At 101 years of age, Joshu Sasaki Roshi is still teaching his unique brand of Zen. Michael Haederle offers us a rare look at this enigmatic master.
“You may hear bursts of gunfire or explosions during this sesshin,” the sign read. That gave me pause. Formal Rinzai Zen practice with Joshu Roshi was always intense, but gunplay had never before been part of the equation. As I read on, I realized that a movie was being shot in the neighborhood. It figured. Here in LA, reality and illusion mingle effortlessly.
I had come to Rinzai-ji, the home temple of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s network of Zen centers and monasteries, to participate in a seven-day sesshin marking the forty-sixth anniversary of his arrival in the U.S. Forty students were converging from as far away as Austria to practice with the 101-year-old teacher.
Although he has taught thousands, Joshu Roshi remains an enigma in the West. He has published little of his teaching, and he seldom speaks in public, apart from the teisho, the talks he delivers during his sesshins. Because he regards encounters with journalists (and everyone else, for that matter) primarily as teaching opportunities, in interviews he seldom talks about himself, preferring to keep the focus on Zen practice. None of this appears to concern him. He was firming up his teaching schedule for the rest of the year. “I have no plan [for retirement],” he tells me. “Of course, I have no plan, period. There is no word, ‘retirement,’ as far as I’m concerned.” Lately, though, he has been saying he will live to be 128.
Sesshin, which in Japanese literally means, “gathering the mind,” is a staple of Zen practice. It is a physically and mentally demanding period of intense zazen (sitting Zen meditation) coupled with regular meetings with the teacher. Joshu Roshi continues to lead eighteen or more sesshins a year, a pace that challenges even his most dedicated students.
“He has no dharma successor and he lives to teach,” says Seiju Bob Mammoser, the priest who was serving as the administrator for this sesshin. “It’s like if you have a child and you see he’s suffering because he’s caught on some foolish thing, and you want him to change. Roshi sees we’re suffering a lot, needlessly, and he’s trying to help us understand that.”
As we arrived for the Sunday-afternoon chanting session that would kick the sesshin off, I greeted old friends and introduced myself to people I hadn’t met before. The setting was pure Southern California. The zendo was an eighty-year-old building modeled on a Spanish mission church, with whitewashed masonry walls and a high ceiling made of massive exposed wood beams. The surrounding streets were lined with stately hundred-foot palm trees, and a subtle floral fragrance wafted on the placid breeze.
I’d never sat a sesshin at Rinzai-ji, but I knew more or less what to expect. We would rise at 3:00 a.m. for chanting, followed by four twenty-five-minute periods of zazen as students went one by one to sanzen, a private interview with the teacher. After a formal breakfast, Roshi would deliver an hour-long teisho, followed by more zazen and sanzen. Another round of chanting, zazen, and sanzen would follow in the afternoon and again in the evening before we retired, sometime after 9:00 p.m. We would do this for seven days in a row, not speaking the entire time.
Although he is well south of five feet tall and only appears in public once a day for teisho, everyone always feels Roshi’s indomitable presence during sesshin. Photos from when he first came to the States portray a powerful bulldog of a man, and the tales of his fierceness back then are legion. He’s much gentler now that he must conserve his energy, but his determination to practice with every ounce of his remaining strength inspires great devotion among his students.
“I consider Roshi to be the kancho [abbot] of Zen worldwide,” says Oscar Moreno, a retired computer science professor from Puerto Rico who sat next to me for the week. He has studied with Joshu Roshi since 1975 and estimates that he has sat close to 300 sesshins with him. “Roshi is at the top of Buddhism, and that’s why he has not certified anyone as a successor,” Moreno says. “Unless they know what he knows and realize what he has realized, he won’t be satisfied.”
Everyone in the zendo wore black. Seated by a bronze gong at the altar, the chant leader’s low, unearthly moan morphed into Myoho renge kyo, the first line of the Lotus Sutra. Everyone joined in, chanting phonetically in Sino-Japanese as an assistant drummed, speeding up the rhythm until we were rolling along at a kinetic clip. The Heart Sutra followed, then a series of other sutras.
Roshi hobbled into the zendo, his gait slowed by age and a bad case of sciatica. Wearing his fierce, implacable practice face, he sat in a chair while a list of those participating in the sesshin was read aloud. The members included priests, monks, nuns, and lay students ranging from a nineteen-year-old college freshman to several people in their sixties. The formalities concluded and, the evening meal approaching, Roshi shuffled out of the zendo.
Joshu Roshi was born in 1907 to a farming family near Sendai in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture. At fourteen, he became a novice under Joten Soko Miura Roshi at Zuiryo-ji in the northern island of Hokkaido. Later, he trained for twenty years at Myoshin-ji in Kyoto, receiving teaching authority in 1947. In 1953 he took over as abbot of Shoju-an, where the teacher of Zen master Hakuin Ekaku had once presided. Nine years later, when a group of Americans wrote to Myoshin-ji asking to have a monk come teach in the States, the head priests there decided to send Joshu Roshi.
He arrived at LAX on the morning of July 21, 1962, carrying a Japanese-English dictionary and an English-Japanese dictionary. John F. Kennedy was president. Telstar, the world’s first communications satellite, had just been launched, and the Beatles were an up-and-coming band from Liverpool. Joshu Roshi managed to make himself at home in this new land, living for a while in a garage behind a student’s house.
His timing was perfect. Young people exploring alternative spirituality soon came to sit with him. He ordained his first American monk in 1964, and four years later he and his students bought Rinzai-ji, a 1920s-era residence in South Central Los Angeles. In 1971 he opened a monastery in an old Boy Scout camp on Mount Baldy in California’s San Gabriel range, and the next year he established Bodhi Manda Zen Center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Since then, his priests and monks have started centers throughout North America and Europe.
Early Monday we were startled awake as someone swept into the dorm ringing a bell and flipping on the lights. Settling onto my cushion a few minutes later, I could hear a few sleepy birds chirp- ing as Lucy, the black-and-white temple cat, nonchalantly strolled through the zendo. The assistants served hot green tea and then it was down to business. For the day’s first period of zazen, the zendo’s head monk used the wooden keisaku (sometimes called “the encouragement stick”) to give two stinging, energizing blows on each shoulder of any student who was slouching or falling asleep.
It was still not light out when the administrator rang the bell, summoning students to sanzen. The zendo erupted as a handful of people leapt from their seats and raced for the exit, jostling one another to be first in to see the teacher.
My turn came and I bowed into the sanzen room. Roshi was sitting in a low chair, surrounded by vases of fresh flowers, a hanging scroll, and some statues. I approached him and per- formed another deep bow, then I knelt.
“hai. Koan,” Roshi said in his low, gravelly voice, a cue to tell him what koan I had been working on since the last sesshin— koans being the puzzling riddles that students of rinzai Zen con- template as part of their training. I announced my koan in a loud voice, since Roshi had grown hard of hearing in recent years. he cupped his hand to his ear and I repeated it. What followed was all too familiar. he posed some questions, which I failed miserably to respond to. he said a few more things in his heavily-accented english, but one phrase came through loud and clear: “Still thinking.”
Yup, he had that right. It often takes me a couple of days at the start of sesshin to get my head clear, and Roshi always has an uncanny ability to tell when I’m lost in the realm of conceptual thought. In Zen Buddhism we practice directly realizing the nature of reality, dropping our ordinary discursive thinking to see things freshly—as they really are. But that is surprisingly hard to do, and Zen teachers constantly look for ways to shake students up, jostling them out of conventional, conditioned mind. Joshu Roshi is particularly good at this; many of his students tell similar stories of sanzen encounters in which he was so attuned to their state of awareness that he seemed to be reading their minds.
He picked up his little brass bell and rang me out. Chagrined, I made a thank-you bow and returned to the zendo.
Joshu Roshi does not confine himself to the classical canon of Chinese koans passed down through Japanese Zen. he often uses koans of his own devise that he feels are suitable for Americans. he might ask a student, for example, “When you see the flower, where is God?” he changes or rewords koans frequently, which tends to keep the student off balance. rather than strive for a momentary experience of enlightenment, he wants his students to learn to consistently manifest (his word) true love—a poetic expression for uni cation or nonduality.
Oscar Moreno says that Joshu Roshi nurtures in his students a slow process of ripening that naturally leads them deeper and deeper. “The maturation, the wisdom, happens slowly and I find it very deep,” Moreno says. “all the time he leads you through a contradictory process, where you say, ‘oh, now I know what enlightenment is.’ But then he shows you the other side.”
after a brisk formal breakfast in the zendo, we returned to the dorms for a few minutes of personal time, during which students catnapped, brushed their teeth, or showered. many stretched to relieve stiff backs and legs. The first few days of a sesshin are when you remember just how hard it is, and you may ask why you’re putting yourself through it. Thankfully, the mood usually passes.
One of my companions in the dorm was George Bowman, a respected Zen teacher in his own right whose original teacher, the late Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim, first encouraged him to sit a sesshin with Joshu Roshi in the late 1970s. “It was a really life- changing experience,” Bowman says, having sat several sesshins a year with Joshu Roshi ever since. describing what he laughingly calls a “love-dread relationship,” Bowman says that working with Joshu Roshi keeps him humble and honest: “It’s always digging deeper, climbing to the top, getting knocked down, and starting over.”
The next morning Roshi entered and, with help from his attendants, he slowly climbed to the high seat, where he read the opening section of the subject of this week’s teisho: “hyakujo and the Fox” from the Mumonkan. at first he barely mentioned the familiar koan. Instead he spoke of God, something that would surprise people who think of Buddhism as nontheistic. Buddhism doesn’t deny God, roshi told us, but it doesn’t personify God the way other religions do. Like everything else, he said, even God must obey the law of impermanence and cannot be a fixed entity.
Anicca, the Buddhist principle of impermanence, plays a key role in Joshu Roshi’s teaching, a model in which two equal and mutually opposing activities endlessly meet and separate. The instant in which they unify is variously described as true love, equality, zero, or emptiness. It is the uni cation of subject and object. But when these two activities separate, the objective world—the world of self-and- other—appears. Joshu Roshi uses a variety of synonyms for these two opposing activities, referring to them as expansion and contraction, plus and minus, mother and father, or male and female. Joshu Roshi calls his style of teaching Tathagata Zen, Tathagata being one of the names for the Buddha. While the teaching may sound abstract, Roshi wants his students to manifest it in their zazen and, whatever else it may be, it is a very sophisticated guide to meditation.
an hour into teisho, the administrator rang a bell. We hadn’t heard much yet about hyakujo or the fox. “I’m not feeling well,” roshi said. “I feel a little woozy.” But later, after a period of hot, sleepy zazen, we found ourselves ling off to sanzen.
aLreadY oN ThIS FIrST daY, somepeopleweresosleepythey forgot to bow when entering the zendo, or they moved when they weren’t supposed to. Groggy myself, I would relax into my breath- ing, only to drift involuntarily into micro-sleep. Catching myself, I’d sit bolt upright and straighten my back. But the sleepiness returned and the cycle would repeat itself. a fresh breeze cooled things off in the evening, and as the sun faded, a police helicopter circled over- head and a passing ice cream truck played “Für elise.” No gun re, though. Soon enough we were back in our dorms.
The next morning, one of the priests opened the first period of zazen by hitting the first six monks—including me—with the keisaku. Good morning! This is sometimes done to set a more rigorous, energetic tone in the zendo. I found the blows relaxed the tense muscles in my shoulders and upper back.
Roshi talked in teisho about plus and minus, mother and father, birth and death, fluidly shifting from one to the next, and in sanzen he assigned me a new koan, which I would wrestle with for the remainder of the week. after breakfast, I noticed the kitchen staff had brewed coffee. a small blessing.
another ice cream truck came by after dinner, blaring a repetitive ditty. as it happened, we were doing a practice that involved walking slowly around the zendo, chanting one syllable from the Heart Sutra with each step. This wholehearted chanting in unison was creating a powerful sound that filled the zendo and drowned out the extraneous—random thoughts and ice cream trucks included.
I was coping with a familiar pain beneath my right shoulder blade, an ache that intensified until it felt like someone was twisting a knife in my back. I knew it was arising from mental tension and prolonged sitting in a fixed posture. The genius of sesshin, I reflected, is that it offers many different ways to squeeze you and make you uncomfortable. You’re stuck in a hot, sweaty, aching body with no escape: what do you do? I’ve learned that the only thing that works is to unify with the discomfort. and one way or another, uni cation is what Roshi always teaches.
In sanzen the next morning Roshi sized up my response. “ego,” he spat, and rang the bell. Later, in teisho, he talked about the old man in the koan who approached hyakujo and begged to be released from a particular error he had made, which had caused him to be reborn 500 times as a fox. The old man in the story was a “monster,” Roshi said, because he couldn’t manifest unity with his students. I was feeling a bit monstrous myself.
On Thursday we reached the sesshin’s halfway point, and fewer and fewer people were making enthusiastic sprints for the door at the start of sanzen. Maybe I wasn’t the only one confounded by my koan. more than once, the head monk had to bark, “Sanzen!” to get people to leave the zendo. Stuck though I was, in afternoon sanzen that day something I did seemed to resonate with Roshi; at last I felt I was moving in the right direction.
Things changed on Friday, as newcomers joined us for the final three days of sesshin. among them was Paul Karsten, a student of Roshi’s since 1973 and the president of a Seattle acupuncture school. Karsten sees his study with Joshu Roshi as the practice of making relationship with others. “my studies have made me a more effective health care practitioner,” he says. “I’ve trusted Roshi to help point me to what’s important.”
Roshi took a long time with people in sanzen that evening, and I felt I was having a more freewheeling encounter with him, letting go of some of myself. I felt energized as we left the zendo that evening, and for a while, sleep wouldn’t come.
Despite getting no more than four hours of sleep, I felt pretty good on Saturday, day six. The city around us was quiet, and it occurred to me that people were thinking about going to the beach. during teisho, Roshi told the famous story of how, as he grew old, hyakujo’s students stole his gardening tools so he’d have to rest from his labors around the monastery, and how hyakujo stopped eating in protest. a good bit older than hyakujo himself, Roshi told us he’d been suffering from sciatica for twelve years. “Now, if I sit for more than fifteen minutes, it hurts,” he said. and yet, I reflected, he spends an hour a day in teisho and at least six hours a day sitting in sanzen. That tremendous effort in the face of pain inspired me.
Two days after sesshin ends, a translator and i would sit down for an interview with Roshi in his apartment. Wearing a white kimono and reclining in an upholstered chair, Roshi was in a relaxed mood. At one point he teasingly pinched the translator’s earlobe to make a point.
“How are you this morning?
“Tired,” he says. “After sesshins i need two days of rest. I used to not need anything. One day is not good enough—I need two days. By the third day i become vital again.”
“You call your teaching Tathagata Zen. Where did the teaching of Tathagata Zen originate?”
“Chinese Zen defined tathagata and tatha-agata. One is ‘Thus- coming,’ and the other is ‘Thus-going.’ it originated in India—Indian Buddhism already had this concept. it’s a moving activity, so it is ‘Thus-coming, Thus-going.’ even we contemporary people are asked how we de ne this moving activity. it is a very essential thing.
“This moving activity never stops. And then, all the time it’s smoothly proceeding. Though it is moving all the time, when it
proceeds forward, it’s the activity of forward moving, and when it comes back, it demonstrates the activity of coming back. Here, we have to understand the concept of difference or discrimination. What is the concept of difference or discrimination? That is called kyo and rai. Kyo is ‘to leave.’ Rai is ‘to come.’”
“Will Roshi find American successors?” I ask.
“i don’t know about that,” he says. “it’s not in my consideration. it does not help me to know who it would be. Some might say, ‘i have received your Tathagata Zen teaching, and i will continue your activity,’ but that can be a lie. if someone comes around saying, ‘i’m going to throw my whole body into continuing your activity of Tathagata Zen,’ then i would say, “Oh, is that so?’”
The seventh day dawned clear and cool, and I enjoyed spacious sitting in the zendo. Late in the afternoon it was announced that we would end a little early and then go to see Roshi for a final interview—a formal goodbye.
It was then that I finally got what Roshi had been driving at all week. It had literally been staring me in the face all along. Roshi smiled and rang the bell.