The Hollow Bones Zen Lineage in the US – Part I

“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

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 was the 

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. 

Nyogen Senzaki

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 towards 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. 

Teitaro Suzuki

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.

You can help continue these remarkable traditions and gifts of the dharma by committing to practice zen in your own life. Attending a retreat or online program is a great way to do so!

Christine Henson is a volunteer writer and sangha member of Hollow Bones Zen.

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