I met Joko Beck in early 1972 at a small sitting group in the home of Ray Jordan, a student of Nyogen Sensaki and Soen Nakagawa. Joko was 55 years old and I was 30. Since we both worked at the University of California, San Diego, we quickly fell into a pattern of meeting regularly with our sack lunches. We took long walks discussing the vagaries of Zen. As I often saw her do, Joko would stare intensely and put out her finger while exclaiming “This is not real.” She had recently had a “big” experience in a sesshin with Yasutani Roshi, and she kept telling me that “it was horrible.” Yet she was more determined than ever to deepen her understanding.
Joko met Maezumi Roshi in 1966 at a Unitarian church she attended in San Diego. She knew nothing about Zen and admitted that she did not understand much of what he said, but when he stood at the door and looked each person in the eye and bowed to them as they exited, she saw something that compelled her to start practicing zazen.
Joko was in her late 40s when she started to sit. She told me that she would meet with a few other women her age and sit zazen for five minutes and then talk for an hour about how difficult it was. Joko never enjoyed sitting or attending sesshin. I often quote what she once told me: “There is only one thing worse than attending sesshin—not attending sesshin!”
On our walks, Joko often talked about the death of Shirley Syson, one of the middle-aged women in Joko’s group who seemed to embody the heart of Zen before the rest of them. Joko was present at Shirley’s death and was greatly impressed by Shirley’s radiance and peace even as cancer consumed her body. I believe that experience was the prime moving force for Joko’s practice. Later, Shirley’s widower, John Syson, hosted weekend sesshins for our little San Diego sangha to which Maezumi Roshi came.
Joko and I arranged to have Maezumi Roshi come to San Diego for a weekend sesshin at a house I was renting in La Jolla. We planned everything from the meals to procuring all the implements. When it came time for chanting service, we had only a bell. I still smile when I think of Joko beating out the rhythms on a thick phone book with a large wooden spoon as our makeshift mokugyo. The umpan was a pot lid that we struck with a large metal spoon. When the toilet gave out from overuse, we all scurried down to the corner gas station to use the bathroom.
Joko had an intellectual curiosity about anything that helped her make sense of her Zen experiences. Since I trained in physics, she often wanted to talk about quantum mechanics. She pored over a book by Hubert Benoit entitled The Supreme Doctrine (later reissued as Zen and the Psychology of Transformation). She kept insisting that I read it, and every time I tried, my mind rebelled. She found that it explained some of the things she was going through and gave her a way to express it to others. Her daughter Brenda (Chiko) told me that it was one of three books that she always kept nearby and often reread.
Once she saw the benefits of zazen, Joko was relentless in pursuing her practice. Every Saturday she drove two hours to the Zen Center of Los Angeles for dokusan with Maezumi Roshi, and then she drove two hours back home. Joko put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on her bedroom door when she was meditating, and her children knew better than to bother her. In order to spend time with Joko, Brenda started sitting when she was 13 and attended her first sesshin when she was 14.
Every month Joko would drive to sesshin. After we met, I would scurry off after work to collect her and drive to L.A. We would fight traffic to get to the Zen Center before the first strike of the han. The ride home was always more relaxing and enjoyable with the aid of a six-pack of beer. We often laughed all the way. Over the years, we were joined in our L.A. trek by others, including future dharma teachers in the White Plum lineage: Jan Chozen Bays, Susan Myoyu Andersen, Anne Seisen Saunders, and Elizabeth Yuin Hamilton. Sometimes it took four cars to carry us all.
When Brenda, the youngest of Joko’s four children, left home to attend college, Joko had an empty house. I was going through a divorce, and Joko asked if I wanted to rent a room. We lived together for a year until I found a place on the beach about a 15-minute drive from her house. Every morning during that year, we sat zazen together and continued weekly sittings at Ray Jordan’s.
Joko was always interested in one fad or another. At that time we were both into eating raw food. Joko’s son Greg had been conditioning the garden soil for years, and it produced the most fabulous array of vegetables that kept us continuously supplied. Joko would sit in a lawn chair reading while I toiled in the sun, sowing, weeding, and harvesting. When the vegetables were ready for eating, Joko put down her book and took up her knife and fork. With all of her zazen and contemplation, she rarely made time to do household chores, which was fine with me since I not only studied entropy but also practiced it.
A few years later when Joko retired from her job and moved to the Zen Center of Los Angeles to continue her training with Maezumi Roshi, she became like the mother confessor to all of the young people at the Center. Her apartment had a revolving door. Students were always eager to vacuum her floor and clean her bathroom for the opportunity to be near her. Joko never complained about that.
Another fad that Joko took up was est, the Erhard Seminars Training. She was the first of many students at the Zen Center to attend. In est Joko saw techniques and approaches that would complement and extend traditional Zen practice. Early on she realized that American Zen had to deal with emotional issues that Zen students could bypass on their cushions. Then when they left the zendo, these ignored issues emerged with a vengeance. Joko would say that without awareness our emotions would drag us around like a huge Great Dane, but once we were able to experience these ignored feelings without trying to avoid then, they might not go away, but they were more like a toy poodle yapping at us.
Joko hated giving talks in the zendo. When we first met, Joko lacked the confidence to publicly express her views. She was shy and unsure of herself. When she started to give public talks, she would get so nervous, her skin would form rashes and her hands would tremble. I clearly saw her gain her footing through her years of Zen practice. She did begin to appreciate herself and what she had to offer. Even though she later severed her ties to Maezumi Roshi, I have no doubt that she became an influential teacher in large part due to the work she did at Zen Center of L.A.
The core of her first book, Everyday Zen, came from talks she gave while living at ZCLA. Her talks came from her life, which was not an easy one. After bearing four children, she divorced her husband, who had psychotic episodes during which he threatened to kill her and harm the children. She crossed the country to San Diego, found work as a technical secretary at General Dynamics, and raised the children on her own. She was trained as a classical pianist and had to give up her dreams of playing professionally. She always had a piano and would play whenever she found time away from the zendo.
When I moved to ZCLA, one year after Joko did, we continued our friendship. Weekly I would accompany Joko to visit her aged mother, who was living in a nursing home nearby. I never felt any warmth between them, and I later learned from Brenda that Joko’s mother was quite cold and mean to her. Yet Joko would hold her hand and reassure her that things would be fine.
Joko’s books were wildly successful. People were thirsty for her straightforward, no-nonsense style. She was expert at demystifying Zen and expressing it in terms that people could relate to. Yet if someone came to sit with her, they were often shocked by how strict and unyielding she was. They came face-to-face with Joshu’s unsheathed sword and not the fuzzy New Age teacher they were expecting from reading her books.
After she received dharma transmission from Maezumi Roshi, Joko returned to San Diego and established the Zen Center of San Diego in 1983 with the indefatigable help of Elizabeth Hamilton. Shortly thereafter she broke all ties with Maezumi Roshi. When I discussed it with her, she said that even though he might have clear insight, it did not translate into how he lived his life, which was rife with alcoholism and womanizing. He made several attempts to reconnect with her, but she refused all of them. I tried to tell her that he was changing after he attended an alcohol rehabilitation clinic, but she insisted that he would never get it.
Some people have written that Joko rejected all of the trappings and symbols of Zen. That was not my experience. I had moved back to San Diego in 1986, and we again took walks together discussing how her teaching was evolving. At the ten-year anniversary celebration of ZCSD, the students did an amusing skit on the evolution of dress fashions in the zendo. They poked fun at the traditional Soto robes. Obviously embarrassed, Joko came over to me (I still wore robes) and said that she thought the robes were beautiful and she actually admired and appreciated them. She just did not want her students to become attached to them and think that they were special because of them.
Over all of the years I knew her, rarely did she take the initiative to contact me. Others have said the same thing. If I contacted her, she was always grateful to hear from me and was eager to chat. The last time we met in person was in 1998, when Joko came to Naropa University to give a workshop. I had moved to Colorado a few years earlier to establish the Great Mountain Zen Center. We had talked on the phone about getting together prior to her visit. With students clamoring all over her, she gave me five minutes and started the conversation with an unemotional “What do you want?” I was saddened to have our relationship come to that. We did talk on the phone a few times a year, but she certainly taught me about “Nothing Special”—the title of her second book.
Joko was my best dharma friend. Her dedication as a student of Zen was inspiring. Her devotion as a teacher of Zen was equally impressive. I feel fortunate to have known her in her formative years and to have witnessed how she matured into one of the most influential Zen teachers of our time. It is amazing that she started on the Zen path at an age when most people think of retiring, and that she accomplished so much in the second half of her life and touched the lives of so many people.
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