Biography: Philip Kapleau was born in 1912 to a working class family in New Haven, Connecticut. As a young man he studied law and became a court reporter, serving for many years in the state and federal courts of Connecticut. He recorded trials of increasing importance and was selected in 1945 to serve as chief court reporter for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and later covered the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Months of recording the minutiae of the atrocities of World War II affected him deeply and awakened a spiritual longing that shaped the remainder of his life.
While in Japan he became interested in Zen Buddhism and sought out Dr. D.T. Suzuki and other Zen teachers. Returning to New York in 1950, he studied Buddhist philosophy with Dr. Suzuki, who was then teaching at Columbia University, but a purely intellectual approach did not satisfy his desire for a deeper understanding. In 1953 he sold his court reporting business and moved to a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan.
Philip Kapleau spent the next thirteen years undergoing rigorous Zen training under three Japanese Zen masters before being ordained by Hakuun Yasutani-roshi in 1965 and given permission by him to teach. While practicing under Yasutani-roshi he put his writing and court reporter skills to work, transcribing Zen teachers’ talks, interviewing Zen lay students and monks, and recording the practical details of Zen Buddhist practice. He was the first Westerner allowed to observe and record dokusan, the private interviews between a Zen teacher and student. The resulting book, The Three Pillars of Zen, was published in 1965 and quickly became the standard introductory text on Zen practice. It is still in print and has been translated into twelve languages.
Two of the earliest readers of Three Pillars were Ralph Chapin of Chapin Manufacturing in Batavia, New York, and Dorris Carlson of Rochester, New York, the wife of Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, the technology that became the foundation for the Xerox Corporation. During Philip Kapleau’s book tour in 1965 Dorris Carlson invited him to visit her small meditation group and in June 1966, with the support of the Carlsons, he founded the Rochester Zen Center.
Thirty years later, at the Zen Center’s anniversary celebration in 1996, Ralph Chapin donated his 135-acre estate to the Center. Realizing one of Roshi Kapleau’s decades-long dreams, the Center has developed it as a country retreat, the Chapin Mill Retreat Center.
Philip Kapleaul died on May 6, 2004 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He died in the sunlit garden of the Zen Center surrounded by his students, family, and friends.