A review of Zen: The Authentic Gate by Koun Yamada Roshi
An old friend passed away this morning. I wasn’t aware he had suffered a stroke two weeks earlier, so I was shocked to hear that he was gone. A silent pause seems to follow news like this, then my mind fills with questions. Why did this have to happen so soon? How could this fate befall someone so full of life? I feel a subtle, nagging fear that I, too, am closer to the end.
The end is something we all must face and it will always be too soon. This is one of the reasons I practice Zen—to examine the questions I have about life and death.
With a few years of practice, I still have questions, but they have evolved: How do I save sentient beings? How do I achieve a life well-lived? What do I do with the precious time I have left? How do I have peace of mind knowing I’ll eventually face physical death? No one can answer these questions for me, but a teacher can point the way to the truth.
That’s what happened when Nyogen Roshi began giving talks based on the book, Zen: The Authentic Gate by Koun Yamada Roshi (1907-1989). It’s one of those “bare bones” Zen books—a roadmap to practice—that you can read many times over and always find the guidance you need.
As a dharma brother of Maezumi Roshi and a fellow successor of Yasutani Roshi, Yamada’s teaching sounds familiar. He trained in the Sanbo Kyodan organization of Yasutani Roshi, which blended Soto and Rinzai traditions and viewed lay practice as equal to monastic training. Nyogen Roshi met Yamada Roshi many years ago, and attests that he was not a “mythological character” but rather a modern-day businessman who happened to be a Zen master.
Yamada was known for breaking down barriers in practice and welcoming Christians into Zen practice, including many Catholic clergy. In this book, he stresses that the experience of enlightenment is available to anyone. He explains that the misconception of Zen as a religion is simply the result of a translation error. In Japan, he writes, the “Zen way of Buddhadharma was given the name shukyo to mean the ‘teaching of the source.'” Although shukyo was strictly a Buddhist term, in the middle of the nineteenth century there was a cultural shift to absorb Western thought and culture in Japan. With this shift, translators adopted the word shukyo for the English word “religion.” This caused confusion because Zen was thereafter included with a myriad Western religious views. Yamada refutes that, saying “If we were to ask if Zen is a religion in the general sense of the term, we would have to say, ‘No.'”
This was helpful to me because I came from a Catholic background. He makes it clear that the practice of Zen Buddhism has nothing to do with whether I believe in God, Allah or anything for that matter. Zen practice is the way to discover my True Self and find peace of mind in this lifetime.
In Zen we vow to save all sentient beings, but what is salvation? Yamada explains the difference between the Christian and Buddhist views on this subject. “The Christian view is that one believes God’s absolute love saves us and that if we take the hand of God we will be saved from suffering and calamity. The Buddhist view, however, states that we are nothing but perfect, complete, infinite and absolute existence.” This realization cannot be reached using the intellect but only through experience. Our ignorance gets in the way. “All human suffering stems from the paradox that while we are perfect in nature, we live in the phenomenal world as imperfect, limited, relative, mortal and fallible,” Yamada writes. “This happens because we are unaware of our true nature.”
To realize our True Self we must discover the “joy of this moment,” Yamada tells us. If we don’t have the actual experience we cannot embody the True Self and know for ourselves the peace it brings. How? “The quickest and most direct route to an experience of realization of the True Self is the practice of zazen.”
He also stresses the importance of working with a teacher. “If you do not find an authentic teacher, it is not worth practicing Zen” because “one’s realization depends on the authenticity or incompetence of the teacher.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself, By God, I have this down, only to later realize I was in total delusion. Nyogen Roshi has a way of making me look at things I unknowingly keep hidden from myself. Freedom is found by staying open and looking where his teaching directs me to look.
According to Yamada, one of the most pernicious forms of delusion is attachment to Dharma, such as “speaking indiscriminately and elatedly about meditation in front of others and going to great lengths to promote zazen, dragging in people who aren’t really interested in Zen meditation.” He goes on to warn, “Not only do such actions damage our own virtue, they give others a false understanding of Zen and may cause them to dislike or make fun of it. We should always keep our practice a secret from others.”
Yes, I am working on the delusion of “attachment to Dharma” right now. My ego wants to talk about Dharma to everyone. Many times I’ve pontificated on the virtues of my practice to friends and family only to get responses like: Look, I grew up with you. Who do you think you’re kidding? Should we be worried? Are you joining some kind of cult?
Given all the questions I have about why, how and what, it’s not surprising that one of my favorite chapters in Yamada’s book is on cause and effect, or karma. Like Yamada states, everyone believes in cause and effect to some extent, but will mix in hazy ideas about chance and fate. “Buddhadharma, however, states outright that all phenomena are the inevitable manifestations of cause and effect.”
Yamada goes on to tell us that there are good versus evil actions and how effects from causes can occur. Small causes can have big effects over time, and keeping good acts secret can prolong the positive effects. Finally, he points out that some causes have simultaneous effects. My takeaway is to be ever-mindful of the power I have to shape the next moment by my thoughts, words, and actions.
How do I have peace of mind knowing I’ll eventually face physical death? In this book, Yamada Roshi reiterates the authentic teaching: By taking care of what appears in front of me.