I was lucky enough to find a book called The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Masters, by Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss. It is a wonderful book with many beautiful images and interesting anecdotes. I was most excited to discover that 15 pages are dedicated to life and art of Yamamoto Gempo Roshi, or the teacher of our beloved elder and the first teacher of Kurt, Takabayashi Genki Roshi. I was inspired to summarize some of his life, as presented in the book.
(Photograph courtsey Sweet and Williams of Zen Paintings)
(Photograph courtsey Sweet and Williams of Zen Paintings)
It was really something that Gempo Roshi survived into his mid-90s. According to some accounts, he was abandoned by his family as a baby at a hot springs and left to die; the family was so destitute. A good Samaritan took pity on the baby and rescued him. Afterwards he was adopted into a household, which was without children of their own. His father was very severe and beat him badly, but his mother was tender and loving.
Unfortunately though, she died when Gempo was 11 years old. Grief stricken and without loving support, Gempo became a delinquent and started to associate with hooligans. They would drink, smoke, and carouse. Fearing that his son would soon be a hopeless case, his father arranged for his marriage at a young age. Shortly after this, Gempo began to lose his vision and doctors explained that he would eventually go blind. The young man was seriously troubled by this news and certainly felt alienation due to the circumstances of his life. With this spirit, he began to take a series of long (1,000 miles long) pilgrimages to Shinto and Buddhist holy sites throughout Japan with the hope of generating the compassion of kami and regaining his vision. On his seventh such pilgrimage at the age of 23, a temple priest encouraged Gempo to become a priest. Gempo asked, "My eyes are close to blind, I can't read; how can I become a priest?" The elder replied, "The eyes you received from your parents are part of the uncertainty of life, and someday you may not be able to see. However, the eyes of the mind cannot be blinded. Your inner eyes are not yet open, but if someday they are opened, you will see. If you cannot read, maybe you will not become a sutra-reading priest...but if you can give up your life, you can become a true monk." A year later, he split from his wife to become a monk.
For a few years he trained in several different monasteries, practicing zazen and the other activities of life. In his free time, he began to learn to read and write characters, but discovered that his most useful skill was cooking. He wrote, "I knew how to cook everything...My body was weak, I had no education, but we all must do our share of work. Everyone does their respective job; a person who can cook, cooks; a person who can write, writes. Everyone has a strong point and does that work. Everywhere I went, I cooked. My eyes were bad, but I cooked." For many years, he deepened his practice with his teacher Shoun until news arrived that the temple that the revered Hakuin Eishu had established, Ryutaku-ji, was in need of a resident priest. Gempo was recommended by consultants to take up the job, but his teacher told him that it was not a good idea. Ryutaku-ji had fallen into disrepair; Shoun explained, "The temple is rough and the monuments are overturned. Hakuin is not there." Gempo retorted, "The temple is rough and the monuments are overturned. Because Hakuin is not there, I will go." At this, his teacher softened his stance.
Gempo became very busy restoring Ryutaku-ji and teaching monks at several temples. He also began to develop a love for calligraphy. In 1923 when Gempo was 58 years old, he left Japan for his first trip abroad. "He traveled alone without an interpreter and as a result experienced a few mishaps. In Honolulu he was arrested as a beggar and taken to the police station, and when he crossed the United States by train, because he could not communicate to order food, he simply fasted for three days. A flier summarizing the ideals of the Ku Klux Klan, which someone handed him, also made little impact. Gempo carried a letter of introduction with him...He did not learn any English for the trip, only learning to sign his name, "G. Yamamoto," in order to endorse checks given to him as payments for talks during his travels". Two years later, the half blind, Japanese speaking man went alone to India. Several years after that, he traveled to China alone with the goal of improving relations between the two nations on the eve of war. During the Sino-Japanese war and then World War II, Gempo did his best to promote peace in the public sphere. Locally, he spent much time making sandals for victims of bombing raids. During the worst of the fighting, Ryutaku-ji was filled with refugees who needed shelter. According to Kurt, it was during this time that Genki Roshi was adopted into Gempo's temple, having been orphaned as a result of the war.
At 82 years old in the year of 1951, Gempo retired from Ryutaku-ji and turned the temple over to his dharma heir, Nakagawa Soen (an internationalist who taught many of the first American Zen teachers). During his final years, Gempo loved to do calligraphy for local parishoners. "Because of his lack of education and poor vision, Gempo never took for granted his ability to do calligrahy. Not only did he use it to help and inspire others, he also never demanded fine materials. If there was no good paper around, he was just as happy to write on newspaper, or on any small scrap of paper available, taking just as much care with each character." In The Three Pillars of Zen (1966) by Philip Kapleau, the final anecdote in Gempo's life is alluded to when the author talks about the importance of work practice (samu). "Almost blind and no longer able to teach or work about the monastery, he decided it was time to die, so he stopped eating. When asked by his monks why he refused his food, he replied that he had outlived his usefulness and was only a bother to everybody. They told him: 'If you die now [January] when it is so cold, everybody will be uncomfortable at your funeral and you will be an even greater nuisance, so please eat!' He thereupon resumed eating, but when it became warm he again stopped, and not long after quietly toppled over and died."
Soen Roshi wrote a beautiful poem in commemoration of Gempo’s life:
Born deep in Kumanao Province
poling a raft and digging tree roots
he was almost blind
but through a mysterious unfolding
his true eye was opened.
Later in the week, there will hopefully be some images on this site of more of his beautiful brush paintings. We are waiting for permission from Shambhala.