Bernie’s Training in Zen: The Early Years

On the streets, At Refugee Camp in Chiapas, Auschwitz Interfaith Ceremony, Riverdale NY 1982

The first time I encountered Zen was in 1958. I was attending the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn studying to be an Aeronautical Engineer. In an English class, we read The World’s Religions, at that time it was called Religions of Man, by Huston Smith (it had just come out). There was a page about Zen and it just struck me, I felt I had come home reading it. So I started to study Zen at that time (basically by reading). There wasn’t that much in English–Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki, and I got quite interested in it. And then, around 1961 or 1962, I actually started meditation on my own. None of the books that I had read talked much about meditation.

In 1963 I went to the Japanese Soto Zen temple, Zenshu-ji, in Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo, and met for the first time the person who was going to become my root Zen teacher, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi. He was a very young monk and he was assisting in that temple. But I meditated at home and did my own sesshins (retreats), and got into a regular meditation practice (and kept reading, of course). I had been dabbling in many religions from maybe the age of 12 or 13, but I started to concentrate on Zen at age 18. In 1966 I ran into Maezumi again. At that time he was still not a teacher; he was translating for Yasutani Roshi, who had become somewhat famous in the Zen world because of the book, Three Pillars of Zen, edited by Philip Kapleau and Koun Yamada. I was at a workshop where Maezumi was translating for Yasutani and I saw that his English was really good, so I went up to him and asked if he had his own place, which he did. I started to sit with him on a daily basis.

What follows is my understanding of the lineage and Zen traditions that run through Maezumi Roshi and a description of how they affected our early years in ZCLA:

Maezumi Roshi received ShiHo (Dharma Transmission) (1955) from his father, Hakujun Baian Kuroda Roshi, with a Lineage Chart from the Japanese Soto Sect. He also studied and received Inka (Seal of Approval) in the Sanbô-Kyôdan family from Haku’un Yasutani Roshi (1971). In addition, after doing koan study with Koryu Roshi in Tokyo (he lived in the Shakyamuni Kai center while studying at the Soto University, Komazawa), he received Inka from Koryu Osaka Roshi (March 1972) in the Shakyamuni Kai family. [I will say more about these families below.]

Hakuun Yasutani, Roshi, 1885-1973

When I started to train with Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1966, he was called Sensei and was doing koan study with Yasutani Roshi whenever Yasutani came to the United States to lead sesshin. I did sesshin with Yasutani Roshi at ZCLA in 1966 and started to work on the koan Mu with him. At that time ZCLA students did zazen, studied Zen texts, and did koans with Yasutani Roshi when he was in town. Maezumi Roshi didn’t begin teaching koans himself till 1971, after he received Inka from Yasutani Roshi.

 

 

 

Koryu Osaka, Roshi, 1901-1985

In 1970, Koryu Roshi decided to come to ZCLA so that Maezumi could finish the studies with him begun when he lived in Koryu’s dojo. I started studying with Koryu Roshi in 1970, passed my first koan, Mu, with him in May 1970 and then went to Japan for a month to continue studying with him, passing my first 100 koans with him during that time. I consider Koryu Roshi to be my heart teacher and Maezumi Roshi my root teacher.

My training at ZCLA from 1966 to 1971 was in in meditation practices and Zen text studies with Maezumi Sensei and koan studies with Yasutani Roshi and Koryu Roshi in the traditions of the Sanbo-Kyodan and the Shakyamuni Kai, respectively. In 1969 Yasutani Roshi asked Maezumi Sensei to come to Japan and finish his studies with him. Maezumi asked me to lead ZCLA while he was in Japan, which consisted of my giving dharma talks and private interviews. In April 1970, Maezumi returned to ZCLA for 2 months to lead sesshin (retreat). On April 8, 1970 I received tokudo (ceremony of becoming a novice Zen priest) from him.

Maezumi, Roshi & Bernie

In 1973 we had our first 3-month practice intensive (ango) and I was asked to be Head Trainee (Shuso). Maezumi Roshi’s brother, Junyu Kuroda Roshi, came from Japan to train me in basic Soto Sect practices such as oryoki (meal serving and chanting), gakki (memorial services), liturgy, etc. This was our first introduction into basic Soto Sect practices, which not only focus almost exclusively on priestly functions, but whose main focus is conducting funerals. We were never trained in conducting funeral services at ZCLA. Our major practices remained meditation (zazen), koan study in the traditions of the Shakyamuni Kai and of the Sanbô-Kyôdan, and the study of Zen texts and some liturgical training. In these early years, I also began translating some of these texts into English with Maezumi Roshi.

In 1977, Maezumi Roshi and I formed the White Plum Asanga with the assistance of Dennis Genpo Merzel. We started to formulate rules and procedures for the various positions Maezumi Roshi was using for his training of students. Little by little this group of seniors grew and we started to formulate a more structured organization to substitute for the Japanese Soto School organization, Shumucho.

After Maezumi Roshi died (May 1995), I became Abbot of ZCLA. I remained in this position until 1999, when I installed Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Sensei, as the Abbot. She has remained in this position until today, doing a wonderful job of moving ZCLA through its transition phases. The White Plum Asanga, now changed to an affinity group of teachers, consists of teachers, both priest and lay, that were trained in a combination of some of the Japanese Soto School practices, some of the practices of the Shakyamuni Kai family, some of the practices of the Sanbô-Kyôdan family, and practices developed by Western teachers within the Asanga. In the White Plum tradition, we use the term Sensei or Zen Teacher for those who have had Dharma Transmission. We use the term Roshi or Zen Master for those that have received Inka.

The Shakyamuni Kai was founded by Joko Roshi, who was the teacher of Koryu Roshi. Joko Roshi was upset with the way Japanese priests were conducting themselves and created the Shakyamuni Kai for laypersons only. Koryu Roshi was his main disciple and was in charge of the Shakymuni Kai when I started to study under him in May, 1970. In this school, after finishing koan study, one can receive Inka when the teacher decides to confer it. Although Maezumi Roshi was a Soto Zen priest, Koryu Roshi made an exception to Joko Roshi’s rule, allowed Maezumi Roshi to study with him, and gave him Inka in 1972.

Another of Maezumi Roshi’s teachers was Yasutani Roshi, from whom he received Inka in 1971. Yasutani Roshi received his Inka (1943) from Harada Roshi, a Soto priest and teacher. Yasutani Sensei had received Soto Dharma Transmission many years before (at least 10 years). Harada Roshi received Dharma Transmission in the Soto School in his 20’s but later went to study with Dokutan Roshi, a Rinzai teacher and Abbot of Nanzen-ji in Kyoto, a Rinzai monastery, and received Inka. Since many of Harada Roshi’s students were from the Soto Sect and had received Dharma Transmission before coming to study with him, Harada decided to give Inka to them as a step after Dharma Transmission.

Yasutani Roshi left the Soto Sect and founded the Sanbô-Kyôdan (Jan. 1954) so that he could have laypersons as students and confer Inka on those he felt ready for it. As I mentioned before, he could not do so in the Soto Sect. This is still true in Japan (also, a layperson can’t receive Dharma Transmission in the Japanese Soto Sect.)

In the Soto Sect, Inka is not one of the steps in training. The Soto Sect’s Dharma Transmission is equivalent to the Rinzai Sect’s Inka. And of course, Dharma Transmission is only given to Soto priests in the Soto Sect. Yasutani Roshi left the Soto Sect and founded the Sanbô-Kyôdan (Jan. 1954) so that he could have laypersons as students and confer Inka on those he felt ready for it. In the Shakyamuni Kai and in the Sanbô-Kyôdan, Inka can be given to both priests and laypersons. Maezumi Roshi was the first priest to receive Inka in the Shakyamuni Kai. I am not sure if other priests received Inka after that.

My teacher, Maezumi Roshi, and I started to discuss the situation in Japan in 1973. He was not happy with the Japanese Soto Sect Headquarters, Shumucho, but told me he would do all the necessary paperwork to keep my registrations and the registrations of others to follow so that we could make our own decision on whether to maintain ties with Shumucho after we became teachers. [His own Dharma Transmission came through his father, a strong figure in the Soto Sect. His transmission papers are in the Soto tradition and the transmission papers all his successors did are also in the Soto tradition, not in the tradition of Sanbo-Kyodan or Shakyamuni Kai. I point this out because at various times I have heard different teachers in the White Plum claim succession in the other families. In my opinion, claiming succession in those families simply because we’ve received teachings or done koan study in their traditions is not too different from claiming succession to a Tibetan lineage because we’ve studied and teach practices like tonglen. Our teacher, Maezumi Roshi, got those Inkas; we did not.

It is true that Maezumi Roshi expressed his wish to continue the lay lineage of Koryu Roshi. But he was still deeply influenced by the Soto Sect’s emphasis on priests, for when I offered to disrobe as a way of continuing Koryu Roshi’s lineage, he told me he would disown me if I did that. He himself only gave Dharma Transmission to priests.

He also wanted to honor the tradition that Harada Roshi started of giving Inka after Dharma Transmission. He gave his first Inka to me in 1995. He died shortly after so he was unable to give any more Inkas.

I write all this to show that our White Plum family is blessed with different traditions and streams of teachings, including but not limited to Soto Sect, which flowed through Maezumi Roshi. [I don’t believe it means we are all officially successors in those lineages, only that our study and teachings are rich, varied, and multi-dimensional. We also have “cousins” in the Sanbo-Kyodan and Shakyamuni-Kai families which it would be nice to relate to. And each of us has then introduced and added new practices and teachings to this varied legacy. In 1999, after installing Wendy Egyoku Nakao as Abbot of ZCLA, I disrobed and became a lay Zen teacher. I have given Dharma Transmission and Inka to priests and laypersons, and have also introduced new training paths for Preceptors and Ministers.

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2 Comments

  1. Victor Perri

    I have practiced Zen for about 9 years, but I know nothing. Please have compassion for those of us in the relative. Dharma friend, Vic

    • Do you REALLY know nothing or do you only THINK that you know?
      How does this relate to your nine years of practice? If you did not practice, could you know something or not know nothing? To know or not-to-know or when and what to know? Are these the questions?

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