Monday, January 26, 2015



Japanese Zen masters and monks may have been identified with nonviolence and pacifism but they are not exempt from military service. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) a Rinzai priest named Soyen Shaku served as a chaplain to the Japanese army. Thinking that Shoku was a kindred soul, the Russian pacifist Leo Tolstoy suggested he denounce the war. But Shaku refused, saying, ". . . sometimes killing and war become necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race, or individual."

Conservative groups labeled Shaku a war monger, but he was only clarifying a human and political condition.

At that time Soyen Shaku was the only Zen master in Japan who had any interest in sharing Zen with foreigners, which local citizens thought was bizarre because outsiders were considered to be barbarians. Besides, Shaku was the abbot of two temples, Kencho-i and Engaku-ji, both located in Kamakura, Japan,

Speaking of Kamakura, it has several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some of them more than 1,200 years old. You may be familiar—at least through pictures—of Kamakura’s enormous bronze Amidah Buddha. It’s a statue of the meditating Siddhartha Gautama almost 45 feet tall, and weighing 93 tons.

          Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has a smaller replica at the top of the stairway to their Asia collection. There is also a reproduction in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden.

Shaku did not sit idly at his temples. He was one of four priests and two laymen, representing Rinzai Zen, Jōdo Shinshū, Nichirin, Tendai, and Esoteric schools who composed the Japanese Buddhist delegation in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. Shaku had prepared a speech in Japan titled "The Law of Cause and Effect, as Taught by Buddha.” He had it translated into English by a young student named Daisetz Suzuki.

At the conference Shaku met Dr. Paul Carus, from Open Court Publishing Company in La Salle, Illinois. Their book list included several Eastern and Western interfaith dialogues. To enlarge its published offerings, Carus asked Shaku to send an English-speaker knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism to the United States. Shaku chose for his translator a student named D.T. Suzuki.

It was at Engaku-ji that Shaku came in contact with the Alexander Russells, a wealthy couple from San Francisco who were on a round-the-world trip. They showed interest in his temple and teachings, so Shaku suggested they sit with the monks in zazen and a sesshin.

Through informal conversations with Shaku the two Americans acquired knowledge about Zen practice. In turn he learned how to relate to outsiders in Zen. The Russells invited Shaku to visit them in California, and he accepted their hospitality.

To backtrack a little, you may remember my talk on another Zen nonconformist, Nyogen Senzaki, who referred to himself as the useless mushroom. Recall that in 1905 he and D.T. Suzuki had accompanied Soyen Shaku to California. Both of those men eventually left Shaku to pursue their own interests, while Shaku became a house guest at the Russell’s residence.

That, of course, led to local gossip about a mystical cult being formed in the midst of God-fearing Christians. Mrs. Russell, an astute Asian buff, put an end to the rumors by telling a newspaper reporter all they were up to was gaining tranquility through meditation and to mind their own business.

          Shaku was impressed with the Russell’s dedication, and he wrote friends in Japan that they practiced zazen three times a day, and were doing koan study.

That update worried some Japanese hardliners. To borrow a quote from the book How the Swans Came to the Lake, by Rick Fields, “Most of the Japanese Zen establishment had thought it impossible for Americans, let alone an American woman, to comprehend something as Japanese as Zen."

          Shaku responded with a poem that included the words, “In any part of the globe where there is air, a fire can burn. Someday my teaching will surely go to the West."

          When Shaku left the Russells he went on a public lecture tour. The talks he gave to conventional American audiences helped to flush out the notion that Buddhism was a nutty sect or a nihilistic philosophy. He emphasized that dhyana was not some form of hypnosis or trance. It was perception through meditation.

          Quoting one master, “Dhyana is the practice of mind by which we stop all thinking and seek to realize truth in its essence.”

Soyen Shaku was a Zen nonconformist who did not live by the book. However, he fashioned the following guidelines which he practiced every day of his life.

n  In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.

n  Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.

n  Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.

n  Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.

n  When an opportunity comes do not let it pass by, yet always think twice before acting.

n  Do not regret the past. Look to the future.

n  Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.

n  Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.


Soyen Shaku died in Kamakura on 29 October 1919. He is remembered as the first Zen Buddhist master to teach in the United States.


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