tea-on-the-dead-sea1From the early 1960s through the early 80s, Soen Nakagawa, who had been influential in the training of such early American Zen students as Philip Kapleau and Robert Aitken, began to come regularly to the States to lead sesshins, or sitting retreats, when his responsibilities as abbot of Ryutakuji Monastery in Japan would allow it. Soen Roshi, as his American students called him, was famed for his unconventional teaching methods, which were eccentric even by Zen standards. One often-reported trick was the time he placed a pumpkin on his sitting cushion in the interview room during sesshin. He then called participants in for private interviews and hid behind a screen, watching while the baffled students did their customary prostrations before the impassive gourd. Or he might don a mask and appear out of nowhere, then drop it to pronounce: “I’ve taken off my mask. When will you take off yours?”

Soen loved to walk around New York City. He’d stare at the lighted skyscrapers; at their tops, he claimed, he saw Buddha figures in the lights. “Look at the Buddha,” he’d point, “Shining Buddha!” He’d fill the sleeves of his robes with nuts and berries from Central Park, or herbs he found growing in the sidewalk cracks, and add them to his bowl at the next meal. He loved the musical Fiddler on the Roof, and when asked a question about why some particular point of ceremony needed to be performed in a certain way, he might burst into song, responding: “Tradition…!”

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Soen even made up a new koan in response to the Apollo missions: “Without getting in a spaceship, bring me a rock from the moon.” It is not known if any of his students ever managed to pass it.

Despite being the abbot of a major temple, Soen Roshi had an uneasy relationship with traditional forms, and had earned a reputation as an eccentric even in Japan. Soen was also known for his love of green tea, powdered and whisked in the traditional fashion, and he would sit down anywhere, if the mood struck him, to conduct an impromptu tea ceremony. He claimed that once, on a visit to Israel, he’d floated, unsinkable, on the surface of the Dead Sea, serving tea to a group of friends. In an airport one of his students asked if Roshi might conduct a tea ceremony; in answer he extracted a tin from his sleeve, dipped his finger into it, and instructed the student to open her mouth.

“There,” he announced, dabbing a fingertip of powdered green tea onto her tongue. “Now you make the water!”

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