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Sesshin with Sasaki Roshi


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.

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