Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha: The Life and Zen Teachings of Tangen Harada Roshi

Now, fortunately, even those who didn't train directly with Roshi-sama can get a taste of his teaching of uncompromising compassion - of vital importance for Zen today.

Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha: The Life and Zen Teachings of Tangen Harada Roshi

I'll get right to the point here - if you buy one Zen book this year, this would be my strong recommendation. Harada Tangen Rōshi (1924-2018) was one of the few truly great Zen masters that I've met. Meeting Roshi-sama, as he is called by his students, and training with him at Bukkokuji, changed my life and practice in profound ways that still reverberate today, thirty years later.

When my winding path intersected with Roshi-sama in the fall of 1990, I was a refugee from Zuioji, a very PMSO monk-finishing school. Katagiri Roshi had insisted before he died that I go to Zuioji and stay there a month. A several hour argument hadn't dissuaded him. He thought that after a month I'd see the virtue of Zuioji-style training and stick around for a few years. But after a month of ceremony practice and little zazen, I booked it out of Zuioji and headed to Bukkokuji.

I hadn't yet met Tangen Harada Roshi, but had heard of him through a chance encounter with an old Zen friend on the plane from the US to Japan and Zuioji. One of the things this friend told me was that Roshi-sama had literally saved his life.

I arrived at Bukkokuji on a beautiful fall day at about 1:00pm. Although I'd called and tried to make arrangements, the monk who happened to answer the phone told me not to come, that I should stay where I was at Zuioji. I came anyway and so was taken to the zendo and told to sit and wait. At about 5:00pm, a monk hurriedly escorted me to the dining hall for dinner. I entered and was directed to my place, joining three dozen practitioners who stood waiting - for what I wasn't sure. A few moments later, Roshi-sama entered the dining hall, slid the door shut, walked to his place, bowed, and we all plunked down in seiza for the informal meal.

The joy and luminosity of Tangen Roshi's presence was unlike anything I'd encountered. Through his "one-doing power," he made it clear that just sliding a door closed, walking across the dining hall, and bowing were each completely the most wonderful activities a human being could engage in. And that was it for me - if he would accept me, I'd stay and train.

The process of buddhahood: everyday is joy - by Tangen Harada Roshi

Practice at Bukkokuji was like living at grandpa's house. Roshi-sama set the rules and everyone followed them - or left. There were no committees, no feedback processes, and also no corrections (as a rule) from anyone but Roshi-sama. Coming from the context of American Zen, I found all that incredibly refreshing. If you didn't trust that Grandpa-sama was setting rules that were all about your awakening, then it was your issue to work through or you could take the next train to Kyoto. This clarity made life deliciously simple. The power of this wholehearted training together under Roshi-sama's guidance was beyond anything I'd ever experienced or even imagined possible. It inspires me still.

Roshi-sama offered dokusan (one-to-one dharma presentation) almost everyday, sesshin or no sesshin. In the room, his mastery of the dharma was most viscerally palpable. One cold January day, I entered the room, bowed, and sat before him. Instead of invoking "muuuu," I intoned "cooooold." Roshi-sama responded with a vigorous, "Difficulty welcome!" and rang the bell, ending the meeting. As I bowed out, I received a sharp whack of the kyosaku across my back - and his clear instruction for how to burn through the cold spell sunk in a bit more.

The view of the student entering dokusan with Tangen Roshi, backed by Sogaku Roshi

Now, fortunately, even those who didn't train directly with Roshi-sama can get a taste of his teaching of uncompromising compassion - of vital importance for Zen today. Longtime Bukkokuji monk, Kogen Czarnik, has done an exceptional job completing the editing process begun by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa, and has produced this powerful book, including more than a couple dozen calligraphies by Roshi-sama like the one above and as many rare and historically significant photographs like the one below.

In the photo, the elderly monk is Sogaku Harada Roshi with three of his inka shomei disciples. To Sogaku Roshi's left, a young Tangen Harada Roshi. To Daiun Roshi's right, Sozen Nagasawa Roshi, and Tomiko Shiroyama (later known as Chisen).

From right to left, Tangen Harada Roshi, Sogaku Harada Roshi, Sozen Nagasawa Roshi, and Tomiko Shiroyama (Chisen)

Although Roshi-sama spoke some English some of the time, Belenda was Roshi-sama's translator for his talks and those important dokusans where more than a combination of the student's beginning Japanese (in my case) and Roshi-sama's English was necessary. I had a couple of those in my time at Bukkokuji. Belenda also translated Roshi-sama's dharma talks for non Japanese speakers, usually sometime later in the day that the talk was delivered. Belenda demonstrated the depth of her practice doing these translations (that form the basis for Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha) - she became Roshi-sama and delivered the talk with his spirit.

So as to give you a taste of their combined efforts, here's a passage from Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha from the chapter, "The Process of Buddhahood," that happens to go well with my recent Do Special Experiences Mean Anything?

"After a kensho experience - after a little opening - you have to deepen your resolve. It happens even with those who have come to sesshin only once or twice. There is an opening; there's no duality: 'Everything is right here in my own belly.' It's a joyful experience, but if you hang that experience at the tip of your nose like a cow's ring and think you have finished your practice, then you are mistaken. You have been rewarded with a little prize - you have been able to see truth as a little glimmer, just a glimpse. This experience is important in that it can help you to strengthen your faith that all beings are buddha, that you can realize the great Way. The experience should encourage you to practice grasping nothing, holding nothing, not sitting back and lingering in some state" (146).

Grasping nothing, holding nothing.

Roshi-sama's teaching has already had a considerable impact on American Zen through those who trained directly with him. He was open-heartedly supportive of Western students, including women. Everyone practiced together (independent of gender, ordination status, or religious affiliation) during Roshi-sama's tenure of over five decades at Bukkokuji.

Westerners who trained at Bukkokuji that now teach Zen include Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede who wrote the "Afterword" for Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha, highlighting the relationship between Roshi-sama and Roshi Philip Kapleau (who trained together at Hosshinji with Daiun Harada Roshi). Others who trained with Roshi-sama include Jiryu Rutschman-Byler, now one of the abbots of San Francisco Zen Center, and Kokyo Henkel, presently the tanto at Green Gulch Farm.

And I'll close with one more passage from Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha:

"This one noble step that you take is very straightforward. It is never to be lost; it is timeless - so there is nothing you should worry about. Just take this one noble step, right at your heel; this is the supreme Way. One day, the light will suddenly shine and you, too, will marvel, 'Wonder of wonders! The exquisite reality of life is so beautiful!' Looking at the sky - vast and timeless - the little clouds float by. The mountain rises high; the sea is full; the willow is green; the flower is read. Morning until night, night until morning, it fills the eye. Every voice is the voice of the Buddha, every form is buddha form" (148).

May this be beneficial for your practice awakening.