The Central Importance of Yamada’s Great Awakening to the Teaching of SanUn Zendo

There is a solitary brightness, without fixed shape or form.
It knows how to listen to the teachings, it knows how to understand the teachings.
It knows how to teach.
That solitary brightness is you.

~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans, Linji Koans

On January 30, we will have a visit to our Zen Luminaries series by Ruben Habito, Roshi. Ruben, who leads the Maria Kannon Zen Center, in Dallas, is the senior disciple outside of Japan of our ancestral teacher, Koun Yamada. One topic of the talk, which will include our David Weinstein, is Yamada’s legacy. Yamada, and his own teacher, Haku’un Yasutani, had immeasurable impact on many of the major Zen Centers in the U.S. and Europe, including Rochester (Kapleau), Honolulu (Aitken), Los Angeles (Maezumi), Munsterschwarzach, Germany (Jaeger), among many others. Including Pacific Zen.

Another topic of the talk, hopefully, will be Ruben’s own Christian-Zen legacy. Ordained a Jesuit priest, he moved from his native Philippines to Japan as a Catholic missionary, and took up Zen practice at the SanUn Zendo (Three Clouds Zendo: “Great Cloud” Harada, “White Cloud” Yasutani, and “Cultivating Cloud” Yamada) while studying Japanese in Kamakura. He succeeded to Yamada in 1988, a year before Yamada died, left the Jesuit ministry, and moved to Dallas to take a professorship at Southern Methodist University.

In preparing for our talk, I pulled off my bookshelf In Memoriam: Yamada Koun Roshi, which is a booklet of about 30 notes of remembrance from many of his non-Japanese disciples. It also includes the chapter: “The Great Joy of My Second Kensho.” An account was first published in The Three Pillars of Zen, as one of the several enlightenment experiences; this one titled, “Mr. Y.K., a Japanese Executive, Age 47.”

For those of us who followed the Three Clouds line, it is hard to understate the centrality of Yamada’s experience in both our motivations to practice and in our respect for Yamada as a teacher. It is not that he wore his experience on his yukata sleeve. In all his lectures, I never once heard him mention the experience. But his bearing and great confidence themselves seemed proof.

On the other hand, I doubt there was a single student of his who had not read his enlightenment story over and over again in The Three Pillars. Here it is from Yamada’s In Memorium:

“In the middle of the night, I suddenly woke up. At first, I was not sure of myself. Then suddenly (a quote from Dogen’s Shobogenzo):

I have clearly realized;
Mind is nothing but the mountains, the rivers, and the great earth,
Nothing but the sun, the moon, and the stars.

“The phrase ran through my mind. Repeated it once, then—something like an electric shock ran through my body, and heaven and earth collapsed. Immediately, 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:

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

“Noooo philosophy at all! Noooo philosophy at all!” Thus I cried out a couple of times.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

“The empty sky, split asunder and with its huge mouth open, was laughing with its whole belly: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Later (concerned for me), my family told me it was not like human laughter…”

Yamada was a social elite in Japan: descended from a samurai family, he graduated from the top schools, owned and ran a small hospital in Tokyo. But he treated his students ~ retired admirals, Catholic nuns, poor English teachers ~ with the same respect in the zendo. Deeply comfortable in his own skin, Yamada wanted for his students what he himself had experienced: just a bit of solitary brightness and joy.