Awakening The Archive

I have been working with Charlie at Engage Wisdom for five and a half years. I had known him through Zen Center: perhaps because I knew he had installed the sound system for the new retreat hall at Tassajara, I commissioned him to replace the sound system in the Buddha Hall when I was ino. We ran into each other a few times after that, and after I left Zen Center, I thought to check in with him, and heard about his project, which had begun with his work to digitise Reb Anderson’s cassettes, and had then broadened to include potentially preserving all the audio from the Zen Center archive. With my years (and ears) working on BBC radio back in London, it was a perfect fit.

In the time that I have been working there – before I started teaching more widely, I generally called it my day job, as it ensured that I could pay my rent each month – we have worked on the collections of a number of teachers connected with Zen Center, as well as making inroads into the eleven-thousand-odd tapes from the Zen Center archive, which includes many fascinating and historical events and people.

The Suzuki Roshi talks were always the most intriguing. Many people have worked for years to preserve what there was at Zen Center; I remember from my early years at City Center how people would spend time in the library transcribing the hundreds of talks (it is always fun to see familiar names in the transcription notes; some of those people I haven’t seen in years, others are still intimately involved). One set of digitising had been done before I arrived at Engage Wisdom, and I struggled a bit to get my head round some of the quirks in the archive, piecing together that some reels were just the ends of other talks, or had been misdated or misidentified, with the help of extensive notes and records that others had compiled.

A couple of years ago, we were able to photograph all the items from the Zen Center archive, and this allowed me to cross-check dates and titles. It was clear we had some talks that didn’t seem to appear in the current lists – or where the dates were ambiguous enough that it would be worth checking. 

Most exciting of all was the chance to handle and play – for digitising – handfuls of original reel-to-reel recordings (again, something I was familiar with from my BBC days). There was one I particularly had my eye on. There was an incomplete date, and writing on the box that was potentially promising:

I remember distinctly listening to the audio as it was being transfered from reel to the digital audio program, and the shiver that I felt to hear Suzuki Roshi using the phrase that became famous. This tape, along with all the others from the Los Altos group that were transcribed to create Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was thought to have been lost. Perhaps I was the first person in almost fifty years to hear it, even as millions have read the phrase in the book. I played the reel through twice, just to be sure we had captured it.

What is most incredible for me about the tape is that, just a minute or two before this moment, there is some electrical interference on the tape, and Suzuki Roshi’s words are lost. In the transcript this is noted as a blank space. I wonder what would have happened if the interference had lasted longer and the phrase itself had been lost. Would the book have ended up with a different title?

Now that we have (most likely) digitised all the new and previously inaudible talks from our collection – though we hope other tapes might come to light – there are a number of other talks I am excited by: other recordings that were transcribed and edited for Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; tracks that appear to have been overlooked from tapes of sesshins and one-day sittings; extra talks from a series on the Genjo Koan; all the audio from the first sesshin at Tassajara, which had previously been incompletely transcribed. I have spent hours listening and transcribing them myself, mainly in my free time. It is part of the gratitude I feel to Suzuki Roshi for having been able to create the sangha that I was able to join almost thirty years after his death, and which still continues to thrive, and part of my vow to help all beingss benefit from the dharma. Now that it is fully out in the world, I hope you get a chance to check out the archive and listen to some of the treasures.

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