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American Buddhist Pioneer and Berkley Zen Center Founder Sojun Mel Weitsman Dies Aged 91

Sojun Mel Weitsman. 1929–2021. Image courtesy of Hozan Alan Senauke

The respected Soto Zen Buddhist priest and renowned Dharma teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman died at his home on 7 January at the age of 91, the sangha of Berkley Zen Center has announced. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth Horowitz and their son Daniel. 

Weitsman, who co-founded Berkeley Zen Center, a Soto Zen Buddhist practice center in Berkeley, California, in 1967 with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, had been battling cancer.

In a message of remembrance shared with Buddhistdoor Global, Hozan Alan Senauke, acting head priest at Berkley Zen Center (BZC) and Buddhistdoor Global columnist, wrote:

With great sadness the sangha of Berkeley Zen Center announces that Hakuryu Sojun—White Dragon/Essence of Purity—Mel Weitsman peacefully passed from this world to the Pure Land of Buddhas and Ancestors at home on Thursday, January 7, 2021. He was ninety-one years old. 

Sojun Roshi’s clear and steady leadership made BZC a beacon for Buddhist practitioners and other spiritual seekers in the East Bay and more widely in the U.S. With a strong circle of dedicated Zen students, as guiding teacher and abbot at BZC for fifty-three 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.

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. When he met Suzuki Roshi his life work was transformed. He embraced the practice of zazen and the task of sustaining the dharma of zen, given to him by his teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.        

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, and he 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 Center, where he had begun his Zen practice in 1964, 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 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.

Image courtesy of INEB

In a letter of condolence from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), founder Sulak Sivaraksa and Executive Committee Chairperson Harsha Navaratne commiserated with INEB member Senauke over Weitsman’s passing and shared their best wishes for his family and the Berkeley Zen Center sangha.

The sangha of Berkley Zen Center has also set up an online notice board for disciples, students, and well-wishers to share their thoughts and memories: click here.

See more

Berkeley Zen Center
Remembering Sojun Roshi
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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