Remembering Sojun Mel Weitsman, teacher, abbot, founder of Berkeley Zen Center

His clear and steady leadership made BZC a beacon for Buddhist practitioners and other spiritual seekers in the East Bay and around the U.S.

With great sadness, the Berkeley Zen Center community announces that our teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi died peacefully at home on Thursday, Jan. 7. He was 91 years old.

Sojun’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 53 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, work as a house and boat painter, cab driver, and music teacher. But his life work was to embrace and sustain the practice of zazen (sitting meditation) passed from his teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Mel began Zen practice in San Francisco with Suzuki Roshi in 1964. With Suzuki Roshi, he founded Berkeley Zen Center in 1967. In 1984, Sojun received dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi’s son, Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi, abbot of Rinso-In Temple in Japan, and was installed as BZC’s first abbot in 1985. In declining health, he stepped down as abbot in October, assuming the position of Founding Dharma Teacher.

From 1988 to 1997, Sojun served as co-abbot of San Francisco Center, where he had begun practicing Zen. 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 30 transmitted dharma heirs leading Zen centers around the U.S., he was most at home in the community of Berkeley Zen Center, which continues to thrive.

Sojun 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 St., Berkeley, CA 94703.

The bulk of Sojun’s audio lectures are available online.  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. The Asian Library at Stanford University is in the process of acquiring the archives of Berkeley Zen Center, where his talks will also be available.