Nyogen Senzaki’s Gateless Gate And Other Previously Unpublished Teachings And Letters
Edited And Introduced By Roko Sherry Chayat
Foreword By Eido Shimano
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008
456 pages; $17.95 (paper)
With his silvery mane and doublebreasted suits, Nyogen Senzaki looked more like a businessman than a Buddhist monk. Indeed, in the more than 50 years he spent in California, he learned to live like an American, supporting himself variously as a farm worker, a hotel telephone operator, and a housekeeper. All the while he was deepening the practice he had undertaken at Engaku-ji, the Zen monastery in Kamakura, Japan, where he trained under the Rinzai master Soyen Shaku Roshi. Alone, and far from home, Senzaki undertook the task of realizing Soyen’s dream of bringing Zen to the West.
In 1928, more than 20 years after he arrived in the United States, Senzaki wrote to a friend of his experience teaching Zen to Americans: “I am now sowing some inconspicuous Dharma seeds, and I will likewise end my life in this country inconspicuously. But I am convinced that fifty years from now, the seeds I have sown will sprout, and true Buddha-dharma will shine in America.”
Those words proved prophetic. By the late 1970s, Zen practice centers were springing up all over North America as Westerners in search of spiritual clarity took dharma names and studied with Japanese teachers. But while this self-described “tattered monk” may have lived inconspicuously, half a century after his death Senzaki is revered as a pivotal figure in the realization of Soyen’s dream.
As a young monk in Japan, Senzaki created a “Mentorgarten”—a term reflecting his view “that the whole world is a beautiful garden, where everyone can associate peacefully and be mentors to each other”—to give young children a Buddhist education along with their other lessons. In 1905 he accompanied Soyen on a visit to the West Coast, remaining behind when his teacher returned to Japan. Seventeen years later he began renting out halls to give talks and teach zazen—what he called his “floating zendo.”
Senzaki enjoyed a long friendship (much of it conducted via correspondence) with Soen Nakagawa Roshi, who in 1960 dispatched a monk named Eido Tai Shimano (“Tai-san”) to America. Shimano—now a roshi himself and the founder of New York Zendo Shobo-ji in Manhattan and Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in upstate New York—was deeply impressed by Senzaki in his sole meeting with the elderly monk, in 1955, when Senzaki visited Ryutakuji, the monastery in Japan where Shimano was studying at the time.
Senzaki’s writings also made their mark. Well-versed in Japanese and Chinese Buddhist literature, Senzaki knew enough of the Western canon to cite William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Meister Eckhart. His translations of The Gateless Gate, 101 Zen Stories, and Kakuan’s Ten Bulls (ten ox-herding pictures) formed the core of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps’s influential compilation of Zen literature published in 1957. More of Senzaki’s work appeared in Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy: The Zen Teachings and Translations of Nyogen Senzaki, a 1978 anthology edited by Eido Roshi.
Now, in Eloquent Silence, Roko Sherry Chayat, Eido’s successor, has collected and edited Senzaki’s remaining unpublished work. Also known as Shinge Roshi since completing an entrustment ceremony with Eido Roshi in 2008, Chayat has produced an elegant and loving tribute to this unique figure, a lively mix of koan commentary, dharma talks, poetry, and personal correspondence illuminating both man and monk. Her vivid introduction deftly frames the selections that follow.
This version of the Gateless Gate koan collection reflects Senzaki’s reworking of the translations that first appeared in Zen Flesh to make them more faithful to the original Chinese. His pithy commentary, recorded and transcribed by his students, relentlessly challenges them to relinquish their fixed perspectives. Of Case 34 (“Wisdom Is Not the Path”), for example, Senzaki writes:
This mind is Buddha and no other, but one who clings to words and postulates an idea of it is far from the Path. If you meditate on emptiness, you can never empty your mind. If you aim to enter samadhi, you will never reach it. Buddhist wisdom comes directly from one’s own Buddha-nature. It is not like so-called knowledge, which is merely the psychological result of human experiences.
Senzaki also translates and comments on selected cases from two other Rinzai koan texts, the Hekiganroku (The Blue Cliff Record) and the Shoyoroku (Book of Serenity) but his voice emerges most clearly in his dharma talks, poetry, and letters, which reveal him to be passionate, funny, and at ease with the American vernacular. In a wistful poem composed in 1943, he writes, “Who knows and who cares what will happen to-morrow, / in this tricky plateau?”
In these more personal writings, we meet a deeply devoted Zen practitioner who, in demanding much of himself, often railed against Japanese monks for drinking, smoking, and flouting the precepts. He was also not one to back down from a disagreement when it came to the dharma, as when he castigated Nichiren Buddhists for what he perceived as their misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teaching.
After Pearl Harbor, Senzaki’s adopted country sent him, along with nearly 11,000 other Japanese and Japanese- Americans, to a bleak Wyoming internment camp. Sharing cramped quarters with a family, Senzaki led his fellow internees in zazen and wrote a poignant verse about their plight:
The mother was named an enemy-alien
And forced to stay within the fences.
Her son answered the call of Uncle Sam,
And gave his life in the battle field abroad.
In a way, Nyogen Senzaki did the same thing, selflessly giving his entire life to the cause of bringing Buddhadharma to Uncle Sam and his people.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.