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Sojun Mel Weitsman (1929-)
ワイツマン宗 Weitsman Sōjun
Sojun Mel Weitsman (born 1929) is a Soto Zen roshi in the lineage of Shogaku Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, a Dharma heir of Suzuki’s son Hoitsu Suzuki. Sojun-Roshi is founder and guiding teacher of Berkeley Zen Center, which opened its doors in 1967. Suzuki-Roshi had asked Mel to open the zendo for his students in the Berkeley area. Mel began his Zen practice in 1964 at the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and was ordained a priest by Suzuki in 1969. Mel also served as co-abbot of SFZC from 1988 to 1997. Sojun-roshi is an editor of the book Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai.
Shunryu Suzuki ordaining Mel Weitsman, 5/19/1969
Sojun Roshi was born in Southern California in 1929. His broad life experience includes years of art study with Clifford Still at the San Francisco Art Institute, abstract expressionist painting, and work as a house painter, boat painter, cab driver, and music instructor.
In 1964 he began to practice at San Francisco Zen Center on Bush Street, and in 1969 was ordained by Suzuki Roshi as resident priest at the Berkeley Zendo. Sojun received Dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi’s son Gyugaku Hoitsu at Rinso-in Temple in Japan in 1984, and was officially installed as abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center in 1985. He was co-abbot of San Francisco Zen Center from 1988 to 1997. Weitsman Roshi has given Dharma transmission to twenty individuals, and has ordained twenty-three priests.
Along with his responsibilities in Berkeley, Weitsman Roshi continues a long involvement with the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara. He lives in North Berkeley with his wife Liz.
Sojun on the development of the Berkeley Zen Center
In 2007 Berkeley Zen Center celebrated its 40th anniversary. For that occasion, Sojun wrote the following:
“It is hard to believe that it has been forty years since we opened the Berkeley Zen Center in that big house at 1670 Dwight way, in February, 1967. We loved that old two-story place, with its steep stairs leading to the large, square, attic, which we converted to a zendo, and the spacious yard, which became a thriving organic garden.
“I had only been practicing with Suzuki Roshi for three years before he asked me to find a place for his students in Berkeley to use as a zendo. Before we had the Dwight Way house, zazen would take place in the various living rooms of his students. He would come over from San Francisco every Monday morning, sit with us, give a talk, and have an informal breakfast. When he became too busy and couldn’t come, his assistants, Katagiri Sensei or Kobun Chino, would come. On weekday mornings, and on Saturdays and sesshin days, his more devoted students would go to Sokoji, his temple in San Francisco, to practice.
“We were at Dwight way for twelve years, during which time we offered to buy the building. I had the feeling that it wasn’t going to work out, so I rode my bike up and down the streets of Berkeley looking for a suitable place. Although it seemed like an almost impossible task, it generated enough interest that one of our members, who knew the owner of two adjacent properties containing four houses at 1929-1933 Russell Street, mentioned our search, and it developed that the owner thought the property would be ideal for our purpose and that he would like to sell to us.
“We knew what we wanted but we had almost no money. That’s when I had the idea of asking each sangha member for $200.00 to get us started. There was an enthusiastic response. Our members contributed low-interest loans and some no-interest loans, and some risky, large, unsecured loans, as well as contributions. When I think about the level of trust within the sangha I find it remarkable. We also had garage sales, flea market sales, and bake sales. Peter Overton was the manager of the Tassajara Bakery on Cole St. in San Francisco at that time. We were able to make brownies there at night, and on the weekends we sold them at park fairs. A number of well-known Bay Area poets did a benefit reading for us. Among them were Phil Whalen, Michael McClure, and Diane di Prima. With some creative financing we were able to make the down payment. And many years later, with the help of some key members, we eventually paid off the mortgage.
“I always envisioned the Berkeley Zen Center as a grassroots endeavor supported by our members; a kind of neighborhood zendo. We have rarely sought outside help to take care of our needs. I felt that the validity of a practice place was attested to by the members’ contribution of their time and resources to mutually support their place, their practice, and each other. I don’t remember a time when we ever had a threatening or serious financial crisis. I think that has been due to my “What me worry?” naïve attitude, counterbalanced by our long line of talented treasurers and sincerely concerned board members.
“The practice at Dwight Way had developed from an acorn into a tree, and had grown naturally into its surroundings. Transplanting this tree into another environment was a different story. We had to make peace with suspicious neighbors who thought we would bring degradation to the neighborhood, awakening everyone in the wee hours to the sound of loud drumming and chanting. There were also angry tenants who did not want to be moved. We had three pre-approval meetings with the board of adjustments and the city council. I think that the city council was impressed that so many respected citizens would testify on our behalf, and we finally received our permit.
“We all loved that Dwight Way Zendo so much. There are many silent, personal dramas that take place in a zendo, and we become attached to that place. I think there is something about the quality of light that appears at certain times of day, together with the profound stillness in a zendo that has something to do with it. I didn’t know how I could leave it. But since the first day at Russell Street, I have rarely given it a second thought.
“Some of our first tenants at Russell Street were Ron Nestor, Bill and Connie Milligan and their daughter Grace, Pat McMahon, and Miriam Queen. A few years later Bill and Connie’s daughter Amanda would be born here, and my wife Liz would be in labor with our son Daniel in the upper flat next door to the zendo while sesshin was in progress. When we moved in, we used what is now the community room as our zendo. With the space taken up by the tatami mats and meal boards, the aisles were reduced to a width of about 16 inches. It was intimate.
“The building that is now our zendo consisted of two apartments. We decided to convert that building into a zendo. But we were told that you are not allowed to use housing for another purpose without replacing it somewhere else. I had contemplated putting another story under the house next to it. We made a plan, submitted that proposal, and it was accepted.
“Our first project was to raise the house and build a new first floor. The movers lifted up the building, put a couple of huge beams under it and some cribbing, and said goodbye. The rest was up to us. When we had the framing up, the movers would come back and lower the building onto the new frame. We were very fortunate to have a number of carpenters and other capable members. Although it is not possible to mention everyone by name, some who stand out are Reed Hamilton who led the building crew, Bill Milligan, the cement work and drainage, the late David Simon, the electrician, and Doug Greiner, who did the plumbing and everything else, (and has never stopped). The upstairs tenants, the Milligans, had to use an extension ladder to access their tipsy dwelling, and Doug spent a bit of time figuring out how he could get the utilities to work up there. We all turned out with picks and shovels and began digging a trench three feet deep in the sticky clay mud for the new foundation. It took about two years to complete the building, the devil being in the details.
“We had a design committee headed by Ron Nestor, and an architect, Ned Forest, with whom we worked out the design for the zendo. After the 1933-1/2 building was more or less completed, we started work on the zendo. We purchased a load of third-grade yellow cedar, had it sliced and tongue-and-grooved, and laid it for the floor, the clear pieces in the center and the knotty ones under the tans. We used the rest on the ceiling. The whole sangha was involved in the demolition and the construction. After six months the job was completed. We sat our first sesshin there on the subfloor in the uncompleted building, before the windows and doors were installed. When everything was finally finished, we put the Buddha on the altar and turned on the lights and offered incense. It was a wonderful feeling.
“Since then there has been a lot of ongoing work: remodeling, earthquake-proofing, painting, maintenance, and repair. Reed’s father said to me that it ‘s not good to run out of work, because when everything is finished, so are you. And Suzuki Roshi said that rather than complete everything ourselves, we should leave something for our descendants to do. Aside from establishing this temple, I think that the fruit of our sincere practice and our good example will be the best offering to our descendants.
“Although there were always a few residents at Dwight Way, Russell Street afforded the possibility of a more expanded and committed residency, which has provided a solid practice base, even though it has had its ups and downs. Although residents have the convenience of living at the center, they also have responsibilities, I have been careful though, not to favor residents over non-residents. It is natural and easier to respond to, and work with those who are close at hand. But I have always made it a point to reach out to those who are not so easily seen for one reason or another, and to include everyone as much as possible.
“From the beginning, I had no ambition other than to make zazen and Dharma available to people, and provide a place where we could all practice together as Suzuki Roshi wished. I sat twice a day. If someone appeared—okay. If no one appeared, that was also okay. But someone has always shown up. My role was to be the caretaker. I made sure that the zendo was open, gave zazen instruction, made people welcome, answered their questions as best I could, made sure that things were taken care of and running smoothly, and I always deferred to Suzuki Roshi as the teacher. I asked people for books to trade at Moe’s, and created the foundation for the library, which was a big help for my own education. I also became attuned to the organic gardening movement while at Dwight Way, collecting grass clippings all over town for compost, and even collecting garbage from the San Francisco Zen Center, which would be brought to me by a student once a week. He would also bring his violin, and we would play violin and recorder duets after composting the garbage. I grew all kinds of vegetables, and made Liz a greenhouse shed where she grew sprouts and sold them to the old Berkeley Co-op. I enjoyed meeting with people informally in the garden. All this was during the student revolt at UC Berkeley. I remember someone running through the yard and leaping over the back fence with a cop in hot pursuit.
“As time went on, my practice matured along with the development of the zendo and my association with Suzuki Roshi. When he passed on I was on my own. I always had the question in my mind of how I would practice when he was gone and felt like I was preparing for that. I still feel his teaching in my bones and his humility stick on my shoulder.
“Suzuki Roshi gave me permission to do whatever I wanted. He observed what I was doing, but never gave me any criticism or told me what to do. Of course, I was following his model or imprint. What I wanted was to establish a practice based on a quasi-monastic model, with the members taking responsibility for everything from coordinator to bathroom cleaner. As needs have arisen, practice positions have evolved, and the rotation of positions has enabled us to interact with and engage the practice in creative and supportive ways. We created an unprecedented lay practice period with no role models, based on the possibilities and circumstances of the participants. Each practice period has had a shuso or head student. Out of this have come our practice leaders. There has also been a succession of head gardeners, each one adding to the ongoing development of the grounds, helping to create a peaceful environment. Serving in positions such as cook and food server to the sangha (and the homeless shelter), zendo manager, work leader, and sesshin director, has produced many experienced, mature members.
“Everyone’s participation is important and there is no position that is not significant. Regardless of the comparative differences of position, when each one of us fulfills our task thoroughly we are all equal, and each one of us is responsible and engaged in turning and being turned by the practice. In that way it feels like the members give to the temple and the temple is a gift to the members.
“Although we established the temple in 1967, the sangha officially invited be to be Abbot in a Mountain Seat Ceremony in 1985, the year after I received Dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi’s son and Dharma Heir, Hoitsu Suzuki.
“In 1988 I was invited to be co-abbot with Tenshin Reb Anderson at the San Francisco Zen Center. I did that until 1997. When I wasn’t staying at Tassajara, Green Gulch, or the City Center, I did my zazen at Berkeley Zen Center and commuted to City Center or Green Gulch.
“I also had to find time to include my family in my life. In a way, it was like being an itinerant priest. During that time, I was totally supported and encouraged by our sangha at BZC. The practice was well taken care of by the senior members, and I never had to worry about how things were going. The sangha has always been sensitive to and provided for the needs of my family and myself without my ever having to ask for anything. This was a testament to the maturity and dedication of our practice leaders, our board of directors, and our sangha members. I went through our present membership directory and counted twenty-five who had practiced at Dwight way, including some founding members.
“Because I am so immersed in our everyday activity, it seems very ordinary to me, and I can almost take it for granted. But when I step back and observe the quality of practice and the tremendous amount of sincere effort and commitment of so many people over this past forty years, I am moved beyond words, and I sometimes ask myself, how did this all happen? I am grateful to all our members, especially the longtime steady members who continue to convey the essence of our practice in their Bodhi-Field of daily life, through their wisdom, compassion, and presence. This is the most appropriate gift to a teacher.”
Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Steve Weintraub, Myogen Steve Stucky, Ryushin Paul Haller, Edward Espe Brown, Josho Pat Phelan, Gil Fronsdal, Fran Tribe, Maylie Scott, Hozan Alan Senauke, Dairyu Michael Wenger, Shosan Victoria Austin, Peter Yozen Schneider, Chikudo Lew Richmond, Soshin Teah Strozer, Daijaku Judith Kinst, Shinshu Roberts, Mary Mocine, Myoan Grace Schireson