Zen Master and Chief Abbot of the KENCHO-Ji School, RINZAI Zen Denomination
‘Mindfulness’ has received a great deal of attention and is now practiced all over the world, but especially in the West. In this conversation, we spoke to Zen master Shodo Yoshida, head of Kenchō-ji, the top temple in the Kamakura Five Mountain system, where Zen Buddhism began in Japan. We asked him what he thought about Mindfulness, the contemporary meditation method with Zen roots that has spread to secular society and been incorporated into mainstream lifestyles. We spoke about its relationship with elements of Zen practice, a tradition built and polished with human wisdom.
In this first part, we discuss the core of Zen and the similarities and differences between Zen meditation and mindfulness.
Zen2.0: Thank you very much for speaking with us. I’d like to hear your thoughts on communicating the message of authentic Zen to a Western audience that has developed an interest in meditation or Zen. Have you heard that “mindfulness,” from the Buddhist term sati, has become more and more popular?
Chief Abbot Yoshida: I heard something in the beginning of a TV program recently.
Zen2.0: I see, maybe the NHK special program called “Killer Stress.” The concept of mindfulness was mentioned in that program. The context in that program was that people in the modern world are experiencing more and more stress worrying about the complexities of everyday life. As a result, more people have become interested in meditation.
Yoshida: Actually, we have been addressing that issue for a long, long time through zazen (sitting meditation). But humans are kind of strange. Many of us expect religious practice to have some concrete benefit. To achieve happiness or to escape suffering, people rely on religious rituals like prayer. But Zen is not really like that. It is simply Kuu*, emptiness. The core of Zen itself is this understanding of Kuu.
*Kuu: the lack of independent existence and the interconnectedness of all things and the mutability of everything.
During zazen I always say, “sit up straight.” That’s it. Straighten your lower back. Focus on the tanden*. Relax your shoulders. Look straight ahead. Close your mouth. These steps will help you breathe naturally, and breathe deeply. You will calm your mind naturally. Calming your mind means, essentially, emptying your mind so it’s open for everything. When you think about too many things your posture will be poor. So whether you are walking or sitting, pay attention to your posture.
*tanden: the center of human body, the point below your navel or lower belly.
When I speak publicly, I never focus on dogma. Since Zen is fundamentally about Kuu, everything is equal. Experience each moment yourself. It is a kind of present moment awareness. I always emphasize these things. Normal religious traditions always say things like: “If you perform this ritual, you will receive this benefit.” But I’ve never said that sort of thing. True Zen is not like that. There is neither inherent, nor direct benefit.
Human beings are always thinking about so many things. However, if you proceed from moment to moment the right way, every stress and worry will remain with you, but your mind will be still. It can be difficult to discuss complex concepts with those who attend zazen sessions, so I focus on core concepts like this. We sit with legs crossed while doing zazen because it prevents the body from moving. If the body moves, it cannot really be zazen. You can sit in a chair as long as your body doesn’t move. Sit up straight, relax your legs, and focus on the tanden. To stop all the body movements, including the eyes, only leads to Kuu.
Zen2.0: Are many foreigners coming to Kenchō-ji often these days?
Yoshida: Yes, they are. But I couldn’t explain too much to them because of the language barrier. These days there are many Chinese and Westerners coming here, but Thai and other Southeast Asian visitors come here, too.
Zen2.0: Some with a traditional Zen perspective criticize the Western mindfulness practice of daily meditation. They say it is shallow and not true Zen. On the other hand, many foreigners are very interested in Zen tradition, so they come to temples like Kenchō-ji.
Yoshida: Zen itself is just an analogy. Fundamentally, there is no Zen. Some people say “God in Heaven and Buddha in your heart” or something like that. But in reality there is no separation. There is only one. It’s always oneness. Everything inside you is part of a single existence. You and the entire universe are totally one. That is, you are living in the entire universe and the entire universe is existing inside you. There is no other intention. Zero. I always say the goal is to reach this point.
For example, as you are walking down the street, you see someone and greet them the same way I walk around the temple grounds and I see and greet people naturally. If you do so, your mind will become one with them. There is no other intention, because it’s important to be ‘zero.’ This is Kuu, too. Even in daily life we should think like this.
When posture becomes poor, people can’t help but become distracted by many thoughts.
Zen2.0: In that context, these days more people are doing meditation on a daily basis. It’s not the same as Zen monk training in a temple like Kenchō-ji, but still people are trying to reach that point of emptiness, to make their minds still and get away from thinking or worrying too much, to concentrate on breath and to focus on the present moment. What do you think about people in Japan and other countries doing this on a daily basis?
Yoshida: It is a good thing. For example, we monks always pay attention to right posture while doing zazen. When you chant the sutras you practice voice and breathing together. That’s also oneness. So I’m always telling the monks to keep their posture good and hold their books straight. When posture becomes poor, people can’t help but become distracted by many thoughts. If you keep your posture straight, your consciousness is free to pass from past to present to future.
The stillness of your mind means, again, probing the entirety of the universe. That means zero. That means emptiness. If you concentrate on your breath and the present moment, you are still inside your own consciousness. If you could eliminate that separate consciousness, it would be true emptiness. That is the state of Zanmai (Samadhi)*.
*Zanmai (Samadhi): deep concentration, and ultimately Kuu status which leads to enlightenment. In Japanese Zen tradition, it is called Sanmai.
Zen2.0: I guess everyone would like to reach that state. How did you get there?
Yoshida: Many ways, of course. There was lots of worry, suffering, and both physical and mental training to get there. It was very tough during those times, of course. You can say you can finish it if you try, but it still takes so much struggle and suffering. Along the way you will wonder if you can reach that state doing such things. But if people do it seriously, with all their effort, then they will understand that it’s actually going to make them feel better and develop themselves.
Zen2.0: I totally agree about feeling better.
Yoshida: It’s all about accumulating the experiences of feeling better , because we are living in such a complicated world with lots of conflict. You are here and I am here. People you like and people you don’t like are both here. That’s the way the world is. There are things you like and things you don’t like. But when you are sitting and meditating, all of those things become equal in the moment. Everything becomes the same, no differences. That’s important.
Zen2.0: You said Zen is not like religion, not pursuing benefit. On the other hand, one of the reasons that meditation is becoming popular is that even just 10 or 20 minutes of meditation can help you clear your mind and make you feel better.
Yoshida: Of course that’s the importance of clearing your mind. It is a really good thing.
Zen2.0: That’s why people can keep the habit of doing meditation.
Yoshida: Yes, I agree. In Japan, we use words like okagesama* and goen** from the old days. That’s the answer. Everything is connected. We are meeting for the first time, but we already have a connection. That’s the point. Understanding that point also means making your mind empty. Then you can be one with others.
*okagesama: “thanks to you” and all living beings and everything coexisting in this world.
**goen: “emotional bond” or inter-being, the link and relationship between all living beings and everything.
Zen2.0: Actually I’m running on trails in the mountains. That also makes me feel better.
Yoshida: I can understand, but I guess it must be tough in the beginning before you are used to it.
Zen2.0: Yes, it’s actually tough.
Yoshida: That’s it.
Zen2.0: The goal is not ‘to win.’ It’s to feel better.
Yoshida: It is Zanmai.
At dusk, your body and mind are just tired enough to allow you to focus on zazen.
Zen2.0: Many people are practicing mindfulness, not to become monks, but for daily life. Could you give any advice to help these people apply something from traditional Japanese Zen to their daily lives?
Yoshida: Just follow your daily routine. People often tend to think: “I’ll skip it today.” But I would say, after you decide to do something, make a clear intention to complete it. That’s Zanmai. So if you are working, it’s really no different than doing zazen. If you try hard enough, you move beyond your own consciousness. That’s Zanmai. And the ultimate purpose of zazen is Zanmai.
Zen2.0: So you mean even without sitting with your eyes half closed, you can reach the state of Zanmai?
Yoshida: When you are trying harder, you can move beyond your own consciousness. You might work better in the evening than in the morning, because that’s the best time. It’s good to do zazen when the sun is setting. It’s more difficult to reach Zanmai early in the morning. At dusk, your body and mind are just tired enough to allow you to focus on zazen. I think everyone must experience this.
Zen2.0: Evening, I see.
Yoshida: Yes, it’s much better in the evening.
Zen2.0: I heard there is a limit to how much your brain can process in one day. So as you said, in the morning you have so many things to decide. So after using all your brain power, then…
Yoshida: You must be tired, both body and mind. Then at dusk you can get into the state easily and become empty.
Zen2.0: That’s good advice.
Yoshida: The point is, breathing with good posture. Straighten your back and half close your eyes. Then sit properly and empty your mind. If you do that at dusk, time passes so smoothly. When you wake up in the morning, your mind is too clear to become still.
Zen2.0: It’s interesting. My impression is that many people are doing meditation in the morning.
Yoshida: I always said that 10 or 15 minutes a day is enough. If you are busy during the day, you should do it in the evening or morning. Many people say they are too busy to have 10 or 15 minutes in the morning. But I just tell them to go to sleep 10 or 15 minutes earlier. You just need to make kufu*.
* kufu: the effort to find the way to break through.
Zen2.0: These days many people are using their smartphones. There is actually a popular meditation app. You can even see the people around the world who meditate at the same time as you. You can send a message to those people to thank them for meditating with you. What do you think about things like this?
Yoshida: It’s no more than that.
Zen2.0: It seems like, as you mentioned, just doing what you decide to do can help people continue with meditation.
Yoshida: Although it’s good to help motivate each other, it would be even better if you could communicate directly. But you have to go beyond that stage, because it means you are still in Bonno* world.
*Bonno: a very worldly attachment or snobbish desire.
Zen2.0: I understand. So that means we remain stuck in the Bonno world.
Yoshida: Yes, affected by Bonno, snobbish human desires and uncertainty.
Appreciate each moment of real interaction.
Zen2.0: On a related note, we are now planning our Zen2.0 event in Kamakura for next year. The popularity of the concept of mindfulness has given many Westerners their own sense of what Zen is. We would like to make a stronger connection between those people and traditional Japanese Zen culture. That is our main purpose for holding Zen2.0.
On the other hand, meditation is more and more popular in general and big Silicon Valley companies like Google have created mindfulness programs that are becoming popular around the world. Yoga teachers and business coaches are becoming mindfulness guides, too, guiding people during meditation. These guides ask people to concentrate on their breath. This basic practice is now so popular that it has come to Japan as well.
From your perspective at the top of Rinzai Zen, what do you think about those trends?
Yoshida: For humans, as I said, it is important to think about goen. Using machines and technology are different. I’m not using those tech devices at all. They are artificial. Appreciate each moment of real interaction. That’s the most important thing. Using those devices requires relying on something external.
Zen2.0: You mean like using a smartphone.
Yoshida: Yes, if you follow the instructions of these devices, you will still have to find the way by yourself.
Zen2.0: I think it’s a modern way, a secular way of guiding people to meditation. People don’t have any negative intentions.
Yoshida: If you can maintain Zanmai with such devices, then I think it’s good. But if you search for quick and easy solutions you will regress. We really need the experience of true effort. With a quick and easy solution, we degenerate. It is essentially like experiencing food without salt.
Everyone hates effort. That’s what I worry about the most. For example, athletes never get stronger and better simply by watching a sports game. They need to train hard, of course. During training we have many emotions inside ourselves, crying, laughing, experiencing happiness and suffering. After experiencing these things they become part of you and make you stronger. In addition to that, if you sit and practice zazen, you can clean your mind naturally and feel Kuu.
Zen2.0: Take diets, for example. These days it’s popular to rely on simplistic solutions like trying to lose weight by eating only one food, like bananas. It becomes an endless series of fixes, with people looking for the next thing after bananas, and the next after that. People focus on easy solutions.
Yoshida: That’s right. It’s the human condition. In a sense it’s something humans have unconsciously pursued throughout history. But if you just chase after things you can’t see or sense physically, I think you risk upsetting the balance with your whole physical self. In short, the biggest challenge on the path to enlightenment is that it’s really difficult to empty your mind. Doing zazen on a hot summer day like this, for example.
Zen2.0: Is that true even for an experienced priest such as yourself?
Yoshida: Yes, but afterwards you feel so refreshed. You step outside into the evening cool and it feels wonderful. You have to accumulate these experiences. I just don’t think you get that kind of experience from a device like that. You can’t be thinking of trying to obtain these things via the easiest route. If you get them easily then you lose your human compassion, your ability to care for others. The Buddha preached that compassion is the highest form of love and that forms the root of our practice as Buddhists. When I first started practicing zazen I was struck by how painful it was. I didn’t question why we were doing it, because you’re under too much constant pressure to question it. So then you make up your mind and think: “OK, if I’m going to do this I’m going to see it through to the end so that it brings some good to the world,” which is how I’ve thought of it over the many years I’ve been doing it while I’m in the middle of zazen.
Zen2.0: So everyone does think of zazen as painful…
Yoshida: You have to think of it that way. You know the word ketsujōshin, unwavering heart? You’ve got to have that determination not to waver. If only people these days did that. I think you need to keep going and not give up right away, whatever you’re doing.
Zen2.0: To expand on that, there are people practicing here at Kenchō-ji every day, but there are also a lot of people who work in company jobs most of the time and come to Kenchō-ji on the weekend to practice zazen. It would be great if we were able to come here every day, but for those that can’t, who want to practice when they have time, how should they approach zazen? Do they need to push themselves to suffer to an extent, too?
Yoshida: Yes, I think so. We run zazen gatherings starting at 5PM on Fridays and Saturdays. I go whenever I can, sit with the participants for 40 minutes, and then speak for 30-40 minutes. Everyone has trouble sitting for that length of time, some of them probably want to go home, but they know they have to stick with it. Then they listen and they understand. They get it. As they leave I tell them they’ve got to come again, but only two or three do. Unfortunately.
Yoshida: Yes, that’s the way it is [laughs]. We live in an age where people inevitably jump from one novelty to another. But they’ll go away with the memory of being glad they came, so it’s fine. They’ll be back again when something happens and they hit a rough patch.
Zen2.0: So, even if it seems painful while they’re doing it, they’ll be glad they did it afterwards. In other words, they look at the world with fresh eyes. That’s the kind of experience everyone gets from it.
Yoshida: Yes, everyone responds the same way. Even after all these years, I still feel good after I’m done [laughs].
Zen2.0: So, that’s what people are noticing about it now.
Yoshida: Yes, that’s the thing I would want people to realise.
Fundamental truths will always exist in the world, even if religious belief disappears from it entirely.
Zen2.0: You mentioned that not many people return to do zazen, which brings me to a common view of religion in Japan. There is a perception that religious practice is not a fundamental part of daily life here. Like the old saying goes, “Shinto for weddings, Buddhism for funerals”.
Yoshida: It became that way after the war. In the past, people always used to join hands and pray before eating. You almost never see that these days. In other parts of the world, many people do pray before they eat. So in one sense, Japanese people have good, earnest hearts, but they’re superficial good, earnest hearts [laughs].
Yoshida: Easily influenced.
Zen2.0: In the Meiji period [1868-1912], Westernization was accompanied by anti-Buddhist movements that sought to destroy temples and strip priests of their privileges.
Yoshida: That’s true, but people can say whatever they want about Buddhism. It doesn’t alter the fact that fundamental truths will always exist in the world, even if religious belief disappears from it entirely. Truth is equal to nature. Zero versus zero. No alternative world exists.
Zen2.0: I think you have largely answered this, but what do you think is the best way to convey that message in Japan today? To young people, for example.
Yoshida: As you know, post-war Japan has seen a whole variety of religions. You have the established religions and emerging religions, but you have to make them responsible in some way for bringing people together. We tend not to do that, and we end up saying: “it’s OK to come, but you don’t have to.” Other religions accept money to bind people to them. And since they’ve given money, people figure they have to do something to justify it. That’s undoubtedly a selfish motivation, but it’s okay to begin that way. Making an offering when you go to a temple is the same thing. No one expects anything in return, but of course they’re really doing it to ask some kind of favor. At least I hope they are.
This may be a dismissive way to put it, but things will work themselves out.
Zen2.0: It sounds like you take a very philosophical view of the situation.
Yoshida: To an extent, but if there’s a chance, I’d like to, well, ”save” sounds too dramatic, but I’d like to do something.