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Philip Kapleau

Philip Kapleau

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Philip Kapleau was a teacher of Zen Buddhism in the Sanbo Kyodan
Sanbo Kyodan
Sanbo Kyodan is a Zen sect derived from both the Rinzai and Soto traditions of Japanese Zen.-History:...

 tradition, a blending of Japanese Sōtō
Sōtō Zen , or is, with Rinzai and Ōbaku, one of the three most populous sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism.The Sōtō sect was first established as the Caodong sect during the Tang Dynasty in China by Dongshan Liangjie in the 9th century, which Dōgen Zenji then brought to Japan in the 13th century...

 and Rinzai
Rinzai school
The Rinzai school is , one of three sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism.Rinzai is the Japanese line of the Chinese Linji school, which was founded during the Tang Dynasty by Linji Yixuan...


Early life

Kapleau was born in New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven is the second-largest city in Connecticut and the sixth-largest in New England. According to the 2010 Census, New Haven's population increased by 5.0% between 2000 and 2010, a rate higher than that of the State of Connecticut, and higher than that of the state's five largest cities, and...

. As a teenager he worked as a bookkeeper. He briefly studied law and later became an accomplished court reporter. In 1945 he served as chief Allied court reporter for the "Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal", which judged the leaders of Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

. This was the first of the series commonly known as the Nuremberg Trials
Nuremberg Trials
The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the victorious Allied forces of World War II, most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of the defeated Nazi Germany....


Kapleau later covered the International Military Tribunal for the Far East
International Military Tribunal for the Far East
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East , also known as the Tokyo Trials, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, or simply the Tribunal, was convened on April 29, 1946, to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan for three types of crimes: "Class A" crimes were reserved for those who...

, commonly known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. While in Japan he became intrigued by and drawn to Zen Buddhism. Specifically, he attended a number of informal lectures given by D.T. Suzuki in Kita Kamakura. After returning to America, he renewed his acquaintance with D.T. Suzuki who had left Kita Kamakura to lecture on Zen at Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

. But disaffected with a primarily intellectual treatment of Zen, he moved to Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

 in 1953 to seek Zen's deeper truth.

Zen training

He trained initially with Soen Nakagawa
Soen Nakagawa
Soen Nakagawa was a Taiwanese-born Japanese rōshi and Zen Buddhist master in the Rinzai tradition...

 (1907–1984), then rigorously with Daiun Harada (1871–1961), at Hosshin-ji. Later he became a disciple of Haku'un Yasutani
Haku'un Yasutani
was a Sōtō Rōshi and the founder of the Sanbo Kyodan Zen Buddhist organization.-Biography:Ryōkō Yasutani was born in Japan in Shizuoka Prefecture....

 (1885–1973), himself a dharma heir of Harada. After 13 years' training, Kapleau was ordained by Haku'un Yasutani in 1965 and given permission to teach. The two later ended their relationship over disagreements about teaching and other personal issues. By Kapleau's own admission, he had not completed kōan study and had not gone further than the Blue Cliff Record
Blue Cliff Record
The Blue Cliff Record ; Vietnamese: Bích nham lục ) is a collection of Chán Buddhist koans originally compiled in China during the Song dynasty in 1125 and then expanded into its present form by the Chán master Yuanwu Keqin .The book includes Yuanwu's annotations and commentary on Xuedou...

, about one third of the kōans in the Yasutani Roshi curriculum. The koan collections that Kapleau did not study include the Book of Serenity (sometimes called the Book of Equanimity), The Transmission of the Lamp, The Five Ranks, and the Precept Koans of which there are more than 100. Kapleau passed the miscellaneous koans (about 50) the Mumonkan (96 koans including the verses) and the Blue Cliff Record (100) if he finished it. Yamada Roshi claims that Kapleau had not gone further than number 37 of the Blue Cliff Record. Kapleau claims otherwise. Kapleau is therefore an independent teacher who was not an official representative of the Yasutani lineage. The Kapleau lineage begins with him. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Kapleau and his many students' and Dharma heirs' effect on Zen in the west is remarkable.

Work and teaching

Kapleau transcribed other Zen teachers' talks, interviewed lay students and monks, and recorded the practical details of Zen Buddhist practice. His book, The Three Pillars of Zen, was published in 1965, has been translated into 12 languages, and is still in print. It was one of the first English-language books to present Zen Buddhism not as philosophy, but as a pragmatic and salutary way of training and living. During a book tour in 1965 he was invited to teach meditation at a gathering in Rochester
Rochester, New York
Rochester is a city in Monroe County, New York, south of Lake Ontario in the United States. Known as The World's Image Centre, it was also once known as The Flour City, and more recently as The Flower City...

, New York. In 1966 he left Japan to create the Rochester Zen Center
Rochester Zen Center
The Rochester Zen Center is a Sōtō and Rinzai Zen Buddhist sangha in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage, located in Rochester, New York and established in 1966 by Philip Kapleau. It is one of the oldest Zen centers in the United States. The history of the Rochester Zen Center begins overseas with the...

. In doing so, he became the first American to found and teach at a Zen training center.

For almost 40 years, Kapleau taught at the Center and in many other settings around the world, and provided his own dharma transmission
Dharma transmission
Dharma transmission refers to "the manner in which the teaching, or Dharma, is passed from a Zen master to their disciple and heir...

 to several disciples of both genders. He also introduced many modifications to the Japanese Zen tradition, such as chanting the Heart Sutra
Heart Sutra
The Heart Sūtra is a Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtra. Its Sanskrit name literally translates to "Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom." The Heart Sūtra is often cited as the best known and most popular of all Buddhist scriptures.-Introduction:The Heart Sūtra is a member of the Perfection of...

 in the vernacular English in the U.S., or Polish at the Center he founded in Katowice. He often emphasized that Zen Buddhism adapted so readily to new cultures especially because it was not dependent upon a dogmatic external form. At the same time he recognized that it was not always easy to discern the form from the essence, and one had to be careful not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Throughout the 1970s Toni Packer
Toni Packer
Toni Packer is the founder of Springwater Center, located in Springwater, in the finger lakes region of upstate New York, an hour south of Rochester. The center was founded in 1981 as the Genesee Valley Zen Center and has since been renamed...

 accepted minor teaching positions at Rochester Zen Center. In 1981 she ran the Center in Kapleau's absence and was in line to be his successor. Packer left the Center shortly after Kapleau's return and ceased practicing Buddhism.

Kapleau was an articulate and passionate writer. His emphasis in writing and teaching was that insight and enlightenment
Bodhi is both a Pāli and Sanskrit word traditionally translated into English with the word "enlightenment", but which means awakened. In Buddhism it is the knowledge possessed by a Buddha into the nature of things...

 are available to anyone, not just austere and isolated Zen monks. Also well-known for his views on vegetarianism
Vegetarianism encompasses the practice of following plant-based diets , with or without the inclusion of dairy products or eggs, and with the exclusion of meat...

, peace
Peace is a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict. Commonly understood as the absence of hostility, peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal or international relationships, prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare, the...

 and compassion
Compassion is a virtue — one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism — foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.There is an aspect of...

, he remains widely read, and is a notable influence on Zen Buddhism as it is practiced in the West. Today, his dharma heirs, descendants and former students teach at Zen Centers around the world.

Roshi Kapleau lived in Hollywood, FL for several years before returning to RZC.

He lived with Parkinson’s Disease for several years, and while his physical mobility was reduced, he enjoyed lively and trenchant interactions with a steady stream of visitors throughout his life. On May 6, 2004, he died peacefully in the backyard of the Rochester Zen Center, surrounded by many of his closest disciples and friends.

Grist for the mill

A favorite saying of Philip Kapleau was "Grist for the mill" which means that all of our troubles and trials can be useful or contain some profit to us. In the spirit of this his gravestone is one of the mill-stones from Chapin Mill
Chapin Mill
Chapin Mill Buddhist Retreat Center is the Buddhist Retreat center of the Rochester Zen Center located at 8603 Seven Springs Rd, Batavia, NY, between Buffalo, NY and Rochester, NY. Ralph Chapin, a member and friend of the Center donated the property to the Center in 1996. The retreat center held a...

, the 135-acre (0.55 km2) Buddhist Retreat center whose land was donated by a founding member of the Rochester Zen Center, Ralph Chapin.

See also

  • Buddhism in the United States
    Buddhism in the United States
    Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the United States behind Christianity, Judaism and Nonreligious, and approximate with Islam and Hinduism. American Buddhists include many Asian Americans, as well as a large number of converts of other ethnicities, and now their children and even...

  • Buddhism in the West
    Buddhism in the West
    Buddhism in the West broadly encompasses the knowledge and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia. Occasional intersections between Western civilization and the Buddhist world have been occurring for thousands of years, but it was not until the era of European colonization of Buddhist countries in...

  • Timeline of Zen Buddhism in the United States
    Timeline of Zen Buddhism in the United States
    Below is a timeline of important events regarding Zen Buddhism in the United States. Dates with "?" are approximate.-Early history:* 1893: Soyen Shaku comes to the United States to lecture at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago...

External links