Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi

In 1967 a ship arrived in San Francisco.  Aboard was a Zen Priest, carrying with him a large bronze bell and a mukugio sent as gifts to honor the establishment of the first Zen Monastery in America.  It was a fateful journey.  The instruments would later burn in a fire at Tassajara Monastery and the young, shy priest would not return to live permanently in Japan.  

Like many others on his path, he had come by his sense of the meaning of impermance, compassion and depth of Zen through experience.

His birth had been a fortunate one.  The Otogawas were a respected family of priests. In 1938, Kobun was born in the family temple at Kamo, a small town in the Niigata province located in Northwestern Japan.  He was the youngest of six children and Japan was in an ascension.  Quickly, circumstances changed.  World War II began and lasted the bulk of Kobun’s early childhood.  Kobuns’s father died when he was eight, leaving behind a family foraging for food in an almost completely devasted Japan.  Sometimes the family ate pumpkins, sometimes they ate pumpkin stems.

 Even at an early age, Kobun was a skilled and intuitive calligrapher and showed academic promise.  He found a mentor in Hozan Koei Chino Roshi and began serious Zen training.  While he was fortunate to find guidance, it was a difficult period for Zen in general.   The hierarchical leaders of Zen had supported the government during the war and had been discredited.  He was ordained at the age of twelve and was teased for his shaved head at school.  At fourteen he was adopted by Chino, who had no heirs, and began the training to prepare him to inherit the abbacy at Kotaiji and together, the two walked from household to household performing ceremonies.  Chino’s main practice was chanting, rather than zazen - seated meditation.

In high school, the draw toward a simpler practice led Kobun to sit with Sawaki Kodo, who was advocating a revitalization of zazen practice and turning away from ceremonies and chanting.   Kodo would have a powerful influence on Kobun and an irony began to develop.  Throughout his career as a priest, Kobun would stand out for his exquisite ability to perform ceremonies and he would be remembered for his predisposition not to do them.  

In 1957, Kobun went to Komazawa University in Tokyo. He subsequently did his monastic training at Eiheiji. He received dharma transmission from Koei Chino Roshi in Kamo in 1962.  After finishing the three year training at Eiheiji, he returned to Kyoto to complete a Masters in Mahayana Buddism.  While in Kyoto, Kobun continued to practice calligraphy and trained in archery with Sensei Kanjuro Shibata.  By the time he was 30, Kobun was a classically educated Zen priest. He was offered a post at Eijeiji, the central training monastery of Soto Zen,  where he trained incoming monks in the ceremonial forms of Zen.

While Kobun was now fully ensconced in a bastion of Japanese tradition, not even Eijeiji was separate from the changes of the late 1960s.  At the time, the traditional tool of monastic discipline was the kyosaku, a wooden swordlike stick that was used to wake up the young monks when their concentration began to wander.  Kobun asked for and received permission to set the kyosaku aside in the training of novices.   Kobun further broke with tradition on the question of Gaijin.

The Japanese word for foreigner is Gaijin, a phrase meaning barbarian. After centuries of isolation the word Gaijin had no better definition then the Americans who were arriving at Eiheiji in the 1960s.  Although he didn’t know it yet, Kobun was about to become part of a social revolution in America.  The choice that brought him there was not one of politics, but simple compassion.  

Far away, in San Francisco, another Japanese priest who had been sent to run the local Zen temple had quietly started to work with a group of Americans interested in expanding their consciousness. The little sitting group grew quickly into the San Francisco Zen Center and Suzuki had managed to get a few of these Gaijin into Eiheiji for training.  Watching these radicals enter the temple gates, Kobun saw not gaijin, but human beings.  

I did a small kindness to American students who were utterly stuck in the monastery (Eijeiji).  Suzuki roshi had sent them, and they were having enormous difficulty. It's beyond imagination. Literally, aliens had landed in the monastery! One [Phillip Wilson] was a regular member of Stanford's football team. Huge. Muscles. When he stands, he really stands out, literally. Small Japanese people...Everyone is short. His body, about from here up, stuck out. He walked like a dinosaur! Another person [Graham Petchey] was an English gentleman, taller than him, like a crane flying with those wild geese. They were very obvious, and their knees hurt so much, and they wanted to eat chocolate, and they wanted to go to the dentist, and everything! So I ended up looking after them and protecting them from hardship.

In Eiheiji monastery there is no freedom allowed. They could speak no Japanese. I only could speak a little bit of English, but I could listen to them very carefully to hear what the actual problem was. Everyone thought they were lying, that they wanted to go to the hospital in order to take a break from practice. I ended up taking them to a doctor to check on their knees, and to a good dentist to fix their teeth. I didn't know that was all reported to Suzuki roshi, or that he came to look at me in the zendo one day.

In 1967, the San Francisco Zen Center purchased property and established a monastery at Tassajara Hot Springs.  Suzuki needed someone to help train these new monks in formal monastic practice and sent an invitation to Kobun at Eiheiji.  Kobun made the traditional request to his teacher three times - and permission was denied.  Despite this, when the ship carrying the formal gifts of Eijeiji to the new monastery, Kobun was on it.

Shunryu Suzuki, Kobun Chino Otagawa, Dainin Katagiri

Shunryu Suzuki, Kobun Chino Otagawa, Dainin Katagiri

Arriving in San Francisco, Kobun joined Suzuki and Dainin Katagiri, who would later establish the Minneapolis Zen Center in the midwest.  Kobun worked to teach the Americans the subtleties of Zen practice, but quietly, the more he helped establish an institution, the further he seemed to drift away from it.  First, however, there was a monastery to create.  Tassajara Hot Springs had been a disused resort, long past it’s heyday as a bootleg speakeasy far from the paved road.  It had a long way to go in order to become a monastery.  The roofs leaked and the only thing that could be called a zendo was an outdoor dining area with a dirt floor.  Arriving at the disused resort, Kobun went to work.  Bob Watkins, one of the first monks at Tassajara observed,

"I don't think people realize how important he was in establishing Tassajara Zen Center.  There were only a handful of us there at the time, sitting on army blankets in the old building we used as a Zendo. In the beginning Kobun taught us everything--how to put the Zendo together, breathing, posture, how to do oryoki meals in Navy surplus bowls".

Kobun stayed at Tassara until 1969 and until the forms at Tassajara had taken root.  Finally the day came to return to Japan and complete his training with Chino, who was growing increasingly impatient with his erstwhile protoge.  Suzuki, saw something different in Kobun and while he accepted the decision said, " "You can go, but you are the kind of person who should live in this country." 

Kobun returned to live in Japan.  It turned out to be a short-lived homecoming.  Travel had become part of Kobun’s way.

Six months later, Haiku Zendo in America, where Suzuki had originally intended Kobun to teach, brought him to America for a second time. He was installed as Abbot in 1970.   

His style was informal. He preferred to be called Kobun, not Sensei, and never Roshi, and he encouraged his students to think of him as friend not master. His unpredictable and subtle style resonated with the times as he emphasized life-in-the-world, encouraged his students to marry and have children, and to live the Dharma like guerillas, devotedly, but in secret.


Kobun's history in his words

After two years at Tassajara, to me it was going smoothly, regulation was pretty good, and everybody was serious, so I said, "The promised time has come. I have to go back to meet with my Master. They are waiting for my return." 

And I went back to be an attendant to my Master, and while I was there, there was a big rain storm and my town was covered by a flood. Big water rushed out from the mountains, and many houses were washed away. I ended up staying half a year in Japan to help clean up. There was my father's temple by the Kamo River bank. And my Master's temple, which has a similar feeling to Jikoji. There is a steep slope of hill coming down behind the temple. Rain washed away all those ditches, and a chunk of bamboo forest slid down, so I had to work very hard to put them both together!

Half a year later, I went to my Master and we sat face to face, quietly. He made green tea, and I drank. He said, "Are you going?"and I said, "Yes, yes, I am going again." I don't forget his face at that time. He said, "Suitable ability should be at the suitable place." That's all he said to me. So I came back! He made me escape from Japan. Escape is a strange word, but Japan didn't need my kind of person, I think.

It's been nearly twenty years since I came abroad. You can imagine how excited a young person I was, to cross the Pacific Ocean for only one purpose and only hope...and twenty years later I am sitting like this with you. I'd like to be a Sony messenger, a Toyota dealer or something... very wealthy man, no need to worry about anything! This young blind person was shaky at that time. It felt like someone tied me up and brought me to this country. Many people asked me "How come you came to this country?" Especially when they returned from Japan they'd say, "No, I cannot understand why you came to the United States!"

Oh, my master was very mean when I came to this country! First two years he said, "That's wrong! Wrong number! Wrong number in the first place! I tried to polish and raise you to be a most fine student. Now you go away. Go to Hell!" And finally he said, "You made many people suffer by your departure. I have to take my family name away from you. Disowned! I have to cut you loose.”

Very very chaotic things happen when someone does a radical thing like this. I didn't mind anything. "Cut loose." Alright. "Go to Hell." I'm glad to do that

"I don't think people realize how important he was in establishing Tassajara Zen Center, says Bob Watkins, who studied with Kobun for thirty-five years. "There were only a handful of us there at the time, sitting on army blankets in the old building we used as a Zendo. In the beginning Kobun taught us everything--how to put the Zendo together, breathing, posture, how to do oryoki meals in Navy surplus bowls".

Suzuki Roshi in 1966 helped inspire the development of a small suburban sangha made up of students and householders. Katagiri Sensei, another Japanese monk who later founded the Minneapolis Zen Center, also helped develop the sangha and their practice. Haiku Zendo was converted by the sangha from a former garage in Marion Derby's home in Los Altos. Haiku Zendo's sangha later raised the funds for Kobun's 1967 journey to America with the promise that he would become a resident teacher for them. Suzuki Roshi however first had Kobun spend two years helping develop Tassajara, the San Francisco Zen Center's mountain monastery. Basically, the sangha for the second time helped to get Kobun to come from Japan and expected him to be the resident priest---and this time, Kobun had firmly decided that that was what he would do. In 1970 Kobun became abbot of Haiku Zendo. The Les Kaye family had purchased the Derby home in part to help maintain the sangha's zen practice there after Marion decided to give up being a householder and instead to became a full time student at Tassajara. After some time staying with the Kaye family, Kobun, with his new American wife Harriet, moved into a house around the corner from the Zendo. He continued Suzuki Roshi's teaching schedule of Wednesday evening Dharma talk, Thursday morning breakfast and informal discussion, and Monday morning study.

His style was informal. He preferred to be called Kobun, not Sensei, and never Roshi, and he encouraged his students to think of him as friend not master. His unpredictable and subtle style resonated with the times as he emphasized life-in-the-world, encouraged his students to marry and have children, and to live the Dharma like guerillas, devotedly, but in secret.

During those early days, he was almost always available to his students night and day, to Harriet's dismay, especially after their two children, Yoshiko and Taido, were born, Taido in October 1971, and Yoshiko in May 1973. He gave workshops and courses through Stanford University, Foothill College and U.C. Santa Cruz. The course Kobun taught at Stanford, which was offered through an extended education program open to the entire community, was called "The Roots of Zen" and focused on Indian Madhyamika and Yogachara philosophies. He was also, after Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971, on call to San Francisco Zen Center and helped Baker Roshi especially with teaching the forms of Zen--instructions for ceremonies, translations of chants and sutras, funerals, and ordinations. He did the calligraphy on the early rakusus at SFZC, and on the stupas marking ashes' burial sites.

Maria Wallace, a long time student of Kobun's, and her partner Janet Crew were building a house in Big Sur which overlooked the rugged coastline. Kobun used to go and visit them in Big Sur, and consecrated the house and its still incomplete zendo as a temple in 1972.

Four seven-day sesshins a year were held in a youth hostel a few miles from Haiku Zendo on the Duveneck ranch, Hidden Villa, in Los Altos Hills. After a few years of hauling cushions, food, mats, tan and pots back and forth, the sangha decided to look for a permanent place to practice, and began to incorporate as a nonprofit in the state of California with the name, Bodhi. An attorney, William Parker, gave free legal advice for the incorporation effort. At Kobun's suggestion, in the bylaws it was stated that all beings are members of our sangha.

During this time, too, Kobun became a very close personal friend of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who made a pact with Suzuki Roshi to establish a Buddhist university. After Suzuki Roshi passed away, Trungpa Rinpoche asked Kobun's help to establish this vision and to help instruct his students in Zazen, drumming, bowing, oryoki and calligraphy. Kobun introduced Rinpoche to Shibata Sensei, which relationship became the source of kyudo practice in the Shambala tradition, still led by Shibata Sensei today. Kobun taught first at Trungpa's request at the inaugural summer session of Naropa in 1974. He returned to what is now Shambhala Mountain Center and Naropa University every year since 1974, to teach and lead Sesshins.

The Santa Cruz Zen Center was founded in 1971 by Kobun Chino-Roshi and his students, with Jim Goodhue as the first director. Kobun led sitting practice and lectured every week there for over ten years, frequently driving alone over a treacherous mountain road at night from his Los Altos family home. He also helped found Spring Mountain north of San Francisco, a zen center with a residential community in the early 1970s, but Spring Mountain was eventually migrated to another use.

Trout Black, Stephan Bodian, Buff Bradley, Phil Olsen, Jerry Halpern, and Elmer Caruso (who headed the Spring Mountain Effort) were among the first "monks" ordained by Kobun, in the early 1970s. Steve, Claus, Balin, and various other students lived in a rented home near the zendo, whimsically named the Bodhisatvas club by Sonia Margulies. Sonia once described her relationship with Kobun as follows:

  • I was his Jisha for a few years early on, in the years he emphasized the guerilla model and I remember telling him earnestly that I did not want to end up being a 'professional religious'. "Don't worry," he told me. "Many people want that." Still, after many years practicing with him I did worry that refusing to go on to the next step of founding a Zendo in his name as proper gratitude was, perhaps, failing him. However, in 1983, after reading some lineage history, I discovered a Chinese account of a Master who had transmitted over a hundred students with only a small number of them 'appearing in the world'. When I took this, to me, good news, to Kobun one dokusan, he laughed. We bowed, and as I was leaving the room, he called out, "Sonja!". As I turned back, he threw the teaching stick at me. Of course, automatically, I caught it. There may be other Kobun guerillas out there with a stick? With his help, I did ordain a few students who he inscribed in Japanese headquarters but life changes for both of us put an end to that era.


Kobun and his students began searching for a better place to practice in the mid-1970s, as described in The Founding of Jikoji, which also discusses several sites considered. Funds were raised over a period of several years, but the initial sites selected did not work out. Eventually the sangha decided to buy both an urban city center, and, in a more natural setting, a rural center in the countryside. The city center, Kannon-do zendo, was established in Mountain View, with Keido Les Kaye as chief priest. Les, who had hosted Kobun and Haiku Zendo in his Los Altos home and had helped to establish Zen in the area, was in 1986 recognized as a Zen teacher and dharma heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki.

Kobun named the countryside site Jikoji (see Jikoji's Web Site) meaning Compassion Light Temple. His elder brother, Keibun, abbott of the family temple in Japan, Jokoji, came to America to inaugurate the new temple with a Dai Segaki, a Hungry Ghost Ceremony, in the early 1980s. (See also the brief histories of the Founding of Jikoji, and of the main alternative, the Pendler Estate, that the sangha almost selected, rather than Jikoji or Kannon-do.)

Kobun and his wife separated in the late 1970s, and finally divorced in the 1980s. Harriet moved with the children to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she had family roots and could continue her graduate education in nursing. Kobun helped his family move to Arkansas. Missing them greatly, he wanted to be within at least one day's driving distance of his children, in case of any emergency. Taos, New Mexico, in the American Southwest, met Kobun's criteria of proximity to his children, so he settled there, and his children visited him there on school vacations. Kobun's student, Bob Watkins, was looking for land on which to create a small monastery.

Kobun had met Stephanie, a Juilliard-trained violinist then in law school, after Harriet had taken the children to Arkansas. Stephanie was ordained as Saiho, and Kobun named the house they rented in Taos Saiho-in.

Property in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Taos was found, under the brow of El Salto mountain at an elevation of 8,000 feet. The property included a small adobe house, with a garage that could be converted to a small Zendo. Kobun named it Hokoji, that he translated as Pheonix Light Temple, founded in 1983. Hokoji can also be translated as Wisdom Light Temple. In 1984 Kobun himself bought a piece of property down the road, not far from the Zendo, and began to build a house in the forest, with a coiling dragon of embedded colored stones encircling its foundation. Kobun also returned often to California to lead sesshins at Jikoji.

Later Kobun became known as a traveling teacher as he divided his time among the Jikoji, Hokoji (New Mexico), and Shambhala sanghas in the United States and Europe. Late in the 1980s Kobun also began traveling to Europe to help a friend and former student at Tassajara, Vanja Palmers Sensei, who was leading groups of Zen students in Germany and Switzerland. Kobun helped Vanja lead Sesshins, and in teaching and ordaining many students over the course of several years. With Kobun's help and encouragement, Vanja established several new Zen centers, particularly Felsentor and Puregg.

During this time Kobun also met his future wife Katrin. Before he married Katrin, Chino Roshi, realizing that Kobun would not return to head his temple in Japan, had formally separated from Kobun. Kobun was re-adopted into the Otokawa lineage and he took that name. Consequently his first two children have the name 'Chino' and the second family has the name 'Otogawa'. In the 1990s Kobun returned to Japan and reconciled with his old master, Chino Roshi.

Kobun and Katrin moved to Santa Cruz in the 1990s, where they lived in a home Kobun named Raigho-in, a centuries-old style Japanese farmhouse newly built and owned by Ken Wing and Hollis DeLancy. Hollis and Ken generously worked to help support Jikoji and Kobun for many years, and had guested him on trips to Japan, India, and elsewhere.

After his divorce from Harriet, Kobun had told a friend, Martin Mosko, he was going into retreat. After the birth of Alyosha, the son with Katrin, he told Martin he was coming out of retreat and wanted to teach again. This motivated his move to Colorado when he was offered a venerable position on the Naropa faculty. Kobun was appointed to the highest chair at Naropa in 2000 (World Wisdom Chair). Shortly after the birth of their third child he and Katrin moved to Colorado and took up residence at Shambhala Mountain Center, and he commuted to Boulder to teach.


Martin Mosko, a landscape architect and garden designer based in Boulder Colorado,  was a long time student and friend of Kobun's.  Martin also had a deep connection with Kobun's older brother, Hojosama Keibun Otogawa. He had studied with Hojosama in Japan, and received Dharma Transmission from him.  In 2001, during a ceremony for a friend who had died, Kobun consecrated a property Martin had developed as a zen center and noted garden as Hakubai Temple. Martin (Hakubai Zenji) was installed as abbot of Hakubai in the Mountain Seat Ceremony in the spring of 2004.

By 2000 Kobun had given the precepts to over one hundred students. Most ceremonies were Zuike Tokudo, or lay ordination; several were Shukke Tokudo, or novice priest ordinations. He did his first Denpo transmission in 1989 at Jikoji.

On july 26th 2002, Kobun drowned in Switzerland while trying to rescue his 5 year old daughter Maya from a pond she had fallen into; she also drowned. Following Kobun's accidental death, Vanja completed transmission for teachers Kobun had been encouraging for many years, including Jean Leyshon, Angie Boissevain, Caroline Atkinson, Bob Watkins, and later Michael Newhall, the current Resident Teacher at Jikoji. Angie Boissevain served as Director of Jikoji under Kobun for almost two decades, and began teaching with his encouragement; she now leads the Floating Zendo in San Jose. Carolyn Atkinson founded and leads the Everyday Dharma Zen Center in Santa Cruz. Bob Watkins was ordained back in the early seventies  and his transmission, started by Kobun, was finished by Vanya. Ian Forsberg also received transmission from Vanja, after Michael Newhall. Both Ian and Jean Leyshon are active at Hokoji, each leading at least one yearly sesshin, and are also traveling to lead sesshins. Bu-tan Stan White, another old student and friend from Kobun's Tassajara period, serves as chief priest at Hokoji.

One student, Jerry Halpern, wrote "possibly Kobun's finest quality as a teacher was that he required his students to live their own lives, and he encouraged them to become free to do so. He did not allow them (or exploit them by allowing them) to become dependent on him."


Kobun's 1990-era resume (as a large image file) can be viewed or downloaded from Kobun's Resume. Kobun prepared it, with help from Stephanie and Hollis, for a publication honoring his father's legacy in Japan.