Monday, January 12, 2015


                                                   NYOGEN SENZAKI

The Useless Mushroom

Fukaura is a village on the northwestern coast of Japan. The town archives record that an Aizo Senzaki was born as the Senzaki family's first son on October 5, 1876. However, as a youth Aizo’s grandmother told him he had been abandoned as an infant and was discovered by a fisherman from Siberia. His father was unknown, but he was either Russian or Chinese. Some accounts state young Senzaki was adopted by a travelling Buddhist priest and brought to Japan.

          If that sounds confusing to you, imagine how it must have been to Senzaki in his later years. Apparently he simply ignored the inconsistencies.

When he was five years old Senzaki was sent to a Pure Land temple run by his grandfather. Pure Land is a broad branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism and one of the most widely practiced traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. Its teachings are focused on Amitābha Buddha who is known for his discernment, and deep awareness. At that temple Senzaki began the study of Chinese classics.

The temple priest had a thoughtful influence on him, which was, as Senzaki later wrote, "to live up to the Buddhist ideals outside of name and fame and to avoid as far as possible the world of loss and gain.”

When Senzaki was sixteen his grandfather said, “Even though you have told me that you want to become a monk I am afraid you may regret it. So think it over.”

Senzaki thought it over, and when his grandfather died he decided to prepare for medical school. While in school he read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and tried to imitate Franklin's approach toward spirituality. He also read about an early Zen teacher who had burned a volume of Diamond Sutra commentaries. Senzaki impulsively gave up his medical studies and ignore his grandfather’s advice. He decided to become a Zen monastic.

When Aizo was 19, he was ordained as a monk and was given the Dharma name Nyogen at a Soto Zen temple. Nyogen said he would have preferred to be ordained at a Rinzai temple, but there was none in his area. The next year Nyogen studied Zen under Rinzai master Soyen Shaku, a strict teacher who was harsh in his training methods.

Having been a transient from his earliest years, Nyogen referred to himself as “the useless mushroom” which, meant he had no deep roots, no branches, no flowers, and probably no seeds.”

Although he apparently thought little of himself, Nyogen was uneasy with the institutional practices at Soyen’s monastery and he felt constrained by its boring sameness. When he came across the works of Friedrich Fröbel, a German educator who believed very young children have unique needs and capabilities, he was inspired. He decided to leave the temple and open a kindergarten that would be free of religion and ritual and based around practical activities such as drawing and social interaction. He referred to such a school as a “Mentorgarten Zendo.”

In 1905 Rinzai Master Soyen Shaku was asked by friends in the San Francisco area to come and give talks and lectures on Buddhism. Soyen invited Nyogen to come with him, and Nyogen jumped at the opportunity. They left for Seattle, Washington, where they stayed for a few days, and then headed for San Francisco.  When it was time for the two to return to Japan, Soyen sensed his student's turmoil at the prospect of returning.

In Golden Gate Park, Soyen said to Nyogen, “Do not feel obliged to serve me any longer. Just face the great city and see whether it conquers you or you conquer it.”

Alone in the Bay Area Nyogen worked as a hotel clerk, a waiter,  and an elevator operator. During his spare time he spent hours in the public library reading books on Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James.

In 1922 Nyogen scraped up enough money to rent a hall where he taught Zen meditation, and by 1927 he had developed a following with his "floating zendo." Eventually he moved into an apartment in San Francisco where he practiced meditation with a small group.

In the 1930s Nyogen moved to Los Angeles where he again rented a flat where he and his students did zazen on metal folding chairs that he purchased secondhand from a funeral parlor. To Nyogen, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the customary Japanese meditation posture was a most un-American activity.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 most Japanese who lived on the West Coast of the United States were considered security threats and were sent inland to concentration camps (euphemistically labeled relocation centers). There they were confined behind barbed wire in tar paper barracks.

Nyogen was transferred to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. He spent the duration of World War II there, and despite the camp’s harsh physical conditions he continued to teach meditation. He was especially attentive to the small children in the camp.

When the war ended, Nyogen gathered his few possessions and went back to Los Angeles. While making a meager living he continued his passion for teaching Zen. Among his students were Robert Aitken and Paul Reps. Nyogen also maintained a long-term correspondence with Soen Nakagawa, an unconventional young monk practicing in Japan, who eventually became one of the most prominent Zen teachers to come west.

It was in 1931 that Nyogen Senzaki opened his Mentorgarten Zendo in the rooms of his hotel residence in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.


On the opening day of Mentorgarten earlier in San Francisco Senzaki gave a short speech, paraphrased as follows:

 Generally speaking, I am a Buddhist but I do not belong to any sect of the churches. I call myself Zen-Buddhist because Zen is the essence of Buddhism and I am satisfied with the teaching as far as I have studied in the past years. I do not belong to any Zen church and it is not my wish to work as a minister from certain Zen churches in Japan or of any other country. I am satisfied as a free citizen of the world, and America is good enough for me.

“We may exchange our knowledge and refined tastes which each of us has been fortunate enough to acquire from other sources. I prefer not to enter into any discussion, argument, or debate in this Zen-home; and I especially implore you not to consider other’s faults with harsh judgment. You may not be right after all.

 Nyogen Senzaki died on May 7, 1958. He was 82 years old.


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