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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
buddhadharma| 71 |winter 2006 in the May 28, 1958, issue of Time mag- azine, a story titled “The Zen Priest” announced a milestone in the history of American Buddhism: Amid the chanting of sutras, the sounding of gongs and the curling smoke of burn- ing incense, Chief Abbot Oda Sesso was ordaining a head priest for the Zen Bud- dhist temple of Daitokuji Ryosen-An in Kyoto, Japan. The new Zen priest gravely accepted the kesa – the richly brocaded red-and-gold silk scarf that is the mark of the priesthood – and assumed the Buddhist name of Jyokei. But in Chicago, where she was born 65 years ago, her name was Ruth Fuller. Last week she became the first American in history to be admitted to the Japanese Buddhist priesthood and installed as head priest of a Japanese temple. It comes as no surprise that the first Western Rinzai priest was a woman. From the earliest days of Buddhism in the West, women have been groundbreakers. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was responsible for the first English translation of a Bud- dhist sutra, a chapter of the Lotus Sutra translated from French for the Unitarian transcendentalist journal The Dial in 1844, though her work has often been misattrib- uted to Henry David Thoreau. San Fran- ciscan Ida Russell hosted the Zen master Soyen Shaku at her home in 1905 and was probably the first Westerner to begin for- mal koan study. Today, about half of all Western Zen teachers are women. Several Westerners may have been ordained priests in different Japanese sects before 1958. M. T. Kirby, who traveled to Japan around 1913, was possibly ordained in the Shin sect and may have studied at Engakuji Zen monastery. Ernest Shinkaku Hunt had been ordained a Soto Zen priest in Hawaii five years before the ceremony at Daitokuji. Nonetheless, Ruth Fuller Sasaki was indeed the first Westerner ordained a Rinzai Zen priest, as well as the first to be installed as the abbot of a Japanese temple. And without a doubt, as the title of Isabel Stirling’s new biography proclaims, Ruth Fuller Sasaki was a Zen pioneer. Ruth Fuller was born to a wealthy fam- ily in Chicago on October 31, 1892. As a child, she was tutored in music, European languages, and other subjects appropriate to a cultivated young lady of that time. When she was twenty-four, she married Edward Warren Everett, a successful attor- ney some twenty years her senior. Ruth appears to have been a model upper-class matron, supervising a large household of personal assistants, cooks, gardeners, and nannies, as well as presiding at the center of Chicago society. In later years, friends and others would describe her as “a lady” and “a Victorian.” Ruth and Edward joined a number of other spiritual seekers who were fascinated by Pierre Bernard, known in the press as Oom the Omnipotent. Bernard estab- lished the Clarkstown Country Club in upstate New York, where he taught yoga, autohypnosis, and perhaps some form of tantra. Although the relationship with Ber- nard and the country club continued for some years, Ruth soon began focusing on Buddhism. Back home, at the University of Chicago, she started taking classes in Pali and Sanskrit. In 1930, Edward, Ruth, and their daugh- ter, Eleanor, spent the summer touring East a Matron of aMerican Zen James ishmael Ford is the author oF ZEn mastEr Who? a guidE to thE pEopLE and storiEs of ZEn (wisdom publications, 2006). Zen Pioneer: the life & works of ruth fuller sasaki By isabel stirling shoemaker & hoard, 2006 320 pages; $25.00 (hardcover) reviewed by james ishmael ford