The following conversation is from a 1979 radio interview of Roshi Philip Kapleau conducted by Lex Hixon, a scholar and author who hosted the program “In the Spirit” for 17 years. After four decades, its themes are still relevant today.  –The Editors

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1912, Philip Kapleau briefly studied law, then learned court reporting. He went to Germany as Chief Court Reporter of the first Nuremberg Trial in 1945; in 1946, he covered the Tokyo War Crimes Trial in Japan. There, he discovered Zen Buddhism and began attending lectures by D. T. Suzuki. Later, back in New York, Kapleau renewed his acquaintance with Suzuki, who was teaching Zen at Columbia University; but Kapleau rejected Zen’s primarily intellectual treatment and returned to Japan in 1953 to seek its deeper truth. Back in Japan, Kapleau used his court skills to record interviews with Zen teachers, teachings, and even dokusan, traditional intimate meetings between teachers and students, for his book The Three Pillars of Zen, published in 1965, the same year he was sanctioned as a Zen teacher. One of the first books to reveal the details of Zen practice, it has remained in print ever since.

In 1966, he returned to the United States and established the Rochester Zen Center, where he founded his own lineage and taught for 20 years. Today, Roshi Kapleau’s descendants are teaching around the world; his many books on Zen include Awakening to Zen and Zen: Merging of East and West (originally titled Zen: Dawn in the West). He died at the Rochester Zen Center from complications of Parkinson’s disease in 2004.

Lex Hixon: There is an unusual sense of silence as I sit down to talk with Roshi Philip Kapleau here in the Rochester Zen Center. Do you suppose we can make a radio interview like this?

Roshi Philip Kapleau: You know, it’s said, Lex, that silence is more appropriate to Zen than speech. Now, where would that leave us?

Why should speech be any less appropriate than silence? We hear that when someone goes to an interview with a roshi in the formal setting of the dokusan room, it is the voice of the dharma that is speaking there. It’s not simply the conditioned, limited voice of an individual person. Of course, that is quite true. The dharma—the truth, if you like—speaks through the roshi when he is no longer self-consciously trying to do anything. He doesn’t even know that he’s using his tongue. This is why it is said in Zen, “Speak without your tongue.” That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m speaking without my tongue.

That’s what I thought! But you’re very natural and relaxed about it. I don’t feel any different than I would talking to an uncle or an old friend. Well, that’s a great compliment that you’re paying me. So we should be able to have a very nice interview—a speechless, speechful interview.

Maybe, to give a little bit of background, could you characterize in a few words a brushstroke painting of your life and your development? You’re asking me to do a very hard thing, Lex. Nothing comes to me right now about my background. So you’ll have to remind me about some of these things.

That’s true speechless speech. What I’m interested in really is this moment, not my past and not my future. All that matters at this moment is just that you’re talking to me and I’m talking to you.

In a traditional setting, if I were approaching a Zen teacher, I would never ask about his background, which would be totally inappropriate, but our culture has different mores, and it seems you want to bring Zen into this kind of framework. Is that so? Yes, that’s absolutely so. Having experienced a great deal of the awe and the sense of mystique that Westerners feel in the presence of Eastern teachers, and knowing that, in many cases, this is nothing but an attitude that the seeker or the student creates for himself, I’ve tried to disabuse Westerners of any sense of mystique or awe. We all have buddha-nature, so there’s no need for you to feel any sense of awe or for me to feel any sense of superiority. We are both equal.

Do you think there are cultural and personal limitations to an enlightened person? This is a very intriguing question. My own feeling is that everyone, enlightened or not, is to one degree or another hostage to their own culture. This is one of the great handicaps that I think every foreign teacher has who comes to North America to teach. It’s extremely difficult for them to let go of the cultural forms that they grew up with, that they’ve practiced since they were children.

We American teachers are more fortunate—since we are born into this culture, we are able to move in it very freely. If we’ve been privileged to have had training in the Eastern cultures, I think that we are the ones who are better able to adapt these teachings. Foreign teachers have done a tremendous thing here, of course, and we’re all indebted to them. But after the foreign teachers have helped us all that they can, then the burden will have to be on the Western teachers to carry on in a way that will fit our culture. We’ll have to carry on their superb teachings. This is about all we can do.

If you read Philip Kapleau’s most recent book: Zen Merging of East and West, you will find him clearly stressing the fact that Zen is a religious practice. Roshi, how do you respond to people who try to make Zen into a secular therapy or a mind-opening experience? Is Zen effective that way, or does it need to be rooted fundamentally in a religious dimension of life and culture? I usually say, if you want to use Zen in this way, you can do it. You can use it as a therapy of one kind or another. But this is comparable to taking a tiny bit of the cream off the top of the bottle of milk. There’s a good deal more to a bottle of milk than just the cream on top.

But someone did ask me in Majorca just recently, “Is Zen a religion?” I said, “It all depends on how you define religion.” The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare, which means to bind—to bind one, of course, to God. Zen doesn’t teach us to be bound to anything. The teaching is to experience our innate freedom.

If one thinks of religion as an organized body of beliefs, dogmas, creeds, and a belief in vicarious atonement, then, certainly, Zen, by Western religious standards, is not a religion. On the other hand, if you think of religion as something that teaches a person to answer the fundamental questions that every human being has asked, like “What is the meaning of my life? Why was I born? Why must I die?” then Zen definitely is a religion. So it’s all in how one looks upon religion.

“Everyone, enlightened or not, is to one degree or another hostage to their own culture.”

One of our members actually wrote in and said that she joined the Center in order to have Zen, not to have religion. She wanted to take the Zen without the Buddhism. You can do that. But you would be just skimming the cream off of the milk. I think you’re cheating yourself, really, because these traditions and all of these practices come out of a 2,500-year­long experience working with the human mind. And when these masters tell us that these practices are vital to the whole process of bringing us to awakening, then we would do well not to disregard them. And besides, when you do the full body of practices, it’s a wonderful feeling. So you can’t lose, really.

Actually, if you try to do Zen without the Buddhism, I doubt if you’ll even get any cream; because in your book Zen: Dawn in the West, you mention that many people have come to you from various human potential movements and various therapies and various contemporary styles of trainings that draw very heavily on Zen. They’ve asked you to test the assumed enlightenment that they have achieved through their way, and from your standpoint, as someone who is trained and authorized to test enlightenment, you honestly could say that none of them had even had a small taste of genuine enlightenment. You are absolutely right. But you’d be surprised how tenaciously people resist anything that smacks to them of religion.

How does a young man who started an atheist club in school, as you did, explain the fact that you’re now so open to the religious dimension?There was a time when I was auditing courses at the Columbia Union Theological Seminary with Dr. [Reinhold] Niebuhr [1892–1971] and Dr. [Paul] Tillich [1886–1965]. I remember Dr. Tillich saying, “The atheist is far closer to God than the man going to church maybe once or twice a month, or maybe even every week.” If a person can say, “I hate God,” with great passion, that person is actually much closer to God, because he can only deny God in the name of God, thereby affirming God. But of course, in Buddhism, we don’t have any God. Many people say to me, “Now, you’ve said a lot of things, but I want to ask you one thing very frankly, do you believe in God?”

If one postulates a God, then one needs to experience that God. There is a reality beyond the senses and the intellect, and yet not apart from them, that is real, and Buddhism teaches that one must experience this reality for oneself.

Even to call it reality is giving it a name. Getting caught in concepts and not experiencing the thing itself is precisely what Zen Buddhism is striving to avoid. But if one truly understands the meaning of “God,” well, then there’s no need to talk about God—the concept disappears.

Can a roshi become angry with his students? He becomes angry, but his anger is like snow that falls on a wet pavement. It evaporates very quickly. One does, however, feel anger at so much of the injustice, the evil, and the stupidity that one sees in the world. But, of course, one knows that events have their own pace. Shakespeare says, “There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” This destiny, in Buddhism, we would call karma. [Editor’s note: Kapleau Roshi refers to Hamlet 5.2.10, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends. . . .”]

So you get angry and you don’t get angry. You don’t get angry for your own self. There’s a difference in the kind of anger, but it’s a mistaken notion to think that masters simply have impassive faces, that they never show any emotion because they’ve gone beyond it. That is absolutely not Zen.

“In Buddhism—in Zen, at any rate—one cannot really teach anybody anything.”

Is it joyous to be a Zen teacher? Or can a Zen teacher become depressed? There’s certainly a great joy in working with people. It’s not a euphoric joy. Speaking for myself, before getting into Zen, it was as though I was on a seesaw. You know, you have your highs, your euphoric highs, and you have your depressed lows.

Gradually, as one develops, you get closer and closer to the center of this seesaw. And so while one feels strong emotions about things, one doesn’t exclude them. There aren’t these violent swings. So there is joy, but it’s a contained joy, it’s not a wild, euphoric kind of thing. And there are times when I feel sad, certainly. But it’s never despair or anything that throws one into a depression.

What do you think about Roshi Kapleau? I think that my teaching falls far short. There’s a lot more that I can do, not only in terms of teaching, in terms of my own life. I’m constantly trying to simplify my own life to try to follow the teachings of the Buddha, to help people help themselves. I know that in the process I’m really helping myself. Many times, after some kind of counseling, people will thank me very much, and I’ll say, “Don’t thank me. I’m grateful to you, because you’re giving me an opportunity to exercise my compassion.”

I’m sharing with others what I am trying to do for myself here. I don’t consider that I am giving the people anything, because, as you know, in Buddhism—in Zen, at any rate—one cannot really teach anybody anything. Everybody already has everything that they need. All that they need to do is to disabuse themselves of their mistaken notions, their wrong attitudes, so that their inborn purity and wisdom and compassion can function freely.

At my teacher Harada Roshi’s funeral service, there was a piece of calligraphy which he’d done five years or so earlier. It said: “For 40 years, I’ve been selling water by the bank of a river. Ha ha ha!” That’s all every Zen teacher is doing, really.

It’s been an honor to speak with you, Roshi. As the author of the marvelous Zen classic The Three Pillars of Zen, which is going to be coming out in a new edition this January would you allow yourself to be named one of our national treasures?
No. I think, though, it would certainly be a good idea for our country to have people as national treasures. But not me.

As you know, Japan has a custom where certain people who have accomplished a great deal are designated national treasures and are given a stipend and honored in certain ceremonies. Often they are artists or craftspeople who enhance the dignity, the stature of the nation as well as its people. It always struck me as a very fine thing to do.

Please accept very informally from those of us who are listening in New York City the title of National Treasure. And the stipend will simply be our gratitude. That’s OK. That’s enough. Let me say that it was a pleasure for me to talk with you, Lex, in this interview. I hope that you will come again and see us here in Rochester. In any case, I’m sure we’ll meet again. 

From Conversations in the Spirit: Lex Hixon’s WBAI “In the Spirit” Interviews; A Chronicle of the Seventies Spiritual Revolution, edited by Sheila Hixon. © October 2016. Reprinted with permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company.

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