Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, now ninety years old, came to the United States thirty-five years ago. Today, he represents the last of a generation of pioneering Japanese teachers who brought dharma to the West.
Born in 1907 in Japan’s rural Miyagi Prefecture, he became a novice at the age of fourteen under Joten Soko Miura Roshi (who went on to head Myoshin-ji, a prominent Rinzai temple). Sasaki received his authority as a roshi and became abbot of his own temple in 1947. In 1962, Daiko Furukawa, Joten Roshi’s successor as abbot at Myoshin-ji asked him to relocate to America.
Sasaki Roshi spent his first years in the United States in Gardena, California, living in a small house where he conducted evening zazen and served simultaneously as jikijitsu (zendo supervisor), shoji (liturgy master) and tenzo (cook). As his reputation spread, sitting groups sprang up in homes throughout Southern California. Joshu Roshi and his students opened the Cimarron Zen Center in central Los Angeles in 1968. A few years later, Mount Baldy Zen Center was established at an old Boy Scout camp. Sasaki Roshi’s students founded Zen centers in Ithaca and Setauket, New York; Miami; Princeton; Albuquerque; Tempe, Arizona; Boulder; and in Vancouver, Montreal, Puerto Rico and Vienna.
Sasaki Roshi was interviewed for Tricycle at Bodhi Manda Zen Center, founded in 1973 at Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Serving both as a retreat facility and a residential practice center, Bodhi Manda is also home to the annual Summer Seminar on the Sutras, a program Sasaki Roshi began two decades ago. The seminars bring together Japanese and American scholars of Buddhism for two weeks of talks on dharma topics. Taking a break from his daily lecture schedule, Sasaki Roshi spoke to Michael Haederle with the help of a translator, Giko David Rubin, one of his monks.
Tricycle: This years marks the twentieth anniversary of the Summer Seminar on the Sutras. I wonder if you could talk about your original intention for the seminars?
Sasaki Roshi: The first question and it’s already a hard question! If I had really understood America I probably wouldn’t have formulated these seminars. My intention was, of course, to learn about America, but at the same time I wanted to be understood by Americans as well. To say I wanted to be understood by Americans is the same thing as to say I wanted Americans to understand Buddhism. Do you know Buddhism?
I’ve never faced the American people and aggressively said, “This is what Buddhism is. Believe in Buddhism!” Many people have come to practice zazen, but even to these zazen practitioners, I haven’t told them, “Believe in Buddhism!” There are branches of Buddhism that emphasize the aspect of faith. When people come to me and say they want to believe in Buddhism, then I refer them to these other branches. But people want to learn Zen, and so I have to teach it.
Tricycle: What is the fundamental teaching of Zen?
Sasaki Roshi: The fundamental purpose of Zen teaching is “mu-ga”—“no-self.” And so, it’s this mu-ga, this no-self, which I am hoping people will be able to grasp. According to Buddhism, as humans, we are seeing from the perspective of the incomplete self. This incomplete self is undoubtedly very important. But if we attach to this incomplete self—although this incomplete self is important—then we’ll never be able to experience the complete self. We Zen people say, if you believe in God, this complete self means the same thing as God. That is, it shares the same standpoint as God.
After twenty years I thought, “Well, it’s about time I start really trying to spread the word of Buddhism,” so for this seminar I’m lucky to have famous professors from the world of Buddhism.
Tricycle: Do you see the seminars as a vehicle for the exchange of scholarly insights between Japanese and American scholars of Buddhism?
Sasaki Roshi: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, at least not yet. I’m not a scholar and I’m not affiliated with a university. These young scholars are the ones who have to take the lead in that kind of exchange. I think the seminar is a good thing on the one hand, but on the other hand, if it takes a wrong turn, it can be a very dangerous thing, too. Even among the Japanese scholars of Buddhism, I can feel from their scholarship that they’ve forgotten the fundamental teaching of no-self. There is this principle of the dual nature of self: the incomplete self and the complete self. It seems many scholars in Japan have completely forgotten this principle and just jabber on and on endlessly, unconditionally and unquestioningly affirming the position of the self.
Tricycle: Are Christianity and psychology impediments to the proper understanding of Buddhism for Americans?
Sasaki Roshi: Why all these difficult questions? Everyone just chant, “Do-o-o-oh” [he demonstrates]. “Do-o-o-oh.” When you were doing that, did you think about anything like God? Were you thinking about Buddhism? I think you probably were not thinking about Buddhism. My way of teaching, my way of making relationship through religion, is just chanting “Do-o-o-oh.”
Tricycle: Do you feel a strong monastic tradition is important for the long-term survival of Buddhism in the West?
Sasaki Roshi: Actually, that’s why I started the seminars. I think a monastery is necessary, but not the kind of monastery that most Westerners think of. When you look at the development of Zen, there is importance placed both on the incomplete self that must study, teach and understand things and, on the other hand, the self that puts that which it has been taught into practice. There are these two standpoints, and they’re both valued—studying and actually practicing. That’s why I started the seminars, to investigate what kind of monastery would be good to start. I don’t believe just “zazen, zazen” all the time. If I was to start a monastery without a clear understanding, it might be a very sloppy, messy affair. Now that you ask about a monastery, I have to say I would love to start a monastery in conjunction with a place of study. Actually, the style of teaching I’m doing now includes both the aspect of understanding within the sphere of knowing and the aspect of practice. But to create a new systematic way of learning, that includes both aspects in a mature way, would be very difficult. Perhaps we would have to think in terms of a school.
Even in a school, they might need to practice, as well as study. Traditionally, in Japanese temples, they had a tradition of both study and practice.
Tricycle: You have called your teaching Nyorai Zen. Could you tell us what that means?
Sasaki Roshi: If you really see into the tenets of Nyorai Zen, then you won’t have to ask about it. The fundamental teaching of Nyorai Zen is understanding how the incomplete self is born and how the complete self is born. Nyorai Zen is teaching this principle and then putting it into practice. To make teaching, learning, and practicing one, that is Zen practice. For example, did you hear this sound? [He pops his hand over the mouth of a tea cup.] The koan is “When you were hearing this sound, did you believe in God? When you were hearing this sound, where is God?” This is a koan in our system. If you really pass through that first koan, there’s another koan waiting for you: “After that sound ended, where did God go?” Our practice is clearly formulated along these principles.
So we can say the fundamental aspect of Nyorai Zen is the manifestation of true wisdom, not the wisdom based on “I am.” There are those who, without running away from that sort of severe teaching, shave their heads and come to Mount Baldy and stay for two or three or four or five years. To speak frankly, although I’ve been here for over thirty years, it’s only in the last ten years that I really have true disciples. If you want to look at the first twenty years, well, it was like being completely in the dark. The people who were being taught didn’t understand, and my teaching was such that it didn’t seem to sink in.
Tricycle: Mount Baldy has a reputation as being a tough place compared to other Zen training centers.
Sasaki Roshi: The facilities we have there are probably pretty rundown compared to other places. Quite a few people come once and never come back. Maybe they are the types who are put off by the chemical toilets. There are some people who come once, get angry and leave, but then fifteen or twenty years later they’re back again, so you can say there’s a time in life when people realize the need for practice.
Tricycle: You came to America about the same time as a number of Japanese teachers. Now a number of those teachers have designated dharma heirs. Do you think it’s important for there to be American teachers of Buddhism?
Sasaki Roshi: The fact that these other teachers have named successors is fine. And if people want to say my teaching is careless or negligent because it hasn’t produced any successors, well, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I do consider it an important thing. I don’t have any successors, but I do have some disciples.
Tricycle: Do Westerners place sufficient emphasis on enlightenment in their practice?
Sasaki Roshi: Isn’t that why you’re practicing?
Tricycle: But some teachers seldom mention it in their writings or their talks. They say, just to practice is enough.
Sasaki Roshi: That’s that teacher’s basic nature, so there’s no problem with it. An apple tree produces apples. An apple tree will never give rise to a pear. Those kind of teachers give rise to that kind of student, and there’s nothing wrong with that. From the standpoint of Nyorai Zen, we never absolutely negate someone else’s religious preferences. We never say, “You can’t do it that way.” I think there is a Buddhist precept against this kind of intolerance. But if you don’t do proper pruning, you won’t get a good fruit.
Tricycle: Do women have an important role in America?
Sasaki Roshi: Yes, of course they do. It’s essential for women Zen teachers to appear. Master Rinzai [died 866 C.E.] says that when man and woman become one, that’s the true person. In English, we have this word “man” representing “person,” but in Chinese and Japanese, we just have this word, “person.” When a person includes both man and woman, that is what we call a bodhisattva. Both men and women have to become bodhisattvas. Without becoming a true bodhisattva, you can’t become a true teacher.
Tricycle: What do you tell your students about life and death?
Sasaki Roshi: In Nyorai Zen, life is called the activity of living. And death, we say, is the activity of dying. According to Nyorai Zen, as a temporary, skillful means of thinking, enlightened people have said these activities of living and dying never end, they are eternal.
We are beings who have developed the power of knowing, so we recognize many different activities; for instance, we can say the “activity of good weather,” or “the activity of wind.” But if you really look at this carefully, you see they are all really manifestations of these two activities of living and dying. You can rename these activities the plus activity and the minus activity. We human beings have developed to the extent that we are able to think and to recognize phenomena in this way. We’ve developed to the point where we’re able to think about and acknowledge that which you can’t see – that which you can’t grasp in your hand. That is the standpoint of Nyorai Zen.
So if a ghost happens to appear or if a demon appears, if God appears or if the devil appears, or if you say, “I’m saved by God,” all of these activities are this very activity of living and dying. We don’t recognize in Nyorai Zen any other basic functioning besides this. But when you ask who is doing this recognizing, there is none other than the human being that is doing it.
In Nyorai Zen we say we are born from these two plus and minus functions. Christianity says you are born from God. I guess that’s OK to say, but in Buddhism we say that we are born from the activity of “suchness,” or tatagatha. These two activities of plus and minus are living together and acting together in one room. It’s never the case that they are functioning in two separate worlds. Because they are acting together in the same room, inevitably there will be a place in which they encounter one another. To say it simply, that place of meeting is the complete self.
This complete self has both the plus activity and the minus activity as its content. This is the true person. In this complete state there is no necessity to speak. There is no necessity to push anyone away. This is the manifestation of complete, true love and true compassion. When this complete self splits itself in two, then it becomes plus and minus again. When this separation of the complete self occurs, then in the interval between plus and minus, and living and dying, is the beginning of what we usually call the self.
This is really important. We have to ask: Is the self born with the complete activities of plus and minus as its content, or not? What do you think? If the self is born with the complete activities of plus and minus, with the complete activities of living and dying as its content, that would be God, wouldn’t it? If this were the case, it would not be subject to being controlled by living or dying. This is when we can, for the first time, understand what Buddha nature or the activity of the Buddha might mean.
Buddha—or we can say God—has this Buddha nature as its content completely. But in general, that which is born is not born in a complete state. All beings are born incomplete. To the extent that existent things are incomplete, then they must suffer through being controlled by the two activities of living and dying.
Clearly learn this principle while you’re still alive. Learn this principle of practice, of making living and dying completely your content. This is the teaching and perspective of Nyorai Zen.
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.