Recollections on the 80th birthday of my teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman
by Norman Fischer | April 10, 2009 at 2:28 PM
Recollections on the 80th birthday of my teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman
Written April 2009
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Mel has been an inspiration, a guide, and a friend for me since I was a young man. I am one of the old Dwight Way crowd. Recently I drove by that old place. It is still there, but the yucca and monkey puzzle trees in the front yard that were of modest size in the early 1970's are quite large now, dwarfing the house. I was struck at how different the place looked. I attribute the difference to the fact that the practice - Mel's practice and spirit - vacated the space so long ago. Then, the place had a simplicity and a dignity it doesn't have now. A quiet but insistent presence. Having felt these things then - in the actual physical space - and not feeling them now, makes me understand better the virtue of Mel's teaching. These are the words I would use to describe it: simplicity, dignity, a quiet but insistent presence.
It seems to me that the main characteristic of Suzuki Roshi's teaching, and of Soto Zen, is faith in the practice and a steadiness and endurance to keep going with the practice no matter what. As Dogen taught so profoundly, the practice is the enlightenment. There is no enlightenment outside of practice. In the early days (and I know it is the same now) it was clear without anyone ever needing to say so that this was the value most encouraged by Mel. There was sitting every morning at 5 a.m., and Mel was there every day, always on time. Whether there was one person or two or three joining him (and there were seldom more than three or four) he was always there, sitting in his place at the head of the stairs, so that when you walked up the steep stairs to the attic you would see him first, just there, always there. Motionless and quiet. Dwight Way was a pretty busy street and there was sometimes traffic by the end of the morning session, but traffic or no traffic, whatever was going on, there was steady silent sitting. Every day, week after week, month after month. And by now, decade after decade. Though the location has changed and the years have sped by, I am guessing that in this the practice remains the same and the spirit remains the same: just to do the practice, to have faith in the practice, come what may. To be steady and to endure. To appreciate what is. During the all day sits (held once a month, as I recall) there was frequently noise in the neighborhood. Conversations, sometimes loud music. We would either sit through it, taking it as a benefit (practice is all inclusive, it's not about having to be quiet) or if it was too much Mel would go out and talk to whomever it was, and, somehow, it would always be more quiet afterward. That quiet, after the noise, was an even quieter quiet.
Not saying much, not explaining much - this was how it was in those days. There were no sesshins, no dokusan. Nothing special or spectacular. No large Buddhas on the altar. Mel gave, I think, a talk at the all day sittings and maybe there was a weekly dharma talk, but these events were always themselves very quiet. Just part of the schedule. I always found them moving and encouraging, but they were not charismatic or complicated or exciting. Mel would speak pretty simply about our practice, very often bringing up sayings of the old Zen teachers, or Dogen. There was a simplicity to the way he expressed things. Really I can't remember much now of what Mel said but the general impression I had was of steadiness and wisdom and beauty. Conviction, but lightly held. Mel was a handsome fellow in those days (not that he still isn't, at 80!) and the main message in those talks - at least the message I received - was just that, the dignity and handsomeness of the teachings. There was no insistence or pushing of any kind. In a quiet voice Mel would just tell us something about the teachings. He was very careful also in instructing us about how to walk, how to stand, how to eat, how to serve meals, how to ring the bells, how to carry the stick in the zendo, and so on. Physical carriage and form were important, and he would tell us about them, but not over and over again. Maybe just once. The sense of quiet and restraint, even about things that were clearly important, was very strong. A phrase Mel would often use (maybe he still does) was "the other side." By which he meant something like "things are done or meant this way, but there is always the other side." "You should do things slowly; but the other side is that sometimes you do them quickly." "Such and so is the case, but the other side is that it is not the case. " I am pretty sure Mel got this from Suzuki Roshi (though, as I recall, Mel didn't talk about Suzuki Roshi nearly as much then as he does now), and it seems very similar to me to Suzuki Roshi's "not always so." Maybe Suzuki Roshi also said "the other side." I wouldn't be surprised because I think that much of what Mel said in those days, and the ways in which he said it, was directly inspired by Suzuki Roshi, whose presence - I now imagine, looking back from a perspective of nearly forty years - was very much with Mel all the time, however much he did or didn't consciously reference him.
The sense that the practice - unlike anything we had previously thought of as religion - was more or less entirely a matter of physical presence was very strong in those early days. As I have said, though the place was extremely simple, and not particularly Asian or Japanese in style or decor, you could feel this. There was spareness in everything, an austerity but also a beauty. You'd walk into the house and everything already seemed quiet. You didn't have to go upstairs to the zendo - just approaching the front door you already felt the quiet. It was a plain and ordinary modest Berkeley Victorian house. But it was always clean, things were always in their places. There were simple pictures on the walls (small ones, except for one really large blue abstract painting by Mel, from his San Francisco beatnik artist days, very Clifford Still-influenced), a bulletin board by the front door with only a few necessary announcements on it (like the schedule). The kitchen, where we often had coffee after morning zazen, was always neat and ready, never any dishes left over from yesterday. There was a sense that everything was cared for, everything was considered and tended to. There was no sense that things were displayed for effect. Things were just there. They were useful, they were simple, they were there. No effort whatsoever to impress anyone - or even to express that this was a Zen or a Buddhist place. Probably it was clear that it was (I am sure there were pieces of calligraphy or Zen art on the walls, though I can't remember now, there was a library with Buddhist books), but the feeling was that no effort was being made to emphasize this point. It was as if everything expressed a practice; that is, that things were there to be used and to be cared for, not to make a point. That you could feel this.
Outside in the back yard, where Mel spent a considerable amount of time, there was an extensive garden, whose main feature was an old plum tree that had spread out over the years, so that its branches seemed to reach everywhere. When it was in flower it dominated the yard, and you'd have to walk often bent over, to avoid the profusion of white blossoms that seemed to be everywhere. Blossoms and the bees that went with them. Otherwise, there were vegetables, a serious number of them. Mel was an organic gardener, something of an early expert in the field (when we began to do farming at Green Gulch in the late 1970's, I remember that Mel was brought in as a consultant) and he worked very hard growing vegetables for the sangha. So the back yard was quite extensive and very full, it seemed a world in itself, and although the neighbor's house and yard weren't so far away, they seemed far away. And there were always projects afoot in that yard, that we engaged during the work periods of the monthly daylong sittings. Work period and work practice were always central to the zendo life, and Mel usually led the work, and usually knew exactly what he wanted done. My training there taught me that work and Zen were synonymous. Mel modeled a way of working that was exemplary - steady effort, over time, without too much exertion, always accomplished with tremendous focus and in silence. In the early 1970's, when my life more or less fell apart, and I was in a state of confusion and near disfunction, Mel and Liz took me into their lives, into the healing space of the zendo environs. Mel didn't say much to me, didn't offer advice, or even ask me to talk much about what my problems were. But he opened the house to me, gave me a room to sleep in, and every day there was work, sitting, and simple meals. Little by little I began to come back to myself. Often we had lunch out in the garden, under the plum tree. We drank cups of delicious green tea, ate good dark bread and cheese, and said almost nothing.
In those days there was a family feeling in the zendo community. There weren't many of us, but we were all dedicated and completely steady in our practice, which for all of us then was the center of our lives. As our teacher and guide (and also as a person nearly twenty year older than most of us) Mel was somewhat aloof, distinctly in a different position, and yet also warm and close. Without intervening much, he encouraged and supported us all in our various efforts to figure out who we were and what we were supposed to be doing. I'm not sure we realized this then, but looking back on it now, it seems pretty clear. My dear old friend Alan Lew was active in the group then, and became what was called the "director." He and Mel were vary close. When Sue Moon's Open Books published our first books of poetry, Mel encouraged us to give what was our first reading ever downstairs in the basement of the zendo. A lot of people came and for courage we both (well, I will speak for myself) got pretty drunk and gave what we thought were brilliant readings, but were probably quite stupid and self-indulgent performances. The point is the Mel allowed this, encouraged us in it, and didn't complain about how it turned out. Alan died suddenly early this year and Mel and Liz had a gathering at their house for people from those days, to recall him and those times long ago. The beginnings of things are always special, even though as things go on they usually get better, more developed, fairer, more competent, more effective, larger, and so on. But the beginnings always have a special character, a simplicity, a pungency.
I didn't know Suzuki Roshi. I was actually around when he was alive and functioning - before his illness - but was too blind and ignorant to realize that I had the chance to meet a great teacher and I ought to take it. Instead I was wrapped up in my own thoughts and needs, I didn't feel I had any use for a teacher (Mel appealed to me because he didn't call himself a teacher or come across as one- he was just a priest, leading the practice, just there, not somebody one would somehow get credit for having known - and people didn't make a fuss over him). And because Mel didn't mention Suzuki Roshi so much, I barely knew he existed. I remember notice of his funeral appearing one day on the little bulletin board by the front door. A modest notice, as I recall. It didn't seem like anything I'd want to go to. Didn't know the guy, and what's the point of attending a funeral anyway.
Clearly though the people who knew Suzuki Roshi and were able to practice with him were deeply moved by him. Probably each one of them carried away with them their own private Suzuki Roshi, their own view, from the standpoint of their own karma, of who he was, what his life expressed. They say that when a good teacher gives a dharma talk each listener comes away with a different talk- a talk given just for them. I am sure this was also true of Suzuki Roshi's whole sense of life and practice- each one had their own Suzuki Roshi. It seems to me that Mel's Suzuki Roshi embodied the qualities I have been speaking of - the quiet, the simplicity, the modesty, the supportiveness without saying or doing much, the simple beauty, the devotion to work and to steady daily practice. Though I am a generation away, I have heard the Suzuki Roshi stories, met and studied with the Suzuki Roshi disciples, read the talks, heard the tapes, bowed monthly and yearly at the memorial services, so I feel I also know him. And he does seem to me to be very like Mel. A good student takes in a great teacher and makes him completely his own. I think Mel has done this with his teacher.
Probably I haven't done this with mine. Maybe it's because I am not a devoted enough student, or maybe I still haven't gotten over my excessive interest in my own thoughts and needs. Or maybe Mel is not a great enough teacher. Probably though it is none of these. Probably it's because times have changed, and we all build on what has gone before, so that what was possible in the beginning - the kind of inspiring devotion to a teacher and the full incorporation of him or her into and as one's own life - is not possible after a while. I don't know. But I do know that I have not digested Mel's teaching in the same way he digested that of his teacher. I remain for better and worse myself, with my own inclinations and interests. My style of practice is probably not that much like Mel's (or like Suzuki Roshi's) and comes more out of my own necessities than anything else. I left Berkeley because I wanted to do monastic practice at Tassajara. Just before I entered the monastery I married, and we had children right away, which complicated things, and caused us to remain residents at the San Francisco Zen Center for twenty-five years or so. I was ordained as a priest by then-abbot Dick Baker in 1980, with my wife Kathie, with our three year old twin sons looking on with a strange gleeful amusement. After I finished a term as an abbot of Zen Center in 2000 I began the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of Zen communities and associated projects, that now involves a lot of talented and interesting people who practice Zen together with me all over the place, in various ways, some not even quite identifiable as Zen (though many of the groups are local Soto Zen groups, quite similar to the old BZC). So, unlike Mel, I travel constantly, and have no place that I can take care of. My way of practice emphasizes committed disciplined daily sitting, but sitting usually alone at home (none of our places support daily sitting), along with times for sesshin or weekend retreats. Still in the grip of my old writing habit, I have continued to write poetry and prose books, and my practice emphasizes (in a way that I don't think Mel's or Suzuki Roshi's does) written expression and study and cultural involvement. I also have found that expression and communication and close personal relationships with students - without much reserve - is at the heart of my practice; this seems to come naturally to me; I don't know if I could avoid it even if I wanted to. I am not that much on work. Not that I don't do it, or don't believe in it, I do work a bit around the house, but left to my own devices I will read, write, or exercise. I try to take care of the physical world, but I guess I don't do it so well. But I hope - and I believe - that I have deeply internalized the faithfulness to simple practice - to no frills constancy and endurance over time - that I learned at Mel's place, and that I believe is at the heart of Suzuki Roshi's way as well. Just to practice, and to be willing to share practice in a simple way with others. No big secret teachings, no profound enlightenment. Just simple stupid Soto Zen.
I am - I think this is the case - Mel's first Dharma heir. We completed Shiho ceremonies October 25, a full moon night, in 1988, at Tassajara, a wonderful experience for both of us, though we probably stumbled through it without knowing exactly how to do it. Since than I have transmitted Dharma to eleven priests. Some of them were Mel's disciples, in addition to being students of mine, and I did the ceremonies with his blessing, as a way of helping him out. Some were priests ordained by others, who needed help with the last stages of their training. And some were people I ordained and trained. The last time I did the ceremonies, March of 2009, I had Mel's picture (the one that I keep in my study) on the Transmission altar. In this picture (copies of which I am sure many students have) Mel's in civvies, wearing a rakesu, in close up, body turned to one side, smiling wonderfully, looking as if he is about to come forward from his chair toward the viewer to say hello or give a hug. It's a very friendly, very informal picture. It was nice to have it there with us, guiding the process along.
What, after all, is a Zen teacher, and what role is he or she supposed to have in the life of a committed student? As I have said, I don't know whether this is a reflection of Mel's character or of mine, but Mel has not been a guide and advisor to me in the usual sense. Even when we practiced together every day we didn't talk much, and for many years, when I was at San Francisco Zen Center, we didn't see each other regularly. So I have not sought out his advice generally (though of course sometimes I have) when I needed advice; it seems to me my relationship with him is deeper and more mysterious than this. In a way I don't need his advice because I know what he thinks, know what he would say. I have internalized his view in this way (though of course I recognize that he might not agree - that the Mel in me, the real Mel, to me, may not agree with the other Mel, who thinks he's Mel, and who others call Mel). But this doesn't mean I don't need that other - that exterior Mel. In fact, without saying anything or doing anything in relation to me directly he helps me a lot, just by being in the world, continuing to do what he has always done. His mysterious activity in the actual physical world across the Bay over there in Berkeley is a continuous support for me and if it should happen that he dies before I do (a fifty fifty proposition I suppose) I will miss him a lot even though I don't see him that often. The influence of a Zen teacher on a committed student is very powerful. It is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. As I understand it, the teacher doesn't know what he is doing. That is, he doesn't scope out the student, decide what is needed, and then proceed sneakily and subtly to make sure the student gets it. Instead, the teacher just continues the practice, with a benevolent wish for the student. Between them something deeply important and transformative occurs, though neither one of them is in charge of it. It just happens - somehow between them. Because they are willing for it to happen, because they are willing to go on with the practice come what may. Because they have faith and trust and courage. In any case, this is what I have come to understand from my Dogen studies - and from my life. This is what I have faith in, after nearly forty years of continuous practice with Mel.