Foundamental Zen, An Interview with Joshu Sasaki Roshi
Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, now ninety years old, came to the United States thirty-five years ago. Today, he represents the last of a generation of pioneering Japanese teachers who brought dharma to the West.
Born in 1907 in Japan’s rural Miyagi Prefecture, he became a novice at the age of fourteen under Joten Soko Miura Roshi (who went on to head Myoshin-ji, a prominent Rinzai temple). Sasaki received his authority as a roshi and became abbot of his own temple in 1947. In 1962, Daiko Furukawa, Joten Roshi’s successor as abbot at Myoshin-ji asked him to relocate to America.
Sasaki Roshi spent his first years in the United States in Gardena, California, living in a small house where he conducted evening zazen and served simultaneously as jikijitsu (zendo supervisor), shoji (liturgy master) and tenzo (cook). As his reputation spread, sitting groups sprang up in homes throughout Southern California. Joshu Roshi and his students opened the Cimarron Zen Center in central Los Angeles in 1968. A few years later, Mount Baldy Zen Center was established at an old Boy Scout camp. Sasaki Roshi’s students founded Zen centers in Ithaca and Setauket, New York; Miami; Princeton; Albuquerque; Tempe, Arizona; Boulder; and in Vancouver, Montreal, Puerto Rico and Vienna.
Sasaki Roshi was interviewed for Tricycle at Bodhi Manda Zen Center, founded in 1973 at Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Serving both as a retreat facility and a residential practice center, Bodhi Manda is also home to the annual Summer Seminar on the Sutras, a program Sasaki Roshi began two decades ago. The seminars bring together Japanese and American scholars of Buddhism for two weeks of talks on dharma topics. Taking a break from his daily lecture schedule, Sasaki Roshi spoke to Michael Haederle with the help of a translator, Giko David Rubin, one of his monks.
Tricycle: This years marks the twentieth anniversary of the Summer Seminar on the Sutras. I wonder if you could talk about your original intention for the seminars?
Sasaki Roshi: The first question and it’s already a hard question! If I had really understood America I probably wouldn’t have formulated these seminars. My intention was, of course, to learn about America, but at the same time I wanted to be understood by Americans as well. To say I wanted to be understood by Americans is the same thing as to say I wanted Americans to understand Buddhism. Do you know Buddhism?
I’ve never faced the American people and aggressively said, “This is what Buddhism is. Believe in Buddhism!” Many people have come to practice zazen, but even to these zazen practitioners, I haven’t told them, “Believe in Buddhism!” There are branches of Buddhism that emphasize the aspect of faith. When people come to me and say they want to believe in Buddhism, then I refer them to these other branches. But people want to learn Zen, and so I have to teach it.
Tricycle: What is the fundamental teaching of Zen?
Sasaki Roshi: The fundamental purpose of Zen teaching is “mu-ga”—“no-self.” And so, it’s this mu-ga, this no-self, which I am hoping people will be able to grasp. According to Buddhism, as humans, we are seeing from the perspective of the incomplete self. This incomplete self is undoubtedly very important. But if we attach to this incomplete self—although this incomplete self is important—then we’ll never be able to experience the complete self. We Zen people say, if you believe in God, this complete self means the same thing as God. That is, it shares the same standpoint as God.
After twenty years I thought, “Well, it’s about time I start really trying to spread the word of Buddhism,” so for this seminar I’m lucky to have famous professors from the world of Buddhism.
Tricycle: Do you see the seminars as a vehicle for the exchange of scholarly insights between Japanese and American scholars of Buddhism?
Sasaki Roshi: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, at least not yet. I’m not a scholar and I’m not affiliated with a university. These young scholars are the ones who have to take the lead in that kind of exchange. I think the seminar is a good thing on the one hand, but on the other hand, if it takes a wrong turn, it can be a very dangerous thing, too. Even among the Japanese scholars of Buddhism, I can feel from their scholarship that they’ve forgotten the fundamental teaching of no-self. There is this principle of the dual nature of self: the incomplete self and the complete self. It seems many scholars in Japan have completely forgotten this principle and just jabber on and on endlessly, unconditionally and unquestioningly affirming the position of the self.
Tricycle: Are Christianity and psychology impediments to the proper understanding of Buddhism for Americans?
Sasaki Roshi: Why all these difficult questions? Everyone just chant, “Do-o-o-oh” [he demonstrates]. “Do-o-o-oh.” When you were doing that, did you think about anything like God? Were you thinking about Buddhism? I think you probably were not thinking about Buddhism. My way of teaching, my way of making relationship through religion, is just chanting “Do-o-o-oh.”
Tricycle: Do you feel a strong monastic tradition is important for the long-term survival of Buddhism in the West?
Sasaki Roshi: Actually, that’s why I started the seminars. I think a monastery is necessary, but not the kind of monastery that most Westerners think of. When you look at the development of Zen, there is importance placed both on the incomplete self that must study, teach and understand things and, on the other hand, the self that puts that which it has been taught into practice. There are these two standpoints, and they’re both valued—studying and actually practicing. That’s why I started the seminars, to investigate what kind of monastery would be good to start. I don’t believe just “zazen, zazen” all the time. If I was to start a monastery without a clear understanding, it might be a very sloppy, messy affair. Now that you ask about a monastery, I have to say I would love to start a monastery in conjunction with a place of study. Actually, the style of teaching I’m doing now includes both the aspect of understanding within the sphere of knowing and the aspect of practice. But to create a new systematic way of learning, that includes both aspects in a mature way, would be very difficult. Perhaps we would have to think in terms of a school.
Even in a school, they might need to practice, as well as study. Traditionally, in Japanese temples, they had a tradition of both study and practice.
Tricycle: You have called your teaching Nyorai Zen. Could you tell us what that means?
Sasaki Roshi: If you really see into the tenets of Nyorai Zen, then you won’t have to ask about it. The fundamental teaching of Nyorai Zen is understanding how the incomplete self is born and how the complete self is born. Nyorai Zen is teaching this principle and then putting it into practice. To make teaching, learning, and practicing one, that is Zen practice. For example, did you hear this sound? [He pops his hand over the mouth of a tea cup.] The koan is “When you were hearing this sound, did you believe in God? When you were hearing this sound, where is God?” This is a koan in our system. If you really pass through that first koan, there’s another koan waiting for you: “After that sound ended, where did God go?” Our practice is clearly formulated along these principles.
So we can say the fundamental aspect of Nyorai Zen is the manifestation of true wisdom, not the wisdom based on “I am.” There are those who, without running away from that sort of severe teaching, shave their heads and come to Mount Baldy and stay for two or three or four or five years. To speak frankly, although I’ve been here for over thirty years, it’s only in the last ten years that I really have true disciples. If you want to look at the first twenty years, well, it was like being completely in the dark. The people who were being taught didn’t understand, and my teaching was such that it didn’t seem to sink in.
Tricycle: Mount Baldy has a reputation as being a tough place compared to other Zen training centers.
Sasaki Roshi: The facilities we have there are probably pretty rundown compared to other places. Quite a few people come once and never come back. Maybe they are the types who are put off by the chemical toilets. There are some people who come once, get angry and leave, but then fifteen or twenty years later they’re back again, so you can say there’s a time in life when people realize the need for practice.
Tricycle: You came to America about the same time as a number of Japanese teachers. Now a number of those teachers have designated dharma heirs. Do you think it’s important for there to be American teachers of Buddhism?
Sasaki Roshi: The fact that these other teachers have named successors is fine. And if people want to say my teaching is careless or negligent because it hasn’t produced any successors, well, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I do consider it an important thing. I don’t have any successors, but I do have some disciples.
Tricycle: Do Westerners place sufficient emphasis on enlightenment in their practice?
Sasaki Roshi: Isn’t that why you’re practicing?
Tricycle: But some teachers seldom mention it in their writings or their talks. They say, just to practice is enough.
Sasaki Roshi: That’s that teacher’s basic nature, so there’s no problem with it. An apple tree produces apples. An apple tree will never give rise to a pear. Those kind of teachers give rise to that kind of student, and there’s nothing wrong with that. From the standpoint of Nyorai Zen, we never absolutely negate someone else’s religious preferences. We never say, “You can’t do it that way.” I think there is a Buddhist precept against this kind of intolerance. But if you don’t do proper pruning, you won’t get a good fruit.
Tricycle: Do women have an important role in America?
Sasaki Roshi: Yes, of course they do. It’s essential for women Zen teachers to appear. Master Rinzai [died 866 C.E.] says that when man and woman become one, that’s the true person. In English, we have this word “man” representing “person,” but in Chinese and Japanese, we just have this word, “person.” When a person includes both man and woman, that is what we call a bodhisattva. Both men and women have to become bodhisattvas. Without becoming a true bodhisattva, you can’t become a true teacher.
Tricycle: What do you tell your students about life and death?
Sasaki Roshi: In Nyorai Zen, life is called the activity of living. And death, we say, is the activity of dying. According to Nyorai Zen, as a temporary, skillful means of thinking, enlightened people have said these activities of living and dying never end, they are eternal.
We are beings who have developed the power of knowing, so we recognize many different activities; for instance, we can say the “activity of good weather,” or “the activity of wind.” But if you really look at this carefully, you see they are all really manifestations of these two activities of living and dying. You can rename these activities the plus activity and the minus activity. We human beings have developed to the extent that we are able to think and to recognize phenomena in this way. We’ve developed to the point where we’re able to think about and acknowledge that which you can’t see - that which you can’t grasp in your hand. That is the standpoint of Nyorai Zen.
So if a ghost happens to appear or if a demon appears, if God appears or if the devil appears, or if you say, “I’m saved by God,” all of these activities are this very activity of living and dying. We don’t recognize in Nyorai Zen any other basic functioning besides this. But when you ask who is doing this recognizing, there is none other than the human being that is doing it.
In Nyorai Zen we say we are born from these two plus and minus functions. Christianity says you are born from God. I guess that’s OK to say, but in Buddhism we say that we are born from the activity of “suchness,” or tatagatha. These two activities of plus and minus are living together and acting together in one room. It’s never the case that they are functioning in two separate worlds. Because they are acting together in the same room, inevitably there will be a place in which they encounter one another. To say it simply, that place of meeting is the complete self.
This complete self has both the plus activity and the minus activity as its content. This is the true person. In this complete state there is no necessity to speak. There is no necessity to push anyone away. This is the manifestation of complete, true love and true compassion. When this complete self splits itself in two, then it becomes plus and minus again. When this separation of the complete self occurs, then in the interval between plus and minus, and living and dying, is the beginning of what we usually call the self.
This is really important. We have to ask: Is the self born with the complete activities of plus and minus as its content, or not? What do you think? If the self is born with the complete activities of plus and minus, with the complete activities of living and dying as its content, that would be God, wouldn’t it? If this were the case, it would not be subject to being controlled by living or dying. This is when we can, for the first time, understand what Buddha nature or the activity of the Buddha might mean.
Buddha—or we can say God—has this Buddha nature as its content completely. But in general, that which is born is not born in a complete state. All beings are born incomplete. To the extent that existent things are incomplete, then they must suffer through being controlled by the two activities of living and dying.
Clearly learn this principle while you’re still alive. Learn this principle of practice, of making living and dying completely your content. This is the teaching and perspective of Nyorai Zen.
Stupas Along The Rio Grande
The stupa, an ancient form of architecture that has existed since Neolithic times, evolved significantly in both form and meaning with the coming of the Buddha. Cairns in ancient India were traditionally raised as monuments to kings and heroes and contained their remains. At the suggestion of the Buddha, stupas began to be built as monuments to the Awakened Ones and their disciples. No longer merely a monument and reliquary for the dead, the stupa became a living reminder of the potential for enlightenment within us all. Its corpulent shape now suggested the Buddha in meditation posture: the base, his crossed legs; the rounded dome, his shoulders; the square-shaped harmika with painted eyes, his head.
As Buddhism spread, so did the building of stupas, from the hundreds covering the eighth-century Javanese complex at Borobudur to fifteen-story pagodas in China, and each area or country developed its own style. It was only a matter of time before Western practitioners would try their hands at stupa building.
From 1983 to 1996, six Tibetan-style stupas were built in a line roughly following the Rio Grande river from Albuquerque, New Mexico, north to Crestone, Colorado, near the inception of the river. Traditionally in Buddhist countries, hundreds of monks supported by devoted lay followers contributed to stupa construction. Along the Rio Grande, each community of dharma students, or sangha, found its own way to meet the rigorous, precise, and expensive demands of building a stupa. Wise direction for the careful completion of each step, from fire pujas (prayer ceremonies) for fair weather to the construction of hundreds of thousands of tsa-tsas—tiny clay stupas—to be sealed in the bumpas, the spherical rooms below the spires, was provided by lamas—especially the Venerable Lama Karma Dorje, resident teacher at the Kagyu Shenpen Kunchab Center in Santa Fe, who has overseen the construction of three of the stupas in New Mexico.
With the building of the stupas, this form of devotional architecture native to the Land of Snows seems to have found a second home in the high deserts of New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Khang Tsag Chorten and Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje Stupa, Santa Fe
The story of stupa building in New Mexico began in the early 1970s in Santa Fe. David Padwa requested H.H. Jidral Yeshe Dorje Drudjom Rinpoche of the Nyingmapa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism to come to Santa Fe and donated the funds necessary for Khang Tsag Chorten or (“Stacked House” Stupa) to be built. Consecrated in 1973 by the Venerable Drodrup Chen Rinpoche, the eight-foot-high stupa, now under the care of the Maha Bodhi Society, is located adjacent to Upaya, a Zen center. The following year, Khang Tsag Stupa was also blessed by the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It is said that all stupas bless beings who see or touch them whether or not they understand the dharma. But Khang Tsag Stupa is believed to have the additional power to purify all hostility.
Kagyu Shenpen Kunchab Bodhi Stupa, Santa Fe
A few miles from Santa Fe’s largest mall and the infamous Cerrillos Road, one of the most hazardous thoroughfares in the state, this stupa looms up over the adjacent trailer park. Off busy Airport Road, there is a graveled driveway, and a large white-walled enclosure. As one enters, only the back of the stupa is visible—white and pristine. Circumambulating, visitors arrive at the huge, painted doors of the Kagyu Shenpen Kunchab Bodhi Stupa. Within the shrine room, a statue of the Buddha, surrounded by paintings of saints and holy beings, invites you to take refuge.
Lama Karma Dorje was sent to Santa Fe at the behest of the renowned meditation master, His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche. He began building the stupa with a local practitioner Jerry Morrelli, in 1983. They worked for three years, with help on the weekends from members of the Santa Fe sangha, and in 1986, Kalu Rinpoche consecrated the completed stupa.
Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje Stupa, Santa Fe
The newest stupa in Santa Fe commemorates the life and work of Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje, one of the first lamas to visit the area. Since 1986, Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje of the Nyingmapa lineage and master of weather ceremonies for the Dalai Lama, had visited Santa Fe annually to perform the Dur ceremony (to benefit students and deceased relatives) at the Kagyu Shenpen Kunchab Bodhi Stupa. Following his death, his students, under the guidance of Tulku Sang Nga, built a stupa for him in the mountains east of Santa Fe.
There are eight traditional architectural styles of stupas, and the seventeen-foot-high Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje Stupa was built in the elegant but simple “bodhisattva” form. It was consecrated in 1995 on private land.
Kagyu Deki Choeling, Tres Orejas, New Mexico
The gift of a small statue of a stupa by Kalu Rinpoche to Norbert Ubechel, a longtime student of the Karmapa, was the inspiration for a twenty-two-foot stupa in Tres Orejas, New Mexico.
A few miles north of Taos, Tres Orejas is an almost treeless expanse between three peaks and the 600-foot drop-off of the Rio Grande Gorge. There are few inhabitants, no water, and no electricity. Despite monetary gifts for materials, the building of a stupa here was an arduous task. Lama Dorje and Ubechel hauled water for mixing cement by hand for the construction of Kagyu Deki Choeling, a “bodhisattva”-style stupa similar to the one in Santa Fe. Other students lent their labor, and on August 8, 1994, three years after the project began, the Venerable Lama Lodo consecrated the stupa. It was later blessed by the five-year-old Tsogya Gyaltso, tulku of Kalu Rinpoche, as well as by Bokar Rinpoche, a meditation master of the Kagyu lineage.
With Lama Dorje, a handful of students later built a gompa or meditation hall. From the steps of the gompa, the stupa is visible below, shining white. The cedar trees here are wind-stunted and twisted, like the treacherous road that leads to the stupa, looking out over miles of sagebrush as if from the edge of the world.
Kagyu Mila Guru Stupa, El Rito, New Mexico
About a quarter of a mile off NM Highway 522, which stretches from Taos toward the Colorado border, stands Kagyu Mila Guru Stupa, thirty-eight feet tall and clearly visible, an unexpected architectural jewel set close to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in El Rito.
From 1992 to 1995, a handful of families living six miles north of the mining town of Questa gathered every Saturday morning to build the stupa. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, work is possible only from April to November. And almost every Saturday during these months, Lama Dorje and a few Santa Fe students made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to El Rito, bringing plans for the next phase of construction, strong arms, and a generous supply of doughnuts and Gatorade.
Land, donations, and volunteer labor came primarily from students of the late meditation teacher Herman Rednick, whose teachings blended Eastern and Western meditation concepts. Lama Karma Dorje provided inspiration, guidance, and constant supervision of the project.
At the suggestion of children in the community, an inside shrine room was included in the plans for Kagyu Guru Stupa. Cynthia Moku, art director at Naropa Institute in Boulder, who had helped direct painting of the deities in the shrine room at the stupa in Santa Fe, designed and oversaw the painting of the Kagyu Mila Guru shrine room. In the small chamber, nearly human-size representations of Chenrezig and Tara rise before the meditator with a sense of immediacy. Every detail seems to enliven the walls with a tangible spiritual presence.
In June 1995, students finished details on the stupa before the arrival of the six-year-old Tsogya Gyaltso Rinpoche and V.V. Bokar Rinpoche for the consecration. The following year, Lama Karma Chodrak, an associate and friend of Lama Dorje, arrived from India to join the community as its resident lama.
Tashi Gomang Stupa, Crestone, Colorado
Five miles south of Crestone, Colorado, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and surveying the San Luis valley, stands the forty-one-foot-high Tashi Gomang Stupa, “stupa of many auspicious doors,” commemorating the moment when the Buddha first turned the wheel of the dharma.
His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, who in 1980 owned 200 acres in the Crestone area, envisioned a Tibetan medical college for this area as well as a monastery with three- year retreat facilities. In 1988, Crestone dharma students received a letter from His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche suggesting that they begin with the construction of a stupa. Due to its remote location, in an area lacking electricity and running water, and the need to build a “floating” foundation, the construction proved expensive and lengthy. Students spent five years and more than $10,000 making the hundred-thousand tsa-tsas required for the bumpa alone.
Here too, a combination of volunteer labor and generous donations brought the stupa to completion. Kyenpo Karsar Rinpoche and Bardor Tulku Rinpoche of Woodstock, New York, directed construction, and on July 6, 1996, Bokar Rinpoche consecrated Tashi Gomang.
Stupa in Peril: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Rarely does a visitor to a national park have the opportunity to brush past a relic of the great Tibetan Guru Padmasambhava. But at Petroglyph National Park in Albuquerque, strollers may encounter a stupa. Consecrated by lamas and containing the many traditional objects that help make a stupa sacred, this stupa has no name. It is not advertised or even acknowledged by officials at the park’s visitor center.
The National Park Service in 1990 began acquiring the property of Harold Cohen and Arriam Emery as part of Petroglyph National Park, established to preserve the Native American rock art chipped into volcanic stones there. The move came six months after the consecration of the ten-foot-high stupa, which had taken Cohen and Emery eleven years to build on their property. According to Cohen and Emory, they lost their home and their battle to retain the stupa. Money they had saved for a future Padmasambhava Center was spent in litigation.
Lama Rinchen Thuntsok of Nepal, who had aided the couple in building the stupa and had consecrated this Nyingmapa bodhisattva-style stupa in 1989, advised them to view the process as a lesson in impermanence and suggested they build a larger stupa. The park service maintains that the stupa has been moved off of what is now park land, but Cohen and Emory hope public opinion will influence park service officials to protect and preserve the stupa.
Anna Racicot is a writer living in Questa, New Mexico.