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.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.