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Conversation with Jack Elias

Jack Elias was one of the original residents of Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery in California founded by Suzuki Roshi in 1967. Three years later, Jack was there when Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche first met Roshi at Zen Center in San Francisco. The profound friendship that formed between the two great pioneers of buddhadharma in the West was cut short when Roshi died of cancer a year and a half later. Jack, along with many (thirty or forty?) other Zen Center students, joined Rinpoche's embryonic community in Boulder after Roshi's death. Jack's stories below illustrate the tender affection that the two great teachers had for one another.

Jack is currently the director of Finding True Magic, a hypnotherapy center in Seattle. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife, Ceci.

For more information about the life and teachings of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and for some really great interviews about Roshi and the experiences of his American students, visit Crooked Cucumber.

Update: (17 Jan 05) David Chadwick did an interview with Jack in 1995, which he has just posted on cuke.com. Here's a link: Crooked Cucumber Interview with Jack Elias. It's got some overlap with this interview along with some deeper personal reflections. There's also an outstanding question about the six pack (see DC's intro).

I talked to Jack in his home in Ballard, a neighborhood in northwest Seattle, on 21 November 2003. -WF

JE: I first met Rinpoche at Zen Center in San Francisco. I was a student of Suzuki Roshi and I was practicing intensely there and what I remember about Rinpoche was his extraordinary presence. When he first came to talk several of us were watching him like hawks and we were also watching Suzuki Roshi to see what he would think of him. Rinpoche came and, of course, he had a limp, and he was drinking and smoking. But none of that was really a problem because his sense of presence was so strong. Very heartfelt presence. He obviously was an embodiment of the teachings—not just a teacher of the teachings. Later, Suzuki Roshi confirmed that. But after his first visit, about six of us, Bob Halpern and me and David Chadwick and Michael Gillmore, maybe a couple of other people, we went out and got six packs of beer.

WF: That probably wasn't an ordinary daily event, was it?

JE: No. And we had a meeting the next night with Roshi to ask him what he thought and the one comment I remember was that he didn't know if Rinpoche would live long enough to be a great teacher but that he was the real thing. But what really clinched it for me with Rinpoche was seeing how he was with Roshi. As it turns out (I didn't know this at the time), Rinpoche had very little regard for most of the spiritual teachers he met in America. Roshi was an outstanding exception. Rinpoche even commented that meeting Roshi was like meeting his own root guru again. There are two experiences I had around that time, which deeply affected me and sealed my fate — made me realize I would study with Trungpa Rinpoche when Roshi died.

The first one happened when I was coming home one day to the Zen Center, which is a big institutional building on 300 Page Street. The front door opens into a big lobby and there's a desk there in the lobby. So I'm about 23 maybe; a young guy. And I'm just kind of full of energy, bopping up the steps to Zen Center, expecting to find a fellow student sitting at the desk when I open the door. So I just sort of burst in the door with my speedy mind and there sit Roshi and Rinpoche. Roshi is sitting there with a little smile on his face looking down, just delicately pushing a pencil around and Rinpoche is sitting to his left, sideways, facing Roshi, kind of leaning over with this total focus and devotion. It was a great teaching.

WF: Can you say more about that?

JE: He was totally unselfconsciously open-hearted and honoring Roshi. Totally undistracted in that. I loved Roshi, so seeing that Rinpoche loved Roshi like that....there was no question in my mind. Because I had met other powerful Tibetan teachers with a powerful sense of presence but I'd never experienced anyone relate to Roshi like that.


Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Then the other experience was at Roshi's funeral. All these dignitaries came. All kinds of dignitaries: political, spiritual, all these important Zen masters came from Japan. Rinpoche was the only person in the room who was naked. He was just a totally brokenhearted human being. There was no shred of an idea in him of being anyone. It was just obvious. Seeing him initiated me. From that point on, I felt I could recognize someone who has an ego or doesn't have an ego. Next to him, you could see everybody else had their trips. But he was just there, as a human being with a broken heart. So I was completely taken by him. I stayed at Zen Center for about a year kind of winding things up and then I asked Rinpoche if I could go to Boulder and I moved to Boulder.


Shunryu Suzuki at Rinso-in, his temple in Japan (1966?).

I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time, close to Rinpoche for awhile in the beginning. A lot of the early students were just kind of outrageous and wild and disrespectful and cynical. So in some ways, the handful of Zen students who came to Boulder, had a head start in terms of understanding how precious he was and how to relate to him. So I was lucky, I became his attendant. I got to get him up in the morning and fix his food and drive him to work and I also spent some time as his personal assistant at work.

Here's a little incident that was very meaningful for me. I was his attendant and we were at this big apartment complex that had a swimming pool. I had attended him for several years and I'd seen him....you know, he was absolutely fearless. He couldn't be intimidated by people or politics and he never seemed concerned for his own welfare. We were at this apartment complex and he wanted to go in the water. I was helping him get into the water and he was terrified. There was no shred of a conflict in his mind, like "Oh, I can't let him see I'm terrified, I'm a great Rinpoche," or something. He was just who he was. So it was a fantastic teaching for me. I felt very very grateful to be with him in that moment. Afterwards there was no sense of how he was going to explain this to me. The fact that he was so completely ordinary and humble, just a present human being with no selfconsciousness....it made my heart soften and open to see that kind of honesty.

WF: Thank you. That's a lovely story. I know what you mean about his quality of being very vulnerable and human. I think that's a big part of why we loved him so much.

JE: Here's another little story. While I was at Zen Center I was very impressed with one of the stories about the Buddha. When he was dying all of the disciples and bodhisattvas tried all of these things and urged him to cure himself and not to leave. But the way I heard the story, if Ananda, who was his main attendant, had just asked him straight out to stay, he would have stayed. Ananda did everything but that. That really stuck with me, so when I found myself being Rinpoche attendant I got it in my mind, "Well, we're not going to make this mistake again." This was probably '72 or '73, during the cynical stage when people were laying down in the meditation hall. I was his attendant and I also was helping him at the office. So I had access to him. One day I went in to his room and I started prostrating to him and he kind of straightened up and his eyes kind of opened and he just watched me very intently and then I went right up to his lap. I was on my knees. I said "Rinpoche, if Ananda had asked the Buddha to stay, he would have stayed. So I'm asking you. I want you to stay for a long time." He said "Okay. It's a deal." And then something entirely unexpected happened. I felt like my life was over. I felt like I'd accomplished my life. I got up and I sat in a chair and we were just silent for a long time and then we started making small talk. I don't know what happened after that, but it was a very powerful experience for me personally.

WF: When did you meet Suzuki Roshi?

JE: In 1967.

WF: You were very young.

JE: I was twenty. At the end of my sophomore year of college I had what seemed at the time like a very big experience and the next day somebody handed me a brochure about the first Zen monastery opening in America and I took the brochure and I read it and two weeks later I was there. I remember I wrote a letter explaining this experience I had and why I wanted to come and practice. I felt that I'd had this realization. Basically it was like a classic experience that a lot of people were having at that time — that we're already saved, we're already complete, something like that.

I didn't know about Suzuki Roshi. I had been reading Zen Buddhist books and I felt an incredible affinity for it. So I wrote this letter saying I wanted to come but I didn't wait for an answer, I just went across the country. I was in Connecticut in school, Wesleyan University, and I just went to San Francisco with a backpack on my back. I walked in the door of the Zen Center in San Francisco and KaTaggieri Roshi was sitting there. So I started talking to him. But he couldn't understand what I was saying. I didn't really notice, but there was a long table and there were several people there. Dick Baker was there, Yvonne Rand, and several other people. I was still talking to KaTaggieri and obviously I wasn't getting anywhere and finally Dick Baker said, "Hey. He can't understand you very well. Who are you? What's going on?" I said, "Well, my name's Jack Elias and I'm here to go to Tassajara." And Dick said, "You can't. It's full." I was immediately crestfallen. He said, "Well, come on, sit down. Tell me about yourself." And I said, "Well, I've come from Connecticut and my name is Jack Elias and I had this experience and I wrote you guys a letter...." And he said "Wait a minute. Jack Elias. A letter. You were accepted." Someone goes and gets the file. They had accepted me. I just hadn't gotten word.

After Rinpoche died, I had a hard time when people decided to remove Roshi's picture from the shrine. To me that was just like "Oh, boy, now it's becoming orthodoxy and people are going to lose what this connection was."

WF: That connection to Roshi is an important part of who we are and what Trungpa Rinpoche taught us. Do you recall anything else that Roshi might have said about Trungpa Rinpoche?


Shunryu Suzuki at Tassajara

JE: Yeah, we used to have dinner with Roshi. Very informally we'd come and we'd have dinner with this wonderful, loving feeling and clarity and presence in the room and one night we were talking and he said "I think somebody's coming." He said, "I think somebody's coming," and he's playing very sweetly with his fork or something. He said, "Maybe no one be left at Zen Center but Roshi." And then he laughed. You know, and not too long after that, Trungpa Rinpoche appeared on the scene. And eventually about 20 or 30 Zen students ended up going. I think only one or two, maybe Bob Halpern, maybe one or two others, actually went to Boulder before Roshi died. But Bob also came back; he was going back and forth. But most everybody else, I think, didn't leave until after Roshi died.


....the precepts are what they are because they express something that's in accord with our true nature.


Another time, I think during his second visit, Trungpa Rinpoche actually gave a talk one evening. After the talk, he was walking towards the door, limping; he'd been drinking. He was leaning on his attendants, and we were all watching, standing there with Roshi. With great feeling in his voice Roshi said "There goes a true Buddhist."

Rinpoche just had more energy, but he wasn't more enlightened, I don't think, if I could be so bold. Some of my most precious moments with Roshi were hearing him speak about the dharma and feeling his teachings alive inside of me. I remember once he was talking about the precepts, that they're not exterior, arbitrary things. That the precepts are what they are because they express something that's in accord with our true nature. I literally felt that the precepts were alive in the cells of my body — that the precepts are what we are and that the language is just trying to describe it. Roshi had the power to do that.

In terms of the relationship between Roshi and Rinpoche, when Rinpoche introduced the Shambhala Teachings, it felt to me like Roshi's teachings. I remember I went in for my exam and it was John, who passed away, the attorney? John Roper. He was my examiner. He asked me some questions and I answered them and he said, "Well, you seem to know this stuff pretty good." And it wasn't just my answers. I felt the energy and it was very much Roshi's energy, come to think of it. The Shambhala teachings have always been that for me. I was in the first group to go all the way through. I was like a fish in water, even though there were new terms and stuff. But the energy felt like the same sense or the same light. So maybe there was some connection there.

WF: That's really interesting.

JE: Oh, here's one last very sweet story. Rinpoche assigned me to be one of the Karmapa's 24-hour guards in San Francisco. This was in '74. David Keith and I were with the Karmapa in his house for a week, 24 hours a day. There was that sense of being supported by the grace of the guru. I just felt like I could dance in ten directions at the same time and always do the right thing. The Karmapa was very generous and kind. Always inviting. Once I went running up the stairs and he was just coming out of the bath in a bathrobe. I went "Ahhhh!" And he just laughs and motions for me to come over. There's a chair in the hallway. He sits down in his bathrobe, talks to me in Tibetan for awhile, and pats me on the head.

Back in Boulder I was escorting Rinpoche through Marpa House one day. He was inspecting people's rooms. We went into this room and there was a picture of His Holiness and we just stood there looking at it. I felt this sweet movement in my heart — just like a little stream of energy, looking at this picture of His Holiness. I didn't say anything. We went on and we went around to the different rooms and then we started going out to the car and Rinpoche said, "You go on ahead and get the car ready. I'll be right out." So I did and he came out a moment later and got into the car and he said, "Here, I want you to take care of this for me." It was the picture of His Holiness. I'm still taking care of it for him.

WF: You still have the picture?

JE: Here, I'll show it to you. [Jack goes and gets the photograph of His Holiness.]


Photograph of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa
given to Jack by CTR "to take care of."

WF: Thank you, Jack. That's a really great story and a really lovely string of stories. I hope to get a lot more stories from people who knew Roshi.

©2005 by Jack Elias

Thank you to David Chadwick for his permission to use these images of Roshi from cuke.com.

Many thanks to Graciela Marin for transcribing this interview with Jack.

* * *

Here's an interesting conversation with David Chadwick about the six pack that Jack mentions.

DC: ....I'm putting up on cuke.com an old interview I did with Jack and linking to yours and his site. I'm calling him to clarify this thing about buying a six pack of beer after talking to Roshi about Rinpoche. In my interview (which is ten years old and has a lot of overlap with yours) he says that Bob and Mike Gilmore went out and bought a six pack for Roshi. So I'm going to clarify that with him. It wasn't unusual for some of us to go out to a bar in the evening but that would have been unusual - but not unimaginable cause we were all whacko.

Another thing is that you say, "Jack, along with several other Zen Center students, joined Rinpoche's embryonic community in Boulder after Roshi's death." Well, it was a handful at first maybe, a handful before Roshi died - not just Halpern. Henry Schaeffer is another that comes to mind. But soon it was many who went there. I visited Boulder now and then, sometimes for weeks, and I remember Alan Marlow throwing me a party and I swear that I counted 50 people from Zen Center there. Or maybe I counted 50 on that trip. Incidentally, Jack and Alan were both quite thoughtful and helpful when I'd visit. And I always like to see Jack when I go to the Northwest. He is truly a kind and caring soul.

WF: I'll be interested to see what Jack says about the six pack. Come to think of it, you're right about the handful becoming many. I tend to forget who came from Zen Center. But now that you mention a few names, I remember more people as well. I'll revise my intro. I interviewed Henry last summer (another lovely person who gets better with age) and as soon I get it transcribed I'll be posting parts of it. I find his perspective really interesting and his memory -- especially for visual things -- is really amazing.

DC: I have one with Henry too that I could put up - don't think it's there. I'll look to see if there's anyone else on your site I should link to or may have an interview with or should do one with etc.

WF: I don't think I have any interviews online with other Zen students but if you find any, link away....Thanks for posting your interview with Jack -- it's nice to read -- more personal than mine ....

DC:I talked to Jack and said that in the interview with you he said we went out and bought a six pack of beer and with me ten years ago said that Gilmore and Halpern went out and got one for Roshi. He doesn't remember but agreed with me that the older version is the only one that makes sense or is memorable. Going out to buy a six pack for themselves doesn't make much sense. No big deal.

WF: Thanks for the detective work. I'll add this conversation to the end of Jack's story. By the way, I really enjoy having this link (or bridge) to cuke.com -- look forward to more of the same as I talk to more of our mutual friends. W




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