As much as he stressed kensho, Yamada urged the long practice of integrating awakening into our lives.

Deshan one day descended to the dining hall, bowls in hand. Xuefeng asked him, “Where are you going with your bowls in hand, Old Teacher? The bell has not rung, and the drum has not sounded.” Deshan turned and went back to his room.

~ The Gateless Gate, Case 13 (partial)

When Yamada sanctioned a senior student to teach, he would give them a calligraphy that read, “Practice another 30 years.” By this he meant that the process of bringing our awakening experience into our lives, even for those with decades of experience, is endless.

Last week, as part of re-visiting Koun Yamada’s life and teachings, we read his awakening experience (“The Joy of My Second Kensho”), and how central that experience was for his teaching and for his followers at the SanUn (Three Clouds) Zendo, in Kamakura. One night, deep in sleep, Dogen’s phrase ~ I have clearly realized that Mind is nothing but the mountains, the rivers, and the great earth; Nothing but the sun, the moon, and the stars ~ penetrated Yamada’s entire being. He later recalled, “Billows of great joy surged up. Like enormous tidal waves, storms of joy swelled up and exploded over and over again. I could only laugh loudly, with my mouth wide open, as wildly as possible. Endless explosions of laughter…”

Given such a moving personal experience, unsurprisingly, Yamada became a strong advocate for students to attain kensho (seeing the nature) at least once in their lives. Such that, in the years following Yamada’s passing in 1989, some of his students and successors were critical of SanUn Zendo being run as a “kensho factory,” stressing enlightenment over all else. “The purpose of sesshin is to gain enlightenment,” read one set of calligraphy above the zendo door. And for many years, if a student had passed the first barrier of Zhaozhou’s Dog (the koan Mu, or No) during sesshin, in a closing ceremony they were trotted around the zendo as a gesture of thanks to the Roshi, and as encouragement to others.

Despite his focus on enlightenment, Yamada’s writings always stressed that kensho was just the first gate in one’s life-long practice:

The true practice of zazen is very severe. The present koan is a good example of this. To attain kensho (self-realization) is not so difficult; for some people only one sesshin (Zen retreat) is sufficient. But kensho is only the entrance to our final goal in doing zazen, namely the accomplishment of our character. This involves a purification which is most difficult and requires a great deal of time. There is really no end to the practice of Zen. You cannot accomplish a perfect character in forty years.

Other students saw a shift in Yamada’s guidance as his own teaching matured over the years. In the forward to the second edition of Yamada’s Gateless Gate, Ruben Habito, who will be visiting us as part of the Pacific Zen Luminaries series in late January wrote:

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 numerous 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 a 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 in daily life and relate to events of this world was a recurrent theme in his talks and public comments in this later phase.

I remember when Yamada, at 80 years old, gave a talk on the above koan, “Deshan Carries His Bowls.” He was about the same age as Deshan in the story. The koan was clearly one of his favorites. In it, Deshan comes to the hall carrying his eating bowls. Xuefeng, the cook, says to him, ““Old Master, the bell has not yet rung nor the drum sounded. Where are you going with your bowls?” Deshan immediately returns to his room. Though the story goes on, Yamada stopped speaking, and sitting on a chair in the zendo before a small dais with a light and notes, he raised both hands and shuffled his feet as if Deshan returning to his room, merely saying, “gata, gata, gata”, the sound of sandals on the floor.