105-year-old celebrates the 50th anniversary of teaching religion at Rinzai-ji Zen Center in California
Zen master blends East with L.A.
He coughs a lot now, after a recent bout with pneumonia, and he can no longer walk on his own. But he laughs a lot still.
Before the anniversary ceremony at his temple, I peered around a corner to see him being helped by several students down a set of stairs and into a wheelchair. When he noticed me staring at him — and a photojournalist raising a camera to take his picture — Roshi's arched eyebrows lifted as he broke into a delighted grin. There seemed to be a message behind his good cheer: Don't take yourself so seriously.
It had been years since I'd seen him. By now I was 25, not much younger than my father had been when he first sought the cushion to calm his busy mind.
I now knew "monkey mind" intimately. College in New York City and a career in Los Angeles had produced a whirl of new ideas, experiences and relationships. It was fun and fast-moving, but endless digital distractions and a dose of recession anxiety left me sometimes thirsting for a less cluttered life, and for a connection with the world beyond just my "self."
On my own, I started investigating meditation, and I found myself drawn not to Buddhism but yoga. Spending a little part of each morning in the deep focus of a sun salutation gave me clarity. I used to think my dad's meditation was escapism. Now I saw that it has helped him be more awake for his life.
As Roshi was wheeled into the main ceremony room, I looked around at the roomful of students. Some wore robes, but many were dressed in jeans, sneakers and other "American clothes."
That afternoon, there would be a party with long tables of great food, chilled sake and live music. People would ditch their shoes and sprawl in the grass. But now, we listened to the man who had lived so long, and who seemed so at ease.
Teaching always, Roshi used his own life to talk to us about the impermanence of things, and about the ways we are connected.
"There is nothing more joyful than dying," he said. "Together, with you, I am dying. So nothing is sad."