Discovering our beginner’s mind

Stephen was very clear about this: he considered his teacher to be the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. Although he drew from many spiritual traditions and histories for his teachings to us, Suzuki Roshi – the founder and abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center – was “the real thing” from whom he’d learned firsthand. I’d heard of Zen, but had never learned a whit about it. The closest thing I’d encountered to Eastern spiritual practice was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. But as we’d be instructed each Sunday after meditation, Stephen’s lecture, some Q&A and socializing, there were spiritual books to read, many of them traded and circulating around the Farm.

At some point we found ourselves with a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – a small compilation of transcribed lectures by Suzuki. I’d already had a chance to read some of the writings of D.T. Suzuki, an unrelated Japanese citizen who’d lived as a Zen monk and went on to explain Buddhism and Zen to Americans in the 1950s. From his books I began to get some conceptual understanding of the Zen philosophy. But Stephen was adamant about the need for us to “don’t get conceptual.” Our path was supposed to be one of paying attention and experiencing what was happening in the moment. Sitting zazen – the style of meditation Stephen taught – was “practice” for being in that immediate state of mind.

Reading Suzuki Roshi’s talks gave me something akin to an understanding of what that was about, but the essence was elusive. I read the entire book over the course a few hours and could boil it down to two words: Just Sit. This was both troubling and comforting. Troubling in that I had some idea that I was living on the Farm in order to attain enlightenment. Could I just sit and get there? Wasn’t there some kind of process I had to go through to break through? The comforting part was that Suzuki de-emphasized the attainment part. You could not become enlightened by trying. You had to give up trying.

Stephen assured us that if we extended “just sitting and paying attention” into all of our activities, we could make much of our work and life into a meditation. In that context, he would refer to the Farm as a “family monastery” where we were all student practitioners who worked and were not celibate. We were “householder yogis” whose practice included marrying, having children, working and living with one another, internalizing our spiritual discipline with the daily challenges of a new from-the-ground-up society.

There were many people on the Farm who’d seen and studied with Suzuki Roshi. Their respect and love for the man was clear and deep. So when Stephen left for California in the late fall of our first year on the land, word got around that his teacher was seriously ill. In fact, Suzuki had been suffering with cancer for the past year and Stephen was able to visit with him in his last days. (Here is a video of Shunryu Suzuki lecturing during that last year). He passed from this life on December 4, 1971 and I had to accept that I’d never have the chance to sit with him.

Though Zen was a core element of our spiritual practice, it was not the only one. Stephen had his own identity as a teacher. We did not live and practice like the Zennies in California. We incorporated nuggets of mystical wisdom from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Native American, and precursor ideas from the likes of Hermes Trismajestus.

Stephen emphasized truth, not only with one another but “unto thine own self.” About this, he was willing to get up into our shit, and following his example, we were prone to get up into one another’s shit. This forced considerable discomfort and unfortunately became our social signature in those early days. We all came with bad habits and if we didn’t leave them at the gate when we joined the Farm, the Farm would serve as our rock tumbler as we psychically tumbled against one another and knocked off our respective jagged edges. Eventually, we would make one another smoother if we could not get to that state by ourselves.

Buddhists speak of the three jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Sangha – the community – is right up there with the wisdom and the teaching. Sangha comprises the social support of your fellow practitioners. But sometimes that support could be roughly provided. Having earned my Bachelor’s degree in psychology, I would often recognize what Freud called “projection” being used as a defense mechanism in the guise of community teaching. I would come to understand that I resorted to it myself, not just with Anita and my new friends, but with my distant family members who wondered, from the letters I’d send – what had come over me.

Just as four-marriages stood for a higher level of commitment to the rock tumbler metaphor – being married to three others providing more opportunities to straighten up than being married to only one person – singlehood seemed to hold a stigma of avoiding this therapeutic friction, so singles were especially vulnerable to being regarded as trippers. Especially single men, many of whom had led rambling, free-spirited hippie lives for years before the Farm. Stephen’s wary eye would catch them exhibiting a range of uncompassionate, selfish and cavalier behaviors.

On several occasions, he sent them off the Farm for 30-day missions, which happened often enough that we all knew what “a thirty-dayer” was. Out the gate with nothing but the clothes on your back. Don’t come back for at least 30 days and bring some organic sacraments for the community. From these missions we got necklaces of fresh peyote and psilocybin mushrooms (preserved in honey, no less) .

Stephen also established a living arrangement for single men prone to selfish behaviors and assigned it the offical name Rock Tumbler. The residents of this 16-by-32-foot Army squad tent were expected to learn how to live cooperatively while being diligently up in each others’ things about every detail of personality. The rest of us anticipated graduates from the Tumbler to be fine, gallant, upstanding gentlemen. This did happen occasionally, though there were no guarantees. There were also some exceptions to the singles-only condition; some married men also spent time tumbling or on thirty-dayers.

Spiritual practice was the environment in which we were immersed. We adopted the language as well as the perspective, and most of the time it brought joy and fulfillment to living experiences that were as primitive as those of early settlers on the American frontier. We would get hot, cold, wet, dusty and miserable, but we had a purpose that overcame doubt. I’d made it through my first year of practice when my first child was born – a little Buddha in the Shades of Blue bus.