Portrait of Joshu Sasaki Roshi

Joshu Sasaki Roshi at age 106

The film chronicles the life and teachings of the legendary 106 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 of the people closest to Roshi have already been interviewed, including singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, a student of forty plus years; Shinzen Young, renowned Vipassana teacher and Roshi’s former translator; Steve Sanfield, who lived with Roshi for four years in the early days, and several highly accomplished teachers who head 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 is well known for not allowing his dharma talks to be published. His writings have not been published to date . He has chosen to live quietly and until a recent illness, was still teaching full time. Only now, for this film, has he allowed the public to see him up close. This is extremely rare, and Roshi has given director-cinematographer Don Farber free reign to document his life.

Recently, it has come to light that there has been sexual misconduct by Roshi over many years. These revelations have added a new dimension to the documentary and Roshi has granted the filmmakers five consecutive interviews since these allegations have become public knowledge. The documentary will explore the paradox of Roshi as a master and Roshi as a man.

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.

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

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