Once, while at Tassajara I was told that Suzuki wanted to see me. When I got to his office, he said, “I received a phone call from your mother today.”

I was shocked and more than a little dismayed. My parents were skeptical at best about my Zen practice. “My mother? What did she want?”

Sensei shrugged and said that she just wanted to talk. Then he added, “Maybe she noticed that her son had become a beautiful swan.”

My face lit up. Wow—a beautiful swan!

Then Suzuki quickly added, “Or maybe she thinks he has become an ugly duckling!”

Beautiful swan, ugly duckling—from a Zen perspective these are just decorations. “It’s all the same,” Suzuki often reminded us. What’s important is to just be who you are. Some days you’re an ugly duckling, other days your teacher may be one—like the time we were driving to Tassajara for one of our early practice periods.

I had been purifying my body in preparation for the retreat, drinking lots of water, no coffee or caffeinated tea, and eating only fruits, vegetables, tofu, and grains. About half way into our three-hour drive and approaching a roadside café, Suzuki said, “Let’s stop for coffee.”

It seemed wrong to drink coffee on our way to a practice period. Reluctantly, I swung in and parked the car. When the waitress came over, Suzuki ordered coffee. I ordered water.

As he sipped his coffee, the waitress passed by with a banana split for the next table. Suzuki’s eyes lit up. “What is that!?”

“A banana split.”

“I want one of those!”

When it arrived, Suzuki turned the plate full circle, appreciating the colors and textures. Finally, he took a tiny bite of the whipped cream. Then he took tiny bites of the ice cream, one color at a time. He only looked at the cherry; and then put down his spoon.

“Just like America,” he said. “Everything mixed together.” He slid the banana split across the table. “You’re American, Tim. This is for you.”

I love banana splits and I ate the entire thing; but I didn’t enjoy it. Instead, I ate it with an anxious feeling. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the banana split lesson. It’s fine to prepare when you’re going into a retreat, but not at the expense of this moment. I love banana splits and I ate the entire thing; but I was woefully unable to enjoy it. Instead, I was splitting off in favor of a future moment.

The old Greek myth of Sisyphus is a good example of how isolating and miserable life becomes when we split our self off from our activity. As punishment for angering the gods, Sisyphus was forever doomed to push a boulder up a mountain, allow it to roll back down, and then push it to the top again.

The Sisyphus myth exemplifies the philosophy of three renowned Existentialists: Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. For these guys, it was the human condition to struggle perpetually in hopelessness and despair.

Suzuki had a different take on life. One of his great loves was working with stones. Throughout the spring and summer at Tassajara, he gathered stones to build walls. The big guys helped, but I’m not a big guy, so I was usually assigned to menial chores that required neither muscle nor skill.

Winter at Tassajara is the rainy season and much of Suzuki’s spring and summer work got washed away by torrential rains. But he was never deterred. Come spring, he was back out there moving stones.

If he could get away with it he didn’t even take time to change out of his robes. When Okusan came around he stepped behind a tree or a boulder because if she saw him, she would say, “No, no, no. Change!”

Off he’d go to change into his work clothes.

One day I was watching them work along a shallow embankment. Suzuki was at the top of the hill pushing a large stone. Suddenly, he slipped and started rolling down the hill.

I thought, “Oh no, he’s old. He’s frail. He’ll be hurt. Oh my!”

Down, down, down he rolled. At the bottom, he leaped to his feet, dusted off his robes, and smiled.

“Just like a stone,” he said.

The First American Zenefit

On November 13, 1967, to raise money toward the loan for Tassajara, we held a “Zenefit” in the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. The concert featured performances by the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Janis Joplin—artists who have since become legendary.

Katagiri Sensei had been in San Francisco for only two years. I remember seeing him standing anxiously in the shadows, half-hidden, and looking quite out of sorts and unsettled in that crazy environment. He looked as if he wanted to run away. I’m sure he did.

Suzuki, on the other hand, was older and more resilient and adaptable. He sat in the front row with strobe lights and lasers flashing on him from all directions and wild, half naked dancers on both sides. The air was so thick with marijuana I was getting high just breathing.

Surrounded by utter chaos, Suzuki was completely relaxed and seemed totally in his element. He was looking around, smiling, taking it all in—I think he was grooving on the whole thing.

Finally, the last performer, the young blues singer Janis Joplin took the stage. She gave it her all! Heart and soul bared completely in a classic Joplin performance.

Next, it was time for Suzuki to speak to the crowd. The auditorium grew silent as he crossed to the microphone. When he spoke, his voice was calm and warm. “At first,” he said, “I think your way very different from ours. But now I see, not so different! Not so different!”

The crowd roared!

Suzuki was touched by Janis’s ability to completely inhabit each moment as she gave her whole heart to the crowd. Janis’s voice penetrated to the far reaches of the ballroom. It seemed to come from the ground of being and people responded to her in a deeply visceral way.

But she didn’t have a practice that cultivated resiliency. She could bare her soul on stage, but privately, her life was tragic. Less than three years after the Zenefit, she was dead.

Chino RoshiChino Roshi: A Man of Dance

One morning, when Suzuki arrived to give his weekly talk to the Los Altos group, he brought along a young Japanese monk who had just arrived from Japan. Suzuki introduced him as Chino Sensei.

We were all drawn to Chino immediately. He had a gentle, sweet nature and a quick, natural laugh. He moved in attentive and precise ways, which somehow gave the impression of transparency. He seemed fragile.

Having held a position as ceremony instructor at Eheiji monastery in Japan, Chino Sensei embodied ritual. It was like a dance for him. Suzuki was not as good at ritual, so he was happy that Chino Sensei had come to assist him.

When Suzuki insisted that I become Chino’s attendant at Tassajara, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t good at ritual either. Suzuki was hoping Chino would shape me up—but he didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “Chino Sensei will show you something new every day.”

The first evening, I went to Chino’s room to see if he needed anything. He invited me in and whipped up a very strong ceremonial tea. It was delightful to watch him whip the tea into thick foam and then serve it in such a delicate way. This became our routine. It was as if he were attending me!

Every evening, we drank tea together and talked. He asked questions about American culture or about books I was reading. Suzuki hoped Chino would teach me about ritual, but I soon discovered that Chino didn’t even like ritual. Since neither of us had much interest in it, we didn’t even talk about ritual.

But when Chino did ritual, he completely gave himself to it. At Tassajara, we ate our meals in a ritualized way, as they do in Japanese monasteries. It’s called oryoki. It is a highly stylized and formal ritual that involves three nested bowls wrapped in meal linens. Back then, I scorned oryoki; but I appreciated the wonderful way in which Chino taught it. Oryoki flowered when Chino was doing it.

Once, during a retreat at Tassajara, Suzuki was unexpectedly called back to the city. It fell on Chino to give the daily evening talks. He had never given a talk in the United States before. He was terrified!

Each evening after dinner and before the talk, when I went to his room to see if he needed anything, he whipped up the ceremonial tea. It was bitter, frothy, and quite wonderful. But it had a lot of caffeine. He would sip his tea, and say, “I’m scared.” I would answer, “I know you are. I’d be scared, too.” This was our routine.

During his talks, he trembled at times, was often inarticulate, and his English was clumsy—a stark contrast to the way he moved. I felt bad for him. No doubt the ceremonial tea was partly responsible because as I sat in the audience my head was spinning from the caffeine.

Years later, however, Chino became known as quite a good speaker. He was so relaxed giving talks that there’s a story about him actually falling asleep for a minute or so during a talk. When I mentioned this story to an old Zen friend of mine, he surprised me by saying, “It’s true. I was there.”

But the most compelling thing about Chino was his uncanny ability to teach without speaking. He taught with his body. He immersed himself in the physical. When he moved, it was as if his whole being was moving with single-pointed focus.

At Tassajara there was a stream with a log across it. Even though Chino did not have better balance than anyone else, he was able to move across the log with ease. There seemed to be no intrusion of thought or fear. The rest of us would be freaking out, struggling to stay on the log and worrying about falling off. But Chino didn’t seem to worry about anything. He just walked across the log.

Seeding the Mid-West

There’s a story about Suzuki and Katagiri on a plane flying over the Midwest. Suzuki looked longingly out the window and said, “That is where the real Americans live. They actually have jobs.”

For Katagiri that fly-over turned out to be prophetic. In 1972, a group of Zen practitioners from Minneapolis flew to San Francisco to meet with him. They asked him to consider moving to Minneapolis to teach.

By this time, I had left California. By sheer coincidence, I was living in northern Minnesota. But I was not part of the Minneapolis group and knew nothing of their effort to persuade Katagiri to move here. As a matter of fact, when I left San Francisco, I never expected to see Katagiri again.

So I was surprised to hear he was coming to Minnesota and excited to see him. I drove down for the retreat, which was in the home of a guy named Erik Storlie. When Katagiri saw me, his first words were, “I thought I’d see you again, Tim.”

Soon thereafter, Katagiri became the abbot of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, the first Zen center in Minnesota and the first to ordain Zen priests in the Midwest. In a traditional Zen ordination ceremony in 1978, Norm Randolph and I became a small part of Katagiri’s dim vision to plant the seeds of Zen in America.

As the Zen center grew, Katagiri decided it was time to purchase land for a country monastery. We located three properties, one of which was 280 acres that most of us did not even wish to consider. At $110,000, it was the most expensive and the furthest away from the city.

But as Katagiri explored the woods and meadows, the walnut grove, oak savannah, and wetland Hokyoji Zen Communityhe exclaimed, “Ah, look at this!” He turned full circle, soaking in the beauty. “I don’t know. It’s wonderful! Shouldn’t we try it?” On July 7, 1978, Hokyoji, which means “Catching the Moon Temple,” became Minnesota’s first rural Zen practice center and a testament to Katagiri Roshi’s dim vision.