A Pillar of Zen: Roshi Philip Kapleau 1912 – 2004

Roshi Philip Kapleau’s longtime student Rafe Martin remembers a pioneer of American Zen.

By Rafe Martin

Rochester Zen Center. Photo by Mike.

Each person there seeed to find that at bottom they owed this man so much. He had opened the gate of practice, and his immense love of the dharma had saved us from deeply painful lives. The Three Pillars of Zen—the now classic work that brought him into the public eye and led him to found the first Zen center in America headed by a Westerner—was published in 1965 when the world was in chaos, the Vietnam War still on. Most of us were only in our early twenties, and somewhat crazed. He stood at an ancient door, held it open wide, and said to us simply, ‘Come in. Work hard. The dharma will never let you down.’

Roshi’s dying and death occurred outdoors, beneath the new-leaved trees in the backyard of the Rochester Zen Center, where some thirty years earlier he and a cadre of quite unskilled laborers had built this center from a burnt-out shell of a building. (He liked to say in those early days, ‘We specialize in burnt-out buildings and people.’)

Spring had just come to the Northeast, so the birds sang and the sun shone down to where he sat in his wheelchair—like the Buddha beneath the flowering sala trees. He wore his favorite chinos, flannel shirt, tan cloth sneakers and sunglasses, and was surrounded by friends, some from Rochester, others who had flown in to be with him. He had been living with Parkinson’s the last thirteen years, living admirably actually, but getting weaker and weaker, especially this last year. The last few days he also had pneumonia. It was time to go.

His mind had remained clear and he still loved jokes, though even his favorite movies—Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be, Ninotchka and Fiddler on The Roof among them—had, over the last several months, become hard for him to follow. (He had recently taken, too, to watching only the first half of Fiddler; the second part now seemed too sad.) Each scene was compelling for him, but putting the narrative together had gotten tricky. He still loved to laugh and to be read to, everything from koans and koan commentaries, poetry, history, politics, news and science to The Cat Who Went to Heaven, one of his favorites, and Horton Hatches the Egg—which he pronounced a great Zen tale, one that all Zen students should read.

Slowly, slowly as far-off dharma friends called and the phone was held to his ear to receive their well wishes and farewells, he drifted further away. His eyes had closed earlier and now, as death approached, his breathing simply became ever fainter and shallower. The passage between life and death was so subtle and gentle it is hard to pinpoint when death actually occurred. An exhale. Another. Then he was off, between breaths and worlds.

Friends sat with him still, whispering into his ear, holding his hand. And there was chanting—the Prajna Paramita, Sho Sai Myo, and Kanzeon. That night the local Zen community and many longtime friends gathered in the zendo. Two of his closest friends and students, Sunyana Graef Sensei and Rose Martin, had washed his body and clothed him in his rakusu and robes, and now he lay in an open casket before the altar. Over the next few days his un-embalmed body would show no signs of either rigor or decomposition.

He was buried, not cremated, by his own choice. When the notion was presented to him, he concurred that the decision for burial was not simply a personal preference but a dharma teaching. Form and essence are not-two. To burn the form would suggest that they are somehow separate. He would not accept that as an answer in dokusan. He did not embody it as a teaching now. Perhaps he was also saying that as Westerners and Buddhists we need not take on Eastern cultural forms. Our grandparents and parents were all buried. To be Buddhist need not mean we become anything other than what we already are. Let the natural processes proceed and the body decompose as the bodies of our ancestors and forebears had been allowed to do in their time. There is nothing to add to what we already are. Nothing special to do.

Philip Kapleau was born in 1912 to a working class family in New Haven, Connecticut. According to the Rochester Zen Center’s obituary (the full copy of which may be seen on the center’s Web site), as a young man he studied law and became a court reporter, serving for many years in the state and federal courts of Connecticut. He recorded trials of increasing importance and was selected in 1945 to serve as chief court reporter for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He later covered the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. His karma was unfolding, for in that unique position he took down testimony and became a witness to the greatest horrors not only of this last century, but, perhaps, of any. It was that horrifying experience that brought him to Zen. He used to say that two things about Japan affected him deeply. The first was the fact that the Japanese he met, unlike the Germans, were immediately willing to accept that their own sufferings had been caused by the suffering they had inflicted on others. It is our self-created karma, he was told. And he was deeply moved by the great peace and stillness he experienced walking beneath the beautiful trees at many of the Zen temples he visited while in Japan for the trials.

He first took up Zen by reading voraciously in the literature available at the time, and by going to lectures and courses given by D.T. Suzuki at Columbia University. Beside writers, artists, musicians (like John Cage) and psychologists, there he sat, an American businessman, owner of a successful court-reporting firm.

Eventually finding Zen philosophy by itself of little use in solving the great malaise he felt after the war, in 1953 he sold his court-reporting business and returned to Japan to enter a Zen monastery and actually train in Zen, which he would do there for thirteen years. Early on, Soen Nakagawa-roshi became his friend. They called themselves ‘the two hobos’ and it was Soen Nakagawa—brilliant, poetic, eccentric—who first took him under his wing, helped him find an entrance into the world of practice, and eventually introduced him to Harada-roshi, stern abbot of Hosshin-ji, saying ‘He will be a much better teacher for you, Kapleau-san.’

Roshi Kapleau used to say that if it hadn’t been for that initial generous and warm friendship with Nakagawa Roshi, the talks and travels, the hours they spent listening to recordings of Beethoven together, he might never have been able to stay in Japan or enter Zen at all. After three years of exhausting, miserable work under Harada Roshi, the great taskmaster of enlightenment, he continued his ongoing training as a layman with Yasutani Roshi. In the more relaxed atmosphere of that dedicated community of lay practitioners, he flourished. He ‘got’ kensho. He married, had a child, and in 1965 was ordained as a Zen priest and sanctioned to begin teaching in the Harada-Yasutani line of Zen, which was to become so important and influential in the West.

While practicing under Yasutani Roshi he put his writing and court reporter skills to work, transcribing Zen teachers’ talks, interviewing Zen lay students and monks, and recording the practical details of Zen Buddhist practice. He was the first Westerner allowed to observe and record dokusan. The resulting book, The Three Pillars of Zen, was published in 1965 and quickly became the standard introductory text on Zen practice. It is still in print and has been translated into twelve languages. The story of the American ex-businessman in The Three Pillars of Zen is Roshi Kapleau’s own enlightenment account, and it is still a corker, resonant and stirring. It tells you, better than any remembrance, why people flocked to the center he established in Rochester. Indeed, over the years, that one book opened wide the floodgate of practice for thousands of Western Zen students at Zen Centers throughout North and South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and is still a vital, living work.

Two of the earliest readers of The Three Pillars were Ralph Chapin of Chapin Manufacturing in Batavia, New York, and Dorris Carlson of Rochester, the wife of Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, the technology that became the foundation for the Xerox Corporation. During his book tour in 1965, Dorris Carlson invited Roshi to visit her small meditation group and in June 1966, with the support of the Carlsons, he founded the Rochester Zen Center. These were not naïve, starry-eyed seekers but solid, mature and steady people. Perhaps they saw in Roshi what my father saw. When I told my father, now eighty-six himself, that Roshi had died he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. He was so down to earth, so kind and always such a gentleman.’ He was.

Though he could also be tough as nails—sometimes when you didn’t want him to be—and sprout horns and fangs to reveal, in Zen parlance, the ‘black piercing eyes of a devil,’ he could also be as sweet and gentle and subtle and sensitive and wonderfully able to bless with his presence as a spring breeze after harshest winter. He had his particular failures and shortcomings. Sometimes his maverick strength (that firm, unyielding jaw and solid chin were perfectly made for stubbornly sticking out into the wind) was, at the same time, his greatest weakness. But given time and opportunity, he would invariably confess sorrow about his failures. ‘We all do stupid things sometimes,’ is what he told a dharma friend. And by that he meant himself; that he did stupid things and that he regretted them. Once he had a turkey brought into the Buddha Hall at Thanksgiving. It had been purchased by the Zen Center to be released, but now the bewildered bird flapped about anxiously. Roshi got us all chanting and, sure enough, the frightened bird grew calm. Then Roshi put his hands together and bowed deeply to the turkey in gassho style saying, ‘Turkey bows to turkey.’ He meant it. He had a knack for making waves. His style was to call a spade ‘a damn shovel!’ He broke with his own teacher, Yasutani Roshi, as he said in Zen: Merging of East and West, because of differences over the personalizing and Westernizing of Japanese Zen. Years later, after Yasutani Roshi’s death, he said, with the greatest humility and sorrow, ‘If my old teacher should walk into this room now I would get down on my knees before him and beg for his forgiveness.’

He could be mischievous, direct and down to earth. I remember after having dinner at his favorite local Chinese restaurant, we had a choice—we could go to a crowded, upscale cultural event, an opening at the museum, or we could head back to our house, my wife’s and mine, and watch Casablanca together again, as we often did. We looked at each other. ‘Let’s watch the movie!’ he exclaimed. And we did, repeating joyfully in unison ‘Play it again, Sam!’ He often chose intimacy over a crowd, and easy friendship on familiar ground over the social, dress-up affair. But he was no recluse. He also could love crowds, throwing himself into conversation and social whirl with child-like abandon, only stopping when someone noticed he was near collapse with exhaustion and dragged him away. He would have loved his own funeral services and his burial. They provided the very combination of pageantry, ceremony, community and socializing he so enjoyed. He had a committed sweet tooth, so chocolate bars were put in his coffin, along with small Buddhas, a leaf from the Bo tree, a long-life pill, which a practitioner had received from a Tibetan lama, and a harmonica. He loved to play the harmonica and had a number of old favorites, like Home on the Range and Auld Lang Syne, with which he’d turn sangha get-togethers into wonderful sing-alongs. For many years the Japanese bath was one of his greatest joys and he always had one in his quarters or nearby. Later he made it a practice to come to our house, where he liked to stretch out in our bigger, Japanese-style wooden tub, relax in very hot water (a metaphor for his life, when you think about it) and look up through the skylight into the trees. I also just recently learned from a dharma sister that he used to sometimes dance alone in his quarters when no one was around. She found this out when bringing him his afternoon tea. She would open the door—and there he might be, silently dancing to a beat all his own.

A great lover of animals, he dedicated his book on vegetarianism, To Cherish All Life, in inimitable Roshi Kapleau-fashion, ‘To Elsie, Porky, and Donald.’ (His Zen was clearly very Western and was from ‘inside’ the culture, not an add-on.) He traveled to the Galapagos, that rough Eden, to see animals up close who had no ingrained fear of humans. He enjoyed spending time in rural Mexico, where he could walk down dirt lanes and see horses and cows wandering about on their own, going their own ways, and where he could go out, too, and stand by the wire fence and talk with the great black bull, Negrito, who lived in the field nearby.

He was such an unusual man for his generation. While he could be devastatingly logical and had a sharp mind, honed to a fine edge for literal detail, when speaking about myths and legends, especially those of the Buddha, he would say with the deepest kind of quiet respect, ‘Myth is truer than mere fact can say.’ He was a vivid storyteller who regaled us with tale after tale about his training days in Japan and his times with Nakagawa Roshi, Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi, about the military war trials and about his own travels in Asia as well. The history of Zen in the twentieth century was in his blood, breath and bones.

One of his favorite stories from his own experience of Zen training involved the time he and an American philosophy professor were culled from the zendo one night at an early sesshin in Japan. Dutifully they appeared before the roshi, glad to have an official reason to get up off the mat and straighten their aching legs.

‘What did Christ say when he hung on the cross?’ asked the roshi. They looked at each other quizzically.

The professor said, ‘‘My God, my God,’ wasn’t that it? ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’’

‘Yes,’ Philip Kapleau concurred. ‘Yes. That’s right. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.’’

‘No!’ said the roshi.

This went on, back and forth several times, the two Westerners more and more sure that they had gotten it right, the roshi always disagreeing. At last the roshi burst out, the words surging up directly from his hara with stunning force, ‘What he said was, ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME!’’ When Roshi Kapleau would tell that story at night during sesshin, a gale of spirit would blow through the zendo, sweeping everything but pure yearning, aspiration and determination away. You had to be there.

In countless ways, from the vividly dramatic, to those that were simple, quiet and almost below-the-radar, he taught me and so many others how to place our feet on the path. He also taught me in particular, and with an equal ardor, where to put my commas. I knew how to make a sentence that had rhythm. He appreciated that. But he saw too that I knew little or nothing of punctuation. I broke a sentence mostly by breath. He loathed that and gave me hell for it! Which reminds me—one of the first times I met him, more than thirty years ago, he pointed out that in pulling up my car to speak to him I had parked too far from the curb. The implication was that if I stayed where I was I would make it difficult for others to pass. I re-parked and was more careful about such things after that. I saw that even the most seemingly inconsequential things I did had consequences.

He changed my life in both large—make that vastand small ways. Given his many books, his teaching—both of the formal variety as in dokusan, teisho and sesshin, as well as through the informality of daily interactions and conduct—he affected untold lives. Though he is gone for now, his commitment to the endless fulfillment of Bodhisattva Vows guarantees that he will be back, and soon. Where, and in what form, old friend, shall we meet again?

Rafe Martin

Rafe Martin

Rafe Martin is a disciple of Roshi Philip Kapleau’s as well as his editor and friend. He is also an author of children’s books and a storyteller.