After a three-month stint in the Bay Area, during which time I smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of beer, and sat a total of twice at San Francisco Zen Center, I returned to Koko An1 in early October 1971 in order to participate in a seven-day sesshin, the intensive monastic-like seclusion that is presided over by a Zen master… .
The sesshin was to be led by none other than “Mr. K.Y.,” the Japanese businessman whose thunder-and-lightning daigo-tettei (Great Enlightenment) account in The Three Pillars of Zen I had by now reread at least a hundred times. His initials stood for “Kyozo Yamada,” and we would come to know him as Yamada Ko’un Roshi (Ko’un being his Zen teacher name). Since he was reputed to have experienced a depth of kensho [awakening] unprecedented in modern times, a few in the Diamond Sangha, myself included, began referring to him from time to time as “the most enlightened being in the world.” I sometimes thought of him simply as “The Master.”…
Yamada Roshi had written to Bob Aitken a few months earlier, formally committing to leading this sesshin. Bob, who had come over from Maui Zendo, became noticeably excited the day he received the letter and exclaimed after evening zazen, “There are roshi and there are roshi, and we now have the best!” He then told of having met Yamada some years earlier and how he had come away greatly impressed by his bearing, personality, and almost palpable depth of enlightenment. From that point on, all of us redoubled our dedication to our practice in preparation for the retreat.
The morning Yamada Roshi arrived was one of scurrying bustle. I had no idea as to how to interact with a personage who had experienced the awesome-sounding daigo-tettei, and the butterflies in my stomach multiplied with each passing hour. Would this “best” of roshis be free of allergies and asthma attacks, unlike Bob? Would he “walk through the marketplace with arms hanging loose”? Would he have “forty undivided and very white teeth” and “eyelashes like that of a cow” or any of the other “Thirty-Two Marks of a Buddha”?
I heard him before I saw him. As he sat in the passenger seat of Bob’s car, he loudly cleared his throat, a trademark habit we would hear frequently over the coming week and beyond. He emerged from the car and moved resolutely to the trunk. From my timorous vantage point on the porch about thirty feet away I beheld a heavyset man with a wide, impassive face, about 5’5” tall, with a full head of steel-gray hair combed straight back. He was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, his gray suit jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and looking like an ordinary Japanese businessman on a hot day. Seeming to take delight in all the tropical trees that surrounded Koko An, he chuckled lightly to himself before reaching toward the trunk of the car to retrieve his luggage, but Bob tut-tutted him away and lifted the bags out himself. The small party then made their way to the tiny cottage in which Yamada Roshi would stay for the entire week of sesshin, coming out only for brief exercise walks around the block, and to deliver teisho, the formal Zen Buddhist dharma-talk given each day at 2 p.m. during the retreat.
After Yamada Roshi was settled into the cottage, Bob Aitken escorted him out onto the zendo back porch, where we had a lunch prepared. I still couldn’t muster the courage to introduce myself, so I just hung back on the fringes and tried to look as Buddha-like as possible, keeping my eyes focused on the rice, tofu, and vegetables in front of me and fixing on my face a solemn Zen Man demeanor. We all bowed to our food, and lunch proceeded with a little conversation among Aitken, Yamada Roshi, and some of the residents who were not as intimidated as I was. At one point during the meal, my brother Paul asked the Roshi if he ever ate meat. “Yes, of course,” he replied. Whereupon several hardcore vegetarians at the table choked on their tofu. He also mentioned that his tastes in music ran more to Beethoven than to anything traditionally Japanese, which he said he found too simple.
Over the previous months, an ethos of almost ascetic restraint had developed at Koko An. Thus, when Yamada Roshi reached into his pocket after lunch and extracted a silver cylindrical object, I lightheartedly imagined him awarding it to the sangha in acknowledgment of the purity of our practice: “On behalf of Zen Buddhists everywhere, I wish to thank you all so much for the example you are setting here in America. And as a token of my appreciation for your efforts, I now present to you—the Silver Buddha-Wand of Diligence.”
But instead, he unhasped the cylinder, took out a thick black stogie, and struck a match, asking of no one in particular, “Does anyone mind if I smoke?”
For months I had taken great care to wash up thoroughly after smoking a single cigarette so as not to offend overly sensitive noses, and here was our new Zen master, “the best roshi,” asking if we minded if he lit up! Someone scurried inside to retrieve a decorative clamshell that was pressed into service as an ashtray, the cigar smoke’s blue tendrils rising into the mango-scented air and a look of pure nicotine-bliss crossing the Roshi’s face. Jared Aiona (not his real name) and I, the zendo reprobates, took one look at each other and then reached into our own pockets for our packs of Kools and Marlboros, and before long the air was thick and fragrant with Sir Walter Raleigh’s revenge… .
After dinner that night I finally mustered up enough courage to introduce myself. I tried to meet his eye as directly as I could, since I had read in one of my books that Zen masters always look for this kind of straightforwardness, and instead of extending my hand, I made an awkward bow, just to show him that I was savvy about at least one aspect of his culture. But he extended his own hand and said, “How do you do?” in accented but completely understandable English.
I nervously turned over in my mind the possibility that he was testing me in some way: “How do I do what?” And how should I respond if he then examined my spiritual attainment with something even more koan-like such as, “What is your original dwelling place?”
“Where are you from?” he then asked. I shuddered at my own prescience.
“New Jersey,” I replied tentatively, wondering if I should have said something more mysterious, like “The Void.”
“Ah, yes, New Jersey. My daughter is living in Hoboken.”
Over the next few days before the sesshin began, we learned more about this man who had taken several weeks out of his busy life to come lead us in our practice. He was universally recognized in Japanese Zen circles as one of the most accomplished Zen masters alive, even though he was a layman and had never spent more than a sesshin’s time in a monastery. He was also a highly successful businessman who ran the Kenbikyoin Clinic, a private hospital in Tokyo. His wife, Dr. Kazue Yamada, was one of the first female physicians in modern Japan and oversaw the medical side of things at the hospital, while Mr. K.Y. himself was its CEO. From all appearances he had completely integrated the practice of Zen with the ordinary demands of family and employment life, an integration wholly congruent with one of the major themes of his teaching—“Zen is the practice of nothing special or extraordinary.” ♦
1 Honolulu Zen center founded by Robert Aitken (1917-2010)—the Editors.
Abridged from A Straight Road with 99 Curves: Coming of Age on the Path of Zen by Gregory Shepherd. © 2013 Gregory Shepherd. Published here with permission of Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California.