Zen Teaching and the Philippine Sangha

( This was written in September 13, 1996 at the 7th anniversary of Yamada Koun Roshi’s passing ) Ruben L.F. Habito (‘Keiun-ken’) is now the resident teacher o f the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, Texas.

THE ZEN community based in the Philippines, which Sister Elaine nurtured for many years and which is now in full blossom, was a special source of joy to our beloved Zen Master, Yamada Koun Roshi. I had the privilege of being there during some of the sesshins he led in Manila, as well as a most memorable one in Leyte, and he would always return to Japan with glowing reports of the flourishing sangha he had encountered in sesshin there. After our beloved roshi’s passing in 1989,1 was asked to write a memorial in his honor for the journal Buddhist Christian Studies. This appeared in Vol. 10, the 1990 issue devoted to Buddhist and Christian interchange. Here I would like to summarize the main points in the memorial about the particular contribution of Yamada Koun Roshi to the history of Zen, and point out how the Philippine sangha which he was so fond of also had a profound impact on his own Zen teaching.

Yamada Koun Roshi’s  Zen teaching,  grounded in his deep experience of enlightenment (cf. the account in Three Pillars of Zen. bylined with his initials. “K.Y, age 47, a Japanese Executive”) and cultivated in his personal life as a business executive and family man, can be characterized as a breaking of traditional boundaries.
First, it broke the traditional boundary of “monastic” vs. “lay.” Second, it broke the religious barrier, bringing Zen beyond the traditional Buddhist confines and offering its tremendous possibilities also to Christians. as well as members of the Jewish, Islamic, and other traditions. Thirdly, it manifested an inherent social dimension, with the breaking of the barrier between “self” and “other,” between “individual” and “society.” From the eighties on, as Yamada Roshi began to have regular contact with members of the Philippine sangha, both through his leading of sesshins in Manila and Leyte, and through key members coming from the Philippines to join sesshin in Japan, the above features became more and more prominent in his Zen teaching. Of particular interest and importance are the two latter features: the opening of Zen to persons of non­Buddhist background, and the focus on the social dimension of Zen practice.
Many of the sangha members in the Philippines, needless to say, are also devout Christians, and the fact that a great number had deepened their Zen experience, having had authentic enlightenment experiences confirmed by Yamada Roshi (and later also by Kubota Roshi), had de facto resolved a question that had been raised in the sixties and seventies: Can a Christian also experience Zen enlightenment without ceasing to be a Christian? The encounters with members of the Philippine sangha confirmed Yamada Roshi in his own conviction that Zen goes beyond the boundaries of traditional religions, and that its practice enables persons of different religious backgrounds to deepen their appreciation of their own tradition and enrich it from an experiential dimension.
On the social dimension of Zen practice, Yamada Roshi was deeply impressed by the ongoing social commitment of his Filipino disciples, as they related to him their work with the poor and oppressed of our country, and how their work plunged them into engagement in the socio-economic and political arenas of life, precisely as empowered by their Zen practice, which grounded them in discernment and compassion.
His encounters with Sister Rosario, and Sister Christine Tan, in particular, who both had opportunities to join sesshin in Japan and stay on a little longer and have informal exchanges with Yamada Roshi in his famous living room (where we also held chamber concerts, with Sister Elaine playing her violin, and Ursula Okle her cello-and dance parties as well, with the gracious Mrs. Yamada leading the beat), impressed him deeply, and he frequently referred to their total self-giving in their service to the poor.

In the light of these encounters, his teishos and opening comments in Kyosho (Awakening Gong), the official newsletter of the Sanbo Kyodan, made frequent references to the connection between Zen practice and social and political engagement, and also manifested Yamada Roshi’s own compassionate heart in viewing the events of the world. It was my privilege to be a witness to many of these events and encounters which had a decisive impact on Yamada Roshi’s Zen teaching, especially in the last decade of his life.
The flowering of the Philippine sangha, now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its founding, is but one confirmation of the greatness and depth of his Zen vision. We are all beneficiaries of this, and we recall him with boundless gratitude. Our gratitude also extend to Mrs. Kazue Yamada, who accompanied him on almost all of his trips to the Philippines, and who continues to be the foster mother of all of Yamada Koun Roshi’s Zen followers.


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