Late Abbot & Director of the California Tendai Buddhist Monastery
南無阿弥陀 - Namu Amida Butsu
Rev.Keisho Vimalakirti Leary was born on January 8, 1943, in San Francisco. Rev.Keisho studied Civil Engineering at U. C. Berkeley ('64). Here, he joined the marching band in order to fulfill his R.O.T.C. obligations. His love for other forms of music especially folk songs would continue throughout his life. VK's summer job during this period was a crew member on a freighter traveling between the U.S. and Japan. He spent the long journey teaching himself to speed-read, rapidly finishing all of his books, and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery in Japan once the ship docked in Tokyo. VK continued his studies with a graduate degree in City and Regional Planning from Cornell University ('68). He chose to research the harmful effects of urban noise on city dwellers, and was awarded the Best Submitted Masters Thesis in City and Regional Planning for the 1967-1968 academic year.
Having spent some time living on a local communal farm, VK returned to California in search of a spiritual leader and encountered a charismatic teacher named Dr. Ajari. He joined the nascent community of followers and received the spiritual name Vimalakirti. Throughout the 1970s VK was an active member of Dr. Ajari's group. He wholeheartedly participated in the various practices: ascetic mountain climbing, observing the Goma fire ceremony, bonfires on Ocean Beach, fire walking, chanting the Heart Sutra, performing music, communal living in the Hondo on Potrero Hill, and helping to establish a furniture crafting business. After 18 years with Dr. Ajari, Rev.Keisho struck off solo to pursue Tendai Buddhist teachings, independently carrying on with the practice of burning Goma and spending time learning Japanese. He opened Mountain Woodwork where he earned his livelihood as a custom furniture maker. For a time, he worked as a civilian engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers and also served as the Chief Engineer of the Santa Rosa Water Department. He also enjoyed playing music weekly with his friends, where he performed saxophone, clarinet, upright bass, recorder, and piano.
Following his divorce from wife Mary Lou in 1989, he returned to the country he had enjoyed visiting so much as a young ship-hand. Rev.Keisho moved to Kyoto, Japan, in the mid-1990s, first studying the Japanese language at a local university and then going to live at a Sekizan Zennin, a Tendai temple near the sacred site of Mt. Hiei. He lived in the temple for five years and studied under Gozen-sama, was ordained as a priest in the order, and was given the name Rev.Keisho. A couple of years after returning to San Francisco, he began building the California Tendai Buddhist Monastery on Cobb Mountain (CA). It was like coming full circle for him since the site was located close to where he had spent many summers as a child playing among the pine trees.
In 2006 he started work on the goma-do which sat atop an outcrop on the mountain overlooking endless slopes of green. During this time he completed 100-days of kaihogyo walking- the first American to establish this ascetic practice in the U.S. In 2010 after the construction of the temple was completed, he organized a consecration ceremony officiated by the Tendai order in Japan. It was attended by many friends and Tendai practitioners from the U.S. and Japan.
Throughout the last five years for his life, VK continued to expand the California Tendai Buddhist Monastery, burn goma, practice kaihogyo, and give dharma teachings around the local Middletown/Calistoga region. He also took part in a yearly summer cultural exchange program on the island of Saipan. Each summer, several Buddhist priests accompanied a group of Japanese schoolchildren to visit key WWII sites on the island and release hundreds of paper lanterns into the Pacific Ocean as a peace prayer for those killed in the battles.
To read more Rev.Keisho Leary's teachings please visit:
*Adapted from the memorial biography for Rev.Keisho Leary, with permission of Rev. Dr. Douken Unkai, President of the former California Tendai Monastery
CALIFORNIA MOUNTAIN PRACTICES OF THE YAMABUSHI by Rev.Keisho Leary
The twin pillars of the Tendai School in Japan are study and practice, neither one being neglected in favor of the other. This same system is applicable here, with the study part carried out initially in your own home using readily available books such as “The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei,” “The Lotus Sutra,” “The Vimalakirti Sutra,” and “The Avatamsaka Sutra.” Later on the field of study branches out to include discussion, questioning, contemplation, recitation, copying, examination, debate, and writing.
The practice part, on the other hand, cannot come from books, but can only be learned from those who themselves have practiced regularly and over a number of years. The Yamabushi practices in Japan have evolved into a myriad of forms while growing continuously for over a thousand years. California’s mountains are in many ways similar to Japan’s, but the history is radically different, and therefore adaptation is necessary for these times and places and people. Although we have many potential sites, very few are now open for practice. How many places can you think of where you can drink directly from a spring, or stand under a waterfall, or cut dead wood to build an outdoor fire, or even freely walk a circuit around the peak? If mountain practices are going to be established here, the first requirement is for people to open up some sites, one by one.
Now, remembering that the effort to study must balance the effort to practice, what about the practices themselves? The practices involve walking while praying, making pilgrimages to shrines, learning invocation, sleeping in the mountains, harmonizing with animals, trees, and the weather of the various seasons, standing in waterfalls, healing suffering, working to reduce the killing of animals and the destruction of forests, increasing your energy, increasing your love, cutting trails through the brush, cutting dead wood to minimize the damage from forest fires, chanting sutras, receiving inspiration to direct your life, meditating on scriptures, calming the mind and gaining insight into the nature of Truth, exorcising demons, observing heavens and hells, gathering medicines and foods, seeing the interconnectedness of all life, paying homage to those who have gone this way before us, working on interpersonal problems, experiencing gratitude, bridging the illusory chasm separating peoples, cultures religions and practices, promoting healthy eating and drinking, practicing harmlessness, abandoning some of the comforts of life, visiting hot springs, fasting, making offerings, learning the rules of conduct appropriate to your practice, writing prayers for the benefit and protection of the people and the land, and receiving the incredible beauty of the natural world.
Each of these practices leads to experiences, and the experiences lead to the flourishing of spiritual life among all people. This is the aim of the yamabushi in California.
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed
side by side, and the lion shall
eat hay like the bull, and dust
shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt nor destroy
In all my holy mountain saith the lord.”
(reprinted with permission of Rev. Dr. Douken Unkai, President of California Tenda Monastery)