LOVE LETTER TO KURT’S SANGHA ON THE TERM ROSHI AND ITS USE
Recently I have heard that some of you are thinking you should be referring to Kurt as Roshi, and I agree with you. As Kurt’s teacher, the one who ordained him and gave him his priest name, I think he has demonstrated to you what a Roshi is, so this is just a matter of calling a spade a spade. If you do this he will be the first “Cold Mountain” Roshi in America. Let me explain.
The use of the term “Roshi” (老子) has an interesting history. In Japan it is one of several terms associated with the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, which originated with the Tang Dynasty Chinese priest Lin Chi (臨済), Rinzai in Japanese, who died in 867. Over twenty branches of this denomination existed in China by the time it was brought to Japan by the Japanese priest Eisai (栄西) in 1191, after he had trained in China for a number of years. Japanese Zen is divided into three large branches. Two branches were brought by Japanese priests who went to China to train at the end of the 12th century. A third branch was brought to Japan by a Chinese priest, at the behest of the Japanese Shogun, in the 17th century.
The Rinzai tradition of Eisai retains the large body of literature featuring koans (公案) to aid trainees in their understanding of reality. They convey how Zen masters in the past (most of them from ancient China) broke through to enlightenment. The Soto (曹洞) tradition of Zen, which was brought to Japan by Dogen (道元) does not use koans. The third branch of Chinese Zen, the Huang-po (黄檗), known as Obaku in Japanese, was brought to Japan by the Chinese priest Yin Yuan (陰元), known in Japanese as Ingen. Like Rinzai, Obaku Zen also uses koan literature in its training regimen.
The Chinese priest Han Shan (寒山), or Kanzan, as he is known in Japan, is perhaps best known for his poetry today, and may have been part of the circle of priests around Lin Chi in the 9th century. His “Cold Mountain” Temple in Suzhou is the headquarters of the lineage (that you now belong to.) Perhaps the mutual use of koan training linked the Rinzai and Obaku traditions together for some 500 years, from the 9th century to the 17th, making it no surprise that the Chinese priest Yin Yuan brought with him to Japan some Rinzai priests of the Han Shan lineage in the 1660’s. Nor is it surprising that at the same time Zen temples of the Han Shan lineage sprang up in the same area.
It is this Han Shan branch of Rinzai that I brought to America after studying with Miyauchi Kanko Roshi (宮内寒光老子) in Kameoka for a number of years. It was during a pilgrimage we made together to Buddhist sites in India in 1971, in Patna, that Kanko Roshi gave me his personal seal of succession, or inka (印可). The terms “Roshi” and “inka” were probably used in all sects of Zen in China, but in Japan they indicate that the people using the terms are part of the Rinzai or Obaku denominations rather than Soto. In America the distinction made in Japan still holds, except in groups where the traditions have become mixed. But in recent years the practice of referring to the leader of any Zen group outside of Japan as “Roshi” has become widespread.
In theory the title of Roshi should be conferred on a person with inka succession by that person’s master only when the master is on his deathbed. The title itself (written 老子) means “Old Child” and in practice could not be held by someone who was less than about sixty years of age. Historical records throughout East Asia abound of two old men, separated in age by no more than ten years, passing the title from one to the other, master to disciple. The idea is that two people who have truly plumbed the depths of reality itself are passing on a torch of wisdom and responsibility. That torch is truly alive in only one person at a time in a lineage.
I was around 35 years old when I received inka, and Miyauchi Roshi was approaching 80. He was urging me to take on the responsibilities of the lineage in Japan as well as the temple he grew up in, maintained, and used as his base to minister to neighboring families whose ancestors lived there since the 17th century. I had been an ordained Zen priest since 1968, but the idea of a foreigner taking on the job as abbot of a Japanese temple seems odd to people in Japan, even though that has happened a few times (including one involving a student of mine.)
But for me to stay in Japan, and for my wife Carol and our two sons Burke and Reg to spend the rest of our lives there, away from our relatives in America, did not seem appropriate. We would return almost every year to see how things were going, but my mission seemed to be as an academic and encourager of Zen students. Unfortunately, my opting not to accept my teacher’s kind offer resulted in the end of the line for Cold Mountain practice in Japan. As for the title of Roshi, Master Miyauchi decided that if I was too young to accept it he would refer to me as “Koji” (居士) instead, which implies that I am the one who carries the “Intentions of the Household” (in Sanskrit, the term is grihapati.) In Japan “Koji” is equivalent to “Daishi” (大師), which is like “Saint”.
“Roshi” may have been better after all! Priest names are conferred on disciples almost from the moment they enter the Zendo. Certainly from the moment they formally take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and the sangha. Those names, known in Japanese as anmyo (安名), are “names of peace” literally, to distinguish us from our birth names that come with luggage that is blood-related and sometimes bloody. When you receive your anmyo you are immediately a “cloud and water” (雲水) person, who strives to move and behave the way clouds and flowing water do: humbly, helpfully, selflessly. People in Japan then refer to you (male or female) as “Osho-san” (和尚さん), or “Ms./Mr. Peaceful”.
In Japanese temples the first syllable of your anmyo is passed down in your lineage. Ours, of course, is (in Japanese pronunciation) “Kan”. We all are children of Kan (or Han, if you prefer Mandarin), and that Chinese character, as you know means “cold”. The second character you receive from your teacher, who chooses it to make a name for you that will inspire you to be what the name suggests, which is always far beyond what human effort can produce.
Let’s take my name, the priest name I’ve had for over forty years, as examples of how such names work. My name is Kangan (寒巖), which essentially translates as “Cold Rock”. But the Buddhist imagery of the name gets lost in that translation. It makes me sound like a lump, a clod, which I am, but that’s not exactly what the name says I aspire to be. “Cold” in Buddhism is the stunned silence that pervades an early morning scene after a heavy snowfall. It is the chill that leaves everything in suspended animation, with selfish concerns stunned into breathless awareness. Clear sound overwhelms distinctions between self and other, inner and outer, here and there. This beautiful image is what your name begins with, what our names begin with. Buddhist dictionaries say the word cold in practical terms is a synonym for a host of adjectives including nourishing, humble, paternal, fair-minded, and selfless. And we are the object they describe!
Now let’s look at the second character of my priest name, pronounced “gan” in this case. The direct translation of the character is simply “rock”. My response to that is good and bad. First, I was such a sissy as a boy, a piano prodigy who never played sports. It was good to hear in my adult proto-Buddhist stage that I am a rock! Like Stallone! That is definitely good. But I feel bad because my Christian up-bringing cringes at the thought that I must compete with the “rock upon which I will build my church …” (St. Peter, I’m so sorry.)
When I consult Chinese and Japanese Buddhist dictionaries further, in an attempt to get to the heart of the matter, I find that the character “gan” refers to a massive rock, a cliff, really, overlooking the ocean, with crashing waves hitting it over and over, and all sorts of plants and birds finding refuge on it. Now that’s nice. Add the Kan and Gan characters together and Cold Rock becomes a big basalt rock face with fissures for all creatures to take root in while ignorance pounds away on the surface. Becoming a humble and selfless protector for all is not easy for a nervous, self-serving gadfly like me. But that’s my name.
In Japan everyone refers to every else as Mr./Ms. So-and-So, by adding the suffix “san” or “sama” (様、さん、さま) to the name. But it is a cardinal sin, simply unthinkable, to ever refer to yourself with such titles. In other words, in Japan people will always address me as Mr. Webb, or Webb-san. (If they know me well they may call me Glenn-san.) But if they know I am a teacher they may use the suffix “sensei” (先生) meaning teacher (literally, “someone born before me”), so they will say “Webb-sensei” (or just Sensei.) But I will never sign anything or make reference to myself as Mr. or Dr. or Professor Webb or Sensei. Never.
In addition to the priest name that we receive from our teachers, there is also the generic title, Buddhist Priest, which in Japanese has two forms. Most people today in Japan refer to priests as “Obo-san” (お坊さん) or less politely, “Bozu” (坊主). The “bo” in these terms (with a long “o”) refers to the place where Buddhist priests live, i.e., temples. This form for “Buddhist Priest” is not very kind. (It is the form used by Japanese who believe the Buddhist clergy is a burden on society.) A more respectful way of referring to a Buddhist Priest is “Osho” (和尚), a short “o” followed by a long “o”. The word literally means “Peace Everlasting” and the implication is clear that Buddhist clergy are peaceniks. I can refer to my self as an Osho. But others would refer to me as Osho-san (和尚さん).
A further complication: in temples the trainees (unsui-san) usually refer to themselves and to each other using only the second character of their priest name. Thus, I call myself Gan. Others call me Gan-san (巖さん). This is an iron-clad rule. Before he died, my teacher, as I explained earlier, referred to me as Gan-koji. I called him Ko-roshi (光老子), or simply, Roshi-sama (老子様). (Literally his name means Cold Light.)
All of this leads me to Kurt’s priest name, his anmyo. The minute I set eyes on Kurt, back in our make-shift classroom Zendo on the University of Washington campus, I smelled snow. (See above.) He was sitting there, his first day, in full lotus, with the soles of his feet facing up. But they were not in front of him where most Buddhas put them. They were all the way out to the sides of his body, like little TV trays waiting for dishes of popcorn.
Years later when it came time to give him a priest name to legitimize him as the leader of a group of sitters at his university post, I chose the second character Kan (感), which has the literal English sense of “Feelings”. Like my Cold Rock, with its aloof sound, Kurt as Cold Feelings sounds even worse. (Worst of all, of course, is the sound of Kankan, as in French Can-can, to the English ear!) Again, the Buddhist imagery is important here.
The character can and does mean many things, but in Buddhist literature it conveys the sense of the full realization of all things, heart-body-mind realization. Wisdom, perception, empathy, understanding … you get the picture. Unlike my rock image, which is certainly a thing, this one is human - very cerebral/emotional, and tied exclusively to human feelings. Kankan (or, if you prefer the sound better, Kangan – identical to my name) is definitely a human being. That’s your Kurt. What do you think? Am I right?
So far I’ve been talking about the different Japanese customs that impact the way people relate to each other with titles, including those of priests in and out of temples. When you compare those with the customs and titles that have been transplanted outside of Japan, the story is very different. Some Japanese “missionaries” have imposed the Japanese system very strictly, and with mixed results, I think. Others have tried to hybridize and fuse Japanese and non-Japanese ways. Their ways are my ways, but I take them even further than they do. I hate to sound smug, but right or wrong (and by now I hope you know being right doesn’t amount to a hill of beans!) I take living in the moment very seriously: spiritually, but also historically and culturally.
Time and circumstances do indeed have a way of interrupting traditions and sometimes changing them completely. This happened in Japan during the Second World War. All priests were conscripted to fight in the military. And whole lineages, of families as well as temples, died out. By some calculations, after the war Japan’s population had shrunk by almost half. The Zen lineages and those of Buddhism as a whole certainly did not die out. But old traditions in general became suspect, because they were seen as contributing to Japan’s defeat.
It was in this narrative that Japan’s traditional arts, including Buddhist practices, began to take root outside Japan. Or I should say the rooting began with beatniks and hippies who knocked on the doors of Japanese Zen temples and the studios of traditional artists -- some of them so decimated by the war that many had little hope for recovery -- and asked to be admitted as disciples. This was like the victors seeking help from the vanquished. The Japanese were incredulous. Why are these foreigners here? What do they want?
Ordinary pre-War Japanese would never have dreamed of seeking entrance to temples and studios (the way the beatniks and hippies were) unless they were members of a priest family, or a family of artisans. To attempt such a thing would amount to forcing their way into a social class they didn’t belong to by blood. They had their own social class (farmer, merchant, samurai or aristocrat) and couldn’t imagine trying to change it to that of a priest or artisan. Foreigners didn’t know any better. They just wanted enlightenment!
That is how the Zen and other forms of Buddhism began to leave Japan and spread throughout the world. Unlike Christian missionaries (with all due respect in both directions) Buddhist priests have no Great Commission that requires them to go into all the world and spread the Gospel. I think it is fair to say that the priests who actually did leave the country and try their luck in foreign countries felt a little lost. Things looked pretty grim in Japan for priests, but all these foreigners clamoring for their instruction was enticing.
I personally helped a number of them get their green cards and set up shop in the United States. Gurus from India had already established a tradition here in the first decades of the 20th century. And I’m afraid that tradition was continued with regard to attitudes of Westerners towards Japanese spiritual teachers. Big mistake! Each Japanese priest, before leaving Japan, had always been under the strict control of their particular branch of Buddhism, and were supported financially and critically by the dozens, sometimes hundred of families that lived and died in the neighborhood he came from.
Buddhist priests in Japan are not and never were gurus. They have no followers. Disciples, yes, but not followers hungering for enlightenment. Usually their disciples are the sons of other priests in the same order, who send their sons to them for training. (It is said your own father cannot train you properly.) So when the first Japanese Zen priests began arriving in America in the 1950’s some may have felt like they had died and gone to heaven. Or, as some of them expressed to me, “What should I do? Do these people (young Americans and Europeans) want to become real priests or do they just want me to answer their questions? “
Language, of course, was a major obstacle in transmitting Japanese Buddhism to the West. In the best cases the result has been a transformation of Japanese Buddhism into a thoroughly non-Japanese hybrid, appropriate to the cultures in question. Actually, I think that is what the transmission of the Buddhist Dharma requires. If you end up with a bunch of people from one culture just imitating people from another culture, you don’t have much, in my opinion. For me, having faith in one’s teacher and his teachings is not a matter of believing or doing what you are told without having some understanding of his culture and the culture that produced his teaching.
Using the Japanese term Roshi in your sangha (another term worthy of discussion) may not have as much significance as the term Mister -- or Doctor, or Professor, or Reverend, or just Dear Friend -- to people who speak English and have grown up in America. It in fact is a Chinese term that has no equivalent in the Pali/Sanskrit texts of Indian Buddhism. “Old Child” was a Chinese title used for great Chinese teachers long before Buddhism was introduced in China.
Sometime in the second century AD, Chinese emperors started adding the new religion of Buddhism to the ritual Daoism (and practical Confucianism) that had always controlled ancestor worship and funerals. This sparked a religious debate lasting for a thousand years, beautifully chronicled in a late third century text called “Daoism [Old Child] Versus Barbarian [Buddhist] Teachings”(老子化胡経), a text that in the 1920’s was included (No. 2139) in the mammoth Japanese Taisho Period collection of Buddhist scriptures and related texts. As the title of that work shows, the term Roshi had been associated so completely with the semi-historical founder of Daoism, Laozi (Lao-Tse in pre-Communist Romanization), that the Chinese considered “Roshi” to be synonymous with Daoism.
But a little less than two thousand years ago the founders of the Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism in China used the term Roshi for their oldest, most venerated leaders, and the practice was continued in Japan. As a nominally Rinzai group in America you probably have more right to the term than other American Zen groups. But you could follow the Chinese precedent of using a native term for a foreign religion by choosing an American title for your leader. It really is up to you. What’s in a name, after all? May I suggest “Lover Boy”?
With deep love and respect,
Glenn Taylor Webb, also known as Cold Rock
Age 74, March 4, 2010, Palm Desert, CA
I liked your essay, Glenn! Roshi is usually written as 老師, which are actually the same characters as the Chinese word for "teacher." The characters in your essay, 老子, are normally used for Lao Tsu, an important Taoist figure.ReplyDelete