Nyogen Senzaki was born on the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeastern Siberia. Little is known about his parents except that his mother was Japanese and his father was either Russian or Chinese. A traveling Japanese Buddhist monk found the infant Nyogen beside the frozen body of his mother. The monk brought the orphaned baby back to Japan where he was adopted and raised by a ship carpenter named Senzaki whose family lived in Aamori Prefecture in the northern part of the country.
Even as a youth Nyogen Senzaki felt somehow deeply connected with Buddha-Dharma. By the age of nineteen he had read the entire Tripitaka (the sacred canon of Mahayana Buddhism) in the original Chinese. He also had a keen interest in Chinese classical poetry and eventually began to compose his own. During his lifetime, he was able to write using various styles of Chinese and Japanese poetical forms. He especially excelled in the “shichigon zekku,” a poem consisting of four lines, each line composed of seven Chinese characters.In 1905, when Nyogen Senzaki came to live in America and learned English, he not only translated his own poetry but also the poetry of Zen masters like Jakushitsu and his own teacher Soyen Shaku. The following poem, originally written in the shichigon zekku form, was composed one year after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor when Nyogen was interned in a relocation camp for Japanese nationals in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific.
Some mystery surrounds the teacher-student relationship between Soyen Shaku and Nyogen Senzaki. But we do know from Nyogen’s writings that he considered Soyen Shaku, a Rinzai Zen master, to be his one true teacher. He was extremely devoted to Soyen Shaku’s memory, and had nothing but praise for this great Zen master who brought Zen to the West in 1893. Here are two poems by Nyogen commemorating his teacher:
November 3, 1935
How can I forget his angry face?
How can I forget the blows of his strong fist?
Thirty years in America,
I worked my way to answer him—
Cultivating a Buddhist field in this strange land.
This autumn, the same as in the past,
I have no crop but the growth of my white hair.
The wind whistles like his scolding voice,
And the rain hits me,
Each drop like his whip.
November 1, 1936
Every autumn I see his penetrating eyes in the moonlight.
Every spring I hear his kind words among the beautiful flowers.
Toward winter, as the days near his commemoration,
I light the longing lamp for him while the night rain patters my window.
At last, the day has come—the first day of November.
All my friends in Dharma are gathered here.
Now I can burn incense to pay homage
To his whole body.
Having devoted his entire adult life to Buddha-Dharma, Nyogen carried his “floating Zendo” with him first to San Francisco and later to Los Angeles, where after many years he passed away on May 7, 1958. He foresaw his death, and prepared a taped message to be played at his funeral. The assembled mourners heard his living voice: “Remember the Dharma! Remember the Dharma!! Remember the Dharma!!!”
When we carefully observe the life of Nyogen Senzaki, his style of teaching and his personality, we cannot help but be impressed with how different he was from both the ancient masters and the modern teachers of Zen. He was not a hermit, nor did he choose to involve himself with traditional temple life. He emphasized the fact that he was in no way attempting to establish an institution, for he sought no permanent dwelling. How well he understood that all existence is “like a dream, like a fantasy.” In this respect, Nyogen—whose name means “no such person”—resembles Shakyamuni Buddha who himself was neither a hermit nor the head of a large congregation in a fixed abode.
Murshid Samuel Lewis, the American Sufi master, said of Nyogen’s passing, “I don’t usually cry, but when ‘Old Fatso’ died I couldn’t help myself. He was the last of the Patriarchs.”
(The above sketch of Nyogen Senzaki’s life is based on Eido Shimano Roshi’s Introduction to his 1978 book, Like A Dream, Like A Fantasy: The Zen Writings and Translations of Nyogen Senzaki. Incidental comments are from Murshid Samuel Lewis, who regarded Nyogen Senzaki as his Zen mentor and friend. Lewis named his San Francisco home “Mentorgarten” in honor of Senzaki who established the first Mentorgarten at 1988 Bush Street, San Francisco, in 1928.)