Several years after World War II, my teacher studied with Hodo Tobase in San Francisco. Tobase was part of the Soto Mission from Japan. The name of the temple of the Soto mission was Sokoji. My teacher was a graduate student who was a part-time monk at the temple. There was also a Japanese nun who resided there. My teacher told me that Tobase was a Zen master and a rather famous calligrapher. His main duties involved serving the Japanese community in the city which went to the Soto temple.
The image of Zen Buddism back then and into the 60s was still with the glow of something mysterious and deeply spiritual. It hadn't as yet turned into Za-Zen (lit., sit down Zen). Zen was still trying to find its voice in America; to speak to us about its most profound message. But, in my estimation, Za-Zen took over. The quest of Zen to find its voice in America in some ways failed. So here we are today.
It is difficult to find a Zen temple in the West not almost completely dedicated to teaching sitting meditation. Zazen practice turned into almost a cure-all for what psychologically ails us. As a result, what Buddhism and Zen are really about gets pushed to the back burner. Just sit is the most important part of Zen. But in truth it is not. Sitting is a tool. Just like reading the sermons of Zen masters or the words of the Buddha. Being mindful is also a tool not only of our actions but of our thoughts, as well. These tools are useful. However, they are not ends in themselves.
Earlier, when I mentioned Zen trying to find its voice in America, what I meant by this is that Zen, in a way, must speak directly to us in a spiritual way. It has to tell us at some point that it is about seeing our true nature in addition to providing us with some useful clues about this true nature or essence. During those early formative years with my teacher I didn’t hear the voice of Zen. It had not spoken to me. I almost became a Zen priest parrot, you could say—or a priest monkey. Finally, I began to see a direction in Zen. Was Zen finally speaking to me?
As fate would have it, I was about to begin the most fascinating, wild and crazy adventure I could imagine, and all because I was deeply interested in the real voice of Zen; not just sitting on my backsides. This is when I met the rotund, bespectled Bishop Nippo Shaku who was teaching at the California Institue of Asian Sutdies.