From the spring of 1932, in Nanzen-ji, in Kyoto, Japan, an American woman sitting meditation had an awakening. After wrestling with a koan, Ruth Fuller Everett, a rich 40-year-old wife and mother from Chicago, obtained a glimpse of a new reality. When she conveyed this to her master, Nanshinken Roshi, he encouraged her to enter the zendo and sit with all the male monks. This was an unprecedented occasion. Ruth became the first American documented to have undergone satori, or sudden enlightenment.
She moved on to attain other historic firsts: she was the first Western woman to ordain in the Zen tradition in Japan and also the first to become abbot of a Japanese temple. (She was appointed the temple priest at Ryosen-an temple in Kyoto, in the 14th-century lineage of Daitoku-ji; this acknowledgment was unusual for a Westerner and a woman it warranted an article in Time magazine.) She left a valuable contribution to Western Buddhism in her translations of Japanese texts, wrote lucid explorations of Rinzai Zen and koan study. Seeing that Zen could provide liberation from suffering, she set out to find a way to bring this treatment to her own nation amid the end of the Depression and the buildup to the Second World War. “She considered herself a scientist, a researcher who might discover a cure for the malaise she witnessed in the world all around her–or perhaps not discover something new so much as receive, translate, convey an ancient well-known solution back to her own land,” co-authors Janica Anderson and Steven Schwartz write in Zen Odyssey: The Story of Sokei-an, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, and the Birth of Zen in America.
Zen Odyssey tells the complete story of this pioneering woman, intertwined with that of the Japanese Zen master Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki, that was first her teacher, then her husband, with whom she ran The First Zen Institute of America in New York City. The book traces the early lives of both of these outsize characters, chronicling their first, contentious encounter and fruitful working relationship, which finally led to a lasting connection. The writers draw upon the records gathered by the author and poet Gary Snyder, who ran 27 hours of interviews with Ruth in 1966, a year before her passing. The interviews offer a window into her thoughts and feelings, as well as her understanding of Zen, particularly the zazen and also koan methods of Rinzai. Photographs and the writings of Sokei-an add to the book’s rich tableau.
Zen Odyssey presents Sokei-an’s travel as parallel with Ruth’s. Sokei-an was born in 1882 in Japan to a Shinto priest who died when Sokei-an was 15 years old. Sokei-an took up Zen training, and in 1905 was brought to the USA by his teacher, Sokatsu Shaku. Sokatsu soon returned to Japan, and Sokei-an was left to fend for himself in America. He depended upon his considerable skills as a sculptor and wood-carver to make a living; he worked as a writer for a Japanese-language periodical. He was equally comfortable in the bohemian hangouts of Greenwich Village as he was in the backwoods and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, where he wandered on prodigious solitary hikes.
In trips back to Japan, throughout the next ten years, Sokei-an finished his koan training and in 1926 was awarded inka and awarded the name of roshi, a name used for a venerated Zen Buddhist instructor . With this authorization he travelled back to New York City and began his labors as a Zen master to Americans. In 1931, he created the Buddhist Society of America, that was later retitled the First Zen Institute of America. He started giving talks there, and became the first Zen master to dwell in the U.S., lecturing, writing, and teaching in English.
In 1933, at the Buddhist Society of America, Ruth and Sokei-an met for the first time. They participated in verbal dharma combat, Sokei-an saying that Americans weren’t prepared for zazen and Ruth asserting that it was essential practice for them. Sokei-an cautioned that Americans have too many ideas, but when Sokei-an asked her whether he should adopt a sharp, direct approach to students or be patient and kind with them, she surprised him by responding “Why not just be yourself?” And won Sokei-an’s respect. For her part, she found herself reacting to his exceptional presence,“a fullness… a power somehow both raw and refined.”
Ruth started attending sessions at the Buddhist Society of America and working with Sokei-an, settling into the relationship that would direct their lives until Sokei-an’s death in 1945. She encouraged and supported the Buddhist Society of America with the confidence born of privilege combined with a superb mind. Since she had spent a year in Japan in a Zen temple, she had particular knowledge and definite ideas about how things should be carried out. Things did not always proceed smoothly: a few students resented her for her wealth and for Sokei-an’s special interest in her. She bought a five-story building in Manhattan to house the center, and, though still married to her husband, grew closer to Sokei-an. Sokei-an was married to his wife in Japan, but because he and Ruth worked together to translate Rinzai texts, their interest in each other developed. In January 1940, Ruth’s husband died, and she was free to enter fully into her relationship with Sokei-an.
Meanwhile, the United States was making preparations for war following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and started interning people of Japanese descent. Sokei-an was detained on June 15, 1942, and taken to internment camps on Ellis Island, and later Fort Meade in Maryland. The following year became a period of anxious effort: conditions in the camp were dreadful, and Sokei-an, in his sixties, suffered from poor health. Ruth and others lobbied to get Sokei-an out of prison. She hired a lawyer who knew people in the government and could use his influence. She organized Sokei-an’s friends and students to brainstorm and write letters. One of those students, a commander in the navy, worked behind the scenes to secure Sokei-an’s release. Ultimately, on August 17, 1943, Sokei-an became a free man. Not long afterwards, he experienced an acute coronary thrombosisand was incapacitated for a time.
Ruth and Sokei-an were in love, and they desired to wed, encouraged as well by the doctors who advocated marriage as a support for Sokei-an’s recovery. But , Sokei-an had to get a divorce from his wife in Japan. A trustworthy attorney told him in the state of Arkansas, if he and Ruth established six-weeks’ residency and put public announcements in the newspapers, Sokei-an could get a divorce. The lawyer found a Christian minister in Little Rock to act as local sponsor.
Ruth and Sokei-an followed his advice, going to live for six weeks in Little Rock. However, their union was blocked by Arkansas’s anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited the marriage of people from different races. A sympathetic judge eventually ruled in their favor, and they were married, but soon after, Sokei-an collapsed from high blood pressure. He suffered a kidney thrombosis a few days later, and he died on May 17, 1945.
His death came as a terrible shock to Ruth and the First Zen Institute community. Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Sokei-an Sasaki had planned to go on studying, building, and teaching together for decades to come. Instead, she found herself in a new chapter of her life, continuing the work of the First Zen Institute alone, and searching for an appropriate successor to Sokei-an.
The last third of the book chronicles this search and describes her efforts and successes in war-ravaged Japan. There, she did her best to rebuild the temples she loved, was given full ordination and the title of roshi, and named temple priest. She brought together a team of Asian and Western scholars to translate texts in the Rinzai Zen tradition and worked with them to produce several volumes. These decades involved frequent trips to Japan and back to New York, and many challenges, both in her relationship with her presiding Zen master and with the sometimes-fractious members of her translation team. In Japan she often lived in austere conditions, particularly inadequate heating in the winter, which took its toll on her health as she entered her seventies. In the U.S. she put forward Sokei-an’s teachings, and was not disconcerted that the Soto Zen of Shunryu Suzuki was becoming more attractive to Americans than the narrow path of Rinzai. Rinzai Zen is not for everyone, she asserted–the numbers of students did not matter, only the purity of the transmission that had been given to her through Sokei-an and others. She died in Japan just a week before her 75th birthday in 1967, and was cremated and buried with much ceremony.
The stories of Ruth and Sokei-an reveal two characters of titanic proportions–original, colorful, demanding; the material gleaned from the interviews by Snyder in particular takes us deep into the passionate lives of these pioneers. At times, the authors provide more than we need to know–for example, in the many pages devoted to Alan Watts’ courting and marriage to Ruth’s daughter–and at moments we’d love to read more about the romantic relationship which developed between Ruth and Sokei-an. Following Sokei-an’s passing the accounts can bog down a bit in the Japanese Zen politics dogging Ruth. However, these quibbles aside, Zen Odyssey provides a rich history of the bringing of Buddhism to America–which Sokei-an stated was as hard as placing a lotus on a stone –and the intriguing characters that managed it.