Past, Present, Future

· Teachings · ,

by Jan Chozen Bays, Roshi

I thought it would be interesting to offer you a feeling or what it was like back in the old days—you know, back when we had to walk ten miles to the zendo, knee-deep in snow, barefoot. It’s good to know your history. And although Hogen’s immediate lineage is separate from mine—he studied with Kapleau Roshi at Rochester and I studied with Maezumi Roshi at ZCLA—these lineages are joined just another generation back. Kapleau Roshi trained in Japan with Daiun Harada Roshi and Maezumi Roshi’s teacher, Yasutani Roshi, also trained with Daiun Harada Roshi. Daiun Harada Roshi would be your dharma great-grandfather.

As we’ve been developing the training here at Great Vow Monastery, we’ve found that some of what we experienced and found very effective in our own training back in the 1960’s and 70’s doesn’t seem to be effective today. Some of what characterized our training came primarily from the Rinzai tradition, which was adopted by the samurai class to train young samurai warriors. There was a lot of yelling and hitting in Rinzai zendos, and both Kapleau Roshi and Maezumi Roshi trained in the Rinzai tradition. Today, however, we are in a different time and a different culture. Here at Great Vow Monastery, we’ve kept some things from our training and have shifted others. This is how it always is, in a sense. You take what you learned from those who came before you, but then you have to change it to suit the present time.

Hogen recalled Kapleau Roshi’s stories of how at Daiun Harada Roshi’s temple during Rohatsu, somebody stood behind Kapleau Roshi and hit him continuously with a kyosaku until his shoulders swelled up to his earlobes. The monks accused him of putting padding under his robe to avoid the pain of the kyosaku and he had to take off his robe and show them that it was actually swelling and bruising.

At Rohatsu sesshin in Rochester, they would leave the zendo windows open and the snow would blow in while they were sitting—which was essentially how it was in Japan. I actually experienced this for myself at Sogenji when we did a Rohatsu sesshin in December. It was so cold that I wore all 13 layers of clothing I had packed, and then I couldn’t cross my legs completely because I had so many layers of clothing on. In a Rinzai zendo, you are not allowed to cover your head or your hands at all. It was so cold that you could not have your aware- ness anywhere around your skin, so you had to go deep into your hara. I have to say, it drove me into the deepest zazen that I had done until that time and pain became notpain. Not the pain disappearing, but staying with the experience of pain and having it be sensation, pause, sensation, pause, sensation, pause. Nothing glued it together as pain. It was quite amazing. The pain came back eventually, but once you’ve experience pain in that way, you’re not afraid of pain again.

We recall how we would bellow “Mu!” at the top of our lungs, hell-bent on enlightenment until we lost our voices completely, and how the monitors would shout: “Sit still!” or “Wake up!” or “Die! Die on the cushion!” It was actually very effective for us, all of that. We loved it. We ate it up. It was effective but we haven’t seen it to be effective today as we’ve been teaching.

In Japan if the teacher yells at you or hits you, you are actually in a way pleased. And it is very encouraging because that means that you’re worth it. You have potential or you are worth hitting or yelling at. However, in our culture hitting or insulting invokes the inner critic and makes people upset at themselves or at their teachers or at Zen. They go away sad or mad and maybe even quit practice.


Yasutani Roshi, Maezumi’s teacher, was an ordained Soto monk. However, Yasutani Roshi felt that the Soto tradition over- emphasized the teaching of original enlightenment—the idea that just as you are, you are a Buddha, and if you just sit, with absolutely no notion of gain in your mind, your buddha nature will emerge fully into your experience over time. If you are sleepy, then be a sleepy buddha. If you are distracted, then be a distracted buddha. This is classic Soto Zen teaching, but Yasutani Roshi felt that some- thing was missing. Reading the vivid stories of the sudden awakening of the old masters, he was so inspired that he determined that he would experience this enlightenment for himself. He wanted to experience for himself his original face, the sound of one hand, mu.

Yasutani Roshi was born in 1885 to a very poor family. His mother hoped her son would be a priest. While she was pregnant, she was given a mala bead by a nun who said it would help insure successful childbirth. She swal- lowed that bead and Yasutani Roshi related that when he was born, that bead was held in his little baby fist. He knew there was no biological explanation for that but everyone in the family said that it was absolutely true.

Yasutani Roshi was ordained at five. Often poor families would do that if they could not support their children. He spent his child- hood and young adulthood training and traveling to different temples, both Rinzai and Soto. At age 30 he married and had five children. At the time you had to inherit a family temple, but there was no temple available for Yasutani Roshi. For ten years he worked as an elementary school teacher and a principal, but his fervor for enlightenment continued burning and he continued train- ing under different masters.

Then he found Daiun Harada Roshi at Hoshinji. Daiun Harada Roshi had also trained with masters in both the Soto and Rinzai

Photo by Torei Enji

Photo by Torei Enji

lineages. In Japan, if you say you study Zen they ask you, “Which school do you belong to? Rinzai or Soto?” But actually there’s been a lot of cross-over and lineage holding by teachers on both sides. At age 40, Yasutani started studying with Daiun Harada Roshi and at age 58 he received Dharma transmission. I think it was Aitken Roshi who invited him to come and teach in the US. He did, traveling to different cities, including LA. Maezumi Roshi served as his translator and was so impressed with Yasutani Roshi’s clarity that he decided to study with him.

When Maezumi Roshi was 15, his father, Baian Hakujun, who was a Soto priest, told him to train with Osaka Koryu Roshi, who was a Rinzai lay teacher. Koryu Roshi had been asked by his teacher, Joko Roshi, to remain a lay person because Joko Roshi was very distressed by the bureaucratic structure governing Zen priests in Japan at that time. So Koryu Roshi had a lay dojo outside of Tokyo where people would come after work or on their vacation to train. Because of training at this lay dojo, Maezumi Roshi ended up with a strong affinity for lay practice and an unusual faith in any person’s ability, no matter their circumstance, to practice hard and break through.

When Maezumi Roshi began studying with Yasutani Roshi, he did the whole koan curriculum with him, and then he went back and finished his original koan training under Koryu Roshi. He did two different systems of koans. Now, that takes dedication. It takes years of training to do the koan curriculum. Just think that when you finally finish, you decide to start again. How humbling! You would certainly risk being rejected by your second teacher for an answer to a koan that your first teacher accepted. How clear would you like to be?


Maezumi Roshi was very warm and very funny. He had a very good sense of humor. I remember that he did very good imper- sonations of geisha girls and would also do impersonations of you. Especially when he had been drinking. He was quite mischie- vous.

One of the reasons I studied with him was this intriguing combination of being very, very serious about the Dharma, but also very amused about the human predicament, including his own. It was this very amusing predicament of enlightenment manifesting as this imperfect mind and imperfect body. He suffered from chronic back pain. I used to do acupuncture to help him with that, but really he was in pain all the time. You never knew it, though. He almost never said anything about it.

One very striking memory I have is when Roshi came down to San Diego to do a sesshin. Afterward they had a birthday party for him. People were always eager to please the teacher and win favor. One man brought a present and from the way he held it, it was probably handmade and very precious. And as gifts were being presented, this man gave the box to Roshi with a great flourish. Roshi looked at it and said, “Oh, thank you.” Then he turned to the person next to him and said, “You have this,” and he gave it away without opening it up. We were all taken aback, but he was completely unattached to the gift and he was also unattached to the reaction of the giver. It was an amazing teaching.

Photo by Bernard Oh

Photo by Bernard Oh

He would say to me, “Chozen, beee patient,” because impatience is my life lesson. He would also say, “Be ordinary.” “Be ordinary” meant be totally ordinary, go to extraordinary and then return to ordinary. Our ordinary mind is confused and deluded, but it is the only mind we have to practice with. If the ordinary mind becomes extraordinarily still, extraordinarily open and aware, then it dissolves. If we can leave the ordinary thinking mind behind and let the mind be completely quiet, we find pure awareness. We can gradually lengthen these stretches of continuous awareness; then the discursive mind becomes completely optional and the dharma can function through us in ordinary activities and ordinary ways. That ordinary mind is the way.

Roshi had his ordinariness. He loved to put on jeans and a clean white T-shirt with a plaid flannel shirt over the top and go out and move rocks around in the garden. He was a small man but he could easily move big rocks. And he could also move heavy minds.

When Roshi was in the dokusan room he became completely impersonal, ferocious and uncompromising. It was like facing a tiger. He demanded clarity. He loved koans as the best way to test one’s understanding.


Maezumi Roshi also practiced and taught shikantaza. Here is what he said about it on one occasion:

Shikantaza means to just sit, doesn’t it? That’s what we should do. If I can’t, it’s my problem. When you really do it, then right away something happens. If we don’t really do it, nothing happens. Shikantaza is just shikantaza, but we always add something extra then it becomes something else. It seems to me the key is this shikan, “just.” Wholeheartedly, “just sit.” Literally, “just sit.” That’s the hardest part of shikantaza. This is the simplest thing and maybe the hardest thing. Shikan is the most intimate way to exist. That is what it really means. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. Shikan working, shikan sleeping, shikan being sick. If you do it wholeheartedly, it is perfect. So just try to do it literally: just sit. And not only physically. Let your mental activities sit, too. It’s as simple as that. It sounds easy but I guarantee it is hard. Like myself, I can’t do it. But it’s a challenge, see, to just really do it. No questions are necessary. The answer is always there. Your question and answer altogether self-contained. The answer is to just be with yourself. So the thing is to really do that. Then it happens.


Because Of All The Training he’d had with different masters, because of the depth of his understanding, Roshi had a very fluid mind. In some of his Dharma talks you can’t follow where he’s going, but it’s all there in his mind. He kept turning it over and showing it in fresh ways. You could not predict his response or his view. When we’d have administrative meetings or board meetings, we’d talk on and on and he would just sit back and listen. Then after we’d wound down, he would say something very quietly. And it was always a way of seeing things in a way that we had not imagined.

Roshi’s life was guided by his vows. At age 26 he left Japan on a steam ship with a one-way ticket and just a few hundred dollars of spending money. He carried a vow to plant the seeds of Dharma so firmly in Western soil that it could not die out. From the outside his vow seemed impossible. He didn’t speak English and he had no means of support beyond a small stipend that was paid by a Japanese-American temple where he served as a priest in LA. By day he served at the Temple and also served as a gardener to earn some money. By night he took English classes at a community college. His English was not perfect in its expression, so you had to listen very closely. He spoke quite slowly, usually because he was translating into English in his own mind. Once he gave a whole teisho on the “Rinosaur’s hornfin” and we didn’t understand what he was talking about. He kept going on about the “Rinosaur’s hornfin.” And at the end we suddenly realized, “Oh, it’s the koan about the Rhinoceros horn fan.” Once he talked about the birds barking and the dogs chirping. Years later I took a class in rapid Spanish and they forced us to speak right away with each other. But because our vocabulary was so small, you would say things like: “Today the sky is blue.” The other person would say, “Yes, today the sky is very blue.” Then I would think, “Wait a minute, that’s how Roshi spoke.” It makes things sound very profound. Because we had to listen very carefully, we had the chance to go deep into the meaning of something very simple.

Maezumi took English classes at a community college and he sat zazen. Gradually a group of Western students came to sit with him, and eventually it grew into a community. After a few more years, they bought a small house. Our original zendo was a dental office and the Dokusan Room was where the dental chair used to be, which we thought was nicely ironic. You’d go in and have, not your teeth pulled, but your ego pulled. Gradually more houses were bought, and as a result of Maezumi Roshi’s original vow, Zen Center of Los Angeles took shape. It grew into a complex of houses and apartment buildings that occupied almost an entire city block, housing 75 residents and a community clinic that was one of the first in the country to integrate western and eastern healing methods. It included an academic institution that sponsored conferences and publications by Buddhist scholars and it is still publishing today. Out of that busy center came a lineage that includes more than 100 authorized Zen teachers serving thousands of students in over sixty Zen centers around the world. All of this came from what might have seemed a foolish vow taken on with great sincerity by a determined young man.

Maezumi Roshi always said, “Appreciate your life.” He meant both your individual unique life and your big life, The Great Life. Both the small, temporary, confined, ordinary you, and the vast, eternal, unbounded, joyful, extraordinary, wonderful life that is you, being lived through you. I know that if he could, or does, see this monastery, every- one sitting here so earnestly, he would be very pleased.

We are Shakyamuni Buddha, the original enlightened one, we are Mahakasyapa, the disciplined one, we are Ananda of the quick mind, but slow to actually awaken. We are Bodhidharma the radiant silent sitter. We are those most determined and persecuted Chinese nuns. We are Maezumi Roshi’s descendants. We are his living vow. We are the way the wheel of this precious teaching turns. And as we free ourselves, we also free others.

Please be patient, be diligent, be ordinary. Appreciate your life as the very life of all that is.

Jan Chozen Bays Roshi, is the co-founder of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, OR where she is co-abbot with Hogen Bays Roshi. She teaches internationally and is the author of several books, including Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship to Food.

From an edited transcript of a dharma discourse given at Great Vow Monastery during their Honoring the Ancestors sesshin in 2015.

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