Bring Me My Robe Back Please Holokai Brown

I’ll be leading a Zen Meditation class every Wednesday evening at 7:15 pm at Yogavidala 4640 Franklin Avenue LA 90027 corner of Vermont & Franklin in Los Feliz (behind 7-11). Starts tomorrow! Be there!

A couple days ago I returned to Los Angeles from my month-long stay  at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. While I was there, I gave two talks. The first one was bad. But it’s somewhere up on the San Francisco Zen Center website ( The second one was called “Dogen’s Monasticism — What’s the Deal With That?” It’s also on the SFZC website and you can listen to it by clicking on the title that I just typed above this line. That one was OK.

Lots if stuff happened to me while I was there. A month in Tassajara is equal to twelve months anywhere else in the world. I don’t really understand why that is. But you’ll find yourself saying things like, “Last week I talked to Bill (or whoever)” and then realize that you talked to Bill (or whoever) that morning. I’m not the only one this happens to. Maybe it’s the water up there or something. I feel this means that my life is extended by a year for each month I spend there. A subjective year, I grant you. But a year is a year.

I worked on the dining room crew again this time, like I did in 2010. So I was ferrying food from the kitchen, pouring coffee, pouring wine (it’s BYOB, but guests often b their own b’s), ferrying uneaten food to the bussing tables, occasionally sampling said uneaten food, and generally helping make the guest season run efficiently if not always smoothly. Tassajara is a Zen monastery. But it supports itself by opening to guests for four months of the year. Some people seem to think that working the summer guest season at Tassajara is not true monastic practice, while doing an ango (or “practice period” in Zen Center Speak), in which there are no guests and the focus is supposed to be solely on zazen, is. These people are wrong.

Guest season at Tassajara is real Zen monastic practice. They wake you up at 5:20 each morning, you do an hour of zazen, a half an hour or so of chanting and bowing, then a short period of temple cleaning all before breakfast. After breakfast you work your assigned job for most of the day. Then there is a service just before dinner and zazen again at 8:30 for another forty minutes before lights out. The rules for students are roughly the same as they are during a practice period, although you are allowed to listen to your iPods or even play guitars as long as they’re far away from the main drag through the monastery.

My robes were stolen. Here’s the story.

Richard Baker came to Tassajara and gave a talk. For both of you who don’t know, Richard Baker was once the abbot of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara. He was ousted in the early eighties amid allegations of sexual improprieties and financial misconduct. The details are in Michael Downing’s book Shoes Outside the Door: Desire Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center.  This wasn’t the first time Baker had been back since his departure. But it was the first time he’d been back in over a decade, and perhaps only the second time he’d visited during his years of exile. He came as part of Zen Center’s celebration of its 50th anniversary. He’d given a talk at SFZC’s City Center in San Francisco the night before.

I found his talk kind of lackluster. Other people loved it. So maybe it was just me. There was so much he could have said. He could have gotten right to the meat of what the problems were that led to his removal from office. But he didn’t. Instead, he talked about… uh… something else. I think it had to do with why monastic Zen is better than lay Zen. I couldn’t really follow it.

I was proud of the dining room crew that night, though. Because Edward from our crew asked Baker how he felt about being vilified by so many people for his actions back in the day, thus calling attention to the immense and stinky wooly mammoth squatting in the center of the room. Baker didn’t really answer him, unfortunately. He just talked about why Germans are less likely than Americans to judge a person by what they’ve read about him as opposed to what they learn from meeting him. Baker has a pretty big group in Germany’s Black Forest region. I wondered if Shoes Outside the Door was available in German.

The next morning weird things started happening. Greg Fain, the tanto (practice leader) at Tassajara, had asked me to act as doshi (officiant) at a number of services. Since the dining room was much closer to the zendo than my room, I’d gotten into the habit of hanging my robes in this little alcove behind it. The alcove is actually outdoors but it’s hidden under a staircase that goes to the women’s dorm above the dining room, so it’s a pretty concealed spot.

When I went to look for my robes to wear for morning zazen, they were gone. I ran back to my room to make sure I didn’t just space out and leave them there. But they weren’t there either. I spent the whole zazen period wondering who the hell would have taken them and why.

Every morning all students at Tassajara gather for what’s called the Work Circle. This is like the Facebook of Internet-free Tassajara where news is exchanged and work assignments are given to those without them. At the end of each Work Circle, students are able to make their own announcements or pleas to help find lost items.

That morning one student, an Austrian fellow in his sixties, said he had found a “large turd” on the pathway near the bath house, which he believed might indicate there was a bear roaming the area. Richard Baker said that he heard two women wandering near his cabin talking very loudly at around 3:30 in the morning. The person who had run the wake up bell said that he’d had to jump over a guy sleeping on the path near the swimming pool and asked whoever it was not to do that anymore. Another person said she heard someone drive a large vehicle into the monastery grounds at about 4:30 AM. Others reported hearing a dog barking. And I announced that my robes were gone and that I’d like them back, please.

It emerged that several people had seen the guy sleeping on the path. But there are lots of weird people at Tassajara. A guy sleeping on the path is unusual, but it could happen. After breakfast I found the inner portion of my robes, the white kimono, wadded up on top of the guest refrigerator stained with blood. But the much more expensive black outer robe called the kuromo remained missing.

Later that day, a guy named Steve discovered a wallet near the swimming pool. There was a driver’s license inside identifying its owner as one Mr. Holokai Brown. That afternoon Tassajara got a call from Mr. Brown’s relatives asking if he’d been seen in the area. It seems he’d gotten separated from a group he’d been hiking with in the mountains. A few days later, Mr. Brown reappeared and asked if he might have his wallet back. Brenden in the office asked Mr. Brown if he knew the whereabouts of a black Buddhist robe. He did. And he agreed to give the robe back in exchange for the wallet. The wallet was sent to the nearest station of the forest service where the exchange was made. About 20 days after this I received my robe back.

I wrote a song about all of this, which I will record and put up in a future installment of this blog.


Your donations to this blog are deeply appreciated and will be used for dry cleaning and sanitizing my robes.



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71 Responses

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  1. Jinzang
    Jinzang September 20, 2012 at 10:31 am |

    What’s the difference between Zen and real Zen?

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence September 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm |

      Jinzang: What’s the difference between Zen and real Zen?

      Four letters and a space.

  2. Andy
    Andy September 20, 2012 at 10:43 am |


    Sorry Fred, I’m a bit confused as to what your points were for most of that.

    As to this:

    “You can’t dispassionately look at the milestones of your existence and describe
    how you have fucked people over?”

    Dispassionately looking and describing are very different from deconstructing one’s ego verbally in front of others. One suggests investigating honestly and expressing honestly my story. The other suggests a process of open-heart surgery on myself while people are present, as though on the therapists couch in front of an audience.

    Now perhaps the first one was what you meant all along. For example, that if Baker was someone who didn’t identify with his ego, he should be able to tell it how it was, warts n’ all, and respond to questions without dodging the issue.

    “without any intent for the benefit of others”

    Why would I stand up in front of an audience and talk about my personal experiences, without some intention that it would be of value to those who were listening? Show me an absolute value.

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 20, 2012 at 10:44 am |

    “he would still sit with the one he loved, working on the self. So there
    would be 2 Reals there. 2 Actions – love and Zazen.

    I have meditated while having sex, and while drinking up to 8 beers. It was
    bullshit.” -Frederick

    “the part that he couldn’t give up, that’s the real Zen to me.” That is to say, one self out of the experience of the personal necessity at the moment, one specific sense of place that opens a specific ability to feel that is necessary both to the length of the inhalation or exhalation at the moment and to the subsequent free occurrence of consciousness.

    Equanimity with respect to pleasant feeling is only the realization of the true necessity in the circumstance, eight beers doesn’t change that but in my experience chocolate and a tune worth dancing to can help (no more “I love you’s”?- slow dance, how about touch it

  4. Andy
    Andy September 20, 2012 at 10:49 am |


    ‘real’ ?

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm |

    What’s the difference between Zen and real Zen?- Jinzang


    “Real Zen”- real concentration, connected with making self-surrender the object of thought, and marked by a single-pointedness of mind. How’s that…

  6. King Kong
    King Kong September 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm |


  7. boubi
    boubi September 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm |

    “I have meditated while having sex, and while drinking up to 8 beers. It was

    Of course in the first case you were neither fucking nor meditating, you were not “here & now” (trademark), in order to do it you should have been in “samadhi” (patent pending), better said in “fucking samadhi”.

    You weren’t.

    Same should apply to the 8 beers.

  8. boubi
    boubi September 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm |

    This is how to do both correctly

  9. boubi
    boubi September 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 20, 2012 at 11:19 pm |

    ‘sfunny about the 8 beers… must be the magic number, I think I went through 3 pints and two shots last time I was out on a friday night, before I could get up and fall down without hitting the floor- discovered someone was freakin’ with me, and it all seemed worthwhile, at the time. There’s a kind of self-surrender in 8 beers and being extremely close to a stranger that grows on you, but while everybody knows and appreciates falling down without hitting the floor, making self-surrender the object of thought is something we mostly only understand in a context of love. Going all the way with self-surrender, falling down without hitting the floor- what’s a difference, you may well ask.

  11. Khru
    Khru September 20, 2012 at 11:57 pm |

    This High School blog welcomes a lively, thoughtful debate in the comment section. Keep in mind that the comments here are penned by young authors, so please keep criticism respectful, and help us to keep this a safe and supportive place for writers of all ages to contribute.

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |

    Safety in self-surrender is pegged to mindfulness of the role of PNS and SNS in the placement of awareness; single-pointedness of mind and the ability to feel serve the necessity of inhalation and exhalation, not the other way around. That’s the way.

    Move beyond doubt, or live with regrets.

  13. SoF
    SoF September 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm |

    I wrote City Center about planting some redwood trees in Tassajara but they replied (correctly) that it is too dry for redwoods to survive (from plantings).

    A redwood tree will extract the equivalent of 4″ of rain from a dense fog in a 24 hour period. The trick is getting a grove of 36 or more trees started. To do this, it would require that monks at Tassajara carry a gallon of water (8 pounds) from the creek up to each planting twice a week. 36 trees x 2 gallons is 600+ pounds of water a week for about ten years.

    THAT is how difficult it is to restore the redwoods that were cut to build houses and timber mine shafts during the gold and silver rushes. Man destroys but cannot restore the balance of life on mother earth.

    The lesson here and elsewhere is the relentless march toward decay and death. And in understanding that decline, decay, and death one must find acceptance and – through acceptance – individual inner peace.

  14. boubi
    boubi September 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm |

    good remake, just let it into your belly and let it pulse 🙂 … it could heat up some basic chakra (maybe ??? who knows ??? )

    The Devo did a concert in Central Park and in the beginning of Satisfaction they used something similar to Fatboy Slim or some other DJ, but cant find it again, maybe Brad knows something?

  15. Fred
    Fred September 21, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  16. Fred
    Fred September 23, 2012 at 3:31 am |

    Zen – an institution involving words, thoughts, ideas, rituals, prescribed behaviors, dress, postures, etc.

    Real Zen – not the identification with the above, the flow of no-self into the
    absolute and vice versa, the “Action” without thought

  17. Kogen
    Kogen September 27, 2012 at 4:48 am |

    Um, whoa! Did I miss something? What the hell did Mr. Brown do with your robes?

    And, Brad, was this student you loved “taken”?

    If it’s adultery, that’s much more complicated, but still not impossible, at least if people want to get honest.

    If it’s just two people falling in love, I think the teacher cuts the power dynamic by asking that student to go train with someone else. This might be easier at Zen Center with so many watchful eyes and other teachers to train with.

    But I think we have some really unrealistic and unfair expectations about our teachers, like they don’t need love, too.

    Don’t get me wrong, if a teacher falls for a student, then the relationship needs to change and jedi-mind tricks are a no-no, and the teacher needs to see if this is real affinity or just some guru-fetish.

    But to think that teachers can only date priests, shuso-ed priests, or other teachers is pretty dismal.

    Maybe I’m missing something here. Fill me in.

  18. My_name_is_Daniel
    My_name_is_Daniel September 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm |

    What was it? Almost 30 freaking years ago? You can read about it in books, ask any number of people (but not the old timers, they are tired of talking about it and/ or know that what needs to be said has been said, ooovvver and ooover) about Baker. It just being you aside, Baker’s talk was fantastic, but maybe that’s just me. Giving Edward credit for asking that question is like applauding someone for puting on their shoes, only difference being putting on the shoes matter much more. BUt then again, Edward loves when things look Zen. Love ya Brad.

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