Dharma Rain Zen Center - Stillpoint
The Last Japanese Ancestor
Keido Chisan Koho Zenji
by Cindy Unkai McKinley
Koho Hakugan looked across the dead body and spoke to 7-year-old
Zenzo, saying “I,
too, lost my mother when I was very young.” The boy, with a child’s
clarity, understood the Truth of Impermanence.
Keido Chisan was born Okuda Zenzo on August 16, 1879, in Toyoma Prefecture.
His father died two weeks after his birth and his mother was forced to take
Zenzo and his older brother to live with her parents. They were fortunate
in that his grandparents were wealthy farmers and well connected to the Sotoshu.
However, Zenzo was unfortunate that the customs of the time demanded that
his mother remarry, take her oldest son, and live with her new husband’s
family. So, Zenzo was left with his grandparents. Fate also dictated that
young Zenzo would be steeped in the traditions of Soto Zen almost from birth.
His aunt and uncle were both ordained within the Soto tradition and since
the entire family was a wealthy patron of the Sotoshu, he had the opportunity
to meet many great teachers.
By the time Zenzo was five years old, both of his grandparents died. But
his aunt and uncle loved him a great deal and he was well cared for. He spent
time with both of them at their hermitages and was exposed to the monastic
traditions very early in his life. His uncle’s teacher was Morita Zenji,
a revered Zen teacher at Eihei-ji. Once when visiting the family farm, Morita
said to the boy, “Perhaps I will take you with me.” He felt compassion
for the young boy who had lost so many loved ones. Although young, Zenzo
was very bold, perhaps stubborn one might say, and would not go with Morita
Zenzo found friends and extended family as best he could and was particularly
fond of a younger niece. As if cursed by constant loss, the little niece
died as well. The family, being so closely associated with the Sotoshu, called
upon Koho Hakugan to oversee the funeral rites. At the time, Koho Hakugan
was the abbot of Yoko-ji. Zenzo was immediately drawn to the great teacher,
and sat next to him throughout the week-long memorial ritual. At the end
of that week, Koho Hakugan looked across the dead body and spoke to 7-year-old
Zenzo, saying “I, too, lost my mother when I was very young.” The
boy, with a child’s clarity, understood the Truth of Impermanence.
All mothers, fathers, grandparents, and nieces are impermanent. The losses
were not personal to Zenzo and he saw even then that all is, by nature and
necessity, impermanent. When all is taken away, when all you loved is gone,
what is being offered? The opportunity for all creation arises from impermanence.
This would become one of the foundations of Keido Chisan’s legacy to
the Soto Zen lineage.
At age eleven, Zenzo became a disciple of Koho Hakugan and at thirteen
he was ordained and given the name, Keido Chisan. As a young monk, he was
to fulfill his duties at the temple and attend school. Although no longer
living with his mother, he was very devoted to her and often made a three
hour detour between the temple and schoolhouse to visit with her. From an
early age, he had great respect for women. This was primarily due to the
close relationship that he had with his mother and his aunt, who was a Soto
Buddhist nun. It was during this time that the rules for nuns were beginning
to loosen up allowing them to marry and grow their hair. So his formative
years as a young monk were accompanied by a general shift, however slight,
towards more equality for women in the monastic ranks.
The young monk was something of a bookworm and became interested in western
philosophy. He wrote many scholarly articles that were published in the philosophy
magazines of the time. He could easily have chosen the career of a Buddhist
scholar, given the breadth and depth of his study. Although he served as
a principal for a Soto middle and high school for many years, he was primarily
a monk. When he was 29 years old, Koho Hakugan called upon him to rebuild
Raigaku-ji which had been destroyed by fire. He met the challenge of rebuilding
with joy and tremendous energy. It was such a success that he was called
upon to rebuild other temples. He became known as a rebuilder of many temples
and halls and as a tireless fundraiser for these efforts.
Over the years, he served as abbot of several temples: Yoko-ji, Soji-ji,
Saijo-ji, Senpuku-ji, to name a few. Eventually, he planned to retire at
Fukuju-in in Tokyo. He had collected over 5,000 rare and treasured books
over the years and stored them at Fukuju-in, hoping to enjoy them in his
retirement. In March, 1945, in the heat of WWII, Tokyo was brutally bombed
by allied forces. The first bombers to fly over were very close to the ground
and intentionally dropped bombs to create a large circle of fire around almost
a third of the city. Fukuju-in and Keido Chisan were in the middle of this
circle. Hundreds of thousands of people were trapped behind this firewall
as the second bomber formation flew over to drop bombs in the middle of the
circle. Fukuju-in was destroyed, all of the books were destroyed, and over
100,000 people died.
In Keido Chisan’s text, Soto Zen, he writes about WWII, saying, “…on
the one hand it was a great tragedy, but on the other, it was responsible
for bringing about a great cultural interchange between East and West. Needless
to say, we earnestly desire this interchange, but without the curse of war.” It
should not be a surprise therefore that he would bring the first Westerner
into Soji-ji to train as a monk. Better still, that Westerner would be a
woman. The loss of life and the loss of his personal treasures during the
war were opportunities to give both East and West the Buddha’s teachings
on the Immaculacy of Impermanence.
His method of emanating this teaching in so many directions was brilliant.
He taught the Truth of Impermanence to the monks at Soji ji through the presence
of Jiyu Kennett. Jiyu Kennett was brought to Soji-ji not so many years after
the brutal bombings by allied forces. Many of the monks at Soji-ji were still
suffering with hatred for all Westerners. Keido Chisan, now known as Koho
Zenji, brought what was left of that war to their doorstep in the personage
of Jiyu Kennett. In this way, he contributed to the cultivation of Zen in
both cultures. Much like Keizan, he was interested in honoring the traditions
of the past but letting the Dharma grow with the times. Jiyu Kennett played
a critical role in showing that Westerners, and even women, were capable
of training in the same Zen monastic tradition as Japanese men. While the
fundamental traditions and teachings of Zen remained untouched, the Dharma
was spreading to the West. Koho Zenji was insistent that the Dharma be carried
to the West by a Westerner who understood the culture of the West. The monks
at Soji-ji who were ready to see and hear beyond their personal and national
tragedy received the treasure of the knowledge of the ever present Truth
Likewise, the West, unaware of victory’s poison, would soon receive
Keido Chisan Koho Zenji at the White House, as he asked permission from
President Eisenhower to bring Zen to the West. Perhaps they laughed at the
from Japan, but from this small opening grew a thriving Zen culture in
the West, with roots in the honored traditions and offshoots of new traditions
appropriate for a different culture. Koho Zenji passed along the Dharma
could free both the East and West from attachments to victories and defeats.
Koho Zenji writes:
Existence is not something fixed, immovable; non-existence is not
a vacuum, not empty, but immaculate. Impermanence which transcends existence
is the growth and development of the infinite. It is impermanence which
is the true form of the Buddha Nature and the self-development of it.
Buddha Nature regenerates itself constantly and thereby keeps on growing
and extending itself throughout time and space.
The previous moment must evaporate for the present moment to be possible.
Every moment something new is created from the decaying past. Existence
occurs only right now. The particulars of that existence quickly slip
into the non-existent
past. The next moment, while not existing yet, is immaculate. So this
moment, although conditioned and fertilized by the past, appears on the
and pristine canvas of nothingness. But this nothingness contains everything.
Recognizing impermanence as the true form of Buddha Nature acknowledges
all phenomena as empty while still observing particulars of phenomena.
Keizan tells us to “…observe impermanence, never forget it.” How
could we forget or remember? Perhaps Keizan is simply stating that in the
observation of impermanence, it is in fact impossible to forget it. One must
be fixed in the delusion of permanence to forget it. And only in the release
of such delusion is remembrance remotely possible. Even so, it is not really
remembrance as much as seeing or not seeing what is always present. Impermanence,
as the true form of Buddha Nature, is neither remembered nor forgotten if
we truly see. In the same passage, Keizan says, “You should observe
that the matter of life and death is a great one, and impermanence is swift…” and,
in my observation, immediate. Even if this body still appears to be alive
with the same particulars as past moments, it is only because I lack sufficient
patience to see the infinitely fine granularity of birth and death. These
remarks about impermanence are found in Keizan’s Zazen Yojinki,
to be Aware of in Zazen.” In our practice of zazen, we develop patience
to observe, to simply notice, the rise and fall of thoughts, emotions and
As Keizan and Koho Zenji both understood, the observance of what is useful
from the past does not exclude the present unfolding with new life, thus
expanding the Dharma. Furthermore, expansion and growth naturally occur without
the need to destroy the past. Shall we say that they co-exist? Yes, but only
right now. Existence is always only right now. If the Wisdom of Impermanence
guides our steps, we need not consider the Dharma as increasing with the
present moment or decreasing in previous moments or disappearing or appearing
in any realm of time or space. It does not rely on existence or non-existence.
Sitting in silence, we fall into this ocean of Oneness, rising with the individual
wave within our own minds, and then receding into the depths that know nothing
of the waves. Neither the wave nor the still depths are to be avoided. They
both elegantly manifest the vast ocean as always shifting and always changing.
The wave does not cease to be the ocean when it rises, nor does it return
to the ocean when its cycle is complete since it never separated from the
ocean. Consider this beautiful passage attributed to Manzan:
Great perfect awareness is the ocean of ultimate peace; still and silent,
myriad forms and images reflect therein. Yet suddenly when the wind of objects
arises it turns into an ocean of birth and death, with waves of consciousnesses
and feelings billowing day and night, where all sentient beings appear and
disappear, with no end in sight. Although the two oceans seem different,
really they come from the same source, mind. Originally there is no sign
of distinction in the mind source; life and death and nirvana all revert
to the essential nature of the source. Therefore, when you realize the mind-source,
the whole universe is a great round perfect ocean. But how to realize the
mind source? You must liberate body and mind on the sitting cushion before
you can do so.
Dogen tells us that “awareness of impermanency is inseparable from
recognition of the timelessness of a moment.” And he notes, “No
one knows where and when this dew-like existence will drop into the grass.
Not recognizing impermanence is truly regrettable.” There is a restful
joy in the constant unfolding of this universe. While much care and energy
is given to “rebuilding” the “temple destroyed by fire,” we
should not rebuild with the hopes of recreating what once was. The death
of the temple was a complete event in and of itself. The birth will be equally
complete in its time. This is the peace of surrendering to the Truth of Impermanence.
Please allow me to offer a verse as you travel the Way.
Shadows playing with sunlight
On late day windows
My eyes applauding.
Note: Translation of Keido Chisan’s biography, written in Japanese
by Hidefume Matsu’ura, was provided by Mikio Daicho Ohgushi. I greatly
appreciate not only the verbal translation but also Daicho’s insights
into Koho Zenji’s life and WWII from a Japanese perspective.
Cleary, Thomas. Timeless Spring: A Soto Zen Anthology. New York: John Weatherhill,
Dogen, Eihei. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. Ed. Kazuaki
Tanahashi. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985.
Keido, Chisan. Soto Zen: An Introduction to the Thought of the Serene
Reflection Meditation School of Buddhism. Ed. Rev. Jisho Perry. Mt. Shasta: Shasta Abbey
Matsu’ura, Hidefumi. Biography of Keido Chisan Zenji. Sojiji, Kanagawa
Prefecture: Sotoshu Head Temple, 1973.