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