Photograph by Nicolas Schossleitner
Photograph by Nicolas Schossleitner

By the time I reached graduate school in 1970, I was a born-again Zen Buddhist. After minoring in Asian religions and cultures in college and meditating sporadically at the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan, I was determined to shave my head, don long black robes, and head off to the monastery for the rigorous training I’d read about in books. I chose Stanford over Yale when I learned that Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first (and at the time, only) Zen monastery in the West, was situated just down the California coast from Palo Alto, in the wilderness near Big Sur. With grad school as leverage, I figured, I could gradually transition to more full-time practice.

After a monthlong cross-country odyssey in my VW bug the summer before school started, I ended up at the San Francisco Zen Center just in time to attend a seven-day sesshin (retreat) with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. It was the most intense, painful, exhilarating experience of my life; I felt like I had arrived. I wasn’t sure how long I would last at Stanford before heeding the call to the monastery (as it turned out, I lasted a year), but in the meantime I planned to sit every day at the local Haiku Zendo, where Roshi had been offering regular talks, and drive up to San Francisco every few months for sesshin.

As it turned out, Roshi had decided to stop offering lectures at Haiku Zendo and instead had appointed a young monk, Kobun Chino Otogawa, to take over the post of resident teacher. A star student at Kyoto University, where he received a master’s degree in Mahayana Buddhist studies, and a preceptor at Eiheiji, the Soto Zen training monastery, Kobun had been invited by Suzuki Roshi to help establish the training program at Tassajara. Kobun was known there for his gentle manner, his caring attention to detail, his penchant for solitude, and the long, somnolent spaces between his words. Once, according to a story corroborated by several witnesses, he had fallen asleep during his own lecture.

Although I was disappointed by Suzuki Roshi’s unexpected change of plans, I quickly warmed to this bright, energetic young monk and became one of his closest disciples. Along with several other Zen students, I moved in just down the street from the brown Craftsman where Kobun and his American wife, Harriet, and two small children had made their home; I would often see him working in his garden when I passed. Most mornings he would attend the 5:30 zendo sitting, and his evident dedication to the practice of zazen deepened the meditation for the rest of us. I was captivated by his every action—the way he handled a stick of incense or bowed to the altar or adjusted his robes—as if soaking up some ancient code. Because he lived so near, I had the opportunity to stop by from time to time for individual interviews in his living room, frequently joined by his two toddlers, who would climb all over their patient daddy as we talked.

Kobun gave weekly talks that I found enthralling not so much for the words themselves, which could be difficult to decipher, but for the devotion and sincerity that infused the words, and for the long silences, which invited us to be especially attentive and attuned to the mystery that the words couldn’t possibly reveal. Kobun would pause for what could seem like eternity, as if reaching into some deep wellspring of wisdom, then speak slowly and painstakingly, with a thick Japanese accent, often with a little laugh at his own inability to express his thoughts clearly in this strange new language.

Kobun shared his deep understanding not only of Zen, but also of the “roots of Zen” in the Indian Mahayana tradition, as expressed in scriptures like the Lotus Sutra and the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra. He was also especially fond of Bodhidharma, whose version of the precepts we studied, and of the Sixth Patriarch in China, Hui Neng. Kobun considered the conventional Buddhist distinction between sentient and insentient beings misleading and taught that everything—rocks and trees just as much as humans and animals—was alive and endowed with buddhanature. (“A carrot cries when you pull it out of the ground,” he told me when I asked about becoming a vegetarian.)

Despite his difficulties with English, or perhaps because of them, Kobun was fascinated with finding new and innovative ways of expressing traditional truths, and his talks, with their idiosyncratic word choices, often sounded more like poetry than prose. For many months, a small group of us met with him weekly to translate the Zen precepts, the four bodhisattva vows, and the robe chant into language that he felt expressed their true spirit, even though San Francisco Zen Center already had its own versions, approved by Suzuki Roshi. In particular, Kobun wanted to make sure his students understood that the precepts were not ordinary ethical rules of conduct, but a description of how an enlightened person naturally and spontaneously behaves.
With Kobun‘s blessing, I weathered three practice periods and a summer guest season at Tassajara. During the three-week winter break between the first and second periods, Kobun invited me into his home to stay, like a younger brother (much to Harriet’s displeasure, I believe), and plied me with warm woolen underwear and socks for the subfreezing Tassajara winters. When I broke into tears the day we parted, he seemed ill at ease with my unexpected display of attachment and said, with a smile, “Ganbatte!” (the Japanese equivalent of “Break a leg” or “Do your best”).

After I left Tassajara and returned to Haiku Zendo, I kept asking Kobun to ordain me, but he insisted that I was already a monk and the robes and ceremony were unnecessary. Eventually I stopped asking. Then, one afternoon in the fall of 1974, he said, “I want to catch you and shave your head.” He’d apparently had a change of heart. The day of the ordination, Kobun did the shaving himself (a task generally undertaken by another member of the sangha), but in characteristic style he forgot to leave the little patch of hair that gets razored off during the ceremony itself. As usual, he laughed playfully at his own mistake. After the ceremony that evening, as I stood there like a newborn in my shaved head and unfamiliar new clothes, he said, “When you wear this robe, you become invisible,” then lifted his outer robe over his head and disappeared before my eyes.

For me as a neophyte Zen student, Kobun was a mix of wise teacher, eccentric uncle, and loving elder brother. Yet over the years I discovered that he, like many other Zen teachers, was also a jumble of contradictions. Always warm and cheerful in public, quick to flash a smile and lend encouragement, he could be morose and moody in private, particularly with his wife and family. A rebel against tradition who had studied with the famous enlightened nomad Kodo Sawaki, he had broken with his own master to come to America. He was at the same time a master of traditional calligraphy and Zen archery (kyudo) who wore monk’s garb wherever he went and was frequently consulted after Suzuki Roshi’s death by the teachers in San Francisco for his expertise in the intricacies of Zen ceremony and ritual.

Kobun emphasized “guerrilla Zen” (realizing our true nature in the midst of everyday life) rather than zendo-based practice, kept sidestepping or rejecting the mantle of authority that his students tried to confer on him, and insisted on being called by his given name rather than being addressed as “Sensei” or “Roshi.” Instead of asking his new monks to sew their own robes or purchase them from Soto Zen headquarters in Japan, as other Soto teachers did, he gave us spare robes of his own that he unearthed from a seemingly endless supply. For Kobun, dharma transmission was not primarily a formal ceremony, as it had largely become in the Japanese Soto school, but an informal process that occurred over time, “from one warm hand to another,” in the intimate relationship between teacher and student.

He had a fragile, ethereal grace and a tendency to space out about appointments and schedules, as if he didn’t quite belong on this planet. Yet he was a hard worker who single-handedly dug up his front yard and installed a koi pond and Japanese wooden bridge, and he was constantly running from place to place (often in traditional Zen sandals) as if on some urgent mission—perhaps because he was often late. Once I complained to him that a friend of one of my housemates had bedded down on our living room couch and disrupted our peace and quiet with long drunken rants, but added that as a good Buddhist I believed I needed to learn to accept the situation. He looked at me as if I were crazy and told me he’d come over to kick the fellow out if I couldn’t do it myself.

After Suzuki Roshi’s death, Kobun became good friends with the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and they would get together when Trungpa came to town. They were approximately the same age, both recent arrivals in the U.S., both exploring how to adapt Buddhist teachings to an American audience, both married to Western women, and both fathers of young children. Trungpa had vowed to Suzuki Roshi (whom he considered his spiritual father in the West) that he would establish a Buddhist university in America, and he sought Kobun’s advice when he established Naropa Institute (now University) and invited him to teach a Zen course at the inaugural summer session in 1974, which I attended as Kobun’s self-appointed assistant.

During one of Trungpa’s Bay Area visits, he and Kobun shared calligraphy together at the suburban home of one of Kobun’s students, with several of us in attendance. As one teacher looked on, the other spread out a large piece of paper, knelt down, gracefully stroked some words of spiritual wisdom (Trungpa in Tibetan, Kobun in Japanese), and then translated what he had written. After a pause the other teacher did the same. Before long the exchange became a kind of playful dharma combat, the ritualized doctrinal debates common to both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, with each man responding to what the other had written.

At one point Trungpa, who was dressed in his customary suit and tie, leaned over and inscribed the phrase “Mindfulness is the way of all the buddhas,” emphasizing the cornerstone of traditional Buddhist practice, moment-to-moment mindful awareness. Kobun, with the billowy sleeves of his monk’s robes tucked under his arms, picked up a large brush, saturated it with black ink, paused, and then wrote with a mischievou-flourish: “Great no mind.” Everyone in the room broke out in uproarious laughter.

After five years of practicing guerrilla Zen with Kobun at our suburban zendo, I began to yearn again for the monastic lifestyle I had glimpsed at Tassajara. After all, I had been ordained as a monk, but I didn’t have any special role in the community, and I seemed to be living the same ordinary life as everyone else, working at odd jobs to support my Zen practice. Yes, I sat daily and attended weeklong sesshins three or four times a year. But somehow I still had a hunger for more fulltime, rigorous training.

While I was mulling over these concerns, I ran into another teacher—literally. Kobun had invited the head of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, for a visit, and as I was racing up the path to meet him, adjusting my robes, I nearly bumped into him. I was immediately struck by how grounded and solid Maezumi Roshi seemed in comparison to Kobun, as though he were rooted to the earth. He had the demeanor and energy of a little Zen samurai. Aha, I thought, this man knows something about rigorous practice. After talking with Roshi about the training program at ZCLA and then visiting for a few days, I decided to accept his invitation to join a growing cadre of monks and become an editor of the nascent Center Publications, their book publishing enterprise. Now I had to break the news to Kobun that I would be leaving the sangha.

When I shared my intentions with him, he warned me that Maezumi Roshi was “very traditional,” which in Kobun’s eyes was clearly not a good thing. He didn’t express any opinion about my decision, but he seemed perturbed and gradually seemed to distance himself from me. It had never occurred to me that Kobun might be upset by my decision to leave to study with someone else. I had always assumed that he didn’t have any needs or preferences of his own but only wanted the best for his students. Weren’t Zen masters beyond such petty attachments? I naively wondered. As it turned out, Kobun had been counting on my support in the effort to expand Haiku Zendo into a broader umbrella organization known as Bodhi, and he apparently felt disappointed by my departure—though I didn’t find this out until later.

After I moved to ZCLA in 1976, friends reported that Kobun had given a lecture in which he derided the practice of “sitting hard” (the concentrated, goal-oriented meditation I had hoped to do at ZCLA), dismissing it as a misunderstanding of true Zen practice and referring to me by name, and admonished his students to “sit soft” instead. Although Kobun visited ZCLA once while I was there, and we talked briefly after the death of a mutual friend, he became more and more inaccessible, and we gradually drifted apart. I called occasionally, but he rarely answered the phone, and when he did he limited the conversation to a few terse responses that made it clear he didn’t really want to talk. In 1992, I sent him a copy of my first book,Timeless Visions, Healing Voices, which bore the dedication “To Kobun Chino Otogawa, who first showed me the Way,” but I never heard back from him.

In the ensuing years, Kobun moved several times, first to Taos to be closer to his children (who had moved with their mother to Arkansas when Kobun and Harriet divorced), then to Santa Cruz with his new wife and three children, and finally to Colorado, living at Shambhala Mountain Center and teaching at Naropa, where he was appointed to the World Wisdom Chair. During these years he divided his teaching time between his Bay Area and New Mexico sanghas and the Shambhala community, ordaining about a dozen more monks and many lay students and touching thousands of lives. In 2002, Kobun drowned while trying to save his five-year-old daughter, who also drowned.

Only years after Kobun and I parted company did I fully appreciate the legacy he had imparted to me. From Kobun I learned the value of finding my own way and trusting my own experience, rather than following someone else’s path and relying on the authority of teachers or tradition. He taught me how to “sit soft,” with open, nonjudgmental awareness, not for the purpose of accomplishing something but merely to express my inherent true nature. And he revealed to me the nondual vision of life beyond concepts and divisions, where silence speaks far louder than words, everyday life is the ultimate zendo, and who we really are includes all beings everywhere. After studying with a number of other teachers in several traditions and becoming a teacher myself, I now recognize how precious those teachings were at such a formative point on my path.

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