105-year-old celebrates the 50th anniversary of teaching religion at Rinzai-ji Zen Center in California
Zen master blends East with L.A.
His parents, farm owners near Sendai, had sent him to Sapporo to study Zen, timing it so he would arrive at the temple on the Buddha's birthday.
When he got there, the teacher posed a question: "How old is the Buddha?"
"The same age as me," he replied. Roshi's response was deemed adequate, so the young man who once dreamed of becoming a pilot instead became a priest.
He learned how to meditate. And he learned about the life and teachings of the Buddha, an Indo-Nepalese prince who 2,500 years earlier had renounced a life of riches for a spiritual path.
The Buddha's epiphany, after years of wandering and meditation, was that everyone and everything is impermanent and interconnected. Those thoughts in your head? Those emotions? He found that they were always changing as part of the constant regeneration of the world.
The Buddha taught that the pain in life comes when we become too tied to one feeling or idea and begin defining ourselves as something unchanging and distinct, estranged from the people and things around us. Our suffering will disappear, he taught, when we truly understand through spiritual practice that there is fundamentally no "us," and therefore, no "them."
The United States wouldn't seem fertile ground for Buddhism. The American Dream drives us to be individuals and to put our mark on the world — sometimes through acquiring cars, clothes and other material signs of success.
But in the late 1950s, Eastern thought began gaining currency in some quarters as Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg devoured translations of Buddhist texts. In 1962, two Zen students in California wrote to a large monastery in Japan seeking a teacher, and Roshi was selected to go.
He was 55 and by then an accomplished teacher who had been the abbot of a historic temple. When he stepped off the plane at Los Angeles International Airport, he carried a change of robes and two Japanese-English dictionaries.
Soon, a stream of young spiritual seekers was showing up at his small rented house in Gardena, Calif. These artists, professors, musicians and doctors had one thing in common, according to Steve Sanfield, a poet who met Roshi shortly after he arrived: "They were seeking a life apart from the American way."
But Roshi wanted to learn about the American way as much as his students wanted to learn about Japanese Zen. He took road trips, hiked the Grand Canyon and went to the movies, falling asleep during a screening of "2001: A Space Odyssey." He even accompanied students to a strip club.
According to Sanfield, Roshi told his followers that if Zen was going to flourish, it was going to have to "wear American clothes."
He taught that enlightenment was available to everyone, including women, and about the need for integrating Buddhism into everyday life. Once in a one-on-one teaching known as sanzen, Roshi asked Sanfield: "When you're on the freeway, where is the Buddha?"
After Roshi's students (and their hippie clothing) started raising eyebrows among his Japanese American neighbors, he moved his temple to a dilapidated Mission-style nunnery just south of the 10 Freeway. By the 1970s, he had founded one training center at a former Boy Scout camp at Mt. Baldy and another near natural hot springs in the juniper-dotted hills of New Mexico.
As interest in Eastern thought grew, Roshi brought his teachings all over the world — to Germany, to Puerto Rico, to a cooperative farmhouse outside of Princeton, N.J. In Los Angeles, he traveled in an old Studebaker. Sanfield was driving him one day when they were pulled over for speeding. The police officer peered into the back of the car, which was filled to the roof with mediation cushions, and in the front, where Roshi sat silently, his hands clasped in his lap, "looking just like the Buddha."
Unnerved, the traffic officer let them off. As soon as he walked away, Roshi broke out laughing.