Homage to Ryuho Yamada
A few months into getting my massage certification in November 2000, I learned of a Zen Shiatsu weekend workshop at a massage school in Marin County. I can still see the flyer in my mind: the photo of Ryuho Yamada, smiling serenely above the caption of "Zen Shiatsu Master." The description said that he would teach his style of Zen Shiatsu that he called "Leaning in" (way before Sheryl Sandberg's book). I was a newly-minted massage therapist and was eager for more knowledge, more training into this way which had found me during my darkest times.
I had randomly fallen into massage therapy, by first receiving it and finding that it helped with the depression that I had struggled with most of my life. What attracted me most was the totally natural, sweet feeling that massage can give, something that I had rarely experienced up until then. I was starting to tune into my body which I had ignored for so long. There was a massage school around the corner from my apartment in San Francisco, and I decided to take some classes. It was clear from my first class that I had a natural talent for massage therapy--a wonderful realization after struggling academically for so many years.
I just wanted to learn more for myself and didn't really see it as something I would be doing as a career. Massage therapy wasn't a career that was any kind of consideration in the family I grew up with, for many reasons. This all changed when I met Ryuho.
We sat in a circle in the classroom and he entered with his assistant, a young hippie woman. He was about my parents' age, but he was unlike any other Asian elder I had ever met. He spoke about his life--and what experiences he had had! There were stories about growing up in a strict Zen Buddhist temple in Japan, studying intensively at Zen Buddhist monasteries, at one point living as a beggar monk with only a bowl as his possession. He told the story about leaving Japan for America in the early 70's and falling in with the hippies, artists and musicians in San Francisco. He spoke about his many psychedelic experiences with LSD and relationships with women ( he said he loved women who were controlling). He spoke about his different explorations with other religions, traditions - Japanese Shinto, Native American sweat lodges, his experiences with shamans and other psychedelics in the jungles of South America. Whatever he was interested in , he delved into it deeply.
In the midst of his talking, he showed us a few Zen Shiatsu techniques. They were very simple: palm presses along the back, elbow acupressure along the spine, and some other pressing down techniques in seated or lying sideways positions. He showed us some self-massage with tennis balls and some meridien stretching. Not much else. Partway through the class, I overheard grumblings from some other students, "I thought we were going to learn shiatsu, I didn't know I signed up for a philosophy class!"
I was completely intrigued by it all. The best massage teachers taught us the utter importance of using our bodies when we're working, which is one of the most important aspects of massage therapy training. But Ryuho went a step further, he emphasized not only using our bodies, but gravity itself. He told us, when pressing down into the recipient, "Use your weight and gravity because they are more powerful than anything you yourself can do!" If at any point, we found ourselves using our own strength, we were told to pull back. Just lean in. Do nothing. As he leaned into the recipient's body he said, " I feel great, I can just hang out here all day!" Even now, if I feel myself using my own strength in a session, I remember his words and just lean in. Just gravity and my own weight. Minimal effort, maximum results. His teaching gave me a confidence in myself and the practice that I believe is what ultimately led me into a career in massage therapy.
At the end of that weekend he told us he would have an advanced workshop at a Zen temple where he lived and I already knew I would be signing up for it. A few months later, I randomly learned about, and embarked on a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat, my introduction to meditation, which completely changed my life, but that's another story. A few months after that, I walked into Jikoji Zen Retreat Center to take the advanced Shiatsu workshop with Ryuho and my life changed again.
Zen meditation is quite different from the Vipassana technique. I'm grateful that Vipassana was my introduction, because it's rigorous, pulls no punches, and explains what is happening every step of the way. Zen meditation, at least in the Soto Zen tradition as practiced at Jikoji, was pretty "easy" for me after experiencing Vipassana. When I say "easy," it's only that after 10 straight days of sitting for an hour at a time, from 4:30am to 9pm, the Zen way of sitting for 40 minutes at a time with 10 minutes of walking meditation wasn't such a physical struggle. Internally, it's the hardest thing I've ever faced, but though I didn't know it at the time, I had one of the best teachers in Ryuho.
At the advanced class, it was more of the same - lots of talking and some shiatsu technique, but since we were at a Zen retreat center, he also gave us Zen meditation (zazen) and walking meditation (kinhin) instruction. It was a beautiful October and the air was crisp. The vegetarian food was wonderful. At one point I sat and spoke with him about my Vipassana experience, and he was highly encouraging, saying it was a great thing I had done. I told him I wanted to learn more massage, to learn more about meditation and he said, "Take more courses, keep learning, but especially, learn from yourself." I signed up for an upcoming sesshin - a 7-day meditation retreat in December that Ryuho was going to lead.
That Rohatsu sesshin in December 2001 (Rohatsu is held in Buddhist places all over the world in recognition of Buddha's enlightenment) was the beginning of my commitment to Zen practice. I still remember just about every person who attended - fewer than 8 people in all, as I recall. Ryuho sat with a couple of us beginners and again went over different ways to sit Zazen and also Oryoki, the way we take our meals in Zen tradition. He showed us step-by-step how to unwrap and take apart the 3 bowls and put them back together again. Unfortunately, a lot of his words are lost in time, but I remember he emphasized, over and over: "One movement." When he went over kinhin, he emphasized, "Half step, one movement." For one of his dharma talks he had us do some simple shiatsu on each other, a welcome break for our tight muscles after hours of sitting.
After that Rohatsu sesshin, I continued to find my way up to Jikoji for their other sesshins and programs. In July of 2002, Jikoji's founder Kobun died tragically with his daughter Maya in Switzerland. Ryuho by then had gotten married to a woman he had met in Hawaii. However, the colon cancer that he had previously struggled with returned and he was mostly ill in his room when I would visit Jikoji. As happens with cancer patients that I have seen, whatever had not been dealt with in his life seemed to overtake him. I heard many accounts of angrily severed and ugly relations between him and Jikoji residents. These accounts were a source of dismay, but he and I never got so close for me to witness anything untoward, and he was ever pleasant and cordial with me. At one point he and his wife were on one side of the Jikoji grounds and residents on the other, like a line drawn in the sand. After hearing more ugly stories, I decided to walk over to him and his wife as they sat in the kitchen eating together. Without thinking, I got on my hands and knees, and bowed. He bowed back, gratified. Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha. I believe that is the last time I saw him. Ryuho died in December 2003.
In the years since, much has happened both in my life and at Jikoji, but I've never stopped practicing Zen meditation and massage therapy. I can see who and what influenced me, both good and bad, which are all parts of the same teaching. And I can say that Ryuho's influence, brief as it was, compared to other teachers I've spent time with, impacted me greatly. I'm still unpacking it all, after carefully holding it and growing it within myself. For me, my Zen meditation practice and massage therapy practice are forever entwined. What seemed so simple at the time, the shiatsu techniques that Ryuho showed us, the words about leaning in and learning from ourselves, I use in practically every massage session and whenever I practice Zen Meditation. In a few days, I will be taking the Buddhist precepts in a ceremony at Jikoji. I again, bow deeply to my original teacher, Zen Master Ryuho Yamada.
***Here are a couple of links to articles I found about Ryuho:
4/12/2019 05:27:38 pm
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Elizabeth. I did not know that your Zen path and your massage therapy path were so intertwined. What a beautiful gift to have come across that flyer so many years ago.
1/16/2021 05:32:09 pm
I am the young hippie woman who assisted Ryuho in Marin and lived with him at Jikoji. It was lovely to read your account of your time with Ryuho. Thank you x
1/16/2021 07:57:01 pm
I remember you! Thank you for reading, it was cathartic when I wrote it. Sending you blessings wherever you are, Ryuho is a wonderful link, isn't he?
1/4/2022 12:40:59 pm
The best link.. I feel him with me all the time. His photo at the centre of my alter and my child named after him!
12/29/2021 04:35:17 pm
Thank you so much for your memory. I just found an audio cassette tape of my 1991 interview of Ryuho in Japan. I started to listening that, so many memories came back, then I googled his name, I found your website,
1/4/2022 11:59:21 am
Thank you for your reading and for your comment. I still miss Ryuho, I didn’t get enough time with him. Curious about your interview with him, I hope you can make it available. Happy New Year ~ Elizabeth
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