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At 105, a Zen master blends East with a bit of L.A. to help guide his Western students

The Zen master would not stop talking.

Several times he began to draw his teachings to a close, explaining to his students that he was tired and in poor health. Then he would burst down another path.

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He discussed the difficulties of raising children. He lingered on the subject of death. Eventually, he raised a small fist in the air.

“Everybody is together at one point,” he said. “We cry together, we love together. There is no moment in which we are not together.”

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He is 105 years old and not even 5 feet tall, with paper-white skin and a blocky, bald head. Enveloped in long black robes, he looks a little like a child wrapped in towels after a bath.

Denkyo Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi arrived in Los Angeles 50 ago to teach a religion that for centuries had been confined to the monasteries of Japan. With a handful of other monks, he helped carve out a new incarnation of Zen Buddhism here, mixing traditional meditation practice with teachings tailored for Western minds.

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Most of that first wave of Japanese teachers have died. But Roshi, as his followers call him, says he will live until he’s 120. He once made a pledge to his students: “I will not die until Zen is born in America.”

One muggy morning this summer, a few hundred people gathered at Rinzai-ji, Roshi’s home temple in the West Adams district, to celebrate the anniversary of his coming to this country.

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His reach over the years could be seen in the range of people milling around the temple’s walled garden before the ceremony began. There was a DJ from Montreal and a surgeon from Taos, N.M., the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen and a Brown University professor who helped pioneer an academic field called Contemplative Studies. There were dancers and lawyers and filmmakers. And there was my father, smiling in his own black robes, his bald head tanned from the desert sun.

When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time. He would return home physically drained but mentally recharged — and filled with stories about his energetic and enigmatic teacher.

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A writer who was raised Catholic, my dad found Buddhism in the late 1980s at a Zen center in Albuquerque — one of two dozen centers Roshi has established around the world.

Like many people, my dad had a bad case of what some Buddhists call “monkey mind,” a busy head crowded with lots of thoughts. He says Zen practice, with its daily practice of meditation, allowed him to be more engaged with the world outside.

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As often as he’s been able, he has joined Roshi for retreats. For seven days, he would endure a rigorous schedule of little sleep, no talking, and up to 18 hours of daily meditation.

Health permitting, Roshi would talk, speaking in short spurts of gravelly Japanese. Maybe it’s in the translation, but he often seems to be speaking in riddles.

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Consider this Roshi-ism, from a teaching he gave in April:

“Where there is one thing, it does not move. I don’t move either. The flower doesn’t move either. Then it becomes clear.”

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Roshi’s students hang on his parables. But when I was a kid, I thought the whole thing was crazy.

I liked doing things — swimming with friends, playing the guitar or just wandering on the sandy mesa behind our house, dreaming about life outside of Albuquerque. I didn’t understand why my dad kept hitting the pause button, why on some nights, I would walk outside and find him perched cross-legged beneath an old cottonwood tree, just sitting there.

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Roshi was just a kid himself when he boarded a train in 1921, bound for a monastery 500 miles away from home.

His parents, farm owners near Sendai, had sent him to Sapporo to study Zen, timing it so he would arrive at the temple on the Buddha’s birthday.

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When he got there, the teacher posed a question: “How old is the Buddha?”

“The same age as me,” he replied. Roshi’s response was deemed adequate, so the young man who once dreamed of becoming a pilot instead became a priest.

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He learned how to meditate. And he learned about the life and teachings of the Buddha, an Indo-Nepalese prince who some 2,500 years earlier had renounced a life of riches for a spiritual path.

The Buddha’s epiphany, after years of wandering and meditation, was that everyone and everything is impermanent and interconnected. Those thoughts in your head? Those emotions? He found that they were always changing as part of the constant regeneration of the world.

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The Buddha taught that the pain in life comes when we become too tied to one feeling or idea and begin defining ourselves as something unchanging and distinct, estranged from the people and things around us. Our suffering will disappear, he taught, when we truly understand through spiritual practice that there is fundamentally no “us,” and therefore, no “them.”

The United States wouldn’t seem fertile ground for Buddhism. The American Dream drives us to be individuals and to put our mark on the world — sometimes through acquiring cars, clothes and other material signs of success.

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But in the late 1950s, Eastern thought began gaining currency in some quarters as Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg devoured translations of Buddhist texts. In 1962, two Zen students in California wrote to a large monastery in Japan seeking a teacher, and Roshi was selected to go.

He was 55 and by then an accomplished teacher who had been the abbot of a historic temple. When he stepped off the plane at Los Angeles International Airport, he carried a change of robes and two Japanese-English dictionaries.

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Soon, a stream of young spiritual seekers were showing up at his small rented house in Gardena. These artists, professors, musicians and doctors had one thing in common, according to Steve Sanfield, a poet who met Roshi shortly after he arrived: “They were seeking a life apart from the American way.”

But Roshi wanted to learn about the American way as much as his students wanted to learn about Japanese Zen. He took road trips, hiked the Grand Canyon and went to the movies, falling asleep during a screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He even accompanied students to a strip club.

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According to Sanfield, Roshi told his followers that if Zen was going to flourish, it was going to have to “wear American clothes.”

He taught that enlightenment was available to everyone, including women, and about the need for integrating Buddhism into everyday life. Once in a one-on-one teaching known as sanzen, Roshi asked Sanfield: “When you’re on the freeway, where is the Buddha?”

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After Roshi’s students (and their hippie clothing) started raising eyebrows among his Japanese American neighbors, he moved his temple to a dilapidated Spanish Colonial house just south of the 10 Freeway. By the 1970s, he had founded one training center at a former Boy Scout camp at Mt. Baldy and another near natural hot springs in the juniper-dotted hills of New Mexico.

As interest in Eastern thought grew, Roshi brought his teachings all over the world — to Germany, to Puerto Rico, to a cooperative farmhouse outside of Princeton, N.J. In Los Angeles, he traveled in an old Studebaker. Sanfield was driving him one day when they were pulled over for speeding. The police officer peered into the back of the car, which was filled with meditation cushions, and in the front, where Roshi sat silently, his hands clasped in his lap, “looking just like the Buddha.”

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Unnerved, the traffic officer let them off. As soon as he walked away, Roshi broke out laughing.

He coughs a lot now after a recent bout with pneumonia, and he can no longer walk on his own. But he laughs a lot still.

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Before the anniversary ceremony at his temple, I peered around a corner to see him being helped by several students down a set of stairs and into a wheelchair. When he noticed me staring at him — and a photojournalist raising a camera to take his picture — Roshi’s arched eyebrows lifted as he broke into a delighted grin. There seemed to be a message behind his good cheer: Don’t take yourself so seriously.

It had been years since I’d seen him. By now I was 25, not much younger than my father had been when he first sought the cushion to calm his busy mind.

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I now knew “monkey mind” intimately. College in New York City and a career in Los Angeles had produced a whirl of new ideas, experiences and relationships. It was fun and fast-moving, but endless digital distractions and a dose of recession anxiety left me sometimes thirsting for a less cluttered life, and for a connection with the world beyond just my “self.”

On my own, I started investigating meditation, and I found myself drawn not to Buddhism but yoga. Spending a little part of each morning in the deep focus of a sun salutation gave me clarity. I used to think my dad’s meditation was escapism. Now I saw that it has helped him be more awake for his life.

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As Roshi was wheeled into the main ceremony room, I looked around at the roomful of students. Some wore robes, but many were dressed in jeans, sneakers and other “American clothes.”

That afternoon, there would be a party with long tables of great food, chilled sake and live music. People would ditch their shoes and sprawl in the grass. But now, we listened to the man who had lived so long, and who seemed so at ease.

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Teaching always, Roshi used his own life to talk to us about the impermanence of things, and about the ways we are connected.

“There is nothing more joyful than dying,” he said. “Together, with you, I am dying. So nothing is sad.”

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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