Philip Kapleau Left the Rat Race Behind

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In 1953, at age 46, Philip Kapleau was a New York businessman making good money but tired of the rat race. There had to be an answer to it all and peace, he thought, so he decided to go to Japan to study Zen but, about to embark, his friends warned him he was making a huge mistake. He began to think so himself. His journal entries recorded his thoughts.

"New York, April 1, 1953. . . . Belly aching all week, Doc says ulcers are getting worse. . . . Allergies kicking up too. . . . Can't sleep without drugs. . . . So miserable wish I had the guts to end it all.

"September 3, 1953.  Quit business, sold apartment furniture and car. . .  Friends' unanimous judgment: 'You're mad throwing up ten thousand a year for pie in the sky.' . . .  Maybe. Or maybe they're the mad ones, piling up possessions and ulcers and heart disease. . . . but I am frightened. . . .

Then Kapleau arrived in Japan and began meditating at Ryutaku-ji and studying Zen under Soen Nakagawa. He began to experience long hours sitting in Lotus, the days of silence, and the brief nights before being awakened to return to the zendo and meditate.

"December 3, 1953. Pain in legs unbearable. . . Why don't I quit? It's imbecilic. . . . It's masochism pure and simple.  Why did I ever leave the United States?

Slowly things began to change as he grew in his meditative practice.The questions faded as a beauty grew.

August 5, 1958. He entered the roshi's room for sanzen.  "Hawklike, the roshi scrutinized me as I entered the room, walked toward him, prostrated myself, and sat before him with my mind alert and exhilerated.

'The universe is One,' he began, each word tearing into my mind like a bullet. "The moon of truth---' All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared in a dazzling stream of illumination and I felt myself bathed in a delicious, unspeakable delight. . . . For a fleeting eternity I was alone--I alone was. . . . Then the roshi swam into view. Our eyes met and flowed into each other, and we burst out laughing.

'I have it! I know! There is nothing, absolutely nothing. I am everything and everything is nothing!' I exclaimed more to myself than to the roshi and got up and walked out.'  "

Philip Kapleau returned to the United States and eventually, as a roshi, founded Zen Center Rochester New York. The journal entries are found in his book The Three Pillars of Zen, which has become a classic and a fundamental document among books on Buddhism, providing personal Zen experiences of seekers as well as the teachings for those new to the practice. At 91 and in 2004 he died peacefully in the back yard of the Zen Center, surrounded by his many friends and students.

As an aside, I had read D.T. Suzuki's books on Zen, which intrigued me as they hoisted rational thought on its own petard, but one day while I was in grad school working on my PhD my wife bought home The Three Pillars. I began reading it avidly.  As I write this article, the copy lies in front of me, rather faded, a bit tattered, but because of it--if you believe in causation--my path led to Zen. I studied under various people. Maezumi Roshi at ZCLA, Joko Beck in San Diego, Genpo Merzel in Holland, and others. Nowadays I am eclectic, a nondualist, having found my experiences and perspective fit across the spectrum of Eastern teachings.

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