Recalling Daiun Sogaku Harada & the New Koan Way

Recalling Daiun Sogaku Harada & the New Koan Way December 12, 2021






Daiun Sogaku Harada died on this day, the 12th of December in 1961.

He is a central figure in the establishment of what would become my spiritual path. And, for many more as well, both in Japan and eventually in the West.

The roshi was born in Obama, Fukui Prefecture on the 13th of October, 1871. He was tonsured as a Soto monastic at seven. At twenty, although Soto, he entered the Rinzai monastery Shogenji. There he had several openings into the intimate way. He also undertook academic studies at the historic Soto affiliated Komazawa University.

Sogaku Harada received Dharma transmission within the Soto school from Harada Sodo Kakusho.

Starting in 1911, he taught at Komazawa University for twelve years before assuming full time responsibilities as abbot of his own monastery, Hosshinji. He served there for forty years. The monastery was famous for its harsh location on the Japan sea, with as Wikipedia tells us, hard rains, snow storms, and even typhoons. And more importantly the rigorous practice.

He has been criticized, and I think justly, for his fervent support of Japanese nationalism in the years running up to and through the Second World War. A caution, I feel, for all of us as we necessarily engage the cultures within which we live. And also, justly, he was recognized as an eclectic and creative teacher drawing on aspects of both the Rinzai and Soto traditions both in his own training, and later leading his own community.

In his formation he studied with a number of Soto & Rinzai masters including  Harada Sodo Kakusho, his ordination master, but also Oka Sotan, Akino Kodo, Adachi Tatsujun, Hoshimi Tenkai, Unmuken Taigi Sogon, and critically Kogenshitsu Dokutan Sosan. This broad and deep training is the most important thing. He taught from the perspectives he gained working with these teachers from both of the great lineage traditions of Japanese Zen.

And there’s a lacuna. There is an ongoing debate within the Zen community as to whether he received dharma transmission from Dokutan Roshi, this principle Rinzai teacher, or even whether instead he received his teacher’s blessing to teach with koans.

I was told by Maezumi Roshi that while Dokutan Roshi considered Harada Roshi to have completed all necessary training with him to be an independent master of the koan way, and he informally blessed Harada’s using koans in his own teaching, there was no formal transmission. In that time and place, according to Maezumi Roshi, such a formal recognition would have also had Harada leave the Soto school. This was something that Harada had no desire to do.

On the other hand I’ve conversed with several people who practice within Rinzai lineages who flatly deny either a formal transmission or even an informal permission. On the other hand the Sanbo Zen community states unequivocally that Harada Roshi received Inka, full transmission from Dokutan Roshi. Until very recently, including recorded in an earlier version of this reflection, I felt that Maezumi Roshi’s version was likely the correct one.

However, I’ve been forced to reassess. The Zen priest Dosho Port reports that a direct successor to Harada Roshi, Harada Tangen Roshi, told him unequivocally that Dokutan gave Harada Inka. For the reasons stated above it was a private ceremony, but it wasn’t informal, or a general blessing, it was Inka, just not recorded within the Rinzai institution. Second, another of Harada Roshi’s heirs, Hakuun Yasutani has publicly stated the same thing. Informal and private and blessing are complicated words, of course.

Beyond that Harada Roshi gave Inka to fourteen of his students. For someone with his reputation for rigorous honesty, it seems highly unlikely he would have offered this without having received it himself. And, finally, tipping whatever lingering doubts I might have had, in his old age, Dokutan Roshi had his purple okesa delivered to Harada Roshi.

For the whole of his life Harada Roshi was a committed practitioner, teacher, and even professor within the Soto church. For years he guided Hosshinji, a monastery considered a fiery furnace guiding people into the depths of the intimate way. His lineage has produced exciting and creative teachers. No doubt.

The bottom line. He was the real deal. And his legacy continues.

The Roshi’s most important contribution for us in the West without a doubt is his reformation of the koan training program he had inherited from Dokutan Roshi. His program began in the same way as the Rinzai Takuju system he learned, with a dharmakaya koan, almost always Mu. This koan and what it points to is deeply investigated.

From Mu the student moves on to a short-course of brief koans that familiarize them with the nuances of koan introspection practice, introducing standard tropes, and the form of the dance.

After that Harada’s system continued the normative Takuju style investigating the Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Record. After that he diverged from Rinzai practice, substituting two classic Soto koan collections, the Book of Equanimity and Keizan’s Transmission of the Lamp for those used within orthodox Rinzai. And then at the end of the curriculum, he reversed the received order, going first to the Goi koans before “concluding” with the precepts as koan.

There were other modifications, most notably dropping the capping phrase  component that had evolved within Rinzai. While, instead, offering occasions to revisit the original use of spontaneous appreciations of particular cases.

While I don’t think this could have been his intention, this slightly modified curriculum Harada created made it relatively easy to transmit a curricular koan practice to the West. The lack of formal capping phrases in the system meant one did not need to have a familiarity with East Asian literary tags in addition to the deepening of the eye that the curriculum otherwise guided people toward. This also practically meant one could “conclude,” and please note the quotes around conclude, formal koan study within five or ten years, or even less if living full time in a monastery from the initial insight.

If, and this I fervently believe, formal training can only create a journeyman practitioner and teacher, and only the world and the dance of life can create someone worthy of a term like “master,” then what Harada Roshi created was a sufficient training model to allow this ancient practice of koan introspection, and specifically the uniquely Japanese curricular koan system, to move across cultures. And along the way this amazing gift of koan introspection is transmitted, people are awakened, teachers emerge, along with saints, sages, and masters. And along with various sinners and the odd rogue or two…

And, indeed, his reformed curriculum would become the standard transmitted to the West by the lay community, Sanbo Zen (originally Sanbo Kyodan), Rochester Zen lineageDiamond SanghaPacific Zen Institute, Open Source, Vine of Obstacles, Empty Sky, the White Plum Asangha, Boundless Way, and Empty Moon. To begin a list…

The bottom line of it is, that most likely if one encounters a koan teacher in the West, that person will stand within Harada Roshi’s lineage. I would go a bit farther out on the limb and suggest if the Zen way takes root here in the West, something I’m no longer completely confident will happen, but if it survives the coming great die off of my generation, that Zen will be profoundly marked by this koan discipline.

I cannot say how much I owe to Harada Roshi and the tradition that flows from his teachings.

With many others, I can say it opened the intimate way for me.

I can never repay this kind gift.

And so…

Endless bows…



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