Sõen Nakagawa (1907 – 1984) was a Japanese teacher of Zen Buddhism in the Rinzai tradition. A highly creative and enigmatic figure, he was abbot of Ryutaku-ji monastery, an accomplished poet, and was a notable influence on the transmission of Zen to America. He was a student of Gempo Yamamoto and Keigaku Katsube, and was a dear friend of Nyogen Senzaki.
Nakagawa was born in Keelung, Taiwan, the son of a Japanese military doctor. His family was Pure Land Buddhist, and he lived at Gangyo-ji, a Pure Land monastery, while a humanities student at Tokyo’s Imperial University. Passionate and artistic, Nakagawa was inspired by his academic Buddhist studies and admiration of the haiku poet Basho towards the practice of zazen. Despite his innate shyness, he founded a campus sitting group in the 1920s, and began formal zen training as a layperson at nearby Shorin-ji, a Rinzai temple near the university. In 1931, immediately after finishing his graduate studies, he was ordained a monk by Keigaku Katsube and became a resident of Kogaku-ji. While there, he continued refining his own haiku and calligraphy skills. Nakagawa befriended Dakotsu Iida, a locally renowned haiku poet, who helped him publish his first poems. He also met Gempo Yamamoto, who was abbot at the nearby Ryutaku-ji monastery. Nakagawa decided to leave Katsube and begin study as a disciple of Yamamoto in 1935. A year later, he published his first collection of poems, ‘’Shigan’’ (“Coffin of Poems”) to good reviews. Through his publications, Nakagawa was introduced to Nyogen Senzaki, who at the time was a zen teacher in the United States. Senzaki helped arrange Nakagawa’s first visit to America when he came to San Francisco in 1948.The two remained close friends, confidants and pen-pals until Senzaki’s death.
In 1958, Nakagawa was installed as Yamamoto’s successor as abbot of Ryutaku-ji. Much of the creativity Nakagawa had exhibited in his art now surfaced in his teachings and he became known for practical jokes and curious tricks that, to the zen establishment were sometimes seen as disrespectful. He also retained much of the humility and openness to new ideas that had marked him throughout his life, exemplified in his highly unusual habit of attending sesshin at another roshi’s monastery (in this case, Daiun Sogaku Harada at Hosshin-ji).
Nakagawa was a lively teacher and attracted Western students with his unconventional and mischievous style. Philip Kapleau, Robert Baker Aitken and Eido Shimano, three significant zen teachers in America, all studied under him. In particular, Nakagawa became involved with an offshoot of D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Studies Society in New York, which is today a Zen Center, instead of an academic society, under Shimano.
In 1967, Nakagawa survived a severe head injury while trying to climb a tree, and from that day forward suffered debilitating pain and depression. He stepped down as abbot in 1973 and died in his bathtub at Ryutaku-ji on 11 March, 1984.
- Swallow the stars until you are one with the universe, with all-pervading universal life.
- All are nothing but flowers in a flowering universe.
- This world is so wonderful, so Unthinkable and Ungraspable.
What are we touching right here and now?
- Shigan (“Coffin of Poems”), 1936
- Meihan (“Life Anthology”), 1949
- Koun-sho (“Ancient Cloud Selection”), 1981
- Hokoju (“Long-lasting Dharma Light”). Posthumous, 1985 Soen Nakagawa