Parliament of the World's Religions

Zen Buddhist spiritual teachers from America

EN English English

Origin of Zen Buddhism in America

Although it is difficult to trace the precise moment when America first became aware of as a distinct form of Buddhism, the visit of Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen monk, to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 is often pointed to as an event that enhanced the profile of Zen in the Western world.

It was during the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the number of Westerners other than the descendants of Asian immigrants who were pursuing a serious interest in Zen began to reach a significant level.

Japanese Zen has gained the greatest popularity in America. The various books on Zen by Reginald Horace Blyth, Alan Watts, Philip Kapleau and D. T. Suzuki published between 1950 and 1975, contributed to this growing interest in Zen in the West, as did the interest on the part of beat poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.

In 1958, the literary magazine Chicago Review played a significant role in introducing Zen to the American literary community when it published a special issue on Zen featuring the aforementioned beat poets and works in translation.

The spread Zen Buddhism in America

The publication – in 1974 – of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by American writer Robert M Persig brought the application of Zen thinking into a way of understanding non dualism in a practical sense.

Drawing on a wide range of philosophical and logical sources, the book became the biggest selling work on philosophy ever published.

Zen Buddhist teachers from America

This is a non-exhaustive list of influential Zen Buddhist spiritual teachers from America.

Roshi Joan Halifax

is an American Zen Buddhist teacher, anthropologist, ecologist, civil rights activist, hospice caregiver, and the author of several books on Buddhism and spirituality. She currently serves as abbot and guiding teacher of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a Zen Peacemaker community which she founded in 1990. Halifax-roshi has received Dharma transmission from both Bernard Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh, and previously studied with the Korean master Seung Sahn. In the 1970s she collaborated on LSD research projects with her ex-husband Stanislav Grof, in addition to other collaborative efforts with Joseph Campbell and Alan Lomax. She is founder of the Ojai Foundation in California, which she led from 1979 to 1989. As a socially engaged Buddhist, Halifax has done extensive work with the dying through her Project on Being with Dying. She is on the board of directors of the Mind and Life Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the relationship of science and Buddhism.

David Loy

David Loy

David Robert Loy, a distinguished professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition, is renowned for his profound insights into Buddhism’s relevance in modern society. With a prolific literary output, Loy’s works have been translated into numerous languages, gracing the pages of esteemed journals like Tikkun and prominent Buddhist publications such as Tricycle, Lion’s Roar, and Buddhadharma. His expertise extends to advisory roles in organizations like Buddhist Global Relief and Zen Peacemakers.

Loy’s lectures traverse the intersection of Buddhism and contemporary challenges, emphasizing the imperative of individual awakening for social transformation. His compelling discourse on “Healing Ecology: A Buddhist Perspective on the Eco-crisis” draws parallels between personal and collective predicaments, shedding light on pressing ecological concerns. Additionally, he champions Ecodharma through talks, workshops, and his 2019 book, advocating Buddhist teachings as a remedy for the ecological crisis.

Beyond academia, Loy’s activism is evident in his principled stance on fossil fuel divestment and his involvement in founding the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center. Through his scholarship and engagement, Loy continues to inspire profound reflections on the interconnectedness of self, society, and the environment.

Brad Warner

is an American Sōtō Zen monk, author, blogger, documentarian and punk rock bass guitarist.

He began practicing Zen Buddhism under his first teacher, Tim McCarthy.

Warner later studied with Gyomay Kubose.

While in Japan, he met and trained with Gudo Wafu Nishijima, a student of Rempo Niwa Zenji, who ordained him as a priest and named him as his dharma heir in 2000.

Also in 2007, Gudo Wafu Nishijima named Warner the leader of Dogen Sangha International which Nishijima had founded. Warner dissolved the organization in April 2012.

In 2012, Warner moved to California and started Dogen Sangha Los Angeles.

Claude AnShin Thomas

is an American Zen Buddhist monk and Vietnam War veteran. He is an international speaker, teacher and writer, and an advocate of non-violence. Thomas was brought to Buddhism by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and was ordained in 1995 by Tetsugen Bernard Glassman of the Zen Peacemaker Order. Thomas teaches Buddhist meditation practice and dharma to the public through social projects, talks, and retreats. Since 1994, Thomas has walked 19,000 miles (31,000 km) on peace pilgrimages throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States. While walking, Thomas carries no money, and begs for food and shelter in the mendicant monk tradition. He is the author of At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace (2004) and founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence.

Robert Baker Aitken

Robert Baker Dairyu Chotan Aitken Rōshi was a Zen teacher in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He co-founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in 1959 together with his wife, Anne Hopkins Aitken. Aitken received Dharma transmission from Koun Yamada in 1985 but decided to live as a layperson. He was a socialist advocating social justice for gays, women and Native Hawaiians throughout his life, and was one of the original founders of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Caitriona Reed

is a trans woman sensei of Thiền Zen Buddhism who also has a background in Vipassanā meditation. She co-founded Ordinary Dharma in Los Angeles, California; the rural Manzanita Village Retreat Center, located in San Diego County; and Five Changes, to mentor aspiring leaders, cultural creatives, and spiritual visionaries. Reed, a member of the American Zen Teachers Association, led retreats and workshops in Vipassana, Deep Ecology, and Buddhism 1981–2008. She received authority to teach Zen from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992.

Dennis Merzel

is an American Zen and spirituality teacher, also known as Genpo Merzel.

Kurt Kankan Spellmeyer

Kurt Spellmeyer is a Zen teacher and professor in the English Department at Rutgers University.

Wu Kwang

Soen Sa Nim (1950–present), born Richard Shrobe, is head Zen teacher at Chogye International Zen Center of New York, a practice center of the Kwan Um School of Zen. Before coming to Zen practice Richard studied Hinduism under Swami Satchidananda. He is a social worker who incorporates Gestalt therapy in his counseling. In 1975 Wu Kwang began his Zen practice and received Dharma transmission from Seung Sahn in 1993. He is also a jazz musician.

Angel Kyodo Williams

is a writer, activist, ordained Zen priest and the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, published by Viking Press in 2000, and the co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, published by North Atlantic Books. Called “the most vocal and most intriguing African-American Buddhist in America” by Library Journal, Williams is the Spiritual Director of the meditation-based newDharma Community and founder of the Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley, California and is also credited with developing fearlessMeditation, fearlessYoga and Warrior Spirit Training. As of October 2013, she is the world’s 2nd female Zen teacher of African descent. Her given Buddhist name, Kyodo, means “Way of Teaching.”

Joan Iten Sutherland

Joan Sutherland is a senior teacher (Roshi) of Zen Buddhism and the founder of The Open Source, a network of Zen Buddhist practice communities in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she teaches through Awakened Life, the center of The Open Source. Awakened Life emphasizes non-hierarchical co-creation, the development of authentic American expressions of Zen, and the confluence of koans and creativity. Joan Sutherland is engaged in an intensive re-imagining of the koan tradition. She teaches frequent meditation and koan retreats as well as other innovative programs, such as artists’ retreats and retreats devoted to the practices of sleeping and dreaming; she holds a weekly koan salon, the first program of its kind anywhere. She is regularly invited to teach in other venues around the country. She is a writer whose work appears regularly in Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma, and has often been included in Shambhala’s annual Best Buddhist Writing anthologies. A translator from Chinese and Japanese, she is currently under contract with Wisdom Books to produce, with John Tarrant, a new translation of the major Chinese koan collections.

John Tarrant (Zen Buddhist)

The Pacific Zen Institute (PZI), is a Zen Buddhist practice center in Santa Rosa, California. Established in 1999, it has several affiliate centers in the lineage of John Tarrant, a dharma heir of , and formerly of the Sanbo Kyodan school of Zen.

Judith Roitman

Judith “Judy” Roitman is a mathematician, a retired professor at the University of Kansas. She specializes in set theory, topology, Boolean algebras, and mathematics education.

Samuel L. Lewis

also known as Murshid Samuel Lewis and Sufi Ahmed Murad Chisti was an American mystic and horticultural scientist who founded what became the Sufi Ruhaniat International, a branch of the Chishtia Sufi lineage. After a lifetime of spiritual study with teachers East and West, primarily Inayat Khan and Nyogen Senzaki, Lewis was recognized simultaneously as a Zen master and Sufi murshid by Eastern representatives of the two traditions. He also co-founded the Christian mystical order called the Holy Order of Mans. His early interest in international seed exchange and organic agriculture also established him as one of the pioneers of green spirituality. His most enduring legacy may be the creation of the Dances of Universal Peace, an early interspiritual practice that has spread around the world in the 50 years since his passing.

Stanley Lombardo

Stanley F. “Stan” Lombardo is an American Classicist, and former professor of Classics at the University of Kansas.

Leave a Reply

Related posts

Memorial Portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige

Honorific Japanese Buddhist titles

Buddhism has been practiced in Japan since about the 6th century CE. Japanese Buddhism created many new Buddhist schools, and some schools are original to Japan and some are derived from Chinese Buddhist schools. There were a broad range of reform strategies and movements which aimed at positioning Buddhism as a useful partner to a modernizing Japan. This included clerical reform to tighten discipline as well as reforms concerning doctrine and practice. Some Buddhists .
Engaku-ji, a building with old-style katōmado

Japanese Buddhist architectonic solutions

Japanese Buddhist architecture is the architecture of Buddhist temples in Japan, consisting of locally developed variants of architectural styles born in China. After Buddhism arrived the continent via Three Kingdoms of Korea in the 6th century, an effort was initially made to reproduce original buildings as faithfully as possible, but gradually local versions of continental styles were developed both to meet Japanese tastes and to solve problems posed by local weather, which is more .
Bodhidharma with Dazu Huike. Painting by Sesshū Tōyō, 15th century.

Chan Buddhist monks – The spirit of the Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma was a semi-legendary Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Buddhism to China, and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin kungfu. The Chan ( in Japanese) school of Chinese Buddhism began when, in the 7th century, a small religious community gathered .
Thích Nhất Hạnh leading a namo avalokiteshvaraya chanting session

The most prominent Zen Buddhist spiritual teachers

is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, known as the Chan School, and later developed into various sub-schools and branches. From China, Chán spread south to Vietnam and became Vietnamese Thiền, northeast to Korea to become Seon Buddhism, and east to Japan, becoming Japanese Zen. Zen teachers often promote diaphragmatic breathing, stating that the breath must come from the lower abdomen (known as hara or tanden in .

Soto Zen – The largest Japanese Zen school

Sōtō or the Sōtō school is the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism. It is the Japanese line of the Chinese Cáodòng school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Dòngshān Liánjiè. It emphasizes Shikantaza, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. The Japanese brand of the .
Taizan Maezumi

The most prominent Sōtō Zen Buddhists around the world

Sōtō or the Sōtō school is the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism. It is the Japanese line of the Chinese Cáodòng school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Dòngshān Liánjiè. It emphasizes Shikantaza, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. With about 14,000 temples, Sōtō .
An illustration of Hōnen preaching

Zen Buddhist monks – The unchanging essential nature

According to tradition, Chan was introduced around 500 CE by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk teaching dhyāna. is deeply rooted in the teachings and doctrines of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism teaches śūnyatā, "emptiness", which is also emphasized by Zen. But another important doctrine is the buddha-nature, the idea that all human beings have the possibility to awaken. All living creatures are supposed to have the Buddha-nature, but don't realize this as long as they are not .
Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, Asalha Puja 2014

The most prominent American Zen Buddhists

was introduced in the United States at the end of the 19th century by Japanese teachers who went to America to serve groups of Japanese immigrants and become acquainted with the American culture. Though its origins are distant, today there are plenty of prominent American Zen .