“THE LAND OF THE WHITE BARBARIANS is beneath the dignity of a Zen master,” argued Soyen Shaku’s monks when Soyen was invited to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. But the Japanese abbot already had high expectations for the new world. Disregarding the objections of his monks, Soyen Shaku (1859-1919) became the first Zen priest to visit the United States. In Chicago, he represented Zen Buddhism with diplomatic discretion. Privately, however, Soyen felt that Zen in Japan had grown impoverished, sapped of true spiritual inquiry. On Soyen’s horizon, the future of Zen rested with the barbarians in the West.

For the first half of the twentieth century, Zen activity in the United States was carried out by Soyen Shaku’s lineage alone, its influence continuing through his two messengers to the West: the world-famous D. T. Suzuki (1869-1966), who became the popularized voice of Zen, and the little-known Zen saint and monk Nyogen Senzaki (1876-1958).

Nyogen Senzaki circa 1947.

Born in Siberia, the infant Senzaki was found by a Japanese monk at the side of his mother’s frozen body. He came under the care of a Soto priest but was schooled as well in the Shingon faith of his foster father, who also taught him the Chinese classics. Eventually, ill with tuberculosis, he arrived at Engaku Temple to study with Soyen Shaku; during this five-year period of Zen training—sharing, for part of the time, quarters with D. T. Suzuki—he also educated himself in Western philosophy. Then, in a move radically divergent from the conventional training of a Zen monk, Senzaki left the temple to start a nursery school in Hokkaido,Japan’s desolate northern island. Inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Froebel, he named the school Mentorgarten—a place free of any systematized dogma, where everyone could be both mentor and disciple.

In 1905, Soyen returned to the United States at the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Russell of San Francisco, a wealthy and adventurous couple who had met the abbot in Japan. Senzaki joined Soyen, theoretically to raise funds for his school. But Senzaki had been disgusted with the Japanese Zen establishment and its complicity with the Imperial rule. He had compared Buddhist priests to businessmen, their temples to chain stores, and reviled their common pursuit of money, power, and women. Outspoken in his disdain for the titles of the Zen clergy, he criticized the monks, abbots, and bishops for straying from what he believed was the true monk’s path of celibacy and utmost simplicity. He claimed that for genuine Buddhists titles were mere labels, and he abhorred the corrupt practice of selling government-issued Buddhist teaching licenses.

Shortly before arriving in California, Senzaki had also spoken out against the militant nationalism that had fomented the Russo-Japanese War and which the Zen monasteries had supported with as much patriotic fervor as the public sector. Exactly what happened between Senzaki and Soyen no one knows. Robert Aitken Roshi, the American Zen teacher who studied with Senzaki in Los Angeles in the 1950s, suspects that although Soyen would never sever ties with a disciple over political attitudes, he did nonetheless disapprove of Senzaki’s denouncements. It may be that Soyen asked Senzaki to come to the United States. If this is so, whether it was an act of punishment or protection remains one of several mysteries surrounding Senzaki’s relationship with his teacher.

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