105-year-old celebrates the 50th anniversary of teaching religion at Rinzai-ji Zen Center in California

Zen master blends East with L.A.

By Kate Linthicum

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a 105-year-old Japanese Zen master, celebrates his 50th anniversary at Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles, California, July 21, 2012. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Irfan Khan, Mct

LOS ANGELES — The Zen master would not stop talking.

Several times he began to draw his teachings to a close, explaining to his students that he was tired and in poor health. Then he would burst down another path.

He discussed the difficulties of raising children. He lingered on the subject of death. Eventually, he raised a small fist in the air.

"Everybody is together at one point," he said. "We cry together, we love together. There is no moment in which we are not together."

He is 105 years old and not even 5 feet tall, with paper-white skin and a blocky, bald head. Enveloped in long black robes, he looks like a child wrapped in towels after a bath.

Denkyo Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi arrived in Los Angeles 50 years ago to teach a religion that for centuries had been confined to the monasteries of Japan. With a handful of other monks, he helped carve out a new incarnation of Zen Buddhism here, mixing traditional meditation practice with teachings tailored for Western minds.

Most of that first wave of Japanese teachers has died. But Roshi, as his followers call him, says he will live until he's 120. He once made a pledge to his students: "I will not die until Zen is born in America."

One muggy morning this summer, a few hundred people gathered at Rinzai-ji, Roshi's home temple in the West Adams district of L.A., to celebrate the anniversary of his coming to this country.

His reach over the years could be seen in the range of people milling around the temple's walled garden before the ceremony began. There was a DJ from Montreal and a surgeon from Taos, N.M., the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen and a Brown University professor who helped pioneer an academic field called Contemplative Studies. There were dancers and lawyers and filmmakers. And there was my father, smiling in his own black robes, his bald head tanned from the desert sun.

When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time. He would return home physically drained but mentally recharged — and filled with stories about his energetic and enigmatic teacher.

A writer who was raised Catholic, my dad found Buddhism in the late 1980s at a Zen center in Albuquerque — one of two dozen centers Roshi has established around the world.

Like many people, my dad had a bad case of what some Buddhists call "monkey mind," a busy head crowded with lots of thoughts. He says Zen practice, with its daily practice of meditation, allowed him to be more present to the world outside.

As often as he's been able, he has joined Roshi for retreats. For seven days, he would endure a rigorous schedule of little sleep, no talking, and up to 18 hours of daily meditation.

Health permitting, Roshi would talk, speaking in short spurts of gravelly Japanese. Maybe it's in the translation, but he often seems to be speaking in riddles.

Consider this Roshi-ism, from a teaching he gave in April:

"Where there is one thing, it does not move. I don't move either. The flower doesn't move either. Then it becomes clear."

Roshi's students hang on his parables. But when I was a kid, I thought the whole thing was crazy.

I liked doing things — swimming with friends, playing the guitar or just wandering on the sandy mesa behind our house, dreaming about life outside of Albuquerque. I didn't understand why my dad kept hitting the pause button, why on some nights, I would walk outside and find him perched cross-legged beneath an old cottonwood tree, just sitting there.

Roshi was just a kid when he boarded a train in 1921, bound for a monastery 500 miles away from home.