Three former students of Yamada’s Kamakura zendo share stories of the Japanese teacher who may have had the greatest impact on Zen in the West.

Once in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakūta, he held up a flower, twirled it, and showed it to the assemblage. At this, they all remained silent. Only the venerable Kashyapa broke into a smile. The World-Honored One said: “I have the eye treasury of the true Dharma, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, the subtle gate of the Dharma. It does not depend on letters, being specially transmitted outside all teachings. Now I entrust Mahakashyapa with this.

~The Gateless Gate, Case 6

What is the legacy of any teacher? A pebble dropped in a pond, and rings ripple outward through the universe. A flower twirled in the hand, and a knowing is shared beyond words, infinitely from one generation to the next. 

Koun Yamada, who died in 1989, and his own teacher, Haku’un Yasutani, had immeasurable impact on many of the major Zen lineages in the U.S., Europe and South Asia. Fully half of those Yamada sanctioned to teach were Catholic and Protestant clerics; he did not see Zen as being strictly Buddhist.

The center pole to Yamada’s “big tent” approach to Zen was his clear awakening, and for decades he stressed that all his students must at least once in their lives experience the joy of “seeing the nature (kensho).” Later, he increasingly emphasized the importance of integrating that insight into our lives; his was a vow to save all the beings of the world.

Ruben Keiun Habito Roshi, as a Jesuit, studied with Koun Yamada Roshi for 18 years, and received transmission from him in 1988. Ruben left the priesthood in 1989 and in 1991 founded the Maria Kannon Zen Center, in Dallas, Texas. He teaches at the Perkins School of Theology at the Southern Methodist University, and has authored a number of works on the confluence of Zen and Christianity, including Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World.

David Onryu-Koun Weinstein Roshi studied with Yamada in Kamakura for nine years. David completed his koan study with John Tarrant, and is director of the Rockridge Meditation Community, in Oakland, Ca. For many years he has also worked as therapist.

Jon Dokanun Joseph Roshi (b.1954) studied with Yamada in Japan for 8 years, before returning to the U.S. and completing his koan study with John Tarrant. Jon teaches at the Portola Camp Zendo, in San Mateo. He formerly worked as a journalist and financial analyst.