Zen Road
Zen Road
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[Picture of “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki carrying a stick and wearing all he needs for walking]

Kodo Sawaki



Kodo Sawaki was one of the most influential Soto Zen masters of the 20th century. Charismatic, unconventional, sometimes irreverent, he revitalized Japanese Zen, which had fallen into a quagmire of religious rituals and nepotism. He emphasized shikantaza (just sitting), tirelessly brought the practice to laypeople as well as ordained followers, and taught that zazen and satori were one – all the while insisting that zazen was “good for nothing.”


He was born Tada Saikichi on June 16, 1880 in Tsu City, Mie Prefecture, Japan. His mother died when he was five, his father when he was eight. When his adoptive uncle also died, Saikichi was taken in by a brutal gambler and his prostitute-wife, who put him to work guarding gambling dens and cleaning brothels. The horrors of this sordid existence caused the young boy to ask himself how he should live; he began to secretly visit a nearby temple and was advised by its abbot to follow the Zen path.


When he was seventeen he ran away to Eiheiji Temple, where he was made to wait outside for several days until he said he would become a monk or kill himself. Once inside, as he later admitted, he “found neither heaven nor enlightenment,” only ordinary human beings. “And as you know, human beings are very complicated.” The competition and formalism he encountered there would lead him to avoid settling down in a temple for most of his life.


Finally he met Master Koho Sawada, who gave him the monk ordination and the name Kodo. Later he studied with another master, Ryuun Fueoka, who taught him the importance of shikantaza and respect for the kesa (monk’s robe). His Zen training was interrupted by his conscription into the army at age twenty-five; he fought during the Russo-Japanese War, was shot through the mouth and returned to Japan to convalesce, but was sent back to the Chinese front a year later.


After the war, he studied philosophy, spent some time doing zazen in solitude, briefly held positions in several temples, and studied for six years with Master Ota Sokan at Daijiji. Then, at the age of forty-three, he began to travel around Japan, lecturing and showing the posture in schools and prisons, organizing sesshin and summer camps in various places, and founding many dojos. His “moving monastery,” his refusal to become a monastic in the classical sense, and his tendency to travel alone earned him the name “Homeless Kodo” and made him well known among both laypeople and monks and nuns, to whom he taught the Dharma without distinction. He was also known for sewing and teaching the authentic kesa, based on his study of the method of Master Jiun Sonja, who lived a century before him.


After many years of this itinerant lifestyle, he fell gravely ill and retired to Antaiji, where he spent long moments looking up at Mount Takagamine outside his window. “Look!” he said to a nun, “Nature is wonderful. In all my life, I never met a person I could submit to and who I could admire. But this Mount Takagamine is always looking down at me saying, ‘Kodo, Kodo.’” He died three days later, on December 21, 1965.


His close disciples – including Shuryu Narita, Tokugen Sakai, Kosho Uchiyama, Sodo Yokoyama, Kojun Kishigami and Taisen Deshimaru – continued to faithfully spread his teaching in Japan, North America and Europe.


If you sit in the posture of zazen sincerely without reciting sutras or thinking, if you practice zazen exactly as I explained, that is real zazen, satori, and you are a true buddha.
This is the character of my zazen. All you need to do is practice zazen, and believe in zazen. This is the truth of Buddhism and enlightenment. It is very different from other people’s so-called zazen; it is Master Dogen’s teaching and Bodhidharma’s truth.

One day, an insolent student who couldn’t mind his own business asked me, “Why do you spend your life talking and walking?”
I replied that I talk because I want to talk. Whether or not they call me a spiritual guide or anything else doesn’t matter. I have no idea if I’m guiding anybody; it’s not the results that count, but the doing. What’s more, I don’t have the time to think about the ‘whys.’ I go on my way and what I have to do now, I do; what I have to say now, I say. One point, that’s all. If I’m bad sometimes, I apologize. As the saying goes, “It’s old Saio’s horse: from good comes bad and from bad comes good.”