Zen Road
Zen Road
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[Picture of a youthful, dynamic Deshimaru at the beginning of his time in Europe]

Taisen Deshimaru

Mokudo Taisen Deshimaru has been called “the modern-day Bodhidharma” because of his formidable character, his uncompromising Zen practice and his pioneering mission to plant the seed of authentic Zen in a new land (in this case, Europe). Like his master Kodo Sawaki before him, he insisted on the importance of the seated posture, zazen. His teaching – direct, concrete and rooted in daily life – encouraged disciples to be beyond thinking (hishiryo), without any interest in personal profit (mushotoku), and free to follow the cosmic order “unconsciously, naturally and automatically.”

He was born Yasuo Deshimaru on November 20, 1914 in a small village near Saga. His mother was a fervent Buddhist, his father a businessman. The polarity of their worldviews made a mark on the boy, who from a very young age considered it his destiny to resolve the contradiction between the spiritual and the material.

He met Kodo Sawaki when he was eighteen and began sitting zazen with him two years later. He saw the master regularly while continuing his life as a businessman and, later, a husband and father of three. Over time, he became his disciple, and an intimate relationship unfolded naturally between them over a span of thirty years.

Deshimaru repeatedly asked Sawaki for the monk ordination, and was repeatedly refused. He was encouraged to simply continue zazen and an active layman’s life. Sawaki’s reluctance to settle down in a temple also made a strong impression on Deshimaru, who never lived a monastic life. A month before he died, Sawaki summoned Deshimaru to his sick bed and said, “You must continue after me and transmit Bodhidharma’s teaching. Tomorrow I will get up to ordain you a monk.” A year after Sawaki’s death, Deshimaru put his family in the hands of his son and boarded the Transsiberian for France.

He arrived in Paris in 1967 alone, with no money, no French and no possessions other than his zafu, his kesa and his master’s kesa and notebooks. He had secured an invitation from a macrobiotic group, and lived in the back room of a health-food store, practicing zazen every day and surviving by giving massages. Slowly, people began sitting with him, and his reputation grew. In 1970, he created the European Zen Association, which later became the International Zen Association (AZI). He published his first book, True Zen (Vrai Zen) and began lecturing in France and other European countries. As word spread that a real Zen master was living on the rue Pernety, more and more people came to practice with him. He opened his first dojo in Paris’ 14th arrondissement in 1972, and began giving ordinations and leading sesshin.

[Picture of Deshimaru with the choreographer Maurice Béjart on the steps of the Zen Temple La Gendronnière]

He pursued his mission with a prodigious, unflagging energy, always seeking to reconcile tradition and modernity, science and spirituality, East and West, and always returning to the essence of the teaching he received from his master. He had exceptional charisma, a great simplicity mixed with a sense of humor, which attracted not only disciples, but also some of the most intriguing scientists, artists, philosophers and politicians of his time.

Deshimaru’s close sangha consisted largely of free-thinking young people who were not always easily disciplined, but who were full of an unbridled enthusiasm and the vastness of beginner’s mind. Together they published books, ran a restaurant and boutique, organized sesshin and summer camps and opened more than a hundred dojos in Europe and North America. In 1980, he founded La Gendronnière Zen Temple in France’s Loire Valley, which became the center for his mission and the meeting-place for his disciples, who were maturing into true monks and nuns, many of whom would become teachers in their own right.

[Picture of the aging Deshimaru in Paris]

Deshimaru endured thorny relationships with the official Japanese Soto authorities (Sotoshu) and the major Zen schools in the United States. He was critical of the former for its formalism and the latter for its “mixture” of Soto and Rinzai Zen. While his contribution to the dissemination of Zen is acknowledged today in Japan, he remains unpopular, or at best unknown, in the United States. “People may criticize me for many things,” he once said, “but they’ll never be able to say anything about zazen. Every morning and every evening I am with you in the dojo.”

He was diagnosed with cancer in early 1982, though he continued to practice with his disciples through the spring. His last words before returning to Japan for medical treatment were, “Please, continue zazen.” He died there on April 30, 1982.

True religion is not esoteric or mystical, it is not an exercise in well-being or gymnastics. True religion is the highest Way, the absolute Way: zazen. Zazen cannot be an imitation, a fake. Zazen does not allow lies. It is a difficult Way, but difficulty helps. Sometimes adversity can be beneficial. Without adversity, people go soft like the face of a cat in the corner of a hearth. Wild cats or dogs are stronger than pets because they are always subject to difficulties. Those who truly seek the Way should not hope that it will be easy. An easy path is not authentic.

Question: In your opinion, what are you? A master? A religious leader? A philosopher?

Taisen Deshimaru: Ha! Good question. I sometimes wonder myself. But what you are doing is limiting by categories. You can’t do that. Sometimes I am a philosopher, sometimes a religious person, sometimes a monk, sometimes an educator, sometimes a whiskey-drinker. A great historian can understand: it’s the disciples who decide. If great disciples arise, then you have great masters. I am a religious man. I concentrate completely on shikantaza. Until death. This is my only object. When I die, then here and now, only this: true Zen monk. Understand?


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