The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (Wisdom Publications, fall 2014) features the wisdom of three generations of Zen masters: Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880–1965), Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912–1998), and Shohaku Okumura (1948–). “Homeless Kodo” refers to the first in this dharma line, Kodo Sawaki, who powerfully revived and popularized the Soto Zen practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting”—as distinct from the Rinzai Zen school’s focus on koans—by bringing the practice outside Japan’s monasteries to its laypeople. An itinerant teacher for most of his life, he established in 1949 Antaiji Shichikurin Sanzen Dojo, a still thriving Buddhist temple now in Hyogo Prefecture. After Sawaki died, his dharma heir, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, published a collection of brief sayings by Sawaki with commentaries of his own. The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo is that book, now newly translated and amplified with additional comments and explanations by Uchiyama Roshi’s disciple Shohaku Okumura.
Homeless Kodo is a beautiful book, plainspoken and deep. Its editor, Jokei Molly Delight Whitehead, wrote in her preface: “My favorite aspect of this book is its prismatic reflection of a single truth through the distinct characters, experiences, and voices of three teachers—the universal manifesting through the particular, as always.” I couldn’t agree more, nor could I say it better.
My first acquaintance with Shohaku Okumura, a native of Japan who is now the head teacher at Sanshin-ji in Bloomington, Indiana, was in July 2013, at a retreat that combined silent sitting meditation with the study of two brief texts from Shobogenzo, the masterwork of the Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200–1253), in Shohaku Okumura’s translation. Reverend Okumura and I conducted our interview over the phone, he in Indiana, I in New York. There is no distance and no separation when two minds meet in a spirit of simple openness and truth.
When you were 17 years old, you read a book by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi that impressed you deeply. It made you want to live like him and become his disciple. What was the quality or the message in Uchiyama’s book that spoke to you so strongly? When I was 17, it was the mid-’60s. I had many questions about life, about my own path and also about the situation in Japan and in the world. It was the time of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and the Japanese people were working hard—too hard—to make money and help Japan become a rich country. I felt like this entire Japanese society was one huge moneymaking machine, and that school was a factory to produce parts for that machine. I was being asked to study hard and go to a prestigious university so that I could get a good job after that. I couldn’t find any meaning in that. I wanted an alternative, a different way of life. I wanted to drop out of that machine existence—that kind of goal-oriented, greedy way of life—but I didn’t know if that was possible, and that was why I started to read many books on philosophy, religion, literature, and so on.
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