Kobun Chino Roshi (1938-2002)

Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi, Boulder, Colorado, July 1989 photo by Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries/Allen Ginsberg Estate

Continuing with our profiles of eminent Soto Zen roshis – Kobun Chino Roshi

Kobun (he preferred the simple use of his first name) first came to the United States from Japan in 1967 in response to an invitation from Shunryu Suzuki, serving as his assistant at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center until 1970.

Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

David Chadwick, a Tassajara novitiate, remembers:

“I first saw Kobun at the top of the stone steps by the big old oak tree when he arrived at Tassajara in June, 1967 – wide eyed, eager, and in a new element. Bob Halpern and I showed him around and pestered him till late at night asking him about everything we could think of from zazen to a monk’s diet. He had a yellow robe so we thought he must be completely enlightened. When? Where? What was it like? He told us of sitting alone reading poetry then walking in the moonglow in his master’s garden and disappearing into a subtle light.
Kobun was a wonderful addition to our fledgling Soto Zen Buddhist monastery. His English was pretty good from the start. He taught us a lot quickly and language wasn’t a problem.
He fine-tuned the services, was an exemplar of how to chant, hit the bells, and use the Ōryōki bowls and cloths for formal meals in the zendo. He taught us a great deal about what the words meant – of the chants, objects, monastic positions. He trained us in form yet was informal..”

After leaving Tassajara, he moved to Los Altos and began teaching there (along with Suzuki) at the Haiku Zendo  After Suzuki’s death in 1971, he became the official head of Haiku Zendo, remaining there as teacher until 1978. During this time, he also was integral to the formation of the Santa Cruz Zen Center. He went on to establish another center, Hokoji, in Arroyo Seco near Taos, New Mexico. He was also a close friend of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and was invited to, and taught regularly at, the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado and at Naropa  (the Ginsberg connection)

and in 1983 he and a group of students established Jikoji, a rustic mountain retreat center located deep in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

He began to establish the reputation of something of a traveling teacher. Late in the 1980s
he began visiting Europe to help friend and former student from Tassajara, Vanja Palmers, who was leading groups of Zen students in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.  With his help and encouragement, Vanja and his European friends established several new centers, (notably those at Felsentor, and at Puregg, “a house of inter-religious dialogue, particularly between Christians and Buddhists”)

For more details of his life and teachings (considerably more details!) – see here 

also here

and also here 

Kobun was, famously, Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs’ Zen teacher

He was also the teacher of poet and novelist, Jim Harrison.

On July 26, 2002, Kobun tragically drowned in Vanja’s swimming pond in Switzerland while trying to rescue his five-year-old daughter Maya, who also drowned. It was a sudden and shocking departure from an exemplary and inspirational life.

There’s, fortunately, a significant amount of footage of Koban speaking and lecturing available.

Here’s Kobai at Puregg, delivering a dharma talk in 1992:

David Chadwick (remembering him at Tassajara):   He spoke very slowly, with pauses between his words at times, especially in lectures. His voice tended to tremble. I suggested to Wako Kato, an early Sokoji priest, that maybe Kobun’s halting speech had something to do with him wanting to make sure his English was correct. Kato said, “No, he speaks Japanese the same”.

Here’s some vintage footage of Kobun at Tassajara, at the Zen Mountain Center:

We continue to remember the extraordinary spirit that was Kobun Chino Roshi.
May that spirit continue to bring peace.

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