Yamada did not see kensho as a strictly Buddhist awakening, and welcomed dozens of Christian clerics who came to study with him.

Mazu said to the assembly, “If you have a staff, I will give it to you. If you have no staff, I will take it away from you.”

~ The Gateless Barrier, Case 44

”For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”

~ Matthew 13:12

For the last couple of weeks, we have been exploring the extraordinary legacy of Koun Yamada, our ancestral teacher at Pacific Zen and one of the most influential Japanese Zen teachers to Westerners in the last century.

Yamada built a small zendo on his property in Kamakura that comfortably fit about two dozen people, a number that more than doubled during retreats and sesshin. Many of his students came from overseas ~ the U.S., Europe, and South Asia ~ to study at SanUn Zendo, a lay zendo.

There was probably no group of his foreign followers greater in number than the Christian clerics, who perhaps made up a third of the foreign participants and nearly half of his 36 dharma heirs. These were mostly Catholic priests and nuns from many orders: Jesuits, Benedictines, Maryknolls, Marists and others. Some had come to Japan as missionaries, and took up meditation while there, and others had come to Kamakura just to practice with Yamada.

What they found was a tremendous openness, acceptance, and respect for their dedication to the spiritual path. Koun Yamada did not believe Zen was a religion, but a practice that could be embraced by those of any faith. He was fond of saying, “If you are a Buddhist, Zen will make you a better Buddhist. If a Christian, Zen will make you a better Christian.” He commented once that Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lasalle, a Jesuit missionary who came to Japan in the 1930s and was for decades his student, had “integrated his koan practice into his life far better than I.”

Despite Yamada’s large Christian following, he himself never lectured on the similarities between the teachings of Christ and Zen. His single mention of Christianity in his commentary of The Gateless Gate was in reference to the above Mazu koan, where he quotes one of his students:

I was very interested to hear from one of the (Catholic) sisters in the zendo here that Christ uttered words that are almost identical: “To him who has, will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” I wonder what Christ truly meant when he said that.

Intellectually curious by nature, Yamada was always open to the Christian mystic discussion. He once asked Ruben Habito, a Jesuit who studied with Yamada for 18 years, to teach him the Spiritual Exercises, a famous series of meditations, contemplations and prayers created by Ignatius of Loyola.

In his book, Healing Breath, Habito recalls a time when a number of students were chatting over tea in Yamada’s living room after evening sitting. A Christian practitioner mentioned: “We Christians believe that the bread offered in the Eucharist is the real body of Christ.” Whereupon Yamada Roshi, “Without the least bit of surprise or doubt ~ replied, ‘Of course!’”