The Sanb˘ky˘dan (Three Treasures Association) is a contemporary Zen movement that was founded by Yasutani Hakuun (1885-1973) in 1954. The style of Zen propagated by Sanb˘ky˘dan teachers, noteworthy for its single-minded emphasis on the experience of kensh˘, diverges markedly from more traditional models found in S˘t˘, Rinzai, or Oobaku training halls. ... There is little in Kapleau's book to suggest that his teachers were anything but respected members of orthodox Zen monastic orders. Yet such was not the case, for in 1954 Yasutani Hakuun (1885-1973), the Zen priest whose teachings are featured in The Three Pillars of Zen, severed his formal ties to the S˘t˘ school in order to establish an independent Zen organization called the Sanb˘ky˘dan, or "Three Treasures Association." The influence exerted by this contemporary lay reform movement on American Zen is out of proportion to its relatively marginal status in Japan: modern Rinzai and S˘t˘ monks are generally unaware of, or indifferent to, the polemical attacks that Yasutani and his followers direct against the Zen priesthood. Orthodox priests are similarly unmoved by claims to the effect that the Sanb˘ky˘dan alone preserves the authentic teachings of Zen. ...
The only acceptable "solution" to the mu k˘an in the Sanb˘ky˘dan is a credible report of a kensh˘ experience, and beginning students are subject to intense pressure during sesshin -- including the generous application of the "warning stick" (ky˘saku or keisaku) -- in order to expedite this experience. The unrelenting emphasis on kensh˘ and the vigorous tactics used to bring it about constitute the single most distinctive (and controversial) feature of the Sanb˘ky˘dan method. Eido Shimano, recalling Yasutani's first sesshin in Hawaii in 1962, writes:
The night before sesshin started, Yasutani Roshi said to the participants, "To experience kensho is crucial, but we are so lazy. Therefore, during sesshin we have to set up a special atmosphere so that all participants can go straight ahead toward the goal. First, absolute silence should be observed. Second, you must not look around. Third, forget about the usual courtesies and etiquette" . . . He also told the participants, and later told me privately as well, of the need for frequent use of the keisaku. That five-day sesshin was as hysterical as it was historical. It ended with what Yasutani Roshi considered five kensh˘ experiences.
(Nyogen et al. 1976, pp. 184-85)
While Yasutani's successors are considerably more reserved in their use of the ky˘saku, the emphasis on kensh˘ has not diminished, prompting one student of Yamada to refer to the San'un Zend˘ as a "kensh˘ machine" (Levine 1992, p. 72).
Students who do succeed in passing mu, along with a number of k˘ans used specifically to test the veracity of the experience (such as the "sound of one hand"), are publicly recognized
The r˘shi will remind the student, both in private interviews and in public talks, that kensh˘ is only the first small step along the path to full awakening. Be that as it may, the Sanb˘ky˘dan treats kensh˘ as a significant achievement. Upon attaining kensh˘ students are publicly lauded in the jahai ceremony, and encouraged to write a report of their experience for publication in Ky˘sh˘. The names of post-kensh˘ students are clearly marked with a circle on sesshin seating plans, and as mentioned above, a second zend˘ may be provided allowing the post-kensh˘ group to practice apart from the others. Finally, pre- and post-kensh˘ students are often listed separately in the sesshin reports that appear in Ky˘sh˘. (Note that each of these practices are Sanb˘ky˘dan innovations -- there are no public rites of passage marking the attainment of kensh˘ in S˘t˘ or Rinzai monasteries.)
Following the teacher's authentication of kensh˘, Sanb˘ky˘dan students move through a program of 600 to 700 k˘ans following a format set by Harada based in part on traditional Rinzai models. The practitioner first tackles the "miscellaneous k˘ans," which consist of approximately twenty-two k˘ans in fifty-seven parts. He or she then moves through the Mumonkan, Hekiganroku, Sh˘y˘roku, and Denk˘roku [?MĂ] k˘ans, followed by T˘zan's five ranks (T˘zan goi), and three sets of precepts.
Whereas passage through mu requires nothing short of kensh˘, passage through the remaining k˘ans is relatively straightforward. After formally approaching and bowing to the r˘shi the Sanb˘ky˘dan student recites his or her k˘an, and then presents (or "demonstrates") his or her understanding. If the answer is deemed satisfactory, the teacher himself may supply a more "traditional" response. All of this is more-or-less typical of Rinzai practice today. However, Sanb˘ky˘dan teachers do not use jakugo (capping phrases) -- set phrases culled from classical Chinese literature used to test and refine a monk's understanding of a k˘an. Moreover, unlike Rinzai monks, Sanb˘ky˘dan practitioners are not required to compose written expositions of the k˘ans in the latter stages of their training. The Sanb˘ky˘dan has, in short, sharply curtailed the explicitly "literary" aspects of k˘an training.
As a result, once they have passed mu Sanb˘ky˘dan students tend to move through the remaining k˘ans at a relatively rapid pace, often completing one k˘an per interview. With regular access to a teacher and frequent participation in sesshin, a practitioner can complete the entire course of post-kensh˘ k˘ans in approximately five years. At the same time, if the r˘shi feels that there are inadequacies in the student's training, he may reassign certain k˘ans in dokusan (including mu), and Yamada led periodic study groups (kenshukai) for advanced students in which he reviewed the k˘ans in a more seminar-like setting.
Once the k˘ans are complete, students proceed through a series of higher certifications that allow them to teach and may eventually result in Dharma transmission. There is considerable ambiguity in this regard, however, in part because the Sanb˘ky˘dan draws simultaneously from S˘t˘ and Rinzai conceptions of transmission -- conceptions that are not always compatible with one another. This is responsible in part for the controversy over the teaching authority of Yamada's senior disciples that emerged following his death, an issue to which I will return below.