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Zen Masters

Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965)
Taisen Deshimaru Roshi (1914-1982)
Robert Livingston Roshi (b. 1933)

Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965)

Kodo Sawaki, unlike most other Masters, refused to take charge of the monasteries offered him during his lifetime. Nor did he ever settle in a Temple or Dojo. Even after receiving the Shiho from his own Master, Kodo Sawaki remained to the end an unsui-that is, a wandering monk.

Both his parents having died when he was still a child, Kodo Sawaki was left in the charge of a severe and brutal uncle. His youth was spent working as a cleaning boy in a brothel and as an overseer at the gambling tables. (His uncle, who was a gambler, engaged the boy to ferret out the cardsharps and swindlers from among those with whom he gambled.)

When the Sino-Japanese war broke out, the boy was immediately packed off to the war front. Holding the notion that the boy, who was then just fourteen, should show the respect due his country by dying for it, the uncle warned Kodo Sawaki that he had better not come back alive if he knew what was good for him.

The fourteen-year-old boy proved himself to be a highly competent soldier, throwing himself into dangerous situations to save the lives of his fellowman, and so he received many honors and was decorated for distinguished action on the Sino-Japanese front. One day, after being shot in the mouth, Kodo Sawaki was declared dead and flung into a pit for corpses. Seriously wounded and unable to move (the boy was trapped under the weight of thirty-odd corpses above him), he remained under the rotting bodies for several days. Discovered when the bodies were about to be incinerated, Kodo Sawaki was rescued and returned to Japan as a war casualty.

Now sixteen years old, without family or friends, without food or money, without anything but the shirt and pants that clung to his body, he traveled by foot to the Temple of Eiheiji. It was a long and arduous trip, and it took him four days and nights to get to Eiheiji. The monks, taking Kodo Sawaki for a beggar-tramp (his clothes were but rags) and a madman (the bullet wound he had received in the mouth impaired his speech and made it difficult for him to speak), refused to listen to him. Undaunted, the youth persisted in his request to be admitted to the Temple. The Chief of the Temple, worn down by the young man's insistence, finally took him in. So grateful was he to have been allowed admittance to the Temple that, though very hungry (he hadn't had a bite to eat for days), Kodo Sawaki kept his hunger to himself and so remained for another two days without food and without sleep. Despite the lack of food-he was almost starving by then-he was so filled with joy that he could not close his eyes, even if he had wished to. Delegated to pounding rice in the kitchen, as was the Sixth Patriarch in the seventh century, Kodo Sawaki remained at Eiheiji for a few years before taking to the road. It was during these subsequent wanderings that he met the Soto Master Koho Roshi, from whom he eventually received the Transmission.

After receiving the Shiho from his Master, Kodo Sawaki went to live in an abandoned hermitage. Rarely sleeping for fear of wasting time, the Master spent his days practicing Shikantaza and his nights studying the Shobogenzo. And for food he ate nothing but rice and beans-uncooked-to save time.

After many years of this, and as ever refusing to affiliate himself with any Temple or monastery, Kodo Sawaki again took up the life of a wandering monk. Followed by a few devoted disciples (among them Taisen Deshimaru), the Master brought the teaching to the people in the distant corners of Japan, from the cities to the fishing villages, from the universities to the prisons.

In i965, while on his deathbed, he gave Taisen Deshimaru the Kesa, along with the Shiho.

Today two statues, one of Kodo Sawaki and one of Taisen Deshimaru, stand at the entrance to the Buddhist University of Komazawa.

From Deshimaru, Taisen (ed. Philippe Coupey). The Voice of the Valley.

Taisen Deshimaru Roshi (1914-1982)

Born in the Saga Prefecture of Kyushu in 1914 of an old Samurai family, Taisen Deshimaru was raised by his grandfather, who was a Samurai Master before the Meiji Revolution, and by his mother, a devout follower of the Buddhist Shinshu sect. Though, unlike Kodo Sawaki before him, Deshimaru had a happy childhood, he was nonetheless tormented, even at an early age, by this ephemeral world of birth and death. Nembutsu, as practiced by his mother, did not fulfill him. Nor, finally, did his long study of the Christian Bible, under the guidance of a Protestant minister. Deshimaru's contacts with theologians and priests left him unsatisfied, for Christianity, which had first captured his full attention, seemed in the long run to be hopelessly lost in abstract poetic imagery. It lacked, for him, the practical, while contemporary education (Deshimaru was graduated from the University of Yokohama), confined within its time-conditioned concepts, lacked the spiritual. In his search for a means to set his mind at rest, Deshimaru left off his study of Christianity and returned to his own religion-that of Buddhism. Consequently, he came into contact with the Rinzai teachings. Eventually becoming dissatisfied with Rinzai as well and feeling unfulfilled in his work as a businessman, Deshimaru began a series of meanderings which eventually led him to the Soto Master Kodo Sawaki.

Arriving for the first time in the Master's hermitage, he found Kodo Sawaki sitting erect on a cushion with his back to the door. Overcoming his initial shock-the Master was sitting in the perfect posture of the Buddha, and this alone left Deshimaru momentarily speechless-he addressed the man. Kodo Sawaki did not reply, and Deshimaru was left standing awkwardly in the doorway. He repeated himself, and again (as when Eka addressed Bodhidharma in their first encounter) there was no reply. But unlike Bodhidharma, who left Eka standing for two days before answering, Kodo Sawaki finally said: "I have been waiting impatiently for your visit." The Master uttered these words without turning to his visitor, without the slightest movement, without even lifting his eyes.

With the great joy that is felt when one's wanderings have come to an end and one has found a true Master, Deshimaru did gassho, and in that moment he became Kodo Sawaki's disciple.

Following directly in his Master's footsteps, he devoted himself, body and mind, to the practice of Shikantaza. However, after the Japanese attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor, circumstances obliged the disciple and his Master to part company-we will certainly lose the war," Kodo Sawaki said at their leave-taking. "Our homeland will be destroyed, our people annihilate . . . and this may be the last time we see one another. Nevertheless, love all mankind regardless of race or creed."

Deshimaru was being sent on a dangerous mission over enemy waters, and the Master knew this, and so he removed his old Rakusu (a material worn over the neck and breast, symbolic of a Kesa) and gave it to his disciple, along with his notebook containing the Shodoka. "Respect and have faith in what I have given you," said the Master, "and you will have good karma."

Deshimaru, whose job it was to direct a Japanese-controlled copper mine off Indonesia, shipped out in a convoy of freighters and destroyers. However, once they were beyond Japanese-controlled waters, submarines of the United States Navy made devastating attacks on the convoy, sinking one ship after the other. Deshimaru's freighter was carrying a cargo of dynamite, and whenever a torpedo skirted the bow or the stern, crew members, beyond themselves with fear, plunged blindly overboard. The ship was in the hands of a capable captain, however, and so Deshimaru sat on the forecastle below the captain's cockpit in the perfect full lotus. He sat, calmly and erect, on a case of dynamite. Forty days later Deshimaru's unarmed freighter pulled into the Mekong and threw anchor.

Of a convoy of fifty-one ships, his alone arrived at its destination. The freighter, incidentally, was called The Supreme Law of the Buddha.

Finding himself on the island of Bangka, off the coast of Sumatra, Deshimaru taught the practice of zazen to the Chinese, Indonesian and European inhabitants. However, saddened and depressed by the comportment of his own people (the Japanese Army of Occupation was indiscriminately torturing and executing large numbers of the local inhabitants), Deshimaru actively took up the Bangka people's cause. Tagged as a resistance fighter against the Imperial Japanese Army, Deshimaru was thrown into prison. Despite malaria, the intense heat, the flies, the filth, the lack of food and water, and his scheduled execution, the man sat facing a wall in his cell, with his Master's Rakusu about his neck.

Directly before the mass execution was to take place, word arrived from the highest military authorities in Japan, and Deshimaru, along with all those awaiting execution with him, was set free. (The Japanese Military Tribunal that convened after the war ordered the execution of all those responsible for the Bangka Affair).

Recovered from a life-and-death bout with malaria, Deshimaru again set sail, this time for the island of Billiton, where he was to direct a Dutch-captured copper mine. His ship had hardly set out when American fighter planes swept down on it. Their rockets scored direct hits, and Deshimaru, who was sitting on the bridge in Shikantaza, was hurled clear of the sinking ship and into the sea. Utterly alone, and without a life jacket-with nothing, in fact, except the old Rakusu and notebook on him-he remained afloat for a day and a night. Discovered eventually by a Japanese PT boat, Deshimaru was pulled to safety Though his clothes were torn and half gone, the Rakusu came out intact. And the Master's notes, written in ink, were as fresh and clear as when they were first penned.

When the war was finally over, Deshimaru was taken prisoner by the Americans and incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. After many more months of hardship (corned beef rations being their sole luxury), Deshimaru, along with the other twenty thousand Japanese war prisoners in the same camp, was returned to his homeland.

Deshimaru rejoined his Master and remained by his side until the latter's death fourteen years later. He received the monastic ordination shortly before the Master fell ill, and he received the Transmission (the Shiho) while Kodo Sawaki was on his deathbed. As material evidence, the Master gave his disciple the Kesa. So the Transmission and the Kesa, handed down from Buddha to Buddha and from Patriarch to Patriarch, were passed on from Master Kodo Sawaki to Master Taisen Deshimaru in the year 1965.

"In India during the time of Bodhidharma," said the dying Kodo Sawaki, "Buddhism was in a state of decadence. And so Bodhidharma's Master told his disciple to take the teachings with him to the West. Likewise in Japan, Buddhism is now dead. And so you, my Dharma heir, you alone, who know the true teachings of the Buddha-take them with you to the West so that Buddhism may again flourish. All people who do zazen are my disciples."

After burying Kodo Sawaki's skull in the ground outside the Dojo, Deshimaru sat immobile in the perfect posture of the Buddha for forty-nine days. Then he left his homeland for the West.

From the time of Buddha to that of Bodhidharma, seven hundred years went by, from Bodhidharma to Dogen another seven hundred years; and from Dogen to Deshimaru seven hundred years.

From Deshimaru, Taisen (ed. Philippe Coupey). The Voice of the Valley.

Robert Livingston Roshi (b. 1933)

Robert Livingston was born in New York City in January 1933. He grew up in New York, California and Texas, and graduated from Cornell University. He spent two years in Japan and Korea in the U.S. Army in the early 1950's, and studied and traveled in Europe after his Army discharge. After three years as a registered representative of the New York Stock Exchange, he returned to Europe where he was head of an international financial services corporation for ten years. He then retired from the business world and began practicing Zen with Master Deshimaru in Paris.

He became a close disciple of Deshimaru, who made Livingston a Zen teacher. Before his death in 1982, Deshimaru asked him to go to America and open a Zen dojo and teach true Zen practice in the United States. Livingston Roshi founded the American Zen Association and the New Orleans Zen Temple in 1983, and has been teaching in this country ever since.

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