Denkyo Kyōzan Jōshū Sasaki, Rōshi (1907-2014)
Jōshū Rōshi was born into a farming family near Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, April 1907. At the age of 14 he traveled five hundred miles to Sapporo in Hokkaido, northern Japan, to become a first disciple of Joten Sōko Miura Rōshi at Zuiryu-ji. Joten Miura would later become head of Myōshin-ji, one of the preeminent Rinzai temple complexes in Japan. Joten Sōko Rōshi was instrumental in Sasaki Rōshi’s coming to America.
Jōshū Sasaki was ordained an Oshō (priest) at the age of twenty-one, receiving the name Kyozan (Apricot Mountain). Between the ages of 28 and 37, he further trained as Unsui (zen monk in training) at Myoshin-ji Sodo and then Zuigan-ji Sodo (training monastery) when Joten Soko Roshi became abbot. In 1944, Joshu was appointed to a temple officer called “Fusu” (in charge of financial affairs) at Zuigan-ji. In 1947 at the age of forty, he received his authority as a Rōshi and became abbot of Yotoku-in at Zuigan-ji.
In 1953, Rōshi was assigned to become the abbot of Shoju-an in Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture. Shoju-an was an abandoned temple founded by Hakuin’s master Dokyo Etan. The temple was in disrepair, and Roshi set about restoring it. Rōshi taught at Shoju-an until he was sent to the United States in 1962.
Dr. Robert Harmon and Gladys Weisbart, both members of the Joshu Zen Temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, had been independently trying to bring a Rinzai Zen monk to Los Angeles. Once they found out about each other’s efforts, they began a united campaign. In Joshu Roshi, Dr. Harmon found an interested candidate. After working out the details by correspondence, the Kancho of Myoshin-ji, Daiko Furukawa Roshi, formally requested Joshu Roshi to begin teaching Zen in the United States.
Roshi arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on July 21, 1962, where he was met by his sponsor, Dr. Robert Harmon. Both men remember that Roshi, who had but a rudimentary command of English, carried with him both Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries.
Roshi began living initially in a garage at Dr. Harmon’s house. Dr. Harmon later rented a small house on Mariposa St. in Gardena, where Roshi took up residence. With few furnishings or amenities at first, the house was Roshi’s residence by day and a Zendo at night.
He conducted Zen meetings on weeknights and Sunday mornings, as well as weekly meetings at the homes of some of his students. Roshi served as Jikijitsu, Shoji and Tenzo, while also giving Sanzen and leading the chants at the beginning of each meeting.
In November 1963, Roshi and his Zen students incorporated the Rinzai Zen Dojo Association. Over the next few years, as Roshi’s reputation spread throughout Southern California, he led group Zazen in homes in the Hollywood Hills, Laguna Beach and Beverly Hills. When the Mariposa Zendo outgrew its quarters in 1966, the group started holding Zazen in office space donated by Harmon.
The intensity of Roshi’s teaching has never wavered since he first arrived in California more than 40 years ago on a mission to bring Zen to Americans. As Roshi has brought his teaching to thousands of students, a sizeable network of training centers and urban Zen organizations has grown up to facilitate practice and preserve the tradition he represents. Ironically, when he came to these shores Roshi did not expect to build a large organization.
“I had thought of having five or six students who really lived the life of Zen and that would be it,” he said in an interview last year. “I would die in America. I had no plan to create temples or centers.”
Rinzai-ji In July 1967, Roshi decided to commemorate his fifth anniversary in the U.S. by conducting his first seven-day Dai-sesshin in the mountain village of Idyllwild, California. In January 1968 Rinzai Zen Dojo Association changed its name to Rinzai-ji, Inc., and purchased its first property, Cimarron Zen Center at 2505 Cimarron Street, Los Angeles.
A complex of buildings surrounded by high walls, Cimarron Zen Center needed extensive renovation before it was formally dedicated on April 21,1968.
Roshi took up residence there along with a group of students. Cimarron Zen Center now is known as Rinzai-ji and is the main temple of the Rinzai-ji organization. It features also a dormitory, Gentei-an, which allows for residential Zen practice.
Mt. Baldy Zen Center
Three years later, 1970, Rinzai-ji’s main training center, Mt. Baldy Zen Center was opened high in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles. Located in the middle of the Angeles National Forest, Mt. Baldy Zen Center operates under a 99-year lease from the U.S. government. Formerly an abandoned Boy Scout camp, the pine-shaded property has been refurbished to accommodate resident monks and nuns, as well as visitors attending Dai-sesshin. When Roshi is not in residence the center hosts groups and workshops.
Mt. Baldy Zen Center has gained a reputation in American Zen circles for its rigorous practice, which includes 19-hour-a-day sesshin schedules. Most of Rinzai-ji’s monks and nuns have received some or all of their training at Mt Baldy Zen Center.
With the establishment of the Rinzai-ji and Mt. Baldy Zen Centers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Joshu Roshi had laid the groundwork for a corps of ordained monks, nuns, and priests to help him carry out his work. Since his retirement from teaching the Oshos have picked up the responsibility of assisting Mt. Baldy Zen Center.
Bodhi Manda Zen Center
When a Mt. Baldy student named Michelle Martin asked Roshi to come to New Mexico to conduct a Dai-sesshin, he playfully replied, “You find hot springs, I come.” After she returned to New Mexico, Martin and a friend found an old Catholic monastery for sale in Jemez Springs. They invited Roshi to inspect the facilities to see if they were appropriate for a Zen community, and, in 1974, Jemez Bodhi Mandala was founded, now known as Bodhi Manda Zen Center.
Bodhi Manda became Roshi’s second training center, offering daily Zazen and communal work practice. Like Mt. Baldy, Bodhi Manda’s setting is magnificent. The property borders the Jemez River, in a dramatic, steep-walled canyon. The facility includes dormitories, a communal dining hall, and a small guest house. Bodhi Manda residents have extensively renovated the property over the past two decades, expanding the hot pools, piping geothermally heated water through the living quarters to provide heat, and planting an orchard and an extensive garden, which provide fresh vegetables and fruit for the residents. Financially, the center has draw income from hosting Dai-sesshins, renting the guesthouse, and leasing the entire facility to various groups for retreats and workshops. Bodhi Manda passed a major milestone in the fall of 2001, when it paid off its mortgage.
With Roshi’s retirement from teaching Bodhi Manda Zen Center has ceased to be a training center.
Summer Seminar on the Sutras
Another important component of Joshu Roshi’s work in the United States has been the Summer Seminar on the Sutras series, begun at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in 1977. Over the past 16 years, the seminars have drawn Buddhist scholars from the US, Japan, and elsewhere to examine the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Over the years the seminars have been held at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Ithaca Zen Center and now Bodhi Manda Zen Center.
Joshu Roshi has traveled extensively to conduct Dai-sesshins, both in the US and abroad. He has conducted Sanzen with students in Canada, Poland, Norway, Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and New Zealand. For a period of nearly 10 years, he held regular Dai-sesshins for Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, Roshi’s students have established Zen centers in places as diverse as Redondo Beach (California), Vienna (Austria), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Vancouver (Canada), Ithaca (New York), Miami (Florida), Mt. Cobb (California) and Princeton (New Jersey).
Much of this information was compiled from The Zen of Myoshin-ji Comes to the West: 25 Years of Joshu Roshi in America 1962-1987 and Zen Master Joshu Sasaki: The Great Celebration