Remembrances of Harada Tangen Roshi by four past RZC students

Photo of Tangen Roshi making an offering to Harada Roshi’s gravePhoto of TakuhatsuPhoto of Yasutani roshi doing TakuhatsuPhoto of Takuhatsu

In Japan, Zen monks have to wait in the garden for two or three days, before they are admitted to a training monastery. I wondered how long I might have to wait in the garden at Bukkokuji. However, within half an hour Tangen Roshi appeared. He was small in stature and quite ordinary looking. He said nothing to me. Instead, he just led me to the hondo, the building in a Zen temple where a statue of the Buddha or of Kannon Bodhisattva is enshrined.

Once there, I handed Tangen Roshi the yokan (Japanese sweet) that I had bought in Kyoto for him, which he immediately placed on the altar, without a word of thanks. Instead, he handed me a lit stick of incense, which he indicated that I should offer at the altar. After offering the incense, I did three prostrations.

During my prostrations I tried to see to whom I was making my bows. The head of the figure on the altar was hidden behind a curtain that ran across the top of the altar, so all I could see was the bottom half of the figure that was standing there. The Roshi must have noticed my trying to peek under the curtain, as I was doing my prostrations, because, when I was done, he lifted the large figure off the altar. He cradled it in his arms, with the same affection that one might cradle one’s own child. Tangen Roshi then said his first words to me “Kannon-sama.”

After returning Kannon-sama to the altar, the Roshi signaled me to sit down on a cushion that he pushed across the tatami floor toward me. As I sat watching, he poured a cup of tea for me. Only then did he say first sentence to me, “How did you come here?”

I was so happy to hear that Tangen Roshi spoke some English that it did not occur to me that he might be asking me a “Zen question.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Taxi.” The Roshi looked at me disapprovingly. I thought he disapproved, because the temple was quite near the train station. Therefore, I said, “I did not know the way from the station to here; so I took a taxi.” He nodded and said, “I show you, so tomorrow you can walk to station.”

Despite the fact that there was a sesshin in progress at Bukkokuji, the Roshi acted as though he had all the time in the world to walk me to the train station, so that I could get on the train back to Kyoto next day. When, on our walk, we came to a large road, he paused and said, “Look right, look left, look right, then cross.” He accompanied each of his words with the appropriate turn of his head—right, left, right, then straight ahead.

On the way back to the temple we encountered a young woman pushing a baby carriage. She and Tangen Roshi greeted each other; and, although I could not understand a word they said to each other, the mutual affection in their greeting was palpable. “Wow,” I thought. “The Roshi is such a sweet man! Is this the same fierce monk who had stood behind Philip Kapleau all night, hitting him with the kyosaku, in order to help him come to awakening?

I was totally unprepared when, a few minutes after we met the young woman with the baby carriage, the Roshi turned to and said in a conversational tone, “What time is it where you live?” I looked at my watch and tried frantically to remember whether to add or subtract eight hours to convert the time in Japan to the time in Seattle. The Roshi kept walking, and I quickly realized that I had not answered the question that the Roshi was actually asking.

My reaction to my mistake surprised me. As a chemistry professor, to be unable to answer a chemistry question correctly, would be the worst kind of humiliation for me. After nine years of Zen practice, four years of them spent working on koans, I had not even realized that the Roshi was asking me a Zen question. I should have been humiliated. But I wasn’t.

I can only explain my lack of reaction to my mistake by saying that I somehow felt the Roshi was not judging me; he was just seeing me exactly as I was. This allowed me to see my failure to grasp the question that the Roshi was actually asking me as exactly what it was—my failure to grasp the question that the Roshi really was asking me—without my adding a judgment to it.

I experienced the same type of wholly uncharacteristic lack of my judging myself a few hours later. The Roshi had asked me if I wanted join the sesshin; and when I said, “Yes,” he took me to the zendo and showed me where to sit. After several rounds of zazen there was afternoon chanting; but when I returned to the zendo for more zazen after chanting, I was the only person there. Where had everyone else gone?

I figured that sooner or later the other sesshin participants would return to the zendo, so I sat down and started doing zazen again. However, a few minutes later the Roshi entered the zendo, rubbed his hands together to get my attention, and then escorted me to the dining hall. He said nothing to me, but when we arrived at the dining hall all of the other sesshin participants were seated at tables, waiting for me, so that they could begin to eat their evening meal.

How embarrassing! Normally, I would have prayed for the earth to open and swallow me up. However, miraculously, I did not feel humiliated. I had not known that everyone was going to dinner, so I had returned to the zendo. Those were the facts, and there really was nothing more that was necessary to add. Not only did I not hate myself for my terrible faux pas, I did not even think about it again. I just sat down to eat dinner.

I can only attribute my totally uncharacteristic lack of embarrassment for my mistake to the fact that I somehow felt that the Roshi had again accepted what had happened, without judging me. Therefore, there was no reason for me to judge myself.

In writing about this incident 39 years later I can still recall an incredible feeling of freedom, freedom from the usual cascade of thoughts about what had happened, freedom from my own rationalizations of it, and freedom from the usual stream of negative self-judgments. What a gift!

Tangen Roshi was very good at providing me with such moments of freedom, because I made many mistakes at Bukkokuji. For example, two years later I visited Bukkokuji with Ken Kraft, with whom I had begun doing zazen in the attic of a Harvard undergraduate dorm in 1970. From Bukkokuji Ken and I visited the grave of Harada Sogaku Roshi, who was not only Tangen Roshi’s teacher but also his adoptive father. We also visited the little house where Harada Roshi had lived and which he had given to Tangen Roshi.

When we returned to Bukkokuji, Tangen Roshi was waiting for us. He immediately said, “What did Harada Roshi say to you?” My mind froze. It was filled with thoughts about the fact that Harada Roshi was not only Tangen Roshi’s teacher but also his adoptive father. Never having met Harada Roshi, how could I respond to Tangen Roshi’s question, without sounding presumptuous and without possibly offending Tangen Roshi?

With all of these thoughts filling my head, the best I could do was to answer Tangen Roshi’s question with the lame reply, “Harada Roshi said, ‘Welcome!’ ” Rather skeptically, Tangen Roshi queried “Harada said, ‘Welcome’?” “Yes, he said, ‘Welcome!’ Didn’t he, Ken?” I replied, turning to Ken Kraft. Ken was gracious and shared the blame for my lame response. He agreed that Harada Roshi had said, “Welcome!”

However, when Ken and I were alone again, Ken said, “I thought Harada Roshi said, ‘Nothing but MU!’ ” “Why didn’t you give that response?” I asked. Ken replied, “I thought that you had more experience working on koans than I, so I thought that your answer would be better than mine.” Ken was too polite to add, “But I was certainly wrong in that assumption!”

Not only had Tangen Roshi witnessed my really lame answer to his question, but my friend and fellow Zen student, Ken Kraft, had heard it too. Once again, to my complete surprise, I did not think about the matter again.

I seemed fated to make mistake after mistake around Tangen Roshi. However, despite the many mistakes that I made around him, which he certainly witnessed, I did not feel that he judged me, at least not in the same way that I usually judge myself. I sensed that, in fact, he cared for me in a way that I still find hard to explain, because it had nothing to do with what I usually call “me.” He cared for me in the same way that I care for my granddaughters, not for what they say or do or how they behave, but just because they are my granddaughters.

Tangen Roshi went out of his way to take care of me. That was apparent when he showed me where I was to sleep on my first night at Bukkokuji. To my surprise, he laid out my futon for me. In other words, while I watched, Tangen Roshi made my bed for me. Then he looked carefully at me, saw my long legs, and added an extra cushion and an extra quilt at the foot of my futon saying only, “Keep feet warm.”

Such simple gestures of caring, combined with his apparently not caring about my many mistakes, led me quickly to grow to love Tangen Roshi. When my eight year-old daughter, Alice, was in Japan with me in the summer of 1983, I took her to meet Tangen Roshi because I wanted her to experience what a wonderful man he was.

By the summer of 1983, I had taken a first-year Japanese course at the University of Washington, so I was able to explain to Tangen Roshi, over the phone, half in Japanese, half in English, that I wanted my daughter to meet him. I suggested that my taking Alice swimming at Obama would be a good pretext under which I could bring her to Bukkokuji to meet him, and he agreed.

When Alice and I arrived at Bukkokuji, Tangen Roshi had prepared a picnic for us to take to the beach. I particularly remember that he had gone to the trouble of buying little cans of tomato juice, for Alice and me to drink with our lunch. “What a considerate man!” I thought.

Alice and I changed into our swim suits at the temple; and then Tangen Roshi and one of his monks drove us to the beach. After our swim and picnic, they picked us up and drove us back to Bukkokuji. When Alice and I had changed back into our travelling clothes, Tangen Roshi walked us to the stop for the bus to Kyoto.

While we were waiting for the bus, Tangen Roshi asked Alice, “Coca-Cola?” “Yes!” she replied enthusiastically. Then he turned to me and said, “Coca-Cola?” Normally, I would have said, “No thanks, I don’t drink Coca-Cola”; but, instead, I found myself replying, “Yes,” with the same degree of enthusiasm as Alice.

As Alice and I stood drinking our Cokes and the three of us waited for the bus, my precocious daughter decided to engage Tangen Roshi in a Zen mondo. She asked the questions and the Roshi provided the responses.

Alice began, “Is ‘zazen’ a Japanese word?” “Yes!” Tangen Roshi replied, “Zazen is a Japanese word!” I can still hear the Roshi saying that “Yes.” He did not raise his voice, but he put all of himself into his “Yes!”

Alice continued questioning the Roshi, “Is gassho a Japanese word?” “Yes!” Tangen Roshi replied, “gassho is a Japanese word!”

Finally, Alice asked, “Is prostration a Japanese word?”

“No,” Tangen Roshi replied. “Prostration is not a Japanese word. But, if you make a prostration in front of Buddha, with nothing in your mind, then you are Buddha himself.”

Alice gave Tangen Roshi a look that was both amazed and quizzical. I wish I had asked her what she thought at that moment. I do know for sure that, had I said to Alice, “If you make a prostration in front of Buddha, with nothing in your mind, you are Buddha himself,” Alice would have replied scornfully, “Daddy, puh-lease!”

Whenever I heard Tangen Roshi speak, he put himself fully into what he was saying. Tangen Roshi had a deep, resonant voice; and I felt that his words were not just words, but the embodiment of his deep mind. Consequently, I found myself deeply affected by what he said.

I once visited Tangen Roshi’s temple during a very stressful period of my life. My marriage was falling apart, and my (now ex-) wife had a male friend who seemed to be replacing me in her affections. To say that I was jealous does not begin to capture the intensity of the thoughts and emotions that kept washing over me.

A few days after my arrival at the temple, the Roshi gave an encouragement talk in the zendo. As always, his resonant voice seemed to emanate from the depths of his being. Most of his talks were in Japanese, but he occasionally injected a few words of English. In the middle of this talk he broke into English and said, “Wide Mind. Wide Mind. Only Wide Mind!”

At these words, I realized that in my own Wide Mind there was not a single jealous thought, and that my feelings of jealousy came from my narrow, self-centered perspective. My wife was obviously seeking what she felt she needed, and if what she needed was no longer me, that was fundamentally OK. I felt suddenly liberated from the dark place in which I had been holding myself prisoner for months.

There have been many subsequent occasions when I have gratefully recalled not only Tangen Roshi’s words but also the sound of his deep voice saying, “Wide Mind. Wide Mind. Only Wide Mind!” The echo of his words reminds me that my own Wide Mind is not different from his.

One of my last visits to Bukkokuji was made to attend a week-long sesshin, which Bodhin Roshi also attended. After the sesshin, we both had a conversation with Tangen Roshi. Tangen Roshi was speaking about the transmission of the Dharma, and he said in his deeply resonant voice, “One straight line.” Then, for emphasis, he raised his right arm, pointed directly in front of him, and reiterated, “One straight line.”

Something about the way he said that moved me profoundly and I began to cry uncontrollably, sobbing as I had not done since I was a child. I struck the tatami mat in front of me with my palm and said, “I am so sorry, Roshi.” He shook his head and said, “Me too,” and, when I looked at him through my tears, I saw that tears were also coursing down his cheeks.

I hope that the above stories about my experiences with Tangen Roshi will provide a much more vivid picture of this remarkable man than any abstract statements that I could possibly make about him. Nevertheless, I cannot resist the temptation to point out that, to me, the most remarkable thing about Tangen Roshi was the fact that, in many ways, he was so unremarkable. If there was a “stink of zazen” about him, I certainly did not smell it. If he felt at all self-important, it was not evident to me. If he had any sense of himself as a separate self, I did not see it.

The ultimate goal of Zen practice is supposed to be exemplified by the tenth of the Ox-Herding Pictures, “Returning to the Market Place with Helping Hands.” Hotei, as the subject of this picture is sometimes called, is depicted as carrying a large cloth sack, from which he gleefully dispenses sweets to children. He does not ask if the children have been good or bad; everyone gets a sweet. Hotei’s being is his teaching.

Harada Tangen Roshi did not have a sack full of sweets over his shoulder, nor did he have a large belly like Hotei. However, Tangen Roshi smiled when he bought my daughter Alice and me each a Coke. Then, still smiling, he gave us another gift. He said, “If you make a prostration in front of Buddha with nothing in your mind, then you are Buddha himself.” — Wes Borden

WES BORDEN’s application for membership in the Rochester Zen Center was initially rejected by Kapleau Roshi, who called Wes “a spiritual butterfly.” He has spent the past 49 years trying to prove that Kapleau Roshi’s original assessment was wrong.

I received monastic ordination at the Rochester Zen Center in January, 1973 and in June of that year Roshi Kapleau graciously arranged for me to go to Japan on a three-month pilgrimage. There I spent time with a Rinzai monk and visited the temples of Kyoto, but the highlight was the 2½ months I spent with Harada Tangen Roshi at Bukokuji, his temple in Obama.

For most of the time the temple’s residents were the roshi, two 12-year-old boys, a young layman from Kyoto, and me. Under these circumstances the training schedule wasn’t particularly rigorous, but it afforded the opportunity to spend virtually the entire day with the roshi.

The most striking things about Tangen Roshi were his deep warmth, his generosity, and his sense of humor. Once, walking from the zendo to the main hall after an evening sitting, the Roshi came up behind me, put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Yoshi!” (Good!). It was a spontaneous gesture—more American than Japanese—but its spontaneous warmth and goodwill remains vivid to this day.

The roshi was also unstintingly generous: He literally fed and clothed me, spent hours answering questions, took me on takuhatsu and arranged for me to spend a night at Eiheiji.

And he tested me: When I told him I sat full lotus he had us sit ankle-to-ankle, pressing as hard as we could against each other, to see if the pressure was painful. If the area above the ankle was insensitive, then it was clear that I had been sitting full lotus.

He asked many questions about whether there were circumstances under which I would drink alcohol—and even hauled out a big bottle of sake that contained a dead snake, which he said was some sort of medicine. I was confused by the intensity of this questioning until I tripped over crates of empty beer bottles in the cushion storage room at another training temple.

Bukokuji had an in-house (not an outhouse) at the time: a hole in the wooden floor of a small room where “night soil” dropped into a holding tank. Once I found a large centipede there and went to get to piece of paper to scoop it up. Roshi asked what I was doing and when I explained he got a thick stick, went to the bathroom, pushed me out of the way, chanted and then came down with all his might. Later he explained that the insect was so poisonous that if a child or older person had been bitten it could be fatal.

A final anecdote: When we visited his teacher, Harada Roshi’s, monastery, Tangen Roshi presented me with Harada Roshi’s autobiography. The book was in Japanese and the Roshi wrote an inscription. When I asked what he’d written he said, “To my Dharma elder brother.” But Roshi, I protested, you are the Dharma elder brother. “Yes,” he replied, “but while I’m your elder brother now, someday your understanding will surpass mine.” – Jonathan Sheldon

JONATHAN SHELDON practiced Zen in Rochester, then moved to Colorado where he practices medicine and Zen.

A few months after arriving at Bukkokuji, during dokusan, I told Roshi-sama that eventually I wanted to be ordained. He replied, “When the time is right, I will do it.” Sometime after that, during tea break, I was speaking with some of the other women staying at the temple. I mentioned my desire to be ordained. They immediately informed me that I was at the wrong temple: Roshi-sama does not ordain women. But I did not give up hope. He had said he would and I trusted he would. As time went by, during dokusan I would again mention my wish to be ordained. On one such occasion, he answered “When my teacher [deceased] and the Buddha tell me it is time, I will do it.” As I left the room, I thought: this will take a long, long time.

In late August, about a year and a half after arriving at the temple, I again brought up the subject of ordination. This time he said, “It will be soon.” I was so happy thinking that it might happen that year. In mid-September, as we passed in the courtyard, he said he thought before the October sesshin would be a good time for me to be ordained, which was also the beginning of the fall ango (intense training period). I should be measured for my robes, and I would be ordained when they arrived.

My robes arrived during the October sesshin. I was told my ordination would be on October 12th. The 12th of each month is considered a special day at the Temple. It is the day we honor Roshi-sama’s teacher, Harada Sogaku Roshi, with a service at the little house, across from Hosshinji, where he resided. After that service, my head was shaved except for a small lock for the Roshi-sama to shave during the ceremony.

At the beginning of the ceremony my robes were presented to me, and Roshi’s attendant helped me get into them correctly. When all the robes were on, Roshi-sama shaved the remaining spot on my head, had me repeat my vows, presented me with my okesa and gave me my name, Somyo. A day I will never forget.

There was the time shortly after arriving at Bukkokuji, when passing Roshi-sama in the hallway, he said something to the monk standing with him. Later the monk told me Roshi-sama had said that I was “just like Japanese,” which meant I fit in with temple culture. I was very pleased.

Also, our tea ceremonies were always beautiful and special with Roshi-sama presiding. He gave wonderful small talks and answered questions. He also liked to tell everyone my age. I was around 75 at the time, and the oldest one at the temple other than the roshi himself.

Finally, there was the time in dokusan that I mentioned to Roshi-sama that I would like to learn Japanese better, making it easier to talk with him. He replied, “Not important, only practice important.” I was glad he felt I didn’t need to know the language to learn from him. Also, that I could spend all my energy on my practice, which was important to me.

Roshi-sama’s teachings, advice, and example could not have better. We were all so privileged to be students of this great Zen master, Harada Tangen Roshi. — Shirley Helvey (Somyo)

began her Zen practice on staff at the Rochester Zen Center, then moved to Bukkokuji where she became ordained. She and her two daughters live in the Phoenix area, where she enjoys her Tai Chi and Qi Gong classes. She considers herself to be a monk for life.

One thing about Roshi-sama is that he really walked the walk and persistently encouraged all of us to do the same, but was not harshly critical when we inevitably failed. He could take you to task in such a powerfully compassionate way that you’d be profoundly grateful for him taking the time to do so. I’m not a big kyosaku fan, but when he used it, it felt like a blessing and benediction due to the compassion that animated its use (and he had very good aim, which helped a lot too). He also had old-style, long ball hitter standards which I venerated. To my knowledge, he never gave full sanction to teach to anyone who came through Bukkokuji, and that includes a host of contemporary and soon-to-be teachers. Holding to standards of profound awakening was his way of being compassionate and I am very grateful for it.  

Tangen Roshi was very respectful of all life. He loved animals, and the temple almost always had a herd of cats in residence. Occasionally one would hide under the meal tables and quickly swipe some of the roshi’s meal. He did full, and I mean full, funeral services for deceased Bukkokuji kitties. I know because I was his attendant for one of them. He gave a talk once about finding a baby cockroach in a lunch that he had packed and taken with him on temple business, protectively caring for the little one once he discovered him/her, and upon return to Bukkokuji releasing him/her and the cockroach bowing in gratitude to him for preserving its life. It was a hit talk on gratitude for many of his students.

During my first year in residence, an elderly man came to the temple to die. Tangen Roshi helped create a kind of perimeter around the altar in the Buddha hall and the old man stayed within that perimeter, lovingly cared for by Tangen Roshi, until he passed. Then Roshi prepped his body for final services followed by cremation. I was profoundly impressed by his caring attitude, and still am. I’m not even close to being in his ballpark.

A few more quick memories: Tangen Roshi recommended the Sutra of Bequeathed Teachings and Dogen’s Hatsuganmon, which were extremely important in his teaching. He always emphasized the importance of zazen, and when there was inclement weather work periods were usually called off and two rounds of formal zazen were inserted in either the morning or afternoon samu (work) period, or both. 

The roshi always spoke highly of people who traveled great distances to practice at the temple. Very few practitioners were from Obama City. When Roshi was actively teaching we sometimes had huge sesshins of 50–60 participants, the vast majority of them from outside Obama. 

He had an incredible devotion to his students and to the townspeople. Sometimes I feared that he didn’t get enough rest because he was forever meeting with visitors, doing funerals, holding dokusan, etc. Illness would often not deter him. I recall more than once him retching into a handkerchief while giving a talk and then apologizing to everyone and resuming the talk as if nothing had happened.

Roshi usually accompanied us on takuhatsu until he got worn down later in life. During the long ones—we even had two-day affairs—people would often line the streets to give him offerings. I was always struck by his reputation amongst people in the Bukkokuji “catchment area.” He was a major example and inspiration for all of us when he was on board for a one-day takuhatsu. The two-day takuhatsus were begun after he stopped participating in long one-day ones that we sometimes referred to humorously as death marches. It would be so wonderful to have him back for just one more. That would be such a treasure!

Tangen Roshi was very compassionate and respectful but firm in dokusan. He often said that when someone entered the kaisando (founder’s hall) where dokusan was, that person was, for him, truth itself entering the room. One of his favorite expressions: “Truth yourself!” Another favorite of his: “Only doing!” — Dharman Stortz / / /

DHARMAN (SHINDO) STORTZ is a Buddhist monk who was a student of Kapleau Roshi for 13 years before embarking on a Buddhist pilgrimage to Asia generously funded by the RZC. There he met Tangen Roshi in 1984 and with Kapleau Roshi’s support became his student and disciple.