Ruth was a wealthy and privileged American born in Chicago whilst Sokei-an was a Japanese Rinzai monk. Together they formed the First Zen Institute of America in 1930 and were instrumental in establishing Buddhism in the United States.
Zen Odyssey by Steven Schwartz and Janica Anderson is an account of the relationship that existed between these founders of the Zen tradition in America – a movement which came to attention of a number of followers such as Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Burton Watson.
Different Backgrounds and Cultures
Ruth and Sokei-an emerged from completely different social environments but they married and settled down in in a large five-storey house in New York. This impressive building included a large library containing hundreds of Zen texts written in Chinese and Japanese, a kitchenette where tea was made for students and visitors, as well as being decorated with an extensive number of Asian art objects.
Although they were married they slept in separate bedrooms which were equally extensive and ornate as well as functioning as study and research areas.
Sokei-an Sasaki held lectures in the house within which the pair worked to translate medieval Chinese Zen texts.
Zen Odyssey is a detailed record of the events that surrounded the two Zen teachers. It draws upon material from a variety of sources—the most significant being a collection of some nine hours worth of interviews that Gary Snyder recorded on an old reel-to-reel tape machine over the course of three weeks in 1966.
These interviews were conducted with Ruth who spoke at length of her life in Zen Buddhism, her meeting with Sokei-an, their life together, his teachings and their time spent in New York. Most significantly she also spoke at length about bringing Zen to America and those early years in its development as a spiritual philosophy.
As usual I have avoided revealing too much of the story contained in this publication for risk of spoiling the account for potential readers.
Sadly though, as a biography, of sorts, I found this account of the lives of it main characters to be somewhat cheerless and characterless. It was, may I say it, even dull in parts.
Recognizing that this is a work that will mean most to those most closely connected to the era, events, and circumstances it covers I shall not suggest that it will not be enjoyed by some readers; for the details surrounding the lives of those involved will be appreciated. However to me it does carry a powerful sense of an unpolished and somewhat unfinished work.
On the positive side the book does benefit greatly from the inclusion of personal photographs and recollections but for me it’s disconnected threads failed to paint a colorful and engaging reflection of the main characters.
Zen Odyssey is a dry, academic work with variations of subtle color. If you have direct connections to the times and people that it covers then you may be able to weave a useful narrative from its disparate threads.