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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
WINTER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 77 his life. “When I read his book,” Oku- mura recalls, “I knew I wanted to become his disciple.” Like Okumura, Uchiyama was not born into the life of a Zen monk. His spiritual journey began with the study of Western philosophy and Catholic theology, which led him to take up Zen practice with Kodo Sawaki, a tower- ing figure in twentieth-century Soto Zen circles. “Since he was a teenager, he wanted to know the truth about life but didn’t know what the truth was. He had the same question as I had, and he devoted himself to searching for the answer,” Okumura says of his teacher. Okumura finally met Uchiyama in person at a public talk at Komazawa University, a Soto-founded institution that serves as one of the hubs of Japa- nese Buddhist scholarship. “When I heard his lecture, I found that he was my teacher,” he says simply. Soon, he was sitting his first sesshin at Antaiji. “We sat facing the wall for five days, all day long,” Okumura says. “The face of Uchiyama right after sesshin was—I don’t know the word—very peaceful, yet powerful.” Uchiyama was “very unusual,” Oku- mura says. “The typical Japanese Zen teacher is strict and always scolding his student. Uchiyama Roshi was gentle and had a good sense of humor. He was a very kind person.” And the practice he cultivated was strong. “He really focused on zazen and giving lectures and writing books,” says Okumura. “I try to transmit his style of practice.” It was when Uchiyama retired in 1975 due to persistent ill health that he asked Okumura, who had been study- ing English, to go to America and join his fellow Antaiji monks at the fledging Pioneer Valley Zendo near Charlemont, Massachusetts, three hours west of Boston. “First we built a small build- ing, and three Japanese monks lived there and practiced together,” he says. “A few people started to come practice with us, so we had to establish a zendo from scratch. We built the buildings, cut the trees, cleaned the land, and made a vegetable garden.” But after five years of that work, Okumura had developed neck, shoulder, back, and knee problems, which forced him to return home to Japan. Again, his path was one suggested by his teacher: translation. While his body healed, he turned his attention to language, first in translating Dogen’s Bendowa (“The Wholehearted Way”), then his teacher’s book, Opening the Hand of Thought. The latter, suffused with Uchiyama’s modest, plainspoken wisdom, is much cherished by Western Zen students. Okumura spent the 1980s teaching at the Kyoto Soto Zen Center. In 1992 he moved back to the U.S. at the invita- tion of the Minneapolis Zen Meditation Center, which had been leaderless since the 1990 death of its founding teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi. He served there until 1996. “After I finished teaching in Minneapolis, I wanted to create my own practice center,” Okumura says. He formally incorporated the Sanshin Zen Community and began looking for a place to put down roots. Sanshin— Japanese for “three minds”—refers to Dogen’s teaching that a trio of mental attitudes supports serious practice: mag- nanimous mind, nurturing mind, and joyful mind. In 1997 Okumura was asked to take This intense, bare-bones retreat style is rare among Western Zen centers, but even more unusual is the emphasis on textual study, which makes up a sig- nificant part of the practice at Sanshin. The year-round schedule alternates ses- shin with genzo-e —intensive periods of studying, and practicing with, Eihei Dogen’s Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). “For a fellow who was originally a reluctant English speaker,” says Hoss- hin Michael Shoaf, who serves as both head priest and president of the board at Sanshin, “he has an amazing abil- ity to articulate an extremely difficult subject.” With characteristic modesty, Okumura freely acknowledges when he has difficulty making sense of a passage. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘This sounds really strange to me. I’m not sure if I really understand it.’ ” But even then, Shoaf continues, “he talks about his own experience in actually digesting this and how it translates in his own life.” For Okumura, the road to Blooming- ton has been a long one, with turns he could not have foreseen. Raised in Japan in a family of Pure Land Buddhists, Oku- mura happened to read Jiko (“Self”), a book by Uchiyama Roshi, as a high school student in the 1960s. It changed Phuntsok Choling, Mangala Shri Bhuti’s center near Boulder, Colorado Shohaku Okumura celebrates his sixtieth birthday following a shuso (head monk) ceremony for Shoju Mahler (right, with family), 2008 PHOTOGRAPHERUNKNOWN