Filed in Zen (Chan)

Life with a Capital "L"

An interview with Philip Kapleau Roshi

Helen Tworkov

Wisdom Collection

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When The Three Pillars of Zen appeared in 1965, it had a monumental impact on the direction of Buddhism in North America. Compiled by Zen teacher Philip Kapleau, it combined a series of talks for beginning students by Yasutani Roshi with classic Zen texts. Most important, it offered the first how-to instructions for Western practitioners; after a decade of widespread interest in Zen—generated by the books of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts—no longer could an American read about Zen and not know where to begin.

Kapleau Roshi was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 20, 1912. During the Depression, he went to night school to study law with money earned as a court reporter, but had to quit for health reasons. His reporting skills led to his military assignment, in 1946, to cover the Nuremberg war trials. From Germany he applied for a transfer to Tokyo, where the war trials were just beginning. There, Kapleau was struck by the difference between how the Germans and Japanese were handling their defeat and became determined to understand the laws of karmic retribution by which the Japanese accepted the ravages of war as payment for the harm they had initiated.

From 1953 to 1965, Kapleau trained in Japan, primarily with Harada Roshi, Yasutani Roshi, and Soen Roshi, three of the most respected Zen adepts of this century. On returning to the United States, he founded the Zen Center in Rochester, New York.

A few years ago, Kapleau Roshi developed a mild case of Parkinson's disease. Today he lives in Hollywood, Florida, where he continues to lead workshops and work with individual students. The Center in Rochester continues to thrive under the leadership of his successor, Bodhin Kjolhede.

In 1990, Doubleday published a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Three Pillars of Zen. To date, it has been translated into twelve languages and has sold almost a million copies. It remains one of the most influential and inspiring Zen books in the West.

This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov at Kapleau Roshi's residence in Hollywood, Florida in March, 1993.


David SachterWhen Zen Master Soyen Shaku came to the U.S. in 1893 to attend the World Parliament of Religions, he was very optimistic about Zen in the West—as were many of your own teachers, such as Yasutani Roshi and Soen Roshi. On many occasions these teachers expressed disgust with the Japanese Zen establishment and looked to the West with tremendous hope. Do you think we've merited their optimism? I would say so. Many of the teachers in Japan were hopeful about America because of our great ability to get things done here—in terms of starting a monastery or center. What will happen from now on is anyone's guess, because things are always changing. We've had our ups and downs, but on balance I think we're still moving ahead. Among scholars and educated people, Zen is still highly respected.

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