Kodo Sawaki “homeless”: from brothel worker to Buddhist monk

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

It seems strange to me that people are respected because they have money.

Unfortunately, by the 20th century, Zen Buddhism in Japan had become very stagnant, mostly revolving around the repetition of routine, lifeless rituals. The majority of Buddhist monks did not teach Buddhism and very few practiced meditation. Their time was almost exclusively spent raising funds for their temples by chanting rituals at funerals. This sad situation had existed for centuries in Japan, with a few notable exceptions. One of them was a 20th-century Buddhist who reintroduced meditation and Buddhist teachings to the Japanese. He fiercely criticized Buddhism as it existed, asserting that "a religion (Buddhism) which has nothing to do with our fundamental attitude towards our lives is nonsense", then reminding the people Japanese that he had Buddhism at his disposal “a religion that teaches us to return to a true way of life.

Kodo Sawaki. From wikipedia.org

The man who reintroduced Buddhist teachings and the practice of Buddhist meditation to Japan was born on June 16, 1880. His name was Kodo Sawaki. At the age of eight, he was an orphan as his mother died when he was five and his father three years later. An uncle brought him to his home but, tragically, the uncle also died. Sawaki was offered accommodation by a man who was a professional gambler and his wife, a former prostitute who oversaw brothels. They made him work as a casino guard and clean brothels. Realizing that his childhood was less than ideal, unhappy with what he was experiencing, and feeling that there must be more to life, he began secretly spending time at a nearby Zen temple. There, the abbot took an interest in the young boy, advising him to consider studying and practicing Zen.

Following this advice, Sawaki was 16 when he ran away from home to join a monastery and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1899. Soon after, he was drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army to serve in combat during the war. Russian-Japanese (1904-05). War experience combined with improving weapons technology made him skeptical of scientific and technological advancements. Speaking against wars, armies and evolving weapons technologies, he noted: "Today the newspaper talks about exterminating the enemy or how we clear them with gunfire machine guns. It almost feels like daily cleaning. They fire machine guns and call it "cleaning up the remains of the enemy." Compared to today, the war before was old-fashioned. We only fired one bullet at a time. For the rest of his life, Sawaki warned that scientific and technological advances did not lead to human transformation.

After his military service ended, Sawaki returned to his life and work as a Zen Buddhist monk and became a meditation teacher. At the beginning of the 20th century, meditation (called zazen) was neither commonly taught nor practiced in Japan. Sawaki has made it his personal mission to revitalize meditation by reestablishing it as a central practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism. To do this, he traveled extensively across the country teaching Zen meditation.

Sawaki taught people to "just sit," describing Zen as "wonderfully useless" and discouraged any notion of seeking special experiences or acquiring deeper states of consciousness. He often used the phrase “nothing special” to describe the practice of meditation. Aware that his approach has earned him criticism, he declares: “My sermons are criticized by certain audiences. They say that my sermons are hollow and unholy. I agree with them because I am not holy myself. The Buddha's teaching guides people to the place where there is nothing special. . . People often misunderstand faith as a kind of ecstasy or intoxication. . . True faith sobers up from such intoxication.

From mahajana.net

Although he could have assumed the traditional role of abbot of a Zen center, he chose to stay on the move. As a result, he became known as the "homeless" Kodo. When asked what he thought of the nickname, Sawaki replied, "People call me 'Homeless' Kodo, but I don't take that as an insult. They call me that because I never had a temple or a house. Everyone is homeless. It's a mistake if you think you have a permanent home.

Not one to soften teachings, Sawaki spoke directly and bluntly. He criticized institutional religion, saying: “When religious groups attract crowds and build elaborate structures, many people begin to believe that these institutions are real religions. The authenticity of a religion does not depend on the number of believers it has. Large numbers are not significant; more people are wrong than are wrong. Noting that so many people live aimlessly, he said: “Because they are bored, people kill time by agonizing, falling in love, drinking, reading novels, and watching sports; they do things half-heartedly and incompletely, removed from their lives, rather than living with determination in a decisive direction.

Commenting on the human tendency towards hypocrisy, he pointed out: “If you steal other people's things, you become a thief. Some people think that you only become a thief after being arrested by a police officer, questioned by a prosecutor, tried and incarcerated. A corrupt politician considers himself a man of virtue and resource if he manages to avoid scandal and evade responsibility for his actions. People are so stupid! And for those who are self-sufficient, he warned: “Most people do not live in their own strength. They simply feed off the power of organizations. Those who live off their titles or status are wimps.

At the time of his death on December 21, 1965, many considered him the most important Zen master of the XNUMXth century in Japan. At his request, his body was donated to science and his books to a university library. During his lifetime, he used his veteran's pension to publish his writings which he distributed to practitioners. He literally left nothing behind when he died.

Words of wisdom from Kodo Sawaki

After all our efforts and racking our brains as intensely as possible, we reached a dead end. Human beings are idiots. We claim to be wise and then do foolish things.

We must not forget that modern scientific culture developed on the basis of our lowest consciousness.

The whole world is talking about progress, but in which direction are we moving?

It seems strange to me that people are respected because they have money.

Doing good can be bad. Some people do good to make themselves look good.

Each of us must live our own life. Don't waste time thinking about who is more talented.

Religion means living one's own life, completely fresh and new, without being fooled by anyone.

People believe that living in luxury is something great. It seems strange to me that people are respected because they have money.

Just walk without getting caught in tangles.

Each of us must start from the beginning. We cannot start from where our teachers arrived.

Studying originally meant discovering one's own life. Today, studying simply allows you to obtain a license that allows you to get a job.

The world in which we give and receive is a serene and beautiful world. This is different from the world of chasing things. It is vast and limitless.

Practicing the Buddha way is not about letting our mind wander but about becoming one with what we are doing.

Unless you see "human" from the Buddha's point of view, you will never understand the truth.

We all need to think about our motivations with our eyes wide open. Somehow, before we know it, we're playing to the gallery, worried about our popularity as an entertainer.

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photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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