Alan Senauke

A Cursory But Long-Winded Autobiographical Sketch

This piece covers a lot of personal territory telegraphically. I apologize in advance for leaving out names and much detail in the years following the Columbia strike. I also acknowledge fallibility of memory and a keen awareness that events often look very different from another’s perspective. Among all the back and forth of comments and stories here, some have alluded to clandestine activities — Weather politics in particular — but we are often talking around it. I’ll try to get closer to the point. It could be this is irrelevant in 2008, and yet, for many of us I believe such political connections were — for better and/or worse — formational. At the same time, even in the waning months of the Bush debacle, our former allegiances, beliefs, and actions seemingly far in the past can come back and bite us on the ass. Now the serpent is called “homeland security.” So I account for myself and not speak for others. With love, you know who you are.

I came to Columbia from the suburbs of NY. During high school I was involved in peace demonstrations and local civil rights work — housing, migrant workers, voter registration. At Columbia, though, I found my place in a literary crowd, and was more of a fellow-traveler in campus and world politics. I went to many of the anti-war demonstrations, as they became increasingly militant. By 1967-68, militancy had for me a compelling logic, which led me into Grayson Kirk’s office for the big pajama party. I was there in the Low Library, locking arms and singing with my closest friends as the police peeled us away from the circle, beating us with clubs and flashlights. (Barbara Bernstein’s bio gets this right to my memory.) So much for a liberal arts education.

The summer after the strike a bunch of us camped out for a while in a spacious apartment on 110th off Broadway. In time we found drive-away cars and made it out to what we thought would be the easy life in Berkeley. We arrived in a police state. After-dark curfew, teams of cops swaggering down Telegraph Avenue. It was hardly California dreaming. But the most important thing I did that summer was find the Berkeley Zen Center on Dwight Way. We regularly sat zazen there and at Sokoji in San Francisco. The seed of way-seeking-mind was planted. I went back to a last forlorn year at Columbia with meditation cushions in hand, determined to study Japanese and go to Japan to practice Zen. But that didn’t happen. The war was too much with us every day. Friends were slipping into a shadowy underground. Graduate school made no sense. After Low Commune the university looked morally bankrupt. I felt lost and despairing, hardly knowing how deep those troubles ran.

So I moved to Woodstock and play in a rock and roll band — the Montgomeries. We lived there the summer of the Woodstock festival. A big sign on the edge of town said, “The Festival is Not HERE!” The Montgomeries actually had another gig that weekend in a dank Catskill roadhouse, playing Chicago blues and R&B. That lasted into early 1970, when everyone in the band house in Shady ran out of money and we began to turn on each other. I think it’s a story anyone who has ever played in a band can immediately understand.

I went back to NYC with my partner, and worked as a cabdriver out of the Dalk-Iota garage on West 61st Street. I remember walking by the ruins of the Townhouse explosion, thinking about Ted Gold and the others who died there, wondering what such bright spirits had been thinking that led to this end. We were married in the spring, went to Europe briefly, then moved to San Francisco to cast our lot with old friends. My story dovetails with Hilton’s here, in the fall of 1970. He writes:

I moved to San Francisco to join with other Columbia friends – most of who were veterans of Low – to live communally and to put together a literary magazine. I was involved in the poetry scene in SF and Bolinas, and I joined in weird and happy antics, such as with the Cockettes in the Castro District and others…soon we decided to get to the roots of writing, so to speak, and after we went to community college to learn how to operate printing presses, we bought a printing press and opened up a movement print shop in the Mission District, FITS Printing.

In this period I began meeting with people in and around the Weather Underground. I was getting an education in anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist politics; enjoying intense conversation with old and new friends who, as allies of international liberation movements, were committed in armed opposition to an American empire. Armed struggle and bombings never sat easily with me, but U.S. military violence in Vietnam and in communities of color here seemed to call for a strong response in its own terms. Whether or not armed retaliation was actually an effective way to build a mass movement of resistance, there was a case for it. At the age of twenty-three I also sensed that some of the romance of the outlaw accrued to me by just being in contact with clandestine life. As Hilton writes, however naïve and misguided I may now see my actions and beliefs, I never felt coerced or manipulated to get into things I wasn’t prepared for.

After the amicable but painful conclusion of married life in San Francisco, I moved to Ithaca, New York in 1974 to play in a bluegrass band, Country Cooking. We toured a bit, and between times in Ithaca, my printing skills landed me part-time work at Glad Day Press. The folks there were doing larger and more demanding jobs than we had attempted on small presses at FITS, so I learned a lot and enjoyed helping to print posters for Akwesasne, booklets, and broadside for a wide variety of activist groups.

The following year another old Columbia friend invited me to join him editing Sing Out!, the national folksong magazine, which itself had grown out of the cultural wing of the Communist party (although it was almost impossible to get anyone to admit it back then). Having grown up reading Sing Out!, cherishing those iconic pocket-sized issues, attending their amazing concerts all through high school, I jumped at the chance, and moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, commuting to Sing Out!’s modest office, first on 26th Street, then on Lafayette, just below Houston. This was a very dark time in the world, but I enjoyed being back in NYC, doing meaningful work, learning to write and edit under pressure. I was still playing bluegrass and oldtime music as part of the Fiction Brothers. The opportunity to work with and get to know my folk music heroes —traditional musicians and those in the constantly evolving world of activist singers — was inspiring.

Settled again in NY in 1975, I was more formally initiated into the clandestine activities of WUO. I learned how to get to secret meetings precisely on time; how to make subtle changes in my clothes and appearance, how not to be followed. Meetings themselves were mostly study and discussion of Marxist-Leninist classics, the question of armed struggle and the ever-changing Weather political line, coming under fire as opportunist. I had a sense of who was in the broad network of Weather supporters above ground. That was easy to figure out. It was simply a matter of listening to the shifting political language and slogans. I met a small number of fugitives on a need-to-know basis. My involvement was moral, financial, and very slightly material. And again, I was not compelled to do things that were over my head. Given my work as an editor, writer, and musician I saw myself as a “cultural worker.” I worked to find music for the Hard Times Conference in Chicago in late January of 1976. Later that year I helped out with an alternative bicentennial event in Philadelphia. (The highlight of the weekend was hearing the Sun Ra Arkestra for free on the U. of P. campus).

As a so-called cultural worker at Sing Out! I quite naturally implemented the Weather line on race, class, internal colonies, etc. in a yearlong Bicentennial series. This was something that arose from my own “inspiration,” but it was certainly encouraged (or at least respectfully endured) by WUO leadership. To be honest, I really don’t know if they took the whole thing seriously. The underground was hardly attuned to the music that moved me. I still think Sing Out! published powerful issues — exploring the music and resistance histories of immigrants, Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, and the working class of north and south. It raised hackles within the hardcore folk music scene, who right away noticed a sharp left turn, but that was okay with me. At the same time, this editorial journey is one of the few things in my life that I deeply regret. I have since made my apologies, but shame lingers.

What is shameful is not so much that the magazine’s content was reprehensible — at least as I see it then and now — but that I took editorial and political leadership from hidden people who were neither known nor accountable to the Sing Out! staff, my friends. That was entirely my doing. I felt the burden of protecting those underground from the forces of the state, but I didn’t consider the safety of my co-workers at Sing Out!, how in those dangerous times I was placing them at risk, given the obvious political direction of our pages. It is a simple matter of honesty. I remember feeling guilty about this situation, but not until 1978, when I was leaving Sing Out! (and simultaneously the WUO was fragmenting and surfacing), did I sit down and explain this all to the staff. It was a difficult conversation.

I moved back to Ithaca, and then to Boston to play music, spending the next three years on the road in a yellow Toyota Corolla, playing a circuit of colleges, bars, folk clubs from the far north of New York State and New England, to the Midwest and the South. Along the way I had wonderful times with circles of like-minded musicians everywhere. I had the rich opportunity of playing with older musicians in many vernacular musical styles, coming to see both the progressive and regressive aspects of traditional cultures.

In Ithaca our group of friends, mostly involved with a feminist bookstore, had an and ongoing argument about how the oppressive aspects of U.S. imperialism — inside and out — were to be deconstructed. My thinking — then very incomplete — was turning away from strategies of armed resistance towards vaguely formulated principles of nonviolence, reflecting on the civil rights movement, and on what little I knew about religiously-based activists challenging the war and the U.S. government.

At the same time I felt myself in the wilderness. Life on the road was hard despite enjoyable performances from time to time. I was lonely — lacking a core community and a significant relationship. My political ground was gone. So, once more I picked up and headed for another coast. We had a serious new project, the Blue Flame String Band, effectively synthesizing a range of traditional musics around strong vocal harmonies. But now I was thirty-three years old, single, still sleeping on people’s couches. This was not exactly what I had imagined life would bring.

I found myself a good psychotherapist. One day I brought her a series of pressing questions, and her response was that they were spiritual rather than therapeutic matters. Oh… Going to the phone book I found the Berkeley Zen Center, where I had begun to practice in the summer of 1968. I went to BZC the following day. As soon as I walked in I was home, and since then my life has unfolded along the path of Zen.

Berkeley Zen Center is in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki, whose book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind is the most widely circulated Buddhist book in the west. Suzuki Roshi taught being completely oneself in practice for the benefit of all living beings. This means carrying Zen practice, carefully cultivated in meditation, into all the activities of life. Suzuki Roshi himself had been a quiet pacifist in Japan during World War II, at a time when all the Buddhist institutions were backing the war effort. I have been living at BZC for twenty-five years, ordained as a Soto Zen priest in 1989, and presently serving as vice-abbot. Along with my wife Laurie and our two children, Silvie (17) and Alexander (13), we live in a kind of fishbowl, our home always open to community members seeking conversation or a cup of tea, and to guests from around the world.

When I came to BZC in the early 80s I heard about the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, begun in 1978 by Robert Aitken, Gary Snyder and others, as a Buddhist manifestation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s vision of active nonviolence and social justice. I joined BPF because it made complete sense to me that a social perspective and the Bodhisattva’s vow to save all beings were one view, or rather, were the way I chose to see the world. This is what some of us call “socially engaged Buddhism.” In 1991 I was hired as executive director of BPF. I held this position for eleven years, left briefly, and returned in various capacities down to today. I continue to work there as advisor and consultant.

Working at BPF located me in the middle of a worldwide network of Buddhists and dedicated activists from many religious traditions. Since 1991 I have frequently traveled to Asia for meetings and witness trips to areas of violent conflict — Burma’s borders, Sri Lanka, the ethnic tribal areas of Bangladesh. Every journey into realms of suffering creates responsibility. Though I return to the comforts of home and family, I remember the sound of mortar fire in nearby hills, I see the ashes of burned-out settlements, the wasted bodies of young children with all promise of my own children. And in that remembering, what is my responsibility? As some of you know, I recently led a small delegation to Burma, carrying messages of solidarity, and building pathways of support for embattled monks, nuns, and activists. That continues to central work, and I would be glad to talk about this with any of you who would like to know more.

In the last ten years I have been involved in prison work — leading meditation groups in federal and state prisons, meeting individually with men and women in prisons and county jails. This work involves walking a narrow line. Meditation and counseling work can help prisoners settle their minds and take full responsibility for their present, past, and future life. On the other hand, my/our work involves advocacy against a racist system of retributive justice that warehouses inmates who are often born into oppression and suffering. Advocacy includes working against the death penalty, prison industry, youth incarceration, and so on. The Buddhist vow to save sentient beings means transforming the structural manifestations of suffering, not getting inmates to be compliant in the continuation of their oppression.

Although there are millions of Buddhists in the U.S., by virtue of Asian background and — like myself — by choice, it remains a minority spiritual expression. Some do not even consider Buddhism a religion. So it has been natural to build alliances and common work across the boundaries of many faith traditions. In the course of interfaith collaboration I have come to study the principles of active nonviolence, as exemplified by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Berrigans, and many others. For nearly ten years I have been teaching a workshop “the dharma of Martin Luther King,” looking both at King’s writing and sermons, and more practically in the actions he led — successes and failures — rooted in his inclusivist faith and his unshakeable reliance on nonviolence. The more I study, the more I see that this strategy of nonviolence calls for at least as much inner discipline as an armed combatant. More, actually, since it involves receiving blows without retaliating, with an understanding that one’s receptivity and capacity for peace allows conflict and the ugliness of violence to come out in the light of day for all to consider.

It would be presumptuous to claim I am categorically “nonviolent,” that I have somehow cleansed myself of all sorts of reactivity. It ain’t so. But at least that is my intention, the aim of practice. It is what I try to return to in the midst of conflict and strong emotions. It’s what I wish to model for my children and community. Lots of work still to do.

I am working more independently lately via the newly created Clear View Project, offering Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change, internationally and here at home. Our present focus is on Burma’s democracy movement, and also on the remarkable but little known struggle of India’s “new Buddhists,” millions of ex-untouchables determined to gain their human, civil, and economic rights.

Aside from all that, I enjoy being challenged by my children, who see a different world than I do. Still playing and performing the same old music as much as I can. (My latest recording is Wooden Man: Old Songs from the Southern School, on the Native & Fine label) Still writing essays and stories, with a novel stashed in a desk drawer and another just under way. Most days Laurie and I get up around 5am and go across the Berkeley Zen Center yard to the meditation hall. All this was far beyond my imagination in 1968. In the midst of a world of suffering and joy, impossibly tangled like twining vines, I have found a fortunate life and hope to give that good fortune right back to those who need it most.

- by Alan Senauke
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