Interviews with Koshin Ogui Sensei - by DC

Koshin Ogui cuke page

Back in '95 I got a letter or email from a fellow who said that his roommate at Yale had stories about Suzuki Roshi. Because of that correspondence (Where is it? Who was it? Ogui will know who.) I ended up contacting Koshin Ogui in Chicago where he was the priest of the Jodo Shinshu, Buddhist Churches of America, temple. We talked some then and made a date to get together when he was to come to San Francisco for a board meeting of BCA. I next met him at the Stanford conference on Shunryu Suzuki. Then he showed up with a bunch of students at a book signing I did in Chicago for Crooked Cucumber and we all went out to eat afterwards. These days (spring, 2005) he's head of the whole BCA and I've seen him in his office there a couple of times. He went with me to visit Claude Dalenberg at the nearby nursing home where Claude resides now (See Zen Aluminati - Who we're thinking of). Soon we'll have a translation of an article he wrote for the San Francisco newspaper, Hokubei Mainichi on Suzuki soon after he died. Here it is in Japanese with the photos. Here's the English translation. - DC

[terrific photo and the following from Peter D. Junger's Samsara site and here's the link to his site's section on Buddha Dharma and here's the page on Rev. Koshin Ogui.]

Reverend Koshin Ogui, Sensei, is an 18th generation priest of the Jodo Shin Shu or True Pure Land School of Buddhism who is a graduate of Ryukoko University in Kyoto, Japan and who has also had extensive training in Zen practices and has studied at Yale Divinity School. Reverend Ogui came to the United States in 1962 and thereafter shared his wisdom and compassion as a resident minister at the Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, the Oxnard and Santa Barbara Buddhist Temples, and the San Francisco Buddhist Temple.

He became the resident minister of the Cleveland Buddhist Temple in 1977 and remained our supervising minister after 1992 when he assumed the duties of resident minister of the Midwest Buddhist Temple in Chicago. In 2004 he became Socho (Bishop) of the Buddhist Churches of America and now has his residence in San Francisco.

DC: [I called Ogui Sensei and he called me back on 8\18\95 and he had this to say then.]

KO: I was pretty depressed in 1959 when Suzuki Roshi came to San Francisco, and I was discouraged and ready to go back to Japan. He observed my insides and he invited me to come to zazen practice. So I did it. That was my first meeting with him. I was so amazed and there were so many things that I would be enlightened about because of him. He really turned me around. And strange enough, here I am because of such an influence by Suzuki Roshi.

[On the series of articles he wrote on Suzuki Roshi after his death for the Hokubei Mainichi, a Japanese language newspaper in San Francisco - DC] That was a strange experience for me. He let me write it, something moved me to write.

I interviewed Ogui Sensei on 9\8\95 at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco. He was in town for a board meeting of some sort of the Buddhist Churches of America. - DC

KO: Katagiri lived for a while away from Sokoji and I remember him on his motorbike and his sleeves blowing in the wind.

Suzuki Roshi's the one who gave me a very vital transformation to keep up my work as a Buddhist monk. At the time when I was kind of disgusted with myself, lost my confidence because of different friends and so on and because of poor English - it was in 1964.

My first assignment in America was at the Los Angeles Honganji Betsuin Buddhist Temple of the Jodo Shin-shu. Betsuin means branch - the head temple was in San Francisco.

DC: Suzuki mentioned Jodo Shin-shu now and then - he spoke very highly of it and Shin Ran, the founder.

KO: There I worked with other Buddhist ministers and the congregation, mostly Japanese American, and I was obligated to conduct memorial services and funeral services most of the time for only Japanese and Japanese Americans. When I went out from the temple there were very interesting bars and restaurants which I enjoyed and I'd never seen all those different types of people. I thought I understood the Dharma but I didn't understand much because I had lived within a tradition without critical or precise questioning. I lived along with traditions and rituals but when I was asked questions I couldn't really answer them. That made it difficult for me to continue being a Buddhist minister. And I was having arguments with the head minister and had various problems.

I kind of ran away from LA to come up to San Francisco. The headquarters are here in San Francisco. This is where the Socho is, the Bishop. And he let me come here and take it easy and work at headquarters. I went to LA in 1963 and after seven months came to San Francisco. I was twenty-three. I came from Saga Kyushu in Japan and had studied and practiced in Kyoto. I left Japan in October of 1962. I did orientation at the Berkeley Buddhist training center but then someone left the LA church so I had to leave my training and go there to the Betsuin. In San Francisco I worked at the Buddhist Bookstore.

At that time Suzuki Roshi was taking calligraphy (shodo) lessons from Bishop Hanayama's wife. She was a well-known calligrapher and was a judge of the granting of recognition for shodo instructors for Japan nationwide. She has since died. So Suzuki Roshi stopped by the bookstore and started talking with me and he read my mind or saw my inner frustrations, loss of confidence and he said, "Come to sit with me - it might help you." So I started going to Sokoji on Bush Street. I was there working at the bookstore for two years. So I started going to sit with Suzuki Roshi. That was an exciting time. It was very unusual for a Jodo Shin-shu priest to sit zazen at a Soto-shu temple but to me it wasn't so strange because my father in Japan was a Jodo Shin-shu priest and yet his best friend was a Rinzai Zen priest. The Rinzai priest's temple was small and my father used to call on him and they'd walk around in the village doing begging, takuhatsu, together, receiving donations. They also created together all kinds of programs for the villagers. I don't know why but when I was small, my father used to send me to his friend's temple to stay with him. It was not too much strain for me. That helped me to work and train with my father and to get in touch with the experience of practice from a wide perspective when I was small.

So, I started going to Sokoji and that was the time when the hippies started to come. It was an exciting time you know. It was fun. So many funny things happened. One time a young girl came to the zendo wearing only a net dress - it was made from a tennis court net with a mesh that was two inch square. But it was made very carefully and fit her quite well - the only problem was she was still basically naked under it. She went in and sat zazen well before the period started and Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi and I stood at the door to the office and looked at her there. Suzuki Roshi asked Katagiri Roshi what should we do, and Katagiri scratched his head and said, "Ahh, I don't know." And Suzuki looked at me and said, "Ogui, you are the person who should go talk to her." So I went up to her and told her that the teacher would like for her to wear more clothes in consideration of other people who come to sit zazen." She was so sad, and she said, but this is my best dress. She was showing respect, in a sense, with her best dress. We laughed and laughed.

Even though there was something happening that was positive in my zazen, I could not build up any confidence - I was very unsure. I was still in my early twenties and I was always thinking of going back to Japan. Suzuki Roshi often gave a talk to his English-speaking students and I would sometimes go. One time when he was speaking to us something struck that made my ministerial life change so that I wished to continue. Sometimes he would use a little Japanese along with the English to help him think I guess. He started talking and walking in front of people back and forth slowly and steadily and he said, "Today - today wa ja na, today wa ja na." 'Today wa' is the subject and 'ja na' is like 'is' with emphasis. "Today izu yappari today." 'Izu' is just 'is' pronounced in the Japanese way and yappari means absolutely. "Today is today." Then he walked again slowly and steadily in front of us. And then he said, "Today izu nato yesterday." (Today is not yesterday.) Then again he would slowly walk and speaking in that way he said, "Today is not tomorrow." Then he walked in front of one of the people sitting in one of the front seats and he grabbed his neck and shook him and said to him, "Do you understand?" I was kind of surprised at what he was doing. Then he smiled with all his heart and said, "Today is absolutely today. Not yesterday and not tomorrow." And he smiled again and said, "That's all." I couldn't even stand up. I was shocked. Caught. Later I thought to myself, what have I been frustrated about? Because I don't have a big enough English vocabulary? Confidence in my English? Or because I don't know much about Buddhism? He only used such limited English: "Today is absolutely today. Today is not yesterday. Today is not tomorrow." Only a few words - seven. Wait a minute - I have studied English from middle school, high school, College - I know more vocabulary than that. That struck me and stayed all through my life. Even today. But that moment I realized that I was not discouraged because of ability or understanding the dharma, not because of vocabulary of English but because something was lacking in my mind. I was not lacking in Buddhism or in English but in hara. That turned my frustrated life into being more alive and allowed me to stay. That keeps me going even today.

One time I was with Katagiri and Suzuki-roshi at the Colma cemetery. That was Memorial Day. I was talking with Katagiri about how Jodo Shin-shu takes care of its ministers financially, spiritually and physically - they support them pretty well. Katagiri was at that time having a difficult time supporting his family and he was joking with me and said, "Ah, I should of become a Jodo Shin-shu minister," and I said, "I should have been a Zen priest from the beginning. Then I asked Suzuki-roshi, "Can I become a Zen priest?" And he looked at me and said, "That's very difficult." So I said, "Katagiri would like to be a Jodo Shin-shu minister," and he said, "That is also very difficult. Then we all laughed an laughed. [Kat's family was Jodo Shin-shu: he became Zen after the war.]

I used to live at Washington and Fillmore streets and I was taking it easy in my apartment and watching TV and someone knocked on the door. I had several girlfriends at that time so I hoped it was one of them. But when I opened the door, Suzuki-roshi was standing there. He was wearing his koromo as usual. I welcomed him and he asked if he could have some tea and I said of course and he said thank you and he sat down on the floor in front of the TV and finally I couldn't contain my curiosity and I asked him if anything had happened. He smiled and said he had excused himself from the fujinkai, the women's club, of Sokoji. They were having a meeting there and he was expected to attend and he was even supposed to say something but he just sneaked out and went out on the street and he had to go somewhere so he came to my place. I laughed and we had tea and we talked for a long time. He never talked much but we talked. And I think he was checking up on me to see how I was doing. And I came to think that he came to my place less to escape the fujinkai than to encourage me. I think he thought the meeting was a waste of his time and so he thought of something that was more important to him.

DC: Do you remember what you said at his funeral? I don't remember what you said, but someone told me you said, "Suzuki Roshi, you were a bad family man." - something like that.

KO: I used to take Mrs. Suzuki out to Japan town for dinner or to have a drink because Suzuki Roshi would be at Tassajara or busy with his students and so on and he didn't take care of his wife well. So I helped him out with that. Sometimes Mrs. Suzuki as a woman felt left out and she would call me sometimes and ask me to keep her company and suggested we go out.

She told me that she went downstairs at Sokoji to take a bath and she told him what she was going to do and he grunted an acknowledgement without paying much attention. So after she was through with her bath she went upstairs but the door was locked. She banged and banged on it and called his name over and over. So she ended up sleeping in the bathtub. Suzuki Roshi had locked up and gone to bed not noticing that she was not there. But he finally knew she was missing when he went downstairs the next morning.

She told me all sorts of stories that I put in the article that I wrote about him for the Hokubei Mainichi [that's been translated]. It's very strange - after his death was the first time I ever wrote any serious type of writing. Every morning when I woke up I'd feel like I had to write about him. And in the night sometimes I'd have a dream where I was talking to him. And I wanted to write what he'd said to me and what Mrs. Suzuki had said. That came out finally as a series on Shunryu Suzuki. The newspaper told me that people came to buy many extra copies because of my article. It was one that many people saved.

Suzuki Roshi used to enjoy samurai movies - especially Zatoichi. No one could go up to the second floor but when zazen was over he'd often come whisper to me, "Tonight I'm going to see the movie." So I'd come back for the movie and we'd go up to the balcony and we'd laugh and laugh - loudly - and Mrs. Suzuki would show up and say don't make so much noise or you'll disturb the people who paid to see the movie.

His favorite movie was Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and there's a picture of Suzuki Roshi on the swings like in the movie in the newspaper article.

His dictionary was very well used. It got fat from being used. He was always looking up words. I'll bet he wore out some dictionaries looking up the words from Western movies when he was young.

He never talked about his past.

One time he mentioned that, "These loyal Zen students made up my mind to stay."

One time he said, "I was asked by the board of directors of Sokoji, which one do I choose: the Americans, Caucasians and Blacks, or Japanese." He said he would choose the people who came to practice zazen. I still remember that beautiful answer.

Then sometimes after the movie Mrs. Suzuki would make ochazuke for us and we would eat it. So many conversations we shared. And one time he said that in the philosophies of samurai and the yakuza, and at the bottom of the Japanese way of life, loyalty, honesty and sincerity are very much emphasized and practiced, at least in the movies. But here I can see such actual feelings among the Americans, while in Japan they remain only as formalities.

I was going to leave one time and he came to the zendo door and he had something on the inside of his robes and he whispered, "Take it, take it," and it was a can of soy sauce. I didn't have a place to hide it so I took it from him and started to walk downstairs and leave with it but I got caught by Mrs. Suzuki who said, "No no no, you can't take that: Obon is not over yet and the people who gave that will expect to see it on the altar." Suzuki Roshi just stood there scratching his head and smiling. But he thought I might need it so he tried to give it to me.

One time Suzuki Roshi and I were invited by Mrs. Sekino for dinner and tea so we enjoyed dinner and talked and at one point when Mrs. Sekino went into the kitchen, Suzuki Roshi took out an incense burner from under his robe. It was ceramic and quite beautiful. It was a beautiful green color - seiji, celadon. He took it to the bookshelf and placed it there. I asked him, what are you doing, and he said, "I stole it about three months ago. It was so beautiful I had to borrow it." And he said he'd enjoyed it enough so he returned it. He'd taken it when he'd been invited there one time and without mentioning it returned it that night I was there.

DC: Sometimes someone would show him something and he'd go, "Thank you," and he'd take it.

KO: Because of what he shared with me, I felt that I should experiment with living someplace where it wasn't only for Japanese but for anyone: someplace where a temple did not have a minister, where they couldn't afford a minister so that I could do anything I wanted. So I choose Cleveland. There's a small BCA temple there without many Japanese members - very isolated and independent. So I went there and I stayed there for fifteen years. Suzuki Roshi once said, "If you do something, better do it for ten years."

I once asked him, "How did you attract such a large number of people? What is the secret of bringing so many people to Sokoji?" He said it isn't so hard. "If you are sitting and keep sitting - people come." That made my beautiful spirit to keep up sitting in Cleveland for fifteen years. And now there are so many senior leaders that they keep doing it and I visit them every month. They have sesshins. Zazen was the main practice I shared with people in Cleveland. This is very unusual for BCA. I was very much criticized by my colleagues. But because of zazen more people appreciated the temple and more came. They were all Caucasian and Black. The name came up of Zenshin - Zenshin Sangha. Zen practice and Shin awareness combined. That was my compromise to make my colleagues in the BCA more comfortable. The Zenshin Sangha.

DC: DT Suzuki would have liked that - toward the end of his life I understand he became more Jodo Shin-shu and spoke of a combination of Zen and Shin. Tony Johnson who was your dorm buddy at Yale Divinity School in 68 or 69 and says you two did zazen together there and he asked me to say hello to you. [Ogui was a graduate student there, a research fellow studying psychology and religion]

KO: I used to make a joke on the phone with Katagiri Roshi to be a guest speaker at Cleveland and he was going to but he died before he could.

And when Suzuki left Sokoji I also kept company with Moriyama and Fujikawa. But I was gone before Hosokawa. And I knew Ryuho. [We talk about Ryuho and laugh]. He was so very serious about chanting Namu myo ho renge kyo. When he'd come around my temple I was up on the third floor and he'd come by all drunk and banging on a bell and chanting and would call out to me, "Hey sensei!" and I'd shout down, "What?" and he'd say, "Come on out, let's go around."

Yeah, Suzuki Roshi still keeps me and kept me doing a so-called Buddhist minister thing. He was a very fun guy.

Later on Mrs. Suzuki said that she realized his balance and compassionate heart. She realized how he gave her silent support even after his death. And his students supported her.

A really great person doesn't have to talk or give a lecture, but by staying with other people provides really great silent support. Even just having a silent tea, he talks a lot without using his voice.

At Katagiri's funeral service, I said, "You said you don't know what to do. And you'd scratch your head. But without knowing her, I enjoyed that almost naked girl. And you did so much even though you said you don't know what to do. Still so many people came along."