Koun Yamada Roshi (1906-1989), author of this volume of Zen talks (teisho) on a thirteenth-century collection of koans entitled Gateless Gate (Wumen-kuan), is most likely to be remembered in posterity as one of the great Zen Masters of the twentieth century. Longtime head of the Sanbo Kyodan Zen community and main dharma successor to Hakuun Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973), his teaching career spanned nearly three decades from the early 1960’s up to his death. His own dharma heirs are now leading Zen communities in Japan as well as in different parts of the world.
Koun Yamada made a little-noticed debut in a Western-language publication, The Three Pillars of Zen, which he compiled and translated with Akira Kubota (now Jiun Roshi, head of Sanbo Kyodan) and Philip Kapleau. Published under the latter’s name in 1965, this book which has now come to be a staple in Zen reading in the West included an account of his Zen enlightenment experience (“kensho” in Japanese) written in 1953, under the by-line of “Mr. K.Y., a Japanese Executive, Age 47.” He is also the “cigar-smoking hospital administrator who was Yasutani’s disciple” referred to by Rick Fields in How the Swans Came to the Lake (p.240)
From 1970 to 1989, living in Japan, I had the unique privilege of being able to practice Zen and receive regular guidance from Yamada Roshi. I continue to look back with profound gratitude to those years I sat in zazen with many others at San-un Zendo, the small Zen hall he had built with his wife, Mrs. Kazue Yamada, adjacent to their own home, in Kamakura, one hour by train southwest of Tokyo. “San-un” means “Three Clouds,” referring to the Zen names of the three founding Teachers of the Sanbo Kyodan (“Association of the Teaching of the Three Treasures”), namely, Harada Daiun (“Great Cloud”), Yasutani Hakuun (“White Cloud”), and Yamada Koun (“Cultivating Cloud”).
The culture and atmosphere at San-un Zendo, the setting where much of what is described in Three Pillars of Zen takes place, was marked early on by an emphasis on the attainment of kensho, an event that without doubt becomes a landmark and turning-point in a person’s life of Zen.
However, from the late seventies up to his death in 1989, Yamada Roshi’s teaching gradually shifted in focus, from the Zen enlightenment experience as such, to the personalization and genuine embodiment of this experience in the ongoing life of the practitioner. In other words, given the right circumstances, the experience of kensho may happen in the flash of an instant, but its effective actualization in a person’s daily life is considered to be the task of a lifetime.
Yamada Roshi often noted that of those who may have had such an initial breakthrough experience, there are those who get sidetracked from the path of awakening, as they idealize that experience, memorialize it, and cling to it. Holding on to one’s kensho in this way thus becomes another kind of attachment that can be much more pernicious than other kinds. With this in view, he came to place great importance on vigilance in practice and continuing work with koans. Genuine fruit of Zen practice, he repeatedly maintained, is manifested when a human being is able to experience an emptying of one’s ego, and truly live out one’s humanity with a humble heart, at peace with oneself, at peace with the universe, and with a mind of boundless compassion.
It was in this later phase of his teaching career that Yamada Roshi came to address not just matters of practice geared toward attaining enlightenment, but likewise issues of daily life and contemporary society as the context for embodying this enlightenment. These included themes such as world poverty and social injustice, global peace, harmony among religions, and other social and global concerns. The engagement with these issues was for Yamada Roshi a natural outflow of his life of Zen. His was a perspective grounded in the wisdom of seeing things clearly, and the deep compassion for all beings in the universe enlightened by this wisdom. This was what he sought to convey to his Zen students. In short, the question of how a Zen practitioner is to live daily life and relate to events of this world was a recurrent theme in his talks and public comments in this later phase.
Each teisho (Zen talk) in this series gives the reader a glimpse into the depth and breadth of the Zen experience and vision of Koun Yamada Roshi. These talks will no doubt inspire those who are already engaged in Zen practice to a continued deepening of their experience, and also invite those who are not yet so engaged, to perhaps give it a try.
Ruben L.F. Habito (Keiun-ken)
Maria Kannon Zen Center, Dallas, Texas
June 20, 2003
The Gateless Gate on Amazon