IHCSA Café asked Mr. Daiko Matsuyama, the deputy chief priest of Taizoin temple in the precincts of Myoshinji, the head temple of the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, about Zen and its meaning in the modern world. Mr. Matsuyama is also an ambassador of the “Yokoso! Japan” tourist campaign.
Did you decide to become a Zen priest from your childhood days?
The clear decision came when I was a university student. My father, who is also a priest, insisted that I shouldn’t become a “frog at the bottom of a well” [ignorant of the outside world], so I entered university in Tokyo. In the first two years I lived at a temple in Tokyo and helped there while attending school. I didn’t have much chance to enjoy campus life! [Laughs] Around that time it was decided that I would succeed my father at the temple. But I wanted to do a little more before then [Laughs], so I got permission to go on to graduate school. At university I studied Japanese sake in the Faculty of Agriculture, and at graduate school I studied about the multiple functions of agriculture—in other words, the multifunctional role of agriculture not only as an industry but also in preserving the natural environment, preventing natural disasters, forming a scenic landscape, and so on. After completing graduate school, I entered practice at Heirin-ji temple in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture.
What kinds of things did you do in Zen practice?
We got up at 3 o’ clock in the morning, and after reading sutras for an hour and eating a humble breakfast [porridge with 10-20 grains of rice and a pickled plum], we did Zen meditation for an hour and a half and then engaged in chores around the temple, such as chopping wood and cutting grass, until lunch. After a short lunch, we did more outdoor work until 5 o’ clock and then more meditation from 6. Usually the meditation lasts until 9, but sometimes at the beginning we did overtime [Laughs] and didn’t go to bed until about midnight. For the first half year we were forbidden to go out of the temple, and after that we were allowed to go out for only one or two half-days a month. We were not allowed to read any newspapers or books.
You couldn’t do any reading even though you had gone on to graduate school?
That’s right. Zen practice means casting aside everything that you have accumulated thus far.
And what do you learn from that, then?
I think Zen practice involves finding the core of the human being. When you cut things away, human beings become extremely simple. During my practice, sometimes families supporting the temple would send us refreshments. I was 24 years of age at that time, but there I was, a 24-year-old lad crying over a single bottle of cola. For everybody, the core of happiness is extremely simple. That is the most important wisdom I learned from my practice. It took me three and a half years to really understand that simple truth, though. After my practice, I walked from Niiza back to Kyoto, begging alms on the way. It took me 28 days.
You hold classes to let foreigners experience Zen. What has been the response?
The response has been varied. People who are interested in Zen in the philosophical sense have an interest in Zen riddles. People who are interested in diets, such as vegetarianism, have an interest in temple vegetarian cooking. Asian people have an interest in the historical links with their country. I want foreigners to know about Japanese culture and Zen, but at the same time I also hope that, as a result of foreigners being interested, conversely the number of young Japanese showing an interest will increase as well. When international conferences are held in Kyoto, we are asked to provide classes so that participants can experience Zen. On such occasions, we get Japanese university students to help.
As a result, the Japanese university students also reflect on the fact that they didn’t know about this either.
So both foreigners and young Japanese can deepen their understanding of Japanese culture. Do you have any plans from now on?
I don’t want you to misunderstand this as opportunism, but I think that temples in Kyoto should open their doors a little wider. It would be a good thing for the stereotype to be overturned a bit. Nowadays foreigners have rather eccentric requests, like holding a wedding ceremony at a temple or proposing at a temple, but I think we should definitely help them realize those wishes. [Laughs] I also have a plan to build a facility combining a farm growing Kyoto vegetables and a Zen hall overseas. It would be good if those who experience Zen meditation and Japanese cuisine there then make a kind of “holy pilgrimage” to Japan, wouldn’t it?
Finally, two simple questions. First of all, what is happiness?
The degree of happiness is like a fraction in which the numerator is what you have gained and the denominator is what you want. The Buddhist way of thinking is that the denominator should be made smaller.
And what is the meaning of Zen in modern times?
I believe that precisely because we are living in the complex modern world, it is necessary for us to sit with regulated posture and breathing and be simple.
Profile of Mr. Daiko Matsuyama
Born in Kyoto in 1978. Completed studies in the Graduate School of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo. Appointed ambassador of the “Yokoso! Japan” tourist campaign in 2009. Deputy chief priest of Taizoin temple at Myoshinji, the head temple of the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto.
Photos: Fumio Kimiwada, courtesy of temple concerned