Venerable Zen Master Guides Others on Elusive Path to Truth

Times Staff Writer

A lot of searching goes on out there, Grasshopper. But truth can sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Joshu Sasaki, the Mt. Baldy Zen Center's 82-year-old Roshi, or Zen Master, rarely talks to outsiders nowadays. Mostly, the venerable spiritual leader spends his days in his little wood-slat cabin in the mountains, meditating and teaching his students and acolytes according to the oblique methods of Zen Buddhism.

But there is no predicting the Roshi. His students, in the monastery-like compound over which Sasaki presides, a former Boy Scout camp on the shoulder of the San Gabriel Mountains' highest peak, are often baffled by the master.

"He's difficult to understand sometimes," said one elderly monk during a rare idle moment at the Zen center.

Today, the Roshi has agreed to meet an outsider.

Some Apprehension

This makes administrative director Koyo, who reluctantly leads the visitor along a path past towering Douglas firs to the Roshi's cabin, a little apprehensive. "I don't know how much you've prepared for this," says Koyo, 42, formerly Charles Engennach of Trenton, N.J., "but he probably won't answer a lot of academic questions on the nature of Buddhism."

Then Koyo shrugs. "But I don't want to predict what the Roshi will or will not say," he says.

Academically speaking, Zen is a school of Buddhism dating back to the 12th Century, when Japanese masters adapted Indian and Chinese meditation techniques and moral discipline in the search for transcendental illumination. From the Zen perspective, true wisdom is rarely straightforward or capable of being expressed objectively.

The serious student seeks to escape "the eternal donkey hitching post" of objective language, as one Zen saying puts it, to a transcendental truth which can only be expressed in poetry or paradoxical riddles called koans. (Probably the most often-repeated koan in the Western world: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?")

Sasaki came from Japan to Mt. Baldy 27 years ago, at the beginning of a wave of American interest in Zen Buddhism. College students were studying Alan Watts' books on Zen, the "beat" writers were waxing freely about Dharma (the sum of Buddhist truth), zazen (the Zen form of meditation) and other exotic ideas, and the first Japanese teachers were arriving in the United States.

"Twenty years ago, it was come one, come all, and all of us hippies came bouncing through the door," said Koyo, a tall, angular man, with his head shaved and his body wrapped in a black robe. "There was revolution in the air, you know?"

Fading by Mid-1970s

Not the sort of bedrock on which to build a movement. By the mid-1970s, despite the popularity of a television "Kung Fu" character, who spouted ageless Zen-like profundities in the American West, Zen was fading into a broad American panorama of cults, churches and pop philosophies.

Those early students, intrigued by Zen thought's challenge to rational thought, were not known for their longevity in the discipline, said Koyo, who has been studying Zen since 1971. "Most people get involved for a couple of years," he said.

But the Zen tide of the 1960s left behind some lasting institutions dedicated to the promotion of Zen thought. One of these was Rinzai-Ji, a Los Angeles-based national organization, the parent body of the Mt. Baldy center.

The mountain center's faded red, wooden buildings seem to have been sprinkled randomly in a hollow 6,000 feet up the mountain, high above the smog line. There is a large meditation hall, an eating hall, an office, several dormitories and, on a knoll overlooking the camp, the Roshi's cabin.

With its tree-lined vistas and blue skies, the place produces a feeling of almost palpable tranquility, outsiders often note. "Walk through the compound and you wonder sometimes if anyone's there," said George Duffy, a Forest Service officer from the Mt. Baldy district, who frequently patrols the road past the Zen center. "They do maintain a real peaceful setting there, with a sense of some kind of higher association with the world, like going to a convent or a religious shrine."

But there is hard work going on there, too, under a system of rigorous discipline. The Roshi's students--there are 23 of them, including monks engaged in long-term studies and uninitiated novices who are here for the summer--get up every morning at 3. Their day is filled with tasks (such as building a retaining wall, putting a new roof on the shower house or cooking), meditation, one-on-one brainstorming with their master and silence.

"Banter, chatting, wondering what's going to happen tomorrow--that's all considered a distraction from the reality that's being expressed," Koyo said. Bedtime is at 9 p.m.

Otherworldly Realms

Koyo shows you the main meditation hall, a long unadorned room, with benches along the walls and cushions on which students perch in the cross-legged lotus position.

In meditation it is easy to "drift into otherworldly kinds of realms," Koyo said. The meditation leader, a senior member of the group, sometimes polices the hall with a long, flat stick with which he brings dreamers and fidgeters back to the task at hand. Transgressions are met with stinging whacks with the stick, or keisaka, on the muscle of each shoulder.

Meditation, a way of heightening awareness, is central to Zen. "It's not thought," Koyo said. "In some ways, thought interferes with meditation. You need to direct it into its deeper expressions." Ideally, he adds, the awareness that comes from meditation carries over to other activities.

Twice a year, the center holds weeklong sesshins, or retreats, when students spend hours at a time in meditation. The mid-year sesshin has recently ended. "Don't you notice my glow?" Koyo said.

A monk knocks two wooden blocks together, summoning the students for a short pre-luncheon meditation. They meditate for 10 minutes, then walk single file, wordlessly, to the dining hall, where they eat a meal of mashed potatoes (with margarine) and lettuce-and-radish salad.

After the meal, several have time to speak to the visitor. One introduces himself as Dogo, a former teamster and welterweight boxer from New York. What brought him to the Zen Center? "It's a big, long, sloppy story," said Dogo, 63, who was known in his earlier life as Pat Scanlon.

"After I quit boxing (in 1948), everything sort of went sour," said Dogo, a bespectacled man who squints in the sun like someone who has just awakened from a refreshing sleep. "I started using drugs, my wife got in trouble over me and she left me alone with the baby."

After three years of fruitless psychoanalysis, Dogo read a book by the Zen interpreter Shunryu Suzuki and looked up "Zen" in the Manhattan telephone book. He wound up at the Zen Institute in New York in 1967. He has been at the Mt. Baldy center for three years, where Roshi Sasaki has brought him contentment, he said.

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