Note to folks linked here from Erowid
I sent the following piece about Datura to Erowid several years ago and just the other day I was notified that it was published there. I don’t know how it got linked to my website instead, which I haven’t been posting on for some time. It was originally a post in the main archives of this site and I recently moved it over to a memoir I’m working on of that period (the sixties) with the intention of reworking it, along with some other former posts. That’s why what follows this piece is a bit of a jumble.
Anyway, I’m getting some traffic here suddenly, which I don’t mind, but I apologize for any bother it might have caused you.
Maybe this will inspire me to start posting here again and even work on my memoir some more.
THE DATURA LADY
“…the external world is only a manifestation of the activities of the mind itself, and the mind grasps it as an external world simply because of the habit of discrimination and false reasoning.”
In the late sixties, while I was living in a shack by a pond in the Sierra foothills, I visited my old buddy Mel and his new girlfriend, a slender little redhead. They were on a small secluded island in the Sacramento River Delta, in a ramshackle house hung out over the water’s edge on tall stilts that provided support for impressive spider webs woven by large yellow and black spiders, each sitting motionless in the center of her shining orb.
A narrow, floating, wooden dock reached out into the placid green water where an old boat, which had deposited me there earlier, was tied up. It was not much more than a rowboat with an outboard motor on the back, but we went put-putting merrily around the delta channels that stretched out in every direction, the three of us sitting naked in the little boat with the hot summer sun beating down, occasionally stopping to jump into the river and swim around to cool off.
At the end of the day I walked with Mel to the garden behind the house to pick some vegetables for dinner. The center of the little island was lower than the perimeter on which their cottage rested. As we walked down the path we went past a round bush, almost as tall as myself, festooned with white trumpet-shaped flowers with soft yellow centers. When I passed close by the bush I felt a familiar psychic rush, which I immediately took to be an LSD flashback. Although I’d never experienced flashbacks, I’d been warned that someday I would.
He explained that it was a Datura bush grown from seeds he brought back from a trip to the Grand Canyon. He was teaching at an alternative high school and he took the kids on a field trip to the Colorado River Basin. They picked some leaves from Datura growing nearby and mixed it with hamburgers they barbequed at their campsite.
Mel said that after that things got really crazy, with real-looking people appearing out of rock formations and everyone hallucinating and staggering around. Some kids even fell into the river and he had to go in and pull them out.
“We were lucky no one died,” he exclaimed.
On the way back to the house I stopped at the bush, reached in and picked a green seed pod, about the size of a golf ball, with little spikes sticking out the sides that reminded me of the explosive floating mines used to destroy ships. I brought it with me when I returned to the foothills and placed it on a shelf over my desk, where it sat for several weeks.
Until one day…
I awoke that morning feeling like I wanted to get high and do yoga. I searched everywhere for some marijuana, but couldn’t even find a roach. Then my gaze fell on the seed pod on the shelf. “Aha,” I thought.
Excited by the prospect of trying something new, I made a hot mug of home-grown peppermint tea, with a generous spoonful of honey, and proceeded to break open the seed pod. Inside was about a half cup of small flat seeds similar to poppy seeds. I chewed up several mouthfuls, washing them down with tea.
“Doesn’t taste too bad,” I thought as I finished the last of the seeds and sat back with anticipation to wait for the Datura to take effect
It didn’t take long. With unexpected force, wave after wave of body rushes enveloped me, similar to LSD coming on, but way stronger — huge waves of energy that made every hair on my body stand on end.
I noticed that the mug I was drinking tea from was becoming unusually heavy. It was a large hand-made ceramic piece, somewhat weighty, but nothing like this. It felt like it weighed about thirty pounds. In fact, everything, my body included, was getting very, very heavy — as if on the planet Jupiter, with way more gravity than what we’re used to here on earth.
“This is too much,” I thought, as I sank to the floor under my own weight, “I’ve got to get rid of it.”
I crawled on my belly out the front door into the morning sunlight and stuck two fingers down my throat as far as they would go, hoping to vomit up what I’d swallowed. I gagged a few times but nothing would come up.
Resigned, I crawled back inside. “I can handle this,” I told myself bravely, “I’m a Yogi.”
Taking big doses of LSD had taught me to let the ego die, relax into the fear, and go out the other side to a place where nothing could touch me because I‘d given myself up completely.
As I always did before yoga practice, I slipped out of my clothes, only this time I did it while lying flat on the floor like a snake shedding it’s skin. I grabbed the thick canvas gym mat with a red four-peddled lotus chakra I’d painted on it and rolled it out into the center of the room where the old floor curved gradually up to a slight peak.
I crawled onto the mat, folded my legs into the full lotus, straightened my back, and gazed over at the undulating silky white curtain that separated the main room from my small kitchen. It was a relief to be back on my usual meditation spot. The repressive feeling of excessive weight dissipated.
I don’t remember much after that, except that I know I wasn’t passed out or unconscious. I spent the entire day sitting there, tripping wildly, hallucinating like crazy, leaving my body and showing up in different places. It was jumbled and chaotic, one disconnected episode after another, with memory blackouts in between.
I was to learn later that sitting in the full lotus with legs locked so that the body can’t get up and run around while the mind is tripping elsewhere, was apparently a good thing to do and might have even saved my life, or at least spared me major embarrassment. Like Mel’s field trip students who fell into the Colorado River, people on Datura (or Jimson weed as it’s called in the Southwest) frequently run off cliffs or onto busy highways.
When I finally stood up the sun was going down. I’d been sitting in the full-lotus the whole day — way more than what I was used to (datura was once used as an analgesic for bone setting and surgery).
The drug had apparently worn off enough for my memory to start functioning again.
The next thing I knew I was in Berkeley, walking up the sidewalk past Live Oak Park towards my parents house, as I’d done numerous times. Everything seemed normal. I completely forgot I was on Datura. I went up the steps and rang the doorbell. No one answered. The front door was unlocked, so I went in.
As I often did when visiting my folks, I walked through the house to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and peered inside to see if there was anything good to eat. Sure enough, a big, beautiful red apple beckoned from one of the shelves. I reached for it and in an instant I was back in the foothills, my bare legs painfully tangled up in a barbwire fence on the hill overlooking the few buildings that made up the town of Copperopolis.
Somehow I managed to extricate myself from the barbwire and stumble back down the slope in the dark. I was grateful I’d returned to my body before I got to the highway — where I probably would have run naked through the town, whose residents were already skeptical of me.
I realized later that without my awareness my body had walked up a hill that was about the same slope and distance as walking up the sidewalk to my parents house, which apparently was a mental projection in a duplicate body, a parallel hallucination that had seemed perfectly real, even ordinary, with nothing out of place or unusual. The pain from the barbed wire must have provoked an abrupt return to my original body.
Once I was back in my room again I lit the kerosene lamp — only to discover I was bleeding profusely from deep gashes across the top of both thighs from the barbed wire. I didn’t even have a Band-Aid and this looked like it would require some stitches.
I did the first thing that came to mind. I visualized myself drawing light energy from my solar plexus into both hands and then I glided my open hands above my thighs while directing the light down into the wounds. It was a healing ritual I’d come up with and practiced on many an ailment, but never with such success — the bloody slashes closed up and disappeared, leaving behind a clean white scar across each thigh.
I’d write it off as an hallucination, except for the fact that both scars, several inches long, are still visible over fifty years later. A little memento from the Datura Lady.
I’d barely had time to compose myself, when headlights shone through the window and I heard a car coming down the hill. I looked out the window. Sure enough, a small Hillman coupe was pulling up outside. It didn’t occur to me that there was no longer a road to my place and I hadn’t had a visitor in over a year.
“What a time for someone to show up,” I thought, “When I’m totally out of my mind on some exotic drug.”
I peered through the window under the curtain as three people got out of the car. A younger man who was the driver walked around the pond and disappeared into the woods. An old man with a white beard went and sat down near the edge of the pond and gazed into the water. The third person, a woman, came in my back door, through the kitchen, and walked into my room.
That’s when I remembered I was still totally naked. I grabbed my pants but every time I tried to get my legs into them I fell over backwards like I was drunk. After several clumsy attempts I laughed sheepishly and stood up to confront my visitor.
She was a stout, nondescript middle-aged woman with dark hair, possibly Hispanic or Italian, quite unremarkable — like somebody’s mom. As I looked at her she suddenly changed into a life-sized color photograph on a cardboard cutout, such as might grace the aisle of a grocery store next to a stack of canned beans. I blinked, and she changed back into what appeared to be a real, normal looking person.
I tried to say something, to explain or apologize for my lack of clothing, but my words came out garbled and high-pitched like a raccoon, as if I’d just inhaled helium.
I finally gave up trying to talk when I realized that my visitor was speaking with her mind, the words appearing directly in my head as if I were thinking them myself. She said she was the plant I’d eaten earlier and explained in great detail who she was, who I was, how it all worked. She revealed the profoundest secrets of existence, what seekers like myself long to realize — everything.
Unfortunately I forgot most of it immediately.
One thing I did remember is that near the end she said something to the effect that every person was like a drop of water and that each of those drops eventually flowed into a little stream. The streams flowed together until they became a river and all the rivers eventually flowed into the ocean, which was one huge, all-encompassing being.
She said that she was like a mighty river. With that she changed into a different person, then another and another, both male and female, each one distinctly real and unique. Countless faces one after another continued to appear and disappear — even after I realized I was lying on my bed fading into a deep sleep.
I awoke the next morning and sat bolt upright. Was I still on Datura? I cautiously got out of bed. Everything seemed like it was back to normal. I opened the front door and stepped out into the sunlight. For a moment it looked like any other summer morning in the foothills, when suddenly, in a flash, the entire scene turned red, like a red filter had been placed over both of my eyes. I gasped, turned, ran back inside, got back into bed, closed my eyes and tried to relax.
After awhile I ventured out again. This time the colors were normal, but my relief was short-lived — I realized I’d become incredibly farsighted. Picking up a matchbook I couldn’t read any of the words on its front cover until I’d placed it on the ground about ten feet away from me. I could see a car going up a ridge several miles away in almost perfect detail, even the people inside, along a road I’d not been able to see at all before.
“Shit, what have I done?” I thought, almost laughing to myself, “I’m an artist. I depend on my eyes. I’ll have to get special brushes ten feet long,”
As the day wore on I was relieved to see that I was getting less farsighted each time I placed the matchbook cover on the ground in front of me. By nightfall my vision was back to normal. Later, when I went to the Optometry Department at the University of California in Berkeley and had my eyes tested, they were perfect, even better than they had been before.
It was interesting to read Carlos Castaneda’s book, The Teachings of Don Juan a few years later. He warns against ingesting any part of the plant because she can easily kill you. In the book a paste made from Datura root is spread on Castaneda’s legs that causes him to fly and have various hallucinations. Strange, very real-looking people, who appear out of nowhere, also figure predominantly in his books, but not connected directly with Datura — while that’s the only time I’ve seen such beings.
After taking Datura I realized that LSD, Psilocybin mushrooms and Peyote or Mescaline, are in an entirely different class when it comes to Hallucinations. Those drugs merely alter the perception of the immediate surroundings but are unlikely to create completely separate experiences of being somewhere else or of seeing people who did not exist before ingesting the drug. That’s what was so remarkable about Datura — each event and the people who appear are ordinary and real, rather than ephemeral or distorted, but they are still total hallucinations, or at least not a normal part of this reality.
Unfortunately the experience of Datura is so disconnected and disorienting that it is both unpleasant and without much benefit (for me at least) in the way of insights or transcendent experiences, such as psychedelics can sometimes reveal. The one thing I did learn from Datura is that the mind can create an entire reality out of thin air. We are dependent upon our senses for a perception of reality. That’s all we know. When we meet someone or find ourselves in a particular physical location, we assume it’s real. Datura showed me everything might instead be “only mind.”
Please be advised (from Wikipedia) — if you’re thinking of trying Datura, don’t. The tropane alkaloids responsible for both the medicinal and hallucinogenic properties are fatally toxic in only slightly higher amounts than the medicinal dosage, and careless use often results in hospitalizations and deaths. The amount of toxins varies widely from plant to plant. As much as a 5:1 variation can be found between plants, and a given plant’s toxicity depends on its age, where it is growing, and the local weather conditions. Additionally, within a given datura plant, toxin concentration varies by part and even from leaf to leaf. In traditional cultures a great deal of experience with and detailed knowledge of datura was critical to minimize harm.
With Patty gone, I busied myself with school and work. I still had to take a few classes to finish my undergraduate degree in painting and I was working part-time painting signs to pay for my education — which was easier in those distant times when rents were low and tuition at California universities was next to nothing.
I also sold paintings. In fact, almost everything I did was bought by someone, albeit for fairly modest prices. Starting at the age of eleven when my father took paintings I’d done and hung them at the University, where they sold surprisingly well, painting became a source of both monetary and psychological support. To take simple portable raw materials, canvas and paint, and make something that people would want and even pay for was immensely satisfying.
I came to deeply identify with the role of painter. I invariably had a pair of “paint pants” with so much oil paint encrusted on the front that they were waterproof and could almost stand up on their own. Wherever I lived I became the familiar paint-splattered figure in the neighborhood — the mad artist.
Shortly before I graduated the head of the Art Department took me aside and offered me a full fellowship if I stayed on and did graduate work at San Jose. This came as a complete surprise to me since I felt like an underachiever who usually did a semester’s work in a frantic last week of all-nighters. But my grades had been good and many of my teachers had asked to keep my paintings for their “files” — a subtle form of extortion that I was happy to engage in.
I knew that a fellowship was a fast-track to a career as a college art instructor, but I’d already applied and been accepted into the graduate program at San Francisco State. I was tired of living in San Jose with its oppressive summer heat and lingering memories of my time with Patty.
San Francisco, “the city,” was calling me. So despite feeling flattered and grateful, I regretfully declined the offer.
I sometimes wonder what my life might have been if I’d stayed in San Jose and eventually became a professor of art in the painting department. Things might have turned out very differently.
When I traveled to San Francisco to scout out possible places to live I answered an ad for a flat in the Haight Ashbury district. Nestled between Golden Gate Park and the surrounding hills, wisps of fog floated up gray streets lined with ornate once-prosperous Victorian homes standing upright side by side like faded but still beautiful women. The “Haight” whispered of something subtle and mysterious, stirring in me a delicious sense of hidden possibilities.
It was a diverse neighborhood. Russian and Armenian immigrants, who still owned most of the retail shops and restaurants on Haight Street, had moved in when the once spacious homes were first divided up into flats. Now young people attracted by the low rents and funky ambiance were beginning to arrive, bringing with them a culture of art and music, along with LSD and marijuana. The term “hippy” had yet to be coined and the beatnik era of coffee houses and jazz in North Beach was just coming to a close.
The house in the ad was a huge, imposing, cosmically ornate three-story Victorian standing at the corner of Ashbury and Page. It had once been painted white but the delicate woodwork gracing its lofty exterior, complex patterns of ornamental swirls and scallops, was weathered and graying like driftwood in the moist ocean air.
Haight Street was a short block up a slight hill. In the opposite direction, just down Ashbury, was the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, a wide strip of tall trees and lawn between two streets.
The house was owned by a bank in Palo Alto, which meant the owners wouldn’t be a cumbersome presence there. I met the agent out front and followed him under an ornate arch at the entrance and up a winding flight of stairs to a landing on the second floor, where he unlocked the door to the flat.
It was complete mess — littered with trash and debris from the previous tenants.
As I looked around inside, I experienced a subtle feeling, almost like being on LSD. For an instant I sensed the previous occupants drug experiences still hanging in the air like a lingering perfume. Most people would have been put off by the atmosphere inside, but I found it oddly attractive.
The flat had two large main rooms. From the first room a small round balcony jutted out from under an overhanging arch above page street. The second larger room, through double french doors, was lit by a huge vertical window that looked up Ashbury towards Haight Street. Next to that an equally tall bay window projected out around the corner of the room over to an ornate fireplace with ornamental mantels and intricate tile-work framing a small gas heater with an open burner behind its decorative metal front.
Past a full length beveled mirror was a small kitchen that looked to have been a walk-in closet at one time. Another door led into a commodious bathroom, where a high ceiling soared up above an extra long claw-foot bathtub.
Since it was such a mess the agent offered it to me for fiftyfive dollars a month with no deposit. I took it on the spot.
After thoroughly cleaning the flat I proceeded to paint the two main rooms, mixing my own paint to get just the right hues — a pale olive green, with a darker shade for the woodwork and trim. I painted the bathroom a rich shade of vaginal reddish pink with darker red trim, and did the tiny kitchen in deep blue.
On Mcallister Street in the Fillmore district, down the hill from the Haight, a trove of secondhand furniture stores provided me with sturdy mission oak furniture for a few dollars apiece and old oriental style carpets in soft faded shades, with sensuous intertwining floral patterns whose psychedelic quality I never tired of looking at.
While I was hauling furniture up the stairs I met the lady who occupied the flat opposite mine on the same floor. Her name was Mary Pat and, as I was to learn later, she was an LSD dealer of some repute. She was nice looking, about my age (twentythree), petite but voluptuous, with sharp features, short black hair, and eye-shadow and heavy makeup over pale skin. All she ever wore was short black slips, dark patterned nylons and shiny black pumps. When she went out she put on large dark sunglasses and donned a black trench coat over her slip.
I immediately felt a certain sexual attraction between us, but I was hesitant to get involved with someone living right next door. I also found her a little scary. Ned, who lived upstairs in the attic flat, would tell me in a hushed tone that she was a witch. But then Ned also had a reputation as a warlock, which I think he cultivated. Mary Pat never had anything good to say about him. When she did refer to Ned her eyes glanced up at the ceiling in his direction and she spat out his name in a venomous tone.
Ned’s flat, at the very top of the building, was graced with a round turret and cupola where he liked to hold court surrounded by walls decorated with colorful but cryptic pictures of occult subject matter. A cut-crystal globe hung from the center of the ceiling, refracting rainbow colors in all directions. He was a follower of Alister Crowley, one of the original renegade hipsters, who spurned the social and sexual mores of his time.
Like Crowley, Ned reveled in all things magical and arcane, hinting of mysteries beyond the kin of ordinary mortals. Women invariably described Ned as “creepy” and were afraid to be left alone with him. He was of average build, angular, with a high pointed forehead, pale skin, and straight greasy-looking black hair. He told me he’d been discharged from the army on psychological grounds, but he made it sound like it was all part of some larger hidden plan.
On my visits to his turret Ned invariably had something amazing to reveal to me, that he prefaced by squinting his eyes and rubbing his hands gleefully together while chortling like Igor about to unveil some new monster on an unsuspecting populace. I don’t think I ever saw him smoke or ingest much in the way of mind-altering substances himself, but he liked getting visitors high so he could regale them with his various discoveries in the dark arts.
Ned introduced me to the Tarot cards. As an artist I found their suggestive imagery and associations fascinating. I immediately went downtown to a tiny “magick” store and bought several different versions of them.
Lacking curtains, I’d been thinking of painting something on the big south-facing window with water soluble tempera paint, as I’d done on the windows in my last apartment in San Jose. Playing with the Tarot cards it occurred to me that they would be an ideal subject to paint on that window, which was just the right shape for a tarot card, over six feet tall and four feet wide.
I separated out the twentytwo “major arcana” cards from the fiftytwo less interesting “minor arcana” which correspond to a regular deck of playing cards, shuffled them, spread them out face down and picked one at random — number six, “The Lovers.”
I held the card up towards the window and squinted. Perfect. The two large widow panes exactly fit the composition. In the lower pane, two naked figures, Adam and Eve, stood on either side of a distant blue mountain. In the upper pane, under a stylized yellow sun and descending rays, an androgynous winged angel with autumnal leaves for hair sat on a cloud with hands out-stretched, as if to join the pair of lovers below.
I’ve always been good at copying things freehand, so painting the large image on the window with high-quality tempera colors was easy. When it was finished I thought it looked even better than the original, especially from down below in the street at night when the interior lights lit it up like stained glass.
I think it became something of landmark in the neighborhood and I even imagined it set the tone for what was to follow.
I went from town to town
and did not see one such as you
Can you really say
I have seen your face
When I first encountered Wolf he was standing on Haight Street sucking on a lemon half — which I was to learn he did whenever he was fasting.
“Do you know where it’s at man?” he asked
From the way it was uttered, between sucks on his lemon, the question of where “it” was “at” had vast implications. Here was a fellow seeker and spiritual friend.
Although I’d been reading zen books since high school, Wolf was my first introduction to living Zen, or Zen as embodied in real people. With his simple direct manner he sometimes struck me as a total idiot, or at best a god-intoxicated holy-fool. But he could come up with surprising insights into a situation or relationship, uttered in three or four words — that would “stun the common crowd and shut the mouths of the Patriarchs and sages.”
Stocky, with a large squarish head and chiseled features under ringlets of brown hair, Wolf had once been a member of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle club. More artistic than menacing, the Jokers were much admired for their grubby style and charisma, for which they were even respected by their ruder more violent brethren, the Hells Angels.
A man after my own taste in sartorial matters, Wolf would find a distinctive article of clothing, such as his thick, khaki-colored coat with a fur collar, and wear it continually, so it became a part of him, absorbing his energy (along with food stuffs and various other substances), until it had acquired a delicate patina of age and venerability, like the robe of some wandering mendicant. He wore that particular coat until it was hanging in shreds down the backs of his legs before finally relinquishing it.
Wolf had a placid countenance, a calmness that gave the impression of great weight and gravitas. There was also a subtle sadness in his large, liquid brown eyes that belied his gruff exterior. He was an orphan, but when he told me of being shuffled from one foster home to another as a child, he said it matter-of-factly, as if it was of little consequence.
In a neighborhood that was awash in marijuana and psychedelics, Wolf was unusually cautious with drugs, especially LSD. I sensed that he felt somewhat fragile in regard to the ingesting of such substances. I only heard him mention having taken LSD once and when I saw him shortly afterwards he was visibly shaken by the experience. He said that a homosexual had come on to him in the park while he was on it.
Wolf had found the perfect employment for a former motorcycle gang member — driving a Harley Davidson delivery motorcycle around the city.
One day I was treated to a dizzying display of his motorcycle prowess when the sound of a horn honking vigorously outside my flat drew me onto the small round balcony overlooking the corner of Ashbury and Page.
The street below was empty.
Then I heard the roar of an engine coming up Page Street. An old black delivery motorcycle shot into view and zoomed around and around the four-way intersection below, from curb to curb in a speeding blur, with the side-car compartment lifted almost vertically into the air.
As he sped off up Page street Wolf grinned back at me and honked his horn again.
Wolf’s lair, a few blocks down Page Street from my place, was at the top of a flight of steep narrow stairs in a drab Victorian apartment house. On the wall at the top of the dingy stairwell, dwarfing all the other nondescript stains and scribbles, was the word “AT,” crudely painted in large letters.
On my first visit, he reverently handed me his worn copy of “The Three Pillars of Zen” and guided me to the translation of an essay by the Japanese Zen Master Dogen titled “Being Time” — one of the most profound works by that most abstruse and complex of religious philosophers. “THAT’S where it’s at,” Wolf breathed, patting the page tenderly with a big, blocky hand.
It turns out IT was at many places and no place at the same time.
Wolf showed me through his squalid, disheveled, sparsely furnished apartment like a tour guide in the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t see what he was so proud of — until he lifted a rear window and gestured for me to climb out onto what I soon realized was a level section of roof high above the streets.
Stretching out below was a magnificent panoramic view of the city with precise rows of buildings shining in the late afternoon light and the bay and Berkeley hills in the distance.
It was there that I first met Hugh Banks, whom Wolf spoke of with rare respect. Huey, Wolf intimated, was some kind of Zen adept who periodically shaved his head and engaged in long bouts of deep meditation with Suzuki, a Zen priest who had recently arrived in San Francisco from Japan. Suzuki had a temple in Japantown on the other side of the Fillmore District, almost visible from Wolf’s roof.
As the three of us lounged on the roof and passed a thick marijuana joint, I took a closer look at Huey. His hair, barely a quarter inch long, was just starting to grow out again. In an era when most of us sported long locks and thick beards, his cropped head gave him the mad look of someone who had just escaped from a prison or insane asylum. In fact, he was a certified schizophrenic (with delusions of grandeur) who had spent most of his early years in mental institutions.
But it was more than simple insanity that set Huey apart from anyone else I had met up to that point. He had a certain presence that I found strangely appealing. He always seemed to be “on,” like an actor who must pay attention to his every movement in order to fit the part he was playing. He even had a peculiar way of walking, slowly and deliberately, as if watching himself from some distant vantage, with his weight back on his heels and his feet turned outward like Charlie Chaplin’s character, the little tramp.
Later, when his stringy blond hair had grown down to his shoulders, leaving a round bald spot at the crown of his head like a medieval friar, with a thick red beard flowing down from either side of his face, his chin tucked in and eyes gazing upward, he was the image of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.
When Huey first visited my flat he said that life itself can become a work of art, which summed up my philosophy precisely. His highest compliment was to say that someone was “real,” the implication being that most people were not really real — an estimation which I also tended to agree with.
Huey and Wolf adopted me, informally, as their apprentice. I became their straight man, the foil and audience for their Zen antics. They reminded me of the two legendary Zen cutups, Hanshan and Shidei, popular subjects of Chinese ink painters, whose inexplicable banter pointed to deep cosmic truths.
I was happy to let them show me their favorite hangouts around the city — beat generation holdovers like the graffiti and candle wax encrusted Blue Unicorn Coffee House, where poetry was spontaneously recited aloud and intense philosophical discussions routinely occurred.
Finally Huey proudly escorted me to Japantown to sit with Suzuki. After what was for me an exotic and delicious first taste of tempura in a tiny street kiosk, we approached the ornate wooden facade of the “Soto Zen Mission,” which had formally housed a Jewish Synagogue.
Suzuki met us just inside the door. After we took off our shoes and exchanged silent bows, he ushered us in, moving smoothly about like a solicitous host. He was very small in scale, but with an impressive presence, an erect but relaxed bearing, crisp dark robes over a spotless v-shaped white collar, and a smoothly shaved head.
He and Huey seemed to have a special relationship, circling in stylized movements and eyeing one another like two combatants, but with obvious enjoyment.
Since I was a newcomer Suzuki escorted me to a sitting cushion for initiation into the Soto Zen style of meditation. Although Huey had shown me the basic posture, I let Suzuki gently place me into position, basking in the warmth of his attention.
I had already meditated sporadically for short periods over the last few years and could sit in the half-lotus fairly comfortably, and even get into the full lotus for a few intense minutes. But I was unprepared for what lay ahead.
Gradually, in my rapidly expanding peripheral vision, others silently entered the room, bowing from the waist with palms together towards round black sitting-cushions, each on its own wide flat pad, arranged in a precise row along an expanse of wall. Turning and bowing again to the room, they sat down on their respective cushions and spun smoothly around to face the wall in meditation posture.
Suzuki moved silently about the room adjusting peoples’ postures, his hands touching their bodies with a tenderness that was remarkably natural and unselfconscious.
I checked my position: half-open eyes gazing slightly downward, the natural forward curve of my lower back slightly accentuated, chin tucked in, the crown of my head pointed toward the ceiling as if suspended by a cable, shoulders and arms relaxed downward, elbows out and hands resting lightly on my topmost foot with palms up and thumbs barely touching at a point just below my navel, making a circle or “cosmic mudra.”
A surge of pride came over me. This wasn’t so difficult.
I went over Suzuki’s instructions, counting my breaths from one to ten, starting over at one whenever my mind wandered into fleeting thoughts or sensations.
After awhile I went to the next step — watching my breath, simply letting it go slowly in and out through my nostrils, slightly emphasizing and prolonging the outbreath. Whenever my attention strayed I pulled it gently back to my breath.
Finally I felt my concentration was sufficient to attempt the final step — Shikantaza or “just sitting,” the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of Soto Zen practice. Concentrating on the blurred light coming through half closed eye lashes, I explored the feelings in my body.
My body! Holy shit!
My body was screaming at me, “What are you doing, have you gone mad!”
My folded knees were being pierced with hot steel rods of pain and my feet were turning into huge, numb blocks of wood. My shoulders and neck contracted like vises cranking tighter and tighter. I broke into a sweat as time ground to a halt, the ensuing minutes crawling painfully past. I couldn’t move or adjust my position for fear of creating a disturbance and distracting the line of silent, perfectly still sitters on either side of me, close enough to reach over and touch. I repeatedly imagined standing up abruptly and dashing for the door.
Just as I was convinced I couldn’t stand another second, a deep resonant bell sounded. I bowed to the wall with palms together, following along with the others on either side. We rocked from side to side, got off our round black cushions, fluffed them up with both hands, stood up stiffly, bowed again, turned, and very, very slowly began walking forward, each step taking us only a few inches as we snaked slowly around the room.
I looked over the line of shoulders. Up ahead was an exit that I decided I would bolt out of the instant I reached it. But as the line painstakingly flowed past the doorway I was unable to make my move, as if I was being pulled along like an object on a conveyor belt.
The sharp sound of a wooden clapper signaled the line to speed up to a normal pace — until we each stopped again in front of our black pad and round cushion, bowed, turned around, bowed to the room, sat, swung around and faced the dreaded wall again.
I nervously folded my legs into the half lotus. To my surprise I felt refreshed and comfortable as I renewed my efforts to count my breaths and relax into “just sitting.”
When the second forty minute period neared an end, time once again slowed to a halt. The minutes stretched out like hours and I began to wonder if the timekeeper had fallen asleep on the bell. As the pain became unbearable I did what I’d done many times on LSD when things got too extreme and threatening — I gave myself up, surrendered, and threw myself into the void. The pain didn’t go away, but I stopped fighting it, relaxed and merged with it. Before I knew it the bell sounded and I stood up, exultant to have survived.
Afterwards I felt buoyant and naturally high, my feet seeming not to touch the pavement as we walked back through Japantown. I marveled at how something as simple as just sitting still for a length of time could have such far-reaching religious implications. Facing the wall there was no escape. It was like facing the vast pain of humanity. I thought of Jesus nailed to the cross. Everything, all creatures, the great earth, the entire universe, all of time, was contained within the simple practice of zazen.
After that I started going to the afternoon sittings in Japantown, often walking all the way from the Haight through the Fillmore to get there. My own meditations received a huge boost and a renewed focus. Every morning when I first got out of bed and every evening before going asleep I sat upright in the half lotus and meditated in the manner Suzuki had instructed — for the length of time it took a stick of incense to burn down (about half an hour).
I also went to Suzuki’s weekly talks. I felt like he was talking directly to me — as I suspect many of us did. I’ve since heard people say that his English was poor and he was hard to understand but all I remember is how simple and clear were his explanations of often subtle and recondite matters, even to a neophyte like myself. Unlike the recollections of many of his students, some of whom insist that he never even mentioned the word “enlightenment,” my memory of him is of urgent exhortations to develop a “way-seeking-mind” and to practice with all our might, “as if our hair was on fire.”
Most everyone who sat with Suzuki in those days appeared to be in their twenties like myself. His formal students, a few of whom were already wearing black robes, seemed to be quite impressed with themselves. I sensed that they looked down on Huey and I, as drugged-out, hippie outsiders. But Suzuki himself accepted everyone just as they were.
However, one incident convinced me that Huey was the only one among us who had actually realized Suzuki’s True Mind. I can’t remember where we were or even if we were high, or on what, but I suspect we were, since in those days we were high more often than not.
Huey was sitting off to my left, when suddenly, I “saw” him — not with my usual eyes but with an eye that we somehow both shared. Perfectly still, looking slightly downwards in profile, his face radiant with golden light, he was the Ancient One, completely clear and present, with a Mind that cut through the usual stream of phenomena to give me a glimpse of something eternal, something infinitely mysterious and subtle that embraced all of creation but was still intensely intimate and personal. For that timeless moment we were one being.
Huey was indifferent to the respect I accorded him, pointing out that he was actually a year or two younger than I was — the implication being that as his senior I had no business acting like he was my teacher. Such a relationship was unspoken, but I was convinced that he had managed to drink much deeper from the mystical experience to be found in this life than most of us ever will.
Although he was so adept in many ways, Huey was definitely crazy. In fact it might have been that craziness, his schizophrenia, that allowed him to realize such states. Even his schizoid delusions were just rational enough to make me wonder if there might be some truth to them.
Like most of us he frequented the incredible array of concerts in San Francisco during that time, some for free outdoors in the Pan Handle near my flat and others at places like the Avalon Ball Room and the Fillmore Auditorium. He claimed that various bands, most notably Buffalo Springfield, had asked him to travel with them, presumably to be an “audience,” a shill, who could generate the ecstatic energy that would bring everyone together with the music in a crescendo of bliss.
Through meditation one can become more aware of such states as they come and go and it’s easy to imagine that one is consciously creating something, especially under the influence of marijuana or LSD. I had experienced such moments at concerts myself — the difference being that I wasn’t convinced that I was causing them to happen, but that I was probably just part of a spontaneous arousal.
One day he came into my flat manically exclaiming about an experience he’d had sitting in the front row at one of Suzuki’s talks. He said they were both vying (with their minds) to control the flickering of the flame on a candle nearby and at the end of his talk Suzuki pointedly strode over and blew out the candle.
Much of Huey’s delusive thinking was self-referential in the connections his mind made. Following, or “tripping,” on a string of personal associations, like verbal puns and double meanings, can be very compelling. I found that if I fixated on a certain word or phrase that it would start appearing everywhere, as if in a mental mirror. It’s natural for the mind to pick out such connections but this seemed to go beyond that.
I was amazed at how easily I was able to adopt his view of causation — as if schizophrenia could be learned or caught from someone else
COMING BACK TO ME
It was odd, but I rarely thought of Patty and we didn’t write to each other. It was as if a part of me had been anesthetized and surgically amputated, leaving only a vague lingering feeling of something missing, like a phantom limb. I had several brief relationships with other women but I always felt like I was using them. They in turn could see there was a part of me that was missing in action.
Patty visited me in San Francisco when she came home for the holidays that following winter. We smoked some marijuana in my flat while I regaled her with my collection of new music by the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and other local bands. She got up and danced, slowly doing a seductive striptease until she was completely naked. She seemed intent on pleasing me and I was happy to oblige.
Later, as we lay on my carpet after making love, she did a strange variation on her old theme of “You won’t love me when…”
“If I died you’d probably forget all about me and find someone else,” she said.
“I could never forget you, even if I wanted to, ” I replied, before adding, “And if I died, I wouldn’t want you to forget me either — but I would want you to find someone else and be happy, because I love you. I’ll always love you.”
That seemed to satisfy her and we curled up in my bed and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The next morning we walked up Haight Street, which was just beginning to blossom into the hip center of the universe. We stopped in a little shop run by a jeweler friend and I bought her a silver ring with intricate entwined vines and asked her to wear it so as to remember to come back to me soon. She seemed pleased by my gift and put it on her left hand ring finger.
Later we took LSD together in my flat. When it was coming on I felt like I was returning to familiar territory while Patty exclaimed wide-eyed, “I don’t know if humans beings were meant to experience this.”
We spent the rest of the day wandering ecstatically through Golden Gate park, grooving with the line of conga drums on “hippy hill” and riding the park’s big ornate merry-go-round. It felt like we picked up our relationship where we’d left off, as if we had never been apart.
That night, driving her home over the Dumbarton Bridge, across the long expanse of the shallow lower bay, we hardly spoke. A bittersweet sadness hung over us, like the heavy fog that rolled across the turbid gray water below.
When I dropped her off at her parents house in Fremont I saw them peering out through the curtains. My long hair and beard, along with some hippy regalia, must have been a subject of considerable fascination.
After a last wistful look back at me from the light of the front door Patty disappeared inside.
Part of another chapter, as the Haight declines
As his mental state deteriorated, Huey’s delusions and hallucinations became more prolific. He told me that little men were all over his apartment — a common apparition in both schizophrenic and shamanistic visions.
He had started injecting meth, which was beginning to invade the Haight with malefic consequences, destroying minds and casting a dark pall over the neighborhood. I had instinctively avoided using speed, except for the occasional Dexedrine when working all night painting for classes, which, while quite effective for putting off sleep, didn’t produce the best work,
I did smoke what was probably an early form of crack cocaine with Huey and some of his friends. After a few deep hits a stream of bliss engulfed me, lighting up all my senses, especially my visual sense, with indescribably ecstatic feelings. It only lasted a few minutes and I was left wanting more and bereft of any of the insights LSD and marijuana sometimes provoked. I could see that it was addictive and indulging in it further would be a mistake.
Huey finally ended up injecting “speed balls,” a combination of meth and heroin. Before long he reported that his wife had taken their young son and left the City. He spoke longingly of how smooth her skin was and how much he missed her.
After I’d left town myself I heard that Huey was living on the street and had lost all his teeth. I recalled how he had once told me that nothing really mattered and it was all right to take drugs because this was all an illusion anyway.
The last time I saw Wolf he was managing a head shop in Marin County north of San Francisco. He had grown his curly brown hair out into an impressive Afro and was wearing bell bottom pants.
Another later, perhaps final chapter —
“Treading the secret path, you shall find the shortest way.
Realizing emptiness, compassion will arise within your heart
Losing all differentiation between yourself and others, fit to serve others you shall be” Milarepa, at his death.
Mrs. Gretzinger’s old Toyota Corolla hardly seemed capable of climbing the steep dusty road up out of Carmel Valley to Tasajara Hot Springs and the Zen Monastery that had recently been established there. The little car vibrated and jumped around as I drove us up over row after row of washboard ruts, around sharp corners (hoping we wouldn’t meet someone coming the opposite direction), until finally we reached the top of a high plateau, where panoramic views of blue ridges fading in the distance and the clear air made me imagine we were on a journey across Tibet.
It was the summer of 1971 and my friend Mrs. Gretzinger had taken it upon herself to make sure I got out of my little hermitage in the Sierra foothills in order to visit what she considered significant places and people. I teased her about being “spiritually promiscuous” because she was personally acquainted with every type of religious practice imaginable, from various, often exotic forms of Christianity, to psychics and yogis — and now Zen Buddhism.
As we drove along a ridge towards Tassajara she made me pull over by a huge very singular oak tree growing right on the edge of the road. The trunk looked to be over ten feet in diameter, with huge spreading branches.
Mrs. Gretzinger got out and circled the tree, lovingly caressing the rough bark and putting her face close to it. She had recently lost her job as a teacher in the tiny foothills town of Copperopolis because she had taken her grammar school class out to gather around a notable local oak tree and “listen to what it had to say.”
I think the townsfolk were already suspicious of her for visiting the hippy hermit (yours truly) who lived in the old pump house beside the pond outside of town. “Talking to trees” must have been the final straw.
She didn’t seem to mind losing her job and it hadn’t deterred her from continuing to converse not only with trees, but with various other denizens of the natural world. She said she was ready for retirement anyway and was about to take up permanent residence in her home at Capitola on the coast. Once there she would doff a little bikini every morning, her skinny old body wrinkled from sunbathing, walk down to the beach nearby, wade into the freezing water of the North Pacific and swim until she was out of sight, and then back in again.
I would miss her occasional visits. When she first hiked over the hill from where she rented a room from a local matron in Copperopolis and walked through the graveyard and down across the meadow to my door, I’d already been residing in my remote shack beside the old pond for several years.
I must have impressed her because not long after that first visit she brought another old lady with her, who was apparently wealthy and well-connected. They offered to set me up in an ashram for people to visit, where I could, presumably, impart some of my hard-earned wisdom.
I found the idea preposterous and laughable. Granted I’d been meditating and practicing yoga quite strenuously, but I’d only had one moment of real insight and that lasted just a few seconds. Although it was enough to keep me going it hadn’t left me with much real understanding.
Looking back I do think that my power of bare concentrated attention had developed to a higher degree than I realized because the offer to turn me into a guru didn’t engender the least bit of ego in me (as it probably would now) and I just laughed it off as absurd.
As we drove down the incredibly long steep grade into the narrow Tassajara Valley I was careful not to lean on the brakes too hard, lest our little car end up like the rusting vehicles in ditches along the roadside that conjured up images of dedicated seekers abandoning their disabled autos to rush into the monastery, never to come out again.
Once inside Tassajara Mrs. Gretzinger disappeared into the women’s side of the hot baths.
Left to my own devices I walked up Tassajara creek and found an isolated spot beside the rushing water to meditate. I especially like sitting beside a stream. The characteristic downward slope provides the same effect as sitting on a meditation cushion, with the added benefit of fresh air and sunshine.
When we’d checked in at the office earlier I’d overheard that Suzuki Roshi was currently in residence. My inclination to sit zazen (meditation) whenever I was alone was given renewed purpose by the thought of his presence there.
I hadn’t seen him since my days in the Haight Ashbury, but he remained an ever-present inspiration. His simple method of counting and watching the breath and “just sitting” had informed my meditations ever since, and I intended someday to become his student.
I remembered how he spoke once of “really meeting someone.” He said that most of us had never actually “met” anyone, that what we thought of as meeting was not even close to what it was like to really meet someone.
Meditating beside the stream I had an intense vision of Suzuki sitting in zazen. I saw him from outside and inside simultaneously, like I was both myself and him at the same time. His life-stream flashed before my eyes, first in Japan, then coming to America, and finally right up to the present moment, as if he were running across time towards me.
I stood up and wandered downstream to the mineral baths. Along the wall at the entrance was a faded mural of a Native American chieftain cradling his daughter. Legend has it that the healing waters of Tassajara hot springs came gushing up out of the ground as a result of the chieftain’s tears and fervent prayers for his sick daughter who was dying as he carried her towards the ocean for healing.
I went into the main bath on the men’s side. The smooth plaster in the big hot pool was a unique turquoise blue characteristic of hot springs from the early part of the twentieth century when Tassajara and similar resorts had enjoyed great popularity. I marveled at the color and how whoever had built the baths had managed to create such a perfect hue, like the blue of the sky in landscape paintings from the same period.
I had the large bath all to myself. Between plunges into the fiery hot sulfurous water I was doing hatha yoga and meditating naked in the full lotus, my body flexible from the bath.
Suddenly a tall shaved-head monk entered the bathing area, holding a smoking stick of incense between raised palms. Following behind him was Suzuki Roshi.
I jumped up and asked if I was supposed to be there, or if it was the monks bathing time. The monk assured me it was OK and to just continue what I was doing. Then he left me alone with Suzuki.
I slid into the bath and looked up as Suzuki disrobed (literally) and somewhat awkwardly got into the hot water, one hand held politely over his genitals. With his small body and shaved head he reminded me of the little guys in Japanese wood block prints wearing breech-cloths and running with water buckets.
Neither of us spoke as we faced each other across the steaming water. Normally I’m shy and non-confrontational but there was something about Suzuki so calm and accepting that my agitation and anxiety quickly melted away.
The surroundings faded into a round orb of consciousness, like “seeing” with eyes relaxed in zazen. Suzuki was transparent. I could see right into his mind, except that it was my mind as well, a mind totally clear and open like empty space, free of all discrimination such as self and other, or teacher and student.
Since the experience was without images and thoughts, it’s difficult to remember or say much about it — even how long we remained that way.
The spell was finally broken when a feeling of deep suffering and pain arose and Suzuki abruptly got out of the bath and disappeared. I couldn’t be sure who’s pain it was, but since I’d recently been experiencing both physical and emotional pain, I assumed it was mine reflected back at me.
Later, as I drove away from Tassajara with Mrs. Gretzinger we stopped at the little spring on the side of the road. When I leaned over for a drink of cold water I had an urge to go back to Tassajara. Something told me this would be my last opportunity, that Suzuki would die soon.
No, I thought, that’s ridiculous, he had looked strong and healthy. I would wait until I felt ready and then I would return and become his student.
A few months later I learned he had died.
For Suzuki to engage with a wild-eyed stranger like myself on such an intimate level struck me as absolutely fearless and compassionate. He encountered me as an equal, though my foolishness must have been apparent. Even if I couldn’t see my own Buddha Mind, he could. There was no opposition in him, no need to dominate or instruct. Because of that openness, his influence was profound.
After Suzuki died I returned to Tassajara intent on finally becoming a member of the community and practicing zen there. Immediately upon arriving I approached a young man in the office and informed him of my intention.
“I’ll paint watercolors on location around the area, sell them and donate all the money to Tassajara to pay for my room and board,” I offered.
“You can’t do that,“ he said smiling benignly at my naivete. “Everyone here is assigned a job.”
“But I would be worth much more as an artist. They must need carpenters, plumbers, even lawyers. It seems a shame to let those skills go to waste.”
“Baker Roshi doesn’t want us to become attached to an identity like a job,” he said, referring to the new Abbot, Suzuki’s successor, “He even makes everyone rotate jobs periodically so they won’t become attached.”
“What about him, does he rotate his job periodically so he won’t become attached?”
He laughed, and that was that. Painting was more than just an ego-identity for me. It was a disciplined practice, like meditation. I wasn’t willing to give it up in order to put myself under the total control of someone whom I’d never met.
It would be over a decade before I returned to Tassajara again, this time for a week as a “work-study student” during the summer guest season. A fresh-faced and bright-eyed Reb Anderson, who would later replace a disgraced Richard Baker as Abbott, spoke to the assembled new guest students. He apologized for the laxity of the summer practice, hinting that it bore little relation to the real practice periods that took place during the winter when the guests were gone.
“Everyone comes to Buddhism by a different path, with a different story,” he said.
Assigned a bed at the end of a long dormitory that looked like it had once been a barn, I was somewhat distressed to discover a crack in the wooden wall right over my bed which was home to a nest of strange bees, the likes of which I’d never seen before — very large, fuzzy black, and longer than ordinary bumble bees. They made a loud buzzing noise as they zoomed back and forth to their crack in the wall just inches above me.
Several times during my week-long stay there, when I would try to catch a short nap during breaks in the schedule, one of the giant bees would somehow get under the covers with me and make a dreadful commotion, which sent me hurling out of bed. Incredibly they never stung me.
The toilets nearby, which were touted as some kind of cutting-edge technology, consisted essentially of a hole in the ground which one hung over and threw ashes in afterwards.
Despite these inconveniences, I took to it like a duck to water. The dark figures in robes floating silently up the path towards the Zendo in the faint early morning light, sitting upright in long rows listening to birds chirping and the sound of the creek flowing past, chopping vegetables in the kitchen with my hair tied up in a bandana as guests peered in awestruck at the sight a real monk at work, and especially the delicious vegetarian food — all helped open my mind to the streams of bliss flowing though that narrow valley.
I had taken a translation of Huang Po’s “Transmission of Mind” with me and when I visited the little Tassajara Library I discovered they didn’t have a copy. I located the librarian and offered to donate it to them but was politely rebuffed with the explanation that it wasn’t the proper school of zen.
So instead I gave the book to a pleasant young fellow who occupied the bunk across from mine. He was working on a medical degree at UC San Francisco. I told him of my encounter with Suzuki and explained that even though Huang Po was the teacher of Rinzai, the founder of a rival Zen school, his teachings were very similar to the Soto school and Suzuki.
At the end of the week we had some free time and I hiked up to a large rock that was a memorial to Suzuki Roshi placed over his ashes. When I approached, a little lizard scampered to the top of the massive stone and looked directly at me.
I remembered Suzuki’s kindness. Tears streamed down my face. Even without the opportunity to practice with him further, in that brief encounter he had shown me all I would ever need to know.