Kobun was born on February 1, 1938 in the small town of Kamo, Niigata Prefecture, in northwestern Japan, to a family from a long line of Soto Zen priests. The youngest of six children, he spent his childhood at the family temple, Jokoji. When he was eight years old his father died of cancer. It was
during a time when Japan had been devastated by the Second World War, and there were continuing food shortages. His mother somehow fed her family, sometimes cooking stems of pumpkin when the pumpkins were gone, and using plants foraged in the woods. Ordained at age thirteen, Kobun was adoopted at fourteen by Hozan Koei Chino, Roshi, whose temple, Kotaiji, was about a mile from Kobun's family temple. Chino Roshi, without heirs, trained Kobun so that, in the Japanese tradition, Kobun would inherit the abbacy of Kotaiji. Chino Roshi had a deep, resonant voice, and chanting, not zazen, was his main
practice. Kobun's training often took place as he followed his teacher through the fields as they walked to households in need of their ceremonies and prayers, chanting as they went. He received Dharma transmission from Koei Chino Roshi in Kamo in l962.
Kobun attended Komazawa University from 1957 to 1961 in Kyoto. From there he went on to Kyoto University from 1961 to 1965 for a degree in Mahayana Buddhism, where his masters thesis subject was a study of Mahayanasmgraha. In part he chose to study in Kyoto to be close to Kodo Sawaki Roshi, with whom he had sat sesshin since high school days. Sawaki Roshi strongly advocated revitalization of zazen
as the central practice of Soto Zen, a subject of particular interest to Kobun. During his years in Kyoto Kobun also trained in Kyudo with the archery master, Kanjuro Shibata Sensei. Also, from an early age, he was an intuitive and skilled calligrapher.
After university Kobun trained at Eiheiji monastery, for three years from 1965-1967. Toward the end of this time, he was asked to train incoming novices. He broke tradition by getting permission to put aside the kyosaku, the practice stick which had sometimes been misused as a tool for cruelly hazing young monks.
In 1967, while at Eiheiji, Kobun received a letter from Suzuki Roshi, who had been teaching in San Francisco since 1958, where he founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The letter was an invitation for Kobun to come to California to help establish Tassjara, the first Zen monastery in America. Kobun later said this was a dream come true for him. But when he asked his master's permission, Chino Roshi three times said "No." Ignoring ancient tradition, which required him to accept a third denial, Kobun took ship for San Francisco. This was 1967. He brought gifts from Eiheiji for the new monastery: A huge drum, a bell, and a mokugyo. (In the Tassajara fire of 1978 these gifts were destroyed. All that was left of the bell was a puddle of bronze.) He contributed many of the forms still in use today at Tassajara and San Francisco Zen Center, among them the sounding of the han, the drum, the bells, and the taking of meals in formal oryoki style. He was a resident priest at Tassajara until 1969. "I don't think people realize how important he was in establishing Tassajara Zen Center," says Bob Watkins, who studied with Kobun for thirty-five years. "There were only a handful of us there at the time, sitting on army blankets in the old building we used as a zendo. "In the beginning Kobun taught us everything: How to put the zendo together, breathing, posture, how to do oryoki meals in Navy surplus bowls."
Haiku Zendo, a suburban offshoot of San Francisco Zen Center, was created in Los Altos, California, in 1966. Suzuki Roshi, and later Katagiri Roshi, traveled the 30 miles from San Francisco to lecture and teach there. In 1967 this sangha raised the funds for Kobun's journey to America, with the idea that he would become their resident teacher. Suzuki Roshi, however, first needed Kobun at Tassajara, so it wasn't until 1970 that Kobun became the resident teacher at Haiku Zendo. This small zendo was a remodeled garage with seventeen seats. Located at the home of Marion Derby, who later moved to Tassajara, it was then purchased and maintained by Les Kaye and his family. Kobun and his new wife Harriet soon moved into a house one block away. The interior of the zendo had an authentic, Japanese feeling, having been constructed with carefully chosen materials and designed with a raised sitting platform. It was eventually too small for the sangha which grew rapidly under Kobun's guidance.
His style was informal. He preferred to be called Kobun, not "Sensei," and never "Roshi," and he encouraged his students to think of him as their friend rather than their master. His unpredictable and subtle style resonated with the times as he emphasized life-in-the-world, encouraging his students to marry and have children. During those early days he was almost always available to his students, night and day, even after his two children were born, Taido in October, 1971, Yoshiko in May, 1973.
Kobun gave workshops and courses through Stanford University, Foothill College, and U. C. Santa Cruz. The course Kobun taught at Stanford, offered through an extended education program open to the entire community, was called The Roots of Zen, and focused on Indian Madhyamika and Yogachara philosopies. He was also, after Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971, on call to San Francisco Zen Center, helping Baker Roshi with teaching the forms of Zen, including instructions for ceremonies, translations of chants and sutras, funerals, and ordinations. Kobun also did the calligraphy on Zen Center rakusus and on stupas marking ashes burial sites.
During this time, too, Kobun became a close personal friend of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had made a pact with Suzuki Roshi to establish a Buddhist university in the United States. After Suzuki Roshi passed away, Trungpa Rinpoche asked for Kobun's help in establishing his vision in Colorado. He needed Kobun to help instruct his students in zazen, drumming, bowing, oryoki, and calligraphy. Kobun introduced Rinpoche to Shibata Sensei, and that relationship became the source of kyudo practice in the Shambala tradition, still led by Shibata Sensei today. Kobun taught at the inaugural summer sesshion of Naropa in 1974 and returned to what is now Shambala Mountain Center and Naropa University every year to teach and lead sesshins.
The Santa Cruz Zen Center was founded in 1971 by Kobun and local students, with Jim Goodhue as the first director. Kobun led sitting practice and lectured every week in Santa Cruz for over ten years. He also helped found Spring Mountain in Mendocino County north of San Francisco in the early 1970s. A small residential community, it underwent several transformations in the Ukiah area, until practice there came to an end in the 1980's.
Trout Black, Stephan Bodian, Buff Bradley, Elmer Caruso (who headed the Spring Mountain effort), Jerry Halpern, and Phil Olsen were among the first monks ordained by Kobun, in the early 1970s. Four seven-day sesshins a year and many weekend and one day sittings were held in a youth hostel a few miles from Haiku zendo on the Duveneck ranch, Hidden Villa, in Los Altos Hills. After a few years of hauling cushions, food, mats, tan and pots back and forth, the sangha decided to look for a permanent place to practice. The sangha was incorporated in the State of California as Bodhi. At Kobun's suggestion, it was stated in the bylaws that all beings are members of this sangha. Funds were raised while several practice sites were being considered. Eventually the sangha decided to buy both an urban city property and one in the Santa Cruz mountains. The city center, Kannon-do, was established in Mountain View with Keido Les Kaye as chief priest, who was recognized in 1986 as a Zen teacher and dharma heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki.
Kobun named the site in the mountains Jikoji, meaning Compassion Light Temple. His elder brother, Keibun, abbot of the family temple in Japan, came to America to inaugurate the new temple with a Dai Segaki, a Hungry Ghost Ceremony, in 1982.
Kobun and his wife, Harriet, separated in the late 1970's and finally divorced in the 1980's. Kobun helpled Harriet move with the children to Little Rock, Arkansas where she had family roots and could continue her graduate education in nursing. Missing them greatly, he wanted to be within at least one day's driving distance of his children. Taos, New Mexico, in the American Southwest, met the requirement, so he settled there, and his children visited him on school vacations. At that time, Kobun's student, Bob Watkins, was looking for land on which to create a small monastery. A property was found under the brow of El Salto mountain, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, in the Sangre de Christo mountains near Taos. It included a small adobe house and a garage that could be converted into a small zendo. Kobun named it Hokoji, founded in 1983. He translated the name as Phoenix Light Temple. Hokoji can also be translated as Wisdom Light Temple. For the past 10 years, Stanley White has been holding the position of Osho or head priest. Here, Zazen pratice on a daily basis and regular sesshins have been going on for over 25 years by now. In 1984 Kobun himself bought a piece of property down the road from the zendo, and began to build a house in the forest, a coiling dragon of embedded colored stones encircling its foundation. Meanwhile he rented a house in Taos, which he named Saiho-in, after the dharma name of his close friend and companion, Stephanie Sirgo. Kobun returned often from Taos to California to lead sesshins at Jikoji.
Kobun began to be known as a traveling teacher as he divided his time among Jikoji, Hokoji, and Shambala sanghas in the United States. Late in the 1980s he began visiting Europe to help friend and former student from Tassajara, Vanja Palmers, who was leading groups of Zen students in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Over the course of 15 years, Kobun helped Vanja lead sesshins and they taught and ordained many students together. With his help and encouragement, Vanja and his European Zen friends established several new centers, particularly Felsentor and Puregg. In 1991 Vanja received Dharma Transmission from Kobun. During this time Kobun also met his future wife, Katrin, at Puregg.
Because Kobun's former master, Chino Roshi, had realized that Kobun would never return to Kotaiji, Chinos temple in Japan, he formally separated from Kobun. Kobun was then re-adopted into the Otogawa lineage and took his original family name. Consequently his first two children have the surname Chino, while his second family has the name Otogawa. In the 1990s, long since reconciled with his master, Kobun met the monk whom Chino Roshi had adopted to inherit the temple in his place. He said, "Now I have a little Dharma brother in Japan who is taking care of my master. It feels very good... Togo is his name. Togo means satori."
Kobun and Katrin moved to Santa Cruz in the 1990's where they lived with their three children, Maya, Tatsuko, and Alyosha in a home Kobun named Raigho-in. It was a centuries-old style Japanese farmhouse newly built and owned by Ken Wing and Hollis DeLancy. They had helped support Jikoji and Kobun for many years, and had hosted him on trips to Japan, India, and elsewhere.
After his divorce from Harriet, Kobun, while he continued to sit zazen with his students, considered himself in retreat from formal teaching. But after the birth of Alyosha, his third child with Katrin, he came out
of retreat to teach again. This motivated a move to Colorado, where he was offered a position on the Naropa faculty. The family lived at Shambala and Kobun commuted to his classes at Naropa. In 2000 he was appointed to the World Wisdom Chair.
Martin Mosko, a landscape architect and garden designer based in Boulder was a long time student and friend of Kobun. Martin also trained with Kobun's brother, Hojosama Keibun Otogawa, abbot of the family
temple, and received dharma transmission from him. In 2001 Kobun consecrated a Zen center and garden Martin had created as Hakubai Temple. Martin Hakubai Mosko was installed as abbot in a Mountain Seat Ceremony in the Spring of 2004.
By 2000, Kobun had given the precepts to over one hundred students. Most of the ceremonies were Zuike Tokudo, or lay ordination. Several were Shukke Tokudo, or novice priest ordinations.
On July 26, 2002, Kobun drowned in Vanja’s swimming pond in Switzerland while trying to rescue his five-year-old daughter Maya, who also drowned. Following Kobun's death, Vanja Palmers, as his most senior heir, completed transmission for Angie Boissevain, Caroline Atkinson, Jean Leyshon, Bob Watkins, and later, Michael Newhall, the current Resident Teacher at Jikoji. He also transmitted the dharma to Ian Forsberg in Taos. Angie Boissevain had served as Director of Jikoji under Kobun for almost two decades, and began teaching with his encouragement. She now leads the Floating Zendo in San Jose. Carolyn Atkinson founded and leads the Everyday Dharma Zen Center in Santa Cruz. Both Ian and Jean are active at Hokoji, each leading at least one yearly sesshin, and also traveling to lead sesshins at other centers.
Jerry Halpern, wrote, "Possibly Kobun's finest quality as a teacher was that he required his students to live their own lives, and he encouraged them to become free to do so."