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Buddhadharma : Fall 2007
fall 2007| 90 |buddhadharma knees that haven’t yet been broken in.” If Mount Baldy is so severe, why do so many students keep going back? The appeal, it seems, lies in how the intensity is complemented by the personal warmth and charm of Sasaki Roshi. Leonard Cohen, Roshi’s most famous student, explains the effect his teacher has on him in The Book of Longing: “When I chow down with Roshi / and the Ballantine flows / the pine trees inch into my bosom / the great boring grey boulders / of Mount Baldy / creep into my heart / and they all get fed.” In contrast, Myokyo Judith McLean, the only woman who has done all of her training at Mount Baldy, explains Sasaki Roshi’s appeal in more straightforward terms. “If you’re willing to tangle with him,” she says, “he’ll do anything he can to make you understand, and he doesn’t care if his whole sangha runs away.” Sasaki Roshi is the last of the pioneer- ing Japanese teachers who first brought Zen to America. In 1907, he was born into a farming family in rural Miyagi Prefecture. At fourteen, he became a nov- ice under Joten Soko Miura Roshi, and then at forty, he received full authority as a roshi. In 1962, Joten Roshi’s successor asked Sasaki Roshi to begin teaching in the United States, and on July 21 of that year, he arrived in Los Angeles with an English-Japanese dictionary in one sleeve and a Japanese-English dictionary in the other. For a number of years, Sasaki Roshi ran a zendo in a small house in Gardena, California, and traveled to students’ homes to give talks and lead zazen. Then in 1968, he established Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles. Cimarron is now known as Rinzai-ji, and it is the main temple for Sasaki Roshi’s umbrella orga- nization of the same name. Mount Baldy is just one of about twenty other cen- ters within Rinzai-ji, which are located across the U.S. and in Canada, Austria, and Germany, but it plays a critical role as the main training center. “Mount Baldy is where the next gen- eration of teachers cut their teeth,” says Koshin, referring to the fact that almost all of Roshi’s priests, monks, and nuns have done extensive training there. But virtually no one ever finishes with Mount Baldy. Even Sasaki Roshi’s most advanced students – those who now run their own J oshu Sasaki Roshi wanted a property that could serve as a monastic-style retreat center for his community, and Shozan Marc Joslyn thought he’d found just the house. Sasaki Roshi, how- ever, took only a cursory glance at it and asked to be driven farther up the moun- tain. Then, just above Mount Baldy vil- lage at a defunct, vandalized Boy Scout camp, Roshi wanted to stop the car. The cabins’ windows were broken and the rooms were littered with feces, used condoms, rotten food, and the charred chunks of a building. After barely pok- ing his head into a particularly distasteful cabin, Roshi turned to Shozan. “OK,” he said. “You buy.” That old Boy Scout camp has now been Mount Baldy Zen Center for thirty- five years, and during that time it has gar- nered the reputation for being one of the most challenging places to practice in the West. The one-hundred-year-old abbot Sasaki Roshi teaches using rigorous tradi- tional Rinzai Zen methods and the center, and its surroundings, are rough. Located in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, Mount Baldy sits on a steep ProfiLe: mounT BaLDy Zen cenTer By Andrea Miller hillside covered with evergreens. “There are sharp rocks everywhere,” says for- mer vice-abbot Koshin Chris Cain. “And you have to coax plants to live.” Also, because it’s at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, the range in temperature is extreme. Yet there is no air-conditioning in the summer, and, as senior student Seiju Bob Mammoser puts it, “During the winter, heat in the zendo is mostly imaginary.” Likewise, the sleeping quarters are usu- ally not heated and, until the late 1990s, there was no hot running water. Virtually everyone has difficulty adjust- ing to life at Mount Baldy. For Seiju, it was challenging to do hard, physical work while getting minimal amounts of sleep and eating a simple, mostly veg- etarian diet. “You had no discretion,” he says. “There was a very hierarchical sys- tem and, as a student, you were to give yourself to following the schedule as an expression of your practice. There wasn’t a lot of hand-holding.” Koshin’s biggest challenge, on the other hand, was the pain of sitting for extended periods. “There’s a lot of sitting that goes on up there,” he says, “and there’s no allowance given for JOSHIRADIN mahasangha news: profile Joshu Sasaki Roshi at Mount Baldy Zen Center, 2007.