Over the gates of hell, Dante imagined a sign reading, “Lose hope all ye who enter here.” The same sign, with an entirely less gloomy implication, might easily be imagined welcoming newcomers at the Soho Zen Buddhist Association, a four-flight hike up in one of the many converted loft buildings on Manhattan’s much-renovated and unrelievedly-artsy lower east side.

The four-year-old association is led by Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, a diminutive, rumble-voiced Zen teacher with a penchant for non-judgmental laughter and an occasional cigarette. Offspring of a father and grandfather who were also Zen teachers, Kyudo Roshi (roshi means “venerable teacher”) counts himself as Dharma heir to one of the great Zen masters of modern times, Soen Nakagawa (no relation) Roshi, who died in 1984. (There are two other Zen teachers in America who place themselves in this tradition: Maurine Myoon Freedgood Roshi in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Eido Tai Shimano Roshi in New York City.)

Kyudo Roshi was born February 12, 1927, in Ichijima-cho, outside Kyoto, with the given name Myosho, a contraction of his father’s and grandfather’s names. Kyudo is a Dharma, or true, name, given to him by one of his teachers. He became a monk at age eight, studied Buddhism at Komazawa University, trained at Gukei-ji Temple, and at thirty, entered Ryutaku-ji Monastery where Soen Roshi was abbott. In 1968, by request, he went to teach on Mount Olive near Jerusalem. There he stayed for thirteen years. Then, after a brief return to Ryutaku-ji, he came to New York City.

All of this background information and more he imparts with good spirit, glasses cocked up on his forehead and an occasional scratch to his shaven skull as he searches for forgotten bits and pieces. Yet when it comes to what might be called the meat-and-potatoes questions about Zen practice, a shift of sorts occurs and answers grow seemingly more suggestive, more subtly redolent . . . as if, through an open window in Spring, the smell of some uncapturable and wonderful cooking has come in from afar on a soft breeze.

Adam Fisher


SUN: What is Zen?

KYUDO ROSHI: Sleeping, talking, laughing . . . that’s all.

SUN: In which case, why do we need zendos [meditation halls] where silence and stillness are the general rule?

KYUDO ROSHI: If you want to go to Washington, D.C., you ask, “What train can I take?” They say, “Platform three.” Teachers can only guide. They cannot teach truth. It’s like us: we’re sitting here drinking tea. I cannot explain the taste to you. You drink and I drink. You say, “This tea is about this — tastes such-and-such a way.” And I say “Yes” because I am drinking the same tea.

Originally, I didn’t like philosophy or theory — so much talk. In the Soto sect [a branch of Zen], they say, “Daily life is Zen. Zen is daily life.” But my opinion is that without knowing the fundamental point of view, you cannot say that Zen is everyday life. In order to know the fundamental point of view, you must discover your own true nature. Then reading a book is Zen, drinking tea is Zen, and talking Zen is also true Zen.

SUN: Why should we practice?

KYUDO ROSHI: Without practice, it’s only intellectual. Without training, you can’t do it. The intellectual point of view is the superficial point of view. For example, you drink tea and I drink tea. I may say it’s sweet, but how sweet you don’t know until you taste it. This is the direct way of knowing. Zen is direct knowing.

SUN: Is Zen religion?

KYUDO ROSHI: If I say “No,” then others say, “Ah, Zen is not religion.” If I say “Yes,” then they say, “Ah, Zen is religion.” I can’t really say yes or no, but Zen is mostly religion. Zen is religion without the dualistic point of view.

Without practice, it’s only intellectual. Without training, you can’t do it. The intellectual point of view is the superficial point of view.

SUN: Does Zen have one point of view? Is it monistic?

KYUDO ROSHI: Maybe the best way to say it is pointless point.

The most important thing in Zen is Buddha mind. Most people think Buddha is the Buddha statue or the historical Buddha. But the most important thing is universal mind or Zen mind or Buddha mind or the essence. Most people look to the Buddha statue or the cross or some object. These are symbols. Symbols are made in the head. Can symbols make you happy? No.

SUN: Who or what is Buddha?

KYUDO ROSHI: Don’t ask! This is a great koan [intellectually insoluble riddle like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”]. I’m not going to answer. Please discover for yourself. Please discover yourself.

Of course the original meaning of Buddha is liberator from attachment or self, but most people think of a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha [historical]. If you are liberated from everything, then you become a Buddha. Much better than a statue.

SUN: Are the approaches to Zen different in Japan and America?

KYUDO ROSHI: NOOOOOO! Everyone has a happy time! Everyone is laughing!

SUN: C’mon, Roshi! This is an interview.

KYUDO ROSHI: You’re making it very hard. Superficially, American habit and language is different, but the essence is no different. I give you an example. When I got to Israel, it was 2 a.m. Next day, I went to the zendo. All the parishioners were Arabic. There was a rooster outside going cock-a-doodle-doo. Japanese rooster does exactly the same cock-a-doodle-doo. Japanese rooster and Arabic rooster are exactly the same. Superficially, human beings have a different language from roosters and cats and pigeons. Pigeons, roosters, cats and children all crying the same. Each country is different, but the essence is the same.

SUN: How would you encourage people?

KYUDO ROSHI: Without encouragement, you cannot do anything. But encouragement is an emotional point. Encouragement must be mental. You must do it yourself. You must transcend encouragement and no encouragement.

SUN: But there is a zendo here and people come — isn’t that a form of encouragement?

KYUDO ROSHI: Here we study daily life. You need to be cheerful, courageous and patient. When these things are achieved, there’s no need to study Zen.

SUN: Some people, when they begin practice, feel there’s a goal.

KYUDO ROSHI: NO GOAL! NOOOO! Goal is limited. In one way, this is very hard: from beginning to end, no goal. On the other hand, it’s very easy: no goal. No goal [long laugh] very easy. Of course it’s hard for beginners. They come with hope. Without hope there would be no beginning. Hope at the beginning is OK. After three years it’s not so necessary. It becomes easy.

SUN: What is the function of zazen [roughly, seated meditation, the core practice of Zen]?

KYUDO ROSHI: Zazen is so you can realize your truth.

SUN: From a newcomer’s point of view, it’s hard to understand how sitting down cross-legged, sitting straight and still and silent, will do the trick.

KYUDO ROSHI: It’s very hard for a newcomer. Hope is in the head. But practice [zazen] is with the whole body. There may be hope, but then all of a sudden the legs start to ache [from sitting cross-legged a half-hour or more]. This tells you that hope is limited.

SUN: What is the most important aspect of practice?

KYUDO ROSHI: Daily life.

Most people look to the Buddha statue or the cross or some object. These are symbols. Symbols are made in the head. Can symbols make you happy? No.

It’s very hard for a newcomer. Hope is in the head. But practice is with the whole body. There may be hope, but then all of a sudden the legs start to ache. This tells you that hope is limited.

SUN: A lot of people walk the streets who might agree that daily life is most important, yet they have no interest in Zen.

KYUDO ROSHI: Many who get up in the morning, brush their teeth, walk to work — they are following what is outside.

SUN: What would a Zen student do?

KYUDO ROSHI: Create the outside.

SUN: How?

KYUDO ROSHI: If you want to know, do zazen.

SUN: Does Zen make you happy?

KYUDO ROSHI: In the beginning not so happy. Pain, headache, not enough sleep. Suffering.

SUN: And then?

KYUDO ROSHI: Then happy. You cannot compare, but there must be patience. Without courage and without cheer, we cannot do it.

SUN: Who is the teacher?

KYUDO ROSHI: Except me, everything is the teacher.

SUN: Many revere a person or a book as teacher.

KYUDO ROSHI: Yes. Person or book or flower or cat or even cockroach. Except me, everything is the teacher.

SUN: Yet in Buddhism, there is a tradition of veneration for the teacher. What does this mean?

KYUDO ROSHI: The teacher doesn’t say you must do anything. Nobody is teaching. Nobody asks.

SUN: Even in the zendo?

KYUDO ROSHI: Here too. I don’t say you should sit like this or sit like that [during zazen]. No. If they want to sit, they come here. Sometimes they’re sleepy so I stimulate them. I stimulate them for zazen. If I say this tea is good and you say no, I cannot force you to take it. If you do not trust the doctor or nurse when you’re sick, you cannot help yourself. If you don’t believe or trust, there is no help.

Some questions I won’t answer.

SUN: For beginners, would you give a brief description of Buddha, Dharma [Truth], and Sangha [the community]?

KYUDO ROSHI: Some questions I won’t answer.

SUN: Why?

KYUDO ROSHI: You know, if you ask me for salad, I give you salad. If you ask for beef, I give you beef. Then you are satisfied.

SUN: Yet at the beginning of practice, it may be hard if there is nowhere to hold on. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha sometimes offer a place to hold on, however false.

KYUDO ROSHI: When I was in Israel, everyone was Jewish or Christian. They didn’t like it much so I didn’t talk about those things. If you have a question about Dharma, then I can answer.

SUN: What is Dharma?

KYUDO ROSHI: Talking [long laugh]. In theory, Dharma is universal law. Unchanging. Cannot be changed. Changing law is not Dharma. From before the universe was born, there was Dharma. For a lot of people, though, Dharma is like philosophy. They say, “Dharma is this and Buddha is that.”

SUN: What is enlightenment?

KYUDO ROSHI: “I don’t know.” Most people think “I don’t know” means limitation. This is a dualistic point of view. But truly, truly you don’t know.

SUN: What is delusion?

KYUDO ROSHI: Habit. It’s limited. But enlightenment is unlimited. Unlimited is truly “I don’t know.”

SUN: Some people would like to improve themselves with spiritual practice, to get better.

KYUDO ROSHI: If the desire to become better disappears, then they will become better.

SUN: What is the difference between laymen and monks?

KYUDO ROSHI: Same. Two arms, two legs, two eyes. Same. Superficially, yes, there are differences. Monks shave their heads. But inside, your pure mind — comparisons cannot be made. Male, female, young, old — no difference.

SUN: What is a koan?

KYUDO ROSHI: Traditionally there are 1,700 koans. It means a question. All koans ask for your essential point of view. [The 18th century teacher] Hakuin codified the tradition of 1,700 koans. But the original koan is everyday life. Every second is a koan. Buddha did not study 1,700 koans.

SUN: What of traditional study — the philosophy and stories of the past Zen masters?

KYUDO ROSHI: Stories stimulate for zazen so telling them may be OK for a while.

SUN: Yet some in this country dislike the bowing and chanting and other practices that are traditional in Japan.

KYUDO ROSHI: Here I don’t use such things. After thirteen years in Israel, automatically I don’t use them.

SUN: Do student problems vary from Japan to the U.S.?

KYUDO ROSHI: Well, Americans always seem to want to know the theory, the philosophy first. Maybe the Japanese are more willing to just practice and find out.

SUN: Across this country in the past several years, there have been a number of roshis who have been involved in what some said were scandals — sexually manipulating students, collecting power, living very expensive lives, drinking too much, lying, that sort of thing. . . .

KYUDO ROSHI: Politicians are the same, aren’t they?

SUN: Yes, but in this country we expect it of politicians. But if a spiritual teacher lies, the reaction among his students is likely to be one of surprise and hurt.

KYUDO ROSHI: I wish I could answer. I don’t know about these things. All I know is that I am not interested in power and money. Well, maybe I am a little interested in money [laughs] but it isn’t coming. It costs us $20,000 a year. But about these things, I don’t know. In my opinion, maybe it’s a matter of background. Too many desires.

SUN: What does Kyudo mean?

KYUDO ROSHI: It means Universal Child. Too strong. The name is too strong. Much stronger than I am. I am getting weak. You know, western people seek out names like Jesus or Mohammed. They want a holy man name. But in Japan, such names are not used. David and Abraham and such wonderful, powerful names. In Japan we don’t use such names because it makes . . . loss of virtue. Too strong. Much too strong. Universal Child — ha!