Kôdô Sawaki was born on the 16th. of June, 1880 into a well-off family of seven brothers, near to the shrine at Ise. He was called Tsaikichi. When he was five years old, his mother died and, at the age of eight, his father died. He was adopted by a friend of his uncle, Sawaki Bunchiki, who had died in the meantime. A professional gambler, this was an unstable and lazy man who only believed in "tobacco and sex", and who had had eleven wives. The latest of whom was a prostitute who suffered from hysterical outbursts.
At thirteen years of age, Tsaikichi was obliged to work in order to eat and, in this turbulent neighbourhood, he became supervisor of the gamblers' accounts. After having been present at the death of an old man of advanced age in a brothel, he was made brutally aware that he did not wish to end his life in such a dishonourable fashion. This incident drew him to the way of Buddhism. His way of life scared him. He came in contact with the family of Morita Soshichi, well educated people, honest and pure.The help he received from this family was an open window to the truth. He started frequenting a shinshu temple and, when he was tempted to become a monk to escape from his family, a shinshu priest suggested he could better orient himself towards zen. In 1896, he left for Eihei-ji.
Upon arrival, the problems began. Being a stranger, he could not become a monk and had to accept a place as servant, which allowed him, in spite of everything, to learn zazen. Finally in 1897, with Sawada Koho Oshô, in the temple of Kyûshû, he received tokudo (ordination) and he became monk with the the name Kôdô. He stayed two years with this teacher. Later, he met another teacher in the person of Fueoka Sunum Oshô who taught him the right way: don't search for satori or any other thing. Simply sit in zazen. This teacher-disciple relationship lasted a year and was interrupted by Kodo's conscription into the army in 1900. In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, he was placed with the infantry where he was seriously wounded. He then returned to Japan to receive medical care and to convalesce. In 1905, he was sent once more to China, where he remained until the end of the war.
In 1908, at the age of twenty nine, he entered the school of Horyu-ji in Nara and studied philosophy, without ever forgetting zazen or the Shôbôgenzô. In 1912, he became the principal assistant in the dojo, the tantô, de Yôsen-ji. There followed a period of solitude concentrated on the practice of zazen, in a small temple in the province of Nara. In 1916, he abandoned this retreat to become reader, kôshi, in Daiji-ji Sôdô. Later, in 1922, he left Daiji-ji to live in the house of a friend. In 1923, he began travelling throughout Japan giving conferences and directing sesshins. In 1935, he became a professor at the university de Komasawa, where he gave conferences about zen literature, and where he directed the practice of zazen, and later still became godo at Soji-ji. This was the moment (in 1936) in which Yasuo Deshimaru became his disciple. Until just before the beginning of war, in 1940, Kôdô Sawaki also led a large temple in the mountain, the Tengyô Zen-en.
It was after the war when he started to become particularly famous in Japan, organising sesshins and summer camps in many places. He taught lay people as well as monks, gave conferences in both universities and prisons and helped in founding numerous dojos. They called him "Kodo without a home" because he refused to remain in a temple and always travelled alone. He brought with him, a breath of fresh air to the moribund zen reintroducing the universal practice of zazen. During all this time, Master Deshimaru followed him everywhere and Kôdô Sawaki taught him the essence of Buddhism.
In 1963, at 86 years of age, he fell gravely ill and he retired to Antai-ji (the temple which he had transformed into a place of pure practice). From his bed, he spent long periods looking at the mountain of Takagamine.There, three days before his death, he told a nun:
" ¡Look! Nature is magnificent. I understand the problems of men. Never in all my life, have I met anyone to whom I should submit or whom I could admire. But Mount Takagamine looks at me always, saying from above,: "Kôdô, Kôdô."
These were his last words. He died on the 21st of December 1965, at 13;50.