America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Last Interview with the Zen Master
By Dan Geddes
21 January 2015
America's fullness is a bad fullness; an emptiness. America is full of emptiness, because it is too full of fullness. It is even empty of emptiness—but in the bad way. –Yamamoto
Shunryu Yamamoto (’JA-MAH-’MOH-TOH) was one of the earliest and most influential proponents of Zen Buddhism in the United States. Arriving in Los Angeles in June, 1963 he established a Zen monastery and gained a faithful American following.
In February 1972 Yamamoto died in a bizarre accident at the Burbank Invitational Dart Championship. Thousands mourned his death. He had done much to shape the American style of Zen Buddhism.
Yamamoto’s brand of Zen Buddhism stressed the complete absurdity of life, and the futility of reason in comprehending it. Instead, he always advised his followers to “follow the Inner Voice.” He always resisted universal moral codes. For Yamamoto, “the only constant in life is change,” and he urged his disciples to constantly adapt to new situations. For a short time Yamamoto was a countercultural icon, and was widely sought out by the media, members of which he always treated with the greatest courtesy.
Unfortunately, he left behind no writings, “not even a laundry list” according to his grieved lifelong confidante, whom he called Baka (’BA KA). Students of Yamamoto are forced to rely on transcriptions of his utterances, and the unreliable memories of his followers. Some have even claimed that he penned the famous 1960s slogan “Make Love, Not War,” but this is unconfirmed by his biographers.
Thus, Yamamoto’s disciples still treasure his December 1971 interview with John Milner of Ladies Man magazine, which would prove to be the last of his life.
BEVERLY HILLS—On Saturday, I interviewed Shunryu Yamamoto in his large condominium two blocks off Rodeo Drive. His confidante, Baka, answered the door, and led me through Yamamoto’s plush quarters, which featured an enormous kitchen, full dining room, and TV room. Baka offered me a Poptart and after I refused he led me down a long hallway to a small bedroom, where we found the Zen master applying paste to the walls.
Yamamoto performed even this humble task with skill and grace. Evidently he was wallpapering the room. Each of the three finished walls featured a different design. The room was in a state of disarray: dirty clothes, cheeseburger wrappers, full ashtrays, books and official documents littered the floor.
After a few words of greeting I believed myself to be in the presence of an extraordinary being. He radiated warmth and kindness. His face was so full of life and his soft bald head was reassuring in a strange way. Yamamoto spoke very slowly. He urged that we sit on the floor and the interview began.
Ladies Man: Master Yamamoto. This country has seen a rapidly growing interest in Zen Buddhism in the last five or ten years. Do you think this is a positive development, and to what degree do you feel responsible for this?
Yamamoto: America needs Zen very much. America needs Zen more than Zen needs America. Look around you. This country has no heart anymore. It is like an empty cup. Full of emptiness, and empty of fullness.
Its fullness is a bad fullness; an emptiness. America is full of emptiness, because it is too full of fullness. It is even empty of emptiness—but in the bad way.
I do not give myself much credit for popularizing Zen in America. It was inevitable anyway. I take credit for nothing. I am just an old man.
Ladies Man: Yet your followers, some of whom hold positions of considerable influence in this country, credit you for their success in life. Some have even donated large sums of money to your Zen Empowerment Temples. Do you see no tension between spiritual and monetary endeavors?
Yamamoto: For some men, making money is the only spiritual path worth following. One must always follow the Inner Voice....A few years back I had an investment banker who came to me seeking wisdom.
He said to me: “Yamamoto, Perfect Being. Simply tell me to give my money away and I will do it. I am unhappy. Money means nothing to me.”
So I said to him: “Listen. Sit quietly. When I return, tell me what you have heard.” So I left him alone and went to run a few errands.
When I returned I asked him: “And what did you hear, my son?” He said: “Nothing.” And I said to him: “You see? When you are at peace, there is nothing. This is the highest lesson.”
He had gained wisdom. He is now happier and richer than ever.
Ladies Man: Yet many critics of American culture, especially critics from abroad, point to America’s craven materialism as evidence of its spiritual emptiness. You yourself just said that America was ‘full of emptiness.’ Why is it that the pursuit of wealth is bad for some men, yet enriching for others?
Yamamoto: All depends on the Inner Voice, which speaks differently to all men. Some men speak of the nobility of poverty. They become saints. This is what The Voice tells them to do. Other men: they think: “I would like a nice Italian automobile.” Both men are correct. An old Zen parable treats this very thing.
One day a strong man sees a big rock. Every day he tries to lift the big rock. Every day he tries harder and harder, straining all his muscles, but the rock doesn’t move. One day he gets the rock to budge a little. The next day a little more. And so on.
One day he picks the rock right over his head. But it slips and smashes him. Just like bug. No more lifting for him. You see?
Ladies Man: Are you saying that what we strive to do becomes our undoing?
Yamamoto: Yes and no. Some men desire nothing, and they are happy. Other men want to conquer the world. If they don’t, it only makes them sick.
Ladies Man: I’m afraid I still don’t understand. What do you teach at your Zen Empowerment Centers?
Yamamoto: Breathing. Breathing is very important.
When I first came to California a young man came to me for guidance. He believed he had read a great deal of Zen literature. He even believed he was ready to become a master himself. I told him that first he must breathe.
For a while he didn’t understand, even though I sat him in a corner, and showed him proper zazen posture. He protested the simplicity of my lesson, but it is forbidden for a student to challenge his master. A few weeks later, he came up to me as I was leaving our swimming pool. He said: “Master Yamamoto. Why do you leave me sitting in the corner for weeks? Breathing is not so interesting. You do not understand. I am a scholar!”
He was a proud young man. So I grabbed him by the neck and shoved his face into the swimming pool. I held it there and counted to 200. He did not resist. When I released him his face was quite blue. When he regained his breath, he bowed, and left without a word.
He had learned breathing, the highest lesson.
Ladies Man: (concealing his shock) Aside from breathing: every Zen master stresses different aspects of Zen. Some stress Enlightenment, others stress living humbly and gracefully in this life. Your critics have noted that you seem to lack core beliefs. Can’t you summarize your essential teachings for our readers?
Yamamoto: It is impossible to talk about my beliefs in detail. I have no beliefs; this is Zen. The more we read; the stupider we become. The more we think; the farther from the truth we go. It is like this: A man drinks a cup of tea.
Ladies Man: And?
Yamamoto: That is it. A man drinks a cup of tea. That is everything; the highest lesson. Simply be. Simply do.
Ladies Man: It is said that you do not place a lot of stock in Western rationality to solve man’s problems. Do you utilize koans [Zen riddles] to illustrate the futility of reason?
Yamamoto: Yes, I find koans useful, especially with proud intellectuals.
Ladies Man: Do you have any favorite koans?
Yamamoto: Yes. One goes like this: “What is there nothing of?”
Ladies Man: I don’t know.
Ladies Man: Many other holy men have also displayed astonishing wisdom and knowledge at a young age. Did you receive any special training? Did you have a learned master? Are you well read in Classical Zen literature?
Ladies Man: Could you elaborate?
Yamamoto: I discovered the cosmic order of things when I was three years old. I remember it well. My father, who was a simple rice farmer, was beating my mother with a large sack of wheat. Even as a child I knew this was Zen. Even then I understood everything—except where he got that sack of wheat.
Later that night, my mother, the kindest woman I have ever known, stabbed him in the leg with a bread knife; I knew that this too was Zen. I understood everything....My father never wanted me to become a Zen master. But there was an old man in our village. We gave him a crude nickname, which could be translated as: ‘man who should be tossed into the deep ocean.’ He was not liked, this man. But one day he said to me: “Yamamoto, Almost Perfect Being, life is like waking up, to find that you are dreaming, that you are awake, but want to sleep.” After that, I understood everything. I had no need of training. I learned the highest lesson.
Ladies Man: And what about Zen literature? Have you written anything yourself?
Yamamoto: Yes, I have read the Zen classics. They are of no value whatsoever, and so are very good. So full of Zen....I once wrote a poem about Zen, and showed it to the great Zen poet, Yamaguchi. He said to me: Yamamoto, Almost Perfect Being, this is the last poem to be written. The greatest poem. After this, we have no more need for Zen literature ever again. Learn it until you know it better than your own name. Then place it on a fire, and shout it to your whole village. It is the greatest poem in our tradition, and must never be seen on mere paper!”
Ladies Man: Would you mind sharing it with our readers?
Yamamoto: I forgot it completely. A long time ago. That was what Yamaguchi was trying to teach me: that forgetting is the secret to life. He burnt it himself then and there, before I had even learned it by heart or shouted it to anyone. But the lesson I do remember: To live a Zenful life, you must forget everything, let go of everything. This is the highest lesson.
Ladies Man: Yet Yamaguchi’s poetry books sell by the thousands in Japan, and he himself continues writing volumes of poetry. Do you see no contradiction in his teaching?
Yamamoto: No. This too is Zen.
Ladies Man: Don’t you feel we should develop our artistic gifts?
Yamamoto: Not necessarily. Take my friend, Baka. He comes from my village. We were friends even as boys. Baka was always a gifted pianist, praised in all of Japan even as a child. But he became too proud of his gift.
One day when we were young men he came to me for advice. Even then I was regarded as a wise man. He said to me: “Yamamoto, Almost Perfect Being, what should I do with my life?”
I said: “Baka. You love the piano more than your own life. Artistic pride is corroding your mind. You need to reconnect to the life-forces. You like to work with your hands. You should become a baker. Bake, Baka, bake!”
And so he went off to baking school. Soon he lost three fingers in blender. You see?
Ladies Man: You mean you—
Yamamoto: No more piano for Baka.
Ladies Man: Zen Buddhists believe in a vast diversity of practices. Many swear by sitting in the lotus position and meditating. Others believe in the sacred tea ceremony. Still others believe that it is the “Zen mindset” that is important, that one should realize their “oneness with the world” regardless of the task. Are there any specific practices that you believe to be the most effective?
Yamamoto: The practices you speak of are all mere exercises. I encourage my own students to listen to their own minds; the mind will always tell you what you should do. This is the highest lesson.
Ladies Man: So what meditative practices have your students followed?
Yamamoto: One man believed he could achieve satori [“enlightenment”] simply by sitting quietly and drinking thirty cups of black coffee every evening. He died. Pancreatic cancer. A pity. Another man walked over hot coals in his bare feet and experienced great pain. It was sad.
Others have better success with the tea ceremony, or just sitting. This is what I do. I sit. Sometimes I wallpaper. (Gestures to the walls with his pasty fingers.) It doesn’t matter. Little Baka watches television. All day. Gomer Pyle I think....So you see, for every man there is a path.
Ladies Man: Biographical information about you is still somewhat sketchy. What about the women in your life? What jobs have you held?
Yamamoto: My second wife was always my favorite. I had a special nickname for her. In English it could be translated as: “Everything is swallowed by large fish.” She was delightful. A most graceful being. All three of my wives died very young. It is tragic.
I’ve worked many jobs in my life. I was trained to be rice farmer. Like my father. But I always hated rice. It sticks to my teeth And it was all we ever ate.
As a young man I moved to Kyoto. Here I shined shoes, washed dishes. Many other jobs. Then I joined the army. World War II.
I remember now that many of my comrades were trying to kill our Captain, Captain Mifune. A hard man. Made us eat sand. One night four men threw grenades into his quarters. Only two exploded. Killed his mistress and his cat, but the captain himself was unharmed. He caught the traitors immediately. Tied them up for execution.
Then he summoned me. He says to me: “Yamamoto, Almost Perfect Being, I don’t like you. But you are very wise for a rotten, young sapling. We are at war, Yamamoto, Almost Perfect Being. We need men. What should I do?”
So I looked at him, much as I look at you now, and say: “Captain Mifune, Pride of the Japanese Army, these men are villainous traitors. Worse than the lowest reptiles. But save our precious bullets. Give each man one rolling pin, and make them beat each other to the death. But for his endurance, promote the winner one rank.”
And so they fought brutally for hours. But that is how my little Baka became a second lieutenant.
After the war I begged for food for many years. Spent some time in India. Then I came to America.
Ladies Man: But surely—
Yamamoto: Very fierce with a rolling pin, that Baka....Just like samurai. But no more baking for him.
Ladies Man: Now forgive me for asking this, Master Yamamoto, but—“
Yamamoto: But I already know what you want to ask.
Ladies Man: Well, then how do you respond?
Yamamoto: Yes and no.
Ladies Man: Perhaps I should ask the question anyway, for the sake of our less psychic readers. Some people have also doubted your sincerity. The Washington Post recently wrote of you that: “Master Yamamoto dazzles rich and gullible Americans with his Zen bag of tricks. Revenues from his non-profit Zen Empowerment Temples enable him to lead the life of a pasha, couched in luxury in one of the finest condominiums in California, while he oversees a vast empire of temples, ashrams, and self-help literature written by other people.” How do you respond to this?
Yamamoto: I own nothing. This is why I have everything. I own nothing. This apartment? Why, it belongs to Baka!
Ladies Man: But doesn’t he work for you?
Ladies Man: And don’t you pay him?
Yamamoto: You don’t understand. It is like this. A man walks through the forest and discovers a sealed glass box. Inside the box he sees a string of the finest pearls. As he picks up the box to smash it on a rock, the box says to him: “Man. I am a box. Don’t smash me on a rock. If you do, the pearls too shall be destroyed.” But the man smashes the box anyway. You see?
Ladies Man: Frankly, no. Does he still get the pearls?
Yamamoto: You don’t understand. It is like this: A man with no teeth goes to the dentist. The dentist begins to drill—
Ladies Man: Wait. What about the pearls?
Yamamoto: In Zen, there are no interpretations. No explanations. This is the highest lesson.
Baka appears in the doorway. He speaks in Japanese. Yamamoto nods and holds up his fingers in a V, a private gesture to which Baka replies by raising his stump of a hand.
Yamamoto: You must excuse me, Mr. Milner. I have an important phone call. We can finish some other time.
Yamamoto bowed and ended the interview. His death in late February, 1972 shocked the Zen community. Also calamitous was the fire in early March, 1972, which destroyed all of his personal documents. Baka still runs The Zen Empowerment Temples.
First published online: 21 January 2015