Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen and founder of the Rochester Zen Center in upstate New York, died on May 6, 2004 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He died in the sunlit garden of the Zen Center surrounded by his students, family, and friends.
Philip Kapleau was born in 1912 to a working class family in New Haven, Connecticut. As a young man he studied law and became a court reporter, serving for many years in the state and federal courts of Connecticut. He recorded trials of increasing importance and was selected in 1945 to serve as chief court reporter for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and later covered the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Months of recording the minutiae of the atrocities of World War II affected him deeply and awakened a spiritual longing that shaped the remainder of his life.
While in Japan he became interested in Zen Buddhism and sought out Dr. D.T. Suzuki and other Zen teachers. Returning to New York in 1950, he studied Buddhist philosophy with Dr. Suzuki, who was then teaching at Columbia University, but a purely intellectual approach did not satisfy his desire for a deeper understanding.
In 1953 he sold his court reporting business and moved to a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan.
Philip Kapleau spent the next thirteen years undergoing rigorous Zen training under three Japanese Zen masters before being ordained by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi in 1965. During this time he put his writing and court reporter skills to work, transcribing Zen teachers’ talks, interviewing lay students and monks, and recording the practical details of Zen Buddhist practice. He was the first Westerner allowed to observe and record dokusan, the private interviews between a Zen teacher and student. The resulting book, The Three Pillars of Zen, was published in 1965 and quickly became the standard introductory text on Zen practice. It is still in print and has been translated into twelve languages.
During Philip Kapleau’s book tour in 1965 Dorris Carlson, wife of Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, invited him to visit her small meditation group in Rochester, New York. In June 1966, with the support of the Carlsons, he founded the Rochester Zen Center.
In addition to The Three Pillars of Zen, Kapleau’s other books include The Zen of Living and Dying, Zen: Merging of East and West, To Cherish All Life, Awakening to Zen, and Straight to the Heart of Zen.