Conversation w/ Zen Master SHODO YOSHIDA (2/2)

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 second part, we go beyond Zen meditation and explore the depth of Zen thought.

Zen2.0: Kamakura is going to see an increasing number of overseas visitors. That’s one of the main reasons we decided to hold the first Zen and Mindfulness forum in Japan here in the birthplace of Japanese Zen.

Yoshida: To tell the truth, I do sometimes think it’d be great to have someone who speaks even a little Chinese or English present when I’m doing these zazen gatherings, because I don’t speak any other languages. It would let me communicate what I’m thinking. That would be better, though it’s absolutely fine for people just to come and sit.

People should really have the passion to go to another country and learn in the language of that country, in the same way that Japanese people went to China to study Buddhism a long time ago. To be honest, that’s really true for all religions.

Zen2.0: My understanding is that people are now coming to these zazen gatherings and starting to practice zazen on a daily basis. To expand on that, in addition to zazen, one essential aspect of Zen Buddhism, are there any other indispensable elements you would recommend to focus the mind, like the daily practice of “resetting yourself” you mentioned earlier?

Yoshida: In the end, it’s about applying discipline to your daily life itself.

Zen2.0: That’s in line with what you said earlier about deciding to do something and making it a daily practice.

Yoshida: Take meals, for example. Not leaving anything or throwing it away once you start eating. You have to take the attitude that these things are a part of you. You must not do anything wasteful. Don’t throw things away or waste them. You need to discipline yourself.

Zen2.0: Is the conclusion that disciplining yourself leads to greater simplicity?

Yoshida: That’s exactly it. For example if you’re doing zazen, if you discipline yourself you’ll find you’re far more able to adapt and continue with it. You need to reduce your worries as much as you can [laughs].

Zen2.0: If you apply self-discipline in your daily life those needless things will fade away.

Yoshida: That’s right.

Zen2.0: And that applies both to worries and other spiritual matters, and to actual things like meals.

Yoshida: That’s it. In Zen we talk about ichigyō-Sanmai or ippo-Sanmai, a period of focused meditation while doing nothing else. Whatever you do, you follow your own path. Whether it’s something you’ve been given to do or your karma bids you to do, you devote yourself to it fully.

Zen2.0: In English, you often hear athletes like Ichiro talk about “getting into the zone.”

Yoshida: Yes, that’s the Zanmai part.

Zen2.0: Is that so.

Yoshida: Yes, absolutely. It means not thinking about anything else. Nothing else intrudes, because you’re giving it your all.

Zen2.0: You look back and think: “I was really focused back then.”

Yoshida: Exactly. You empty your mind and forget about things, yourself, everything. There’s nothing but what you’re doing. Actually not even that [laughs].

Zen2.0: One thing that has stayed with me from our conversation today was the part about using your body, which is the same as Ichiro.

Yoshida: That’s very true. Your body is the basis for everything.

Zen2.0: Especially because you’re disciplining yourself each day and doing it with your body.

Yoshida: Our teachers told us: “there’s no need to learn the reasons behind things, just learn with your body.” Effort, effort, effort, they’d tell us.

Zen2.0: Make an effort.

Yoshida: That’s what they told us. Stop splitting hairs, stop the clumsy preaching. The teacher who taught me was always weeding when I came back from school.

Zen2.0: Pulling out weeds empties the mind, doesn’t it.

Yoshida: It does. But doing it in the grounds of a big temple is a real pain. The apprentices feel bad because they see their teachers doing it, so they join in.

It’s no use coming to zazen if you don’t keep your room clean.

Zen2.0: That made me think again about the mindfulness exercises you see overseas, where often the purpose is to relax you. You don’t need to sit in a traditional zazen position, you can sit in a chair, and you’re told to relax your entire body and then they begin by saying: “Right, close your eyes and let’s meditate.” What’s your view of the physical aspect of this practice?

Yoshida: Ultimately relaxing is a good thing, but it’s extremely difficult to set everything else aside and relax. To do that, you need to put your daily life in order.

Zen2.0: You’ll never be free if you leave that part untouched.

Yoshida: No, you won’t. I often tell people who come to our zazen gatherings: “It’s great that you’ve come to zazen today. Now, who here, after hearing me talk, could say they had no regrets if they keeled over right now? Hands up!” And they all have regrets. One of the most common is that their room is a mess. I tell them it’s no use coming to zazen if you don’t keep your room clean [laughs].

Zen2.0: That’s funny. Finally, I wanted to ask a rather big question: what’s the most beautiful thing about Zen?

Yoshida: I think everything is.

Zen2.0: Everything is beautiful.

Yoshida: It is. It’s natural. That’s the point. It’s exactly as you see it. What I mean is, if you say to someone who’s grieving the loss of their husband: “you may be sad at the moment but something good will come along,” it won’t get through to them. It isn’t going to be of any comfort. You should be crying along with them. That’s what I’m trying to say. You aren’t going to comfort someone who’s been through a serious illness by telling them: “something good’s going to happen.” You’d be far better off giving them a good hug. You join them.

Zen2.0: In mindfulness meditations there’s something called “meditations on compassion,” which I’m sure must have come from Buddhism. You’re asked to sit down and think: “I wish for my own happiness.” Then: “I wish for the happiness of my close family.” Then you think of someone you dislike and wish for that person’s happiness. Then you expand it to include people you’ve never met and never will, and wish for their happiness. It’s intended to develop a kind of compassionate spirit, the Buddhist sense that you should be compassionate to those you meet as it may be the last time. In other words, you look beyond the narrow world of your own ego and extend your imagination and compassion to people outside. What is your view?

Yoshida: Well, the thing about compassion is looking at the whole in a natural way. You’re able to look at it naturally. So if you see someone you feel sorry for and tell them to hang in there, you’re actually not giving them any comfort. You need to discard that approach and think about ways to be close to them, think about crying with them. So it’s OK to mull this kind of thing over, but if you’re doing that you won’t be able to do zazen. All you’re doing is fantasizing. When you sit down, sit properly. If you reset yourself to zero you’ll be ready to move. You’ll be able to comprehend the other person’s feelings without effort. That’s the key. People talk about caring for others, but if you ask me they’re just fantasizing.

Zen2.0: And you need to avoid that and instead actually cry with them or do something else with them.

Yoshida: That’s exactly it. I think that’s the only way to do it. Think about it: we’re given life as part of the natural world, and we obviously run into all sorts of obstacles. Instead of responding the same way each time something happens, you need to look at each case with no preconceptions and respond to it naturally. That’s the realm of Zen, the realm of the spiritual.

You have to learn to deal with all the situations you encounter by yourself. You can’t be picky.

Zen2.0: Peace is another very important subject in the world today. Of course, if we start talking about world peace, that’s an impossibly broad topic, but in specific situations such as the Dhaka cafe attack in July, how should people approach the concept of peace? If we suddenly jump to the global scale it becomes too big a theme. Should we be thinking about our immediate surroundings? Should we be thinking about peace in our country or peace in our own neighborhoods?

Yoshida: You see, I understand the sentiment of wanting peace for other people and for the world, but unless you have first mastered the basics you can end up making bad decisions, we should do this or we should do that. That recent incident is just the same. People who don’t have enough experience of life do that sort of thing and it’s all wrong. If they really had belief in the true sense there’s no way they’d do something like that.

Zen2.0: I agree.

Yoshida: You see, people are bound to make mistakes, and the ability to confront them head on and think about them calmly comes from zazen or from religion.

Zen2.0: Learning how to discipline yourself in a religious context, for example by practicing zazen, that attitude at the individual level leads to peace.

Yoshida: That’s right. You have to learn to deal with all the situations you encounter by yourself. You can’t be picky. If you start prioritizing and saying it’s zazen or it’s this other thing, that’s also a form of attachment.

Zen2.0: If you focus too much on zazen that’s a kind of attachment.

Yoshida: I’m just throwing that out as an example. But yes, that’s it.

Zen2.0: As you said earlier, even with the example of everyday meals, you can bring a certain attitude to them?

Yoshida: You see, people come in all shapes and sizes, and even brothers or parents and children don’t experience the life the same way. They’re each completely different. And that’s something to be grateful for. It means you can improve. The problem comes when that drifts into thinking instead in terms of better or worse. People’s beliefs allow them to remain calm and rational.

Zen2.0: Belief is a kind of pillar that supports you as you move forward.

Yoshida: That’s it. To put it simply, you need to think of it as something that will encourage you.

Zen2.0: Continuing with religion, for example I see Christianity as a relatively conceptual religion, but even Christians are now starting to sit and meditate, to use their bodies to reexamine their spiritual selves.

Yoshida: One thing you’ll hear me tell people is that they have bad posture when they pray. They need to straighten their posture. Not do it like this. Straighten up. If you do that you attain oneness with God. It’s a mistake to think of God as existing in heaven. When you have emptied your mind you too are a god.

Zen2.0: So in that sense the fact that people are doing zazen and attempting to empty their minds is a positive trend?

Yoshida: It’s a good thing. It certainly is. I think that’s why everyone comes.

Zen2.0: They seem to be approaching Zen as something that’s beyond the bounds of religion. What I mean is that they don’t see it as an alternative to Christianity, Buddhism or Islam. It seems to me to have become a slightly broader platform.

Yoshida: You know that all religions originated around the Middle East.

Zen2.0: Particularly the monotheistic religions.

Yoshida: That’s the basis of everything. At first the gurus all headed there. They were thorough, consistent people. Things gradually changed as they started propagating their religion. Their disciples gradually made mistakes and messed things up. That’s all. There’s only one truth [laughs].

A blank mind. Formless. That’s the ultimate goal.

Zen2.0: Religions were formed and as they spread things ended up changing a little.

Yoshida: I think so. We’re talking about people, after all.

Zen2.0: If you go back to the original gurus, they all used physical means in search of an empty mind.

Yoshida: That’s right. If you’re praying with a pure heart you should be free of desire. When I went to Pakistan I visited mosques and all kind of places, I prayed with them, and it felt good. If I go to churches I always pray.

Zen2.0: You feel as if ultimately the core elements are the same.

Yoshida: I do. The problem is thinking about yourself. You need to become selfless. No self. A blank mind. Formless. That’s the ultimate goal.

Zen2.0: I see.

Yoshida: The only thing is, if you say to people that there’s nothing, no gain or loss, you lose them. Because everyone wants something [laughs].

Zen2.0: Everyone’s after some sort of gain… But on the subject, now that we have ended up buried in material things and consumer society has reached its limits, it seems to me that more people are starting to look not at what they can get in return and are instead starting to focus on their inner life.

Yoshida: That’s something I’m very pleased about.

Zen2.0: I imagine that Kenchō-ji will draw more and more attention from around the world.

Yoshida: More than attention or whatever, most people have their daily lives and they can be thinking just in terms of ideals all the time, but that’s the root of it. You mustn’t forget that.

Zen2.0: That remains consistent.

Yoshida: That has to remain consistent. It’s the same for any religion.

Zen2.0: No matter how different religion may seem, they’re all the same.

Yoshida: All religions are the same. You have to remain consistent.

Zen2.0: I feel like that sense of everything being the same is what you might call the depth of Zen’s tolerance. It’s what draws people to come here from other countries or Buddhist traditions.

Yoshida: It’s natural. That’s right. There is no distinction.

Zen2.0: Thank you very much for talking to us today and for such an informative discussion.