An obituary by Grace Schireson about the passing of her koan teacher, Fukushima Roshi.
As we reported, Fukushima Roshi died March 1, on his 78th birthday. Grace Schireson was a student of Fukushima Roshi (she studied koans with him in Japan). Here she offers a tribute to this fascinating and wonderful teacher:
Fukushima Roshi loved teaching Westerners; I think because we connected with him directly without realizing just what an icon he was in Japan. He was the Zen Master a Japanese Prime Minister would contact; he was the toast of Kyoto, and he was the spirit of Zen that attracted many monks to come face the austere conditions of Tofukuji monastery in order to taste the real thing. He was also the person who loved photos and paintings of bridges, loved listening to Joan Baez, loved Godiva chocolates, and often did his calligraphy listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Like his calligraphy (and chocolate), he was brilliant, stunning, fresh and subtle all at once.
From my first phone contact to my last koan dokusan with him, his energy penetrated my being like a shock of electric current. I have my own internal Roshi-o-meter, and I felt the Roshi-o-meter register off the scale at our first meeting in Kyoto in 1995. I had met Suzuki Roshi, some 30 years earlier, and I had (and still have) a deep relationship with my root teacher, Sojun Weitsman Roshi, both of whom influence and guide me deeply. Fukushima Roshi just plain knocked my socks off from start to finish. His Zen spirit illuminated every aspect of the conversation and penetrated my heart in ways that are hard to describe. He was at once kind, polite and conventional AND totally free to confront you in the midst of your unconsciousness. After our first meeting in 1995, I became driven to find a way to study with him. I told my husband, Kuzan Peter, “Joshu is alive and well in Kyoto, speaks English and is willing to teach Westerners. I’m in.” Peter also felt the jolt of our first meeting, but was slightly dubious of the practicality of my plan, which was fulfilled over the next 15 years through more than 20 visits lasting from two weeks to one month.
Later, I learned more about who Fukushima Roshi was and where that Zen jolt was coming from. I also learned that he did indeed have a rather special relationship with Joshu; all of his lectures were on Joshu. He had been to Joshu’s temple in China. I also learned that he had been to Tofukuji’s root temple in China and brought back a piece of tile. Later, I asked for and received a piece of Tofukuji’s ancient tile to bring to my own temple in California. He did the calligraphy for our temple and gave us the name in Japanese Kusoudo (Way of the Empty Nest, or Empty Nest Zendo). His calligraphy lights up our zendo with his bold and clear spirit. One New Year’s celebration we photographed the sangha standing under his calligraphy and sent the image and a card to him. He loved the picture and shared it with his monks in Japan.
On two occasions, I was able to bring a group of students to meet him. He was visibly excited to be able to teach Westerners, and even though affected by Parkinson’s disease, he wanted to shake hands and personally greet all 20 of us each time. His shaking hands was a living embodiment of Hakuin’s “Sound of One Hand” koan. He preferred shaking hands with Westerners to bowing. His teaching affected my students and fellow pilgrims deeply. When asked what was the most important development in Western Zen, he said: “The equality of women.” I suggested he had been a good student (of mine) on that front.
He emphasized “watching yourself” as the single most important Zen practice. He taught me formally and informally on the meanings of koans, including many outside the formal koan curriculum: “Look under your own feet”; “Why did the old lady burn down the hut?”, and Joshu’s “Throw it away.” He taught me about generosity by giving me gifts and said that Shibayama Roshi had taught him that the paramita of generosity was not just meant to be in spirit, but needed to be actual gifts like his calligraphy on fans or a beautiful Bizen vase. Above all, what he taught me was to penetrate all delusions with my Zen mind, and to know the difference between my own defensive bravado and clear, confident knowing. He also taught me to never stop practicing. He taught repeatedly that even Buddha and Bodhidharma go on practicing. And I am sure he too, even now, is continuing to practice and to bestow his unending gift of delight and clarity.