{ Note that an old-fashioned paper mail tells a slightlu different story about my first minutes at Zen CENTER}

Green Tea: Early and Honorable Days at Zen Center

Part One

It was as tho Skip had made the trip every day for years; he got off US 101 onto Octavia, went a couple blocks and headed left onto Haight Street, north on Laguna to Page. In his station wagon, I didn't realize the steep slope of Page Street. Until I pressed against the heavy door with my right shoulder, finally opening it with with shoulder and feet. I sat there, feet on the curb, surveying the old building.

For several years, 300 Page Street had been the home of the San Francisco Zen Center--the monastery or zendo. It is a sizable three- or four-story building--depending on the street from which you enter. A slew of concrete steps lead into the Page Street entrance--at least a dozen, plus an additional step before the large double doors behind the portico.

My cousin said, “I'll let them know your here. Don't go anywhere!” and took off at a jog up the stairs. He was back almost before the heavy door shut and came back down. A few minutes later he had unloaded the ancient Everest and Jennings power wheelchair from the back of the wagon and hefted it up to the first floor, then came back for the battery tray and the two 12-volt batteries. After my charger was inside, he wired the E&J together, and came back for me. I could climb stairs, no problem, but a steadying hand made it easier, and I accepted the help.

Once sitting comfortably, I drove around to make sure everything worked. Skip headed back for the rest of my stuff. Suddenly I felt more than a bit foolish since he'd been an electrical engineer for 25 years. Of course he knew how to wire batteries in parallel! As I steered the chair around in a large circle in the foyer I had time to consider the myriad differences in his life and mine. Events didn't leave much time for self-pity.

Down the very wide hall, I watched as two guys, ballpark my age, coming down the stairs, some 25 yards ahead. They headed my way, and I steered out of their way.

Out of the blue, one of the them turned toward me. He had a head full of hair that was beginning to turn prematurely gray. “H-e-e-e-y,” he said. “Hi! Are you the new guest student that's supposed to be in a wheel chair?”

I laughed. “I suppose so!”

“I'm Jim. --Jim Zivic. This is Andrew Main,” he said, gesturing to the fellow to his left. “Gee, I've never met anybody in a wheelchair before.”

He sounded like I was a space alien. I wasn't quite sure how to respond, but I needn't have been concerned.

Jim thrust out his right hand and I thrust forth my damaged right hand. Shook Andrew's too. “Andrew and I are late for a movie or we'd hang around and talk awhile. We've got to get a third guy who's across town, so... .” Andrew pointed to his watch and gestured; he didn't say anything to me but wasn't trying to avoid me.

“Okay,” I said, and the two guys headed out.

Within twenty minutes of setting foot inside the zendo I had met the man who would become one of my best buddies. This was but the first of several ways that Zen Center was to significantly impact my life. In a pragmatic sense, the paths that my life would take was born during my stay at Zen Center.

Many months before when the San Francisco Zen Center had decided to accept me as a guest student, the plan was that I would use my push chair in the basement where the guest students slept and the power chair on the main floor. I had assured the Guest Director that I had no trouble climbing stairs. My sister had bought the green-fabric push chair before my mother and I moved to the California desert. Although I had never said anything to Barbara, I'd despised the push wheelchair. Seemed like a huge waste of money since I mostly got around on my knees or by hanging onto walls.--Now, tho, different story.

A young monk came from the office to the left just then. "I'm Lew Richmond," he said. After shaking hands with Skip and me, Lew added, "We've been looking forward to your visit, Gary. See how it goes having you as a guest student." He gestured to the office. "They'll help you get situated." A moment later Lew hurried off. “You'll probably be homesick for a week or two,” Skip said when the rest of my belongings were lined up close to the office. “But you'll adjust. It's like when I went into the Navy. In six weeks it'll seem like you've been here forever.”

At the thought of being here for six weeks, there was a sudden heavy feeling inside. On one hand, it being here seemed like a sentence; yet the knowledge that it was time to make a life for myself overruled the heavyness. And it turned out that Skipper was right.

Just then, a tall woman clad in a simple black robe, with her head shaved came down the staircase followed by an assistant and several others in single file. They walked with slow, meditative strides. The tall, bald woman held a tall joss stick before her. Everyone went through the double glass doors into the Buddha Hall that was to my right. Beyond the far wall of the Buddha Hall I caught sight of the houses on the other side of Laguna Street.

The room had six large windows, each with a semicircular arch-window atop; three facing Page and three east-facing along Laguna. I realized that if the sun were shining in the morning, it had to be dazzling while the assembly chanted the sutras. But I was probably cringing somewhat watching the bald woman who was bowing at the altar. Skip turned to see what I was staring at, then turned back almost with a smile. “Don't worry, this isn't a cult. I checked it out.”

“I know. Mother told me.”

A shy-looking young woman finally came to the office window. “I'm Patricia,” she said.

Skipped nodded; evidently he had talked to her some weeks earlier. “This is my cousin, Gary.”

I said hi to Patricia. Then Skip said that he had to get home. I managed to unclench the fingers of my right hand and we shook hands goodbye. I thanked him for everything. For driving all the way to Palm Desert to get me, for letting me stay at his home for a few days, and for getting me to San Francisco and my wheelchair up to the main floor.

Part of me wanted to go back with him; but it was a minority part. After 30 years, it was time I ran away from home. Just a few days prior I had been saying goodbye to my mother in Palm Desert. She had been on the verge of tears as we hugged. Mother's last words were that I could come home any time and that I would have a home with her until her last. I'd thanked her, laughed, and said that I probably would see her in a few days. No; it was time to fledge, even tho I had some clues of how brutal the path was certainly going to be.

I said something dumb like, “Have fun at NASA,” as my cousin flung open the the right-hand door and disappeared, abandoning me to whatever fate held.

Signing in took only a few minutes. Patricia tried to make small talk, but my speech impairment make that difficult.

She said that she would have a resident student show me the guest students' quarters soon. She excused herself from a young man named David in the office explaining that she was going to show me around the main floor.

“Originally, this place was a home-away-from-home for young Jewish women who were getting out on their own,” Patricia explained as we started down the broad hallway.

Aways down, past the Buddha Hall, she pointed to windows on the right and a door that lead out to an enclosed concrete courtyard where there were plants and a few benches.. “One of the carpenters at Green Gulch is going to build you a ramp. So you can at least get outside. If you want to.”

I smiled. “That'll be great.”

We went past a spacious gathering-type commons room on the left where several people were congregated. Patricia gave a little wave to a 50-something, heavy-set man who was eating something. His head was shaved and he wore the monk's robes.

She said to me, “That's Philip Whalen. Do you know about him?”

“No.”

“Philip's a poet; he's one of the beat poets--you know: Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac?”

“That's cool!” I said even though I knew little about the beat scene. “But I'm the opposite of hip or in.”

Patricia showed me through the huge dining hall to the left, then into the kitchen. It was a large, commercial-sized kitchen.

“Everybody takes their turn helping out here,” she said. Added with a smile, “Don't worry, we won't make you!”

I said, “Whatever I can do, I'm willing.” The Guest Director, Meagan Brown, had mentioned during our long correspondence, that guest students were required to do some chores. I had assured her that I was ready to do whatever I physically could.

As we were about to leave the kitchen, Patricia showed me a large back room where two men were busy baking bread. Both bore shaved heads which indicated that they were Zen priests. They were wearing regular clothes, though, and large white aprons. Save for some flour on tables, the room was spotless. I learned later that one was Tommy Dorsey, the other, Ed Brown, the bread baker and author.

As we got back into the hall and headed toward the office Patricia asked if I was going to the memorial service for Suzuki-roshi.

“He's dead?!” I asked, stunned.

Patricia nodded and tried to hide a smile at my ignorance. “A few years at least. I think he passed away in 1971, ...so going on five years”

I was dumb-struck. We were already past the commons room when I managed, “So who's the new abbot?”

“Baker-roshi, Richard Baker-roshi. He was one of Suzuki-roshi's early students and--” But at that moment she was interrupted by a loud, solitary BONG. “It's beginning. I'm on office duty so I can't go this month.” We were back at the office by the time the bell rung out a second time.

“May I go?” I said.

“Sure. Just follow along. It's upstairs on the third floor.” She gestured to a procession that was headed by an petite old lady.

It was as if people had materialized from a Star Trek transporter, because by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, between 50 and 60 people were following the old woman upward.

“Wait until people get up there,” said David, from the office. His voice was urgently hushed.

So we waited; then I stood, grabbed the right-hand railing with both hands, clinging fiercely, and began climbing. David led the way. Slowly, resolutely, my legs pushed me up the side staircase. The first eight or nine steps were pretty easy, then my thigh muscles, especially the quadraceps began to ache. By the Fifteenth step, my quads, starved of oxygen were on fire. I paused and breathed faster and deeper. The burning in my legs eased. After several seconds I went on. The burning in my fatigued muscled began again after only a few more steps. Because of the people ahead, I only made it four steps past the second-floor landing. That was far enough, though, because my deep breathing had turned to a pant. My shirt was damp from a heavy sweat.

The memorial ceremony began following a resounding and solid wood clap; it didn't last too long. It consisted of chanting some sutras and other things that I could neither hear clearly nor understand. After several minutes of standing, my knees began to buckle and I had to brace them against the wrought-iron balusters. Finally though it was over; I managed to turn around and grab hold of the railing with my left hand. Going down the stairs, it would have been better if I'd had access to the other railing-- the one against the wall. But, welded to the staircase for dear life, I knew I would manage.

Abruptly, David stopped me. “They go first,” he said and nodded toward Mrs. Suzuki and the others who were stepping slowly downward.

Several moments later, much to my surprise, Mrs Suzuki paused beside me. She reached toward me without touching me and said, “Thank you...for you to honor my husband.” With that she bowed toward me, hands palm-to-palm before her.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed David almost bent to his waist in a bow. I returned Mrs. Suzuki's politeness, bowing more than she, but not as deeply as David. I bowed with only my right hand which had turned into a tightly clenched fist. The other hand and arm had become part of the stairs.

In that briefest moment that Mrs Suzuki stood beside me I sensed something almost unfathomably deep about her. She radiated a gentle inner peace. And kindness and humility. And, of course, sorrow.

I knew little about Shunryu Suzuki beside what I had read in a couple of books published in the late Sixties. He had been one of the leading Zen masters in Japan when he immigrated to the US. Here, he was considered one of the greatest exponents of Zen Buddhism. I was unspeakably saddened that I would not be able to study with him. The fact that he had been dead for nearly five years struck me as ridiculously funny at the same instant that I was aware of my sorrow.

A few minutes later, when everyone had gone on, I made my way back to the second-floor landing, then on down past the mid-point landing, and nearly collapsed in my wheelchair, every muscle in my legs burning. I sat with as much dignity as I could muster. Which wasn't much! Then David, who had been following me, said he had to get back to work and headed back for the office.

It took at least three minutes of heavy breathing before I caught my breath. Every action has some kind of consequence, some nature of reciprocal action. It wouldn't be long before I learned what would come of having shown my respect for this great Zen teacher.

Part Two

They put me to work the very next morning. I slept in a large basement-like room with all the other guest students. Because the 300 Page Street building is on such a steep hill, the “basement” had a door onto Laguna Avenue. In that way, it was ground floor. There were mats for our bedrolls. It was lights-out around 9 P.M. because the first sitting-meditation (or zazen) was around 4:30. For me, a die-hard night owl, that was like the middle of the night I got up perhaps twice for the first period. The second period was mandatory. Many of the students--those most impatient for enlightenment-- sat through all three periods. Many meditators were casual students. They didn't live in the building, but residents of the neighborhood. They rose and sat very early, then got on with their regular lives at work or in school.

Following the last morning zazen [wall-meditation, literally: sitting cross-legged facing the wall in the hallway, or in the dojo, facing another person] it was time to get cleaned up, and head upstairs for breakfast. It was close to 7:00 by now I had taught myself zazen since the mid-1960's, and quite well, so my joints were flexible. I had few problems moving around once I'd gotten back on my knees. Besides, I was usually famished! Breakfast was usually home-made yogurt that you could sweeten with honey, or course, home-baked bread, and tea. Because I ate so slowly, I was almost invariably the last person to finish eating. Then a fellow guest student helped me back down the stairs--stepping slowly down in front of me to labor.

My job was to clean, carefully and thoroughly, as many of the tatamis as I could in about an hour and a half or two hours. I had a bucket full of most water and a couple clothes.

Bruce, the work-leader, rolled my push chair to the dojo, the main siting hall. He said, “I know you need your shoes for most things, but can you do without them while you work? --Here, I'll help you with them.” I readily agreed and before long was down on a tatami. With a gallon bucket about half-filled with water, some damp rags, and a dry one, Bruce showed how to clean the mats.

“The trick is to go with the grain,” he said. 'You'll get used to it! See you in awhile.“

I looked around the large room; there were large, square windows outside, both on the lowest part of Page and all along Laguna, so the dojo was anything but a basement dungeon! There was also a door onto Laguna Street for folks in the neighborhood. Four other guest students were already at work. I took the damp cloth and set to work.

Anywhere between an hour and a half and two hours later, Bruce was back. I was beyond exhausted and thanked him for helping me on with my dress boots and zipping both shut. He pushed the chair to the stairs and stood behind me as I climbed, wearily, to my power chair on the main floor. He said something about there being about a hour before lunch.

As I swung around into the old wheelchair, I wondered how I was ever going to survive here. --Taking a shower the night before had almost been a disaster, but I had made light of it. And now, to work this hard? Whew! I thought. Am I really going to survive this? This outside world? Then it flashed into my consciousness how many things I had survived, or better, had conquered. “Still,” I thought aloud. “This is going to be a trip!”

It so happened that after about a week I grew used to a couple hours of this kind of labor--for me, strenuous labor. Getting to bed no later than 9 P.M. was a bit of a problem. One of the things that helped me zonk out that early was the half-hour or longer tub bath I got to take eventually. After slipping in the guest-students' shower a few times--this while wearing an old pair of strap-on shoes to help my toes--the higher-ups decided that if I wanted, I could bathe on the second-floor men's bathroom. There were at least a few of the original bathtubs from the 1920's in separate little rooms. One of my fellow guest students carried my folding chair and gym bag up to the bathroom while I, clad in my terry-cloth robe, climbed the steps to the first floor and made it to the wider stairs. The push chair would be waiting for me when I reached the second floor. Then I got pushed to one of the tubs. They were always empty. I laid my bath towel over the edge of the tub and slowly body-dived in.

The Bay Area, if not the entire State had begun being affected by a drought, but because few people bothered with tub bath, I wasn't asked to restrain my water usage. Nonetheless, my proclivity toward thrift took over. I ran just enough water to cover my legs and shoulders and stretched out to soak in very warm water. These were large bathtubs. It made me wonder about the sheer size of the young ladies who were away from home for the first time! At any rate, after I washed and rinsed, I refilled the tub and after a second rinsing, slid, like an eel, over the edge of the tub onto the tile floor.

There was no worry about my being left there. The traffic was pretty considerable, and besides, after 20 minutes, the person who had wheeled me to the bathroom began checking every five minutes to see if I were ready for the return trip. That went a bit faster, but not that much, because stair-climbing was not a problem. About half the room was snoring by the time I crawled into my sleeping bag. After a day of a minimum four periods of zazen, then the morning sutra-chanting, then the work period, followed by about an hour, followed by lunch, followed by an optional noon-time chanting in the Buddha Hall, the guest students had some free time until the evening schedule. Following dinner were more sessions of zazen. Then the snoring.

Partly due to the many and steep stairs down to Page Street, I didn't leave the zendo like most of my fellow students. For one thing, I just didn't have the energy. Besides, there were guys like Phillip Whalen and Tommy Dorsey who hung out in the common room. Tommy said that he was retired from show business; for years he had been a female impersonator. Besides this kind of casual conversation, I discovered a great many books on Zen and other schools of Buddhism in the library. The afternoons went by altogether too fast.

It wasn't long after the memorial ceremony--perhaps several days, no more than a week or two--I learned that Mrs Suzuki had asked that I be included among the guests for a tea ceremony that she was giving. She was known as Okusan, the polite title for Wife.

She had studied the tea ceremony for decades and was called sensei, meaning “teacher.” A parenthetical note here: The word roshi also means teacher, or perhaps “master,” but carries a double-edged meaning: master but also worthless-old-man; negative connotation in Japanese of being aged, frail, and, unable to do much, if any, useful work. Put more bluntly: useless! --But I may be straying a bit... .

Besides teaching the tea ceremony, Okusan was also a skilled artisan in flower arrangement. When the skills of making green tea and creating the right flower arrangement are combined, the tea ceremony is dead-center in-the-moment. It is but one example of true Zen meeting with the time-and-space dualistic reality of everyday life.--

David was a Reed College drop-out, several years younger than I and, I thought, a bit full of himself. Still, he explained things about the customs and politics and practice at Zen Center.

He thought he might be priest-ordained soon. “Soon” in Zen terms could mean anytime within the next several months to the next several years. He was already lay-ordained, which meant that he had officially been accepted as part of the Buddhist sangha--the Buddhist community. In the Zen tradition, someone is lay-ordained or priest-ordained at the discretion of the roshi.

“Of course Buddhists priests don't go out 'spreading the Gospel',” David said one lunchtime while we were having some miso soup.

That much I knew--plus many other parts of Zen and Buddhism in general. But I didn't say anything; I just listened as David prattled on. I learned that a tea ceremony was coming up and somehow I had been invited. This was, I learned, extremely unusual for a guest student. The tea ceremony was part of Japanese culture that had co-evolved with the Zen tradition. I was completely ignorant of the ceremony.

“It's very 'Japanese',” David said, indicating quotes with his fingers. “I think you ought to consider yourself very honored that Okusan invited you.”

I assured him that I was indeed honored.

He added, “You realized that Mrs. Suzuki is one of the most deeply respected people here.”

I nodded. “I've noticed that.”

Finally, David understood that he was keeping me from my soup; he stopped talking, finished his soup, bowed to the table, and left.

Part Three

The tea ceremony was held in Okusan's room on the third floor. It was quite an ordeal for me to get up the third flight, but when I got up there, my green push-chair was waiting. I didn't use the footrests, instead resting my feet on part of the aluminum tubing.

“Now you remember what I said,” David whispered at me as he pushed me down the hall. “You'll have to crawl on the tatamis like you do when you're washing them down in the zendo. But be careful! This is Mrs. Suzuki's room. Okay?”

“I'll be very careful.”

“Please do not crawl on the edges of the tatamis!”

I nodded.

“You are really being honored,” David said as we came upon a door that was slightly open. “You do realize that Mrs. Suzuki is having this chakai for you.” His voice lowered as we neared Okusan's door toward the end of the hallway. “I don't know why, although it's probably because you're like you are. Handicapped, I mean.”

There were four or five of us; I was the only one to wear my footwear-- barefoot, or with socks only, my toes splayed out of control. Everyone else left their sandals at the door. A couple people helped me down to the floor and I crawled very carefully onto a room full of beautiful tatami mats. The room was rather small, perhaps 12x14 feet with a rectangular window facing the street. Ivory-colored lace curtain decorated the window.

I was still breathing hard from climbing three flights to notice very much, but there was a simple arrangement of greenery and flowers-- were they red flowers?--off center from the tea cups and plates that lay in a casual circular configuration on the tatamis not far from the iron pot where Okusan had heated the water.

Okusan came over to me first. She wore a beautiful kimono with a kind of bamboo-leaf pattern. “Thank you for coming, Gary-san,” she said quietly. She bowed deeply; I returned her bow, slightly deeper. I had to catch myself from falling over. Okusan tried to stifle a laugh; it sounded like a series of tiny bells ringing. She put her right hand on my shoulder, and said that I should stay right where I was. “Close to door here, okay?” She moved my place setting a couple feet to where I had settled. “Easy, okay? Just enjoy, okay?”

The whole scene nearly broke me up, but I was able to maintain some composure. I bowed in response, steadying myself with my left hand and right fist. As is customary in a formal situation, I sat seiza, with my heels tucked underneath me. I faced the Page Street window, as she went to greet the others. If memory serves, the other guests were the resident students Patricia and David. Ed Brown was also there as one of the senior priests.

The tea ceremony lasted about an hour. Okusan busied herself in a practiced, ritual simplicity. She prepared the bitter, dark-green matcha in a bowl, pouring in the water, and whipping it to a froth with a whisk. I was all but oblivious to things. I was not accustomed to sitting like this, but after ten or 15 minutes, the pain dissolved into the background of the moment. Patricia was the first one called by Okusan. She bowed, got up, gave her cup to Okusan, again bowed after receiving the tea, returned to her place, and bowed to Ed Brown who repeated the ritual. I followed the others' lead, being either the third or fourth in order.

Several days prior, David cautioned me about the matcha. He told me about its bitterness, and that I probably wouldn't like it. But I had been drinking strong black coffee since I was fourteen, and the sweet wafers followed by tea was a blissful combination, especially in this setting and atmosphere of elegant simplicity.

The smoothness of the ceremony, resulting from years of Okusan's dedication, made any planning or forethought involved invisible. Centuries of thought and refinement have gone into developing the art of tea, though it has remained essentially unchanged since the 16th century, depending on the school. The ceremony sanctifies acts of hospitality, reducing to their essence the behavior and gestures of giving and receiving. Much of the beauty of the art stems from the contrast between the transient players in this drama, and the immutability of its form.

When my turn came, Okusan took my teacup, prepared the tea, and placed the cup back on its saucer. There was little conversation during the ceremony. There was some dialog between Patricia and Okusan-- small talk about how nicely things were arranged and so on. Ed Brown, because of his years of experience, seemed at ease. The others were turning their tea cups slightly between sips. It would have been impossible for me to ape this part of the ritual, so I simply enjoyed the delights of the moment. The ceremony itself was the conversation, as I understood it.

By the time the tea and treats had been consumed, the time had evaporated in much the way that the Bay Area mist gives way to the morning sun. The tranquility of the ceremony endured as Okusan collected the cups and plates. But as much as I had enjoyed the experience, because I was not accustomed to sitting seiza, me legs, from the knees down were entirely numb. Even Patricia's heels had slid to the side! I needed help to get back on my knees. Everyone else had gone on ahead as I crawled slowly, stiffly the few feet to the door.

Almost covertly, Okusan said, “Thank you for honor me, Gary-san.” She bowed slightly while hovering over me.

At that instant, I was overwhelmed with such gratitude and respect that I stopped and bowed until my head was touching the tatami! It was several seconds before I could right myself. “Thank you so much!” I said. Had I been able to, I would have reached out and hugged her! But I crept slowly on, and, once I was out the door, had help getting back into the push-chair. Then was rapidly pushed back toward the staircase. Ahead of me lay the ordeal of making it down three long flights of stairs. Beyond that lay the unknown challenges that life would bring. But from that day to this, there have been few times that I have felt so honored.

Copyright, ©, 2008, Gary Kline