Taisen Deshimaru (1914-1982) grew up on the island of Kyushu. Unlike his master Kodo Sawaki, he had experienced a happy childhood. Nevertheless, the contradiction between his mother’s religious spirit and his father’s materialistic world preoccupied him from an early age. The Amida Buddhism practised by his mother satisfied him just as little as his later preoccupation with Christianity. In search of an authentic spiritual path, he finally met the Zen master Kodo Sawaki and became his disciple.
For 30 years, Taisen Deshimaru followed his master and practised with him until his death in 1965, while at the same time continuing his life in society. Kodo Sawaki had long rejected Deshimaru’s wish to be ordained as a monk. He recognised in him a true seeker of the Way and did not want him to become a professional monk in the traditional temple system, as is customary in Japan’s institutionalised Zen. It was only shortly before his own death, therefore, that Kodo Sawaki ordained him as a monk and asked him to plant living Zen in a fresh soil.
Two years later, Taisen Deshimaru accepted the invitation of a group of macrobiotics to come to Paris. He lived very simply, offered shiatsu massages, began to teach the practice of zazen and was soon able to open the first dojo. At that time, Zen was known in the West only to a minority of intellectuals from books. Deshimaru strove to make Zen accessible to everyone and made numerous contacts with well-known scientists, artists and politicians of his time.
During his fifteen years of teaching in Europe, Master Deshimaru founded over a hundred dojos and, with the help of his students, created the first great Zen temple in Europe, La Gendronnière, in France. Based on his teachings, fundamental Zen texts were translated into European languages for the first time, annotated and published. He received official confirmation of the Dharma transmission from Yamada Reirin, the abbot of Eihei-ji. In Japan, he was appointed kaikyosokan, the person responsible for the teachings in Europe.
Taisen Deshimaru brought the essence of Zen in all its freshness and originality to Europe and was therefore called the “Bodhidharma of modern times” in Japan. Following the tradition of the old masters, he knew how to make the authentic, traditional Zen teachings accessible to the Western mind. Through decades of practice with his master Kodo Sawaki, while at the same time leading a social life, Taisen Deshimaru succeeded in combining the material and the spiritual, the contrast of which had preoccupied him so much in his youth. This synthesis became the core of his teaching in Europe, where he found the ideal environment to spread a Zen that was rooted in everyday life and present in society. He often said: “Do not make a separation between the spiritual and the material. You must embrace the contradictions!”
It was Master Deshimaru’s great desire to help overcome the current crisis of civilisation by spreading the practice of Zen. He had a deep desire to help people today and to lead them to a deeper understanding of themselves and their lives through zazen. The summer practice periods, whose tradition goes back to Buddha Shakyamuni, thus enabled thousands of participants over time to experience authentic practice. Taisen Deshimaru died in Japan in 1982. His last words before leaving were, “Continue Zazen eternally!”