American-born and Japan-trained Zen monk Appointed as Head of Soto Zen North America

Daigaku RummeRoshi 2010 April

Daigaku Rumme Roshi, American-born and Japan-trained Zen monk is appointed as the General-Director of the Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office as of April 1. (Cultural News Photo)

The article is appeared in the Cultural News, 2010 May Issue

By Shige Higashi

For the first time in 90 years, the Japan-based Soto Zen Mission in North America receives an American-born and non-Japanese monk as head of the organization. Born as David Rumme into a Christian family in Iowa, Daigaku Rumme Roshi, who spent 27 years at one of most rigid Zen monasteries in Japan, was appointed the General-Director, or Sokan in Japanese, of the Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office, located at Zenshuji Soto Mission in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles. His appointment was officially made as of April 1.

Roshi is a Japanese honorific title used in Zen Buddhism that literally means “old teacher” or “elder master” and usually denotes the person who gives spiritual guidance to Zen monks. Despite the literal meaning, the title has nothing to do with the actual age of the individual who receives it and is used to indicate respect and veneration.

Prior to the Sokan appointment, Rumme Roshi served as Administrative Secretary of Soto Zen International Center, located at Sokoji Zen Temple in San Francisco, for seven years.

Daigaku Rumme was born in Mason City, Iowa in 1950. In 1961, at the age of 11, his family went to Japan because his father had been sent there as a Lutheran missionary.  He attended the American School in Japan, originally located in downtown Tokyo and later moved to Chofu, a suburb of Tokyo. The American School in Japan is one of the best-known international schools in Japan where children of American diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and missionaries are sent.

After graduation form the international high school in Tokyo, he returned to his home state, Iowa, and graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he majored in history and French.  He again returned to Japan in 1974, and in 1976 started his Zen monk training at the Hosshinji Monastery in Obama City, Fukui Prefecture.

The city name coincidentally has the same pronunciation as the current US President. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, a support committee for “Barak Obama for the US President” was spontaneously formed by people of Obama. That fact made headlines in newspapers several times in Japan.

On 1978, Daigaku Rumme was ordained a Soto monk by his master Sekkei Harada Roshi, head of Hosshinji Monastery. Harada Roshi, 84 years old, is not only a respected Zen master but also renowned as an author and speaker about Zen Buddhism. Rumme’s experiences for 27 years with Harada Roshi culminated in his English publication of The Essence of Zen, The Teachings of Sekkei Harada, which was published by Wisdom Publications in 2008.

At Hosshinji Temple in Obama, Daigaku Rumme took the part of translator for the other foreign trainees. The monastery had a most peaceful and tranquil atmosphere and was, therefore, quite conducive to traditional Zen training and for this reason attracted many foreigners.

After Harada Roshi was appointed to Sokan of the Soto Zen Buddhism Europe Office in 2002, Daigaku Rumme moved to San Francisco and served as Administrative Secretary at the Soto Zen Buddhism International Center from 2003 to 2010. Rumme Roshi is also known as a Japanese calligrapher and had art exhibitions in San Francisco.

In North America, there are currently five Japanese temples and more than 170 Zen centers which are run by American priests, as well as more than 350 registered American priests. The main tasks of the Soto Zen North America Office are to provide supports to American priests and guide them in Soto Zen tradition. Rumme Roshi says American priests tend to concentrate on Zazen (sitting meditation) more than Japanese priests and do not pay as much attention to the ceremonial ritual of Soto Zen.

When Gengo Akiba Roshi, previous Sokan of Soto Zen North America Office for 13 years before Rumme Roshi, observes Soto Zen in comparison with the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in North America, he says “We do not have a super monk like the Dalai Lama, but our local Zen centers across the nation are grass roots Buddhism.”

Soto Zen has been gaining numbers across racial and cultural boundaries since the 1960’s. But Soto Zen was first spread to North America by Japanese priests in the 1920’s to Japanese immigrants. Zenshuji Soto Mission, considered the flagship temple for Soto Zen in North America, was founded in 1922 and has served as a spiritual and culture center for the dominant Japanese-American memberships.

In addition to providing Buddhist services such as funerals and memorial services, Zenshuji has acted as a base for spreading traditional Japanese culture and entertainment as well as a place where people of Japanese ancestry  can take a break and relax.

The Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office was established in 1937 when the Zenshuji Soto Mission in Los Angeles was approved as a branch of  the Sotoshu’s two head temples, Eiheiji and Sojiji.

Following its establishment, the North America Office has performed a variety of activities including registration of temples and priests in North America, training sessions and workshops on rituals and ceremonies, sesshin’e (intensive day-and-night Zen meditation sessions), and support and guidance for memorial services.

Not only in the Soto Zen School but also in other Buddhism schools in North America, the dominant memberships of Japanese-Americans are decreasing quickly. The immediate task of most Japanese temples in general is keeping Japanese atmosphere while looking for ways to attract new members.

Globalization is inevitable even for the Soto Zen School of Japan. For the first time in 800 years, the Administration Office of the Soto Zen School provided an official three-month Zen monk training course outside of Japan. The Shuritsu Senmon Sodo (Soto School-sponsored exclusive Monk Training Site) took place from the middle of December 2009 through the middle of March 2010 at Yokoji Zen Temple, located in San Bernardino National Forest.

Akiba Roshi, who presided over the authentic Japanese Zen monk training, says “The program of the course is better than one in Japan, and the spirits of the 15 trainee monks from North America, South America, and Europe are especially high.”

Responsibilities such as presiding over authentic Soto Zen training course outside of Japan now is brought to the shoulders of Daigaku Rumme Roshi. The task of increasing the memberships of temples is an uphill climb for any of the Buddhist schools. The American-born and Japan-trained Zen monk will face a lot of challenges.

Shige Higashi is Publisher and Editor of Cultural News. Naomi Otani contributed to this text.