Remembering Sojun Mel Weitsman

With great sadness, the sangha of the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) announces that Hakuryu Sojun Mel Weitsman peacefully passed from this world to the Pure Land of buddhas and ancestors at home on Thursday, January 7, 2021. He was 91 years old.

Hakuryu Sojun (“White Dragon/Essence of Purity”) Roshi’s clear and steady leadership made BZC a beacon for Buddhist practitioners and other spiritual seekers in California’s East Bay and more widely in the US. With a strong circle of dedicated Zen students and as guiding teacher and abbot at BZC for 53 years, Sojun created a place where rigorous daily sitting practice was integral with people’s life of family, work, and service. He often spoke of BZC as a kind of “one room schoolhouse,” where each person could find the necessary teachings for their position in life. Anyone could knock on Sojun’s office door, and he would readily invite them in.

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Born in Los Angeles in 1929, Sojun Roshi’s broad life experience included a stint in the Marines, years of art study and abstract expressionist painting, augmented by work as a house and boat painter, cab driver, and teacher. His life work was transformed when he met his teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He began his Zen practice at Suzuki Roshi’s San Francisco Zen Center in 1964, embracing the practice of zazen meditation and the task of sustaining the dharma of Zen.

At the instruction of Suzuki Roshi, Sojun founded Berkeley Zen Center in 1967. He was ordained a year later in the attic zendo he had established on Dwight Way in Berkeley. Suzuki Roshi died in 1971.  In 1984, Sojun received dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi’s son, Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi, abbot of Rinso-In Temple in Japan. Sojun Roshi was installed as BZC’s first abbot in 1985. In declining health, he stepped down as abbot in October 2020, assuming the position of Founding Dharma Teacher.

From 1988 to 1997, Sojun served as co-abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, helping to stabilize SFZC through a period of transition while still guiding Berkeley Zen Center. He continued as Senior Dharma Teacher at SFZC until his death. He was also one of the founding teachers of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and the American Zen Teacher’s Association.

Sojun Roshi was deeply respected in the Zen community—in the US and in Japan. His own warm embodiment of Suzuki Roshi’s “ordinary mind” was a path of steady and determined practice, the luminous quality of “nothing special.” Although Sojun had more than thirty transmitted dharma heirs leading Zen centers around the US, and more than 200 lay ordained Zen students, he was most at home in the community of Berkeley Zen Center, which continues to thrive.

Sojun Roshi is survived by his wife Elizabeth Horowitz, their son Daniel, and uncountable disciples and students across the United States and around the world. Cards and letters can be sent to Liz, Daniel, and the BZC sangha c/o Berkeley Zen Center, 1931 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94703.

—Hozan Alan Senauke
Acting Head Priest, BZC

The bulk of Sojun’s audio lectures are found at berkeleyzencenter.org/talks-2/.  Sojun Roshi’s forthcoming memoir and collection of lectures will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2021, as will a new collection of Suzuki Roshi lectures, edited by Sojun and Jiryu Rutschman-Byler. An additional archive is in process at the Asian Library at Stanford University.

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Original author: Alan Senauke
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