Zen in America: 1893 to Present Day

I was asked by one of our new members to talk a bit about the history of Zen in this country.   While I feel somewhat ill-prepared for such a task, between the Internet, what knowledge I’ve collected over the years, and a handful of books I had handy, I was able to compile what I hope is a reasonable introduction.

I want to admit my bias here toward the White Plum lineage, which is what we practice here.  There is a lot of history to cover and I’m purposely going to shift the focus at a certain point to Taizan Maezumi Roshi and his Dharma successors.  I need to choose a point of emphasis and it seems appropriate to focus on our lineage here.

There will be a few important figures in the history of Zen in America that may not be mentioned, or will be touched on more briefly than they deserve, for the sake of time.

This will be done with full respect to the work, lives, lineages, and dharma heirs of Suzuki Roshi, Kapleau Roshi, Aitken Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, Okamura Roshi, Seung Sahn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and all the other teachers and practitioners to which we owe so much.

Before we begin, I also want to offer a deep bow to Wikipedia and Helen Tworkov’s Zen in America for many borrowed quotes, dates, text and information.

With all that said, here we go…

When Soyen Shaku was invited to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, his monks worried that “The land of the white barbarians is beneath the dignity of a Zen master.”  Disregarding his monks, Soyen Shaku became the first Zen priest to visit the United States.

His dates are January 10, 1860 – October 29, 1919, and he was a Roshi of the Rinzai school and was abbot of both Kenchō-ji and Engaku-ji temples in Kamakura, Japan.  He felt that Zen had become somewhat impoverished in Japan, and felt that the future of the religion rested with the “barbarians.”

Shaku had prepared a speech for the conference in Chicago, and he had it translated into English by his (then young and unknown) student D. T. Suzuki, who later became a famous Zen scholar, author, and translator.  The subject of the talk was “The Law of Cause and Effect, as Taught by Buddha.”

In 1905 Shaku returned to the United States as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Russell in San Francisco.  He taught the whole family Zen, and interestingly, Mrs. Russell was the first American to study koans.

Shaku’s student Nyogen Senzaki joined him for most of this trip as his attendant.  Senzaki jumped at the opportunity to come to America, for he was dissatisfied with the nationalism around him in Japan and the institutional way in which Zen was then being practiced.

When it was time for the two to return to Japan, Soyen sensed his student’s turmoil at the prospect of returning.

In Golden Gate Park, Soyen Shaku set Senzaki’s suitcase down and said the following to him:

“Just face the great city and see whether it conquers you or you conquer it. Do not feel obliged to serve me any longer.”

With those words Shaku spun about and left him there, and the two would never meet face to face again. Senzaki stayed in the US for the rest of his life, with the exception of a trip in 1955 back to Japan to visit his friend Soen Nakagawa, whom we will discuss shortly.

In the San Francisco area, Senzaki performed jobs as a hotel clerk and elevator assistant to get by.  During his spare time Senzaki would visit the San Francisco Public Library often and read books on Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.

In 1919 Senzaki received word that Shaku had died back in Japan. Around this time, he compiled the famous book 101 Zen Stories.  In 1922 he scraped together enough money to rent out a hall and lecture on Zen.  He continued moving from place to place throughout the city teaching about Zen meditation.  By 1927 he had developed a small following with this “floating zendo.”

Senzaki moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s, where he continued the so-called “floating zendo” model.  He became interested in the haiku poetry of Soen Nakagawa and they began corresponding with one another.

Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Senzaki was among the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans to be relocated to internment camps. He spent the duration of World War II in Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

At the conclusion of the war, Senzaki moved to Los Angeles. Among his students at this time was Robert Aitken, who would become one of the most significant Western Zen teachers.  Also, Senzaki maintained a long-term correspondence with Soen Nakagawa.  We will come back to Nakagawa in a moment.

Around this time, in 1930, Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki, who was born in 1882 and died on May 17, 1945, founded the Buddhist Society of America (now the First Zen Institute of America) in New York City.

Sokei-an died without leaving behind a Dharma heir.  One of his better known students was Alan Watts, who studied under him briefly in the late 1930s.  Interestingly, Sokei-an’s primary way of teaching was by means of sanzen, which we usually call daisan or dokusan, and he did not provide instruction in zazen or hold sesshins at the Buddhist Society of America.

According to Mary Farkas, who ran the Institute for many years after his death, “Sokei-an had no interest in reproducing the features of Japanese Zen monasticism, the strict and regimented training.”

In 1938, his future wife, Ruth Fuller Everett, became a principal supporter of the Buddhist Society of America.  In 1944, they married.  Ruth, who is better known as Ruth Fuller Sasaki, was a huge part of bringing Zen to this country.

Watts said of Sokei-an, ” Ruth was often apologizing for him and telling us not to take him too literally or too seriously when, for example, he would say that Zen is to realize that life is simply nonsense…for us, the trick was to dig the nonsense, for—as Tibetans say—you can tell the true yogi by his laugh.”

Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s dates are October 31, 1892 – October 24, 1967.  She met and studied with D.T. Suzuki in Japan in 1930.  After studying with Sokei-an for six years, they married, but he died the next year.  In 1949, she went to Kyoto to complete translations of key Zen texts, and to pursue her own Zen training.

She stayed in Kyoto for most of the rest of her life, becoming in 1958 the first foreigner to be a priest of a Rinzai Zen temple, and the only westerner, and the only woman, yet to be a priest of a Daitoku-ji temple.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki was instrumental in the translations into English of many Zen texts. One of the most important was Zen Dust: the History of the Koan and Koan Study in Rinzai (Lin-chi) Zen, published in 1966 by her own First Zen Institute.   Some of you know how excited I was to recently obtain a copy of this book, which is out of print and very rare because it was only published in Japan.   I’m happy to show it to any of you who’d like to see it.  A shorter version, The Zen Koan, is pretty easy to find and is a very nice treatise on the topic.

In 2006, Gary Snyder wrote of Ruth Fuller Sasaki, “Her writings from the sixties were ahead of their time and remain accurate and relevant.”   I am a great admirer of her, because she bravely did so much to make Zen accessible to a Western audience, and she had to fight through plenty of sexism and bigotry in order to do so.

In 1951, DT Suzuki, whom you will remember was a student of Soyen Shaku, the first Zen priest to come to the U.S., and was also a teacher of Ruth Fuller Sasaki, began teaching seminars on Japanese culture, aesthetics, and Zen at Columbia University in New York.

Among his students at Columbia were many influential artists and intellectuals, including Erich Fromm, a well-known analyst with whom he later authored a book, Karen Horney, another famous analyst, and the eminent Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

D.T. Suzuki’s dates were 18 October 1870 – 12 July 1966.  He published a number of books and was best-known for his Essays in Zen Buddhism series.   He played a big part in Zen becoming popular and accessible to a Western audience.

In 1953, Philip Kapleau began his formal Zen training in Japan.  We will come back to him shortly.

In 1956, Taizan Maezumi arrived in Los Angeles to serve at the Zenshuji Soto Mission.   We will come back to him as well.   He is particularly important to this conversation since he is the founding teacher of the White Plum Asangha, and we are sitting at this very moment in a White Plum-affiliated zendo!  So we will have a lot to say about him.

We mentioned that Alan Watts studied with Sokei-An, Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s husband.  In 1957, Watts’ book The Way of Zen was published.  This was the book first popularizing Zen with an American audience.   In the same year, Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, which is one of my favorite books, was published.  Gary Snyder, who was part of Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s translation team in Japan, is fictionalized in The Dharma Bums in the character Japhy Ryder.

On May 7, 1958, Nyogen Senzaki, whom you will recall had the “floating zendo” in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, and was friends with Soen Nakagawa, died at the age of 81. There are several versions of his “last words;” one of the most compelling was “Remember the Dharma! Remember the Dharma! Remember the Dharma!”

I want to loop back around now to Soen Nakagawa.  In 1949, he made his first trip to the United States to meet with Nyogen Senzaki.  At the time, Nakagawa was an unconventional young monk practicing in Japan, but he would go on to become one of the more prominent Rinzai Zen teachers to come West.

He was known for running away from his monastery after he first became abbot.   After finally becoming abbot, he lived with his monks and wore monks’ robes, refusing to follow take on the customary trappings of an abbot.  He was the executor of Senzaki’s estate and came to the U.S. in 1958, after he died, to tie up his affairs.

Nakagawa would eventually make many trips to the U.S. and helped found several practice centers here.  Among his formal and informal students were Roko Sherry Chayat, Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Paul Reps, Maurine Stuart, John Daido Loori, and Charlotte Joko Beck.

In 1959, Shunryu Suzuki arrived in San Francisco to lead Sokoji.   He is not to be confused with D.T. Suzuki.  Suzuki Roshi wrote the great, seminal text “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.”

Suzuki Roshi, along with Maezumi Roshi, is one of the most prominent Japanese Zen teachers, and the two of them are often credited with “bringing Zen to America.”  We have seen that a lot of work was done by others as well, but Suzuki Roshi and Maezumi Roshi’s efforts did a great deal to popularize Zen here, and each left many prominent American Dharma heirs and practice centers, so they’re rightly given a lot of credit.

So Suzuki Roshi’s arrival in 1959 was a big deal.  In addition to Suzuki Roshi’s arrival, that same year Robert Aitken, who had been taught by Nyogen Senzaki, and Anne Aitken founded the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Aitken Roshi went on to become one of the first prominent American Zen teachers, and wrote many important and helpful books, including “Taking the Path of Zen,” “Encouraging Words,” and “The Mind of Clover.”

In 1960, Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk from Vietnam, first came to the United States. He created the Order of Inter-Being in 1966 and is one of the most prolific Zen authors in English.   He continues to write and teach today.

In 1962,  Kyozan Joshu Sasaki arrived in California.   He is now 106 years old, and still teaching.  In the same year, Rinzai monk Eido Tai Shimano moved to Hawaii to assist Diamond Sangha and Robert Aitken.  Shimano was a friend and student of Soen Nakagawa, whom we just discussed and who was friends with Nyogen Senzaki.   We are beginning to see all the connections between these great pracitioners.

1962, the San Francisco Zen Center was incorporated, led by Suzuki Roshi.  In 1964, Eido Tai Shimano moved to New York and became guiding teacher of the Zen Studies Society.

In 1965, Philip Kapleau finished The Three Pillars of Zen and returned to United States with permission from Haku’un Yasutani to teach Zen to Westerners.  He, along with Aitken Roshi, were some of the first prominent Zen teachers of American heritage.   Interestingly, Kapleau Roshi’s teacher Yasutani Roshi also was one of the teachers of Maezumi Roshi, whom as I mentioned is the founding teacher of our White Plum lineage.

In 1966, San Francisco Zen Center acquired Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which was the first American monastic center, and is still in operation.  Also in 1966, Philip Kapleau established the Rochester Zen Center with the help of Chester Carlson (founder of Xerox), and Carlson’s wife.  One other notable event occurred in1966: D.T. Suzuki died on July 12 in Japan.

In 1967, Kobun Chino Otogawa arrived in San Francisco to assist Shunryu Suzuki.  Also, in 1967, Suzuki Roshi and Mel Weitsman co-found the Berkeley Zen Center.   The most notable event of 1967 concerning our practice here was that the Zen Center of Los Angeles was founded by Taizan Maezumi and his students.  We wouldn’t be sitting here if that hadn’t happened, and I think this is a good time to talk a bit about Maezumi Roshi.

Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi was the son of a Zen priest.  His dates are February 24, 1931—May 15, 1995  He combined the Rinzai use of koans and the Sōtō emphasis on shikantaza in his teachings, influenced by his years studying under Hakuun Yasutani in the Harada-Yasutani school.

He founded or co-founded several institutions and practice centers, including the Zen Center of Los Angeles, White Plum Asanga, Yokoji Zen Mountain Center and the Zen Mountain Monastery.

Maezumi Roshi left behind twelve Dharma successors, including the noted authors Bernie Glassman, Dennis Genpo Merzel, Charlotte Joko Beck, and John Daido Loori.

Maezumi Roshi also gave Dharma transmission to my first teacher, Gerry Shishin Wick, and to Alfred Jitsudo Ancheta, who was the teacher of Musai Roshi and Daishin Sensei, who are myself and Mushin’s current teachers.

He also appointed sixty-eight priests and gave Buddhist precepts to more than five hundred practitioners, so he accomplished quite a lot.   Maezumi Roshi was the son of Baian Hakujun Kuroda, a prominent Sōtō Zen priest, and was ordained as a monk into the Sōtō lineage at age eleven.

In high school, he began studying Zen under a lay Rinzai instructor named Koryu Osaka. He received shiho from his father in 1955. In 1956 he was sent to the United States to serve as a priest at the Zenshuji Soto Mission in Little Tokyo—a Japanese-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, California.  He also worked part-time at a factory.

The Zenshuji Soto Mission consisted of a Japanese-American congregation that placed little emphasis on zazen. Maezumi Roshi began sitting zazen occasionally with Nyogen Senzaki.  In 1959 Maezumi Roshi took classes in English at San Francisco State College, the year he first met Suzuki Roshi, and he, occasionally visited Suzuki’s temple, Sokoji, for ceremonies.

Early in the 1960s, Maezumi began holding zazen at Zenshuji for Western students, which eventually led to the opening of the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967. Also in 1967, Maezumi Roshi began studying with Hakuun Yasutani, who was Phillip Kapleau’s teacher, completing koan study under him and receiving Inka in 1970.

He also received Inka from Koryu Osaka in 1973, making him a lineage holder in the Sōtō, Rinzai and Harada-Yasutani schools.  For this reason, the style of Zen we practice here is a unique blend of these three approaches to practice.

Maezumi Roshi died on May 15, 1995 while in Japan visiting his family. He had been out drinking; returning home he took a bath, where he fell asleep and drowned.  Maezumi Roshi used to encourage his students to “appreciate your life” and said, “I encourage you. Please enjoy this wonderful life together. Appreciate the world just this! There is nothing extra. Genuinely appreciate your life as the most precious treasure and take good care of it,:

There’s a lot more to say about Maezumi Roshi and I think he will be the topic of a future talk.   For now I will just say his contribution to Zen in the West was immeasurable, and we would not be sitting here right now if it weren’t for him.

Back to our timeline.  In 1968, New York Zendo Shobo-Ji was inaugurated by Soen Nakagawa on his 7th trip to the US.  In 1969, Suzuki Roshi gave Richard Baker Dharma transmission.

In 1970, Edward Espe Brown published the Tassajara Bread Book, a popular book that helped spread Zen’s presence in the national consciousness.   That same year, Suzuki Roshi’s seminal book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was published by Weatherhill.

Also in 1970, Shasta Abbey was established in Mount Shasta, California by Jiyu Kennett, and Santa Cruz Zen Center was founded by Kobun Chino Roshi.

In 1971, Suzuki Roshi died.  The following year, Seung Sahn arrived from Korea in Providence, Rhode Island and founded the Providence Zen Center.  He taught the Kwan Um School of Zen and eventually became a well-known teacher and author.  In 1972, Green Gulch Farm opened in Muir Beach, CA as part of the San Francisco Zen Center.   Like Tassajara, it still operates as a Zen retreat center today.

In 1972, Dainin Katagiri founded the Minnesota Zen Center.   He was another very powerful figure and wrote the excellent book Returning to Silence.  Also in 1972, Eido Tai Shimano received Dharma transmission from Soen Nakagawa at New York Zendo.

In 1973, Haku’un Yasutani, the teacher of both Maezumi Roshi and Kapleau Roshi, died.  The same year, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki founded Bodhi Manda Zen Center, Jakusho Kwong founded the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, the Cambridge Zen Center was founded, and the New Haven Zen Center was founded.

In 1974, Robert Baker Aitken received teaching permission from Yamada Koun, and the Chicago Zen Center was founded by Philip Kapleau.

In 1975, the Nebraska Zen Center was founded by Dainin Katagiri in Omaha, Nebraska.  Around this time, Maezumi Roshi founded the White Plum Asangha, named after his father.   The White Plum is an organization of sanghas with their roots in Maezumi’s teachings, and includes the Village Zendo, of which we are an affiliate here at RRZC.

In 1976, Shohaku Okamura, who is one of the most vital Zen teachers and authors in America today, helped found Pioneer Valley Zendo in Charlemont, MA.   The same year, Bernie Glassman became Maezumi Roshi’s first Dharma successor

In 1980, Dennis Genpo Merzel received shiho (permission to teach) from Maezumi Roshi.  He would go on to discover and propagate the Big Mind process, which has become a popular offshoot of American Zen.   Eventually, Genpo Roshi would become Musai Roshi’s teacher after Jitsudo Sensei.  The same year, Zen Mountain Monastery was founded in Mount Tremper, New York by Maezumi Roshi and John Daido Loori.

In 1983, both Jan Chozen Bays and Charlotte Joko Beck received Dharma transmission from Maezumi Roshi.  The same year, Maezumi Roshi was confronted about his sexual relationships with some students and entered alcoholism treatment.   From what I understand, he was open about his character flaws and willing to accept this help.

In 1984, Soen Nakagawa died at Ryutaku-Ji.  In 1985, Robert Aitken received Dharma transmission from Yamada Koun.  In 1986,  Village Zendo was established in New York in the apartment of Pat Enkyo O’Hara.

In 1990, my first teacher Gerry Shishin Wick received Dharma transmission from  Maezumi Roshi.  The same year, Dainin Katagiri died.  Also that year, Joan Halifax, who has studied and received transmission from both Bernie Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh, founded Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.

On May 15, 1995, Maezumi Roshi passed away in Japan.  Also in 1995, the Ordinary Mind School was founded by Charlotte Joko Beck.   She was an important figure in Zen and wrote several excellent books.  She taught in Prescott for a long time before she recently died.   She was the teacher of Barry Magid, who is one of the best writers about Zen right now, in my opinion.

1996 was a big year for our lineage.  The Zen Peacemaker Order was founded by Bernie Glassman, Maezumi Roshi’s first Dharma heir, and his wife, Sandra Jishu Holmes.

The same year, Pat Enkyo O’Hara received shiho from Glassman Roshi.  Today she is co-president of the Zen Peacemaker Order.  Also in 1996, the Sanshin Zen Community was founded by Shohaku Okamura in Bloomington, Indiana.  As I mentioned, he is another excellent author and teacher whose recent book “Living by Vow” is exceptional.

Also in 1996, Jitsudo Ancheta, a dharma successor of Maezumi Roshi, founded Hidden Mountain Zen Center in Albuquerque.   Musai Roshi, one of my teachers, was one of his senior students and helped found Hidden Mountain.   Daishin Sensei, who is the primary teacher of Mushin, Maureen and I, was also a senior student of Jitsudo’s and studied at Hidden Mountain for many years, playing a key role in the success and vitality of that Center.

Eventually, Hidden Mountain morphed into Prajna Zendo, which is located just outside of Santa Fe.   Musai Roshi was the first abbot there, and Daishin Sensei is the abbot there currently.

In 1997, Catholic priest Father Robert Kennedy received inka from Bernard Glassman.  The same year, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold received shiho from John Daido Loori.

In 1998, Roko Sherry Chayat became the first American woman to receive transmission in the Rinzai school of Buddhism. She received transmission from Eido Tai Shimano.

In 1999 Musai Roshi received dharma transmission from Jitsudo Sensei.  Great Vow Zen Monastery was also founded by Jan Chozen Bays and Hogen Bays in Clatskanie, Oregon that year.

In 2002, Kobun Chino Otogawa drowned in Switzerland.  Two years later, Philip Kapleau died on May 6, 2004 from complications of Parkinson’s disease.  The same year, Seung Sahn died on November 30 in South Korea

In 2006, Merle Kodo Boyd became the first African-American woman to receive Dharma transmission in Zen Buddhism, which she received from Wendy Egyoku Nakao.

In 2007, Daishin Sensei received dharma transmission from Musai Roshi.  Also in 2007, Deirdre Eisho Peterson, a senior student of Enkyo Roshi, founded Red Rock Zen Circle here in Sedona.

In 2009, John Daido Loori died in New York at age 78 at Zen Mountain.  In 2010, Robert Aitken died in Hawaii at age 93.  Also in 2010, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association approved a document honoring the women ancestors in the Zen tradition at its biannual meeting on October 8th, 2010.  Female ancestors, dating back 2,500 years from India, China, and Japan, could now be included in the curriculum, ritual, and training offered to Western Zen students.

In 2011, Charlotte Joko Beck died.  In 2012, Musai Roshi retired as Abbott of Prajna Zendo and installed Daishin Sensei as Abbott.

This gives what I hope is a nice overview of how we came to practice here.  It’s a wonderful story, with rich characters and overlapping areas of practice, study and teaching.

There are also a number of issues that have come up as Zen has taken root in this country.   The most controversial has been the reality that a number of Zen teachers have engaged in sexual relationships with their students.   Many of them have disrobed because of this, stopped teaching for a time, or stopped teaching altogether.  A number of the people I have mentioned in this talk have been caught in this web.

I suspect some of this has to do with the intimacy of the student-teacher relationship, and the natural tendency for students and teachers to fall in love; and it in some cases has to do with abuse of power, and the unresolved, “shadow” issues of the teacher.

This has created a lot of discussion about how someone can be “enlightened” and still engage in such behavior.   Barry Magid, a psychoanalyst and dharma successor of Charlotte Joko Beck whom I mentioned earlier, explores some of this shadow in his new book “Nothing is Hidden.”   I highly recommend it.

As a therapist and a longtime Zen student, I agree with his assertion that you can hide from your shadow in Zen practice, and that it’s advisable not to do so.   The ongoing integration of therapy and Zen, which is an interesting and pertinent topic these days, will probably have a lot to say about this.

Another issue has been how much of the Japanese traditions to hold on to.   Daishin Sensei gave a great talk on this during the last sesshin at Prajna Zendo.   Some schools, like Joko Beck’s Ordinary Mind School, have eschewed a lot of the ceremonies and practices that have their roots in monastic Japan.  Others, like John Daido Loori’s Mountains and Rivers Order, emphasize ceremony and ritual.

I personally find that all the so-called “trappings,” such as robes, chanting, bowing, and protocols, are very liberating, because they provide a structure in which the mind and body can rest in practice.   I also enjoy the respect paid to both the past lineage and future generations that are present in these practices.

But that is a matter of personal preference in a lot of respects, and if you look hard enough, you can probably find practice centers in this country nowadays that run the gamut from almost no form to a high degree of it.

There are a lot of other issues, too, such as the differences, if any, between lay, monastic, and “city monk” practice; how literally to take the precepts, especially the ones that govern the use of substances and sexual conduct; and how to integrate what came to us as a Japanese monastic practice into contemporary American life.   We are all part of this conversation as American Zen practitioners.

Despite some of these challenges, and the very real pain that has occurred in some cases, I am deeply grateful to all those who struggled and sacrificed to bring this practice to us.

Keep in mind, it was only 108 years ago, in San Francisco, that Mrs. Russell became the first American to engage in koan study.  It’s pretty amazing to think that, 100 years ago, we would probably not have heard of Zen here in Arizona, or very many other places in this country.  As Daido Roshi used to say, no one brought Zen to America.   It was always here, we just didn’t know it.  What a fortunate coincidence that we’re living and studying in a time when it’s so readily accessible to us!

I’m very grateful to know the Dharma is here now, and that we have living teachers who can reveal it to us.  I hope we can all be inspired by the dedication of the past and present American Zen teachers, and live up to their commitments by enjoying a strong practice together.

Remember, Soyen Shaku, who first came to America in 1893, felt that this country represented the future of Zen.   Let’s try to live up to his belief in us, even if, as his monks feared, we are a bunch of barbarians.

Thank you.

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