Sanbo Kyodan Zen : The Heritage of Western Zen

I would now like to draw the reader’s attention to the subject of Zen as presented in Tricyle which tends, in my opinion, to reflect Zen’s most popular form in America, namely, "Sanbo Kyodan Zen" (hereafter, SKZ). For the sake of brevity, I will present a brief historical sketch of SKZ then conclude by making a few comments on SKZ’s relationship with the spirit of traditional Chinese Zen.

Sanbo Kyodan (Three Treasures Association) is a contemporary lay Zen organization which was formally established by Yasutani Hakuun (1885–1973) in 1954. Based on the teachings of Harada Daiun (1871–1961), who, by the way, was Yasutani’s teacher, the SKZ project of Yasutani established a new kind of Japanese Zen which was a synthesis of Sôtô and Rinzai Zen, utilizing what he believed to the best elements of each school. Owing to the dynamic vision and leadership of Yasutani, SKZ sidestepped the elder Japanese Zen institutions of Sôtô, Rinzai, and Ôbaku which in Yasutani’s opinion were degenerate, being little more than religious guilds designed to promote and preserve their own special interests. As a result of Yasutani’s efforts, SKZ became an organization open to the public in which anyone could participate and straightaway involve themselves in Zen’s mystical pursuit of truth. Indeed, this was a great advance for Zen and helped to popularize it.

Without the need to perpetuate a "clergy", SKZ directed its attention, instead, towards the process of gaining kensho (understanding) of one’s true nature. Of especial note, Harada and Yasutani were geniuses in developing the SKZ system in which the zenic experience of kensho could be realized rapidly. Subsequently, SKZ proved to be popular. Its brilliantly conceived pedagogical scheme offered anyone a chance to have an authentic ‘insight’ into their true nature. During SKZ practice, for example, practitioners pushed themselves to attain a ‘first kensho’ with the help of SKZ teachers who were more like coaches. And if they were lucky and kenshoed their status in SKZ immediately shot up as they were treated differently than the rest of the members who had not attained kensho. Still, after this initial awakening, there were many more levels of kensho—and much koan work to ponder.

Looking at SKZ broadly, SKZ can be categorized as "New Religion" (J. shin shûkyô) which while not being strictly a "cult" in American terms, is not traditional either. In this sense, SKZ represents more of a reform—at least a strategy to popularize Zen. Interestingly, SKZ has no legal affiliation with either Sôtô, Rinzai, or Ôbaku except perhaps a titular one as Yasutani gave up his legal standing with Sôtô, having resigned it in protest. Strictly speaking, SKZ is its own boy, so to speak, and to this day is every bit independent of Sôtô, Rinzai, and Ôbaku Zen institutions.

Key to understanding the influence of SKZ in America and Europe is Philip Kapleau’s book, The Three Pillars of Zen, first published in 1965. Not really a book about Japanese Sôtô Zen or Rinzai Zen per se, rather it provides a glimpse into the inner workings of SKZ’s principles through which SKZ emerged to become the dominate Zen of the West. It contains popular themes about Zen which have become the staple of present day Zennists. Yet, it would be wrong to blindly accept the material contained in The Three Pillars of Zen as being the heart of Zen—classical Chinese Zen, that is. There is much presented in Kapleau’s book which is more indicative of SKZ revisionism than Zen. For one thing, SKZ does not handle koans in the traditional Chinese manner or the traditional manner used in Rinzai Zen today. In The Three Pillars of Zen there is virtually no mention of the hua-t’ou exercise of Zen master Ta-hui except an offhand reference to wato/hua-t’ou on page 336 which is left undefined. (Hua-t’ou means "antecedent-to-word" and stands for Unborn Mind before the word is spoken.) Contrasting this with Zen master Hsu Yun’s treatment of the kung-an/koan exercise in Charles Luk’s book Ch’an And Zen Teaching (First Series), one quickly gets the impression that there is a huge gap between the two methods. Ignored, too, in SKZ’s treatment of Zen, is Buddhism, itself, more specifically, Mahayana Buddhism. In The Three Pillars of Zen Kapleau glosses that since "Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures" Sûtras merely act "as a spur to full enlightenment" (p. 345)! Given the fact that Bodhidharma, the First Chinese Patriarch, sealed his student’s kensho with the Lankâvatâra Sutra, it seems rather ironic for SKZ to regard Sûtras as a mere "spur". Without the Sûtras, as Zen master Tsung-mi points out, there is no criterion by which to check to see if one’s enlightenment chimes with the Buddha’s. While it is propagandized into the public mind of contemporary Zen to automatically disrate the Sûtras, there can be no question that Sutra study is necessary towards achieving a full understanding of Zen. Nevertheless, this anti-sutric attitude prevails today—and still serves to attact non-Buddhists to SKZ related teachings who ignore the Buddha’s discourses. In fact, under the tenure of Yamada-Roshi who became Yasutani’s successor, a number of Catholic priests and nuns joined SKZ and became recognized. Yamada felt that kensho transcended religiosity—and to a certain extent it does. But there is far more to Buddhism than kensho which its Sûtras set out to explain and which other religions cannot explain.

Most tellingly, SKZ has made a huge impact on the American and European psyche. Propagated by an active retinue of teachers they insure that Zen’s hue is Sanbo Kyodan style Zen. Impressive, the list of SKZ related teachers, most of whom are no longer associated with the parent organization in Japan, reads like a Who’s Who of American Zen Buddhism. Under the leadership of Yasutani, we recognize such names as Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Maezumi,
Joko Beck, Bernard Glassman, Peter Matthiessen, John Loori, Dennis Merzel, Ross Bolleter, and John Tarrant. This partial list does not even include their successors!

Understandably, one can conclude from what has been presented thus far that Western Zen is not balanced, as it is predominately SKZ. And that can lead to certain drawbacks. One in particular is that the slant of Zen publications may be affected by editors who are unknowingly sympathetic to SKZ related teachers and their SKZ teachings. Not a sinister plot, however, intended to control the direction of Zen, nevertheless, there needs to be some public recognition that Zen is not exclusively Sanbo Kyodan Zen. Nor does American Zen require quasi-legal Zen Buddhist associations created by SKZ teachers which serve to determine who is certified and who is not. Zen is quite free to stand on its own two feet as everyone is free to judge for themselves the Zen they deem valuable. Indeed, this is what Yasutani Hakuun would have wanted.

Resource: Japanese Journal of Religious Studies: Sanbokyodan - Zen and the way of New Religion (file in PDF format)