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Remembering Kobun

Originally published in The Dot, The Quarterly Newspaper of the International Shambhala Mandala; Winter 2002. For information, contact


by Carol Gallup

His dharma name was Cloud Phoenix, and it suited him, Dan Hessey explains. Kobun Chino Otagawa Roshi was reticent, retiring, and so soft-spoken you often had to strain to hear him; "Then suddenly, a brilliant, penetrating presence would appear, flashing through the mist."

DURING RMDC (now Shambhala Mountain Center) staff member Alan Marlowe's final days of life, Dan recalls, Kobun came to help, staying in the background but connecting with people's hearts, supporting everyone, even making pickles for the group. "Then I told Kobun, 'Alan's dying now,' and his state of being changed in a way I'd never seen before. He was directive, told everyone where to sit, his quality was like Trungpa Rinpoche's-completely regal, powerful, no hesitation. He went in with Alan for ten minutes, and when he returned he was back to his old soft, secret self."

The relationship of Kobun, as he liked to be called, with the Shambhala community goes back thirty years, when his close friendship with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche began. The two had much in common: young families; close friendships with Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center; and deep, powerful intuitive faculties that could sweep away cultural barriers to translate Buddhism into American culture without encumbering it with excess baggage. Love of beauty was another bond; both were artists-masters of calligraphy-and poets. Suzuki Roshi's widow has said that Kobun spoke the most beautiful Japanese she ever heard. Both were dedicated, brilliant scholars.

Suzuki Roshi had brought Kobun to America in 1967 to help create the monastic training program at Tassajara. It was a huge undertaking that went on for years: giving instructions for ceremonies, translating chants, and, as Silas Hoadley, one of the first priests to be ordained by Suzuki Roshi, says, "expressing real gratitude to us for attempting Dogen's way. He praised Dogen but also encouraged getting beyond the Dogen 'up there,' appreciating our own life as Buddha nature.

"In the early 1970s, when Trungpa Rinpoche was putting into place the practices that would become Shambhala Buddhism, he wanted to blend Japanese meditative arts into the program. He turned to Kobun for help. Kobun began a task that would take years, instructing the students in zazen, bowing, drumming, oriyoki, and calligraphy, all of which became treasured Shambalian practices. He also introduced Trungpa Rinpoche to his close friend and kyudo master, Shibata Sensei.


Everything in Kobun's early life, including his ancestry, had prepared him for this work. Born in 1938, he would have taken his first steps in his father's Soto Zen temple, Jokoji, in Kamo (near Niigata,) Japan, which had belonged to the family for generations. Eventually, his older brother Keibun would inherit the role of Jokoji's resident head priest, and Keibun's young son would toddle around as Kobun once did, clanging bells and absorbing the sounds of endless chanting.

His early childhood was colored by war. Japanese funerals are held at Buddhist temples, and there were a great many more than usual. It was a hard time financially; the family foraged in the forests for food and ate pumpkins from the garden until those were gone, then ate the stems. Kobun's father died soon after the war, when the boy was eight.

He was ordained at age 12, and at 14 was adopted by Chino Roshi, with the expectation that Kobun would one day inherit Chino's temple. He began training the boy, especially in his practice of chanting, and accepted him into his lineage. Kobun earned a master's degree in Mahayana Buddhism from Kyoto University, then completed the rigorous three-year monk's training at Eiheiji, becoming, finally, a trainer of monks himself. Meanwhile, Suzuki Roshi had sent students to find the best person at Eiheiji to help out at Tassajara. It was just after a Rohatsu sesshin that Kobun found Suzuki Roshi's letter on his zafu, inviting him to America. He had always wanted to go and had asked permission from Chino Roshi; it was refused three times. Kobun went anyway.

Kobun's airfare had been paid by a group of Zen students in Los Altos, California, who hoped he would become their teacher. After Suzuki Roshi died, he took on that role. The new Haiku Zen Center grew quickly, and the students fundraised so successfully that they created a new entity, Bodhi, with both city and rural properties.


The rural property came complete with 50 angry squatters whose small commune down the road had just been bulldozed by the sheriff. The site housed a school with domes that Buckminster Fuller helped build; the evictees moved into the domes. Stoned hippies and alienated veterans brought wild complaints and strange ideas into meetings of Bodhi's board. One exasperated student asked Kobun how long it would take for the place to become a proper meditation center. "Ohh," he drawled, "it takes about 500 years." The chaos was too much for the city-dwelling members; Kobun assigned senior student Les Kaye to be their teacher, and the group separated into two sanghas, Kannon Do in Los Altos, and what would become Jikoji in the hills above it.

"It was a wild era," says Angie Boissevain, a poet and traveling Zen teacher who was undergoing transmission with Kobun when he died. "Kobun was happy. He really loved those people. He invited them all into the zendo, and many of them came. A lot of the runaway kids got interested in sitting and came back as caretakers. He had complete faith in people, and kept it no matter what. His greatest teaching, to me, was his attitude toward these people who had been rejected and ejected, when he said, 'we'll work with them.'"

Kobun had helped other students set up a Zen Center in Santa Cruz, and was as active with that group as with Bodhi/Jikoji. He had also married and started a family. He was making himself completely available to students, and they were overrunning his home, continually seeking his advice and involvement. Student Rob Weinberg recalls, "Once I was having some problems and stood uninvited in Kobun's front yard, to his consternation. After a while an old man with a cane started crossing the road toward us. 'You see?' said Kobun, 'now here comes an old man with a cane.'"

By the time Jikoji was incorporated, he had retreated to Taos, New Mexico, to found another center, Hokoji, there. But the move came too late for the marriage; his wife Harriet moved to Arkansas, taking with her their daughter Yoshiko and son Taido.


In founding Hokoji in the early 1980s, Kobun had a strong partner in student Bob Watkins. "Kobun and I were hiking in the mountains above El Salto when we saw the place, a traditional adobe, very beautiful, the mountains got their arms around you up there," Bob recalls. "I spent the last cent for the striker for the bowlgong. Kobun said, 'This place will belong to the people who use it.' Murakami Roshi and Hojosamma [Kobun's brother Keibun] came over from Japan for our opening and were doing calligraphy with Kobun and chatting away; it was blissful."

At Hokoji, Kobun was more reserved, and tried to set aside time and attention for a new relationship with a gifted young violinist, Stephanie Sirgo. Hokoji's management was left to the students. Stan White, now Chief Priest of Hokoji, says, "I'm sure he could see everything we were doing that was goofy. At the right moment, he'd say the thing that made it come together and dispelled the demons." Kobun became more of a traveling teacher, like one of his masters, Kodo Sawaki Roshi. He divided his time among Jikoji, Hokoji, and Shambhala sanghas in the United States and Europe. Later, he became more active in Europe, leading sesshins in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, then opening new zendos; he actively worked with students in Europe until his death.

One place he traveled to frequently was Naropa University. "At times [Trungpa] Rinpoche asked Kobun to check in on our practice programs to provide help and advice, and also to let Rinpoche know how things were going, and he would show up unexpectedly to support us, and then disappear just as quickly," Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown says.

The strength of the bond between Kobun and Trungpa Rinpoche was apparent at a time of wrenching change. Simmer-Brown continues, "During the period after the Vidyadhara died in 1987, Kobun kindly agreed to be a 'presence' on campus in the summers for many successive years, sitting every morning with the community for at least a month's session at a time. This was during a period of relative chaos and 'rudderlessness' that we were experiencing. He taught by his presence, his personal and humorous intensity, his steadiness."


Calligraphy was an important part of Kobun's teaching. "While I was on staff at RMDC," Jim Fladmark says, "Kobun would come up every year. Seeing him working with this black fluid substance while wearing meticulous white clothing-robe and tabis-was a complete teaching of mindfulness in action."

Brush teacher Keith Abbott co-taught with Kobun a one-semester calligraphy workshop at Naropa in spring, 2002. Keith remembers showing first-semester students a documentary on brush making. Kobun was laughing with the students as they joked about how difficult it looked. In the film, the brush master showed a client a brush that "had a promise to be eccentric," Keith reports. "Suddenly Kobun joined their conversation in Japanese, talking to the screen as all three discussed the brush's potential for wayward behavior." When the film moved on to the history of brush, Kobun remained happy and at ease, but, "when he saw the image of the first Buddhist priest to bring calligraphy to Japan, his whole demeanor changed instantly. He drew himself up into zazen position, acknowledging the presence of a Dharma ancestor, and he maintained the posture for the rest of the film. This moment, for me, demonstrated what Kobun transmitted constantly-even in his most relaxed modes, this was there."

While Richard Haspray was teaching Warrior Assembly at Dechen Chöling last year, he dropped in on a calligraphy course Kobun was teaching in family camp. "Calligraphy is performed kneeling on a mat on the floor," Richard explains. As Kobun described the posture and feeling in the body that are necessary, he talked about how he himself learned calligraphy, at age three or four. "Kobun said, 'My father would put me in his lap while he worked. When I do calligraphy, I can still feel the warmth of his breath on my head.' Your whole body has to be upright, and your grip on the brush has to be just so, when you place your dot (touch brush to paper). If you didn't get it, Kobun would kneel behind you, cradle you like a child, hold your arms, and say, 'Let's do it this way.'"

In the mid-1990s, Kobun's long-term relationship with Stephanie ended. Subsequently, he married again; he and his wife Katrin settled near Santa Cruz, California, and had two daughters, Tatsuko and Maya, then a son, Alyosha. This time, Kobun virtually retired from teaching, to ensure that his family got the attention they needed. The new children were surnamed Otagawa, Kobun's family name; Chino Roshi had given up on Kobun's ever returning and found a new heir.


About two years ago, Kobun decided to return to active teaching and base himself in the Shambhala sangha. In January 2001, he came to Naropa as World Wisdom Chair, commuting from Shambhala Mountain Center. His death occurred as he was teaching students in Switzerland, at the mountain home of his dharma heir, Vanja Palmers. His five-year-old daughter Maya had disappeared from a dock where she was playing, and he died trying unsuccessfully to save her. Friends, family and students immediately began chanting and offering incense, under a canopy of Tibetan prayer flags, Vanja reports. "And in the middle of shock, sadness and feelings of great loss, from the very beginning, there was also the presence of great peace, clarity, closeness, feelings of calmness, gratefulness, even joy."

What shall we understand about "Cloud Phoenix"? During his life, Kobun refused all interviews, books, and calligraphy shows; why? Kobun taught tangentially, seemingly by accident, many of his students say. Much of it was wordless; "Eighty percent of what we learned was by imprint, sitting with him, working with him," says long-time Hokoji student Ian Forsberg. Some students report that he communicated with them in dreams; others say he was a careful steward of the spirits of the dead. These things are hard to talk about, easy to misrepresent. What a student got at any particular time was unique to that person and that situation; "each student got the medicine they needed for their own illness," Bob Watkins says. It can be unwise to take someone else's medicine.

"Kobun was always pulling the plug on our projections and false assumptions," says Sonja Margulies. Many years ago, in the Los Altos sangha, a student challenged Kobun's frequent mentions of the universality of suffering, as Kobun held his infant son Taido in his arms: "I bet you don't feel suffering when you are holding your baby." Kobun answered, "He is my biggest suffering." Another student gushed, "It must be wonderful to be enlightened." "It just gets harder," he replied. To a question, "what is sangha?" posed by a student in an early, romantic phase of practice, he answered, "bottomless garbage can." Long-time student Martin Mosko recalls, "I did my ngondro practice under Kobun, in retreat. He used to emphasize, "You go into retreat to come out. Your practice is for the benefit of others."

"What was powerful was his enormous acceptance of us, the kindness with which he opened himself to us. Simply being with him, I felt completely seen, he was completely with me," says long-time student Carolyn Atkinson. While he wouldn't let students attach to him, he was there for them when it mattered. "I got a diagnosis of very serious illness in the early 90s," Carolyn recalls. " Two days later he showed up on my doorstep; he'd flown in from New Mexico. I felt profoundly supported."

What flashed out at times, especially during ceremonies, was not just Kobun's impeccable discipline-what Keith Abbott calls a "fierce and unyielding" Zen-but "his unvarying deep connection with the ancestors, a communication that, Kobun said, runs through time in BOTH directions," says long-time student Larry Scoville. "Kobun shunned the limelight. It wasn't he who was important, in his own view, it was all of us, stumbling along our individual paths, with all beings, toward the truth."

"Everyone was a Buddha to Kobun, he gave everyone that respect and that freedom. He gave us a piece of himself, we each got some of Kobun's mind," says Bob Watkins. "If our practice continues, all of the pieces will come together."

A Soto Zen student since 1981, Carol Gallup is a writer, natural vision improvement educator, and self-healing therapist who lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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