The Rebel Abbot of Zen Mountain

Snapshots of John Daido Loori Roshi

Sean Murphy

John Daido Loori Roshi

If anyone will be remembered as a major ancestor of Zen in America, it will be John Daido Loori Roshi, who died on October 9, 2009, of lung cancer. Born in Jersey City, in 1931, into a working-class Catholic family, he was by nature a freethinker and a rebel. Dissatisfied with the answers provided by conventional religion, he considered himself an atheist in his youth. He used a fake I.D. to join the Navy while still underage, serving from 1947 to 1952. He later worked as a chemist, leaving that profession after seventeen years to pursue a lifelong interest in photography and a renewed interest in spiritual practice, brought about largely through the influence of the photographer Minor White, whom he met in 1971. White’s use of meditation and mindfulness techniques in his photography played a large part in Daido Roshi’s fascination with art as spiritual practice.

 It was a natural progression for Daido Roshi to pursue formal Zen training with Soen Nakagawa Roshi, a master of calligraphy and haiku. But in 1976, he met Taizan Maezumi Roshi at Naropa University (then Naropa Institute), where Daido Roshi was teaching a workshop in mindful photography. The two men made an immediate and deep connection, and Daido Roshi moved with his family to Maezumi’s Zen Center of Los Angeles, where he headed ZCLA’s publications department and collaborated with Maezumi Roshi on a translation of Dogen’s “Genjokoan,” featuring Daido Roshi’s photographs.

Although Daido Roshi first regarded himself as a staunch layperson and had little taste for certain of the ceremonial and authoritarian aspects of practice (he famously threw back at Maezumi Roshi the first list of koans he received from him, declaring, “I’m not going to do these!”), he later moved in the direction of what he described as “radical conservatism,” a move he saw as necessary for authentic Zen practice to take root in America. He later ordained as a Zen priest and eventually received dharma transmission from Maezumi Roshi, becoming a lineage holder in both the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism.

In 1980, while visiting a friend near Woodstock, New York, Daido Roshi heard that a former Christian monastery—more recently a summer camp—was up for sale. Undaunted by the fact that the place had no heating and that he had to wade through several feet of water flooding the lower hall—not to mention the fact that he’d taken a monastic vow of poverty and was virtually penniless—Daido Roshi agreed, on the strength of a handshake, to purchase the building and 230 wooded acres on Tremper Mountain. The seller’s one condition was that the large wooden Christ figure that dominated one outer wall of the building should always remain—as it has, facing appropriately east, with arms spread wide.

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