Born in the Saga Prefecture of Kyūshū, Deshimaru was raised by his grandfather, a former Samurai before the Meiji Revolution, and by his mother, a devout follower of the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Buddhism. Interested in the world, he abandoned his mother’s practices and studied Christianity for a long while under a Protestant minister before ultimately deciding that it was not for him either. He returned to his own religion, Buddhism, and eventually came into contact with Rinzai teachings.
Eventually, he also grew distant from Rinzai Buddhism and was unsatisfied by his life as a businessman. In 1935, when he was studying economics in Tokyo, Deshimaru began to practice under Sōtō Zen Master Kodo Sawaki.
Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, his master predicted that Japan would lose the war. When Deshimaru departed from his Master, Kodo said “Our homeland will be destroyed, our people annihilated . . . and this may be the last time we see one another. Nevertheless, love all mankind regardless of race or creed.”
Deshimaru was exempted from the Imperial Japanese Army because of his near-sightedness. He went to the island of Banka, Indonesia, to direct a copper-mine. He found himself on the island of Bangka, where he taught the practice of zazen to the Chinese, Indonesian, and European inhabitants. He defended inhabitants against the violence of his own people, and was therefore thrown in jail, but released by “the highest military authorities in Japan”.
Thereafter Deshimaru went to the island of Belitung, to direct a copper mine which was captured from the Dutch. After the war Deshimaru was taken prisoner by the Americans, and sent to a camp in Singapore. Deshimaru quickly rejoined Kodo Sawaki. He studied with him for fourteen years, until Sawaki’s death in 1965. Deshimaru received the monastic ordination shortly before Sawaki became ill, and received dharma transmission at Sawaki’s death bed. Sawaki is said to have expressed his wish to spread Zen to other parts of the world on his death-bed, and asked Deshimaru to travel to Europe and spread the teaching.
In 1967, Deshimaru went to Europe and settled in Paris in order to fulfill his master’s wish and spread the teachings of Zen. In an interview Deshimaru affirmed he chose France to teach because of its philosophical tradition; he cited Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, Henri Bergson and Nicolas Malebranche as philosophers who understood Zen without even knowing it. In the 1970s, his mission grew. In 1970 Deshimaru received dharma transmission from Master Yamada Reirin.He became Kaikyosokan (head of Japanese Soto Zen for a particular country or continent) in Europe.
He died in 1982, after he had solidly established Zen practice in the West. After Master Deshimaru’s death, three of his closest disciples, Etienne Zeisler, Roland Rech, and Kosen Thibaut, traveled to Japan to receive the shiho from the highest Soto authority, Master Rempo Niwa Zenji. In 1977 Master Deshimaru ordained Olivier Wang-Genh into his Soto-lineage. In 2016 Olivier Wang-Genh was re-appointed President of the Buddhist Union of France.