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Master Taisen Deshimaru
Taisen Deshimaru was born in 1914 in Saga, Japan, into a long-standing samurai family. His mother was a fervent Buddhist; his father, a businessman, wished him to enter a career in trade. At age twenty, he began his studies in economics. Disappointed by modern education which neglected the spiritual dimension, always searching for the true meaning of life, he came into contact with Zen teaching.
Finally his quest led him to Kodo Sawaki, who was respected and admired throughout Japan for his simple and free lifestyle. He gave Zen a freshness by taking it out of the temples, which were stuck in formalism. When Deshimaru approached the master, who was seated in zazen, Kodo Sawaki, without turning around or even raising his eyes, said to him, "I have been waiting impatiently for your visit." Deshimaru became his disciple.
When Deshimaru asked to be ordained a monk, Kodo Sawaki answered, "In our times, monks have become professionals. They don't do zazen and they perform the ceremonies mechanically for the laity. I understand your request, but I prefer that you continue to live in society while practicing zazen. I will make you a great man."
And so Taisen Deshimaru led a familial and social life, all the while continuing intense zazen practice with his master. Thus, little by little, he resolved the contradiction between the material and the spiritual that had tormented him in his youth. Shortly before his death, Kodo Sawaki ordained him monk and asked him to carry Zen--zazen--to the West.
At the death of his master, Deshimaru remained sitting in zazen for forty-nine days.
Two years later, he turned responsibility for his family over to his son, put his affairs in order, and took the Transiberian for France, with no money, not knowing a word of French, with only his kesa (garment of the transmission) and his master's notebook. He was fifty-three years old.
I brought true Zen to the Europeans; it is the greatest joy of my life. I accomplished the vow of my master Kodo Sawaki, and I have the conviction that this work will make history.
Arriving in France in 1967, Taisen Deshimaru lived in the back of a health-food store, practiced zazen every day and made a living by giving lectures and shiatsu massages. Supported by his profound faith in the practice of zazen and in his master's transmission, he knew how to make the teaching of the great masters accessible to the Western mind. Impressed by zazen and by Deshimaru's personality, a growing number of people began practicing with him. He opened a dojo, directed the first sessions and began to give the ordinations of bodhisattva and monk.
His activity was not limited to teaching in the dojo. He had a profound desire to help people in the current civilization, which he perceived as unbalanced, and to help them achieve, through zazen, a deeper understanding of themselves and their lives. With the assistance of his growing number of disciples, he created more than one hundred dojos in Europe. He founded the Zen Temple of La Gendronniere, the largest Zen dojo in the West. At the same time, he educated his disciples. His teaching is very concrete and rooted in daily life.
Recognized by the principal Soto Zen temples in Japan, he was named kaikyosokan (head of Zen teaching) for Europe. In his own country, he was called "the Bodhidharma of Modern Times." To his disciples, he was simply Sensei, "elder."
In his last years, increasingly conscious of the urgent need to help people amidst the imbalances of the modern world, he intensified his activities, working tirelessly. He said at that time, "My life may be short, but at least it will not have been selfish."
He became ill in the beginning of 1982, although he continued to practice zazen every day with his disciples. In the spring, he left for Japan. He died on April 30th. His last words to his disciples were, "Please, continue zazen." For forty-nine days, in all the dojos which he had created, his disciples practiced zazen day and night in total silence.
Taisen Deshimaru left his disciples the essence of Zen, zazen, which they transmit now in their turn: continuing his mission, practicing in the dojos, living in society, and coming together at the Temple of La Gendronniere during the major sessions of the year.
Just as Bodhidharma, fifteen hundred years ago, brought Zen from India to China, just as Dogen, eight hundred years ago, introduced it to Japan, so Master Deshimaru transmitted the essence of Buddha's teaching in Europe and throughout the world.