The Venerable Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles and of Zen Mountain Center, and founder of the White Plum Sangha, died suddenly on May 15 while visiting Japan. A seminal influence in the growth of Zen Buddhism in the West, Maezumi Roshi was sixty-four at the time of his death.

Born into a Soto Zen family in Japan, Maezumi Roshi was ordained as a Soto Zen monk at the age of eleven. He received degrees in Oriental Literature and Philosophy from Kamazawa University and studied at Soji-ji, one of the two main monasteries in Japan. In 1955, he received dharma transmission from his father, Hakujun Kuroda Roshi. He received inkaapproval as a teacherfrom the Rinzai lay teacher, Koryu Osaka Roshim and from Haku’un Yasutani Roshi, who inherited from his own master a style of practice that combined the Soto emphasis on sitting meditation with Rinzai koan practice. Thus, Maezumi Roshi’s succession in three lineages of Zen included both major schools of Zen.

In 1956, at the age of twenty-six, Maezumi Roshi came to Los Angeles as a priest at Zenshuji Temple, the Soto headquarters of the United States. In 1967 he established the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA).

In 1976, Maezumi Roshi established the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Human Values, a nonprofit educational organization formed to promote Buddhist scholarship.

The White Plum Sangha is comprised of the twelve disciples to whom Maezumi Roshi formally transmitted the dharma, and to their “second-generation” successors. In addition, Maezumi Roshi ordained dozens of priests and gave the lay precepts to more than five hundred people. He established six temples in the United States and Europe that are formally registered with Soto headquarters in Japan, and generated over fifty groups in the Americas and Europe that are affiliated with ZCLA. 

On the ay of his death, Maezumi Roshi formally gave inka to his first successor, Tetsugen Glassman Roshi of the Zen Community of New York, who now succeeds him as the spiritual head of the White Plum Sangha. 

Maezumi Roshi is survived by his wife, Martha Ekyo Maezumi, and three children, Kirsten Mitsuyo (16), Yuri Jundo (13), and Shira Yoshimi (11), all of Idyllwild, California.

The White Plum Lineage.

The Death Poem of Ikkyu” was a favorite of Taizan Maezumi-roshi, who died in Japan in the early morning of May 15, 1995.

I won’t die.
I won’t go anywhere.
I’ll be here.
But don’t ask me anything.
I won’t answer.

How hard it is to imagine this man “as-if-dead”! For Roshi is no more dead than Bodhidharma. Yet he won’t answer, not even if we call after him like the Emperor Wu wished to call after Bodhidharma, no, not if we call after him for a hundred years. How can we call after our own Buddha Nature? And yet he is still immanent in our lives like that Blue-Eyed Monk, like Master Joshu and “that terrible dog” (as Nakagawa Soen-roshi used to call It), like Daikan Eno’s bowl and robe and Master Hyakujo’s great goose—he is still with us. Right here now! Still sweet and sour and irascible and wry and full of life and full of death as any mountain madman, any true inheritor of the great Zen patriarchs and masters whose teachings dance and sparkle from the koan and mondothe last and first in the lineage in which, so suddenly, his disciples heard his name in the dedication during morning serviceHakuyu Taizan, Dai-Osho.

Great teacher indeed. We were fortunate to know him and we are fortunate to know him still.

In September of 1972 when I first encountered him, Maezumi Sensei was forty-one years old, a small man who never appeared small, a slight man who, in the lightly contained power of his presence, was anything but slight. With his broad, elliptical half-hidden eyes and broad sculpted mouth in a large head, Maezumi’s face had the carved elegance of a mythic snake, an elegance that in later years would turn oddly enigmatic, though still handsome. He was always handsome, and delicate too, without effeminacy, and he moved beautifully, leaving no trace, like a bird across the sky. Wherever he came to rest, he was a presencethe presencein the center of that place, around which all else turned.

Maezumi taught us from the day we met him, and not all his teachings were agreeable. For all his loving gentleness and playfulness he could be harsh, and so will he be again: how many of those who have been his students can unflinchingly consider right here now Maezumi’s response this very moment to the lazy-monk manifestations of our practice?

Over the mantel in my house is a large color photograph of a hillside in Japan, a great cemetery filled with tilted upright stones, some very ancient, and the long wooden memorial plaques, the flowers and shadows and great broad stone steps descending the steep hill beneath huge old black cherry trees, now bright with spring. Where the great steps level out beneath the trees, Kojun Kuroda-roshi strolls toward the foreground, in rapt converse with his younger brother Taizan Maezumi (who took his mother’s surname years ago in order to preserve the continuity of her family line). The roshis wear black kuroma and gold kesa, and so does Maezumi’s first Dharma heir, Tetsugen Glassman-sensei, who descends in their footsteps from higher up the hill, attended by his tall and sombre senior student. These bodhisattvas have just come from a memorial service for the roshi’s father and first teacher Baian Hakujun (Kuroda), Dai Osho in the family plot on the far side of the great cemetery, on a ridge of evergreen and red-blossoming camellia. Baian Hakujun’s grave overlooks the home temple called Koshin-ji, and the River Jabi, and the northern town of Otowara. The hillside shades are strangely illumined by enormous light bursts of abounding blossoms, clouds of cherry blossoms in the misty sun, that cause the gold of the Buddha robes to glow as if lit from within.

Maezumi Roshi at Zen Mountain Center, California.

This spring the cherry blossoms were gone when Maezumi Roshi returned to Koshin-ji, where he spent the last day of his life with his brother Kojun. In twenty-five years of teaching in Los Angeles, he had given transmission to twelve Dharma heirs, and in early April of 1995, when his four senior heirs received formal recognition from the Soto Zen Sect of Japan, Maezumi mentioned to Tetsugen his strong feeling that his work as a Buddhist teacher in America had been accomplished. Ruefully, he mused that in some sense he himself might now be “in the way” of the free development of an American Zen tradition, which required dismantling some of the old scaffoldings set up originally by the Japanese teachers. In early May he traveled to Japan, and with his old friend Etsudo Nishiwaki-roshi, the abbot of Chogaku-in, as witness, he completed and dated (“in the month of Azaleas”) the document of inka that recognized Tetsugen as roshi (“senior teacher”) and also his successor and the spiritual leader who would see to the publication of his work and to the establishment of a main training center for the White Plum lineage that Taizan Maezumi had founded in America. Theinka document, which turned out to be his final teaching of the Dharma, concludes as follows:

Life after life, birth after birth, please practice diligently. Never falter.
Do not let die the Wisdom seed of the Buddhas and the Ancestors.
I implore you!

In the early evening of May 14, Maezumi-roshi returned by train to Kirigaya-ji, the Tokyo temple of his brother Junpu-roshi, where he felt most comfortable when in Japan, and he passed a contented evening with his brother’s family. The following morning, when Junpu-roshi called, he did not answer.

Written by Muryo Sensei.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .