Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

Reflections on Charlotte Selver and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

An Interview with Yvonne Rand

This is an edited excerpt of a much longer interview which was conducted as part of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project.

Yvonne Rand: The first time Charlotte and Suzuki Roshi* taught together in North Beach in San Francisco in 1967. It was the first time Suzuki Roshi had met Charlotte. He was right there doing everything with her. He led part of the day, and she led part of the day, and he was completely a participant.

Yvonne RandHis students noticed that. Oh, so this is a teacher we should pay attention to. There were also some of Charlotte’s students who felt a resonating with Suzuki Roshi and what he was teaching.

I remember one of Charlotte’s first workshops at Green Gulch where she had some big stones. She had us lie down on the floor and put the stones on different parts of the body as a way of bringing attention to the body. Suzuki Roshi was thrilled with all of that. Because for us as Americans, even to this day, we concentrate our attention very much from the neck up. So I think he was very glad to feel that kind of company and mutuality between what he was doing and what she was doing.

For Suzuki Roshi, who loved stones – he was mad for stones – to meet somebody like Charlotte who used stones in her teaching, and who would use stones as a way of introducing her students to a kind of awakening of sensing, and beginning to allow oneself to pay attention to what one experiences in a body-based, sense-based, way – it was clear to him that she could provide what was missing.

For a Japanese Zen priest here in the United States at that time, body-based work and practice would have been unusual. To find a Westerner who was doing the kind of work Charlotte was doing which resonated so strongly with Zen and with his own experience was rare. And I think there’s a way in which he sometimes felt rather lonely. He certainly had a very close connection with his students. But there was something different and reassuring about the kind of company that you have that’s collegial with another teacher.

Most American Zen students tended to dogmatism – it’s almost as though people had blinders on. If Zen practice is not strict and formal, it is not Zen. And yet if you look at the history of Zen in China and in Vietnam and Japan, there are all these eccentrics, and there are all the different forms that are recognized as the expression of Buddhism and in particular of Zen teachings.

My sense, from Suzuki Roshi, was that it was very clear to him that Charlotte’s practice was very much a spiritual practice, one that could give people experientially a sense of how to awaken from the neck down.

So there is a way in which Charlotte’s teaching, towards the latter part of her life, integrated into this community which was primarily focused on Buddhism and primarily focused on Suzuki Roshi’s teachings. There was some sense of resonating, I think both for her and her students and subsequently for the Zen students at the time.

I remember talking to Suzuki Roshi about his experience of teaching with Charlotte. That was when he made the comment about what she is doing is bringing in the elements that have to do with ceremony, a kind of ceremony that was body-based.

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt: It’s interesting that you point to the importance of ceremony and ritual, and how Sensory Awareness or Charlotte played a part in that because . . .

Yvonne: Well that was Suzuki Roshi’s perception.

Stefan: Charlotte of course avoided ceremony and ritual.

Yvonne: Well, she did and she didn’t. I mean having a meal out there on the patio at their house in Muir Beach was everything about ritual and ceremony, disguised if you will under the designation of, “let’s have lunch together.” But my sense was when I ate meals with Charlotte and Charles, that there was a way in which sitting down to eat a meal was a sacred practice, a spiritual practice. That was very clear to me. That was one of the things I appreciated about Charlotte. Because I felt there was a way in which Suzuki Roshi would – how can I put it? I felt like that he was present whenever I’d go up there to the house and have lunch with Charlotte and Charles, or later just with Charlotte. There was a sense of, oh, Suzuki Roshi would have enjoyed this. And it’s also to some degree the way Charlotte arranged the house. The way she dressed. The way she taught, how she would arrange the room, and the kinds of things she would do in her teaching.

And also I think Charlotte maybe was the first person I knew who was supportive of setting the table without having everything match. The dishes didn’t necessarily all match; the silverware certainly didn’t all match. The napkins might or might not all match. So even that was a kind of play. I never experienced her as being held by the need for perfection. She really wanted to invite whatever responsiveness would arise out of somebody that would be unique to them. And that sense of uniqueness, I think she really expressed.

Stefan: Yes. At the same time, while it might not have mattered whether or not things matched, it was not out of carelessness.

Yvonne: No, no. It was not chaotic. The table was always harmonious. She had a developed sense of presentation. And I think that that cultivated sense of aesthetics on Charlotte’s part in particular was something that really rang true for Suzuki Roshi. It was one of the places where he felt a real connection with her. That sense of shared enthusiasm was a great gift for him because it gave him a sense of friendship. It is one of the reasons why I think he was so sympathetic and keen on having her teach his students.

I thought about a sesshin with Suzuki Roshi the other day and I thought of Charlotte in conjunction with this. He said, “It is true that sometimes I am the teacher and you are the student. But it is also true that sometimes you are the teacher and I am the student.” And maybe a year before that I drove him back from Tassajara after Thanksgiving dinner. We got back to the sokoji [the temple in San Francisco] at about midnight, one o’clock in the morning. He slept the whole way. That was his usual thing. And of course he woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and proceeded to give me a teaching on trust. That started with, “I don’t trust anyone.” And his concern about his students and the need he felt we all expressed of needing to trust him. And he said, “Sometimes I’m trustworthy and sometimes I’m not. But you’re barking up the wrong tree. What about trusting yourself? How come it’s all projected out like this?”

And Charlotte had a certain kind of – the word that comes up but it doesn’t seem quite accurate – a kind of capacity for devilment. A capacity to be a little naughty, to be a little playful, which he had also.

I used to drive Suzuki Roshi to Tassajara, back and forth. And one time, at the top of the ridge before we started down into Tassajara, across a barbed wire fence in a pasture, there were some ferns. But at the stage before they had opened up, where they’re described as fiddlehead ferns. And in that stage where they’re still all closed, they’ve come up, but they haven’t opened, they’re a great treat in Japan. And Suzuki Roshi said, “Yvonne, stop. Stop the car.” And then he pointed and he said, “I want you to go get me as many of those as you can. Do you have something you can put them in?” And I said, “But Suzuki Roshi, there’s this big ‘No Trespassing’ sign.” He said, “Ignore it!”

Stefan: I laugh because I did things just like that with Charlotte.

Yvonne: Yes. Well, that’s what I mean when I say there was this kind of naughty resonating between them. So, he put his foot on the barbed wire like this so I could scoot through, and then he went back and sat in the car, rolled the window down, giving me instructions, at which point did I have enough. It was only after I had practically decimated the whole field of ferns! And when he said: “Okay, we have to get to Tassajara very quickly. Drive as fast as you can.” And he went right to the kitchen where he made fiddlehead soup. He was so excited, he could hardly stand it.

Stefan: That could have been Charlotte.

Yvonne: Yes. Well, I think it’s that sense of, how can I put it? For Suzuki Roshi, he saw the ferns, so there was this immediate sense of his delight and enthusiasm and thrill at seeing them, and immediately – he was almost drooling he was so excited. And I think of the two of them having that kind of physical enthusiastic reaction to something they were delighted by.

In terms of my own teaching as a Zen teacher, I’m viewed by traditionalists as being rather eclectic, but actually I think that is not at all accurate. There is a way in which the Japanese Zen tradition can be misread as teaching a disconnect from the physical body. Part of what opened up Zen in America, in physical terms, was Charlotte’s and Charles’ work which was so much about bringing attention back into a more body-based way, not coming from Asia, but coming from Europe.

Stefan: So would you say in your work today what you learned from Charlotte is somehow present?

Yvonne: Very much so. Charlotte helped me understand how, particularly for Americans, there is so much emphasis on thoughts, and often a kind of disregard or diminishment of what we are experiencing in a more body-based way, and how reliable body sensing is in a way that thinking can be but often is not. She enabled me to appreciate what happens when you do walking meditation and you really let the foot come to the floor. Well, I think of Charlotte in that context. That sense of when you walk and you feel the movement of the air in the room. For a lot of meditators, they’re so in their heads that it’s like, huh? What are you talking about? My sense is that the heart of Charlotte’s work was paying attention to everything we know through the senses. And the fact that she was drawing on her own experience as a westerner, and her own experience with her teacher, for me, that’s been crucially important.

I think she was an important person for those of us who had a chance to work with her, who were also practicing Zen. There was a way in which her teaching brought everything to life. . . . Rather than going to rigidity, there was no way she was going to collaborate with rigidity.

* San Francisco Zen Center was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971) and his American students. Suzuki-roshi, a Japanese Zen priest belonging to the Soto lineage, came to San Francisco in 1959 at the age of fifty-four. Already a respected Zen master in Japan, he was impressed by the seriousness and quality of "beginner's mind" among Americans he met who were interested in Zen and decided to settle here. (From the web site of San Francisco Zen Center. For more information go to www.sfzc.org.)

Yvonne Rand is a meditation teacher and lay householder priest in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition. She began her practice and study of Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1966. Her other principal teachers and mentors have been Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Maureen Stuart Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Venerable Tara Tulku, and Shodo Harada Roshi. Her primary practice path is Zen, augmented by practices and teachings from the traditions of Theravada and Vajrayana. Ms. Rand incorporates insights from the psychotherapy traditions in her teaching. She also investigates the relevance of the arts and gardening for training the mind. Ms. Rand is married and is a mother and a gardener. (For more information go to www.goatintheroad.org.)

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