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Soyen Shaku was the first Zen Buddhist master to teach in the United States. He was a Roshi of the Rinzai school and was abbot of both Kenchō-ji and Engaku-ji temples in Kamakura, Japan. Shaku was a disciple of Imakita Kosen.
Soyen Shaku was an exceptional Zen monk. He gained notoriety not only as a teacher in the Rinzai denomination of Zen and Abbot of the Engakuji monastery, but through his role of chief of the Japanese delegation in the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Certainly he was not one of those who merely followed the traditional attitudes. He was a graduate of Keio Gijiku, now Keio University, which had been established by Ukichi Fukuzawa, on his return from America in 1866, as a school for the study of western culture and learning.
Soyen had been sent to Keio Gijiku by his teacher Kosen, who seems early to have recognized the genius of his disciple and to have foreseen the influence he was destined to wield in the world of modern Zen. So during the early years of Meiji, while other Buddhists were sleeping comfortably pillowed on the customs of the feudal period, Soyen was studying western thought and culture. Later, in 1887, when he was twenty-nine years old, he was sent to India to complete his education with the study of Sanskrit. Here we must not forget that his teacher Kosen was also an unusual man in that he chose for his disciple an education which was both modern and ancient.
In 1893, the year following the death of his teacher, Kosen, Soyen was invited to attend the World's Parliament of Religions to be held at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1905,Soyen Shaku returned to America as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Russell. He spent nine months at their house outside San Francisco, teaching the entire household Zen. Mrs. Russell was the first American to study koans. Shortly after arriving, he was joined by his student Nyogen Senzaki. During this time he also gave lectures, some to Japanese immigrants and some translated by D. T. Suzuki for English speaking audiences, around California. Following a March 1906 train trip across the United States, giving talks on Mahayana translated by Suzuki, Soyenreturned to Japan via Europe, India and Ceylon.
Soyen Shaku died peacefully on 29 October 1919 in Kamakura.