A Straight Road with Many Curves

Gregory Shepherd looks back on his Zen training in Japan with the late Yamada Roshi and the difficult lessons he learned.

By Gregory Shepherd

Illustration by Sydney Smith

As I sat In full lotus alone and arhat-like at San Un Zendo late one afternoon, a tiny particle of my psyche promised the rest of me that it would always remember the date: January 8, 1973. The brain-penetrating aroma of a kerosene space heater along with incense from the altar urn gave a sweet scent to the winter air, making mere breathing a pleasure; but since I was deeper in samadhi than I had ever been before, I only needed about two or three breaths per minute. Diminishing slants of winter sunlight tinted the zendo a muted red, and the windless day lay absolutely still, just like my consciousness, with the only sound being the faint barking of a dog in the far distance. The same tiny and almost completely hushed part of my psyche that noted all this then percolated a bubble of thought that whispered, “I need nothing.”

Yamada Roshi had recently used similar words during one of his teisho — “Kore de takusan” (“This is all I need”) — while slapping his thighs in emphasis to indicate total spiritual self-sufficiency. For the first time in my life I felt an utterly untroubled contentment, without even the usual houseflies of random thoughts buzzing in my mind’s ear. What I wouldn’t realize until much later, however, was that Yamada Roshi’s statement and the bubble of thought that crossed my mind were about quite different things. Mine was about the narcotic-like effect that deep samadhi had on my spirit, an effect that lasted only a little while after zazen before fading away. Yamada Roshi’s statement was about realizing one’s true nature, which I still didn’t understand to any real depth.

True insight is a realization of the essential oneness of the universe, an experience that goes beyond logic and explanation. It is “the peace that passeth understanding” because there is no ego there to understand it. It just is, and it fills the universe. For me, though, on that day, the self-sufficiency I felt was dependent on the spiritual condition of me feeling tranquil. Years later, I would realize that in order to say, “This is all I need” with full appreciation, I would have to be tranquillity itself, with no me getting in the way. Although my mind in that moment had the quality of still water, I was still holding something back. It was still my samadhi.

As I emerged an hour later from zazen, my now more active mind tried to analyze this feeling of complete tranquillity, and I recalled the koan I was working on called “Snow in a Silver Bowl.” I was positive the koan had to be about the ineffably peaceful purity I had just experienced in my samadhi, which was fast becoming my private treasure, my literal inner sanctum. It was as close to a feeling of perfection as I had ever felt, perfection in some form being something I had long been seeking.

The next koan in the series had as its theme a tree with bare branches, and I was equally certain that it must also be about the desolate beauty of absolute samadhi. But at my next dokusan, to my deep consternation, Yamada Roshi sent me on my way to meditate some more, saying that neither koan had anything remotely to do with samadhi—although I felt sure that he was holding something back, deeming me either unready or unworthy or both. undeterred, I continued to cultivate samadhi, often sitting four or more hours a day in hopes of it bursting forth into my own great enlightenment.

The more my samadhi deepened, however, the more removed I felt from the world off my zafu, and I began to begrudge the time I had to spend doing almost anything else. As if reading my mind, Yamada Roshi touched upon this issue in a teisho not long afterward. My Japanese had improved significantly, and I found I could understand more and more of what he said, such as, “Why do Zen people get so attached to samadhi?” he then answered his own rhetorical question: “Because it feels so good. You don’t have a care or worry in the world.” he went on to caution against forming an attachment to even this most equanimous condition of the heart and soul, ending the teisho with his usual theme, “Zen is the practice of ‘ordinary mind.’” It was a caution I disregarded. Whenever my samadhijones started itching, my fix was not far away in the form of another hour or two of zazen. Then life was perfect again—for as long as I sat.

And, indeed, when I didn’t have to deal with people off my zafu, I could continue to savor this serenity and spend hours at a time listening to birds singing in the trees outside the mansion or watching the waves roll in at Yuigahama beach. But when circumstances demanded that I interact socially, a disorienting sense of my “I” disappearing would sometimes seize me out of nowhere, an unnerving phenomenon that I chalked up to makyo hallucinations similar to my experiences under laughing gas at the dentist and while surfing at Waikiki.

I took it as further evidence that I was approaching my Really Big K.

Despite my long hours of peaceful sitting, a practice made possible for me by “Japanese” Zen, I began to find the Japanese cultural baggage saddling Zen to be more and more irksome.

This was, no doubt, born of a samadhi-induced hypersensitivity on my part, rather than any substantial defect in the practice. Any practice anywhere will inevitably be tinged with the culture out of which it springs. But, in my self-imposed arhat isolation, I was developing a real paranoia about Japan. I even found myself occasionally lapsing into the favorite expression of a fellow American San Un Zendo member: “Is this country fucked up or what!”

At the conclusion of each sesshin, the old hands of the sangha were expected to stay behind and help put the zendo back in order. For my first couple of sesshin I was not included in this, since I was too young and too green, but after one in March 1973, a senior leader came up and asked me ever so politely to pitch in. The proper technique for the tatami-cleanup detail, of which I was now part, was to take a damp rag in hand, crouch down, and then literally run while pushing the rag in front of you across the surface of the mats. You had to make sure to do the wiping with as much fervor as that exhibited by your fellow cleaners, or you would be gently chided should you push the rag with insufficient frenzy.

This was a typical instance of where elements of Japanese culture, in this case groupism and manic zeal, had become intertwined and identified with Zen practice. It was really a minor thing, objectively speaking, but it was no less grating on my nerves owing to the paranoia spreading through my psyche, a paranoia born of the separation I felt between myself and this strange culture that, as fate would have it, was the crucible of the spiritual practice that meant so much to me.

A week after this session, Yasutani Roshi, Yamada Roshi’s own teacher, delivered the teisho at zazenkai (a one-day mini sesshin) and afterward conducted a Buddhist jukai (confirmation) ceremony. I was one of those confirmed, and he placed around my neck a foot-square cloth halter known as a rakusu as a symbol of the patchwork rags Shakyamuni Buddha had worn after his supreme enlightenment. This indicated that I was now, on paper at least, a Buddhist.

The front of the rakusu was a navy-blue pleated rectangle of cotton, with a strap for hanging around the neck, while the back was white linen on which was penned, in calligraphy, a kanji inscription appropriate to the person wearing the garment. on mine, Yasutani Roshi had inscribed a passage from the “Ten ox-herding pictures” that read “Riding the ox,” a symbol of enlightenment. I’m sure at this remove that he was merely making a pun on the animal-husbandry connotation of my last name, but at the time I was certain he was singling me out for my deep attainment, perhaps even at Yamada Roshi’s behest, the latter’s way of telling me I was making great Zen strides but without doing so directly. on the one hand I was souring on Zen’s cultural trappings; on the other I was convinced that Japanese Buddhism would live on through me. I would revive the dead cicada, Yamada Roshi’s metaphor for what had happened to true Zen in Japan.

One day not long after, as I was vacuuming the Yamadas’ living room rug, Yamada Roshi’s wife, oku-sama, started talking about my future in a way that took me by surprise. She began by saying that I should go back to college and get a degree, find a woman to marry, and then come back to Japan to complete my koan study with Yamada Roshi. At the end of her comments she added, “And then, you will become a wonderful roshi.” The Japanese term she used was “subarashii roshi.”

It appeared that she had already spoken to Yamada Roshi about this, as she then turned to him as he sat in his chair listening to Beethoven and said, “Right?” he grunted over the music as if to say, “Well, we’ll see if he’s up to it,” before saying out loud in a serious tone, “You must make Zen your life’s work.” he then closed his eyes again in Beethoven rapture.

I was floored. This time he really seemed to be acknowledging my Zen achievement, and my chest swelled with pride. All my misgivings about Zen’s Japanese cultural trappings evaporated in that instant. But little did I know, my ambivalence toward Japan itself was about to reach its crisis point.

My feelings of estrangement from Japanese society had deepened considerably over the past twelve months as a result of all the shouted “gaijin!” of obnoxious schoolchildren, as well as the cautious stares from adults who seemed to be fearing I might suddenly ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Japan had had an official policy of isolation for over two hundred years in an attempt to keep itself “pure” of foreign pollution. now a different sort of isolation was at play, expressed in phrases like ware ware nihonjin (“we Japanese,” as opposed to “you barbarians”) and waga kuni (“our country,” as opposed to “your barbaric one”). Around this time, I ran into Koji, the lead singer from the rock group Ball whom I hadn’t seen in months, and we had a conversation about Zen and “Japanese uniqueness,” or rather I was the passive recipient of his wisdom on the topic.

“Are you still studying Zen?” he asked. I replied that I was.

“It must be very difficult for you as a foreigner. everything in Japanese culture comes from Zen, and so we Japanese are born into it. The four seasons, nature, flower arrangement, noh theater—it all comes from Zen. It is easy for Japanese to understand Zen, not so easy for a foreigner, I think.”

Had I just heard right? Did he actually say that the four seasons and nature come from Zen? No wonder it’s dying then, I thought, with this kind of idiotic nonsense being bandied about. At the same time, though, I felt he might be partially right, in the sense of the Japanese having a natural affinity for Zen, since so many of the positive qualities of their culture are infused by it. But I also felt a deep sense of indignation, especially after the “subarashii roshi” conversation, that Koji and no doubt other Japanese held me and my Zen pursuit in such seemingly low regard, as if I were a dog trying to master verb conjugations, when actually I was destined to be a “subarashii roshi.”

Not long after this encounter with Koji, I was hiking through a gathering mist at the top of one of the hills that surround Kamakura. It was my haven from all the gaijin-baiting schoolchildren who tormented me everywhere I went, and every Saturday morning I would find myself there after zazen at San Un Zendo, hiking its trails for hours, my head down in solitary thought. Months earlier I had found off to the side of one of the trails near engaku-ji temple a tiny tatami-floored hut that I had appropriated as my private monk’s koya for a few hours every Saturday and Sunday for some mountain samadhi. on this morning, I settled into a peaceful sitting period in this, my rickety fortress of solitude, when suddenly, out of nowhere and before I had time to react, a group of schoolchildren discovered my retreat, ran over to it, threw open the door, and saw me sitting cross-legged with a look of absolute shock on my face.

Usually, children’s cries of “gaijin!” were reined in by the tongue-clucking of an accompanying adult, but these winsome tykes had raced ahead of their teacher on a school outing, and when they saw me sitting there in half-lotus, bug-eyed at being discovered, they let out with a piercing, collective “gaijin!” as if their country were under attack in a godzilla movie and I was godzilla. Their teacher finally caught up with them, saw me, bowed uncertainly, gave me a funny look, and shooed the kids away. I could hear them all the way down the trail:

“I can’t believe it, we saw a gaijin in that little hut!”

“What was he doing just sitting there?!”

“I think he was doing zazen!!”

“What’s zazen!?” and so forth.

That did it. A line had been crossed. Coming on top of my conversation with Koji, I had reached a breaking point. I now no longer had the false luxury of solitude even in my dusty koya; the little pricks would find me there as they found me everywhere else. And then a primal scream of volcanic proportions erupted from deep within my guts: “I HATE YOU FUCKING PEOPLE AND I HATE YOUR FUCKING COUNTRY!!”

As she poured tea one evening after zazen, oku-sama overheard me saying I was making plans to return to Hawaii, and she commented, “Hawaii is very beautiful, but if you want to study Zen, Japan is the place for it.”

Yamada Roshi sat in his favorite chair listening to Beethoven and said nothing to contradict her, so I assumed he agreed. I then told them that I would be coming back to Japan within the year, something I really had no intention of doing. I had gradually become burnt out from the stress of living in such a foreign foreign country. I also felt like an imposter after my “small but promising” kensho, in that I didn’t feel I really understood anything, but I certainly didn’t want anyone, let alone Yamada Roshi, to know this.

That night I had settled into an extra serene two hours of samadhi in the zendo. But as I now sipped my tea in the Yamadas’ house, I began to feel the dreaded and familiar sensation of my “I” slipping away that I felt so often after samadhi. Yamada Roshi mentioned something about renewing my visa, and I heard his words as if they were both magnified a thousand times and also somehow echoing across a wide and distant chasm. I felt the world closing in, my breathing becoming more and more labored, my pulse now pounding in my ears. every fear and anxiety I had ever felt about my existence had formed into a fiery, molten ball that threatened to explode all over the living room walls. It was the polar opposite of the big bang of great enlightenment I had long hoped for. I got up and rushed outside, drenched in sweat.

I had just had a full-blown panic attack in my teacher’s living room, and this presented a genuine crisis in my continued practice with him—that is to say, I was at risk of losing whatever status I had so recently achieved in his estimation. I had elevated him to a point where I couldn’t confide in him out of fear he might banish me from his lordly realm were I to displease him in any way. There was nothing he did, short of being his serious self when it came to Zen, that contributed to the gulf between us. no, that distance came as a result of my fear of him and the authority he represented, a fear that short-changed both of us. It was also the result of what his teachings represented: the scary Buddhist notion of no-self that had bothered me since high school.


When I had stood in front of San Un Zendo on a brief trip to Japan several years before, I had been too afraid to knock on the gate and re-enter my former spiritual home. But now the time had come.

I kissed Virginia, my ever-patient wife, goodbye for a week and flew to Japan. After a two-hour train trip, I was back in a place that had once been just short of paradise on some days, and a hell on earth born of panic attacks and paranoia on other days. unlike my last fear-attenuated trip to the temple, this time I knocked, opened the latticed gate, and walked under the kan (barrier) calligraphy that hung above the entrance to the zendo. no one was about yet, and for this I was glad, because I was immediately overcome with emotion when I slid open the shoji doors of the zendo and slowly walked to the altar as if in a dream. It was largely unchanged from when I had last seen it over two decades earlier, except for a photo of Yamada Roshi framed in black. he had on his face a smile of the utmost compassion and kindness, a far cry from the gruff visage I had carried with me for so long. I found a stick of incense, lit it, and bowed, tears dampening my cheeks. “Thank you for everything,” I whispered, as I placed the incense in the urn and stood transfixed in the echoing silence for a full half hour, just remembering.

The evening contingent of zazen practitioners began to arrive, and so I plumped up a zafu and sat with them for the next two hours. At the end of that time, ursula okle, one of my old gaijin friends who had been coming to San Un Zendo for three decades now, took me inside the house to meet Yamada Roshi’s wife for the first time in over twenty years. oku-sama showed little sign of her ninety-plus years, and not only did she remember me, she brought up details of my time in Japan that I had forgotten all about. I bowed to her as I left, saying, “Thank you so much, oku-sama. Thank you for everything.”

“Oh, don’t even mention it,” she replied, just as she always had.

Out on the streets of Kamakura during the week I was there, I was in for another pleasant surprise. The shouted “gaijin!” of children had driven me around the bend back when I first lived in Kamakura in the early ’70s. now, not only was I unmolested, but the children seemed not even to notice my foreign other-ness.

The following Sunday was zazenkai, led by Kubota Roshi, whom I had known years ago as Kubota Sensei. He still remembered me. As dokusan time approached, I felt none of the old anxiety I had once felt when “going alone” to see Yamada Roshi. Instead, I was filled with confidence and serenity. At one point during our face-to-face meeting, Kubota Roshi said words that have resonated in my mind ever since: “In kensho we realize there is no intrinsic, permanent ‘I.’ We are completely free.” And there it was. The Buddhist doctrine of no-self that had so terrified me for years. now, though, it represented total liberation from that fear. no limited ego that imprisons one in time and place, birth and death, but rather a universal “I” that is boundlessly liberated, at home everywhere in what Yamada Roshi once called the “homeland of the heart.”

Adapted from A Straight Road with 99 Curves, published by Stone Bridge Press, 2013.

Gregory Shepherd

Gregory Shepherd is an associate professor of music at Kauai Community College in Hawaii. He has been a student of Zen in Hawaii and Japan since the early 1970s.