The art of building a bridge

Zen abbot makes annual visit to Pomona College to help foster understanding of Eastern culture.
Los Angeles Times, Mar. 27, 2003
By Pam Noles, Inland Valley Voice

Roshi Keido Fukushima sits in a student desk in a classroom at Pomona College in Claremont, his chocolate robes perfectly pressed, the golden pouch slung around his neck seeming to gleam beneath the fluorescent lights. There is a translator at his side, a young American man wearing a simple gray tunic. Together they bring a sense of formality to the room.

Fukushima’s eyes are closed as he describes monastic life in Kyoto, Japan, where he is head abbot of the Tofukuji sect of Renzai Zen Buddhism and the 303rd master of the 750-year-old Tofukuji Monastery, one of the historic five mountains of Zen Buddhism.

He opens his eyes when answering a direct question, watching a latecomer enter the room, occasionally correcting his translator or, after telling a joke, taking in the post-translation laughter.

“American students ask me questions fairly and freely,” Fukushima said. “Some of those questions are good, some are bad. But even bad questions are good, for me.”

Every spring for several years, Fukushima has taken 2 1/2 months to travel America and visit college campuses. When he started, his itinerary included just three colleges; now there are 32. He’s able to visit 25 on each trip, and Pomona College is always on the list. This year he traveled with Kei, the head monk in his monastery, and translator Marcus Grandon, an American writer from Michigan who has lived in Japan for a decade and is studying shakuhachi, or Zen flute.

He said he feels great nostalgia when visiting Claremont and its colleges, which he considers “my home in the United States.” It’s a special relationship forged in 1969 when he visited for three months as an attending monk accompanying his master. In 1973 his master returned him to Claremont, where he stayed for a year as a visiting scholar with the Blaisdell Programs in World Religions and Cultures at Claremont Graduate University.

Peggy Dornish, former chair of Pomona’s religious studies department and a longtime friend, said Fukushima’s visits foster cultural understanding and give students a sense of Zen as a living philosophy.

“He knows, understands college-age students very well,” Dornish said. “He’s trying to build a bridge between East and West.”

In addition to public presentations on calligraphy, Zazen meditation and a general lecture about Zen Buddhism, Fukushima spoke to many classes during his two-day visit to Claremont this week.

Zhiru, an assistant professor of religious studies at Pomona College who uses a single name, is a Chinese Buddhist nun. She said she enjoys the classroom visits as much as her students do.

“He’s very humorous, he has a wry Zen humor,” she said. “He introduces the students to the practice of living Zen, culture and meditation. He is a wonderful example for them.”

Roshi is a title given only to Zen masters who earn a certain level of experience and spiritual development, Zhiru said.

Fukushima, 70, said it’s important for him to travel with the message of Zen to America because unlike in other countries, the Zen movement here consists of lay people. There are no monks or nuns to guide the way, which leaves open the possibility of error.

“I want to teach the young students correct Zen. There are new ways and some of these are bad ways. If they are bad, [the Zen masters] have to speak clearly against them,” he said.

He has established an exchange program of sorts between his monastery and several American colleges, allowing students and faculty an intimate experience studying the religion at one of its more important sites. With a good intellectual understanding of the religion, students can go on to further correct study, he said.

For more information on the Tofukuji temple, visit its Web site at

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