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.

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