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#1789 - Thursday, May 6, 2004 - Editor: Gloria

This issue is In Memoriam of Roshi Philip Kapleau who died May 6, 2004.  

"Zen is a path of discovering one's true, innate friendship with the universe."  

Roshi in the Zen Center garden in 1975.  more photos:  

Founder of local Zen Center dies at 91
Renowned teacher Philip Kapleau wrote 'Three Pillars.'
By Corydon Ireland
Staff writer

(May 7, 2004) — Philip Kapleau, founder of the Rochester Zen Center, who in the 1950s traded an American commuter train for a monastery in Japan, died Thursday afternoon, surrounded by friends and family at the center on Arnold Park.

He was 91 and had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

Born in 1912, and a native of a working-class section of New Haven, Conn., he has long been regarded as one of the foremost teachers of Zen Buddhism in the Western world.

After World War II, Mr. Kapleau worked as a court reporter at the military tribunals in Germany and Japan, a racking experience that later drove him onto a spiritual path.

His 1965 book, The Three Pillars of Zen, introduced many Americans to Zen Buddhism, a traditional Japanese religious practice of disciplined meditation and self-examination. It is still considered a seminal text.

He wrote many other books.

Mr. Kapleau is survived by his wife, deLancey, and a daughter, Sudarshana.

”He will be missed by thousands,” said Margaret Lee Braun, a Brighton writer and friend who was with Mr. Kapleau when he died lying in a recliner in the center’s sunlit garden. “He gave us so many gifts — genuine teaching about life and death, a genuine spiritual practice.”

A student of Mr. Kapleau’s for more than 30 years, Braun called him “a profound person of his era.”

In a 1966 interview, Mr. Kapleau said that after the war, “a sense of the futility and the horror of life was very strong with me.”

Propelled by the defensive testimony of the Germans — and the testimony of Japanese defendants who acknowledged guilt and its consequences — Mr. Kapleau in 1952 started a 13-year study of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

He returned to the United States in 1965, an ordained Zen priest, and founded the Rochester Zen Center a year later in a rented house at 10 Buckingham St.

For years since then, it has been in linked converted mansions at 5 and 7 Arnold Park. It remains one of the premier U.S. centers of Zen Buddhism.

Mr. Kapleau’s death “is the culmination of an amazing life,” said John Pulleyn, who administers the center. “What he started in Rochester has grown worldwide.”

Seven successive nights of services for members and friends started Thursday at the center. They will be followed by weekly services for seven weeks.

A public funeral service, said Pulleyn, will be held “sometime in the future.”

In 1966, shortly after the publication of his first book, The Three Pillars of Zen, he came to Rochester to found the Zen Center. His other books, published subsequently, are Zen: Merging of East and West, To Cherish All Life, Awakening to Zen and The Zen of Living and Dying: A Practical and Spiritual Guide.

8 Books by Roshi Philip Kapleau, with good descriptions:,%20Roshi%20Philip

excerpt from:

Roshi and His Teachers, Dharma Transmission,
and the Rochester Zen Center Lineage

Sensei Bodhin Kjolhede

An edited transcript of a teisho given on January 8, 1995

We need to distinguish between an enlightenment experience and the integration of that experience into one's everyday life. Enlightenment experiences, in and of themselves, amount to little. There can be this tremendous opening, but if that enlightened eye is not confirmed in one's life, what is it? It's just an experience. Taking drugs can also bring ecstatic experiences, but what do you have when you come down? So we have to see the experience confirmed by upright character and set in strong practice. These are the things in which Roshi has always distinguished himself.

Let me read from a letter from the head of the zendo at a highly respected training temple in Japan where a number of us over the years have spent time. The person who wrote this letter has been practicing Zen for over twenty-five years, and for much of that time has been translating in dokusan for her teacher. She says of one of Roshi's students who was there at the time:

  • He is delightful to train with and I'm consistently impressed at the spirit and the meticulousness with which all of Kapleau-roshi's long-term students have been imbued. A true tribute to his (Kapleau-roshi's) essence is the similar fragrance, joy, and humility with which all of you approach your practice, and those who guide you and train with you. This is called "the wind of the house" of the master in Japanese. And that an American roshi's students can so similarly express a particular wind of the house says something very positive to me about Kapleau-roshi's teaching quality. I say this with confidence from dealing with you all in dokusan, and sitting, and in work practice as friends. Sincerely and deeply thankful for Kapleau-roshi's integrity.
  • As Roshi writes in Zen: Merging of East and West, his break with Yasutani-roshi was painful for him and not something that he is at all proud of. About ten or twelve years ago, author Lex Hixon [who died in 1995 – eds.] was an interviewer at a radio station in New York. He asked to interview Roshi and came to the Center. At one point in the interview Hixon suddenly asked, "What would you do if Yasutani-roshi were to walk into this room right now?" Without a moment's hesitation Roshi said, "I would put my hands palm-to-palm and beg his forgiveness for being such an unworthy disciple." Now, if that response strikes you as evidence against Roshi, then you're missing something very important.

    Certainly we can't ignore the staying power of Roshi's books. The Three Pillars of Zen is a modern classic. Although a lot of the material comes from Yasutani-roshi and others, Roshi sweated over that book in Japan for five years. He put everything into that book, and it shows. Part of his character, and one of his many assets, is his great commitment to the Dharma – and the faith that underlies that commitment. These qualities are manifested in his books, in his articles, and in his general recognition and stature as an authentic teacher in the Zen tradition.

    Bodhin Kjolhede with Philip Kapleau

    Zen Master Philip Kapleau speaks with Tricycle

    This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov at Kapleau Roshi’s residence in Hollywood, Florida in March, 1993.

    When Zen Master Soyen Shaku came to the U.S. in 1893 to attend the World Parliament of Religions, he was very optimistic about Zen in the West—as were many of your own teachers, such as Yasutani Roshi and Soen Roshi. On may occasions these teachers expressed disgust with the Japanese Zen establishment and looked to the West with tremendous hope. Do you think we’ve merited their optimism?

    Kapleau Roshi: I would say so. Many of the teachers in Japan were hopeful about America because of our great ability to get things done here—in terms of starting a monastery or center. What will happen from now on is anyone’s guess, because things are always changing. We’ve had our ups and downs, but on balance I think we’re still moving ahead. Among scholars and educated people, Zen is still highly respected. But I feel that we teachers have not been able to make known to the mass of people the great benefits of Buddhism. We’ve touched the mind of the educated people, certainly. But we have not yet touched their hearts. As a new religion comes to a country, it faces not only opposition from the established religions but the problem of adapting itself to the culture without sacrificing the qualities that make it unique and desirable. It’s not easy to take a tradition that is so totally foreign to most Americans and adapt it without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    As the teachings take root here and become "Americanized," are the differences between American values and Zen cutting deeper or getting closer?

    Kapleau Roshi: The essential or fundamental elements of Zen are not, we discover, so foreign to us. But in the acculturation process one of the strongest obstacles is the absence of the notion of a God in Buddhism. There’s no doubt that the "God Problem" is a bone stuck in the throat of a great many people. There is room for all kinds of interpretation. And ways for people to manipulate—and I use the word purposely—Zen, to favor a particular point of view. The ordinary person finds it very hard to conceive of a religious teaching that has no God.

    How do you feel about how Zen is now being interpreted by American practitioners? While you, for example, have maintained a focus on enlightenment, we see an increasing tendency to interpret "everyday Zen," or daily-life Zen, in ways that have more to do with lifestyle than with enlightened view.

    Kapleau Roshi: Basically, we live in a self-indulgent society. But actually I have let up on talking about enlightenment so much. My own experiences of almost thirty years teaches me that there are very few people who have the kind of do-or-die aspiration necessary to achieve awakening. I don’t think that is entirely tied to our insistence on comfort. Americans have, even in modern times, done some pretty heroic things and have undergone suffering for the sake of others. So, that kind of determination is there. But I think the preparation for the arousal of it—the training—has not been fully developed.

    Recently I was at a meeting in Santa Fe with a mix of Buddhists from all different traditions, and someone said that we get so caught up in identifying corruption—money, sex, power—that we’ve lost sight of the real corruption in Buddhism, which is the way the teachings are being altered to make them palatable to an American sangha.

    Kapleau Roshi: I fully agree. That is, if you mean making the practices easier or less disciplined. Then there are other corruptions as well, such as the appropriation of fundamental elements of Zen training by psychotherapists who give them a psychological twist. Or you find therapists teaching their patients meditation and equating it with spiritual liberation. Another threat to the integrity of Zen, and in many ways the most bizarre, is that Zen teachers sanctioning Catholic priests and nuns as well as rabbis and ministers to teach Zen. However, there is another corresponding danger. Those of us who cal ourselves Buddhist corrupt the teaching by a narrow sectarianism and by a sort of withdrawal from what’s going on in our society. A great Zen Master warned, "The man who clings to vacancy, neglecting the world of things, escapes from drowning but leaps into the fire."

    Looking back on your experiences and the choices you made about bringing Zen to this country—are there things you would do differently?

    Kapleau Roshi: No. As I said, what I did reflected the workings of my karma at the time. When your karma changes, so do you. I feel very grateful and I absolutely have no regrets. How can I?

    This interview appeared originally in its entirety in the Summer 1993 issue of Tricycle available at the Tricycle Shop .

    The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment
    by Philip Kapleau

    Now in a 35th Anniversary edition, The Three Pillars of Zen is generally regarded as the "classic" introduction to Zen Buddhism, and along with Shunryu Suzukis Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, has probably helped more westerners begin Zen practice than any other book.

    The book is a collection of texts which describe Zen Buddhism as encountered by Philip Kapleau in Japan in the 1950s. Kapleaus transmission is Zen as it was taught in particular by Harada-Roshi and Yasutani-Roshi, a synthesis of both the Rinzai and Soto traditions. Haradas and Yasutanis school revitalized Zen in the twentieth century, and their teaching is particularly relevant to Americans as many American Zen teachers today are of their lineage.

    The book is in three parts. Part One is titled "Teaching and Practice" and consists of Yasutanis Introductory Lectures on Zen Training (these alone are worth the price of the book), his Commentary (Teisho) on the Koan Mu, and records of his Private Encounters With Ten Westerners (in dokusan). These three sections provide the reader an idea of what Zen training is, how to begin, and hint at the flavor of the process as practiced in Yasutanis school. Part One concludes with a translation of a dharma talk and some letters by the 14th century Japanese master Bassui.

    Part Two is titled "Enlightenment" and consists of first-person descriptions of 20th century enlightenment (kensho) experiences. These descriptions are unique and fascinating, and bring the concept of enlightenment a personal relevance - its not just something that was attained by ancient masters. Of particular interest are the pieces by Kapleau himself, and Kyozo Yamada, both of whom became prominent Zen teachers.

    Part Three is a collection of supplements to the text and consists of a brief and mystifying selection from Dogens writings on "Being-Time", the famous "Ten Oxherding Pictures" with commentary and verse, and an extremely helpful section on sitting postures with common questions and answers.

    The 35th Anniversary edition has a new afterward by Bodhin Kjolhede, Kapleaus successor at the Rochester Zen Center, and a terrific glossary of Zen vocabulary and Buddhist doctrine.

    While no book can provide a complete in-depth view of the Zen tradition, The Three Pillars of Zen is a comprehensive look at Zen as practiced by a lineage that continues to have great influence in the West. The newcomer to Zen practice will come away from reading this book with clear guidelines about how to begin his or her practice, a fundamental understanding of Zen terminology, and at least a vague idea of what all this Zen talk is about.

    Highly recommended.


    Editorial Reviews
    "The Three Pillars of Zen is still, in my opinion, the best book in English that has been written on Zen Buddhism."--Huston Smith, author of The Worlds' Religions and Forgotten Truth

    "The Three Pillars of Zen heralded the end of armchair Buddhism.  With this practical guide to Zen meditation, Roshi Kapleau ushered in the first wave of American zazen practitioners.  It was extraordinarily inspiring.  It still is."--Helen Tworkov, founding editor of Tricycle:  The Buddhist Review and author of Zen in America

    "For over thirty years Roshi Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen has been the wellspring of Zen teachings for practitioners in the West, remaining as vital and fresh today as it was when it was originally published.  It truly ranks among the timeless classics of Zen Buddhism."--Roshi John Daido Loori, Abbot, Zen Mountain Monastery

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