Ruth Fuller Sasaki

‘The Japanese Zen masters of today are trying faithfully to carry on their reaching against tremendous odds. Furthermore, they are bound by a traditional system which, as regards many of its forms, is a relic of the feudal age. All are aware of this, but the great problem facing them is how to adapt to modern life and thought without losing the very essence of Zen itself. The West’s, to them, unanticipated interest in Zen and the slightly reviving interest of Japanese laymen may help to point the way.’ (The Zen Koan)

Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s name is perhaps only known to people who have delved into American Buddhist history, and perhaps she ought to be more widely renowned. These words were written over fifty years ago, in an introduction to a book which was very helpful when I taught a class on koans at Zen Center three years ago, but they still hold good.

As part of the work I am doing with the Zen Center archive – which I sincerely hope makes these treasures completely available to peruse – I have had the chance to listen, with one ear at least while I am working, to a series of tapes made from interviews Gary Snyder conducted with her, in 1966.

In them, she talks, just a year before her death, of her experiences in Japan in the 1930s, when she was introduced to various teachers and slowly fought for access to the sodo while the monks were sitting. There were very few Westerners attempting such a thing at that time, let alone women – Jiyu Kennett is the only other Western woman who comes to mind, and she was fully thirty years later, although the institutional resistance that she encountered was undiminished.

The stories she tells are told in other places; I haven’t read the book about her, but I was prompted to revisit How The Swans Came To The Lake, which follows the various characters who first brought Buddhism, and especially zen, to America. I didn’t have a completely clear idea about the connections between D.T. Suzuki, Soyen Shaku, Nyogen Senzaki, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Sokei-An, Alan Watts and Gary Snyder, but they are fascinating, and provoke immense gratitude for those who laboured for long years, with seemingly very little reward. I feel I should re-read the whole book now; a bookmark in my copy was from a film I went to see in 2003, and I think my perspectives on Buddhism have changed somewhat.

As usual, Wikipedia gives you the basic information on her life, and you can read about her elsewhere, but I hope that some time soon people will be able to hear her telling her stories in her own voice.

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