From the sutras we chant to the posture and breathing that we do in zazen, the brand of Rinzai Zen practiced at Albuquerque Zen Center is strong and uncompromising, embodying the spirit of our founding teacher, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, Roshi. Although he has now reached 100, the intensity of Roshi’s teaching has not wavered since he first arrived 45 years ago on a mission to bring Zen to Americans.
Many consider him to be the dean of Zen teachers in America, due to his seniority and the vitality of his dharma, but he is easily among the oldest Zen priests in the world. He is the foremost representative in America of a teaching method called Nyorai (or Tathagata) Zen, which combines a rigorous analysis of dharma activity with realization.
Joshu Roshi was born in April 1907 in Miyagi Prefecture.He became a novice at the age of 14 under Joten Soko Miura Roshi, who went on to head Myoshin-ji in Kyoto, headquarters of the largest school of Rinzai Zen. Joshu Roshi trained at Myoshin-ji between the ages of 21 and 40, and in 1947 he received teaching authority as a roshi. In 1953 he became abbot of Shoju-an, an abandoned temple in Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture that had once been presided over by Dokyo Etan, teacher of Hakuin Ekaku, who revitalized Rinzai Zen in the 18th century.
Joshu Roshi was 55 when the kancho (abbot) of Myoshin-ji asked him to relocate to America. He arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on July 21, 1962, where he met his sponsor, Dr. Robert Harmon. Both men remember that Roshi, who spoke little English, carried with him both Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries.
Harmon rented a small house on Mariposa Street in Gardena, where Roshi took up residence. With few furnishings or amenities at first, the house was Roshi’s residence by day and a zendo at night. He conducted Zen meetings on weeknights and Sunday mornings, as well as weekly meetings at the homes of some of his students. He served as jikijitsu, shoji and tenzo, while also giving sanzen and leading the chants at the beginning of each meeting.
In November 1963, Roshi and his Zen students incorporated the Rinzai Zen Dojo Association. Over the next few years, as Roshi’s reputation spread throughout Southern California, he led group zazen in homes in the Hollywood Hills, Laguna Beach and Beverly Hills. When the Mariposa zendo outgrew its quarters in 1966, the group started holding zazen in office space donated by Harmon. Around the same time Roshi ordained his first monks, among them Kodo Ron Olsen and Gentei Sandy Stewart.
In July 1967, Roshi commemorated his fifth anniversary in the U.S. by conducting his first seven-day dai-sesshin in the mountain village of Idyllwild, Calif. In January 1968, the organization’s name was changed to Rinzai-Ji, Inc., and it bought its first property, Cimarron Zen Center. A complex of buildings surrounded by high walls, Cimarron Zen Center needed extensive renovation before it was formally dedicated on April 21, 1968, and Roshi took up residence there along with a group of students. Cimarron now is known as Rinzai-ji.