Peter Matthiessen, author, environmentalist, and activist, began his Zen studies with Soen Roshi and Eido Roshi in 1969. He continued his studies with Maezumi Roshi, then with Tetsugen Glassman Sensei, from whom he received dharma transmission in 1989. Matthiessen’s books The Snow Leopard (Viking, 1978) and Nine-Headed Dragon River (Shambhala Publications, 1986) both deal with his Zen studies. His latest novel is Killing Mr. Watson (Random House, 1990). He lives in Sagaponack, New York, where he runs a small Zen center. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Lawrence Shainberg, who first met Peter Matthiessen at the Zen Studies Society. Subsequently, Shainberg has studied Zen with Kyudo Roshi at the Soho Zen Center in lower Manhattan. The author of a memoir about Samuel Beckett (The Paris Review, Issue 104) as well as One on One, Brain Surgeon and Memories of Amnesia, Shainberg is currently working on a personal narrative about Zen. This interview took place at Peter Matthiessen’s house in April.
Shainberg: In The Snow Leopard and Nine-Headed Dragon River, you wrote that your first experience of Zen practice was attending a weekend sesshin at New York Zendo early in 1969, in which you participated without having had any previous experience of zazen. I must say I find it hard to believe that one could endure a whole retreat—especially the sort they held there—without any preparation.
Peter Matthiessen, Sagaponack, New York, 1993
Matthiessen: I found it hard to believe too. I thought I had been hit by lightning. My late wife, Deborah, was a Zen student, and it was she who got me into it. Through her I’d met Soen Roshi [1907-1984] and Yasutani Roshi [1885-1973] as well as Eido Roshi, who was then the monk Taisan. I was very impressed by them, and that was part of it. I think Deborah thought this sesshin would finish off any interest I might have had. And after two hours, I was certain she was right. At rest periods, I’d literally weep with pain and rage. Then I got stubborn and macho. There was a monk there who was not only macho but a masochist, maybe a sadist, and he kept whispering to me behind his hand, hyping me up so I would stick it out.
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