Posted inBlue Cliff, Dogen, Gateless Gate, Koans, Mu, Other Teachings

Sanbo (Three Treasures) Zen: Part 3 of 3

April 3, 2015

Joan Rieck presented this piece at an international conference held at Tiantong Monastery in China in the Fall of 2014 – the very temple where Dogen had his great enlightenment experience of “body and mind falling away.”  Click to Read Sanbo Zen: Part 1 and Part 2


Yasutani Roshi’s organization Sanbō Kyōdan was legally recognized as an independent Zen Buddhist religious organization on January 8th 1954. As had been the case under Harada Roshi, there were lay people and non-Japanese members from overseas among Yasutani’s students. He used his freedom as the founder of a new Zen school to institute Sanbō Kyōdan as a lay line with a simplified structure.

Yasutani felt that Zen practitioners would profit from engaging in both Sōtō and Rinzai practice. In the Preface to his book Shōyōroku Dokugo (Soliloquy on the Book of Equanimity), he writes about Masters Tahui Tsungkao (1089-1163) and Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157) who were very close friends but held differing principles of guidance and views of Zen. They were uncompromising in their respective stances, which succeeding generations of their followers carried on. Yasutani writes:

. . . and so, as a matter of course, the distinguishing characters of Sōtō Zen and Rinzai Zen came to find their expression. On this score, I think that it would be highly desirablefor Zen practitioners to study both the Hekigan-roku and the Shōyō-roku closely and acquire the strong points of both Rinzai and Sōtō Zen. (5)

Yasutani goes on to say that when Hongzhi Zenji was dying, he placed all his affairs in the care of Dahui Zenji, and adds:

As successors to such wise men of old, we, too, should discard our sectarian egos, let go of prejudiced views, and learn the merits of both Sōtō and Rinzai. (6)

In this regard, it is possible that Yasutani Roshi felt he was directly following the path of his ancestors Harada Dai’un Roshi and Dōgen Zenji, who likewise trained in both Sōtō and Rinzai Zen, and whose writings and teachings reflect that joint inheritance. Although Yasutani was sometimes critical of the Rinzai and Sōtō schools, he owed them much and expressed his deep gratitude to the many masters from whom he had received Dharma teaching during his long years of training.(7)  Following the example of Harada Roshi, he emphasized zazen and koan practice aimed at the attainment of kensho in his teaching, but he also taught the practices of breath counting, breath following and shikantaza (just sitting). The curriculum of koan study in Sanbō Zen includes the Sōtō texts Shōyōroku (Book of Equanimity), Denkōroku (The Transmission of Light), and Dongshan Liangjie’s (Tōzan Ryōkai’s) Go-I (Five Ranks), as well the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate), Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Record) and koans from Hakuin Zenji used in Rinzai. Shikantaza is held up as the highest type of Zen practice in Sanbō Zen and especially recommended to students upon completion of koan study with a master.

In 1970, Yasutani Roshi resigned as the abbot of Sanbō Zen and was succeeded by Yamada Kō’un Roshi (1907-1989), who ten years earlier had been appointed one of Haku’un Roshi’s first Dharma successors.  Yamada was a businessman with a family and remained a layman, traveling to work in Tokyo daily, as he took on the added responsibilities of Zen master. With the encouragement and support of his wife, Dr. Kazue Yamada, he built the small San’un (Three Clouds) Zendo within the family compoundin Kamakura; it is still the main training hall of Sanbō Zen in the present day.  Yamada remained close friends with his former roommate at Tokyo First High School, Nakagawa Sōen, who was instrumental in Yamada’s taking up the practice of zazen in the early 1940’s and became a well-known Rinzai master and haiku poet. Kō’un Roshi spoke English and carried on the tradition begun by Harada Dai’un Roshi of being open to sharing the Dharma with all seekers of good will, accepting as students people of other national and religious backgrounds who came to him for guidance. Among them were highly motivated Christian pastors, priests and nuns, a number of whom later received permission from him to lead others in Zen practice. Kō’un Roshi often spoke and wrote of his desire to help people around the world experience their ‘common ground,’ the essential nature, through the practice of zazen. He felt that anyone with a human nature could practice Zen, and that it was the true way to achieve lasting peace in the world.

The third abbot of Sanbō Zen, Kubota Ji’un Roshi (1932–) is a former businessman who has lived and worked in the West. He began practicing Zen as a teenager after his brother died at a young age and trained under both Haku’un Roshi and Kō’un Roshi, eventually receiving Dharma transmission from both. Following Kōun Roshi’s death in 1989, Kubota Roshi became the head of Sanbō Zen and served as abbot for 15 years, carrying on the school’s emphasis on the practice of zazen, koan study, and coming to realization.

In 2000, as abbot of Sanbō Zen, Kubota Roshi published an apology in the Kyōshō for Yasutani Haku’un Roshi’s repeated promotion of the Japanese military during World War II and his voicing of right-wing and anti-Semitic ideology, both during and after the war. After continuing to teach Zen in Tokyo and Germany for years, Kubota Roshi retired this year, 2014, from all official teaching activities of Sanbo Zen on account of his advanced age.

The present abbot of Sanbō Zen is Yamada Ryō’un Roshi (1940–), who works as a businessman along with his duties as head of the Zen school. Ryō’un Roshi began Zen practice under Yasutani Roshi at the age of 16, when his father–who later became Kō’un Roshi–was also Yasutani’s student. After Yasutani’s retirement, he continued his Zen training under the guidance of his father and received Dharma transmission from him.  In 2004, Ryō’un Roshi succeeded Kubota Roshi as abbot. He travels frequently to Sanbō Zen centers around the world to hold sesshin and continue the work of spreading the Dharma received through the teaching of Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi, and carried on by Yamada Kō’un Roshi and Kubota Ji’un Roshi.

In general, Sanbō Zen has an emphasis on two things: zazen practice itself, and a clear experience of kensho or awakening, which can then be further deepened and clarified through ongoing zazen and koan study with a teacher. The school has less emphasis on ritual and the traditional trappings of monastic Zen practice, which in turn serves its history and identity as a line open not only to lay practitioners, but to people of any or no religious affiliation.

In spite of being a small Zen school in Japan, through the pioneering work of its abbots, Sanbō Zen has come to have an influence far afield, in Europe, North America, the Philippines, Australia and Singapore. In the 1960’s Yasutani traveled to the United States seven times to hold sesshin and give Dharma talks. Yamada Kō’un in his time also taught abroad and authorized some dozen westerners to teach Zen; they have now trained a new generation of western teachers in fifteen countries, all of them also sanctioned by later abbots of the organization. There are around 3,000 students within the organization worldwide. In addition, several other overseas lines of Zen derive from Sanbō Zen, such as the Diamond Sangha and White Plum Asanga in North America and Australia, and the Willigis Jaeger line in Germany. Today, Sanbō Zen is restructuring itself in order to support the international nature of its activities.

Author: Joan Rieck (with some help from Sato Migaku and Henry Shukman)


(5) Yasutani Haku’un, Shoyoroku Dokugo (Soliloquy on the Book of Equanimity), Preface, 1961.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Yasutani Haku’un, Shushogi Sanka, Preface

Image Credit: Zen Gold, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Featured Image Credit: Ordinary Mindness is the Way, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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