Zen Road
Zen Road
  • english
  • deutsch
  • français

Of roots and branches

Remarks about Zen in Japan today and Master Deshimaru’s mission in Europe,

by Kojun Kishigami Osho


At the Paris, Rouen and Lille dojos in October/November 2006.

A few useful addresses

[A large room with stone floors and wooden pillars, with ornate carvings in the wood near the ceiling. There is a small altar, an enormous bowl-shaped gong and a smaller one placed on colored cushions, and several rectangular wood-and-straw platforms, presumably for the monks to sit on]
I would like to speak on the subject of Zen practice in modern-day Japan, within the limits of my experience.


Some of you know that there are two main centers in Japan: Eihei-ji and Soji-ji temples. They are both on the same level. Of course, the accounts of individuals who go to Japan are subjective. But I can tell you that there is no big difference between Eihei-ji and Soji-ji.


Every year, about 150 novices arrive. About 90 percent of them are sons of temple heads, which leaves only 10 percent who chose this path for themselves. For the autumn session, about 250 monks come together. Essentially what they are learning in these temples is the ability to officiate all kinds of ceremonies and rites practiced by the Soto School – the methods for fulfilling their role. Apart from this aspect, practicing with the idea of developing one’s own spirituality is not prevalent.


In terms of teaching followers of the Soto School, Komazawa University offers courses on the history of Buddhism, and its Zen department enjoys a good reputation. At Tokyo University, as far as Buddhism is concerned, there are three centers of Soto Zen study which are national institutions. In Kyoto, there is another university founded by the Rinzai School, called Hanazono. Those are the main centers for Buddhist studies in Japan.


Aside from Eihei-ji and Soji-ji, every region of the country has a center for Zen teaching. In the training schools for novice monks, the program includes different arts, including the tea ceremony and ikebana.


Among the dozen or so regional centers for novices, I would like to present a few notable ones, without making any value judgments.


Not far from Eihei-ji is the temple of Hokyo-ji. It is located in a wonderful natural environment. Actually, the abbot and I don’t get along very well… Am I too honest? It’s a subjective judgment.


On the island of Shikoku, there is Hosshin-ji temple, which trains about thirty students in the ceremonies. The abbot is Harada Roshi, who was trained in the Rinzai lineage, even though this is a Soto temple. More than half of the followers are foreigners who are shown on Japanese television. Indeed, every year at wintertime, you can see them making their begging rounds [takuhatsu].


Next, there is Bukkoku-ji, also in the lineage of Harada Roshi, who I respect on a human level. This temple attracts many Japanese and foreigners. At La Gendronnière, I met someone who had spent three years in this temple and who asked me to explain what was written on his rakusu.


Myoko-ji is on the island of Kyushu, in southern Japan. There, they practice zazen and at the same time learn how to do ceremonies.


Next, there is a novitiate in Nagoya for nuns. Also, Antai-ji, which is very well known. It is led by a German, and has become a kind of international Zen center.


Among the disciples of Uchiyama, one of my co-disciples, there is the young Okumura, who teaches in the United States.


Closer to you, in Germany, is the temple of Fumon Nakagawa, disciple of Sakai Tokugen, who was a disciple of Kodo Sawaki; Zen is practiced seriously there.


If you want to study Buddhism, I recommend the Japanese universities. If you want to learn the ceremonies practiced by the Soto School, you need only head for Eihei-ji or Soji-ji.


But if your goal is to seriously learn the practice of zazen, unfortunately, I have no Japanese temple to recommend to you. Of course, you can go to Antai-ji, if you want; but if you want to deepen your practice of true Zen, you can do it in Europe. If you go to Japan for this, you will be disappointed. Don’t expect to find anything wonderful there.


Kodo Sawaki and the Sotoshu


Kodo Sawaki belonged to the Soto School, but spiritually he was independent. He had all his titles as a monk of the Soto School. He didn’t want to fight against the institution, but he was independent and acted according to his own convictions.


I would say that the current Soto School in Japan is spiritually removed from the mind of Dogen, because they do not put zazen at the center of their lives. They just take care of the administration of the institution and perpetuate ancestor worship. It’s a kind of tradesmen’s guild.


In his time, Kodo Sawaki criticized the Soto institution and was attacked for it. He had many enemies. He was so competent in terms of his studies that in the end the Soto School left him alone. He was highly esteemed in academic circles and could not just be dropped.


So, when he was 70, he put aside everything that was banal and mundane in order to concentrate on zazen and the kesa. These two subjects were essential for him and he gave up all the rest.


Deshimaru: Made for Europe


From what I have been able to observe during my time here in Europe, things are going well. I feel that Taisen Deshimaru had a lot of strength, courage and faith. Two or three years after the death of his master, he went to Europe, and I can tell you that his important work here was a great success.


[Japanese monk Taisen Deshimaru in monk’s robes, standing in front of a Paris shop window]

In my opinion, what Deshimaru did is really wonderful. Kodo Sawaki had the idea of spreading Zen in Europe, but he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as Master Deshimaru did.


Kodo Sawaki was an accomplished person, nurtured on Chinese and Japanese tradition and very refined. But he was a pure product of the Far East; had he been transported to Europe, there is no guarantee that his method would have worked. There was too much of a gap between his mentality and the European mentality.


Whereas Taisen Deshimaru had the capacity to assimilate European culture and take part in its pleasures: dancing, drinking… He had a talent for pleasing European tastes, and not many Japanese could have done that. In a word, he was really made for working with the Europeans, and apparently, he succeeded: his work will go down in history.


[Faded color photo of three Japanese Zen monks standing with shaved heads, black robes and traditional rakusus worn over the chest. One of them has his hands on the shoulders of a young Japanese woman]

After Deshimaru went to Europe, he returned to Japan several times; once he came to Eihei-ji to obtain his missionary certificate. I had the opportunity to see him again that time at Eihei-ji, and we discussed his mission and mine. This was around 1970.


Deshimaru was someone who sowed seeds. He had a gift for attracting, making contact with and bringing together many people. But a lot of them were just visitors passing through, and they left. Those who really wanted to deepen their Zen practice stayed.


My role is to go back to what he cultivated, to resume what he started in order to refine it even more. As brothers in the Dharma, Taisen Deshimaru and I inherited Kodo Sawaki’s mind; he wished to spread Zen mind and Zen practice to other continents on the planet.


And we spoke to each other about the fact that in Japan, there was no longer any fertile soil to cultivate because unfortunately this land had deteriorated, and had become very old and depleted. To cultivate young seedlings, a new land had to be found outside of Japan. And Master Deshimaru’s energy was necessary. Deshimaru was the person who began, and my role is to help bring things to a deeper level.


Deshimaru’s Teaching


Here in France – especially at La Gendronnière – I have seen that the shoots sown by Master Deshimaru are doing very well, and that some of these trees continue to grow. My role is to help you grow even more – without Japan. You can grow on your own.


Even if only one or two trees remain, one day they will become much bigger, bear fruit and develop further. Even if there are weeds, it doesn’t matter. For you, what counts is to continue on your path and let others act as they wish. When trees are small, if they are mowed down they cannot grow anymore; but once they are grown, no one can mow them down.


When there is a big tree, many subjects and objects from nature gather around it: a bird will perch on its branches, for example, and others will shade themselves from the sun. If you can become big trees, people from other countries will come and join you.


[Old black-and-white group photo of mostly Japanese men sitting on a wooden veranda. There are also two young Japanese boys and one Westerner. Eight pairs of straw sandals and one pair of shoes are neatly aligned in the foreground]

I have had the opportunity to observe you during zazen, and I realize that you are completely in the tradition of Deshimaru’s teaching. In other words, the posture has been correctly taught; it is completely in the lineage of the posture taught by his master, Kodo Sawaki.


As far as the teaching is concerned, since we were both disciples of Kodo Sawaki, my teaching and Deshimaru’s teaching are the same. From what I have seen of Deshimaru’s method, he taught with a lot of freedom, whereas in Japan, even in the same lineage, people who practice Zen do so in a much stricter way. But here, I have seen that you practice Zen with joy. In Japan, it’s much more serious.


The Kesa Worn by Monks in Europe


[Seen from behind: the head and shoulders of a monk putting on a black kesa]

I don’t think there is a single temple in Japan where the posture is so well taught. And as for the kesa, there too, in Japan it is not in the right tradition which is ours, because Japanese temples are especially oriented towards rituals, funeral services, etc.


The kesa worn by monks in Japan is more like a decoration for funeral services. The kesa that you wear is purely for the practice, and so it is perfectly within the straight line that was taught. This makes me very happy. I would really like you to maintain this, to continue in this spirit, in this spirituality. Kodo Sawaki truly made it his life’s work; in other words, the practice of zazen and the kesa were at the center of his life.


The Importance of Studying


I felt something during my stay at La Gendronnière, a suggestion to help you practice on a solid foundation. If you are satisfied with only practicing zazen as such, the tree – to make an analogy – will not really grow. In order to deeply take root, you must deepen your study of the original Buddhism from India and dedicate yourselves to the study of the Agama(1) sutras, as well as Mahayana, the Eightfold Path, etc.


Kodo Sawaki dedicated ten years of his life to studying the texts with a master of the “Consciousness-Only” School [Yogacara], while he was at Horyu-ji. He did not limit himself to the required learning of the time: he also studied the Hekiganroku [Blue Cliff Record] and the Shoyoroku [The Book of Serenity]; and don’t forget that he gave teishos at Komazawa University for 19 years.


[A big leafy tree in the sun]

Certainly Master Deshimaru picked a wonderful flowering branch and planted it in Europe. This branch has taken root, but my impression is that the roots are weak. Personally, I think one should be more interested in roots than flowers. I would like to encourage you to pay more attention to the study of Buddhist philosophy. If your zazen practice is supported by these studies, it will become unshakeable.


This is attainable wherever you happen to be. For my part, I am ready to come and help you.



(1) Theravadan Buddhist sutras.


< previous articletopnext article >