Kôdô Sawaki: The Homeless Man

- through Sophie Solere

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Unpublished! Buddhist News publishes an exclusive interview with Kôdô Sawaki, eminent Soto Zen master and professor at Komazawa University, residing in Antai-ji, Kyoto, conducted in 1964, a year before his death, by Shunpei Ueyama. Kôdô Sawaki was then 84 years old.

It's very quiet here. How long have you lived in Antai-ji?

For sixteen years. In Antai-ji (1), we practice Zen Soto. This place is open only to people who wish to discover Zen. Normally, a temple needs a community to maintain it, this is not the case at Antai-ji. When Reverend Eto (2) of Komazawa University (3) died, I was given the responsibility. It was not a wish on my part… For us, it was an abandoned house. There have been many stories around this house… During the war, many refugees lived here. In this room, for example, many people have died suffering from lung diseases.

You have always done a lot of things. Since you retired here, you have been leading a quiet life here. What do you do every day?

I read every day. In the past, I have only read texts that you have to know, but at the moment I am reading two books about the first inhabitants of Romania.

When did you start Zen?

It was incredibly early: at the age of 16, I ran away from home to become a monk in Eihei-ji (4). I found there a well-defined practice of zazen, but I had the impression that people were not concentrated because they did not like to practice.

In the middle of summer, during the Obon period (5), I was helping at Ryuun-ji, the temple of a priest who had a leadership role. When my task was accomplished, I was dismissed. I had no idea what I could do. So I decided to practice zazen alone in a small storage room. Then, I left on foot, without money, to Amakusa-Kyushu (6), because I was bored in Eihei-ji. I didn't want to go back to my adoptive father's store… But it was very, very hard.

You studied Yuishiki at Horyu-ji Temple. Has this had an influence on your life?   

Yuishiki (7) is an elementary Buddhist philosophy. With l'Abhidhamma (8), they are completely logical sciences. Zen does not follow this logic, and those who follow this tradition do not want to study Yuishiki. Zen is not knowledge, but transcendence.

A university professor then advised me to study the basic knowledge of Buddhism. What I did later, after the Russo-Japanese war (9). I went to Horyu-ji and studied there for seven or eight years, including Shôbôgenzô.

What characterizes Zen?

Bodhidharma said: "Kakunen musho" (10). It means the truth is like the blue sky, there is nothing. No notion of right or wrong, gain or loss, no dogma, only emptiness. Because people follow their own dogmas, there are conflicts of ideas. When this happens, I cannot say anything about it, but only practice zazen.

Today, science is very important, it constantly produces new theories, and has become, in a way, one of the engines of our life. Isn't this way of life the opposite of Zen?

That's right. Science is endless, therefore, because of it, man must constantly set new goals. Zen or truth have no beginning or end. There is only one truth. We could live the same way as before. But today, all you have to do is press a button and disaster strikes. It sounds crazy: is this the real civilization? So practicing Zen takes on its full meaning.

You said that Zen is free and spontaneous. But in the Shôbôgenzô, for example, there are many descriptions of the forms of zazen and strict rules concerning the “kesa” (11) that you wear. I don't understand this logic.

It is simply so. What do you see when I wear the kesa like that? In my youth, when I practiced in a storage room, an old woman, seeing me practicing like this, with the kesa, had the impression that my zazen was something special. Form is important. Dogen attached great importance to perfect forms. When I practice zazen with a kesa, then it's complete. People call it “the school of the kesa”. For my zazen, the kesa is important, other things don't matter to me.

“Science is endless, therefore, because of it, man must constantly set new goals. Zen or truth have no beginning or end. There is only one truth. We could live the same way as before. But today, all you have to do is press a button and disaster strikes. It sounds crazy: is this the real civilization? So practicing Zen takes on its full meaning. »

What is the conception of “kai” in Zen?

When someone misbehaved, committed a crime, Siddhartha Gautama led him to learn a lesson. “Kai” comes from this teaching. The expression "Zenkai Ichinyo" means that zen and kai are identical and mean absolute truth. You cannot do anything wrong when you practice zazen (12).

For a long time, monks like you didn't have a family life. Siddhartha Gautama himself had left his family for Buddhism. But nowadays it's different.

Monks must be stricter, otherwise they might become something else instead of being monks. I am lucky not to have a home. It is an asset for a monk. It's enough for me.

In a poem, Zen Master Daichi says:
“A lot of time has passed since I became a monk
I still follow the Old Masters.
Every day at noon I go to town
Take my turn asking for alms.
Every night I stay anywhere
On the outskirts of the city which is there, quiet
And do zazen. "(13)

When we get older, we start to fear loneliness. Is it so for you? Have you wondered what it would be like if you had a family?

No, I'm glad I don't have a family. There would be too much to do. I am alone and solely responsible for myself. I'm lucky to be able to stay here, although I'm from nowhere. Here grow wild herbs that are prepared for meals. The birds sing, the maple turns purple when autumn arrives… I live in absolute happiness!

But it seems very difficult. Normally, at the beginning, we have no house and we work to obtain one.

No one understands Siddhartha Gautama. Why did he leave his family? What is "satori"? It's not easy to understand. What is most important? It is not “satori” nor practicing, it is “having no home”. When you own something, you fight for that “home”. We call “Bonpu” (14) someone who aims to have a place of their own. For them, the only thing that counts is their own home and arguments with others ensue. Everyone should know that they are Bonpu and try to understand each other.


Shunpei Ueyama and the Original editions

This interview comes from the archives of the temple of Kôdô Sawaki, in Antai-ji. The current abbot, Muho Nölke, of German origin, creates links between Japan and Europe

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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