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Lions Roar : January 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2009 53 “I consider Roshi to be the kancho [abbot] of Zen worldwide,” says Oscar Moreno, a retired computer science professor from Puer- to Rico who sat next to me for the week. He has studied with Joshu Roshi since 1975 and estimates that he has sat close to 300 sesshins with him. “Roshi is at the top of Buddhism, and that’s why he has not certified anyone as a successor,” Moreno says. “Unless they know what he knows and realize what he has realized, he won’t be satisfied.” EVERYONE IN THE ZENDO wore black. Seated by a bronze gong at the altar, the chant leader’s low, unearthly moan morphed into Myoho renge kyo, the first line of the Lotus Sutra. Everyone joined in, chanting phonetically in Sino-Japanese as an assistant drummed, speeding up the rhythm until we were rolling along at a kinetic clip. The Heart Sutra followed, then a series of other sutras. Roshi hobbled into the zendo, his gait slowed by age and a bad case of sciatica. Wearing his fierce, implacable practice face, he sat in a chair while a list of those participating in the sesshin was read aloud. The members included priests, monks, nuns, and lay students ranging from a nineteen-year-old college freshman to several people in their sixties. The formalities concluded and, the evening meal approaching, Roshi shuffled out of the zendo. Joshu Roshi was born in 1907 to a farming family near Sendai in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture. At fourteen, he became a novice un- der Joten Soko Miura Roshi at Zuiryo-ji in the northern island of Hokkaido. Later, he trained for twenty years at Myoshin-ji in Kyoto, receiving teaching authority in 1947. In 1953 he took over as abbot of Shoju-an, where the teacher of Zen master Hakuin Ekaku had once presided. Nine years later, when a group of Amer- icans wrote to Myoshin-ji asking to have a monk come teach in the States, the head priests there decided to send Joshu Roshi. He arrived at LAX on the morning of July 21, 1962, carrying a Japanese-English dictionary and an English-Japanese dictionary. John F. Kennedy was president. Telstar, the world’s first commu- nications satellite, had just been launched, and the Beatles were an up-and-coming band from Liverpool. Joshu Roshi managed to make himself at home in this new land, living for a while in a garage behind a student’s house. His timing was perfect. Young people exploring alternative spirituality soon came to sit with him. He ordained his first American monk in 1964, and four years later he and his students bought Rinzai-ji, a 1920s-era residence in South Central Los An- geles. In 1971 he opened a monastery in an old Boy Scout camp on Mount Baldy in California’s San Gabriel range, and the next year he established Bodhi Manda Zen Center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Since then, his priests and monks have started cen- ters throughout North America and Europe. Roshi’s determination to practice with every ounce of his remaining strength inspires great devotion among his students.