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Ryuho Yamada in Thank You and OK!

Thank You and OK home page


Ryuho Yamada Memorial Page

DC 1994 Interview with Ryuho Yamada

Ryuho in Crooked Cucumber, the last chapter.


This is an excerpts from Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan, published by Penguin Arkana 1964, 6th printing, 

[Tomorrow I plan to write something on this correcting some of the errors and misunderstandings and some literary license I took which in some cases is off from the literal truth. For instance, I called him Ryuho Otsuji in that book but I changed it to his real name, Ryuho Yamada, here. But the thrust of the story is true. And there's more to tell of it.- DC].


Part II, Settling,. 83

Hogoji [the name I used for the temple where I was - Shogoji]

April 30, 1988 - TEA TIME

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"What did he say?" I turned to Shuko who wouldn't answer. Katagiri had said something to me and everyone was laughing. Finally Katagiri obliged me with the English.

"I see you've still got diarrhea of the mouth, David." It was morning tea break on my second day at Hogoji. I'd been telling about every single thing I'd done so far in Japan, using my primitive Japanese to the limit and getting excited in the fresh energy of making new friends.

"I'm sorry," I said. I could feel myself blushing. It has been said that the all important editing function of my brain is damaged. It seems as if every day of my life since I started going to school, someone has told me in one way or another to be quiet. I looked at an adolescent cherry tree in the courtyard.

"Tell me about yourselves," I said trying to make up for my insensitivity. This just made them laugh more. Katagiri pulled me out of the hole I was digging for myself.

"They want to hear more. Your diarrhea is still new and interesting to them."

"More, more, I beg you," said Koji.

"What were you doing in Fukuoka?" asked Jakushin who was in a much better mood than the day before.

"How did you know I was in Fukuoka?" I asked.

"The bag that you sent ahead came from Fukuoka."

"I was visiting a former monk," I said. "Do any of you know him? His name is Ryuho Yamada."

Katagiri nodded and raised his eyebrows. The others went "ahhhh" and opened their eyes wider.

No one could forget Ryuho who had been a visiting monk at Zen Center years before. He came when Suzuki was starting to get ill. For a while he practiced at Tassajara. He was the camp nerd, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and oh-so-naive. Soon he started picking up on American culture. He was curious about everything. His English improved. In Big Sur someone turned him on to pot and his transformation accelerated. He moved to the Zen Center building in the city so that he could do shiatsu, Japanese pressure point massage, on Suzuki who was by that time clearly dying. In his spare time, Ryuho was learning more and more about the San Francisco of the early seventies. After Suzuki died, Ryuho left Zen Center, no longer able to bear the restrictions. For a while I lost track of him but a year later I saw him at a hippie commune led by a Japanese artist. I used to go there to visit and play music when I was in town from Tassajara. Ryuho had long hair, smelled of patchouli oil and wore blue jeans and a Guatemalan shirt. The nerd was no more.

He had started his own temple in San Francisco and he gave me a card for it, asking me to look him up there. He said that he had an American girlfriend and asked if I'd like to see her picture. I of course said yes and he pulled out a half dozen photos of him and a buxom beauty naked in suggestive poses. And what a temple he had. It was called the Columbus Nichiren-Zen Total Liberation Temple. I asked him why Columbus? and he told me because Columbus discovered America and that he and his students are discovering a new world too. I noticed when I looked at the card that the address was on Columbus Street. That was probably also a contributing factor. I dropped by the place and found Ryuho surrounded by a band of followers which included some young women. He invited me to stay there and fast with them for the afternoon and evening in preparation for taking LSD at midnight. The plan was to chant homage to the name of the Lotus Sutra, a practice of Nichiren Buddhism. It would be "Namu myoho renge kyo," for the first three hours while the effects were peaking and then when we had come back down into the realm of being again we could explore the wonders of our bodies and minds in union. I paused to think. Then I said thanks a lot but I was in the middle of a good book.

The next I'd heard, Ryuho had returned to Japan. His brother had died unexpectedly and he had had to go back home to run the family temple, a large prestigious one in Shikoku. A book on places for Westerners to practice Zen in Japan said that it was a good temple to go to if you wanted to stay up all night involved in lively discussion. He shaved his head and performed his duties well but didn't let Japan hold him back one bit.

"He's the one who was arrested for having LSD in Tokyo, isn't he?" asked Jakushin.

"Yes," I said. All heads moved closer. They seemed to have heard about him. "How do you know about that?" I asked.

"It was on the front page of every newspaper in Japan," said Koji.

"Yeah, I have a friend who was there. He said that he went to a party and all of a sudden the whole house was full of police and that the most interesting thing was that the cops all took their shoes off before entering the house. Ryuho said that someone who was mad at him tipped off the cops. He only ended up getting a suspended sentence, a minor miracle I understand."

"Ryuho didn't go to jail?" asked Jakushin.

"No."

"Why not?"

"He wore his robes to court which established him as a pillar of society. Other monks came in robes to lend him support. So there were he and his friends and the judge all in robes and the judge asked him if he had anything to say before sentencing and Ryuho said that, whereas it was wrong for the average person to experiment with dangerous drugs such as LSD, that it might be okay for an esteemed person like the judge who must be better informed than the general public or a meditator who plummets the depths of the mind. Ryuho said that he had done it as a monk, a pioneer on the fringes of consciousness. He said that being a monk and sitting zazen drove some people crazy too and that it was just an extension of an already dangerous quest."

"He got away with that?" asked Norman.

"Yes, but he also said that he now knew that he was wrong to try artificial methods and that he would never touch drugs again. The judge said that he would have sent him to jail if he hadn't explained himself so well." I didn't mention that Ryuho had told me that getting busted had helped turn his life around for the better. He said that he'd run the whole course from grass to acid to PCP and at the time of the arrest he was considering smuggling heroin to Japan from Thailand, not exactly what Buddhists would call "right livelihood." He'd gotten about as far off the Eightfold Path as a monk could. Then he got busted and from that point, he said, everything happened perfectly to assist him in charting a new course for his life. He went back to his temple and his wife and led a calmer life. I asked him how on earth could he stay as the jushoku-san, the head of the temple, after having received a suspended sentence for drugs. Why didn't his congregation throw him out? He said, "Oh you know Japanese. They pretended it never happened. They don't like to bust big shots here. The judge even pretended the whole thing was over LSD when I'd been arrested with marijuana and cocaine as well. There was a lot of overlooking going on."

"You can't get much luckier," said Norman. "Japan has a merciless criminal justice system."

"But he left his temple, didn't he," asked Shuko.

"Yep. He said that he stayed there for a couple of years more and then one day he just walked out. He decided to reject the glory and the duty and become a regular person. His wife, an American woman, the same one from the pictures, had to run the temple for a year by herself which makes her one of the only non-Japanese ever to be in charge of a temple in Japan - certainly, the only lay woman foreigner to do so. I ran into her in America just before I left the Bay area and she gave me Ryuho's address. He does shiatsu in Fukuoka now and he has a lot of interesting friends who he sits up with late at night talking."

"Did you take LSD with him in Fukuoka?" Jakushin asked.

"No, no, no, of course not," I said to the curious monks. "He doesn't do that anymore. But he and his girlfriend took me to a Shingon priest, a lady, who led us to a waterfall where we put on white robes and stood in gassho beneath a hammering cold waterfall for an hour."

"Takishugyo!" said Maku, waterfall practice.

I paused thinking for a second. "You know, I learned something important from Ryuho."

"What?" asked Koji and Jakushin in unison.

"I learned about takkyubin."

They looked puzzled. "Takkyubin?" It's the Japanese package delivery system.

"Yes, when he saw me off at the train station he said that I should send all of my bags ahead like everyone else. I said it was too expensive and he said, 'This is Japan. Japanese people are not afraid to spend money. The money will come. Do it.' I just sent the heaviest one. If I'd listened to him my back wouldn't be hurting. That's what I learned from Ryuho." They looked disappointed.

 

The story about Ryuho had blown everyone's mind. To me it had just been dropping in on an old friend who now leads a simple life. But to them it was a dangerous and exciting adventure. They asked what I planned to do when I left and I told them that first I would go stay for a few days with the logger I'd met in the yakitori restaurant in Kikuoka. I was interested in seeing what his lifestyle and business were like.

"Do you want to meet Japanese women?" asked Koji, "Have a Japanese wife?"

"Oh... I don't have any ideas..."

"Don't you have a girlfriend?" asked Shuko.

"Yes, well, no, not now. Maybe," I said wavering. "She's far away and we don't know..."

"Are you engaged?" said Maku.

"No no."

"And what next?" asked Koji. "What after the logger?"

"I don't know in particular," I said. "Just whatever happens."

"Don't you have a plan?"

"To look around and visit some people. Friends and friends of friends, priests, artists. Maybe look for a teacher. And I gotta find a place to live."

"You must have a lot of money," said Maku.

"Oh no, not at all."

"But it's so expensive in Japan," he said almost with alarm.

"I have many friends to look up. I'll hitchhike if I have to."

They all said oh no don't do that, it's dangerous.

"Are you serious? Japan isn't dangerous at all. The foreigners I've talked to say it's one of the easiest countries in the world to hitchhike in." They continued, though, insisting that I shouldn't hitchhike.

"Where will you live? What will you do?" Jakushin asked as if I hadn't just said.

"I'll find out," I said. "It will come. The universe will provide."

This was met with a mix of incredulity and interest from Koji, Jakushin and Maku, the three monks who hadn't been to the States. Shuko and Katagiri had been following along with interest, not surprise, but these others acted as if I was jumping off the edge of the earth into the great unknown.

"Ashita wa asu no kaze ga fuku," said Koji nodding. This was met with grunts and more nods.

"What?" I asked and he repeated it. I thought about it. "The wind blows tomorrow?" I asked looking at Katagiri.

"Tomorrow's wind blows tomorrow," he said. "It means tomorrow will take care of itself. He means it's the way you live."

"That's right," and I tried out the phrase in Japanese. "Ashita wa asu no kaze ga fuku." My attempt was met with laughter but Katagiri assured me it was right.

It was time to go back to raking. A breeze was taking some leaves from a pile I'd gathered together and was tugging them off. I looked at one of the errant leaves and said it again: "Tomorrow's wind blows tomorrow."

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See memorial biographical tribute to Ryuho written by his first wife Shirley Cohen. Search this site for other mentions of Ryuho. More to come soon. - DC

DC 1994 Interview with Ryuho Yamada

Ryuho in Crooked Cucumber, the last chapter.

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