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Jack Elias on Roshi and Rinpoche

by Jack Elias

This article is excerpted from a Chronicles interview with Jack Elias, which we posted in 2005. David Chadwick also has a very interesting interview with Jack on

Trungpa Rinpoche, circa 1971

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

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.

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 thirty or forty other Zen Center students, joined Rinpoche's embryonic community in Boulder after Roshi's death. This interview with Jack illustrates the tender affection that these two great teachers had for one another.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Shunryu Suzuki at Tassajara

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.

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.

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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.

©2005 by Jack Elias

this work

© 2009 The Chronicles of CTR