Yamada Mumon Roshi


By Shodo Harada Roshi


One of the foremost men of the Rinzai sect, Yamada Mumon (1900-1988) was known for his high level of activity and functioning. When he was young his father wanted him to become a lawyer. In law school he heard that Confucius had said that rather than learning how to preside over trials, it is better to make a world where there is no need for trials. When Mumon Roshi heard that, he knew that becoming a lawyer was not the answer and began to search for a way to make a world where there is no need for lawyers.

One day he heard that Kawaguchi Ekai, the first Japanese Zen master to enter Tibet, had returned from his travels and went to hear him speak on “The Way of the Bodhisattva.” Kawaguchi taught that if we could cover the entire world in soft leather, then we could walk everywhere without ever cutting our feet. But since doing so is impossible, what we can do instead is put soft leather on the bottoms of our own feet, so that everywhere we walk is soft. Likewise, while it is impossible to put a roof over the entire world to keep everyone dry when it rains, if everyone had an umbrella we could all walk anywhere protected from the rain. To save every single person seems to be impossible, but if one person’s mind clearly experiences and expresses the truth, then many people will put on the soft shoes of awakening and have an umbrella of living in awakening. This is the way of the Bodhisattva. Even if one person cannot literally liberate all people, each person who realizes the truth will manifest true light and show that possibility of awakening to all people without ceasing. The source point of the awakening of all beings even today is this liberation without ceasing, and the Way of the Bodhisattva remains the true way of liberating all beings.

Mumon Roshi became a student of Kawaguchi Ekai, but in attempting to follow this path with his own body he became very ill with tuberculosis. After living in isolation for several years, on a clear, bright June day he saw a nanten flower and wrote this poem:

All things are embraced
Within the universal mind
Told by the cool wind
This morning.

He was deeply awakened, and with this his body was cured. He went to a sesshin at Empukuji near Kyoto and was able to completely realize his True Nature. He then went to Tenryuji and under Seisetsu Genjo deepened his state of mind until, at the age of fifty-one, he became a master. He went first to teach at Kyoto’s Reiunin Temple and then became the master of Shofukuji Temple in Kobe, where he raised many disciples.

During the Second World War, while with Seisetsu Roshi, he visited many places of war, and what he saw left him with deep feelings of repentance. In 1967 he went on pilgrimages to various Southeast Asian countries to apologize to and say sutras for the war dead of all religions, and he taught this posture of repentance to his students as well. Although he knew only a few words of English, he taught many students from abroad and established many strong karmic connections. He traveled to the opening of Dai Bosatsu Zendo in New York State, to the San Francisco Zen Center, to the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, and to Mexico. He made a pilgrimage to India and at Bodhgaya built a Japanese temple. He went to Europe and opened the East West Spiritual Exchange between Catholicism and Buddhism, himself entering and living in nine contemplative monasteries in Europe, experiencing the life of the monks there. His disciples settled all over Europe, strengthening his extensive karmic ties with the West.

He later became the abbot of Myoshinji and the head of Hanazono College. He was a brilliant scholar and a great master with many disciples, but he never accepted any words of praise; rather he lived his entire life as just one citizen. This was Yamada Mumon Roshi.