Japanese Zen Master Yasutani Hakunn Roshi was born in 1885 to a family of meager means, soon being adopted into another family. At the age of five his head was shaved symbolizing Buddhist monkhood and sent to a Rinzai temple, Fukuji-in, located on the coast at the foot of Mount Fuji near the city of Numazu. At the age of eleven he moved to a second nearby Rinzai temple, Daichu-ji. A little over a year later, following an altercation with a fellow student, he moved to a Soto temple, Teishin-ji, studying under Yasutani Ryogi, from which he took his name. At age sixteen he went to Denshin-ji temple, also Soto sect, in Shimoda, some seventy-five miles away on the tip of the Izu peninsula to continue study and serve as an attendent to Nishiari Bokusan Zenji
Throughout his twenties, thirties, and up to age forty Yasutani continued his studies and training in Japan, travelling from temple to temple studying under a variety of Buddhist priests and Zen masters searching for the Truth. At age thirty Yasutani married and, although a priest, because no temple was avaiable, began a ten year career as an elementary teacher and principal. In the interim he had five children.
Even though married and teaching at the elementary level he continued to travel and study under various masters throughout his tenure searching for a genuine master. In 1925, at age forty, he found his master, giving up his teaching and principalship to become a fulltime Soto sect priest at the Hosshin-ji Temple under the great Zen master of both Soto and Rinzai linage, Harada Daiun Sogaku Roshi.
Two years later under Harada's auspices he attained Kensho. Sixteen years after that, on April 8th, the day Japanese traditionally recognize Buddha's birthday, 1943, at age fifty-eight, Yasutani received Inka Shomei, the Seal of Transmission.
Starting in the summer of 1962 Yasutani Roshi made the first of six trips to the United States, continuing to do so basically yearly up through 1969. On the first visit in 1962 he conducted four to seven day sesshins in Honolulu, Hawaii; Los Angeles and Claremont, California; Wallingford, Pennsylvania; New York, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Washington, D.C. His following five visits to America were similar in scope.
What sets Yasutani Roshi apart from other contempory Zen masters was his fervent, almost zealous drive to synthesize what he considered the strengths and best of the Soto and Rinzai sects, in the process creating a new linage of Zen called Sanbo Kyodan, 'The Fellowship of the Three Treasures,' emphasizing both the Koan AND Kensho backed by Zazan and Shikantaza. For the west, that is, primarily the English speaking countries, on the popular level, Yasutani Roshi is one of perhaps two of the most influential personages in modern Zen, the other being D.T. Suzuki. Yasutani's initial hard core 'Three Treasures' converts have gone on to establish and promote many highly successful Zen centers and Zendos throughout the U.S. and the world under the Diamond Sangha banner.
Yasutani Hakuun 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."
In a special insight to the Addendum, it should be noted the person purported to be the same man that attained Enlightenment under the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi and used by W. Somerset Maugham as the role model for the main character in his novel The Razor's Edge, knew Yasutani, although it is not known if he studied under him. It is known the Wanderling study-practiced under the man's auspices and that he became the Wanderling's spiritual guide and Mentor. It was he who arranged for the Wanderling to study under Yasutani. On more than one occasion the man mentioned the story about Yasutani and the rosary bead he was said to have held in his hand at birth. (source) Also of some interest, it should be mentioned the Wanderling has related his attempts at study-practice under Yasutani turned out less than successful, eventually in the process returning then to his Mentor, with somewhat more positive results. The Wanderling describes his experience in ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT: The Path Unfolds thus:
"The sesshins ran from four in the morning to eight at night. About thirty people attended and we sat in two rows of fifteen facing one another across the room with our backs toward the wall.
"In the morning the master spoke to all of us in assembly and three times a day we met with him in private consultation. The rest of the time we sat in the most ungodly, uncomfortable position anyone could think up. The master was a tall, small-framed man they said was in his late seventies, although he looked much younger. He spoke no english and everything he said had to be translated. What he talked about was similar to what the man next door talked about, only in a context that wasn't as easily cross transferable to my experiences. The master had the same calm serenity as the man next door, but in one of the private sessions when I asked him through the interpreter if his mind had exploded, he turned from the translator's eyes to mine with a flash of rage and his body stiffened, quickly retreating to a relaxed manner with a slight sparkle in his eye. After that, for some reason, the man that walked around the room cracking our backs with a stick to keep us at full concentration, spent more time producing extra welts on my shoulders.
"Near noon on the next to the last day I was surprised to see the man next door come into the sesshin. He was quickly ushered in to see the master and they were together in the master's room for a long time. When he left the master walked with him. They seemed as one. There was no interpreter. By the final day our numbers had diminished greatly and though the master spoke in private with the others, he refused to have private consutation with me. When the last day finally ended and we were leaving, thanking heavens we even survived, the interpreter came to me and said the master wished to speak with me. The master told me three of the our group had realized Kensho and berated me for not being among them. He said I had vast opportunities in my daily existence far beyond most and had not fulfilled the expectations of either him or my mentor. I thanked him, bowed, and left."
Opening paragraph to addendum by Paul David Jaffe, UCSB. For complete article go to: Yasutani Hakuun Roshi: A Biographical Note
ZEN CAN BE FOUND IN ANY ACTIVITY
THE MEETING: An Untold Story of Sri Ramana
SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI: THE LAST AMERICAN DARSHAN
RECOUNTING A YOUNG BOY'S NEARLY INSTANT TRANSFORMATION INTO THE ABSOLUTE DURING HIS ONLY DARSHAN WITH THE MAHARSHI
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
AWAKENED TEACHERS FORUM
The above brief biography is intended only as a beginning introduction to Yasutani Hakuun Roshi. There are major controversies surrounding not only him specifically, but also some of his followers as well, and it is suggested any serious student of Zen, Three Treasures, or Yasutani Roshi read and thoroughly digest the following articles: