The songwriter Leonard Cohen recently said of his teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, “He became someone who really cared about—or deeply didn’t care about who I was. Therefore, who I was began to wither. And the less I was of who I was, the better I felt.”
A “master’s master” or “teacher’s teacher” are common phrases I heard in speaking to people about Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who celebrated his one hundredth birthday on April first.
A Rinzai monk since the age of fourteen, Sasaki Roshi came to Los Angeles from Japan in 1962 and founded an American lineage known for vigorous, uncompromising practice. Beginning with a neighborhood center in Gardena, California, he later established Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles in 1966, Mount Baldy Zen Center in 1971, and over thirty other centers since then. He still leads twenty to thirty weeklong retreats a year.
“He’s a throwback to an earlier kind of teacher,” says Seiju Bob Mammoser, senior monk at the Albuquerque Zen Center. “He teaches students to look through fresh eyes at their own experience.” When I discover Roshi is lecturing at his Bodhi Manda Center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, I can’t resist driving the two hours from Taos to listen. Despite his being “a little wobbly,” as Roshi puts it, there’s hardly any sign of this once he takes his seat before the group. He could easily be a man in his sixties; some of the college students present don’t look half so alive.
Sasaki Roshi has been quoted as saying, “If you want to explain enlightenment, you have to make up a new language.” This morning he pokes gentle fun at scholars and philosophers, while delivering his own startlingly fresh presentation of Zen, a notoriously difficult one to summarize. (His long-time translator Shinzen Young quips, “Is there a succinct way to express Einstein?”) Fond of mathematical formulations, Roshi famously renders emptiness as “zero.” Ego he calls the “I am” self. The dualistic realms of “plus” and “minus” continuously merge into and reemerge from unity, expressed as “God,” “perfect time,” or even “true love.” All is constantly changing; nothing, as Roshi likes to put it, is “fixated”—even ultimate reality.
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