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Entries in Zen Buddhism (22)


A Pillar of Zen: Roshi Philip Kapleau 1912 - 2004

My Zen teacher, Roshi Philip Kapleau, died peacefully on May 6 at the venerable age of 91. Several days later, many of us who had known him and been with him for more than thirty years gathered for his burial at the Chapin Mill Retreat Center, the country property of the Rochester Zen Center. Some who were there had since found other teachers and other teachings, or had simply taken other directions in life than the path of Zen. All of us, though, felt a deep gratitude and love that no words can express.

Each person there seeed to find that at bottom they owed this man so much. He had opened the gate of practice, and his immense love of the dharma had saved us from deeply painful lives. The Three Pillars of Zen—the now classic work that brought him into the public eye and led him to found the first Zen center in America headed by a Westerner—was published in 1965 when the world was in chaos, the Vietnam War still on. Most of us were only in our early twenties, and somewhat crazed. He stood at an ancient door, held it open wide, and said to us simply, ‘Come in. Work hard. The dharma will never let you down.’

Roshi’s dying and death occurred outdoors, beneath the new-leaved trees in the backyard of the Rochester Zen Center, where some thirty years earlier he and a cadre of quite unskilled laborers had built this center from a burnt-out shell of a building. (He liked to say in those early days, ‘We specialize in burnt-out buildings and people.’)

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Dogo Expresses Condolences

“One day in the neighborhood of Dogo’s Temple of Chang-chou, death occurred in a certain home and Zen Master Dogo took his disciple Zengen to express their condolences to the family.” During the visit Zengen tapped the coffin and asked, “Is he alive or dead?”

What is Zengen really asking? Obviously he knows that the person in the coffin is dead. So what is his real question? Perhaps it is, What happens after death? or What is death? or What will happen to me after I die? or Is there really death? or If he lies here, dead, what is the Deathless? Perhaps his deep concern—for it is a heartfelt question, as his subsequent actions will prove—grew from, or was intensified by, reciting the Heart Sutra: “None are born or die. Nor are they stained or pure, nor do they wax or wane. There is no withering nor death, nor end of them.” What does that mean, really? We chant those profound words daily, as do Zen practitioners everywhere. Well, what do they mean?

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