Kodo Sawaki (1880-1965) lost his parents at an early age and had to make a living as a child in the care of an uncle’s friend among gamblers. After witnessing the death of an old man in a brothel, he became aware of the impermanence of life and the absurdity of such a death. Without family, without friends, without money, sixteen years old, he went on foot to the temple Eihei-ji. First accepted only as a servant, he was ordained a monk in 1897. Later he retired to an abandoned hermitage, disappointed to realise that the practice of zazen had virtually disappeared from Japanese Zen. He slept little, spending his days and nights practising zazen and studying the teachings of Master Dogen.
After years of such life, he began to travel and spread the teaching all over Japan, in big cities and fishing villages, in universities and prisons, making the practice of zazen accessible to lay people. As he did not want to settle anywhere and was always travelling alone, he was called “Kodo without a place to stay”. At the age of 55, he was appointed professor at Komazawa Buddhist University and eventually also became one of the people responsible for teaching at Soji-ji temple, one of the two main temples of Soto Zen in Japan. Kodo Sawaki was respected and admired throughout Japan for his simple and free life. Many disciples followed him, among them Yasuo Deshimaru. In 1965, when Kodo Sawaki was dying, he asked Deshimaru to follow him and pass on the original Zen in the Western world, the pure practice of shikantaza (“touching the truth while sitting”, Eihei Dogen), which was almost forgotten in the traditional temple system of that time.