“He’s the quietest Zen master in America,” said Huston Smith, the famous scholar of world religions, as we sat in a Japanese restaurant near his home in Berkeley, California. “And he was the first American to go to Japan and receive full dharma transmission in the Rinzai lineage.” We were talking about Walter Nowick, who once shepherded Huston around Kyoto for a season in 1957, after Huston’s friend D. T. Suzuki recommended that Huston study with Nowick’s master, Goto Zuigan Roshi.

“Never heard of Nowick,” I replied.

“Few have. Everyone’s heard of Suzuki—and many are familiar with Nyogen Senzaki, another pioneer of American Zen, but Nowick gets left out of most accounts.” Huston looked up from his bowl of Udon noodles, a favorite dish of his. “And what’s interesting about this is that Nowick has some of the best Zen credentials around.”

Walter Nowick, 82, left for Japan in 1950, where he became the first American to receivefull Rinzai dharma transmission. ©Dana Sawyer

Huston explained further. Goto Roshi, Nowick’s master, was a disciple of Sokatsu Shaku, who, in turn, was a disciple of Soyen Shaku, the famous roshi who first presented Zen to an American audience at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, in 1893. Among Soyen Roshi’s other students were D.T. Suzuki and Senzaki, but unlike these other two, Sokatsu Shaku was made a formal dharma heir, and so Goto Roshi was formally in the lineage of Soyen Roshi.

“Too bad Goto Roshi never made it to the United States, if he was an actual dharma heir,” I remarked.

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