In Memorium Ryuho Yamada
This is a memorial biographical tribute to Ryuho Yamada (Reuho* here) written by his first wife, Shirley Cohen, I believe for his funeral or a memorial service. Asterisks (as after the word Reuho above) indicate there's a note below. Thanks to Shirley for writing it and sending it to us. -- DC
Out from a Cloud, the Dharma/Treasure of the Dragon-Great Teacher/Priest
Reuho was born in a beautiful and distinguished, old Zen temple in Beppu, Japan. Beppu is noted throughout Japan for its wonderful hot springs and its lovely setting along the northern coast of Kyushu, near Monkey Mountain (Takasakiyama). His mother was a mother of four, a tea practitioner and a devoted temple wife. His father, Seisetsu (Pure Snow) Kodo Roshi, was the head priest of Choshoji for more than 60 years. There are photos in the family album of Reuho in formal Zen robes, at the age of three, accompanying his father on his memorial service rounds. After his graduation from the university in English Literature, he had to decide what he wanted to do with his life; he decided to go to Eiheiji, the largest and oldest Soto Zen monastery in Japan for training as a Buddhist monk.
Not long after he completed his training, he met a great shiatsu teacher named Master Masunaga, author of the authoritative work in shiatsu named, Zen Shiatsu, and he began to study shiatsu and acupuncture very diligently with him over the course of several years. At a certain point, Reuho began to combine Masunaga's shiatsu technique together with his strong meditation practice and became a strong practitioner of this very effective, healing method.
Then, having heard much about Antaiji, a strict Zen practice place, he decided to go there to study and train with a great Zen master at Antaiji, near Kyoto. He always spoke highly of his experience at Antaiji, a place which deepened his self awareness and commitment to the path of Zen Buddhism. One day while he was there, the head priest showed him a letter that he'd received from Suzuki Roshi, the founder and head priest of the Zen Center at Tassajara, Green Gulch* and in San Francisco, and author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. He very much wanted his teacher to quickly send him one of his best monks, one who could speak and understand English, to help him train his students in traditional Zen practice. Reuho was pleased to accept the opportunity and arrived in San Francisco in the early '70's*. But when he arrived, he found Suzuki Roshi in poor health; in fact he was dying of terminal cancer. He gave the Roshi shiatsu every day until he died about three months later. Reuho then spent some time in Tassajara which was, and still is, a beautiful American Zen practice place along the rugged Californian coast. Legend has it that he was a very strict and earnest Zen practitioner who knew all the rules of practice and adhered to them.
But one day, a visitor named Evelyn met him there and convinced him to experience psychedelics. This was a turning point experience for him. He decided that hippies had a lot to teach him and he wanted to live amongst them and learn from them. He decided to leave Tassajara and the safe world of the monastery and headed to the Bay Area. He was soon very popular among the free spirits of the 70's who were very interested in his provocative Buddhist messages and his powerful Zen shiatsu technique.
In 1976 he got together with a New York Jewish woman, named Shirley, who was an avid supporter of his unique practice and began to manage his career as a Zen shiatsu teacher and healer. Together they created a temple in Pacific Heights called the Temple of the Lotus Flowers where monks and punks and healers and artists would meet and be exposed to important principles of Zen and healing. Three years later he and Shirley were married.
And three months after that, his elder brother, the current head priest of his family's temple, Choshoji, and great traditional Japanese design teacher, died suddenly. When Reuho went back to Japan to attend the funeral, the temple’s board members, implored him to come back to Japan and take over as head priest. As much as he loved his life in San Francisco, he decided to do it. He cut off his long ponytail and shaved his head. He called his wife and told her the news. She was very happy to hear it. And so began a very colorful chapter of Reuho's life in Beppu. Under his stewardship, the temple became active with a steady stream of young spiritual seekers and travelers. He was very popular among his congregates and, he inspired them to donate generously to rejuvenate the temple, originally established in the 14th Century, not only because it needed it, but because the head priest of all 16,000+ temples in Japan, Niwa Zenji, had agreed to perform Reuho's Shinsanshiki, or installation ceremony.
One of his favorite vacations during that period (1982) was his trip to Bali, Indonesia. It was his first encounter with Hinduism, the Balinese and magic mushrooms. He loved it and always wanted to return. He got his chance several years later when he decided to vacation there after his visit to a psychic surgeon in the Philippines to cure the glaucoma that had begun to diminish his vision. He felt very good after he came back to Choshoji from this trip and he organized lectures for the healer in Japan. Also in the early '80s, Reuho produced a series of concerts of hypnotic, meditative music for Indian flute master,G.S. Sachdev in 14 of Japan's most distinguished shrines and temples. In between these activities, Reuho associated himself with a colorful array of young musicians, artists, monks, healers and quietly guided their thoughts to ever higher planes of consciousness in his own inimitable way.
By the eighth year of his life at Choshoji, Reuho began to become very interested in Shinto, the national cosmology of the Japanese. He made many, many pilgrimages to famous and esoteric Shinto shrines and met many teachers. Real Shinto practice, they say, is difficult, if not, impossible for most Americans to practice, filled as it is with esoteric symbols and numerology and based as it is on the imperial lineage. The deeper study and practice of Shinto called to him powerfully, so one day in the winter of 1985, he made the decision to step down as head priest of Choshoji and say goodbye to his father, mother, wife, sisters and community. Shirley was as astonished as everyone else that he could so matter-of-factly leave his beautiful 26 room temple, with an 80 tatami mat main hall, surrounded by a beautiful garden with ponds and tall pines. She waited for four months for him to change his mind but he didn't, so she left in April of 1986 while the cherry blossom flowers were still in bloom.
In the following years he lived on a mountain near his favorite Shinto shrine, Tenkawa, about two hours from Kyoto. He lived the simple life with his new companion, Noriko and her young teenage son. At a certain point, he fulfilled his fantasy of going to the Amazon jungle to meet the practitioners of the ayawasuka tea, made from a potent hallucinogenic vine. Apparently, this trip was a pivotal experience for him as well.
Some years later, he decided to accept the invitation of one of his old American hippie friends to come and teach Zen Shiatsu for a while in the San Francisco Bay Area. He yearned to be back in America again where people were so open and he felt free. He began to come each year for a little while to refresh himself and introduce his brand of Zen wisdom and healing to others. It was a good arrangement.
It was on one such trip to the U.S. when he was visiting his old friend in Hawaii that he met and married Mayumi.
Around 2002, his dear friend and dharma colleague, Kobun Roshi, invited him to come to Jikoji, an American Zen temple deep inside the woods of the Skyline Highway near Palo Alto which happens to have a traditional Indian sweat lodge on its grounds. As a man with a family, a temple in New Mexico where he lived and yearly obligations to lecture in Europe, "Kobun" asked Reuho for his help in guiding the young people who came to the temple to practice Zen. Reuho was, at first, reluctant to take on this duty, but didn't want to disappoint his friend who had invested a lot of effort into this place over the years. He accepted with a gassho (a formal bow). However, not too much later*, he contracted colon cancer and had to undergo treatments that precluded him from fulfilling his obligation. Then last year, his friend Kobun died suddenly while on vacation in Switzerland. By then Reuho's cancer had spread to his liver and he had to spend the better part of each day getting treatments.
Despite his declining condition, Mayumi’s love for Reuho and his life’s work deepened with each passing day. Even though, Reuho’s eyesight was so poor that he was declared legally blind, he recognized her graceful, caring heart and her Bodhisattva nature. She has been by his side as a devoted wife and tireless nurse for the last two, most difficult, years of his life.
Though Reuho had no children, he leaves behind a long list of people who became their best selves because of his influence on their lives. He lived his life, with great depth and humor, with honor and integrity, with courage, with discipline and with great, great modesty. Reuho, the monk, the healer, the visionary, the shaman, the mystic, the priest, the lover, the friend, the spiritual teacher is now gone, but his legend lives on.
If you close your eyes and get very, very quiet, you might be able to see him far, far above us, surfing a wild windstorm, deliriously happy to be released from his body, laughing all the way up to heaven.
Notes from the *asterisks* above
*Ryuho is how his name would normally be romanized. That's what I use. But it's not pronounced like we would and that romanization, Reuho, would probably come closer to how they say it than Ryuho since their R is from the front of the mouth, not the throat.. See How to Pronounce Shunryu.
*He came in September, 1971.
*Suzuki Roshi was not the head priest of Green Gulch which was bought by the Zen Center after he died, but is called the founder because he wanted the ZC to get a farm.
*Ryuho had cancer before 2002 and before he married Mayumi. He had an operation and was quite ill in the fall of 2000.