The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo - Introduction

Hit the road with one of the most important Zen masters of the twentieth-century.



288 pages, 6x9 inches


ISBN 9781614290483

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This book is a collection of Kosho Uchiyama Roshi’s comments on selected short sayings of Kodo Sawaki Roshi. I added some explanation to help contemporary Western readers understand the examples from Japanese history and culture and the essential points of their teachings in a wider Buddhist context.

Sawaki Roshi was one of the most important Soto Zen Buddhist masters of twentieth-century Japan. His fifty years of teaching throughout Japan made Soto Zen available to the common people, outside the traditional monastic system. His emphasis on the traditional sewing of robes has also been widely influential on Western Soto Zen.

Sawaki Roshi’s Dharma heir Uchiyama Roshi was a rare Japanese Soto Zen master with a graduate degree in Western philosophy. His unique way of presenting the Dharma appeals to the modern intellect.

The two teachers’ complementary personalities, combined with their sense of humor, offer us practical guidance in Zen Buddhism and help readers make sense of the challenges of our modern world.

The History of This Book

The main part of this book, the wisdom from Kodo Sawaki Roshi and commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, originally appeared as a series of newspaper articles by Uchiyama Roshi, which ran from January 1966 to February 1967 in the religious column of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. The fifty-six articles were compiled and published by Hakujusha Press as two volumes in 1966 and 1967. For the seventh anniversary of Sawaki Roshi’s death, Uchiyama Roshi wrote fifteen additional articles (chapters 57–71 in this book), and all were combined into a pocket-sized volume.

Ten years later, Uchiyama Roshi added his essay “Kodo Sawaki Roshi’s Zazen”and republished the book. This piece is based on a talk he gave in 1980 at Jinnoin temple; located in Kure, Hiroshima, Jinnoin is one of the temples Sawaki Roshi visited regularly as part of his “moving monastery.”

These early versions were all released by Hakujusha, publisher of the majority of Uchiyama Roshi’s books. In the 1990s, Hakujusha folded, and his more than twenty books went out of print.

After Uchiyama Roshi’s death, one of his Dharma heirs, Rev. Shusoku Kushiya, added chapter 72 from an article Uchiyama Roshi wrote in 1985 for the Buddhist magazine Daihorin, as well as the essay “Recollections of My Teacher, Kodo Sawaki Roshi,” which Uchiyama Roshi wrote in 1971. This latest version was published in 2006 by Daihorinkaku press, which has republished several of Uchiyama Roshi’s books, thanks to Rev. Kushiya’s efforts.

The book you are reading is based on my English translation of this version.

English Translations

Another of Uchiyama Roshi’s Dharma heirs, Rev. Koshi Ichida, with assistance from Marshall Mittnick, made the first English translation of the seventy-one original chapters of this book. He used them as teaching material for the sitting group he led at Pioneer Valley Zendo in Charlemont, Massachusetts, in the second half of the 1970s.

In 1989 at Kyoto Soto Zen Center, I translated the essay “Kodo Sawaki Roshi’s Zazen.” George Varvares and I edited this and Rev. Ichida’s work and published them in 1990 through the center as The Zen Teaching of “Homeless” Kodo. Later, this volume was republished as a free teaching resource by Sotoshu Shumucho, Tokyo, Japan. This version has been out of print since 2010.

Both Rev. Ichida and George Varvares passed away in the 1990s. I would like to express my deepest gratitude for their work.

In September 2011, I started to work on this new translation of the Daihorinkaku version. I added my commentary on Sawaki Roshi’s Dharma words and Uchiyama Roshi’s explanations. I also wrote a brief biography of Sawaki Roshi. My disciple Jokei Molly Whitehead edited this translation and commentary. I deeply appreciate her excellent work. Without her, this book could not have been published this promptly and in this condition.

Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi spoke and wrote about their insights into Buddhadharma using their own unique expressions, without many technical terms. They spoke mainly based on their own experiences and used contemporary colloquial Japanese expressions with concrete examples familiar to ordinary Japanese. This is what made their talks and books popular in Japan.

However, non-Japanese readers unfamiliar with Japanese history, culture, and society at that time might have difficulty understanding their essential points. And unless readers are versed in Buddhism and Zen in general, and Dogen Zenji’s teachings in particular, they might have trouble understanding these teachings in this larger context. This is why I decided to offer some explanations and comments. I hope these additions are not superfluous, like putting legs on a painting of a snake.

Unless otherwise cited, any translations of other works, for instance excerpts from Dogen Zenji, are by me.

The Significance of This Book in My Life

During summer vacation in 1965, when I was a seventeen-year-old high school student, my classmate Masanori Uda visited Antaiji, where Uchiyama Roshi lived, to practice for about two weeks. This was right after Uchiyama Roshi had published his first book, Jiko, or Self, and he gave Masanori a copy. After returning from Antaiji, my friend lent me the book. When I first read it, I wanted to live like Uchiyama Roshi and become his disciple. Masanori and I planned to visit Antaiji in the fall for a five-day sesshin, but in the end we couldn’t go. Because of this, I lost my chance to meet Sawaki Roshi; he passed away on December 21 of that year. While I regret that I couldn’t meet him, I was also fortunate I couldn’t go then—if I’d done my first sesshin at seventeen, I’m sure I would have thought I couldn’t do zazen.

The following February, Masanori had surgery for stomach pain he’d suffered since the previous fall. He had intestinal cancer. Because he was young, the cancer grew quickly. The surgeon couldn’t do anything for him. Masanori died at the end of July. I visited his family occasionally to offer incense to him. Soon afterward, Masanori’s mother called on Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji. When she mentioned her son’s death, Uchiyama Roshi put his photo, together with that of a girl who had recently committed suicide, in his Bible. He said to Masanori’s mother, “I hope they become friends in heaven.”

That was my first experience losing someone close. It was very painful. I knew that his mother must have had much deeper pain and sadness, but I couldn’t say anything to console her. Once when I visited, she showed me newspaper clippings of the articles by Uchiyama Roshi that later became the foundation for the chapters of this book. When she talked about the articles, she smiled. It seemed she got solace from them. This experience strengthened my desire to become Uchiyama Roshi’s disciple.

After I started studying Buddhism at Komazawa University in 1968, I tried to read Dogen Zenji’s writings, but they were too difficult for me. On the other hand, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo was very clear, even for a twenty-year-old university student. Until my understanding deepened and I was able to follow the Buddha’s and Dogen Zenji’s teachings, this book was my guide in seeking the way.

The most important point I learned from it was that both Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi were free of the worldly system of values, and yet they were walking in a very clear direction. I was skeptical of the paths recommended by my parents, teachers, and Japanese society, so I couldn’t find a life direction that made sense to me. If I hadn’t  encountered Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi, and through them, Dogen Zenji and Shakyamuni Buddha, it might not have been possible for me to live my life positively, with unshakable direction.

Because these articles appeared in a major newspaper, not only for Buddhists or Zen practitioners but mainly addressed to ordinary readers, most of them relate to problems modern people experience in their daily lives. I hope this English translation is helpful for people who wish to find a stable way of life and the meaning of Zen practice in this modern world.

Sawaki Roshi’s Multifaceted Life and Personality

As Uchiyama Roshi observes in his “Recollections,” Sawaki Roshi was a complex and changeable person. Although most of us have many sides, we often make an effort to appear consistent in various aspects of our lives. However, Sawaki Roshi was openly multifaceted. He showed different traits with his disciples at Antaiji, with priest students at Komazawa University and other temples, with lay students, with those who weren’t his students, and with the general public. Each person’s image of Sawaki Roshi might be quite different.

In chapter 5, Uchiyama Roshi, the closest and longest disciple of Sawaki Roshi, says that for him the core of Sawaki Roshi’s greatness was that he was a person who “wasted” his entire life on zazen. This was the side of Sawaki Roshi’s life and teachings that Uchiyama Roshi focused on.

When I started to study Dogen Zenji at Komazawa, I read the whole nineteen-volume collection of Sawaki Roshi’s lectures, Sawaki Kodo Zenshu, which contained several talks on Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Even though at this time in my life Dogen was beyond my understanding, Sawaki Roshi’s commentaries were interesting. I was very much influenced by many of his teachings. But there were some comments I could not accept: those about war.

In his youth, as a soldier, Sawaki Roshi seemed to feel it was a Japanese man’s duty to fight for emperor and nation. He was twenty years old at the time of his service and had little formal education. Roshi kept this attitude until the end of World War II, when his opinion seem to change; in chapter 16, he says that he can see no point to war. While his adoptive father was alive, Sawaki Roshi used his military pension to support him. Afterward, he used this pension to print copies of Buddhist texts, which he offered free to students and practitioners. He said the pension wasn’t “clean” money, so he wanted to use it for the sake of Dharma rather than himself.

I was born in 1948, three years after World War II ended. I was educated very differently from Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi. Sawaki Roshi’s early sayings about war disturbed me. At school I was taught that the Meiji government fabricated a state religion in which the emperor was a god, and forced Japanese people to believe the best fate was to work hard and die in battle for their nation’s sake. Eventually the Japanese military invaded other countries, colonized Taiwan and Korea, and caused millions of deaths. After World War II, Japan accepted an American-made constitution, renouncing military power and resolving never to engage in war. This was my generation’s understanding of Japan’s history from 1868 to 1945.

Although I appreciated his teachings about zazen and Shobogenzo and Dogen’s other writings, it wasn’t possible for me to accept this aspect of Sawaki Roshi. I was uncomfortable when older people praised Sawaki Roshi as a hero of the Russo-Japanese War, and when people boasted of his interactions with military leaders, government officers, and successful businessmen. From that time, I limited my study of Sawaki Roshi. I tried to follow his teachings only from Uchiyama Roshi’s perspective—Sawaki Roshi’s greatness was due to having “wasted” his life for zazen. I tried not to quote his sayings except those discussed by Uchiyama Roshi. In this book, I’ve kept this same attitude.

Some people might argue that such a limited description of his life might give readers a distorted image of Sawaki Roshi. In his book Zen at War, Brian Victoria quoted several of Sawaki Roshi’s wartime sayings and criticized his support of the military government and the imperial system. Victoria also wrote:

In an attempt to show at least some of the complexity of the Zen Buddhist response to Japan’s military actions, I have included sections on Zen Buddhist war resisters as well as collaborators. On whichever side of the fence these Buddhists placed themselves, their motivations were far more complex than can be presented in a single volume. Nor, of course, can their lives and accomplishments be evaluated solely on the basis of their positions regarding the relationship of Zen to the state and warfare. A holistic evaluation of these leaders, however, is not the subject of this book.

Similarly, my book does not evaluate Sawaki Roshi and his life as a whole objectively and critically. Though such a book would be a worthy undertaking, it would be a different work than this one. Uchiyama Roshi focused his original book on the essential Dharma teaching of Sawaki Roshi; I followed this approach.

Recently, I received an email from a friend in Poland:

The issue of Roshi Sawaki and Zen at War came up. I am wondering what you would answer to somebody who says,“Sawaki is dangerous and not a Buddhist master at all. He killed many people with enthusiasm and didn’t feel any remorse, not to mention repentance. His actions during WWII were shameful. That’s enough about compassion and true practice of Dharma....”

My answer was, “I have no words. Sawaki Roshi isn’t dangerous anymore. But we are still dangerous.”

I’m a Japanese Buddhist and Sawaki Roshi’s Dharma descendant. I think whatever I say in defense, apology, or criticism could be biased. I don’t think Sawaki Roshi was a warmonger, but it’s true that he didn’t oppose the imperial system, and so to a certain degree we have to accept the fact that he supported the war. He was conditioned as a Japanese man born in that time. I respect him and value his way of life—free of fame and profit—and his devotion to zazen practice. But I also think to worship Sawaki Roshi or any teacher without critical thinking is dangerous. Sawaki Roshi and other Japanese Buddhist leaders, orders, and teachings must be critically studied and objectively evaluated—as should all teachers, from all times and places.

When I asked Uchiyama Roshi to take me as his disciple, he advised me to consider him an “anti-role model.” I assumed he meant because he sat with the monks only during sesshin and Sunday gatherings; he couldn’t sit with us everyday because of his health.

I think we need this same attitude when we study Sawaki Roshi’s or any Zen master’s life.


Rev. Jisho Warner and Rev. Shoryu Bradley took time out of their busy lives to look at this manuscript in the final stage and gave us many helpful suggestions. I appreciate their kindness and love for the Dharma.

I would like to offer special thanks to Michael Hofmann for his longtime friendship. He painted the portaits of Sawaki Roshi, Uchiyama Roshi, and me for this book. His wonderful paintings express my teachers’ strong but gentle, strict but flexible, and warm personalities. In the early 1970s, he met Zenkei Shibayama Roshi and went to Japan to practice Zen and study sumie painting with well-known painter Gyokusei Jikihara, chairman of the Japan Nanga Academy. Because Shibayama Roshi knew Uchiyama Roshi, Michael began to come to Antaiji to sit. That was around the time I started to study English. He was my first English tutor. He visited Antaiji once a week to talk with me in English. When I first came to the U.S. in 1975, Michael and his girlfriend, Arthur Braverman and his wife, and my Dharma brother Rev. Eishin Ikeda and I traveled from California to Massachusetts through the South in Michael’s VW bus, on which he had painted Bodhidharma and the Second Ancestor, Huike. That was one of the most impressive travel experiences of my life. Thanks to the friendship of many Americans practicing at Antaiji, including Michael, I could continue to practice in this country to today.

Finally, I’d like to express my deep gratitude to Daihorinkaku, the Japanese Buddhist publisher, for their kind permission to translate this book.

Shohaku Okumura

In the fall of 1965, Mr. Toshio Yamada, then editor of the religious column in the Asahi Shimbun, visited Antaiji to inquire about Sawaki Roshi’s health. On that occasion he said, “Sawaki Roshi always talks straightforwardly, and many people are deeply impressed. Could you write some articles about how you as his disciple understand his teachings?” I thought writing these articles would be good for me as part of my practice.

I reviewed Sawaki Roshi’s sharp and profound sayings from his lectures, which I had recorded in my notebooks as “Dharma words” (or hokku) of Homeless (or Yadonashi) Kodo. Then I began to write my comments on them, like a conversation with my teacher. I entitled this commentary Yadonashi Hokku-san, or Appreciating the Dharma Words of Homeless Kodo.

However, that fall Sawaki Roshi suddenly became critically ill, and I couldn’t continue the project. He passed away at the end of the year. Unexpectedly my articles became a memorial address and were published serially in the religious column of the Osaka Asahi newspaper every Sunday, starting from the second week of January 1966. This continued for one year and two months; I wrote fifty-six articles. Writing them not only gave me a chance to deepen my appreciation of Sawaki Roshi’s teachings but also comforted and encouraged me when I was lonely because of the death of my teacher, whom I relied on. I was extremely grateful to Mr. Yamada for giving me this opportunity.

The fifty-six articles were compiled into two booklets published by Hakujusha press. For the seventh anniversary of Sawaki Roshi’s death, Mr. Nakayama, president of Hakujusha, asked me to write some additional articles to create a book. I thought it would be nice to publish this book as a memorial to Sawaki Roshi. So I wrote fifteen more articles.

As many people knew, Sawaki Roshi was like a typical ancient Zen master: dynamic, fearless, and unconventional. It’s rare to see teachers like him these days. I, on the contrary, am such a fainthearted person that I hesitate to tell people I was his disciple. Yet I practiced with him longer than anyone and served as his closest disciple. Near the end of his life, I asked him, “I am such a weak person. Is it possible for me to lead people after your death?” He replied, “In our tradition, zazen is the most honored one. As long as you continue to practice zazen, you can lead people without mistake.” He encouraged his cowardly disciple and showed me the path to take.

I received this as his final teaching. Since then, I have devoted myself to zazen and have maintained Antaiji as a place where the practice of zazen is the most honored.

This book is a collection of the responses of his timid disciple to the Dharma expressions of Sawaki Roshi’s dynamic personality. Precisely because of this, the book might be helpful in introducing Sawaki Roshi’s teaching to readers and allowing them to feel more comfortable with it. Indeed, there are more fearful people like me in this world than courageous ones like him.

It is with deep gratitude that I offer this book.

Remembering his final days
On this day in early autumn,
Close to the seventh anniversary of his death.
Kosho Uchiyama, 1972


How to cite this document:
© Shohaku Okumura, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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