Sanbo Zen, an international Zen school based in Kamakura, Japan, has helped significantly in the transmission of the Zen Dharma to the West over the past fifty or sixty years. The Three Pillars of Zen, published in 1965, was based on the teachings of this school, and several well-known teachers in the West studied in the Sanbo Zen lineage, among them Kapleau Roshi, Maezumi Roshi and Robert Aitken Roshi.
Nevertheless, many of these teachers and their successors did not maintain their connection to this source of the Dharma, and there are now few direct Sanbo Zen teachers in America today, Henry Ryu-un being one of them.
In the early decades of the 20th century, a high-ranking Japanese Soto Zen master, Harada Roshi, felt something vital was missing from the Zen in the Soto establishment as he experienced it, and decided to go and train in koan study under a master in Rinzai Zen. He did this to help to clarify the central position in Zen of the direct experience of awakening. Then Yasutani Roshi, another Soto master, joined him, became his student, and founded the Sanbo Kyodan (as it was formerly called), with the stated aim of standing at the origin-point of Buddhism, the awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha, and the origin-point of Japanese Zen, the awakening of Dogen Zenji.
The primary objectives were:
- To bring back the actual experience of deep awakening—the heart of Zen—as a central focus.
- To that end, to offer intensive koan study along the lines formulated by Hakuin Zenji in the 1700’s.
- To make the training available to lay practitioners.
This third aim soon bore fruit: the third leader of Sanbo Zen, Yasutani’s principal successor, was Yamada Koun Roshi, a layman with a family and a job running a large health center.
Generally, Sanbo Zen became known in the West both through its openness to training westerners, and through the popularity of the book The Three Pillars of Zen, which was compiled by three of Yasutani’s students, Yamada Koun Roshi, Kubota Jiun Roshi and Philip Kapleau, under whose name the book was published in the West in 1965.
Soon after inaugurating Mountain Cloud in 1985, “PK,” as he was known to his students, was obliged to return to his center in Rochester, NY, and the zen center entered a new phase of its life. From 1991 to 2006 Father Pat Hawk Roshi visited from his home in Arizona to lead sesshin a few times a year. Thereafter several different teachers taught intermittently at the center. In late 2010, some of the original students of “PK” invited a second Sanbo Zen teacher, Henry Ryu-un Roshi, to come and teach at the center, and in 2013 Henry was officially appointed the center’s teacher.