Joshu Sasaki Roshi, influential Zen monk, dies at 107


Joshu Sasaki Roshi, shown in 2012, when he was 105 and celebrating his 50th anniversary at Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

An obscure Japanese monk arrived in Los Angeles 52 years ago with little more than a spare robe, a Japanese-English dictionary and an invitation to teach Zen.

But his life would not always be so simple. At centers he established on Mount Baldy, Calif., and in Jemez Springs, N.M., Joshu Sasaki Roshi guided thousands of adherents through a particularly rigorous brand of Zen practice. He also was accused of sexually abusing female students over a period of decades.

When the allegations surfaced on a Zen Web site in 2012, members of a council of senior Zen teachers ordained under Sasaki Roshi acknowledged that they had long known but done little.

“Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved,” they said in an open letter of apology.

Joshu Sasaki Roshi died July 27 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 107.

His death, of undisclosed causes, was confirmed by Gento Steve Krieger, the head monk at Rinzai-ji, Sasaki Roshi’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Krieger said the center was “still working through many issues and reaching out to the people who were harmed.”

“It tarnished his reputation,” Krieger said, “but people who are devoted to his teaching are not particularly worried about reputation.”

Although a monk, Sasaki Roshi was not expected to be celibate. He is survived by his wife, Haruyo Sasaki.

As long ago as the early 1960s, Sasaki Roshi allegedly urged women to show him their breasts in private meetings that were supposed to enhance their understanding of Zen. Using his position as teacher, he persuaded or intimidated some of his students into performing sex acts, according to a letter first published on the Web site sweepingzen.com.

No criminal charges were filed, Krieger said.

Despite the decades of rumors about Sasaki Roshi, he was widely seen as charismatic.

Songwriter Leonard Cohen, who lived and studied at the Mount Baldy center for five years starting in 1994, called his relationship with Sasaki Roshi “a liberating kind of love.”

“You know, he’s both the friend and the enemy,” Cohen said in a 1996 documentary. “He’s going to be an enemy to your self-indulgence, an enemy to your laziness and a friend to your effort. He’s going to be cutting. He’s going to be charming. He’s going to be lovable. He’s going to be deceptive. He’s going to be all the things that he has to be to turn you away from depending on him.”

Sasaki Roshi, the child of farmers, was born in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture on April 1, 1907. He started his religious studies at a temple in Sapporo when he was 14.

He trained for years in a distinctively strict style of Zen that he would transplant to the United States. His students rose at 3 a.m. for chanting, exhausting hours of meditation and one-on-one meetings with their teacher, who would pose impenetrable koans, riddles such as, ‘When you see the flower, where is God?’

Over the years, Sasaki Roshi taught internationally, and he developed a network of about 30 affiliated Zen centers throughout the Unite States.

As he neared 100, he was asked the secret of his longevity, recounted Shauzan Jack Haubner in a 2013 book, “Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk.”

“White rice, white flour and white sugar,” the teacher proclaimed. “And sake!”

— Los Angeles Times

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