“In each eon there are at least a few individuals who understand what man’s (or woman’s) real task consists of and keep its traditions for future generations and a time when insight has reached a deeper and more general level. First the way of a few will be changed and in a few generations there will be more. Whoever is capable of such insight, no matter how isolated she or he is, should be aware of the law of synchronicity. As the old Chinese saying goes; the right woman or man, sitting in their house and thinking the right thought will be heard one hundred miles away. Thus, an old alchemist gave the following consolation to one of his disciples, ‘No matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel, if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.’” C.G. Jung
I have chosen to write about one of these few individuals that Jung refers to above in this Ancestor piece. The word Ancestor is from the Latin ante, before, and cedere, go, hence those who go before us. When we are young and life seems like a fast-flowing torrent, we may have little capacity to consider our ancestors. With the passage of time, as our own life end comes slowly into view over the horizon, for many, where we stand in this endless chain takes on greater interest, importance and reverence. Perhaps our rediscovered ancestors can even transcend time and, as Jung says above, become our unknown friends.
As I was thinking about this topic of Ancestors, by chance, Sensei Kathy Fischer’s talk on a podcast from Upaya Institute and Zen Centre, on Revering the Ancestors, popped into my in-box.
She starts off reminding us that perhaps our first ancestor is the sun. We remain alive by eating plants that ‘eat’ sunlight. We breathe in and out sustaining ourselves through another essential ancestor: the atmosphere.
It is good, in our future-focused culture, to remember the huge time scales that our fleeting life sits in. Currently our best understanding is that the universe was born about 13.7 billion years ago in a massive expansion that blew space up like a gigantic balloon.
Fast forward to the first evidence of cultural artifacts, in what is known as ‘behavioural modernity’ around 50,000 years ago. I well remember the awe I felt when standing in the British Museum before a small flute carved out of a reindeer horn by one of our ancestors 45,000 years ago. In that momentary encounter we were suddenly close together, two human beings with the same needs and intelligence, separated only by time. Even closer to home, remember our own Keizan Roshi is just 82nd in line of ancestral teachers from the Buddha.
Most slower-changing cultures confer reverence to ancestors, both living and dead; in contrast, more youth-oriented, rapidly changing cultures like our own display less veneration of elders. While that hyper-focus on the future has certainly released a huge explosion of new ideas and technology, we have, in the process, lost something profound. We are lucky to have the great Koan treasures that still speak so clearly and directly to us from our ancestors back through time, even if that clarity is often obscured on first encounter! But put in the context of deep time, these ‘patriarchs’ are just like our own grandparents, wisely watching over us, speaking to us lucidly, still.
Stephen Batchelor reminds us in his 1994 book, The Awakening of the West: The Encounters of Buddhism and Western Culture,
“History is a process of selection: its convenient fictions are as much a reflection of what one chooses to omit as what one decides to include.”
With this in mind, while I have used the term patriarch, we might wonder what happened to our matriarchs?
For me one such, only recently re-appreciated, matriarch was Zen pioneer, sometime ‘Mother of American Zen’: Ruth Fuller Sasaki, (RFS) 1892-1967.
In the onrush of our life, we can sometimes omit the endless link we have with those who have gone before, our ancestors. Unsurprisingly, each lineage rightly prioritises its own ancestorial tradition over others.
However, after time, with greater study and understanding, this awareness of the many shoulders we stand on broadens and is more inclusive in its traditions that feed the great river we all swim in.
Back to Ruth Fuller Sasaki, the first foreigner to be ordained as a Zen priest in Japan, and who, by the time of her death in 1967, had overseen important translations of classic Zen texts.
Only a few years after her death I would hear mention of her from my first Zen teacher, the late Irmgard Schloegl (Venerable Myokyo-ni) of the Buddhist Society & Zen Centre of London, of whom I have written elsewhere.
Irmgard had travelled to Kyoto in 1960 to study at Daitoku-Ji thanks to the generosity of Ruth and her First Zen Institute of America in Japan. Irmgard would talk warmly of Ruth. Half a dozen years after Ruth’s death Irmgard was still happily wearing some of Ruth’s high-quality clothes, generously passed on to her when Irmgard had been amongst that small coterie of hard up, long-term Zen students in 1960’s Kyoto that Ruth helped and encouraged at Kyosen-an, the Temple in the grounds of Daitoku-Ji that Ruth had established and paid for, to aid the forward guard of serious Zen students who were now making their way to study in Japan after the war.
Isabel Stirling has done us all a great service in illuminating this extraordinary woman’s life in her book, Zen Pioneer: The Life and Work of Ruth Fuller Sasaki, 2006.
As poet and long-term Zen student Gary Snider says in the foreword of Stirling’s book:
“Ruth Fuller Everett did not become interested in Zen Buddhism because she was a bohemian, an artist, or any sort of cultural revolutionary. She entered onto this path because she was more than just smart: she was smart enough to realize that her own power and drive and capacity were a little too much, and she deeply intuited that she needed another direction. From her teenage years she set herself against the assumptions of theistic religions and their language of heaven and hell, evil and sin…She was a Zen Lady, a title she would never shrink from. She was to become an ordained Zen priest with her own temple in Kyoto. As much as any neo-Confucian gentleman of Sung China or Tokugawa, Japan, she realised the needs and difficulties of governance.”
Born in Chicago on the 31st of October 1892, Ruth was from a well-off family and this and her first marriage, at the age of twenty-four, to wealthy lawyer Edward Warren Everett, twenty years her senior, made her financially independent to follow her heart’s desire.
Like many well-heeled matrons of Chicago, at a young age she ran an extensive household with personal assistants, cooks, gardeners etc. and, when not supervising her household, she had time to develop an interest in eastern culture. For a time, she studied with western convert yogi, Pierre Bernard, and took classes at the University of Chicago in Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit.
On a three-month trip in 1930 with her husband, her daughter Eleanor (later to be briefly married to self-described philosophical entertainer, Alan Watts) and Eleanor’s governess Miss Hoover, they travelled to Japan, Korea, China and Japanese-occupied Manchuria. No ordinary tourists. When in Japan again in 1934, Ruth and Edward had a meeting with the Minister of War, General Hayashi Senjuro. In Manchuria they had an audience with Emperor Pu-Yi, the Last Emperor of China, now reduced to a Japanese puppet figurehead.
However, for Ruth, the most significant visit on that first trip in 1930 was to meet another ancestor of Western Zen, Daisetz T. Suzuki. He instructed her on basic zazen, introduced her to important Kyoto Roshis and gave her an early copy of his book, Essays in Zen Buddhism.
Before too long she was back in Japan sitting through the tough Rohatsu sesshin at Nanzenji. Her resilience and strength, seemingly in contrast to her wealthy young western persona, soon impressed the monks.
This was no vacation fad for her, as, on her return to America, for the next year and a half she assiduously continued her meditation practice and began planning her next trip to Japan to learn more about Zen. By her second trip she was sitting regularly at Nanzenji, a Rinzai Zen temple. At the sesshin the monks did not want her in the zendo but she was allowed in for one night for the evening sitting from 7 to 9.30 pm. She sat very well and was invited back the next day. At one stage the Roshi came into the zendo “yowling and bellowing.” She found out later that he had said that their sanzen had been terrible and so they would therefore have to sit the whole night, without breaks. This she too, did! Later she had to be carried off the tan, the raised platform, because her legs had become completely paralysed. After this the head monk told her that the monks were inviting her to come and sit in the zendo regularly, as she was an inspiration to them.
Back in America she had moved to New York and been a principal supporter of the Buddhist Society of America, later renamed The First Zen Institute of America, and worked closely with its leader, the remarkable lay Rinzai master Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki. He had travelled and lived in America for many years. During World War Two he was interned as an enemy alien. Ruth and other members of the New York Zen community eventually used their influence to get him freed, but his health had suffered much from the years of internment. By this time Ruth’s husband, who had been suffering from a mental illness for some time, had died.
Soon after in 1944 on his release Ruth and Sokei-an were married. The exact reason for this marriage remains unclear. One story has it that he was so ill after his internment that the doctor had ‘prescribed’ it as the only way he would survive. Allan Watts suggests that they were actually in love. Others suggest it was because Sokei-an did not expect to live long and wanted her to have his name which he felt might help her studies back in Japan when the war was over. Whatever the reason, in May 1945 he died at the age of sixty-three from kidney thrombosis.
On her return to Kyoto after the war, with her wealth, her patrician belief that nothing was impossible, and her considerable drive, she used her connections and the high regard senior Roshis had for her, to rebuild and expanding the Temple Kyosen-an, in the grounds of Daitoku-Ji.
In the following two decades it became both a centre for her task of gathering and funding a team of scholars around her to translate key Zen texts. At the same time Kyosen-an increasingly became a hub for serious Zen students drawn to Japan when there was almost no classical Zen training with a qualified teacher available in the west.
In the 1970s I heard innumerable stories about Goto Zuigan Roshi who had been a dharma brother of Sokei-an Roshi and his successor Oda Sesso Roshi, and later met Morinaga Roshi, head monk under Sesso Roshi, on several of his early trips to London. One after another these men had been the senior Rinzai Roshi in Japan.
To sum up as Isabel Stirling says;
“While some people saw Ruth as being somewhat aloof, she had a gift for developing personal friendships with her teachers and colleagues. At Nanzen-Ji, Nanshiken Roshi, who was thirty years her senior, would come to Ruth’s house on the Kamo River in the summer to get away from Nanzen-ji for a few hours to relax and read in her kitchen.”
Irmgard who knew her well in her final years said of her that she was fundamentally a warm-hearted person with her feet planted on the earth. No bad epitaph!
In 2013, while lecturing in Japan, I was able to make a small, personal pilgrimage to Kyosen-an, the Temple in the grounds of Daitoku-Ji.
We are all in a long line of past and future. We endeavour to learn from those who go before us, our ancestors. In turn, we become the ancestors of those who will soon replace us. Time swiftly passes by, so we attempt not to squander our life, but become the ancestor we would like to be.
You can read more about this remarkable Lady of Zen and Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki in a 1994 article from Tricycle here.