John Toler, 75, unlikely Zen abbot bridging East, West, dies at temple

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John Toler, abbot of Seisen-An Temple in Ouda, Nara Prefecture, died of heart failure on Nov. 14 at the temple. He was 75 years old and a key link in the history of foreigners living in postwar Japan.

Toler was an unlikely choice to end up as one of the only Westerners ever to become a Zen temple abbot.

Born Sept. 3, 1931, in Idalou, Texas, Toler graduated from Texas Tech University majoring in journalism. He was drafted for the Korean War and sent to Japan in 1954. After a stint in Sendai, he moved to Tokyo and began studying Japanese.

Although Toler loved Japan fiercely all his life, merely being here did not answer all of life’s questions. Like many foreigners in Japan, then and now, Toler spent a number of years in “seeking mode.”

For a time, he wrote a column for the Mainichi Daily News called “Mostly Cabbages,” covering events in Osaka, foreigners and amusing anecdotes. By the mid-1970s, Toler was well established in the advertising world and moved to Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, with his partner, Koji Mori, and was making good money.

Meanwhile, Toler had made friends with a band of notable expats: classical Japanese and Chinese translator Burton Watson, writer Donald Richie and antique dealer David Kidd, with whom he once shared a house in Kobe.

However, such daily dealings were unfulfilling. Toler began doing Zen meditation, attending Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto as a lay participant. In 1976, he decided to enter the monkhood. He approached the head of the Daitokuji novices (“unsui”), a monk named Soeki Urata, who, struck by Toler’s elegant Japanese, took him to meet his venerable master, Daiki Tachibana.

Tachibana, who died last year at age 105, was one of the most flamboyant and feared monks in the Zen world. Tachibana agreed to sponsor Toler, and thus at age 45 he quit his job and entered the Sodo meditation hall of Daitokuji.

It was a tough physical regimen right from the start. Toler had to prostrate himself at the foot of the Sodo hall’s entrance for three full days begging to be accepted. Once inside the hall, Toler entered the path of a traditional novice monk, meditating daily for long hours, walking through the snow to collect alms, taking part in temple chores and chanting sutras. After about three years, Toler became a Daitokuji monk and Tachibana sent him to manage Shogen-In, a temple in Ouda in the mountains of Nara Prefecture.

Toler was about 50 then, and it was in Ouda that he came into his own. Attired in flowing robes, amusing, worldly, a great raconteur with a Texas accent, he was the perfect host.

He also had clear and striking ways of explaining Zen. With his door open to people of all nationalities and walks of life, Toler’s temple became an international gathering place. You could meet an American saxophonist, Caroline Kennedy on her honeymoon or even the terrifying master Tachibana himself.

Finally, in his 60s, he was appointed head of nearby Seisen-An hermitage and allowed to carry the coveted red lacquer abbot’s fan.

Eric Putzig, Toler’s friend and disciple, sums it up: “John was of a generation prior to the Internet and mass communications. And yet, without the trappings of modernity, he sat inside his hilltop temple in the Japanese countryside and for 25 years — from that remote location — brought together East and West, navigated seamlessly among the two and nurtured a mutual understanding of culture and religion. Even those who do not know him owe their gratitude.”