Zen: The Authentic Gate, by Koun Yamada Roshi (1907—1989; pictured above), is an essential text for any student of Zen interested in a clear expression from the source of the Zen reformation that unfolded in the 20th Century and continues to shape Zen practice today.
Yamada Roshi is a towering figure in 20th century Zen. His great enlightenment was first presented in a cloaked manner in Three Pillars of Zen. Here’s David Loy from the Foreward of Zen: The Authentic Path framing Yamada Roshi kensho and quoting from Three Pillars of Zen:
“Most interesting, however, were the ‘Contemporary Enlightenment Experiences’ toward the back of the book. The first account was by ‘Mr. K. Y., a Japanese businessman.’ He was reading on a train when he came across something Dōgen wrote after his own awakening (quoting an early Chinese text): ‘I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.’ Sleeping later that night, Mr. K. Y. suddenly awoke and that quotation flashed into his mind:
‘Then all at once I was struck as though by lightning, and the next instant heaven and earth crumbled and disappeared. Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! There’s no reasoning here, no reasoning at all! Ha, ha, ha!’ The empty sky split into two, then opened its enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: “Ha, ha, ha!'”
Yamada Roshi, along with his teacher Yasutani Roshi, and his teacher’s teacher, Sogaku Harada Roshi, brought enlightenment to the center of Zen practice. As many reformers in the past, including Dogen Zenji, Yamada Roshi frames his Zen as authentic – as opposed to what? Here’s Yamada Roshi:
“Both [Sogaku] Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi deplored how, in modern Zen, the Rinzai sect tends to cling to the aspect of stages in practice and forget the solemnity of ‘no stages,’ and the Sōtō sect is content with the ‘no stages’ Zen of little consequence and neglects the arduous stages of practice (p. 142).”
Stages and attainment or no stages and no attainment? Yamada Roshi’s Zen is all about these two foci in intimate conversation. However, he is often criticized in Soto Zen circles for teaching a one-sided, desperate for kensho, hungry ghost Zen – stages and attainment Zen – and dismissed as a Rinzai wanna-be.
A careful reading by an open-hearted reader of Zen: The Authentic Gate will dispel that characterization. Indeed, Yamada Roshi seems to see himself primarily in the tradition of Dogen Zenji as we can see from the references he utilizes in Zen: The Authentic Gate: Dogen Zenji (35), Sogaku Harada Roshi (9), Yasutani Roshi (8), Hakuin Zenji (7).
Indeed, although Yamada Roshi quotes and comments on Dogen Zenji more frequently, one of the valuable contributions of Zen: The Authentic Path, lies in those nine first-time-in-English references from the seminal Sogaku Harada Roshi.
Yamada Roshi’s Zen is about the perfection of character, not an ego Zen of either “my enlightenment’s so pure I’ve never had kensho,” or “my kensho’s bigger than your’s:”
“Although in Zen training we must all pass through the stage where ‘there are no beings to save,’ if we remain stuck in that emptiness, enjoying solitary bliss, then the desire to save all beings will never arise. We may end up as self-authorized egotists who have cut ties with other sentient beings (p. 37).”
“Another aspect of delusion after seeing into one’s own nature is found in statements like, ‘Life is equally empty whether rich or poor, so it’s enough to become one with your poverty and live with it if you are poor.’ Someone who sees only the side of emptiness and overlooks the benefits of sowing good fortune may look askance at anyone with wealth. Or someone might say, ‘If you are suffering from illness, just become suffering; when suffering, you become one with the whole universe, and then there is no more suffering.’ For one caught up in this one side of reality, the heart of compassion that seeks to relieve a sick person of their suffering closes. Such a person is a prisoner of one-sided enlightenment. The ancients warned against this, calling it ‘the deep abyss of liberation (p. 131).’”
Yamada Roshi’s themes also reflect a groundedness in the actual conditions of our human predicament. Here’s a selection of chapter titles: “Suffering and Modern-Day Humanity,” “Depth of Enlightenment,” “Deceptive Phenomena,” “Belief, Understanding, Practice, Realization, and Personalization,” and “Zen Practice for People of Other Religions.”
In addition to his great enlightenment and teaching, Yamada Roshi is also an important figure in our contemporary Zen world because he is one of the few lay people in all of Zen history that not only received full dharma transmission, proving definitively that this work can be accomplished while fully engaged in the world, but also in that his lineage has continued to flourish several generations down the line with Sanbo Zen and the Diamond Sangha, and various wild flowers like Pacific Zen Institute, Boundless Way, Empty Sky Sangha, Great Heartland Buddhist Temple of Toledo, and our own little projects, Great Tides Zen and Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training.
The Sanbo Kyodan website lists five generations and about 132 teachers in his line.
What’s the essence of his teaching?
“By awakening to our self-nature, by awakening to both emptiness and form, we come to peace. This is true Buddhist salvation. However, we must wipe away all traces of enlightenment as well, and then forget that we have wiped them away. And that practice continues endlessly. This is the Buddha Way (p. 37).”