Philip Kapleau

Philip Kapleau
School Zen Buddhism
Lineage Independent
Nationality American
Born (1912-08-20)August 20, 1912
New Haven, Connecticut, United States
Died May 6, 2004(2004-05-06) (aged 91)
Senior posting
Title Roshi
Predecessor Haku'un Yasutani
Successor Zenson Gifford Sensei, Albert Low, Mitra Bishop Sensei, Sunyana Graef Sensei, Danan Henry Sensei,
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, Sunya Kjolhede Sensei, Lawson Sachter Sensei

Philip Kapleau (August 20, 1912 – May 6, 2004) was a teacher of Zen Buddhism in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition, a blending of Japanese Sōtō and Rinzai schools.[1]

Early life

Kapleau was born in New Haven, Connecticut. As a teenager he worked as a bookkeeper. He briefly studied law and later became an accomplished court reporter. In 1945 he served as chief Allied court reporter for the "Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal", which judged the leaders of Nazi Germany. This was the first of the series commonly known as the Nuremberg Trials.

Kapleau later covered the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. While in Japan he became intrigued by and drawn to Zen Buddhism. During the tribunal he became acquainted with Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, then a prisoner at Sugamo Prison, who recommended that Kapleau attend informal lectures given by D.T. Suzuki in Kita-Kamakura.[2] After returning to America, Kapleau renewed his acquaintance with D.T. Suzuki who had left Kita-Kamakura to lecture on Zen at Columbia University. But disaffected with a primarily intellectual treatment of Zen, he moved to Japan in 1953 to seek Zen's deeper truth.

Zen training

He trained initially with Soen Nakagawa (1907–1984), then rigorously with Daiun Harada (1871–1961), at Hosshin-ji. Later he became a disciple of Haku'un Yasutani (1885–1973), himself a dharma heir of Harada.[3] After 13 years' training, Kapleau was ordained by Haku'un Yasutani in 1965 and given permission to teach. Kapleau ended his relationship with Yasutani formally in 1967 over disagreements about teaching and other personal issues.[4][5]

By Kapleau's own admission, he had not completed kōan study and had not gone further than the Blue Cliff Record, about one third of the kōans in the Yasutani Roshi curriculum.[6] The koan collections that Kapleau did not study include the Book of Serenity (sometimes called the Book of Equanimity), Transmission of the Lamp, The Five Ranks, and the Precept Koans of which there are more than 100. Kapleau passed the miscellaneous koans (about 50) the Mumonkan (96 koans including the verses) and the Blue Cliff Record (100) if he finished it. Yamada Roshi claims that Kapleau had not gone further than number 37 of the Blue Cliff Record. Kapleau claims otherwise. Kapleau is therefore an independent teacher who was not an official representative of the Yasutani lineage. The Kapleau lineage begins with him.[7]

Work and teaching

During a book tour in 1965 he was invited to teach meditation at a gathering in Rochester, New York. In 1966 he left Japan to create the Rochester Zen Center.[5]

For almost 40 years, Kapleau taught at the Center and in many other settings around the world, and provided his own dharma transmission to several disciples of both genders. He also introduced many modifications to the Japanese Zen tradition, such as chanting the Heart Sutra in the vernacular English in the U.S., or Polish at the Center he founded in Katowice. He often emphasized that Zen Buddhism adapted so readily to new cultures especially because it was not dependent upon a dogmatic external form. At the same time he recognized that it was not always easy to discern the form from the essence, and one had to be careful not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Throughout the 1970s Toni Packer accepted minor teaching positions at Rochester Zen Center. In 1981 she ran the Center in Kapleau's absence and was in line to be his successor. Packer left the Center shortly after Kapleau's return and ceased teaching Buddhism in a traditional manner.

Roshi Kapleau lived in Hollywood, FL for several years before returning to RZC.

He lived with Parkinson’s Disease for several years, and while his physical mobility was reduced, he enjoyed lively and trenchant interactions with a steady stream of visitors throughout his life. On May 6, 2004, he died peacefully in the backyard of the Rochester Zen Center, surrounded by many of his closest disciples and friends.


Kapleau transcribed other Zen teachers' talks, interviewed lay students and monks, and recorded the practical details of Zen Buddhist practice. His book, The Three Pillars of Zen, was published in 1965, has been translated into 12 languages, and is still in print.[8][9] It was one of the first English-language books to present Zen Buddhism not as philosophy, but as a pragmatic and salutary way of training and living.

Kapleau was an articulate and passionate writer. His emphasis in writing and teaching was that insight and enlightenment are available to anyone, not just austere and isolated Zen monks. Also well known for his views on vegetarianism, peace and compassion, he remains widely read, and is a notable influence on Zen Buddhism as it is practiced in the West. Today, his dharma heirs, descendants and former students teach at Zen Centers around the world.

Grist for the mill

A favorite saying of Philip Kapleau was "Grist for the mill" which means that all of our troubles and trials can be useful or contain some profit to us. In the spirit of this his gravestone is one of the mill-stones from Chapin Mill, the 135-acre (0.55 km2) Buddhist retreat center whose land was donated by a founding member of the Rochester Zen Center, Ralph Chapin.


Philip Kapleau appointed several successors, some of whom have also appointed successors or authorized teachers:[10]

  1. Bishop, Mitra (12 Apr 1941-). Founder and head of the Mountain Gate monastic center, NM and the Hidden Valley Zen Center, CA.
  2. Henry, Michael Danan (12 Nov 1939-). Also a teacher appointed by Robert Aitken. Teacher at the Denver Zen Center.
  3. Gifford, Dane Zenson (1949 - 2016). Former teacher at the Toronto Zen Centre, resigned after admitting to having multiple sexual relations with students at both the Toronto and Polish Zen Centres he taught at. He is accused of pursuing a 16-year-old female student at the Toronto Zen Centre.[11]
  4. Graef, Sunyana (1948-). Former teacher at the Toronto Zen Centre, head of the Vermont Center. Teacher at the Casa Zen in Costa Rica.
    1. Henderson, Taigen Sensei (1949-) Since 2005 Dharma Heir of Sunyana Graef and the abbot of the TZC. Teacher at the Toronto Zen Centre.
  5. Kjolhede, Peter Bodhin Roshi (1948-). Abbot at the Rochester Zen Center, Teacher at the Madison Zen Center, WI, US.
    1. Odland, Kanja Sensei (1963-). Ordained as a priest in 1999. In 2001 she was authorised to teach by Kjolhede roshi.
    2. Ross, Lanny Sevan Keido Sei'an Sensei (7 Sep 1951-). Also holds the Dharma Transmission in the Jiyu Kennett and Robert Aitken lineages bestowed on him in 2007 by James Zeno Myoun Ford Roshi. Former teacher at the Chicago Zen Center in Evanston, IL, US.
    3. Poromaa, Mikael Sante Sensei (1958-). Ordained as a Zen priest in 1991. Kjolhede roshi gave him sanction to teach in 1998. Teacher at the Stockholm Zen Center, Sweden and its affiliate Helsinki Zen Center, Finland.
    4. Wrightson, Charlotte Amala Sensei (1958-). Ordained as a Zen priest in 1999. Sanctioned to teach in 2004. Kjolhede roshi gave her Dharma Transmission in Feb 2012. Teacher at the Auckland Zen Center, New Zealand.
  6. Kjolhede, Sonja Sunya Sensei. Teacher at the Windhorse Zen Community, near Asheville, NC. Teacher at the Polish affiliate center (established by D. Gifford) of the Rochester Zen Center. Sister of Peter Kjolhede, wife of Lawson Sachter.
  7. Low, Albert (b. 1928). Teacher at the Montreal Zen Center
  8. Sachter, Lawson David Sensei. Teacher at the Windhorse Zen Community, near Asheville, NC. Husband of Sonja Kjolhede.

Two students ended their formal affiliation with Philip Kapleau, establishing independent teaching-careers:[10]

  1. Packer, Toni (1927-2013) Assistant teacher, gone independent. Teacher at Springwater Center (formerly named Genesee Valley Zen Center), Rochester.
  2. Clarke, Richard (31 Jan 1933-) A self-declared teacher. From 1967 to 1980 a student of Philip Kapleau, but neither ordained by P. Kapleau nor sanctioned by him to teach. In PK's opinion, RC has no basis for claiming any connection with Kapleau's Dharma heirship or lineage. Teacher at the Living Dharma Center, Amherst, MA and Coventry, CT


See also


  1. Philip Kapleau Biography from Buddhanet
  2. Albert Stunkard, "Philip Kapleau’s First Encounter with Zen", (Chapter 1) in Zen Teaching, Zen Practice: Philip Kapleau And The Three Pillars Of Zen, Weatherhill 2000, edited by Kenneth Kraft; ISBN 978-0834804401.
  3. Yasutani p. XXVI
  4. Sharf, Robert, H. (1995). "Sanbokyodan. Zen and the Way of the New Religions" (PDF). Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 22 (3-4): 446. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 25, 2000.
  5. 1 2 Ford p. 154
  6. Ford p. 155
  7. Ford p. 156
  8. Yasutani p. XXV
  9. "Zen Teaching, Zen Practice: Philip Kapleau and The Three Pillars of Zen". thezensite. Retrieved 25 July 2014. First published in 1965, it has not been out of print ever since, has been translated into ten languages and, perhaps most importantly, still inspires newcomers to take up the practice of Zen Buddhism.
  10. 1 2 Sanbo Kyodan: Harada-Yasutani School of Zen Buddhism and its Teachers
  11. Zen Master Laughing Cloud (2013). Taking the Buddha's Teaching. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.


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