A Portrait of Joshu Sasaki Roshi

Joshu Sasaki Roshi at age 106

April 1, 1901 – July 27, 2014

This documentary feature chronicles the life and teachings of the legendary 107 years old Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. In 1962, he left his position as the abbot of a remote monastery in Japan, arriving in Los Angeles with only a change of clothes and an English dictionary in one sleeve of his robe and a Japanese dictionary in the other. He vowed to continue teaching until “…the seeds of Buddhism are planted in the West.”

Teaching at an advanced age, his Herculean will is evident both in front of the camera and behind the scenes as well. Often using humorous gestures and enigmatic phrases, he skillfully communicates the essence of Zen.

Many people closest to Roshi have been interviewed, including singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, Professor Harold Roth (Brown University), Shinzen Young (renowned Vipassana teacher and Roshi’s former translator), Steve Sanfield, who lived with Roshi for four years in the early days, as well as many accomplished teachers who head up Roshi’s centers.

Additionally, students are filmed interacting with Roshi in their daily activities: Zen life at Sasaki Roshi’s various Buddhist centers demonstrate how an authentic Rinzai Zen Buddhist tradition has been transplanted from Japan to America.

Joshu Sasaki Roshi was well known for not allowing his dharma talks to be published, only allowing for his first book, About Tagatha Zen, to be published at the age of 107. He chose to live quietly and continued to teach until a year before his passing. Only now, for this film, did he allow the public to see him up close. In a rare opportunity, Roshi gave director-cinematographer Don Farber and producer Carole Wilson free reign to document his life.

During principle photography, allegations came to light about inappropriate physical contact between Sasaki and some of his female students. The documentary will address the paradox of Roshi as  master and Roshi as man,  giving the viewer a chance to reflect upon Roshi’s enigmatic behavior and the different perspectives in which this paradox could be held.

Jizo statue, Mt. Baldy Zen Center

Commentary by Christopher Ives, Chair of Religious Studies, Stonehill College:

Joshu Sasaki Roshi is one of the pioneers of Zen Buddhism in the West. For decades he has been recognized as a rigorous, traditional Rinzai Zen master, guiding his students through koan practice and demanding meditation retreats.  At the same time, questions have surfaced repeatedly about his treatment of women. The documentary will attract the attention of viewers  interested in the introduction of Buddhism to the West…and the complex and at times ambiguous relationship between religious insight and moral rectitude. 

This feature documentary is being produced under the auspices of the non-profit Dharma Heritage Foundation.

NY Times Obituary for Joshu Sasaki Roshi, 8/4/14

Los Angeles Times, Front Page Story on Joshu Sasaki Roshi, 9/21/12

New York Times, Story on Joshu Sasaki Roshi, 2/12/13