Originally published in TLS.
Hotz, Michael (ed) 2002. Holding the Lotus to the Rock: The Autobiography of Sokei-an, America's first Zen Master. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York.
It seems strange that so little has been published concerning the life and teachings of Sokei-an Sasaki who taught Zen energetically in New York from the 1930's till his death shortly following release from internment in 1945. He created the First Zen Institute in America and his influence remains strongly felt. As a native Japanese who adopted the USA as his home from 1906, Sokei-an can rightly be called the first American Zen master.
This valuable book will be of great interest not only to all contemporary students of Zen, for it contains much wisdom, but also to historians concerned with US-Japanese relations in the early 20th century and the mutual influence each country had on the other. It is also a very good read, full of incident, humour and subtlety in which a Japanese mind in a highly distinctive voice struggles to come to terms with the "noisy" West.
Our knowledge of this remarkable man comes from the records kept in New York and utilized by Mary Farkas for her articles in "Zen Notes", the journal of the First Zen Institute. Farkas, a student of the master, collected letters, photos and art and memories of anyone connected with Sokei-an and added them to another archive put together in the 1930s and 40s by another student Edna Kenton, a biographer and the Institute historian. Some of the teachings in this collection, particularly those concerning the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, have been published in German under the title "Der 6. Patriarch kommt nach Manhattan" (Agatha Wydler, translator, Theseus Verlag. Kusnacht, 1988) but the present book appears to be the first work devoted to understanding his life, based likewise on this archive.
The book was not written as an integrated autobiography by the master himself. Michael Hotz, enamoured of his subject through repeated delvings into the archive, has put together the text from numerous fragments and the coherence of the work owes much to his editorial skill, diligence and, we can also say, love. It is the story of a lifetime’s adventure.
Sokei-an was born in 1882 to a family of a Shinto scholar priest. Since the priest's wife was childless, his mother was imported. Two years after his birth, the husbands' wife returned and his biological mother left to become a successful singer and dancer. As with some other Zen masters, it was perhaps the unusual circumstances of his birth that gave rise to Sokei-an's restless character. His life history is replete with wanderings. He probably inherited his artistic side from his mother.
We find him as an adult in the army driving a dynamite wagon in Manchuria, but meeting Master Sokatsu, one of the early teachers of a reformed Rinzai Zen in the Meiji era, he became interested in Buddhism and proceeded to train. Eventually he travels to the USA together with Sokatsu to found a Zen farm which failed, and eventually a Zen community near San Francisco. In 1910 all of Sokatsu's group returned to Japan but Sokei-an remained in the States, wandering and crossing the continent doing casual work, living with his wife and child with Native Americans on an island off Seattle and endlessly woodcarving, a skill which often gave him useful employment. He wrote about America in Japanese, sending his writings back to Japan for publication. After his family returned to Japan, he lived in the bohemian Greenwich Village, New York, writing, reciting, translating in both English and Japanese and in many ways living the free-style life of a lay "dharma bum". From time to time Sokei-an returned to Japan for formal training and after some deep experiences Sokatsu conferred "inka" on him, confirming his Zen insight and enabling him to teach.
Back in New York, Sokei-an's new status was reflected in the profound seriousness with which he now undertook the difficult task of training American lay practitioners. It is clear that he had a considerable presence. Farkas refers to the Zen atmosphere near him "It was like standing next to a big gong and feeling its vibrations go right through you."
The autobiographical texts describe all these adventures in a very personal manner. Discussing teaching, he is very direct: "It is not so easy to find a Zen master. If a Zen master can teach by lectures, a boxer can teach boxing by correspondence. If you wish to study Zen, come to me and I will look in your eyes and find out whether you know Zen or not." Clearly strong stuff and Alan Watts only lasted three weeks of "sanzen" (koan training) with him. Others however passed many koans, a considerable achievement in the 1930's." To pass a koan given by a teacher is not so difficult, but to pass a koan given by actual life - that is wonderful.... Zen in the sanctuary of a Zen master is like learning to swim in a pool. But to swim in the ocean of life is the koan given by the tathagata (buddha). That is the koan we have to pass."
"Yes, there is a transcendental world. How can you get into it? If someone should ask me, "Have you entered it?" I would answer "Yes". If he should ask me, "Are you still in it?" I would say "Well - I haven't come out of it." Oh, Sokei-an, you are kidding. You are here speaking to me, with your eyeglasses, your nose, your voice. How can you be in the transcendental world? "I cannot explain.... I am here with you, I can see you, but you fail to see me, the man who is in the transcendental world."
This book is full of openings on the "transcendental." How can it be that it turns out to be so ordinary? To find out you must travel further with the Master!