Happy Birthday Sasaki Roshi

My first zazen experience was in 1965.  I was a freshman at UCLA.  I went to hear Josshu Sasaki Roshi give a talk on campus.  Today – April Fool’s Day 2010 – is his 103rd birthday and as far as I know, he is still teaching.  Happy Birthday, Sasaki Roshi!   Thank you for your talk.

The talk was scheduled in a big lecture hall.  There was seating for more than 100, maybe even more than 200.  There were about 20 people listening. (Despite the publicity and notoriety, Zen has actually never been all that popular.)  Sasaki Roshi made a big impression on me.   I had read about Zen masters but I had no idea they still existed, let alone existed in Los Angeles.  He made such a big impression that I spoke with him after his talk and he invited me to join his sitting group.   The group comprised about 10 people and they met in one of the member’s apartment in Hollywood.  I was the youngest person there.  I received zazen instruction.  I sat.  Then I was called to dokusan.

Sasaki Roshi asked me, “What was your face before your parents were born?”  I had no idea what he was talking about.  I didn’t know what to say.  He seemed amused and was kind.  He told me to find the answer in my zazen.  Something like that.  Later that evening, we all had tea and munchies.  I remember that Sasaki Roshi drank plum wine.  At some point in the discussion, he pointed to me and said that if I could stick with Zen practice, Zen would survive in America.  This seemed like a pretty dramatic thing to say.  I thought about it later.  At first, I thought it might mean that I was some kind of special person, destined to ensure that Zen would survive.  Then it occurred to me that it more likely meant that I was such an unlikely practitioner that if someone like me could practice, anyone could practice.  Over the years, it’s become clear that this second interpretation was the right one.

Since that evening, my connection to Zen practice has survived.  There have been gaps.  At times my practice has been front and center in my life, and at times it has been more off to the side.  But the connection has deepened.  Connection to a spiritual tradition, to a lineage, is distinctive and powerful.  More than anything else, I think it is like connection to family.  Whether it’s easy or difficult, smooth or rough, it has unique depth and durability.   My relationship with my Zen family, with my lineage, has been rather lumpy over the years.  I entered as a naïve and idealistic young man – almost still a boy.  My idealism didn’t last long.  There is a saying, “No Buddhas without human beings.”  And humans make messes.  Zen is human activity and no exception.   It can’t be helped.  For example, I’ve heard reports of Sasaki Roshi as an unrepentant womanizer, a teacher preying on female Sangha members.  The reports have been numerous and credible.  Sadly, this kind of behavior is not uncommon in the Zen world.   And this is just one kind of problem.

Despite such sad realities, my practice has endured.   I have taken priest vows and am committed to doing what I can to help ensure that the family lineage survives.   In a way, maybe I am finally fulfilling Sasaki Roshi’s curious challenge on that evening 45 years ago in the Hollywood Hills.  So thank you Sasaki Roshi.  I hope you are behaving yourself.  And Happy Birthday.