Asia Online (TAO)
Paul David Jaffe
YASUTANI HAKUUN ROSHI
A BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
constitutes a verbatim fragment (pages 2-13) of the June 1979
MA Thesis in Asian Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
by Paul David JAFFE entitled:
Genjokoan by Eihei Dogen, and Penetrating Inquiries into the
Shobogenzo Genjokoan, a commentary by Yasutani Hakuun"
All copyrights to this document (C) 1979 belong to Paul David Jaffe.
material by the Coombspapers SSRDB is intended to draw attention
to the existence of P.Jaffe's largely unknown pioneering work and to facilitate
it's eventual printing. It also hopes to aid scholarship concerning the history
of Zen Buddhism in the West.]
Roshi (1885-1973) was a fiery and controversial figure in
20th century Zen Buddhism. He was highly respected for his deep realization
and compassionate teaching, but was also criticized for his polemical stand
against "one sided" teachings and his severe manner of expressing himself.
We can see within a few pages of his writings what seems a strange mixture
of harsh criticisms of certain teachers as having degraded the Buddha way
and a sincere gratitude for their efforts in guiding him.
It seems that
both his early life and his training under Harada Sogaku Roshi
(1870-1961) contributed to his synthesis of the practices and insights
emphasized in the Soto and Rinzai sects respectively. He was especially vocal
concerning the point of kensho, seeing one's true nature. He spoke more
openly about it then anyone of his times, going so far as to have a public
acknowledgement of those who had experienced kensho in a post-sesshin 
ceremony of bowing in gratitude to the three treasures. He was sometimes
criticized for his overemphasis, but according to Robert Aitken Roshi, a
successor in Yasutani's lineage, "I think that Yasutani Roshi's hope was that
people could get a start, and with that start they could deepen and clarify it
through koan study. I think that actually Yasutani Roshi placed less
emphasis on kensho than the people who are criticizing him, because the
people who are criticizing him are regarding kensho as some sort of be-all
and end-all, and he didn't look at it in that way at all." 
so outspoken because he felt that the Soto sect in which he
trained emphasized the intrinsic, or original aspect of enlightenment--that
everything is nothing but Buddha-nature itself--to the exclusion of the
experiential aspect of actually awakening tothis original enlightenment. His
dharma successor, Yamada Koun Roshi, has written, "His main purpose was to
propagate the indispensable place of kensho, Realization of the Way, in Zen."
 On the other hand, he criticized the tendency in the Rinzai sect to become
attached to levels and rankings,- and of absolutizing the efficacy of koans
without adequate regard to the realization of emptiness, to which many of
the koans point.
In 1954, some
ten years after his dharma transmission, and after certain
post-war restrictions were lifted, Yasutani established his organization as an
independent school of Zen. The group, Sambokyodan (Fellowship of the
Three Treasures), broke with the Soto school in which he was ordained,
asserting a position of direct connection with Dogen and no longer
recognizing the authority of the sect's ecclesiastical leaders. Such an action
had been strongly advocated by his teacher Harada Sogaku. 
Roshi's early background sheds some interesting light on
his subsequent development. There is a miraculous story about his birth: His
mother had already decided that her next son would be a priest when she was
given a bead off a rosary by a nun who instructed her to swallow it for a safe
childbirth. When he was born his left hand was tightly clasped around that
same bead. By his own reckoning, "your life . . . flows out of time much
earlier than what begins at your own conception. Your life seeks your
parents."  "It is as if I jumped right into this situation since while I was
still in her womb my mother was contemplating my priesthood."  When
he studied biology in school this story seemed ridiculous, but later he wrote,
"Now, practicing the Buddha Way more and more, understanding many more
channels of the Buddha Way, I realize that it is not so strange but quite
natural. My mother wanted me to become a priest, and because I was
conceived in that wish and because I too desired the priesthood, the juzu
[rosary bead] expressed that karmic relation. There is, indeed, a powerful
connecting force between events. We may not understand it scientifically,
but spiritually we know it is so."  So, in time he came to fully accept this
story and treat it as a concrete symbol of "his deep Dharma affinity." 
The family he
was born into was quite poor; he was adopted by another
family when he was very young. At the age of five he was sent to a country
temple named Fukuji-in near Numazu city. His head was shaved, and he was
educated by the abbot, Tsuyama Genpo. His training at this time was very
strict and meticulous, but also very loving, and left a deep impression on him
throughout his life. At the age of eleven he moved to a nearby temple,
Daichuji, which like Fukuju-in belonged to the Rinzai sect. After a fight with
an older student, however, he was forced to leave. When later he was placed
in another temple, this time it was one of the Soto sect, Teishinji, and it was
here that he became a monk of the Soto sect under the priest Yasutani Ryogi,
from whom he took his name. At the age of sixteen he went to study under
Nishiari Bokusan Zenji (1821-1910) at Denshinji in Shimada, Shizuoka
prefecture and served as his attendent. Nishiari was well-known both for
having served as the leader of the Soto sect, and for his Shobogenzo keiteki
(The Opening Way of the Shobogenzo).  The Keiteki is a record of his
lectures on twenty-nine chapters of the Shobogenzo and is generally
considered an important and authoritative work. In the preface of the work
here partially translated (Shobogenzo sankyu: Genjokoan) Yasutani says of
with Nishirari Zenji's Keiteki, I have examined closely
the commentaries on the Shobogenzo of many modern people, and though it
is rude to say it, they have failed badly in their efforts to grasp its main
points. . . .
It goes without saying that Nishiari Zenji was a priest of great learning and
virtue, but even a green priest like me will not affirm his eye of satori. . . .
. . . the resulting evil of his theoretical
Zen became a significant source of later events.
. . . So it is my earnest wish, in place of Nishiari Zenji, to correct to some
degree the evil which he left, in order to requite his benevolence, and that
of his disciples, which they have extended over many years.
tells us that during this period of his life, when he was sixteen or
seventeen, he had two questions. The first was why neither Nishiari Zenji
nor his disciples gave clear guidance concerning kensho when it was
obvious from the ancient writings that all the patriarchs experienced it. The
second concerned what happens after death. He was unable to receive clear
answers or come to an understanding.
twenties and thirties Yasutani Roshi continued his training
with several other Buddhist priests. He also furthered his education, going to
a teacher training school and then beginning a ten year career as an
elementary school teacher and principal. At thirty he married and started
raising a family which was to produce five children.
In 1925, at
the age of forty, he returned to his vocation as a Buddhist priest.
Soon after, he was appointed as a Specially Dispatched Priest for the
Propagation of the Soto sect, travelling around giving lectures. "However,"
he wrote in 1952 in the epilogue to Shushogi Sanka (Song-in Praise of the
Shushogi),  "I was altogether a blind fellow, and my mind was not yet at
rest. I was at a peak of mental anguish. When I felt I could not endure
deceiving myself and others by untrue teaching and irresponsible sermons
any longer, my karma opened up and I was able to meet my master Daiun
Shitsu, Harada Sogaku Roshi. The light of a lantern was brought to the dark
night, to my profound joy." 
was a Soto priest, educated at the Soto sect's Komazawa
University. His sincere searching brought him to study with Toyota Dokutan
Roshi (1841-1919), abbot of Nanzenji, the head temple of the branch of Rinzai
Zen known by the same name. After completing koan study and becoming a
dharma successor, Harada became abbot of Hosshinji, a Soto temple,
transforming it into a rigorous and lively training center. 
sat his first sesshin with Harada Roshi in 1925 and two years
later at the age of forty-two was recognized as having attained kensho. Some
ten years later he finished his koan study and then, at the age of fifty-eight,
received dharma transmission from Harada Roshi on April 8, 1943. 
Yasutani Roshi's career as a Zen teacher was devoted and single-minded. He
was head of a training hall for monks for a short while, but gave it up and
applied his efforts primarily toward the training of lay practitioners. His
years leading a family life and working as an educator no doubt both
influenced him in this direction and prepared him for the task. During the
next thirty years he held over three hundred sesshins, led numerous regular
zazen meetings, and lectured widely. In addition, he left almost one hundred
volumes of writings. 
Already in his
late seventies, Yasutani Roshi first travelled to the United
States in 1962, at the instigation of some of his American students. He held
sesshins in over half a dozen cities, and due to an enthusiastic response made
six more visits continuing through 1969. He has exerted a profound
influence on the budding American Zen tradition through direct contact
with many students and through his relationships with several of the
leading Zen teachers in America today. Yasutani has also become widely
known and indirectly influenced many people through the book Three
Pillars of Zen, compiled by Phillip Kapleau and published in 1965. It contains
a short biographical section on Yasutani Roshi and also his "Introductory
Lectures on Zen Training," "Commentary on the Koan Mu," and the somewhat
unorthodox printing of his dokusan interviews with ten western
the first westerner to study with Yasutani Roshi. This was in
1956 after Kapleau had studied for three years at Hosshinji under the
guidance of Harada Roshi. After some twenty sesshin with Yasutani, the
Roshi confirmed Kapleau's kensho experience which is one of the cases set
down in Three Pillars. It was Kapleau who first suggested to Yasutani Roshi
that he visit America. In 1966 Kapleau founded the Rochester Zen Center,
which now has several hundred students in Rochester as well as several
affiliated sitting groups in Canada, the United States and Europe. 
Another of Yasutani's
early American students was Robert Aitken, who first
sat with him in 1957. Aitken's steadily deepening interest in and practice of
Zen started when he was picked up off Guam by the Japanese during the
Second World War, and found himself in the same internment camp as R. H.
Blyth, the author of Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Aitken,
along with Kapleau, was instrumental in arranging Yasutani's original
journey to the U.S. and on that and subsequent trips through 1969 hosted him
for sesshins at Koko-an, his small Zen center in Honolulu, and in 1969 at the
newly established Maui Zendo. Aitken says of Yasutani, his only teacher
during this period, "He devoted himself fully to us. We felt from him the
importance of intensive study, of dedication and also something of
lightness." Aitken further characterizes- him as "like a feather but still full
of passion," and having "a ready laugh." Aitken studied further with
Yasutani Roshi and his successor Yamada Koun and received transmission
from Yamada in 1974, making him the first westerner to become a dharma
successor in the Yasutani/Harada lineage. Aitken Roshi's Diamond Sangha
now includes two practice centers in Hawaii and about 100 students, and he
periodically conducts sesshin in Tacoma, Washington; Nevada City,
California; and Australia.
Eido Tai Shinamo
(1932- ) first met Yasutani Roshi in 1962 when he was a
young monk who had spent about two years in Hawaii.  His own teacher
Nakagawa Soen Roshi took him to meet Yasutani one day. Soen Roshi was
planning a trip to the U.S. and invited Yasutani to join him, which he agreed
to do. Then he invited Eido to go along also. Shortly before the trip Soen
Roshi cancelled his plans due to the illness of his mother. Eido was left to
accompany Yasutani as his attendant and translator. The following year Eido
again accompanied Yasutani to America and they continued on around the
world together. On Soen's request Yasutani guided Eido in his koan study.
Later Eido wrote, "During his seven times teaching pilgrimage, from the
very beginning to the end, I was fortunate enough to serve him as an
attendant monk and as an interpreter. I received great teaching from him in
many ways." "He was a brilliant master." Eido Roshi, who received
dharma transmission from Soen Roshi in 1972, is now the leader of the New
York Zendo in Manhattan and the Dai Bosatsu Zendo in the Catskill mountains
of New York state, and has affiliate groups in Washington D.C., Boston and
Philadelphia. Altogether some 300 students are guided by Eido Roshi.
Roshi, who came to America in 1956, has become a dharma
successor of Yasutani. Originally having come to the United States to serve in
the Soto Zen Mission in Los Angeles, it was here in 1962 that Maezumi first
met Yasutani Roshi. Maezumi, a young priest at the time, had, perhaps, a
particular affinity with Yasutani. In addition to having been born into,
raised, educated and trained in the Sotc tradition, he had also done koan study
with Osaka Koryu Roshi, a lay master in the Rinzai school. When Yasutani
Roshi came to Los Angeles, Maezumi started to do koan study with him.
Between Yasutani's several trips to America and Maezumi's trips to Japan to
continue his study, the two developed their relationship further. On
December 7, 1970, Maezumi received the seal of dharma succession. Since he
is also a dharma successor of Kuroda Hakujun Roshi in the Soto tradition, and
Osaka Koryu Roshi in the Rinzai tradition, Maezumi Roshi holds a unique
At the Zen Center
of Los Angeles which was founded by Maezumi in 1966,
Yasutani Roshi's approach of integrating the emphasis of the Soto and Rinzai
schools seems to be taking root in America. The fact that this community of
about 100 people affords the possibility of a family-based practice also
reflects, in part, Yasutani Roshi's emphasis on lay practice. The community
includes several families with children; there is even a cooperatiye child
care program. The Zen Center of Los Angeles has over 200 members who
practice under the guidance of Maezumi Roshi.
of Yasutani Roshi's role in Zen Buddhism shows him to be
an important figure in transplanting it to a new continent.
[... Notes 1-3 have been omitted from this document... - the Coombspapers]
4 Sesshin ***ideographs*** is a fixed period of intensive practice of
zazen. In Japan five days or a week is the most common length of time.
5 Three treasures
(Skt.: triratna; J.: sambo): Buddha, dharma and sangha.
In Zen the three terms are also taken respectively as symbols of
oneness, multiplicity and the harmony between the two.
6 Rick Fields, Buddhist America, unpublished manuscript in progress.
7 Koun Yamada,
"The Stature of Yasutani Hakuun Roshi," in Eastern
Buddhist, n.s., 7.2 (1974): 119.
8 Ibid., 120.
9 Hakuun Yasutani
"My Childhood," trans. by Taizan Maezumi from Zen
and Life (Fukuoka: Shukosha, 1969). in ZCLA Journal, 3.3 & 4 (1973): 34.
10 Ibid., 32.
11 Ibid., 32-34.
12 Yamada, "Stature," 118.
13 Nishiari Bokusan
***ideographs***, Shobogenzo keiteki
***ideographs*** ed. by Kurebayashi Kodo ***ideographs***, 3 vols.
(Tokyo: Daihorinkaku, 1965).
14 Yamada, "Stature," 116-117.
15 Shushogi ***ideographs***
is an anthology of selections from
Dogen's writings compiled in 1890 for use by followers of the Sot8
16 Yamada, "Stature," 109.
17 Hakuyu Taizan
Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, The Hazy
Moon of Enlightenment (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978), p.
18 Japanese Buddhists celebrate the Buddha's birthday on April 8.
19 Tetsugyu Ban, "Dharma Words," in ZCLA Journal, 3.3 & 4 (1973): 26.
20 Dokusan ***ideographs***
is a formal, private interview between the
master and the student, usually conducted during periods of zazen.
21 Figures for
students in this section are necessarily rough. I have
gathered information primarily from conversation with members of
these various centers.
22 Personal interview, May 8, 1979.
23 The relationship
between Eido and Yasutani is described in Nyogen
Senzaki, Soen Nakagawa and Eido Shimano, Namu Dai Bosa (New York:
Theatre Arts Books, 1976), pp. 182-188.
24 Mui Shitsu Eido,"White Cloud," in ZCLA Journal, 3.3 & 4 (1973): 50.
25 Ibid., 51.
School of Zen Buddhism
This document is a part of the Zen Buddhism section of the Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library
Edited by Dr T.Matthew Ciolek
The Sanbô Kyôdan is a Zen-Buddhist Religious Foundation (shukyô-hôjin) started by YASUTANI Haku'un Roshi on 8 January 1954.
YASUTANI Roshi, who was born on 5 January 1885 in Shimizu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, formally became a Soto Buddhist monk when he was 13 years old. In 1925 he met HARADA Sogaku Roshi (1871-1961), and eventually became one of his Dharma successors. YASUTANI Roshi deplored how the Soto monks of the time were preoccupied with superficially carrying out Buddhist ceremonies and neglected the vital practice of realizing one's true self. So he left the Soto school and founded an independent religious foundation, the Sanbô Kyôdan, in order to re-vitalize authentic Zen among those earnest seekers of the Way, who, at that time, happened to be mostly lay people. "Sanbô," literally "three treasures," signifies the three most basic principles of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. "Kyôdan," on the other hand, means "religious organization." In this name, therefore, one can perceive YASUTANI Roshi's aspiration as well as his determination to create a religious community that purely devotes itself to maintaining the true Buddhist Way.
The genesis of the foundation reveals already that the basic character of the organization is that of the Soto line. But, following the tradition stemming from HARADA Sogaku Roshi, the Sanbô Kyôdan integrated the Rinzai method of koan study as well in its Zen training in order to bring its students effectively to the realization of their true self.
thus instructed a countless number of practitioners both in Japan and, from
1962 on, in Europe and the United States. In 1970 he resigned from the abbotship
of the Sanb˘ Ky˘dan and had YAMADA Kôun Roshi take the leadership of the
organization. YASUTANI Roshi passed away on 28 March 1973.