Remembering Fukushima Keido Roshi
Fukushima Keido Roshi died on March 1, 2011 at the age of 78. It was my honor to know him and to be his student. I met him about 15 years ago, thanks to my wife Myoan Grace. She had been looking for a teacher to practice with during our regular visits to Japan. She arranged an appointment with him and I joined her to meet Fukushima Roshi at Tofuku-ji monastery where he was Abbot. Grace jumped right in and began practicing and studying with him. I watched for awhile from what felt like a safe distance. I felt unsure of whether I was up to the rigorous pace and intensity of practice at Tofuku-ji.
Finally, I decided to give it a go. At first, I simply sat with the monks. Then I worked up the courage to ask Fukushima Roshi if I could study koans with him. He smiled and answered, “I hope so.” And so over the course of the years, I would meet with him in dokusan, both in sesshin and on shorter visits to Kyoto. After Fukushima Roshi contracted Parkinson’s Disease and had turned over koan dokusan with the monks to his successor, Harada Roshi, he continued to be available to his foreign students. Whenever I was in Kyoto, often with Grace and occasionally alone, he would see me in dokusan nearly every day at eight in the morning and again at eight in the evening.
In the last year or two as he became increasingly disabled by his illness, I grew concerned that my continuing request to meet with him was too burdensome for him and for the temple. It was clear that these visits called for great effort, both Roshi’s and the monks’ taking care of him. To begin with, he had to be dressed in his robes and put into his wheelchair. And dokusan itself clearly required an enormous amount of his energy just to speak and move even slightly to respond to what I presented. When I mentioned my concern to him, he assured me he’d make it clear when it was time to end the teaching relationship. And he did. Fukushima Roshi finally retired from his position as Kancho – head of the Tofuku-ji system of hundreds of temples and Abbot and Zen Master of Tofuku-ji itself – to return to his family home for the final chapter of his life.
Fukushima Roshi’s most profound gift to me was his teaching in koan dokusan. Koan dokusan is an intimate, private matter. The force of his mind-to-mind teaching was penetrating and transformative. He had a spiritual power that is hard to describe, but it was evident the first time I met him. I left that meeting feeling like I’d been hit over the head with a two by four.
At the same time, connecting with him outside the dokusan room was nourishing and memorable. He was a fearsome lion in dokusan but I found him to be easy and natural in everyday situations. This combination made a big impression on me. It was an important teaching on its own. Fukushima Roshi embodied the role of Zen Master completely: he was a scholar of Buddhism, a koan master, a lifelong monk, and head of a major Rinzai lineage family. He was also a warm person. And he was kind. When one of his disciples insisted only full lotus was acceptable in the zendo, Fukushima Roshi said any position was okay – even a chair on the tan. The most important thing was to practice, to make a commitment, and stand by it.
He was definitely as serious a man as I’ve known, but he was also playful. Occasionally in dokusan, he would reply to something I presented by saying, “It’s okay, but there’s a better answer.” And then he would ring me out. Back to work. Once during an informal meeting over tea, I asked him how he was doing with his illness. He said he thought Parkinson’s Disease was his last koan. I asked him if he knew the answer. He said, “Yes.” Then he smiled and added, “But I think there’s a better answer.”
The last couple of years of practice with Fukushima Roshi are dominated by my memory of his grace as his disease progressed. When I met him, he was a physically dynamic and vigorous man. Over time, the disease took its toll and he became increasingly slight and frail. Inevitably, Parkinson’s impaired his speech and compromised his ability to move. Throughout the course of this physical decline, Fukushima Roshi was unstintingly generous with his teaching. He always manifested dignity and good humor. His unstinting devotion to Dharma and to his students even as his ruthless illness progressed was an inspiring teaching all its own. I am indescribably grateful to have known him.