History of Our Form

“The sowing of Zen in American soil started in an international spirit when a Japanese Zen Master came to Chicago in 1893 to attend the World Parliament of Religions. In the early 1930’s a Japanese monk, Nyogen Senzaki, started a Zen Group in Los Angeles. About the same time in Japan, another monk, Soen Nakagawa, was living in seclusion on a mountain called Dai Bosatsu, and a child named Eido Tai Shimano was born in Tokyo. In the four decades that followed, the combined efforts of these men in their dedicated work for the Dharma made possible the birth of Dai Bosatsu Zendo in America.” 

Eido Shimano Roshi, from Namu Dai Bosa, A Transmission of Zen Buddhism in America. 

It goes without saying that many synergistic steps, truly reflecting the interconnection, interpenetration, and interdependency we understand to be part of Zen took place within those decades, and was wondrous indeed. These steps also included the faithful contributions of many others, including many women, who played a crucial role in facilitating the unfolding.

Soyen Shaku, Nyogen Senzaki and D.T. Suzuki

Ryoga Kutsu Soyen Shaku, born 1859 (d. 1919) was the Abbot of Engaku-ji and Kencho-ji in Kamakura, Japan. He first came to the United States for the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago, in 1893. His mission of transmitting Zen to the West was anchored in the belief that “In any part of the globe, where there is air, a fire can burn.”

He would later return to the Pacific Coast of the U.S. as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Russell of San Francisco, who he had met during his Chicago visit in 1893. Accompanied by his student, Choro Nyogen Senzaki, Shaku toured and taught between 1905 and 1906, including visits to major East Coast cities of Washington DC, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. 

 A restlessness with the formality and “cathedral-like” approach to Zen practice is a consistent theme between those who chose to bring the practice to the West, beginning with Choro Nyogen Senzaki (1876-1958). Born in 1876 on the Siberian peninsula of Komchatka to a Japanese mother who died at birth and an unknown father, Choro was adopted by a Japanese Tendai Buddhist priest. The two moved to Japan shortly after meeting. When his adoptive father also died suddenly, Senzaki essentially renounced the world and became a Buddhist monk, first studying in the Soto tradition, then Rinzai at the Enkaku-ji monastery in Kita Kamakura. 

This restlessness and unique mindset to an enlivened practice of action prompted Shaku to permit Senzaki to leave the monastery in 1901 “to live the Bhikku’s life”, becoming occupied as a local priest and kindergarten director, which set the seeds for the way he would live and share the dharma once arriving in the U.S. 

Another student of Shaku’s was ‘Yarfuryu-An’ Daisetz Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki, (b 1870-1956) who first came to America in 1897, and who would return in 1936, becoming one of the most notable Zen Buddhist scholars and translators within the tradition, facilitating the transmission of Zen through both language barriers and cultural hurdles. He wrote, translated, lectured, and taught extensively in the years 1050-1958, leading the formation of the Zen Studies Society in 1956. 

 Where Suzuki was the driving intellectual force, Senzaki’s philosophy was firmly rooted in direct experience and daily practice. He led a life of obscurity, and at his Zen Master Shaku’s urging, avoided teaching altogether for twenty years after arriving in the States. During this time he taught the Japanese language to Americans and immersed himself in his local community of San Francisco. In 1925 he established his “floating zendo” which was essentially created by him teaching in the homes of his followers as well as his sparse apartment on Bush Street, which is considered the first Zen Center in America. 

Gempo Yamamoto, Soen Nakagawa, Eido Shimano

Gempo Yamamoto, born 1866 (d 1961) was Zen Buddhist priest of the Rinzai tradition, following in the footsteps of Hakuin Ekaku, and is sometimes referred to as the “twentieth century Hakuin.” He was a renowned calligrapher and poet, and the Abbot of Ryutaku-ji (“The Dragon Temple”) and Shoin-ji in Japan. He met his student, Soen Nakagawa, while holding sesshin at the Zen Center Hakusan Dojo in the early 1930’s. As Abbot he would later receive many Americans at The Dragon Temple in the 1960’s, once Zen had taken root in the U.S. 

Motoi ‘Soen’ Nakagawa, was born in Taiwan in 1907 (d. 1984). Educated in Japanese Literature at Tokyo Imperial University, Nakagawa was diverse in appreciation of the arts from both Eastern and Western culture, gravitating to Zen masters and poets such as Hakuin, Basho, and Bassui, and also reading the Bible. As a student, he lived in the Pure Land temple Gangyo-ji and formed a sitting group at the University that exists to this day. In 1931, shortly after graduating from university, he was ordained a Zen Buddhist priest by Keigaku Katsube at his favorite temple of his favorite Zen Master Bassui, Kogaku-ji, in Kai province. 

Like the kindred spirt of his still unknown friend Nyogen Senzaki, he was also reluctant to remain in a strict monastery environment, instead preferring the life of a hermit on a nearby mountain, Dai Bosatsu, and meditating directly within nature. While accompanying his teacher Katsube on a retreat, he went to a nearby Zen Center to retrieve a necessary keisaku (Zen stick) that he had forgotten to bring, and met Gempo Yamamoto, who would become his Zen Master. He soon became a student of Yamamoto’s at Ryutaku-ji, following the words that had attracted him to Gempo in the first place, “If you practice Zazen, it must be true practice.” They would travel to Manchuria together, establishing Myoshin Ji and the largest center of the Rinzai Zen School in Japan. Once returning to the Dragon Temple, Soen’s correspondence with Senzaki became even more frequent. 

Nyogen Senzaki

Like Minds Meet – ”The Karmic Net”

A few years after establishing the Zen community in San Francisco, Senzaki moved to Los Angeles. Establishing himself in the new community, he lived simply and was frequently without money. After leaving his clothing at a laundry without the funds to pay and claim them, he was approached by the owner, Mrs. Kin “Shubin” Tanahashi. Realizing that he could not afford to claim his clothes, she offered to trade laundry services for care of her child Jimmy, who had Down’s syndrome. Loving children and embodying the spirt of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha he so revered, he happily accepted. Shubin-San became a devoted friend and student. 

In the fall of 1934, Shubin read an article in the Japanese magazine Fugin Koron, which included poetry by a certain monk living near Dai Bosatsu Mountain. She was so moved by his writing that she shared it with her teacher, who was equally affected. Nyogen Senzaki wrote his first letter to Soen Nakagawa and the connection was made, followed by years of frequent, inspired correspondence between two intertwined Zen minds who sought “the true way.” Collaborating closely, in 1941 they began to arrange a visit that would be interrupted by World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans, including Senzaki, the Tanahashi’s, and other members of their sangha. During this time they practiced within the Hart Mountain, WY, camp, reaching a group of about thirty followers. At this time there were also about thirty Americans practicing in the Los Angeles area, as Zen community correspondingly grew on the East Coast. These sangha members supported their interred brothers and sisters by sending Zen texts and correspondence regularly. Despite these fractured circumstances, the seeds of Zen had been planted, and the vision that Senzaki and Nakagawa shared for a “great temple in the West” continued to grow. 

Although Nyogen Senzaki was not, technically speaking, a Roshi, and not a formal dharma heir of Soyen Shaku, who had no successors, Senzaki transmitted his beliefs, teachings and practice to Soen Nakagawa. 

After years of working with his student Eido “Tai-San” Shimano (born 1932 d. 2018), Nakagawa prepared him to travel to the United States to be Senzaki’s assistant, who died in prior to Eido’s arrival in 1958. 

In 1960, Shimano was sent instead to Hawaii, the mid-point between Japan and the U.S. to newly awaken America and continue the work that had been progressing for decades between the East and West. Eido worked with Yasutani Roshi, eventually settling in New York and established contact with The Zen Studies Society. With the help of many connections in New York, and working within the ever-present “net” of the Dharma, Shimano worked to enliven seeds planted decades before, and in 1968 the New York Zendo Shobo-ji “Temple of True Dharma” was established.  On September 15, 1972, Shimano received dharma transmission from Soen Nakagama Roshi and became Abbot of both Shobo-ji. 

Eight years later, the Senzaki and Nakagawa’s dreams of “a Great Temple in the West” came to fruition high in the Catskill Mountains of New York, as Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji, the “Diamond Temple”, was dedicated in 1976, with Shimano also serving as Abbot.

Jun Po Denis Kelley Roshi and Hollow Bones Zen

On April 14, 1942, Denis Kelly was born. An extraordinary life that included numerous experiences that many people would consider a lifetime of depth in any single chapter, Kelley began his Buddhist practice at the San Francisco Zen Center in the early 1970’s, influenced by Shunryu Suzuki and Chogyam Trungpa Pinpoche. His Buddhist practice was accelerated by a powerful yogic practice and lineage developed with BKS Iyengar and Patabi Jois.  He traveled extensively and became a student of Eido Shimano. He received transmission as a Zen Master from Shimano in 1992 and served as both Vice Abbot and head monk at Dai Bosatsu from 1987 through 1993. 

Continuing the legacy that each of our lineage forefathers have held, Jun Po sought to move beyond the practice of Zen within a monastic setting in order to truly reach those who suffered, in the world, as a true bodhisattva. He established the lay Hollow Bones Order and created the Mondo Zen Ego Transformation practice in order to awaken followers to their true nature, and equip them with the tools necessary to transform reactive emotions with wisdom and compassion. A modern approach to living Buddhism every day and echoing the sentiments held by his teacher’s teacher, Soen Nakagawa: “If you practice Zazen, it must be true practice.” For Jun Po, and for each of us within the Hollow Bones Order today, our practice is a living practice. We do not look away. 

“In any event, in any moment, and in any place,
none can be other than the marvelous revelation of
the interplay of this glorious light.”

-Awakened One’s Vow