In Loving Memory of Kyogen Carlson

October 8, 1948 – September 18, 2014
Dharma Rain Zen Center Founding Abbott


A week before he was scheduled to give a teaching on Tozan’s Five Ranks at the Empty Field Zendo, Kyogen Carlson, abbott of Dharma Rain Zen Center, died suddenly of a heart attack on his way to oryoki breakfast in Portland. He was 65 years old. Seido’s teacher was widely beloved and deeply respected by his students, including 50 lay disciples, five dharma heirs, and many peers in the American Zen Teachers Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, where he served as past president. Several memorials celebrating his full life were crowded with people whose hearts and lives he touched deeply. The Zen West~Empty Field sangha is indebted to his commitment and service to the dharma.

Kyogen left a widespread and influential legacy of teaching. Through his loving mentorship of the next generation, he established the foundation for Dharma Rain’s current development of a 13-acre integrated Soto Zen temple in Northeast Portland featuring co-housing, a children’s program, and community access alongside ecological care of the land. DRZC is a unique thriving Zen sangha. Having experienced the limited reach of monastic training, Kyogen and Gyokuko, his wife, shifted their focus from priest practice to develop meaningful forms for lay people to train and their families to feel welcome. This approach created two equally respected paths toward transmission and teaching in the sangha — a monk/priest path and lay ordained path.

Kyogen’s early training began with a strong impulse to find answers to the deeper meaning of life after he was faced with the paradox of Kyogen in prayerviolent protests in Berkeley in the late ’60s that were intended to bring about peace. In 1972, Kyogen left the Bay Area and rode his bike to Shasta Abbey in Northern California, where he ended up practicing monastically for 10 years. There he ordained as a priest and served as jisha for Jiyu Kennet Roshi, from whom he received transmission. After meeting and marrying his wife there, current DRZC Abbott Gyokuko Carlson, the couple moved to the Oregon Priory and later declared independence from Shasta, establishing Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, OR.

To those who met him, Kyogen’s integrity, humility and deep understanding of the dharma were palpable, tempered by his wonderful often goofy sense of humor, curiosity and full bodied laugh. Kyogen held an unwavering faith in the dharma and Kyogen smilingthe transformative process of Zen practice. He taught his students to say yes to their lives, to awaken in the midst of messy life circumstances, and “find out what is theirs to do.” Later in his life, he actively worked in the field of social change, in particular for gay and lesbian equality and environmental sustainability. Concerned with the United States current “cultural divide,” he also took up a mission of interfaith diplomacy, developing a fruitful ongoing dialogue with evangelical Christians.

For many years, Kyogen made annual visits to Empty Field Zendo, where he mentored Seido as a new teacher and encouraged the wise growth of the sangha. Kyogen gave talks and humbly served as jisha for its first Jukai ceremony. His generosity was remarkable, though he would often say that he felt he should just “give a little more than his share.” When Seido was struggling to complete the engawa on the structure at Empty Field, Kyogen immediately organized a retreat and worked side by side with participants to finish the building, enjoying the work and the fresh summer produce in the August heat. Kyogen’s great faith in his students, loving heart and fatherly care of our group are greatly missed.

Kyogen Memorial Blossoms on Engawa

Talks by Kyogen: