1939 – December 17, 2018
By Laura Burges; edited by Mary Watson, David Chadwick, and Andrew Main
Jack Weller’s study and practice with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was one of the most important times of his life. The deepening of his understanding of Suzuki Roshi’s way continued throughout his life. Jack passed on December 17, 2018, at the age of 79.
Jack grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was brought up to be Jewish. His father had a large chain of candy stories in England before emigrating. Later, when they moved to Santa Monica, his mother took a class in World Religions. She told Jack that if she had her life to live over again, she would be a Buddhist. When Jack was 11 or 12 years old, she introduced him to a radio program by Alan Watts. “My mother was more than my mother,” Jack would say, “She was my teacher.”
Jack came to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1967 when he was in his late twenties. He had recently had open heart surgery and was under stress at UC Santa Barbara working on his PhD in philosophy. He knew he needed a radical change. A friend sent him about an article about Tassajara Zen Mountain Center from the Village Voice. It described Suzuki Roshi and the newly founded Buddhist Monastery near Carmel Valley. Jack intuitively knew this was where he needed to be.
After a brief period as a student at Tassajara before it had officially opened, he went to the city, At first he stayed in a hotel on Van Ness Avenue near Bush Street and went to zazen (meditation) on the balcony overlooking the main hall inside Sokoji, a Buddhist temple. Zazen was for 40 minutes with a 10 minute walking meditation and another period of zazen. Everyone else then got up to do the chanting service, but he continued sitting in the balcony in full cross-legged lotus position. The next day someone told him to join the service, so he did. He first met Suzuki Roshi as he bowed to him when leaving morning service, as was the custom. He felt that Suzuki Roshi really looked at him and saw him. Jack continued coming back.
It wasn’t long before he found a place to stay across from Sokoji. One of his roommates was Reb Anderson, who later went on to become an abbot of the Zen Center. They would go to early morning zazen together.
He also met Katagiri Sensei, who was an assistant teacher with Suzuki Roshi. Katagiri recommended that Jack finish his PhD oral exams (which would give him an MA) before going to Tassajara. Thus, Jack returned to Santa Barbara in the Spring of 1968, studying and working as a teaching assistant. At the end of the summer he was able to pass his exams and go to Tassajara that fall.
His first work there was to organize the few shelves of books into a Buddhist library. Then he worked in accounting, and later became the person in charge of the baths, a position he jokingly referred to as the “bath girl,” as it had come to be called due to having been filled by women up to that time. The next summer he was the guest manager
He moved back to San Francisco, not having the funds to continue at Tassajara, and started looking for part time teaching positions. At the same time he was working on his PhD thesis in philosophy.
In September of 1969, while the building was still in escrow, Jack was the first person to stay overnight at the Zen Center’s City Center at 300 Page Street. The first night, Jack lit incense from Eiheiji in Japan, one of the two main temples of the Soto Zen sect. He walked around each floor of the building with the lit incense, and then sat zazen. Bob Halpern and Niels Holm soon moved in, joining Jack before the day in mid-November when the whole building was ready for occupancy.
Suzuki Roshi came to visit when the sale was finalized and Jack showed him around. On the third floor they looked across at the building on the corner and Suzuki Roshi said, “We should buy that building, too.”
Suzuki Roshi died on December 4, 1971, on the first day of the zazen intensive seven day Rohatsu Sesshin. Jack had just moved into the nearby apartment building at 340 Page Street and was the first Zen student to live there. Gradually, as the other tenants moved out, Zen students and their families moved in. One such student was Mary Watson, who met and talked to Jack as he was doing his house job of vacuuming the halls. A few years later, they were married and lived together at 340 Page for over 38 years. Their son Daniel played with other children living in the building, sliding down stairs on mattresses and playing baseball in the hallway of the third floor.
At City Center, Jack taught courses in Zen and Buddhist art. Katagiri, now called Roshi, asked Jack to teach a course on the Self and Not-Self teaching in early Buddhism, which he was studying for his PhD, and he taught a course on Abhidharma with Kazuaki Tanahashi.
Though tempted to be ordained as a priest, Jack felt strongly that his path was to be a different kind of teacher. During his academic life, he had the opportunity to study with Edward Conze, Huston Smith, and Paul Wienpahl. Jack has taught philosophy and Buddhist Studies at San Francisco State, the California Institute of Integral Studies, Mills College, The University of California Extension in San Francisco, UC Santa Barbara, and John F. Kennedy University. He was the founding director of the Arts and Consciousness program at JFK for 10 years. At the California Institute of Integral Studies, Jack created a master’s degree in Expressive Arts Therapy which he ran for 20 years. This unique MA program combined all of the arts—dance, music, art, sculpture, poetry. Thus, a student would graduate as a therapist skilled in using these modalities according to the needs of their clients.
Jack searched for teachers who embodied the same lovingkindness and compassion as he’d found with Suzuki Roshi. He practiced with two women teachers, Tseda Lehmo from Tibet and Rina Sirkar from Burma. In the last years, he was a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and peace activist. He, Mary, and Daniel attend his retreats in various parts of California.
Jack was an avid San Francisco Giants fan. When Daniel was about six years old, they started going to games and spring trainings in Arizona together. He and Mary went backpacking in the Sierras, sometimes with Daniel. One of their favorite places to go was to Lake Eleanor in Northern Yosemite. Starting when he was three, Daniel would ride a small horse which also carried much of the gear.
In order to get a break from the stresses of Jack’s work, they would go for a weekend a month to such places as Inverness, Downieville, a gold mining community in the lower Sierras, Pescadero, and the Bay Area Delta. When Daniel was four, they went on a trip to see relatives in Manchester, England, and then visited in Belgium and France. Other trips included going to Bali, Scotland, a number of the Hawaiian Islands, Japan, to Costa Rica with Daniel, and a trip Mary and Jack took to France to follow the footsteps of Jack’s favorite artist, Van Gogh.
Although Jack was sociable and enjoyed traveling, he also had the ability to be content just being at home, reading and studying. He was truly present in what he was doing and in where he was. He accepted the lessening ability of his body to function well with grace, but he also was fearful of what would happen next. It was a deep practice for him of being out of control of his body. He first was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and a few years later with congestive heart failure, the latter being the cause of his death.
Jack has written a great deal about his time at Tassajara and early Zen Center, which include stories of his teacher Suzuki Roshi. He was close to finishing a book with these writings and recently gave a talk at the City Center in which he read from the manuscript and talked about it. Listen to that talk and read the transcript.
Jack said of Suzuki Roshi, “His stature wasn’t always apparent, he appeared very ordinary: extraordinarily ordinary! I was moved by his presence, his smile, his kind intensity and the connection I felt with him.” Of life, Jack said, “There is brightness in darkness. The darkness is non-verbal. You can be in that darkness and be alive. The most important things in life, you can’t know in words.”