January 26, 2011
Open Thread for Jerome Petersen

If you’d like to post a thought or remembrance for Jerome but can’t find a good place for it, you’re invited to post it here.



  1. Jakushu Gregory Wood

    Of my three main Teachers, Chikudo Jerome Petersen was the wise one. Suzuki roshi named him “Chikudo,” meaning “Bamboo Hall.” I could see a beautiful green grove-like room, open to everyone. “Genki” the refreshing breeze, the healthful energy, wafting though. Privately, to myself I referred to him as Sage Jerome. He was my teacher for more than thirty-five years.

    He was a big man, though his manner was amazingly soft. It was easy to ask a question of him. By contrast, to ask Baker-roshi any question, I’d have to gear myself up as if I was going to throw myself off a cliff or something. With Jerome, I could talk to him casually about anything. He was always available. His answers were usually succinct, just a few words. Yet, his short replies were so rich and resonant I began to think of them as Teisho’s (longer formal dharma talks).

    I said to him one time, “I’ve been studying some of the Tibetan stuff lately, and noticed they say that impermanence is paired off with interdependence. When things are seen as pressingly interdependent they are relieved through awareness of impermanence, and when things are experienced as difficultly impermanent, they are relieved through awareness of interdependence.”

    He said in his slow baritone, “Well—I think that, after all—impermanence is the main thing.”

    I said, “The problem is, when I think of impermanence, I associate it with failure.”

    And he said suddenly, “Oh, my boy, impermanence is success!”

    —I can never repay him for that.

    He was a consistently amazing resource. He’d just open things up in ways I’d never seen before.

    Yet, if you ever saw Jerome and you only noticed his surface appearance, you might have even mistook him for a derelict. He was not the anal-retentive, battened down, pressed-collar kind of monk. He had food stains on his robes. He couldn’t get around easily and though he’d gimp and lumber on his way from place to place he was never late.

    Toward the end of his life he’d starting to leak so his robes smelled like urine a little bit. But his mind was clear. He had an incredibly deep mind, especially for Zen questions.

    Have you ever seen those Japanese movies where the sword-master would pluck flies out of the air with chopsticks? Jerome answered Zen questions like that. People didn’t know what to make of him. He didn’t quite fit anywhere. He didn’t even fit inside the monastery, exactly. Yet he was unperturbed. He was completely himself and utterly authentic. Among old-timers at Zen Center, he really had something that was off the scale. He was unconventionally brilliant all the time, without even trying to be.

    I could ask Zen questions of him very casually, like, “Hey Jerome, is there anything that isn’t emptiness?”

    And he suddenly boomed, “Emptiness!”

    He didn’t hesitate. I have to laugh, because it was like hitting the bell with me inside it – Boinnng. ‘Emptiness!’ he said. He didn’t even hesitate.

    Another time I inquired about Suzuki-roshi’s comment, “Even if the sun was to rise in the West, a Bodhisattva would only have one way.” “What is that Way?” I asked.

    “That’s easy.” His voice was very soft. “Just turn toward the light.”

    Ah, Jerome, you were always the medicine, the antidote of clarity and calm abiding.

    The last time we met, it had been some time since I saw him. “I thought I’d never see you again,” I said. “That will never happen. No. You’d have to be blind for that to happen!”

    Your kindness is endless. You will forever be the example to me of wisdom and courage.

  2. Shinshu Roberts

    When I arrived at San Francisco Zen Center in the summer of 1986, Jerome was already a long time resident. He kind of steamed around the halls and small kitchen at City Center. When Blanche had her heart attack (maybe 1988?) Jerome was asked to lead the practice period at Tassajara that Blanche would have lead. As a resident at Tassajara, I was asked to be Jerome’s jisha. He gave great lectures that practice period. His shusho was Hekizan. Hekizan and Jerome were a little like Seppo and Ganto together. I think they rather enjoyed themselves. I recall cold pre-dawn starry mornings standing with Jerome outside the Abbot’s Cabin waiting to do the morning Jundo.
    For many years at City Center, Jerome would lead a group who chanted the Avatamsaka Sutra together and I know that was an important and rich experience for the people who participated. Jerome was a teacher in his quiet way to those who were perhaps misfits.
    He liked to read and make midnight raids on the kitchen. The one time I was in his room it was a wall of bookcases and a bed on the floor – no householder here! He was also a mainstay at the Hartford Street zendo and regularly was doshi for zazen. I think he did that once a week for years.
    Jerome was like a dharma uncle for me and I know he was a wise teacher for Hal Papps.
    May he have an auspicious rebirth.

  3. Taigen Dan Leighton

    I think of him as the Great Unknown Jerome. Not that he was not appreciated by long-time and some new Zen Center folk. But I think it was difficult for many to see how truly brilliant Jerome was. He was strange, a giant gnome, very particularly himself. Despite his undeniable oddness, and his booming voice and mannerisms at times, he was an amazingly warm and gentle fellow. He was also a walking question mark, in his own way, something we might all aspire to as we become seasoned in practice.

    His Shuso ceremony is legendary, sorry I was not there, but I remember in many Tassajara shuso ceremonies his exchanges were particularly memorable and lively. Jerome was incredibly erudite and well-versed in Dharma and philosophy, as well as a fount of other miscellaneous knowledge. I deeply appreciate his dedication to the Avatamsaka Flower Ornament Sutra, most lofty and psychedelic of spiritual texts.

    Shinshu Roberts commented on Jerome’s friendship with Hekizan Tom Girardot. I also remember the Odd Couple of Jerome and Zenshin Phillip Whalen. Their exchanges in the small kitchen at City Center, and later at Phillip’s zendo in Noe Valley, and then at Hartford Street, were remarkable pleasures to witness: amusing, witty, and wise. Despite his lumbering gait, Jerome’s wit and Dharma responses were lightning-like, as Gregory Wood has well described.

    When I was shuso at Tassajara in Spring 1990, Zenkei Blanche was leading her first practice period, and I am deeply grateful to have had her as my shuso teacher. Jerome was also there, and I think his position for the practice period was something like Shuso’s Tutor. It was a great pleasure to spend time with him at Tassajara, where he was in full flower, though his presence in his corner of the City Center small kitchen was also memorable. I feel blessed to have known Jerome.

  4. Suzanne Wheat

    Lately Jerome has returned to my thoughts. At the time of his death I really could not respond or process it. A person of boundless kindness & compassion, he never failed to treat me with respect. Our last time together in June of 2009? Six months before he passed away . . .I’ve lost track of the year, I met with Jerome for his annual birthday dinner. He planned for us to go to Fleur de Lys in the Tenderloin. He had lost so much weight that his belt no longer kept his pants up. It was a struggle getting him into a taxi & on to the restaurant because of his falling down pants. Dressed in coat & tie as usual for special occasions Jerome said, “I thought you had forgotten me.” I had moved away & contact was minimal. Always the gourmand, Jerome had a well-planned outing! A place of the most refined French cuisine, Fleur de Lys was beyond words. I think it’s a place where out of town businessmen bring their “escorts” for an exotic dinner prior to other nocturnal activities. I thought maybe there’s an S & M parlor in the back! The food was so outrageous that neither of us could say a word. Ecstatic states were the de rigeur comportment for the place. Here in North Carolina I think that I want to commemorate the wonder that was Jerome with another dinner at the Fleur de Lys. Anyone care to join me? suzanne.wheat@gmail.com

  5. Frederick Petersen Certano

    Suzanne, Long story, short version. Jerome is my Uncle. Lost track of him years ago. Recently got involved with meditation and our Sangha in Sandpoint. Started thinking of Jerome. So I googled him and got to your and others comments. I did not know him as you all do. Would be very interested in any stories about Jerome.

    Would like to hear from anyone who knew Jerome.

    Frederick Petersen Certano

  6. Sarah Hummingbird

    Following the trail of Facebook posts about Zenkei Blanche Hartman, I find this website, and these comments about Jerome. Our little talks in the small kitchen, and then afterward, every time I ran into him in hallways, after I moved out of Zen Center, were consistently filled with personal, unique warmth. I always felt as if he was particularly talking to me, to who I am, and not to a “zen student” or a “woman” or a “girl” etc. In his little ways he made a huge difference in my time around that building. And he still does, in memory. I cannot really say the depth and breadth and uniqueness of his warmth.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *