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Ruth Fuller Sasaki, the Grandmother of Zen in the West

November 5, 2012

Halloween 1893 was the birth date of Ruth Fuller Sasaki, the Grandmother of Zen in the West. Sasaki was the principal force behind the First Zen Institute of America, the pioneering Zen organization in the United States. She married Sokei-an Sasaki, one of the first Japanese Zen priests to teach in America and live there permanently. In 1930 she was briefly a student of D.T. Suzuki in Japan. In 1932, Suzuki arranged for her to train under Kono Mukai, abbot of Nanzen-ji, one of the major Zen temples in Japan. Sasaki sat zazen for hours under Mukai’s direction, first in his private temple, and then in the large meditation hall with the rest of the monks. Her husband, Sokei-an, died in 1945, and she in 1949, returned to Japan. Her next Zen master was Goto Zuigan, head abbot of Daitoku-ji. (Goto was also the master of the scholar Huston Smith.) Sasaki eventually became a Zen priest—the first foreigner to do so and a female to boot—at Ryosen-en, a sub-temple on the grounds of Daitoku-ji. At Daitoku-ji, Sasaki established an impressive research team to work on a translation of the Rinzai Roku and other texts. After a long and influential Zen life—Alan Watts was her son-in-law and Gary Snyder her employee—Sasaki died at Ryusen-en of a heart attack on October 24, 1967.

In the Shambhala Zen Art Gallery, there are Daruma paintings by the Zen masters Sasaki trained under in Japan: Kono Mukai (Nanshinken 1864–1935) and Goto Zuigan (1879–1965). During training, Mukai was very strict, but outside of the zendo, he was a charming old gentleman, mischievous but kind. Sasaki later said her training under Mukai was the best experience of her life. Sasaki’s relationship with Zuigan was stormier—both of them had very strong wills—but he was the master who ordained her a priest and found her a temple.

Mukai’s Daruma (#8) is side-view, and is rather nicely painted for a zenga, with some detail and gradation in ink tone. The brushwork is supple and bright. Zuigan’s Daruma (#2122) is head-on, more in the abbreviated zenga style with tighter brushwork.

Mukai's Daruma (right) and Zuigan's Daruma (left).



This post was posted in Zen Art