“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 receive full 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.

Huston corrected me: “He did. But Soyen Roshi made him return to Japan, and Goto followed Soyen as head abbot of Myoshin-ji, the ‘Temple of the Marvelous Mind,’ where I studied with Goto Roshi. And after that he became the abbot of Daitoku-ji, the most prestigious of all Rinzai monasteries.” Huston widened his eyes, as he often does for emphasis. “But it’s no matter anyway. Soyen and Goto Roshi’s lineage lives on here in Walter Nowick Roshi.”

I was slightly embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of Nowick, although later, when I got home and looked into it, I learned that at least part of the blame lay with Nowick himself, who is very low profile.

“Do you know where he lives?” I asked Huston.

“Sure. He lives in a little fishing village in Maine.” Huston’s eyes flared again. “Hey, wait a minute. You live in Maine, right?”

As kismet or karma would have it, it turned out that Nowick lives only six miles from where my wife and I have spent every summer for many years. I felt like the proverbial bumpkin who, after an exhaustive search for a teacher, realizes there’s a Zen master living in his backyard. So I decided to look him up. It took a while—mostly because I had to drive around. Nowick doesn’t answer his phone. We were finally able to meet on a sunny September morning at his saltwater farm, in Surry. Nowick, still burly and spry at 82, was dressed in faded blue jeans and a gray fleece. Not what I had expected. But I reminded myself that Zen masters don’t always dress in kimono or stand on formality; in fact, Ikkyu, the great fifteenth-century Zen master who, like Goto Roshi, had also served as abbot of Daitoku-ji, once referred to the fine silk robes of his dharma brothers as “glorified shit covers.” And Lin Chi, the Chinese master from whom the Rinzai sect takes its name, was a notorious slob.

Nowick’s farm no longer functions as such; today it’s mostly a collection of dilapidated buildings in the familiar New England style of sharply pitched roofs, gray cedar shingles, and granite foundations. When we went into the barn for our interview, a sign over the door read: “Surry Opera Company.” Inside were three grand pianos, two upright pianos, and lots of theater seats. He seemed to enjoy the surprised look on my face.

Nowick, who never married or had children, grew up in New York, on Long Island, the son of Russian and Polish immigrants who ran a potato farm. As a child he was deeply interested in music, and at the age of 14 he auditioned— and was accepted—at Juilliard, where he studied piano with the keyboard virtuoso Henriette Michaelson. Thus began his lifelong involvement with music.

“And she’s the one who introduced me to Zen,” Nowick explained, pointing to an old photo of Michaelson on a shelf nearby. “It was right at the end of World War II. She knew Ruth Fuller Sasaki, whose husband, Sokei-an Sasaki, had started the First Zen Institute of America in New York, in 1931. Henriette used to go there, and she told me about it. I thought, ‘Sitting? Meditation? What’s that?’ So I went with her and found out.”

By the end of the 1940s, Nowick was deeply immersed in Zen practice. From time to time he would accompany his piano teacher to the northern coast of Maine, to Surry, where she kept a modest summerhouse on Morgan Bay, and there they would play the piano and sit for long hours in meditation. “I loved it here and came up to see her several times. After that, I thought of Maine as a kind of home.

“Back in New York I wanted to train more deeply in Zen, but there was nobody who could help me. Ruth Fuller knew a great deal about Zen, but she was not a roshi—and there’s a difference between a teacher and a roshi: one has information, and the other has experience. So she helped me write a letter to Goto Roshi, who had been a friend of Sasaki, her husband. Then Goto Roshi wrote an answer. He was very sorry, he said, because he could not leave Japan at that time and come to America, ‘but if anyone will come here I will be happy to accept them as a pupil.’” Nowick packed his bags, shipping out for Japan on a steamer in early 1950.

“He was wonderful in teaching and helping me. He told me, ‘I will take my English out of mothballs, but you must learn Japanese.’ And so I did.” Nowick discovered that having an ear for music gave him an ear for languages. He learned Japanese quickly and began supporting himself by teaching English, but soon switched to teaching music, at Kyoto Women’s University.

“I thought I was done with music, but one day I found a piano in a shed behind the place where I was teaching English. I nearly cried when I saw it—it had been so long. So I used to sneak in there and play piano when there was time. One day the head of the university begged me to teach music. When I asked Goto Roshi if that would be all right, he said, ‘Walter, you like music better than teaching English. Go do it.’”

With his finances secure, Nowick threw himself into Zen practice, meditating for long hours and undergoing divided into three parts, and you will take one part home to Maine and bury them there and build a zendo.’” After the master’s death, Nowick said goodbye to his dharma brothers, including the two others who received portions of Goto’s ashes: Sesso Oda Roshi, who followed Goto as abbot of Myoshin-ji, and Soko Morinago Roshi, who became the next head of Daitoku-ji.

Arriving back in Maine in late 1965, Nowick was intent on carrying out his master’s wishes but had no idea how he would make a living. He used a modest inheritance from his father to settle on a rustic farm once owned by elderly friends of his music teacher from Juilliard, and basically joined the back-to-the-land movement of the sixties. Like many hippies—and Zen masters—before him, he discovered the deep satisfaction that can be found in chopping wood and carrying water. But word had spread that a bona fide Zen roshi was hiding in the Maine woods, and soon a circle of students grew up around him, some traveling from the Zen Institute in New York to relocate in Maine.

Nowick accepted these students, but he made it clear to them that he wanted to touch the deep bones of Zen, without such things as robes, incense, Buddhist names, and other “trappings” that he perceived to be more cultural than necessary. In general, he centered the practice for his sangha of some 40 students on two things: physical labor on the farm and koan training. To help financially support the fledgling group, Nowick bought a small sawmill.

“Men who run sawmills often lose their hands or fingers on the job. When I bought the sawmill, the man said, ‘I can’t teach you anything, but I can tell you one thing. Be attentive.’ That stuck in me instantly.” After more than twenty years of Zen training, Nowick found it quite natural to pay attention. “I still have ten fingers,” he told me, smiling and holding up his hands. “Good for playing the piano.” Then he gestured to the high ceiling of the barn. “See those wide boards up there? We milled all of those—and many more for the zendo.”

“This isn’t the zendo?”

“No, no. This is the opera house.”

It seemed a bit grandiose to call an old barn an “opera house,” but Nowick explained further. Back in the late sixties and seventies, when gurus, yogis, and roshis were in particularly high demand, Nowick had avoided the limelight, choosing instead a life of quiet practice. Even after the Dutch novelist Janwillem van de Wetering published an entire book about Nowick’s group, A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community, in 1975, they managed to stay off the radar, thanks to Nowick’s stipulation that his friend Janwillem (who later moved to Surry to live near Nowick) not use his real name or say where he was. And while other roshis lectured in multimillion-dollar facilities, Nowick ran a sawmill and lived in a shack.

“And I was playing the piano,” he added. “I couldn’t stop playing music.” Some of Nowick’s students saw his musical activities as a distraction from his duties as a roshi, but Nowick disagreed. Zen can be taught through any medium of expression, and many Zen masters before him had been musicians, artists, and poets. Furthermore, Nowick had been hatching a plan to use music for generating peace and compassion in the world.

The opera house on Nowick’s saltwater farm in Surry, Maine. ©Dana Sawyer

“It was during the Cold War, the time of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Everyone was worried there would be a nuclear war. So I decided we could form a musical group to travel to Russia and give concerts; that way, some Russians and some Americans would meet each other directly instead of through their politicians, and we could become goodwill ambassadors.”

Nowick founded the “Surry Opera Company,” made up mostly of members of his sangha, along with lobster fishermen, pulpwood cutters, and housewives thrown into the mix, and eventually, in 1986, they made their first trip to Russia (and visited Japan as well). To date Nowick has traveled to Russia to perform and teach music more than 40 times. “The Opera Company was a great hit. People loved it. We made many friends in Russia. And it really captured people’s imagination that we could do something directly to ease the conflict between our countries.” Nowick’s efforts were applauded on both sides of the Iron Curtain, gleaning lots of press, but none of it related to Buddhism.

“And what about Zen?” I asked.

Nowick explained that he eventually became so busy with his opera company that in 1985 he stopped teaching Zen formally, finding a greater sphere of influence for spreading compassion through music. Once détente with the Soviets was solidly in place, Russians started coming over in groups to Surry to study music with him, and Russians still arrive every summer and offer concerts to the local population. Nowick may be a Zen master on the quiet, but he isn’t actually quiet at all.

As we walked through fields of goldenrod toward the zendo he built with his students in 1972, Nowick pointed out some of the buildings on his farm. “I live in that small one over there. The one beside it is my shrine room, where I meditate every day. And that one is the milk shed, where the Russians live in the summer. And way over there, that’s Allen’s place.” Allen Wittenberg, a music therapist and longtime disciple, helps Nowick take care of his property and lives as simple an existence as his master.

Cutting through the bushes, Nowick shooed away a fly and talked about meditation. “I practice twice every day for 40 minutes, in the morning and evening.” Specifically, he recites a 250-word Japanese prayer that was taught to him by Goto Roshi. “I say the whole thing in two breaths and then repeat, all the time being mindful.” He turned his head away. “And that’s the zendo over there.” Nowick pointed to a low building nestled by a pond. “And that little cottage behind it is the sanzen-room, for interviews during koan study.”

Nowick donated the land for the zendo (which he called Moon Spring Hermitage) to the sangha, and a trust continues to keep it up, though Nowick has retired as presiding roshi. “It’s not technically a zendo anymore,” he explained, “because there’s no roshi. But people meditate there.”

Without further explanation, Nowick turned away from me and walked to the edge of the woods, where I followed him up a short path. We stopped beside a large boulder, and Nowick pointed to a bronze plate screwed into a low rock beside it. “That is the marker we made. Goto Roshi’s ashes are buried there.” I bent down and read: 1879–1965. Here lie some of the ashes of the Japanese Zen Master Goto Roshi Zuigan, my teacher. They were placed here in Oct. 1968 in the hope that his teaching will continue. Walter Nowick.

I looked up at Nowick, now standing ramrod straight with his hat off, as if at military attention. His face held an intense look of both presence and reminiscence. He seemed to be planted simultaneously in Maine and Kyoto.

“But what about Zen?” I asked again. “Will you continue Goto Roshi’s teaching?”

Nowick smiled, put on his cap, and without a word started walking back toward the opera house. As we stepped through the fields of flowers, I had a few minutes to reflect on our morning together. Nowick is deeply believable as a roshi: he has an intense and yet easygoing presence that bespeaks the real deal. But why wasn’t he teaching Zen and doing what his master wished? I fished around in my mind for an answer.

When Huston took koan study with Goto Roshi, Goto had accused Huston of having “philosopher’s disease” because he asked so many questions. Nowick, on the other hand, seemed completely bored by my philosophical questions, and this, I reflected, might have been what Goto had found attractive in him. Raised by farmers, Nowick is oriented toward the practical and bored by the abstract—a good fit for Zen. And now he was content to spread compassion through music and otherwise live a simple life, another good fit for Zen. I found myself feeling silly that I had asked whether he would continue Goto Roshi’s teaching. Maybe philosopher’s disease was getting the best of me too.

After I said goodbye to Nowick (who was on his way into town for a meal of Udon noodles) and returned home, I took down A Glimpse of Nothingness and read a passage in which van de Wetering reflects on a visit he once made with Nowick to Goto Roshi’s grave:

I thought of the old master. His ashes were buried in the forest. …Nothing was left, but the direct results of his lifelong labor were all around me. The line of his teaching continued, was as alive as in the days when the Buddha wandered all through India, on his bare feet.

Van de Wetering, who died last summer, had written those lines more than 30 years ago, yet I found no reason to alter his conclusion. Walter Nowick is an old farmer who enjoys a deep love of music, but a lotus still blooms in Maine. ▼

Dana Sawyer is a professor of religion at the Maine College of Art and the author of Aldous Huxley, A Biography. He has recently edited Peaceful Mind, Compassionate Heart by Khen Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan, and he is currently writing the authorized biography of Huston Smith.

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