Gudo Wafu Nishijima 1919-2014

nishijimaportraitbwMy ordaining teacher, Gudo Wafu Nishijima, died on January 28, 2014. He was 94 years old. Jundo Cohen wrote a short obituary for him on Sweeping Zen.

People have been sending me condolence messages ever since I posted this on Facebook yesterday. Most of them say something like “I’m sorry for your loss.” And I appreciate the sentiment. Thank you.

But this standard and perfectly nice wording of these very kind condolence messages got me thinking, “My loss? My loss?” Hmmmm. What did I lose?

Nishijima and I were never really what you’d call “friends.” At least not in the usual sense. This article might help explain the way one tends to relate to one’s Zen teacher.

I didn’t know a whole lot about him as a person. He never shared much of that stuff. When I’d ask him about his past he’d answer, but he never seemed to think it was very important and his answers were always very brief after which he would change the subject. So I usually didn’t ask.

I know he was born in November of 1919. He was a track runner in high school, apparently a pretty good one. He wrote a bit about that in this blog posting. He was conscripted during World War II but was lucky enough never to have seen any action. He later was very emphatic that it was right that Japan was defeated in that war, even saying that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was necessary because, he said, the Japanese would never have surrendered otherwise. People would argue with him about this point. But he was there, so I give his opinion a little more credibility than that of people who were not serving in the Japanese Imperial Army when the bomb was dropped.

He liked sweets. He said eating sugary stuff helped him get through long periods of writing. He used to smoke, but gave it up when he realized it was a bad habit. That was long before I knew him. He was married and had one daughter. But he may also have had two other children who did not survive to adulthood because he had two memorial plaques on his dresser and once told me they were for his children. He did not elaborate.

He worked very hard on his many books, but regularly described himself as lazy. He once told me he translated Shobogenzo into English by going directly to his study every day after work and working on it until it was time for bed, with a brief break for dinner.

He learned English by purchasing a set of tapes from a door-to-door salesman. His English was extremely good. I can only recall one conversation with him in which I spoke Japanese because I thought he might not be following what I said in English. But even then, he answered me in English. You don’t get that good at English with a set of tapes unless you study very hard.

He didn’t seem to have any friends near his own age. Most of the people he associated with were 20-50 years his junior. He seemed to be very comfortable talking to people much younger than him. I often wonder if that’s what’s been happening to me and how much it might have to do with his influence.

He received his Dharma Transmission (permission to teach as a lineage holder) from Rempo Niwa but he spoke much more often about his other teacher, Kodo Sawaki. He talks a little about both of them in this post on his blog. Rempo Niwa was the abbot of Eihei-ji, the temple founded by Master Dogen in the 1200s, and the head of the Soto-shu organization, who claim to derive their institutional authority from Dogen himself. Yet he ordained Nishijima Roshi who very rarely had anything nice to say about Soto-shu and actively discouraged his students from studying at Eihei-ji. To me that connection is fascinating. Yet I do not really know just why Rempo Niwa chose to transmit the dharma to someone who was so profoundly different in his approach to institutional authority.

During the years 1995-2004 we spoke a lot. I used to come to his office or his room on a more-or-less weekly basis and have long philosophical discussions with him. I taped a few of these. I don’t know where those tapes are anymore. But I noticed that when I switched on the recorder, something subtly changed about our conversations. They were never as deep as those we had without that electronic eavesdropper listening in.

He was a happy person. He always seemed extremely cheerful and optimistic under even the most trying circumstances. Nothing ever seemed to make him sad or depressed. But then again, would he have expressed that to me? I really don’t know.

He was very good about keeping in touch via email after I moved back to the US in 2004. That’s why I knew something must have been terribly wrong when he abruptly stopped responding to my emails sometime in 2010. His last post on his blog is dated September 15 of that year. That would be around the time I stopped hearing from him.

What happened to him after that is a bit of a mystery. Apparently he spent some time in a hospital and in a convalescent home before returning to live with his daughter. His daughter did not allow any visitors after that, saying that she wanted us to remember him as he was. I’ve heard different things about what he was like during this time. But none of them came from anyone who had direct information so I tend to discount them.

His last major undertaking was a translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. This was the project that really tore up his group. Two of his closest students attempted to help him with it but both quit, stating that his translation of Sanskrit was incorrect. He insisted that he got it right. I ended up helping him make the book that he wanted to. I don’t know if he ever saw that book. I sent him a copy when I got one some time in the fall of 2010. I never heard back as to whether he received it.

It’s been over three years since I last had any contact with him, so I felt his loss much more keenly back then than I do now that he’s dead.

In those years a number of people asked me why I didn’t fly over to Japan, show up at his daughter’s door and demand to see him. But that wouldn’t have helped anything. I knew that if he were able to communicate with me or had a desire to do so, he would. I decided that he either couldn’t communicate or had decided not to. I knew that he was being taken care of. So there didn’t seem to be any point in getting dramatic about it. That would only upset people who must already have been plenty upset enough without me barging in there.

But the thing about loss is, I don’t know if I’ve really lost him. The night he died (when I did not yet know he was dead) he showed up in a dream and mildly criticized me for trying to do too many things. He said I should just stick to teaching Zen.

I talked to him about death on a number of occasions. Many people who have read my stuff are already familiar with the fact that he very strongly denied that the theory of reincarnation had any legitimate place in Buddhism. But I also know that his view of what happened after a person died was more nuanced than one might expect from knowing only that he denied reincarnation (as well as rebirth, transmigration, etc., it didn’t matter what you called it!).

Once we were talking about something I do not recall. We were in the room he stayed in during retreats at Tokei-in temple, just the two of us. He started to say “When I die,” but stopped himself before saying the word “die.” Instead, he paused and said, “When I… move on to another realm.” I thought that was fascinating. I’d never heard him describe death that way before and I never heard him say anything like that again.

Whenever I talked to him he was right there with me in a way that no one else has ever been. People sometimes complained when they asked questions that he wouldn’t answer their questions but instead talk about something else. I used to think so too until I started paying closer attention. That’s when I noticed that he always answered the questions people asked. It’s just that the questioners often, like me, had no idea what they were really asking.

When I tried to ask him again about that “other realm” business I discovered that it was a conversation that could not be duplicated.

In the video at the end of this post he also talks about death in a way he usually did not. You might find it intriguing. I do. It’s not a unique take. The simile he uses is actually a pretty standard Buddhist description. It’s just that he generally didn’t say it this way.

Nishijima Roshi will always be with me. No matter where I go or what I do, he will always be a part of it.

There will be a vigil for him on February 4th at  18:00 and there will be a farewell service on February 5th at 11:00. The location is Yoyohata-saijou, 2-42-1, Nishihara, Shibuya-ku  Tokyo, Japan.

I will not be able to attend either. But we will do a memorial service for him this Saturday at Hill Street Center beginning after our usual zazen at 10 am. The memorial will start around 10:45 am. The address is 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405. Everyone is welcome. Wear whatever you like.

 *   *   *

As always, this blog is supported by your donations.

– February 18-23 I’ll be hosting a retreat with Kazuaki Tanahashi  at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico

You can see the documentary about me,  Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations (I’ll be at all screenings):

– March 11, 2014 Ithaca, NY

– March 15, 2014 Brooklyn, NY

– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA

42 Responses

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  1. drocloc
    drocloc January 31, 2014 at 10:27 am |

    though the world is tossed
    away without self, snowy
    days are bitching cold

    (for a passing Master)

  2. Jundotreeleaf
    Jundotreeleaf January 31, 2014 at 10:54 am |

    Thank you for this.

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. CatsareInfinite
    CatsareInfinite January 31, 2014 at 10:58 am |

    I wonder if Nishijima ever watched Ikiru?

  4. CatsareInfinite
    CatsareInfinite January 31, 2014 at 11:34 am |

    (I recommend reading alongside manuscript: )

    I died for Beauty – but
    was scarce
    Adjusted in the Tomb
    When One who died for
    Truth, was lain
    In an adjoining Room –

    He questioned softly “Why I
    “For Beauty”, I replied –
    “And I – for Truth – Themself
    are One –
    We Bretheren, are”, He said –

    And so, as Kinsmen, met
    a Night –
    We talked between the Rooms –
    Until the Moss had reached
    our lips –
    And covered up – Our names –

    – Emily Dickinson

  5. mika
    mika January 31, 2014 at 11:57 am |

    Very sorry to hear of master Nishijima’s passing.

    In the linked blog post where Nishijima talks about his teachers he mentions attending a sesshin led by Sawaki in the 1940s. In the blog’s introduction it’s mentioned he started studying under Sawaki in the 1940s. Was this the first occasion? Is there any more information about their relationship besides that sesshin? Like did Nishijima attend Sawaki’s sesshins or lectures regularly after that, did they correspond by some other means etc.? How long did Nishijima study under Sawaki? Or was this more of a one-sided relationship where the student sees someone as their teacher, but the teacher is not really aware of it? What exactly does he mean by being Sawaki’s student?

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 31, 2014 at 3:45 pm |

    “When I visited him in his private room accidentally, he sometimes served me a cup of green tea that he himself prepared. And at that time, even though he did not teach me especially with words, I was able to gain so much knowledge simply by watching his behavior.He showed me at that time that there were so many teachings in his behavior.”

    From the blog post you linked to, Brad, referring to Rempo Niwa. Backs up what you and Koun Franz are saying about the student-teacher relationship.

    Thank you for all the details that you’ve recalled here. I find the stories of Zen teachers’ lives more informative than their lectures, generally- I like “Crooked Cucumber” more than “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, for example, although there are parts of lectures Shunryu Suzuki gave that I find helpful.

    I feel a sense of loss reading your post, my loss in not having known Gudo Nishijima personally. The wind blows over the trees, and anyone with any sense has long since left, but I am here with the memory of who I was.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 31, 2014 at 3:51 pm |

    ahem. Where was I. Oh yes, thoughts and prayers to Yoyohata-saijou, 2-42-1, Nishihara, Shibuya-ku Tokyo, Japan and to Hill Street Center.

  8. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 31, 2014 at 6:54 pm |

    “what has happened to us has happened to everyone or only us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood.

    -Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

  9. r72rock
    r72rock February 1, 2014 at 2:26 pm |

    I remember reading once that Nishijima said, “When my heart stops, I will be considered dead. After that, I will take a rest forever.”

    I always liked this statement. It was, to me, acceptance with the inevitable. True peace.

    But after reading this post, I feel like that was a fairy tale I created in my head. Maybe it had to do with him talking about this other realm. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be understood in an esoteric way. I’m not sure. I never personally met him.

    I watched that video you posted maybe about a week ago. I didn’t personally like his response. But maybe that’s because I’m looking for something else. Maybe I’ll come to appreciate it later on.

  10. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer February 1, 2014 at 3:05 pm |

    The news of Nishijimas death was not entirely unexpected, he lived a long and fruitful life.

    Good work Gudo Wafu Nishijima.

    Although I never met him, I am grateful that he left behind his dharma heirs who both started me on my practice and continue to support me in ways that I am probably mostly unaware of.

    This practice is such a pain in so many ways and I look forward to it’s continuation.

  11. boubi
    boubi February 1, 2014 at 4:28 pm |

    Sorry for your pain.

    It would be a more appropriate question, due your vicinity, to wonder where he is now, rather that asking oneself where Lou Reed’s soul is wandering now.

    BTW Brad, sometimes i think you are talking to the wrong people (about god/”god”/God whatever), why don’t you try some open-minded, like-minded christian congregation to try and sell them some sesshins, some “be nearer to god” etc etc, you know all this divinity concept.

  12. Fred
    Fred February 2, 2014 at 4:22 pm |

    Gudu may have used the word accident to refer to how dependent origination
    pulls components together to create an I, an event, a birth, a death.

    It’s an accident in that probabilities shape the direction of its unfolding.

  13. Fred
    Fred February 2, 2014 at 4:45 pm |
  14. sri_barence
    sri_barence February 2, 2014 at 5:28 pm |

    I’m sorry for your loss. I never had a close relationship with a Zen teacher, but I did live with Stephen Gaskin for several years. It was his admiration for Seung Sahn that inspired me to study Korean Zen. Stephen is getting old now. I’m feeling that I should go and see him before it is too late.

  15. mjkawa
    mjkawa February 3, 2014 at 8:39 am |

    Brad, Crazy to think, that some old Japanese monk, and a middle aged punk from Ohio, got me to sit down, shut up, and pay attention. (if even just a little bit)

    How all things are connected, is so complex, and awe inspiring, amazing and great!

    This life is so unbelievable, and too soon it will be gone.

    Enjoy, and pay attention.

    1. Anonymous
      Anonymous February 3, 2014 at 12:24 pm |

      Did you just call Brad a “middle aged punk?”

      1. boubi
        boubi February 3, 2014 at 1:56 pm |

        So what?


  16. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel February 3, 2014 at 9:34 am |

    It seems that Nishijima roshi was written off the lists of the Sotoshu Shumucho for “not having been in contact for a few years.”

    I’d say that an organisation which judges your dedication to Buddhism according to your regular payment of a contribution does not deserve our attention. I now better understand Sensei’s adamant opposition to my adhering to it, a few years ago.

    1. Jundotreeleaf
      Jundotreeleaf February 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm |

      I wrote directly to Daigaku Rumme, the representative of Soto-shu in the USA. He wrote to say that his assistant’s home temple is where Nishijima Roshi was once listed as the “Jushoku” [Head Priest] many years ago, so he has a special connection with Nishijima Roshi. His assistant said that Nishijima Roshi’s priest registration is still on the books at Shumucho (the Soto-shu Administrative Headquarters). Nishijima’s registration is through our Lineage’s Root Temple, Tokei-in Temple in Shizuoka. That registration will be taken from the books when Nishijima Roshi’s Death Certificate is received at Shumucho in Tokyo. This is standard procedure for all priests who are registered with Shumucho including, for example, SFZC’s Myogen Stucky who died not so long ago. Priests over the age of 80 can be exempted from paying their yearly dues but only if they apply for this exemption and it is accepted by Shumucho. So, to quote Daigaku, “his priest registration is still in place and will only be removed when the death certificate is received in Tokyo.”

      But that being said, so be it either way. Fare thee well, Soto-shu!

      Gassho, J

  17. zenrocker
    zenrocker February 4, 2014 at 5:58 pm |

    After seeing this video, I can’t help but feel that he was completely ready to bite the big one. Such an uplifting energy and a joyful tone in his voice as he talks about death. I went “HA!” out loud when he compares death to being the end goal of life. What makes us move forward is knowing that we inevitably will have to transit at some point. He seemed like an amazing man. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Karan
    Karan February 8, 2014 at 5:52 am |

    Thank you for sharing this. You claim that you didn’t know him well as a person, but I believe you did know him extremely well, in an essential way.

  19. jiesen
    jiesen February 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm |

    wow…i didn’t make it all out, but the last part about how human life is like form floating down a river, and then just disappears and returns, that sort of threw me…and even though i innately agree with that, i still want some sort of permanence to contend with.

    i remember a dharma master recently had a mother who passed away, and i suggested that her mother returned to the 10’000 things. and that she can return to the 10’000 things(without dying literally) and be reunited. and although, i think that is true as well, it’s clinging to form. her mother will never regain that form.

    when we watch a video by Nishijima , it’s a recording of his form, and a remnant of his form as well?

    Ten thousand dharmas return to one;
    Where does the one return?
    Shen Kuang did not understand,
    And ran after Bodhidharma;
    Before him at Bear’s Ear Mountain
    Knelt nine years Seeking Dharma to escape King Yama.

    i find, sometimes you get a hunch that a dharma teacher is legitimate. and sometimes you question it.
    but as far as i can tell, the ones you just get at gut feeling about as being legit, probity are. and the ones you question, probity aren’t.

    i don’t think i ever questioned that about Nishijima.

    It’s ok to call someone a Buddha once they’ve passed away.

  20. jiesen
    jiesen February 10, 2014 at 10:09 pm |

    (then just disappears and never returns to that form, je suis dessole, un autre “typo”)

  21. jiesen
    jiesen February 10, 2014 at 10:23 pm |

    There was no specific reason for my birth, and there will be no specific reason for my death. All things are born myriad, and all things return to myriads.

Comments are closed.