Buddhism was discovered in the West in the 19th century and, from then on, it aroused great interest. It was the birth of Buddhist study, of the first translations and the passion of certain intellectual circles. Zen tradition was made known a little later by the works of Daisetz Suzuki, who had a great influence before and after the Second World War. However, his approach was essentially intellectual and concerned more the Rinzai tradition. Sôtô Zen practice was spread in the West in the 1960s, first in the USA, then in Europe with the arrival of Master Taisen Deshimaru in Paris in 1967.
The Reverend Taisen Deshimaru (Yasuo was his given first name) was born in 1914 near the town of Saga, on the isle of Kyushu. His father ran the local fisherman’s trade union. His mother was a fervent practitioner of Jôdô Shinshu Buddhism (the Pure Land School), founded by Shinran; she passed on her faith in the teachings of this school to him. He was also influenced by the spirit of bushido that was prevalent in Japan at that time, especially in the town of Saga, an important spiritual place for the samurai.
In 1935, while studying Economics in Tokyo, he began practicing Sôtô Zen with Kodo Sawaki Roshi, one of the great Zen masters of the twentieth century, who was godo (instructor of monks in the dojo) of Sojiji temple, one of the two main temples of the Soto School. He wanted to become a monk but Sawaki Roshi encouraged him to remain a lay practitioner, which he did for the next thirty years. During the war, discharged because of his myopia, he spent several years in Indonesia where he would later return.
In 1965, just before his death, Kodo Sawaki ordained him a monk. Taisen Deshimaru felt he had thus resolved the contradictions he had experienced between the material and spiritual aspects of life and between the teachings of Shinshu and Zen.
In 1967, he was invited by a group of French macrobiotics to France. There, he committed himself totally to the teaching of zazen and of the Zen tradition. It was the right moment and his mission quickly made a big impression. Within a few years, he had done numerous talks and practice sessions, translated basic Zen texts, published written works, and created the European Zen Association (which would become “International”); the number of disciples increased and he founded many places of practice. He received Dharma transmission from Yamada Reirin Roshi in 1970, and was nominated Kaikyosokan (head of missionary activity) for Europe in 1976.
From then on, the scale of his missionary work got larger and larger, and lead to the creation of the Gendronnière temple in 1979. At the same time, the increasing number of disciples, introducing and adapting the tradition, managing the whole association, required more and more work. He wanted to bring over other Japanese teachers to assist him, but he fell ill in 1981. Taisen Deshimaru Roshi died of cancer on 30th April 1982 in Tokyo.
Blessed with extraordinary energy, Taisen Deshimaru Roshi was animated by an unwavering faith in zazen practice, in the pure teachings of the buddhas and patriarchs, and in the importance of this practice and teaching for the coming civilisation. Although he did not nominate a successor or give the official transmission (shiho), he transmitted this faith to many of the disciples he had trained, some of whom he designated as future masters.
Taisen Deshimaru was the founder of Zen in Europe and thus firmly planted the living tradition of Zen in fresh soil.