Kapleau Roshi with families from the Rochester Zen Center, date unknown. Courtesy Rochester Zen Center
Kapleau Roshi with families from the Rochester Zen Center, date unknown. Courtesy Rochester Zen Center

Free as a Fish
A student asked Philip Kapleau Roshi if Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, actually existed. “To meet [her] face to face,” answered Kapleau, “all you have to do is perform a selfless deed.”

A workshop participant at Rochester Zen Center arrived early. He assumed the older man he saw about the place was the janitor—only to discover when the workshop began that he was the roshi. When Kapleau heard this, he said it was the highest compliment he could receive.

If anyone stands to be remembered as one of the primary Western-born ancestors of American Zen Buddhism, it is Philip Kapleau Roshi, who died on May 6 at age ninety-one, surrounded by students, friends, and family, in the garden of his Rochester Zen Center.

One of a handful of Westerners who traveled to Japan in the years following World War II to experience the rigors of traditional Zen training, Kapleau returned to the States in 1966 to found Rochester Zen Center in upstate New York, the first major Zen center established by an American, and to compile the first text on Zen practice by an American-born Zen teacher. The Three Pillars of Zen, with its mix of fiery lectures by Kapleau’s teacher Hakuun Yasutani, and accounts of contemporary enlightenment experiences and Kapleau’s own training, kindled in American seekers a conviction uniquely suited to their Western upbringing: One did not have to settle for reading about Eastern paths to enlightenment—one could experience it for oneself.

Born in 1912 to a working-class family, Kapleau served as court reporter for the war crimes trials in Germany and Japan, and was deeply troubled by the “appalling suffering” he witnessed in the wake of World War II. Having developed an interest in Buddhism, he visited D. T. Suzuki in Kamakura, Japan, but although he found the scholar’s presence remarkable, his intellectual discourses did not satisfy Kapleau’s growing spiritual hunger.

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