Remembering Sojun Mel Weitsman
These contributions [see full document—Without Words] were gathered, edited, and arranged by Shosan Victoria Austin, Basya Petnick, and Diane Miller.
Sojun Mel Weitsman (July 9, 1929 – January 7, 2021) was Abbot at San Francisco Zen Center from 1988 to 1996. He emphasized practicing the Dharma with his every action.
People who practiced with him at San Francisco Zen Center while he was abbot during those years (1988 to 1996) were asked:
How did Sojun teach you—without saying a word?
How has this developed in your practice?
How do you practice it today?
For Zen students the answers sometimes couldn’t fit the questions. Each person spoke to the moments that they still carry in their “beyond words” memory.
Excerpts from the full collection
Shosan Victoria Austin
Some of Sojun’s face-to-face teachings:
1975: “Come sit.”
1977: “If you are practicing Buddhism to resolve Judaism, practice Judaism.”
1987: 89 days in a row, bowing with me as Shuso: “No, fold your zagu like this. Like this.” 90th day: “Hmph.”
1993: Bowing to me as Tenzo: “What do you want me to do? How do you want me to do it?”
1999: Bowing to me as Deshi: “The rice is long cooked.”
2009: “Your contribution is priceless. Beyond this book.”
2020: “No. Don’t write my obituary. Write my legacy.”
Jusan Edward Brown
In 1995 Sojun and I worked together putting rocks in place at Tassajara. I worked with Sojun. Sojun worked with me. As far as I know, the rocks are still there.
No worker, no boss, no leader, no follower. No hiding, no show, nothing special, exactly so.
Kojun Gil Fronsdal
It was quite touching for me to be at my old teacher’s stepping down … that’s really what’s in my heart, my mind. He was a formative teacher for me, and remains a reference point for me in the Dharma. Part of what I teach when I teach comes from his teaching, and even more, how he lived in the world.
He never related to Zen Center as if there was ever a problem. There were never problems, only some things that needed to be addressed. He would wake up in the morning, and he would not see a problem. He would get up, someone would come to him with a problem to be addressed, and he would address it, and take care of what needed to be taken care of, whether it was washing dishes, or talking about fundraising, or talking about institutional issues of the Zen Center as a whole. He didn’t seem to walk through Zen Center assuming there were problems, rather he lived as if there were something to fully be present for, and meet—to really meet the situation, be present, find your way, do what needed to be done, but without seeing it as a problem, without any sense of hurry, without any sense of crisis, without any sense of hesitation. He would be present, in the middle of all circumstances, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to do, and take care of what needed care.
I trusted him implicitly. I had complete trust in him as a person. However, I didn’t always feel aligned with his Dharma, with how he taught. This is a little strange to say to a Zen teacher, but it was in response to him asking me about this. His response was so powerful. We were walking side by side when I told him this. He immediately pivoted in front of me, and brought his hands together like this (clap) and said “And that’s where we’ll meet.” For him, this was a meeting place. Just to meet whatever is there, not make it a problem, but just meet it.
Keido Les Kaye
Mel brought a quiet presence to the practice. Students felt comfortable being with him. His calm demeanor reflected confidence, helping to provide the foundation for Zen practice in its early days in the U.S. He was a perfect successor to his teacher: Suzuki Roshi.
Josho Pat Phelan
What strikes me about Sojun Roshi’s practice is how deeply rooted it is in his presence, his steady presence. Over the years of practicing with him at the City Center and hosting him for his many visits to our zendo in North Carolina, I don’t remember him ever rushing or communicating pressure or worry. He is and has been always right here, in this moment attending to it without any need to rush or worry about what comes next, just taking one thing at a time. His grounded presence never changed with circumstances, or with who he was with, or where he was. It was always clear and clearly right here, rooted in his authentic self.
Sojun Roshi’s practice to be who he is without a persona or added charisma, without needing to change depending on who he is with, has been a strong example for me. Just to be authentic, grounded in deep intention, squarely facing what and who is in front of me is how I try to enact this in my life and in presenting the Dharma.
Dairyu Michael Wenger
Meetings were always more peaceful when Sojun was present with anything being said. When we were in Japan and Sojun was not wearing robes, he completely blended in. You could not tell what nationality he was.
His teaching … Imperturbability.
For seven long years I didn’t get Mel’s teaching—the words wandered, lost in some invisible sound barrier. I just sat there, waiting.
Then during the winter of my first practice period at Tassajara, Mel demonstrated the instruments. I finally heard the teaching.
I learned to listen to the true sound hidden behind the words. I learned to listen to what’s unsaid.
My practice is filled with quiet—no need for idle chatter.
Ever present gratitude for the teachings passed from Suzuki Roshi, to you, to Blanche, to me.
Ordinary Mel is the Way (I have been watching him for many years)
The way he is with short people
The way he is with tall people
The way he is with important people (there aren’t any important people)
The way he is with unimportant people (there aren’t any unimportant people)
The way he is with dogs
The way he with Buddha
The way he is with Dharma
The way he with Sangha
The way he is illness
The way he teaches—open-handed, patient, kind
The way he teaches—close-handed, strict, exacting
The way he shows up for ceremonies
The way he shows up at work meeting
The way he is with Hoitsu
The way he is with Okusan
The way he is with cooking
The way he is with tea
The way he is with lineage
The way he is with text
The way he is with Buddha
The way he with Dharma
The way he is with Sangha
The way he is with breath
FULL DOCUMENT: Without Words
Page 8, photo caption: … Idilio Ceniceros receiving his robe from Sojun Mel Weitsman
Page 15, photo caption: Gengetsu Jana Drakka’s Shuso Ceremony … Shinshu Roberts
Addendum: Kyoshin Wendy Lewis
An obit for Sojun written by Alan Senauke and shared with Lion’s Roar
A Tribute to Sojun Roshi: Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi’s three Green Gulch resident Dharma Heirs—Steve Weintraub, Sara Tashker, and Jiryu Rutschman-Byler—share their reflections on their late teacher’s teaching.
A YouTube photo tribute to Sojun Mel Weitsman created by Barbara Wenger