a father’s legacy

Part 3 of some reflections on my father (Part 1, Part 2). If you were frustrated by having to read it in five-hundred word segments (apparently the upper limit of what folks can read in one sitting these days), the whole thing can be read HERE.


These remembrances provide small glimpses into who my father was in the quieter “joys” of his every day life. In his study, he was able to pursue his curiosity as well as his creativity. Through his cooking, he expressed his routine daily care for the people in his life. Wandering the mountains, he was free to enjoy the beauty and majesty that a moment-in-time can afford. These things have become his legacy to me. While his joys remained a secret to me for a long time, it was not because they weren’t there to be recognized. The problem was my inability to recognize them. I have only recently been able to discover these things to be true about him through my recognition of the way these same pursuits have “charmed” me.

I suppose this means that I have now come full-circle (which I understand is a very Zen thing to do), in that I no longer strive to be unlike my father. I am growing in my recognition that while we are all tragically flawed in various ways, there is also much that is wonderful in each of us. One of the unfortunate consequences of focusing exclusively on the negative is that we miss out on the opportunity to embrace all that is good.

The Christian tradition of which I am a part makes much of the notion of grace. Indeed, many would say that it lies at the very heart of Christian teaching. That somehow, in and through the Christ, we can discover forgiveness for all the pain and suffering we inflict on others as a result of our brokenness and selfishness. It was this idea of forgiveness that drew me to Christianity over twenty years ago.

And yet, in the last decade this theological tenet has shifted from simply being an idea that is endorsed to a reality that is experienced. Through my openness to living in that grace-filled reality, I have come to recognize that my father is just like the rest of us. He (and I) are broken human beings in need of grace and forgiveness. And as much my father is in me, when I extend grace to him I discover that I am likewise extending it to myself.

“He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”
Malachi 4:6


Much like the essay, the time spent at the memorial weekend was irenic. I don’t know why I would have expected anything less. Buddhists are sort of known for being peaceable enough folks. Even though I hadn’t seen some of these people in thirty years, I was surprised with how easily names and faces came flooding back to me. New friends were made. Old friendships were rediscovered. But mainly, I was grateful for the rare and wonderful opportunity to – in a way – go back in time and see familiar people and places with different eyes. Hopefully, these eyes have grown to be a little more humble, more understanding, and more appreciative. And hopefully, seeing the world this way will become my new “normal.”

Ok, that’s a whole lot of personal out there. Don’t be expecting this to become a regular thing around here. Much more of this and I’ll be needing a Xanax prescription. Thanks for taking the time to read. Hopefully, it was a window into who my father was… and who I am becoming.

a sensei’s life

We’re back with Part 2 (out of three) of my reflections on my father. I should mention that this was written for a mostly Buddhist audience, which is why a few of the terms will likely be unfamiliar to you. I’ll save you the trouble of Googl-ing them for yourself.


My father had a study in his home. Actually, I believe it was more of a large closet that was converted into a study. Inside the small room a zabuton and zafu were positioned in front of a low table. On and around the table were a collection of writing supplies, brushes, inks, paper, and lamps. But what dominated the space were his books. He had what seemed like thousands of books arranged in stacks, placed on shelves, resting on the table and under the table. There probably was a system, but it remained a mystery to anyone other than himself.

This small room was simultaneously his private zendo, library and art studio. And while he didn’t stay in permanent seclusion, it was not uncommon to find him toiling away over parchment, painting or tome at any time of day (or more often night). I used to think it strange that he would spend so much time cloistered away. Now I understand that there was something sacred about that tiny sanctuary, and I find myself attempting to re-create similar rhythms and spaces, hoping to find a small place of respite inside an otherwise busy home and an otherwise busy life.

If he wasn’t in the study, the next most likely place to find him was in the kitchen. He gave careful attention to the preparation of food and was a remarkably adept cook. Much like his religious beliefs, he took the cuisine of his ancestral heritage and adapted it for a new cultural setting. Rice was a non-negotiable, but it was always served with some other traditional Japanese dish that typically included some of his own improvisations.

Of all the food items he prepared, the “rice-ball” will be the one that remains forever etched into my memory. It’s simplicity, portability, and novelty has no rival. Anytime I was traveling some distance, without fail he would send with me a couple of seaweed wrapped balls of rice that were slightly larger than my fist. Which Japanese pickle I might find pressed into the center of this ball was always a surprise, but the pungent flavor of the umeboshi was undoubtedly my favorite.

While I believe he found great pleasure in giving himself to the mysterious intermingling of truth, beauty, routine service and compassion that was to be found in the study and kitchen, he seemed most at home with himself when he was outside enjoying nature. It mattered little if he were spending a couple hours (or nights) bivouacked by his perpetually under-construction house, wandering the slopes of El Salto, or gracefully gliding down the snow covered mountainside. There was something about being close to creation that breathed life into him.

While my father enjoyed interacting with people in certain times and places, truth be told I think he found verbal communication taxing. He could be wonderfully clever and profoundly ambiguous all within the same breath, but in day-to-day life he could allow hours to pass with little to no talking. Indoors, silence can be strange. But under a canopy of trees, with the soft earth underfoot, being quiet seems the normal thing to do. Which is perhaps why he seemed more at home and more himself when he was outside.

“The joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears.”
Francis Bacon

Remembering Kobun

Some months prior to the ten-year memorial, my father’s dharma heir (spiritual successor) encouraged me to write a contribution to a collection of essays about my father that they were planning to make into a book. Reluctantly I told him I would, but I knew that writing it would be no easy task. I was right.

Despite its brevity – maybe a couple of typed pages – it took what seemed like days to put it together. The difficulty wasn’t so much that it was gut-wrenching (I don’t do personal, and I don’t do gut-wrenching), but because finding the right things to say proved to be immensely challenging. However, through a sheer act of will, I managed to gather some thoughts that I felt were honoring and honest and clicked ‘send.’

Unsurprisingly, when I arrived at the memorial several months later, there were boxes of modest blue books entitled appropriately enough Remembering Kobun. Here’s what I remembered…


Sons have always a rebellious wish to be disillusioned by that which charmed their fathers.”
Aldous Huxley

Like many young men who find themselves struggling to come into their own, I can remember making a commitment early in life to be nothing like my father. The list of things I intended to reject was a long one. I wanted none of his flaws, his temperament, his beliefs, his failures, his demons. So with reckless abandon, I attempted to purge all that was “Kobun” inside of me.

Yet, the passing years have confronted me with the truth that most adult children are forced to come to terms with eventually.

We are our parents.

And with the same inevitability as the downhill flow of water, it seems that each year takes me one step closer to resembling him, and not just in the face. In fact, the likeness may be least of all in physical appearance. Rather, it has been those characteristics that lie beneath the skin, and yet are so unmistakably recognizable, in which the similarity between father and son is most pronounced.

The more vivid memories of life with my father come from my adolescence during which time he was living in Taos. Every year, I would spend a number of weeks with him filled with leisurely days generally unstrained by his need to fulfill public expectations. Reflecting on these visits has been like looking into a window of a past life and having the chance to see him for the man he was outside of the public eye.


Ok, I think that’s enough “personal” for one day. Check back in a day or so for Part 2.




going back to cali

I’ve been avoiding blogging. That’s really nothing new for me, but that has meant that I haven’t delivered on the promise I made a while back to “tell-all” about my various travels over the summer. I think I’ve been neglecting this last post in the summer retrospective because it was the most personal of the trips, and I don’t do “personal” very well. But a promise is a promise, so here goes.

While the backpacking trip finished up in grand style, the transition back to normal life in Arkansas is always a bit rough. It didn’t really matter though, because I knew that normal was going to be short-lived.

You see, I was going home.

california sunset watchingMind you, not my home in Arkansas… but my childhood home a short drive south of San Francisco. And I was going alone. I don’t remember the last time I went anywhere alone. When I go somewhere, I am either accompanied by several dozen middle/high school students or with one (or more) of my family members in tow. Never alone.


The main purpose of the trip was to attend the ten-year anniversary memorial celebration of my father and sister’s passing. No, having a ten-year anniversary celebration for the death of loved ones isn’t a normal thing in my family. But like I said, we left “normal” back in Arkansas.

If we are going to get anywhere with this post, you will need some more of the back story. My father’s name is Kobun Chino Otogawa. He was a Zen Bhuddist priest, and while I don’t think making comparisons is a very Zen thing to do, he was a fairly prominent figure in the U.S. Buddhist community. Ten years ago while vacationing in Switzerland he drowned in a pond while trying save my half-sister, Maya, who had fallen in. After their deaths, there was an intimate funeral service in Switzerland followed by a number of memorials in the States. Except for their funeral in Switzerland, I didn’t attend any of them.

While there were numerous factors that kept me from attending them – new home, new job, family demands, time constraints, money – honestly, the biggest obstacle between me and my participation in these memorials wasn’t any of those things. The barrier wasn’t something outside of me, but rather it was me.

When I made a commitment to follow Christ several years ago, for whatever reason I felt that I needed to make a clean break with my past. And I did need to. There was much about my life that wasn’t good. I had some bad patterns of thinking, behaving, and relating. Those needed to go.

But I’ve been beginning to see that maybe too much was lost in the “putting off of the old self.” Attending this ten-year memorial was small step in trying to retrieve some of what was lost.

I think that’s probably enough for one post. I’ll come back to this over the next couple days.