Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi


Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi

Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi

Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi (1912-1997) was a priest in a family of priests going back six centuries. He came to the United States in 1939 as an emissary of Sojiji Training Monastery first to Los Angeles, then to San Francisco. Matsuoka-roshi soon left San Francisco to go to New York where he worked with D T Suzuki at Columbia University. He then went to Chicago and established the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago in 1949.

Matsuoka taught everywhere he could: high schools, karate dojos, living rooms. He was relentless in his effort to bring the living Dharma to the United States. He wrote letters to newspapers, was a strong supporter of non-violence and de-segregation, and wrote letters in support of Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience.

He had three disciples who went on to establish their own lineages: Kongo Langois-roshi in Chicago, Il. Taiun Elliston-roshi in Atlanta, Ga. and Hogaku McGuire-roshi in Long Beach, California. Kongo-roshi is considered the first American to be ordained as a Zen priest in 1967. Sometime after Matsuoka-roshi returned to California to establish his Zen Temple in Long Beach, he broke with Sotu Shu in Japan.

There are many rumors floating around the Internet and, unfortunately in print, regarding Matsuoka-roshi’s later years . After reviewing extant materials and personal interviews of those who actually knew and studied with Matsuoka-roshi, I believe much of the talk surrounding this true pioneer is in an effort to diminish his mission to create a truly American form of Zen in service to supporting the institutionalized version being transmitted from Japan.

Matsuoka-roshi taught Zazen. He taught basic forms. He chanted only the most essential sutras. He streamlined the training and progression of students so that they would have an opportunity to practice in roles and take on responsibilities they would not have been entitled to in an institutionalized context. His was a homegrown Zen, a practical Zen. He used Japanese terms sparingly and tried to make his Zen accessible to Americans.

Those who actually take the time to make a study of Matsuoka-roshi’s written record in two collections of his writings (“The Kyosaku” and “Moku-rai”) will soon discover the truth about this pioneer. He was a genuine Master and a fine teacher who held his students in higher esteem than they, themselves apparently did.

Harvey Daiho Hilbert-roshi