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Zen and the Senses: Memories of Charlotte Selver and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi – An Interview with Yvonne Rand

Zen and Sensory Awareness . Different in form and practice, both of them are simultaneously characterized by a wonderfully enriching relationship, which was also reflected in the encounter and interaction of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Charlotte Selver . The following interview is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Stefan Laeng as part of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project . Yvonne Rand is a meditation teacher and Zen priestess in the Soto tradition. She began studying and practicing Zen with Suzuki Roshi in 1966 and became Dharma successor to Dainin Katagiri Roshi.

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Yvonne Rand : The first time Charlotte Selver and Suzuki Roshi taught together in San Francisco in 1967. It was their first meeting ever and they did everything together. He led a part of the day and she led a part of the day, and he was then fully attending. His students noticed that. Oh, so this is a teacher we should pay attention to. On the other hand, there were also some students of Charlotte who were attracted to Suzuki Roshi and his teachings.

I remember one of Charlotte’s first sensory awareness workshops in Green Gulch. She had some big stones with her. She asked us to lie down on the floor and place the stones on different parts of the body to bring attention to the body. Suzuki Roshi was thrilled with all this. Even today, we Americans are paying attention to the region above our necks. I think he was very happy to feel this affinity and togetherness in their way of working.
For Suzuki Roshi, who loved stones – he was infatuated with stones – it was clear that she had something to offer that was missing. Here was someone who used stones in their work to introduce their students to a kind of awakening of the senses and corporeality that allowed each and every one of them to become aware of their own experience.

For a Japanese Zen priest in the US, body-based work and practice was unusual at the time. It was rare to find a Westerner who offered a job like Charlotte and who so harmonized with Zen and his own experiences. I think sometimes he was pretty lonely. Of course, he had a close connection to his students. But the collegial connection with a teacher just has another quality. He probably found confirmation in that as well.

Most American Zen students had a penchant for dogmatism – as if some people had blinders. If Zen practice was not strict and formal, then it was not Zen practice. But if you look back on the history of Zen in China, Vietnam or Japan, there were always the nerds and all the different forms that are recognized as an expression of Buddhism, of Zen in particular.

My impression of Suzuki Roshi was that it was very clear to him that sensory awareness is a spiritual practice, one that lets people experience how to wake up from the neck down. In a way, Charlotte’s teachings later became integrated into our community in their lives, which was otherwise focused primarily on the Buddhism and teachings of Suzuki Roshi. Charlotte and her students felt that there was a relationship and that’s what the Zen students felt.

I remember a conversation with Suzuki Roshi about his experiences with teaching Charlotte. He said something about how she brought the elements of a ceremony into her work, a body-oriented ceremony.

Stefan Laeng : It is interesting that you mention the importance of ceremonies and rituals and how Sensory Awareness and Charlotte had a part in it because …

Yvonne Rand : That was Suzuki Roshi’s point of view.

Stefan Laeng : … Charlotte avoided ceremonies and rituals.

Yvonne Rand : Well, she did and did not do it. It could be argued that a meal on the terrace at their house in Muir Beach – under the guise of ‘let’s eat together’ – was all about a ritual or a ceremony. In my mind, dining with Charlotte and Charles was a sacred practice, a spiritual practice. That was very clear to me. That was one of the things that I appreciated about Charlotte. Because I felt there was a way in the Suzuki Roshi – how can I say? I felt that he was always present when I went up to her house to eat with Charlotte and Charles. I think Suzuki Roshi would have liked that. To some extent, it was the way Charlotte had set up her house, how she wore clothes, all the things she did during her lessons, and how she designed the workroom. There was always a ritual element with it.
Besides, I think Charlotte might be the first person to endure when things did not all fit together on the dining table. The plates do not necessarily match, the silver cutlery certainly did not match. The napkins did not fit or fit. So this too was a kind of game. I have never experienced that she was attached to a need for perfection. She really wanted to make room for the special in each person. This sense of uniqueness really embodied her, I think.

Stefan Laeng : Yes, even if it did not seem to matter whether things fit together or not, it was not out of indifference.

Yvonne Rand : It was not chaotic. The result was always harmonious. She had a strong sense of staging. And I believe that this sense of aesthetics cultivated Charlotte, which suits Suzuki Roshi. There he felt a real relationship with her. This shared enthusiasm was a real gift for him, a form of friendship. I think that was one of the reasons he was so benevolent and keen to teach his students.

Recently, I thought of a sesshin with Suzuki Roshi, and Charlotte also came to mind. He said to me, ” It is right that sometimes I am the teacher and you the student. But it’s just as true that sometimes you’re the teacher and I’m the student . ” About a year ago, I drove him back from Tassajara after a Thanksgiving meal. We arrived at Sokoji (the San Francisco Temple) at about midnight or one in the morning. He slept all the way. That was normal for him. And of course he woke up fresh as spring and started giving me a lesson of confidence. It started with, ” I do not trust anyone “. He worried about his students because he felt that they were so eager to trust him. And he said, ” But you are on the wrong track. Sometimes I’m trustworthy and sometimes not. How about you trust yourself? Why are you projecting this on me? “

Charlotte had a certain inclination to – the word that comes to my mind does not quite fit – a penchant for mischief. A predilection to be naughty, a little cheeky and playful, just like him.

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I drove S  Uzuki Roshi often to Tassajara. And once, at the top of the ridge, before we drove down to Tassajara, on the other side of a barbed wire, ferns grew in the pasture. They were still young and rolled up, they are called Becherfarn / Ostrich Fern. At this stage, they are a real treat in Japan. Suzuki Roshi said, “Yvonne, stop. Hold on”. And he pointed over and said, “I want you to bring me as many as possible. Do you have something where you can put it in? “And I replied,” But Suzuki Roshi, there is a big ‘No Passage Sign’. He said, “Ignore it!”

Stefan Laeng : I laugh because I did exactly that with Charlotte.

Yvonne Rand : Exactly. That’s what I mean. Both had this rogue. So he set his foot on the barbed wire so I could slip and then he went back and sat in the car, cranked down the window, gave me instructions as to when it was enough. That was when I had decimated almost all the ferns. And then he said, “Ok, we have to go to Tassajara quickly now. Driving so fast “. And then he went straight to the kitchen and made Becherfarn / Ostrich Fern soup. He was so happy that he could hardly stand it.

Stefan Laeng : That could have been Charlotte.

Yvonne Rand : Yes. I think it’s – how can I say? When Suzuki Roshi saw the fern, there was this spontaneous enthusiasm, enthusiasm and excitement – he was almost drooling, he was so excited. I think they were very similar in this kind of physical expression.

In terms of my own teaching as a Zen teacher I am often seen by traditionalists as an eclectic but in my opinion this is absolutely not true. Somehow there is this notion in which the Japanese Zen tradition is misunderstood as being decoupled from the body. The work of Charlotte and Charles was part of Zen’s opening up to the somatic realm in America, that attention was once again anchoring in the physical, in the senses, in a way that came from Europe, not from Asia.

Stefan Laeng : So would you say that what you have learned from Charlotte is affecting your work today?

Yvonne Rand : Absolutely. Charlotte helped me to understand that especially for us westerners, who like to put so much emphasis on thinking and disregard or disparage physical experiences, it is important to recognize how reliable body sensations are, just as thinking can be but often it is not. She made it possible for me to appreciate the experience of doing walking meditation and actually having your feet in contact with the ground. In this context, I really think about Charlotte. The perception while walking to feel the movement of air in the room. Many meditators are so in their heads that they wonder if you say that. What are you talking about? I believe the essence of Charlotte’s work was to give our attention to everything through the senses. And the fact that she drew on her own experience as a Westerner and a Western tradition is of great importance to me.
I think she was an important person for those of us who had the chance to work with her while practicing Zen. In a way, her work brought everything to life. There was no chance of her falling into rigidity.

Charlotte Selver was born in 1901 in Ruhrort / Duisburg. From 1921 she trained as a teacher of expression gymnastics with Rudolf Bode. After getting to know Berlin gymnastics teacher Elsa Gindler in 1923, her work has changed profoundly. Gindler developed in the time together with the music pedagogue Heinrich Jacoby a way of working, which broke away from prescribed exercises and the students in working groups to a probing exploring their behavior, so as to develop their potential autonomously and authentically. Charlotte Selver has adopted this approach and made it her own over many decades. As a Jew she had to leave Germany in 1938 and made a name for herself in the USA as a pioneer of the “Human Potential Movement”. Sensory Awareness, as she called her work, was from the 1950s onwards of significant influence on many of today’s more well-known somatic ways of working. Her encounter with leading Zen teachers in the US at the time marked both her and the development of Buddhism in the West. Charlotte Selver died in 2003 in Muir Beach, California.

The San Francisco Zen Center was founded in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi ( 1904-1971 ) and his American students. Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese Zen priest of the Soto line, came to San Francisco in 1959 at the age of 54. A respected Zen master in Japan, he was impressed by the seriousness and quality of the “beginner’s spirit” of the zen-interested Americans he met and decided to stay. (From the website of San Francisco’s Zen Center. More info at: www.sfzc.org )

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Yvonne Rand is a meditation teacher and “lay housekeeper” Zen priestess in the Soto-Zen tradition. She began studying and practicing Zen with Suzuki Roshi in 1966 and became Dharma successor to Dainin Katagiri Roshi. Yvonne was secretary of the San Franscico Zen Center in the ’60s, chairwoman of the’ 70s and chairwoman of the ’80s. Other key teachers included Maureen Stuart Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Venerable Tara Tulku, and Shodo Harada Roshi. Her main practice is Zen, enriched by the practice and teachings of Theravada Tradition and Vipassana. Yvonne Rand also incorporates insights into psychotherapeutic traditions into her work. At the same time she explores the importance of art and gardening as mind training. She is married, is a mother and gardener. (Further information at: www.goatintheroad.org )

The original interview (English) and further information on the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project by Stefan Laeng : www.charlotteselverbook.org

For the Sensory Awareness work with Stefan Laeng : www.pathwaysofsensoryawareness.com

Zen & Sensory Awareness Workshop with Stefan Laeng from 19.10. – 21.10.2018 in Hesseln / Leubsdorf (near Bonn) : www.zen-sensoryawareness.de

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While Zen gives us a mature form in which we can explore and forget each other, Sensory Awareness invites us to discover, by tentative tasting, what something wants to be.