Sangha Reflections: On Daido Roshi

· Reflections · ,

WHEN I MET DAIDO, I WAS living in a yoga ashram and working part time in an art gallery. Daido would come into the gallery to have his photographs framed. He had just resigned from International Flavors and Fragrances and was starting to go into the advertising business. He needed a model for a shoot that he was doing for a little department store in Middletown; I told him I had worked as a model before and could help him.

That was the same week that his whole life blew up: he caught his wife and his best friend having an affair. We really fell in love quickly; I stepped into his world and helped him find a place to live and gallery space and helped him organize his finances. I think he saw me as Mother Mary, someone who could help save his life. The first few weeks of our relationship were pretty intense.

That’s also when he went to Minor White’s photography program. He had gotten a mailing about it, but thought he couldn’t afford it. I pulled the mailing out of the garbage and encouraged him to sign up anyway; shortly thereafter he got a refund check that he didn’t expect, and off he went. That workshop changed his life; he found a new direction.

I remember one day on the way home from the Ashram, he stopped at the bookstore and bought every book he could find on Buddhism. He absolutely knew that he had to study this. He didn’t know why at the time, but one thing quickly led to another and within about three years, Daido had met Maezumi Roshi and we were moving to California.

After our years at ZCLA and a short period at the Zen Center in Riverdale, Maezumi Roshi encouraged Daido to look for his own place. When walking through the gate of the monastery for the rst time, Daido felt faint. He knew he was home. I felt nauseous and said, “Who is going to clean this big old house?” He took my hand and said, “We’ll work it out, Yushin. Look at it. It’s perfect”. The next day Daido made a public an- nouncement on WBAI with Lex Hixon. “A new and different Zen Arts Center is opening in the Catskill mountains,” he said. We got hundreds of calls and sent out an invitation for a future weekend meeting. About eighty people came in cars, trucks, motorcycles and the Trailways bus: artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, hippies, druggies, and a few Zen students. They kept coming, bringing sleeping bags and food. One man brought the Buddha that remains on the zendo altar to this day. Another man owned a flooring business and came back a few days later with a sander and finishing tools for the floor of the zendo.

Daido was basically a shy man, but he had a certain kind of power. When he walked into the room, no matter what room, there was power there and you knew it. If he hadn’t had this kind of power, the Monastery wouldn’t be here. How many teachers have tried to start a center that fell apart because they’re not powerful? I think in some ways he would have loved to just sit in his room and read, smoke cigarettes and not have anybody bother him, Daido, Tetsugen Bernie Glassman, and Joan Yushin Derrick or go off to Italy or somewhere, but he felt he couldn’t stop his work as a teacher because it was making such a difference to people’s lives.

One thing that Daido taught me that I will absolutely never forget came when I asked him about forgiveness in Buddhism—at the time I was thinking about all the scan- dals with Buddhist teachers, the womanizing and the drinking. He just looked at me and said, “First you have to forgive yourself.” This has been such an important teaching for me. I have to forgive myself every single day for something that I have done or said. I say to myself, “Okay, that was ridiculous. Don’t get mad and don’t hurt yourself. You’ll get sick.” I let it go and forgive myself. Daido’s answers to people were like that: they penetrated all the way through us, and I think that he knew that. He knew that he was making a differ- ence in people’s lives. That was really what it all came down to.

—Joan Yushin Derrick

WHEN WE FIRST ARRIVED at the Zen Arts Center, Daido was one of the senior students of Maezumi Roshi. He was focused on community, arts and Zen. Naturally, the people who were drawn to him were those with similar interests: people of modest means who wanted to get back to the land and lead a simple life. Once a week Tenzo Shinso went to the local supermarket to retrieve their discarded vegetables, and the few staff members quickly learned how to take care of the cold and leaky monastery building with virtually no money. We literally learned the meaning of “chop wood, carry water”—thirty cords of wood were cut that first winter!

We held weekly meetings at the Parsonage to decide which threatening bill collectors would get paid first. It was a balancing act. At one point, the financial situation became so dire that the two of us had a special meeting with Daido in his living room to discuss the survival of the Center. In the conversation about where we would all wind up should we lose the place, Daido realized he would have no home or income for his family. He remarked that most of the sangha had families, homes and futures waiting for them, while he had nothing. Struck by this, Daido threw out his arms and exclaimed, “But I’ll have nothing but my robes and my bowl.” A silence entered the room before Jakuen said, “But Daido, you are a monk!” The three of us broke out into a deep laughter of realization, with Daido laughing the loudest and the longest.

—Andy Dotai Miller & Dianne Jakuen Landau

IN THE EARLY DAYS AT ZMM THERE were only about ten of us living at the Monastery, and we were all very close to each other and to Daido Roshi. I think our struggles with the cold (there was no heating system then), developing a training program, and supporting ourselves and the Monastery brought us even closer together. It was a difficult time, but Daido Roshi’s teaching and our developing practice made it a very powerful, intense time too.

After almost ten years I moved out of residency when I had a bout with cancer; after surgery I moved to Florida to be near my son and my father. I continued to practice, sitting on my own, with Kapleau Roshi before he moved back north, and eventually became a student of Sensei Daniel Doen Silberberg, who also lived at ZMM during the early days.

It’s now been 35 years since I first met Daido Roshi, and in my conversations with Doen Sensei, Daido’s name often comes up. Daido’s teachings laid such a solid foundation for my practice such that all these years later, my practice continues to be a vital part of my life. While Daido Roshi was alive, although he was with me in my heart, we were separated by 1,200 miles. But now that he doesn’t abide anywhere, there truly is no separation.

—Carole Kyodo Walsh

MY EARLIEST MEMORIES OF Daido Roshi go back more than twenty years. It is the early 1990s. The scene is Rotoiti Lodge, overlooking the mountains and lake in Nelson Lakes National Park. The time is early morning and in the pre-dawn gloom I am sitting anxiously and uncomfortably, experiencing the first day of my first sesshin. There is a loud CHOK! from the han and a strange apparition in gold robes appears in the zendo. He proceeds to perform a short ritual and then parades around the zendo in front of each of us, accompanied by his all pervading, ever present scent of in- cense mingled with tobacco smoke. It is the same smell that always accompanied my own father, and my mind immediately makes this association with a benevolent authority g- ure: a person who might not always treat us in the way that we expected or hoped for, but would always have our best interests at heart.

—Colin Taisui Markwell

I LOVED DAIDOSHI WITH A fierceness that surprised me when he was alive but that, in retrospect, is perfectly natural. Roshi saw in me what I couldn’t see myself. He trusted my clarity long before I had even a smidge of it. He teased out a goodness I didn’t feel and could not act out of. He believed in my ability to wake up even when I was certain I couldn’t. In brief, he treated me as a buddha and therefore inspired me to be one.

And now? He keeps urging me to do the impossible. I see him in his light blue kimono and robe, grey kesa over one shoulder, glasses perched at the end of his nose, as he leans toward me from his high seat. “Sentient beings are numberless—I can’t possibly save them all. Yet I vow to do it!” he bellows. “Desires are inexhaustible—put an end to them? Can’t do it. But I vow to do it!” And on he goes, wending his way through the Four Bodhisattva Vows, getting more and more riled up until, at the end, the only thing he can do is burst into song:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go…

Man of La Mancha one moment. Robert De Niro the next. “This is impossible!” He roars. “So if you’re hanging on to any sense of hope, forgeddaboutit! There is no hope!”

A bodhisattva doesn’t need hope, he constantly reminds me. A bodhisattva has vow.

—Vanessa Zuisei Goddard

DAIDO’S WHOLE LIFE JOURNEY stands out to me as a powerful model. In short summary, he “took risks.” He left a successful career as a physical organic chemist to pursue a calling in the much riskier field of photography. He subsequently became fascinated with Eastern teachings, and changed course to pursue a life as a Zen monastic—a huge risk for someone with a young family. He established an extraordinary center for spiritual practice from a highly impoverished, if not impossibly risky, beginning. His journey informs me daily that extraordinary success comes from taking extraordinary risks. Daido took huge risks. His “success,” as seen in the number of lives he helped and transformed, is immeasurable.

A great gift to me was his ability to instill confidence. During a very difficult time for me while I felt burdened with a thorny life/ family problem, I met with him in dokusan. Following a brief, mindful pause he responded, “You know what to do.” That was it. That was all he said. And I believed him completely! I left the room full of confidence that I would do the right thing in response to my problem, although I didn’t know what that would be. It didn’t matter, though, because as he said, I knew what to do. This teaching still gives me confidence in addressing difficult situations. Thanks, boss!

—Rick Shinsui Bowles

AT THE TIME WHEN I FIRST encountered the Monastery, Zen, and Roshi, I was shattered emotionally and terribly confused. Since my earliest childhood I had been frightened of life, of other people, and of my self. And yet I knew immediately that Roshi was someone to be trusted. He had the perfect balance of vast strength and a gentle heart.

Still, I was overwhelmed in my early years of practice. Daido Roshi seemed utterly unapproachable—entering the interview room I was literally speechless, my heart pounding and hands shaking. But I learned that he could hold me in his understanding and let me be who I was when all I wanted was to run away. I never felt judged, never ignored. He showed me how to live gratitude and feel joy in being. I always knew I was personally and completely invited to join Roshi in this practice. He taught me the great relief of let- ting go and experiencing being here fully. I think of him every day. I am so thankful to have found a healer for what I thought was my broken life. Thank you, Daido Roshi. Rest in Natural Great Peace.

—David Keima Seaman

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH Daido changed how I live, see, eat and breath. I think of it as a kind of implicit learning—learning by osmosis. Being with Daido is what somehow taught me to be with myself.

One moment that I continue to feel reverberations from took place in the midst of an excruciating time of heartbreak and confusion for me. It was early morning during a summer sesshin and I was in the kitchen making the oatmeal. I was sobbing and shaking as I stood on a milk crate stirring the cauldron of cereal. Daido must have seen me through the kitchen door as he was coming downstairs from dokusan to get in his jeep and go back to the abbacy. All I know is I felt a gently placed hand on my shoulder, and I turned around and saw him crying—crying my tears. He said, “I am so sorry you are suffering so much.” I buried my face in his robes like a child in her mother’s bosom. In that moment, I could palpably feel my pain, and my relationship to all pain, shift forever.

Deepest gratitude, Daidoshi.

—Kirstin Tosei Ainsworth-Vincze

MANY OF MY FONDEST MEMORIES of Daido Roshi involve attending his mondos. He had this way of pulling me in with his deep, calm voice. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat, aware that there was a much deeper understanding to be had and trusting that this deeper understanding could be obtained in this moment. What was it about him that brought out the best in me as a student during those times? As I reflect on this, I think the answer is more subtle than I can articulate. Part of it was the twinkle in his eye and the deep stillness between his words. Part of it was the way he treated every question with complete interest, no matter where it was coming from. You could tell he really loved being there with us as we wrestled with the questions.

Since leaving long-term residency about 12 years ago, I have been a high school science teacher. My job has a lot of similarities to leading a mondo. I believe Daido is still teaching me, but not so much with the memory of any of his words. Those have been fading. I believe his way of being, his heart of being at the cellular level, is still directly communicating to me. This teaching, I suspect, will continue for the rest of my life, even if I forget everything Daido Roshi ever said.

—Jeffrey Kien Martin

DAIDO WAS A BIG PERSONALITY and I loved him for it. He was an amazing storyteller—many of his poignant anecdotes are vividly in my memory. I can still hear the sound of him revving the Jeep engine coming over from the abbacy before kentan, his sonorous voice as he opened the Sunday talks, the click of beads as he rubbed his mala during Jukai.

Daido knew how to snap ideas away (“the three worlds are nothing but mind”), and could be fierce (ah, his story of driving someone out of the monastery with his slipper), or inspiring (“open to the way and it will go through you, energize and strengthen you.”) He was completely connected with the earth (how naturally he warmed his dented canteen cup over the camp fire), strict (“discipline liberates”) and utterly dedicated to his students (many dokusan encounters have deeply shaped my life).

I was part of a small group of sangha traveling with Daido to a Dogen celebration in Japan. It was a magical trip. I recall how, on the bus to Eiheiji, Daido fell in to meditation within seconds. To my intense Japanese Zen fervor, he responded by pulling his chewing gum out of his mouth in a long, stretchy rope, a grin on his face.

I still feel Daido’s large, soft hands and gentle eyes are watching over me. To my question “What can I do for you?” he continues to respond: “Transform your life!”

—Tatjana Myoko von Prittwitz


1. Do not seek approval

When I initially became Daido Roshi’s student I remember awkwardly trying to engage with him and seeing others do the same. I came to feel that having forced interactions did not work well with him, especially those that were based on trying to flatter him or seek his approval. I decided to just be quiet around him if I had nothing to say or just engage in whatever small talk that would naturally arise between us.

2. I am a Buddha

I remember standing around a group of students feeling left out of the conversation. I decided to just stay quiet and pulled back from them. Roshi came up to my side and said, “We want to make a sculpture of a buddha and I think you should be the model for it.” I was speechless and we just stood together for a moment. Thinking of his compassion and love in that moment still moves my heart.

3. Take a Risk—You can do this.

While working on my first koan, I often felt clueless. Roshi’s encouragements during that time are mantras that I repeat to myself frequently, especially during challenging moments: “You can do this,” “Take a risk.” When I feel overwhelmed, uncertain, or insecure I often invoke Daido Roshi. I stop looking to others for their approval and move forward with quiet confidence: “Trust yourself.”

—Juan Tenke Pena

“WELL, TRUST YOURSELF.” It seemed like every dokusan I had with Daido ended with these words. I needed this teaching. Practice helped me to realize how much I was paralyzed by self-doubt and self-criticism.

It was not just that Daido was telling me to trust myself, firmly putting the responsibility back in my hands. By gently and patiently meeting my pain and complaints and life crises with this consistent advice, he showed me over and over that he trusted me. He trusted my ability to deal with whatever I was struggling with. He trusted my ability to find my way in this practice. Most of all, he showed me his trust in the dharma and the transformative power of practice.

Daido was almost always patient and gentle with me, but he never explained much. He let me struggle with my barriers for a long time, until I found my own way through. And this was a great gift.

So many of those early years of practice with Daido are a bit of a haze in my memory. Working with him was about coming out of this fog, taking my life back, finding the courage to look and see and feel rather than numbing everything in a haze of depression and sleep and fantasy. Now when I think of those years, I have the feeling I’ll never truly appreciate just how important the work I did with him was.

I’m still learning to trust. To trust myself, and my teacher, and practice and the dharma deeply enough to truly let go. And I still draw on the strength and gentleness that Daido always offered me.

—Bear Gokan Bonebakker

AS MY RELATIONSHIP TO practice and training continues to change and grow, the best part of my relationship to Daido gets stronger: that crazy tension between my longing to live in harmony with the Buddha’s beautiful and pro- found teaching and my ache to have things my way. I think of Daido, sitting in front of us all, morning after morning, such deep, inspiring devotion, and his big personality—often inspiring, and sometimes disappointing. Now that years have passed in my life and since his death, I see that split in myself, too, and draw strength—literally, in moments when I want to have a tantrum, or be mean, or otherwise throw caution to the wind—from what I know was his tremendous effort to be a true person of the way, his gentle and unstopping passion for the dharma, and to guide us, too, in finding our way into harmony. Even in the midst of his shortcomings. And ours. No mat- ter what, he just kept driving up in his jeep to meet us in a life of practice. In other words, the details fade—for better or for worse—and the heart of his teaching remains: Bethany, trust yourself.

—Bethany Senkyu Saltman

WE WERE ON A WILDERNESS CANOE trip down the Raquette River in Adirondack State Park. I have always loved nature and the opportunity to do a canoe adventure led by Daidoshi was too great to pass up. I had been told that he was “in his element” on such a trip and I wasn’t disappointed. He regaled us at the evening campfire with tales of Adirondack adventures from his earlier days.

He mimicked loss of mind by explaining it was the result of slathering on gallons of DEET over the years to ward off ever present mosquitoes. He taught us how to creatively survive should we need to build impromptu camp shelters from pine boughs and tree branches. He made us deliberately swamp our canoes so we would know how to be safe. Then, during a stretch when we were all idly chatting away in our flotilla, the word was passed down from boat to boat: “Daidoshi would like us to be very quiet now and really listen to the river.” For the next hour or so we paddled silently, listening to the sounds the river offered us. Birds sang from the canopy of trees overhanging the banks, paddles swept into and out of the water, frogs and turtles plopped off the rocks as we approached, and the murmur of the wind accompanied us as we all entered deeper into the wilderness of our consciousness. I owe Daidoshi many things. A deeper appreciation of our inextricable bond to nature is but one of these debts of gratitude. Gassho, my teacher.

—Ric Ryoha Dunworth

DAIDO FEELS FAR AWAY from my everyday work and family life. But Daido is very much there when I go into the woods. Here’s what I hear him say:

Pack carefully. Lay everything out. The hard part is packing; the trip is the easy part. Do not, under any circumstances, forget your 100 feet of cotton rope.

Pull together.

Always carry tinder, a lighter, fishing line, a compass, and a knife.

Being in the woods provides instant feedback.

Sloppiness and inattention results in losing important objects, wet clothes, or injury.

A good knot for every situation.

Rocks and logs are good zafus.

During an emergency, run towards it.

Deet has been used since Korea, it’s safe, use a lot of it all over your head especially.

If you are alone, and someone/something attacks you, just kick its ass.

Every spot in the woods has a spirit, a “muse.”

When entering into a new space, be still and connect with it. Ask permission.

Coffee and laying out in the sun are good for you.

Be quiet. Natural things do indeed speak and sing.

If something is stuck, don’t push it. Just give it a little wiggle.

—Liz E-Kun Potter


I grew up in the fury of the women’s struggle. A lot that I wanted to do was barred to girls —I fought many battles and won very few. My mother was insufficiently escaped from a traditional Italian family; as much as she wanted me to be president, I had to iron my brothers’ shirts.

I fought my way into my profession, got married, was trying to get pregnant, when disaster struck—ending my marriage, my hope of children and my career. I became what I had feared my entire life: abandoned, bereft, biological clock running down—desperately grasping at everything a liberated woman was not supposed to crave so helplessly.

I began to sit. Zazen allowed me to witness the grief, shame, and the judgement.

Then came dokusan. There he was: the ex-navy goombah, the Italian patriarch—everything I had been fighting against my whole life. And I just let it fly: my bottomless rage at the male-centered world I grew up in, my terror of becoming a side-lined crone.

And to all this he rumbled, “Abiding nowhere because there is nowhere to abide.” Meaning: You are free. What are you going to do with it? I just stared at his big old Italian face until he rang the bell.

Daido was a man of a certain generation— the one I fought so hard. When I came at gender equality with an attachment to anything —even to equality—he pushed that button with glee. Until I stopped. Then I noticed how humbly he bowed in his beautiful gray robes. Every time I near that feminist kid sister sputtering fury—I see Daido bowing. Abiding nowhere. Because there is nowhere to abide.

—Carol Kyoryu Dysinger

IT WAS SOON AFTER DAIDO WAS DIAGNOSED with lung cancer that I began to experience his loss as my living teacher. Daido had started to pull away from his many roles even before he passed away. After his death, I would come into dokusan with Shugen Sensei in tears, feeling lost and aimless. It seemed to me that I was facing Daido’s death and sensing my own eventual death.

After that grief subsided, I was faced with Daido’s actual passing and the grief during that period. In the year following, other experiences arose, especially on walks around the Monastery grounds. Walking along the trail from the Monastery to the abbacy, I felt a sense of presence and Daido came this life in this way—as a work in progress. I navigate this life as a canoer navigates the eddies, swirls, and flat sections of an Adirondack river; always adjusting to new situations as best I can.

—Michael Chizen Brown

I ARRIVED IN FALL 1987 for Ango. I had several encounters with Daido Sensei previously, and came away very impressed each time, and full of hope. Like so many of us when we arrived here, I was desperate, needy, and very angry. My life was a shambles and I knew I had to turn things around, somehow.

I spent most of the next four years in residence. Daido had a vision for Buddhist practice in America. It made sense to me, and I was excited to help him make it a reality. At the time, there were fewer of us, money was very tight, and people were pushed into positions that required more experience than they had. We were in over our heads, and so was he. The three greats—faith, doubt, and determina- tion—were in abundance in those wonderful days. I started to right my own personal ship, thanks to him.

I left just as the Monastery was leaving its exponential growth phase. It became obvious that Daidoshi’s plan was working—and ZMM entered its logistics phase as students matured. Daido maintained a rigorous schedule of teaching, helping and guiding people based on his great faith and determination. Over time, however, it became clear to me that he was losing the ability to doubt himself. His last ten years were increasingly difficult and contentious. I remained deeply loyal and grateful for all he had done for me, but I stopped going to dokusan with him after Myotai Sensei left. He didn’t like that unspoken departure, but he came to accept it.

Just before his death, many of us were sit- ting on his deck with him for the last time. Suddenly, I was stung by a bee. Hands shaking, he insisted on dressing the wound. A few days later, when his body was wheeled into the fire, I cried convulsively in my wife’s arms.

—Don Genshin Boucher

WHEN IT BECAME CLEAR that Daido was entering the final stage of cancer, I wanted to see my teacher one last time to say goodbye and acknowledge my love for him. I knew he was not encouraging visits or feeling socially responsive, but perhaps there was a way I could offer something. I phoned Ryushin and asked if he thought it would be helpful and appropriate to request dokusan. He thought it was a good idea and called me back to tell me Daido had agreed to see me.

When I arrived at the abbacy he was dressed in his robes and seated in a special chair that held him comfortably. We greeted each other. I kissed him. His face looked thin, worn, and his eyes, which had the depth of an old soul, conveyed fragility tinged with sadness. I could see the edge of a catheter bag at the bottom of his robe.

After talking for a few minutes, we did a koan. I kissed him again after my bows. As I drove away, heading for home, I knew this was almost certainly the last time I would see Daido alive. The inevitability of death, his and mine, was overwhelming. I was saddened by the sadness in his eyes—perhaps regret, perhaps coming to grips with his coming death. I don’t know what that sadness was for Daido, but I know I hurt in seeing and feeling it.

—Ron Hogen Green

I BECAME A STUDENT OF DAIDO’S WELL over thirty years ago. I visited the Monastery not long after it had started, when I had no regular practice or teacher, but knew I needed both. As soon as I heard Daido speak, I immediately knew he was my teacher. It was intuitive. He accepted me as a student after talking with me. This was long before we had guardian councils.

Daido and I shared a common memory of military service, his in the Navy and mine in the Marine Corps. From that I think we both recognized—although we did not need to talk about it—the value and the limits of authority: when to accept it and when to strike out for ourself. This is an area where many American Zen students seem to experience conflict— being open to the authority of a teacher, but up to a point.

What I learned from my practice with him is with me every day. As I wrote to him not long before he died: “It is true that I have not asked you questions in our many dokusan. That is not because I did not have questions, but because I knew that the answers had to come from myself, and because you pointed the way without words. The practice I developed with your teaching has given me the means to celebrate the many joys I have had—and they have been many—as well as to experience the depths of grief I have known.”

The fruit of that practice continues with me now in my 86th year and will continue, I know, until I graduate to a different realm.

—Robert Tokushu Tsenghas