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.



  1. Judith said,

    November 26, 2008 at 4:45 am

    very ready to hear you talk about the birth of your Little Buddha. it’s been referenced a few times here; the ultimate sacrament of the ’70s Farm experience.

    as always, glad to see you’ve thrown another Farm tale out way…

  2. Don James said,

    November 26, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    It’s like waiting for Godot for your next chapter (not actually sure what that means) but always a pleasure to hear your version of things. I’d have to say I was one of those trippers, although not a single man for long. We arrived in feb or ’76 and stephen married us the following month. I had envisioned some ‘other farm’ when I went there. I just translated what I knew of hippies and projected it on to stephen who was nothing like my projections. Odd, huh? And the up in my shit thing was not my cup of tea although I must admit to receiving some benefit from it. It certainly beat tv or listening to music all the time. I believe he was truly on to something. Pehaps the hardest yoga ever devised. A bit ahead of his time as he said. I think that yoga will have a resurgence some day. Much faster than zazen.

  3. Richard Speel said,

    December 2, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Hi Cliff,

    Nice looking blog!


  4. Richard Speel said,

    December 2, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    One more thing…do you know the origin of the word ‘Farmola’?

  5. Cliff said,

    December 2, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Farmola is explained in this blog’s About page – a take-off on “granola” – a thick, sticky, gloppy and nutritious cereal created by the Farm’s millers. Not entirely sure what the blend of grains was.

  6. Judith said,

    December 4, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    here’s the Farmola recipe from the Farm Vegetarian Cookbook
    :2 parts cracked wheat
    1 part cracked rye
    1 part corn meal
    1 part soy flour

    WHick one part combined grains into three parts boiling water, sitrring constantly until it starts to thicken., then reduce ehat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for a “good 25 minutes.” (undercooked soy is totally indigestible crap…)

    ther’s a similar type of soy flour/grain combination called mellomeal that also requires a half hour to cook properly.


    8 parts cornmeal
    5 parts soy flour
    6 parts cracked rye
    2 parts cracked buckwheat
    1 part millet

    I;ve experimented with both of these and found I like it way better with the grains but not the soy flour you can pour your soymilk over the top and still get your grins plus soy proteins.

  7. Judith said,

    December 4, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    here’s the Farmola recipe from the Farm Vegetarian Cookbook
    :2 parts cracked wheat
    1 part cracked rye
    1 part corn meal
    1 part soy flour

    WHick one part combined grains into three parts boiling water, sitrring constantly until it starts to thicken., then reduce ehat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for a “good 25 minutes.” (undercooked soy is totally indigestible crap…)

    ther’s a similar type of soy flour/grain combination called mellomeal that also requires a half hour to cook properly.


    8 parts cornmeal
    5 parts soy flour
    6 parts cracked rye
    2 parts cracked buckwheat
    1 part millet

    I;ve experimented with both of these and found I like it way better with the grains but not the soy flour you can pour your soymilk over the top and still get your grins plus soy proteins.

  8. Gerald Wheeler said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Good stories here Cliff. And there are so many to be told. No one has yet even begun to capture in story what the essential experience of being part of this place (The Farm) really was. That is what it meant to be a “student” of Stephen Gaskin and what kinds of personal commitments to him as a “spiritual teacher” one was required to make. Obviously, that was something different for each individual who chose to take on that challenge, but I also think that there were universal requirements that he established that we all had to meet. To me that was the essence of the experience. Yes, all the adventures of everyday living and learning from each other as members of our community was very much a part of this life, but that was really secondary to the fact that each individual was given their own personal “yoga” or work that was specific to them from Stephen. That student/teacher relationship was central to, and took precedence at all times to everything else that was going on in our community. There is much I could write about from my own experience, but that is for another time and venue. But one thing I would like to say because I think it is relevant to your story here, is that the issue of Stephen Gaskin being a “student” of Suzuki Roshi is interesting to me in that by that time Suzuki was dead. In Buddhism the tradition of a “teacher” or “master” is predicated on the idea that there is an ongoing, living tradition of dharma that is embodied in one’s living master. And it is like that for a number of reasons. One is to ensure that the direct connection of Buddha consciousness is intact, and another is to ensure that everyone in that “line of transmission” always has someone that they must answer to. By declaring that he was a “student” of Suzuki Roshi, Stephen essentially created a situation for himself in which there was no one who he was beholden to. No one that he had to answer to. And I think that was a mistake. Hybris if you will. At that point, everything he decided became compulsory and outside the realm of consensus. No matter what was promoted for public exposure, the Farm was not a democratic society in any real way. For everyday things, doing laundry, fixing cars, running the building company, etc..yes there was a sense of balance and community but all that was superficial and secondary to what was actually happening there. And if anyone failed to notice that, they were not really paying attention or spending much time talking with Stephen. A lot of people practiced the art of avoiding those situations (being close up and personal with Stephen) but in the end, that was not helpful in creating and participating in what was determining their lives at the time. And it is this fundamental issue that I believe became the foundation for the downfall of our community.

    • cfigallo said,

      February 25, 2009 at 11:03 pm

      >> A lot of people practiced the art of avoiding those situations (being close up and personal with Stephen)

      Very true, Gerald and I plead guilty (not that I’m hiding the fact in these stories). The social experiment of the Farm was just too fascinating to me, and on occasion Stephen would discover me and my lack of true allegiance to him. He’d rip me a new one and we’d retire to our corners and carry on. It seemed to me that he, in his role, was essential to the formation of the original Farm and to setting it in a direction. Likewise, he – and the gradual erosion of our solidarity behind him – created the conditions that led to the (spoiler alert!) dissolution of the collective. I’d love to hear your stories someday, as I would the stories of many of my old neighbors and continuing friends.

    • Prema Rachel said,

      June 16, 2009 at 7:02 pm

      I loved reading this Gerald. Perhaps because I so do believe what you wrote to be ever so true. Soo well said, thank you.

  9. Gerald Wheeler said,

    February 27, 2009 at 2:30 am

    I have to plead guilty to the same thing Cliff! Although I wasn’t very good at it! Like moths to a flame, at least one or two immediate members of my family, if not me personally, were usually right up in the middle of the action on a regular basis. Without a doubt, the Farm was indeed an incredible social experiment and I think long after we are no longer around people will still be interested in the social, psychological, and spiritual significance of our uniquely North American adventure into that realm of extreme human possibilities.

    Here is a little story you might find interesting.

    “North American White Witchcraft”. That was one of the very earliest monikers that Stephen Gaskin dreamed up back in the Haight of the 60’s to call attention and give a name to his free, experimental college classes that he taught at S.F. State. The term “White Witchcraft” had nothing to do with a racial distinction, it was meant to differentiate it from “Black Magic” or “Black Witchcraft,” or sometimes more esoterically referred to as “Left-hand Path,” which was also being practiced and worshiped by some who were part of the hippie, acid culture. Stephen considered that to be a serious issue that needed to be clarified and he was correct. LSD was/is an extremely powerful substance and it was affecting everyone and everything who came near it. Even those who weren’t taking it were feeling the effects of it. It just works like that. As a result, there was a lot of weird shit going on in the hippie community mixed together with all the good stuff. It needed to be better understood. He was trying to teach people how to use it properly. That was well before the Farm, I think it was around 1967. I had known Stephen before that time when he was still a professor and heir designate to S.I. Hayakawa’s chair of Semantics at San Francisco State College. Having just returned from living in Europe for the previous couple years, I was a new student there in late 1965 to early 1966, and had registered for two courses being taught by him. Semantics and Creative Writing. He was a brilliant lecturer and was well known around campus and I always had to make sure that I got to class on time if I wanted to ensure that I had a seat in the room. Particularly the Semantics class, which you could always count on to fill up fast with huge numbers of students who weren’t enrolled in the class. People would quickly fill the room and then jamb the doorways out into the hall, trying to attend his lectures as well. It was that semester that he, myself and several other students, (not together) began to take LSD and from that time on, the lectures shifted dramatically from traditional teaching about techniques of persuasion, word meanings and usages, language & communications to our experiences with psychedelics. That was the last semester that Stephen Gaskin taught as a regular professor there. After that semester he left his position and went to Mexico for about a year, continuing to experiment with LSD there. I won’t digress further on that as I am pretty sure that period of history has been described with greater accuracy by those present at that time. In the meantime, I continued to attend college and take LSD on my own with friends here in the bay area. Although I found those experiences to be the most powerful and moving events I had ever encountered, I was determined to complete my course studies at SF State and get my degrees. That all continued pretty well for me until civil rights and anti-Vietnam war riots erupted with a vengeance on campus. I will never forget the day that I came for classes and stopped in my tracks and watched an amazing scene unfold in front of me. The center of the campus was a sea of dark blue San Francisco Riot Police in full, helmeted gear, each man carrying clear, bullet proof shields, wielding teargas and and billy clubs and marching arm-in-arm towards the cafeteria and commons. There were approximately 400 of them. I really wish I had my camera at the time, it was a true, historical moment. They moved almost silently lock-step into chaos. Their target was the other side of the mall, about 50 yards away, where cafeteria chairs, and rocks and anything that wasn’t nailed down were hurtling through the air, being thrown by an assortment of several hundred human beings in a passionate rage, smashing windows, and being encouraged by members of SDS shouting into bull horns: “pigs off campus! pigs off campus!” I’m not sure that everyone involved were students. It was an event that had been built over several days, brewing, percolating and then steaming into what became the general tone of that day. Ugly, really ugly violence. My reaction was one of horror and disgust. Towards the police and the protesters alike. Although I sympathized with their causes, I was very much opposed to violence in any form. At that time, not only had I been taking many doses of LSD on a regular basis, I had been spending a lot of time, hours everyday when I wasn’t studying or tripping, sitting zazen, either at the Zen Center or at my little alter that I kept at home. I was what I would characterize as super-sensitized to stimuli in any form. That day was a terrible day. I managed to slip away from all that, I’m not quite sure how, but I have always felt like it had to do with nothing more than my ability to radiate a vibe of non-violence and no threat to anyone because I had to walk within a foot or two of those riot police who were pumped with fierce adrenalin, nostrils red and flaring, and beating people with their clubs. I looked several of them straight in the eyes and thought thoughts of peace and serenity. Amazingly it got me out of there safely. As I recall, those events took place on a Friday. When I returned to campus on the following Monday for class, the campus was locked down tight as brightly tuned snare drum. Reagan, who was governor of California at the time, had called in the National Guard and they had the entire place surrounded with tanks and trucks, machine gun turrets flashing, and hundreds of soldiers, armed and ready to shoot. That was the last day I ever set foot on SF State campus, and about a year away from my official completion date, although at the time I had amassed most of the units I needed. My life took a turn that in some ways I felt I had not that much control over. A very strange condition indeed. It seemed to me the events of history had conspired and dictated their demands to me, and I had to be flexible. There was a choice to be made, but not one that seemed to contain much in the way of free will for me at the time. It was more like ‘learn to go with the flow’ and that realization and the choices that I made following these events would eventually lead me to my second encounter with my ‘old’ professor once again, Stephen Gaskin.

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  12. judith said,

    March 25, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    glad to hear from Gerald on all this too.

    part of what makes the story so interesting for me, as somene who obnserved and followed the Farm from afar and interacted with a lot fo the publications and tours, and also with people who were there on one level or another, si ‘spoiler” aspect – i know how it all came out. it’s really interesting and instructive to hear HOW the perspective of Cliff and gerald and the other old-timers changed, and some of it i think was just about growing up. what we need and are ready to accept in terms of teachings and developing discipline when we are in our early twenties turns out to be really different from what we need and want as adults in our mid thirties, or older. This is especially so whenahve raised children to the age semi-independence, deeloped a lot of or own understandings of what hipies and unitarians like to call” the Universe, learned several trades or crafts to survive, and found that some types of idealism work well and some are bst in the realmof our fondest dreams and imaginings.

    one of the things that draws my attention about the farm even as the original dream broke up is that it escaped the radar of the negative attention focused on “cults’ with “charismatic leaders.” (some other time i will old forth on how the only real differnce between :cul;t” and “mainstream religion” is numbers – if there were only three hundred Catholics in the world, or a thousand Mormons, we;d find them a cult – and I’m not picking on those two Christian paths specifically, just using them as examples. to be found in any religion.)

    anyway, I knew a lot of ‘cults’ or “new religious movements” as the schoalrs who are sympathetic ike to call them when i was a teen in the early 70s. my friends were in and out of some of them, and stephen in some ways has to be viewed in context. he definitely was teh teacher/father figure for the group head – but some ways the intelligence he promoted among his students WORKED. you had the intelligence to elt go – and to his everlasting credit in my book, Stephen was reasonably gracious, at least as i have seen it, about saying ‘well, it was getting old anyway.” maybe he too had matured but couldn’t get out of it without a financial meltdown AND a sort of popular rebellion.

    more on all this if anyone is interested. we cold also blog about it elsewhere if it is getting too far afield for the comments here – contact me – – if interested in some inks and ideas.


  13. June 21, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks, Gerald, for “independent confirmation” of my own and others’ assessment of Stephen’s relationship to lineage and the limitations that engendered….

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