Monday, December 22, 2014


                                       ONLY THIS, THIS


Nakagawa Soen, was born in 1907 in Taiwan, the son of a Japanese army physician. Though he was educated in Confucianism and Zen, he was attracted to what he heard about the individualism of America, especially since Japanese society at the time was traditional and conformist. Soen was opposed to rules and was interested in a looser sort of lifestyle that included philosophy, literature, and poetry.

          After graduating from Tokyo University in 1931, Soen impulsively decided to be ordained as a Rinzai monk. But before committing himself to any temple he began traveling to Dai Bosatsu Mountain near Mount Fuji where he practiced solitary retreats as a hermit. Living off the land he bathed in streams, sat zazen alone, and wrote haiku.

          It was in 1932 while he was meditating at Dai Bosatu Mountain that Soen first dreamed up the idea of an international sort of zendo. He envisioned a place where anyone could take part in a sort of universalism of common understanding.

The following year he traveled to Sakhalin Island, a Russian/Japanese landmass north of Hokkaido, in a search for gold to fund such a project. He came away as poor as when he had left, but he did not lose sight of his vision of a universal learning center.

          In 1950 Soen was grudgingly appointed abbot of Ryutaku-ji, a temple located in Mishima that had been founded in 1761 by Hakuin. Not wanting to feel tied down, Soen was indifferent about the whole business, and instead of outfitting himself in the traditional regalia for the ceremony he wore the black robes of a monk. Shortly after the official formalities he disappeared from the temple and retreated to his mountain hermitage.

          Abbot or not, Soen continued to study with various masters, some of which he was in agreement with, others not. Like a few of his predecessors—such as Bankei Yotaku—Soen thought Japanese Zen had grown musty. In time he developed his own brand of Zen practice which combined Soto, Rinzai, and other systems. He continued to write haiku, using it as a teaching tool, and in his talks he recited Shakespeare as well as Schopenhauer.

          The later scholar D.T. Suzuki considered Soen “a rather peculiar fellow.” Soen knew, in his time, Hakuin also been thought of as odd by the Japanese Zen establishment.

          To paraphrase one writer, Soen’s teaching style emphasized communicating the immediate moment. One of his favorite expressions was ”Only this, this.” He would shout that, whacking his cushion for emphasis.

          He once put a pumpkin on his sitting pad in the dokusan room and laughed as each monk entered and bowed respectfully to it.

          In October 1959 Soen approved the founding of a sitting group in Hawaii, to be led by Robert Aitken, an American who had been a Japanese prisoner of war.

In 1968 the restless Soen made a trip to the USA to open New York Zendo Shobo-ji. The following year he led sesshins with local sanghas in Israel, England, Egypt, New York, California, and Hawaii.

Bursting with ideas, he was unable to sit still for long.

In 1971 Soen made his ninth visit to the USA, helping The Zen Studies Society purchase land in the Catskill Mountains for his dream, International Dai Bosatsu Zendo. In 1972 he made his tenth visit to the United States, and upon returning to Japan he retired as abbot of Ryutaku-ji. In 1974 and 1975 he made two more visits to the USA staying first at the still unopened International Dai Bosatsu Zendo, and then going into solitary retreat at New York Zendo Shobo-ji.

In 1976 Soen’s International Dai Bosatsu Zendo was officially opened as Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

In 1982 Soen made his last visit to the USA. Upon returning to Ryutaku-ji he became a recluse. Two years later, on March 11, he died at the temple. He was 77 years old. A portion of his cremated ashes are in the cemetery of the Catskill retreat center.

Nakagawa Soen was known for his enigmatic behavior derived from his dedication to ascetic and solitary Zen practice, and his rejection of the Japanese Zen hierarchy.

Within conventional Zen circles of his day Soen may have been viewed as an unorthodox, eccentric, and controversial teacher. Today he might have been called a weirdo. However, he is respected for bringing Zen to the West, and his talks that included such phrases as:

 “All you do is argue, why don’t you try sitting?”

“If you die once, you’ll never have to die again.”

“Only this, this!”


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