Lion's Roar

Profile: Mount Baldy Zen Center

Profile of the Mount Baldy Zen Center.

By Andrea Miller

Joshu Sasaki Roshi wanted a property that could serve as a monastic-style retreat center for his community, and Shozan Marc Joslyn thought he’d found just the house. Sasaki Roshi, however, took only a cursory glance at it and asked to be driven farther up the mountain. Then, just above Mount Baldy village at a defunct, vandalized Boy Scout camp, Roshi wanted to stop the car. The cabins’ windows were broken and the rooms were littered with feces, used condoms, rotten food, and the charred chunks of a building. After barely poking his head into a particularly distasteful cabin, Roshi turned to Shozan. “OK,” he said. “You buy.”

That old Boy Scout camp has now been Mount Baldy Zen Center for thirty-five years, and during that time it has garnered the reputation for being one of the most challenging places to practice in the West. The one-hundred-year-old abbot Sasaki Roshi teaches using rigorous traditional Rinzai Zen methods and the center, and its surroundings, are rough.

Located in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, Mount Baldy sits on a steep hillside covered with evergreens. “There are sharp rocks everywhere,” says former vice-abbot Koshin Chris Cain. “And you have to coax plants to live.” Also, because it’s at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, the range in temperature is extreme. Yet there is no air-conditioning in the summer, and, as senior student Seiju Bob Mammoser puts it, “During the winter, heat in the zendo is mostly imaginary.” Likewise, the sleeping quarters are usually not heated and, until the late 1990s, there was no hot running water.

Virtually everyone has difficulty adjusting to life at Mount Baldy. For Seiju, it was challenging to do hard, physical work while getting minimal amounts of sleep and eating a simple, mostly vegetarian diet. “You had no discretion,” he says. “There was a very hierarchical system and, as a student, you were to give yourself to following the schedule as an expression of your practice. There wasn’t a lot of hand-holding.” Koshin’s biggest challenge, on the other hand, was the pain of sitting for extended periods. “There’s a lot of sitting that goes on up there,” he says, “and there’s no allowance given for knees that haven’t yet been broken in.”

If Mount Baldy is so severe, why do so many students keep going back? The appeal, it seems, lies in how the intensity is complemented by the personal warmth and charm of Sasaki Roshi. Leonard Cohen, Roshi’s most famous student, explains the effect his teacher has on him in The Book of Longing: “When I chow down with Roshi / and the Ballantine flows / the pine trees inch into my bosom / the great boring grey boulders / of Mount Baldy / creep into my heart / and they all get fed.”

In contrast, Myokyo Judith McLean, the only woman who has done all of her training at Mount Baldy, explains Sasaki Roshi’s appeal in more straightforward terms. “If you’re willing to tangle with him,” she says, “he’ll do anything he can to make you understand, and he doesn’t care if his whole sangha runs away.”

Sasaki Roshi is the last of the pioneering Japanese teachers who first brought Zen to America. In 1907, he was born into a farming family in rural Miyagi Prefecture. At fourteen, he became a novice under Joten Soko Miura Roshi, and then at forty, he received full authority as a roshi. In 1962, Joten Roshi’s successor asked Sasaki Roshi to begin teaching in the United States, and on July 21 of that year, he arrived in Los Angeles with an English-Japanese dictionary in one sleeve and a Japanese-English dictionary in the other.

For a number of years, Sasaki Roshi ran a zendo in a small house in Gardena, California, and traveled to students’ homes to give talks and lead zazen. Then in 1968, he established Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles. Cimarron is now known as Rinzai-ji, and it is the main temple for Sasaki Roshi’s umbrella organization of the same name. Mount Baldy is just one of about twenty other centers within Rinzai-ji, which are located across the U.S. and in Canada, Austria, and Germany, but it plays a critical role as the main training center.

“Mount Baldy is where the next generation of teachers cut their teeth,” says Koshin, referring to the fact that almost all of Roshi’s priests, monks, and nuns have done extensive training there. But virtually no one ever finishes with Mount Baldy. Even Sasaki Roshi’s most advanced students—those who now run their own centers within Rinzai-ji—return several times a year to resume their training. Usually they return during seichu.

Seichu are demanding three-month-long retreats that incorporate zazen, chanting, formal meals, and work periods. At Mount Baldy there are summer and winter seichu, and whenever possible, Sasaki Roshi guides them by offering sanzen (private interviews) and teisho (commentary on classic Zen texts). Seichu are always intense, but they are punctuated by dai-sesshin, weeklong retreats during which the intensity is taken up yet another notch. During dai-sesshin, days begin at 3:00 a.m. and stretch on for eighteen hours. Students spend most of that time sitting and have essentially no free time. Seichu is designed for those with prior experience in formal Zen practice. And for those with less experience, there is an option called seikan. Conducted in both spring and autumn, seikan are periods of less formal training with an emphasis on work practice.

Chizo, the center’s current shoji (a role he describes as “kind of the mom” for students), highly recommends Mount Baldy’s seikan or seichu to anyone interested in Zen training. “Mount Baldy is a wild place to be,” he says. “At night, there is very little human-made light, and when the wind is not blowing, it is absolutely still. I think everyone feels that being at Mount Baldy with Roshi is a unique opportunity. And it’s not going to last forever.”

In April, Sasaki Roshi celebrated his one-hundredth birthday, and many people are wondering what will happen to Mount Baldy when he dies. He has given full ordination to about twenty students, but he hasn’t named a dharma heir. This means that in his lineage, there is currently no one other than him who is qualified to give sanzen or teisho.

But Myokyo, who attended Sasaki Roshi’s birthday celebration along with about two hundred others, isn’t worried about the future. “Roshi is still himself,” she says. “He’s himself more than ever.” He maintains an uncompromising schedule and, though he gets tired easily, there is not much physically wrong with him. “Roshi was nonchalant about turning one hundred,” Myokyo concludes. “So I think that we—that Mount Baldy—will have him for a while yet.”

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.