Yasutani-roshi, Zen, and Haiku
Editor’s Note: Image from Wiki Commons, in the public domain: HERE

By Stephen Billias

In the fantasy novel The American Book of the Dead, a black comedy about World War III, the main character, Bertie Rupp, suffers from nucleomituphobia, the exaggerated fear of being blown up by nuclear weapons. A monk tells Bertie: “In the words of the great Yasutani-roshi of Japan, ‘Become one with the Bomb and what is there to fear?’…He also said: ‘Whether you want to or not, you will do so anyway, so embrace it.’”

More than twenty-five years after writing that book, I studied and worked briefly at Roshi Bernie Glassman’s House of One People in Montague, Massachusetts. I learned some unpleasant facts about Yasutani-roshi, his anti-Semitism and his fervent support of the Axis war effort, and had to balance that information against the Roshi’s keen Zen insight. Thinking about the lineage from Hakuun Yasutani through Taizan Maezumi to Tetsugen Bernard Glassman recently, I wrote the following haiku:

still point. endless time

intersects limitless space

right where you are now

I’m not a Zen teacher and don’t pretend to be one. I’m a student, a practitioner of zazen, and a writer, mostly of fantasy novels. Writing is my way of expressing what I believe. The above poem probably isn’t a real haiku. It lacks a kigo (season word) and doesn’t focus on Nature, but it does adhere to the 5-7-5 syllable structure. It’s inspired by a passage in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen:

“That a strong sense of moral responsibility is inherent in the spiritual freedom of the satori man was made clear by Yasutani-roshi in response to a question addressed to him in America by a group of university students. “If, as ‘beat Zen’ has led us to believe,” they asked, “satori reveals the unreality of the past and the future, is one not free to live as one likes here and now, without reference to the past and without thought of the future?

In reply Yasutani-roshi made a dot on the blackboard and explained that this isolated dot represented their conception of “here and now.” To show the incompleteness of this view, he placed another dot on the board, through which he drew a horizontal line and a vertical one. He then explained that the horizontal line stood for time from the beginningless past to the endless future and the vertical for limitless space. The “present moment” of the enlightened man, who stands at this intersection, embraces all these dimensions of time and space, he emphasized.

Accordingly, the satori-realization that one is the focus of past and future time and space unavoidably carries with it a sense of fellowship and responsibility to one’s family and society as a whole, alike to those who came before and those who will follow one.”[1]

In these words are the beginnings of Roshi Bernie’s “socially engaged” Buddhism. Zen Peacemakers International (ZPI) continues that tradition strongly. Yasutani-roshi’s admonition “Become one with the Bomb” is still entirely valid, but perhaps we can hope to achieve Unification by less cataclysmic means. The world needs Peacemakers!

[1]  Phillip Kaplaeu, Three Pillars of Zen, (Beacon Press, 1972; original print 1965), 15.


Stephen Billias is the author of A Book of Fields: Tales from the Pioneer Valley, a collection of literary short stories published recently by Odeon Press, and several fantasy novels. He lives in South Deerfield with his wife Bela Breslau. From 2006 to 2016 Stephen and Bela founded and operated the Shintaido Farm, a center for the practice of the esoteric Japanese martial art Shintaido. The former Shintaido Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts is now the site of the Engaged Mindfulness Institute.

Share :

Yasutani-roshi, Zen, and Haiku

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click Subject for Related Content
Our Journal