“Free yourself from your own fixation”: Shoshu Hirai, head priest of Zenshoan temple known as the meditation place of Prime Minister Abe, shares his wisdom on how to get on in life.

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Zenshoan is a temple of the Rinzai sect in Yanaka, Tokyo. It had been known as the temple where leading Japanese political figures visited for meditation. The temple became widely known after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe performed Zazen, wearing samue (monk’s working clothes) on the day the Premium Friday was implemented in February 2017. Shoshu Hirai is the temple’s seventh head priest. We asked various questions, from teaching of Zen to how business persons can cope with stress and anxiety.
(Interviewed by: Minoru Sengoku, CPA and Certified Tax Accountant /Arranged by KK Floor)

Zenshoan temple: Established by Tesshu Yamaoka. The temple is also known for ownership of Ghost Paintings

Sengoku (S): Could you briefly explain the history of Zenshoan.

Hirai (H): It was established in 1883 by Tesshu Yamaoka (1836-1888), a renowned master of swordplay, Zen practice and calligraphy. It was founded based on his wishes to create a place of repose for the spirit of those who died at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate through the Meiji Restoration. He wanted to honor the war dead, regardless of their political status, whether they belonged to Imperial army or to the army of the rebels. Tesshu himself belonged to the rebel army.

People who belonged to Imperial army were enshrined in “Shokonsha”(shrine to summon the souls), a predecessor of Yasukuni Shrine. Government-sponsored memorial services were held there to pray for their souls. However, those who belonged to the Tokugawa side (army of the rebels) were not allowed to be enshrined there. But Tesshu thought that these people who were called rebels deserved a place to be honored because they also dedicated their lives for the betterment of Japan. That was Tesshu’s desire.

S: What inspired you to become the head priest of the temple?

H: I am the seventh head priest. My father had passed away rather early, and there was no one who could succeed him, so I became the head priest. Even though I was the seventh head priest here, it was the first time having a hereditary succession. Ever since I remember, I had been helping the temple in monk’s outfit, so people around me may have thought that I would “succeed him”. I graduated from college in 1990. It was at the peak of the bubble economy at that time, so I could have joined any company if I wanted to.

I was advised by someone to try pursuing spiritual practice, even for just a year. The person said “You young people have not experienced any hardship because you were born in this peaceful era. A year’s apprenticeship at the temple may let you experience a bit of hardship. If you still don’t want to become a monk after the apprenticeship, you can pursue another career. But no matter what you choose, the things you learn from the apprenticeship in one year will be helpful.”

I pondered over it, but I decided to follow the person’s advice.

S: I heard that the temple owns famous ghost paintings.

H: There are very unique ghost paintings by renowned masters such as Okyo Maruyama, Zeshin Shibata, Yosai Kikuchi, Fuko Matsumoto, Seiu Ito and Kyosai Kawanabe. We have about fifty scrolls of paintings. It was a collection of Sanyutei Encho (1839‐1900), a first-rate influential Rakugo master in the same era, whose grave is located at the site of Zenshoan temple. The executor of his mementos donated his collection to this temple.

S: What kind of a person was Tesshu Yamaoka?

H: He was called “one of the three magnificent personages with the letter of 'Shu'” along with Kaishu Katsu and Deishu Takahashi at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate period. Takamori Saigo raved about Tesshu, saying: “A person who wants no money, no honor, or not even his own life is hard to deal with, but only such a man could perform the greatest achievement in the whole world.” It may sound like just another cliche, but he was truly an “amazing person”. He was so earnest that he dedicated every part of himself to things he wanted to accomplish.

S: We see the word “foolishness” in your books. Would you please elaborate on the meaning of this word?

H: Ultimately, “foolishness” translates as “honesty.” It means an attitude to tackle any issues head on without any deception.

Sometimes, we humans tend to limit ourselves by saying “this is good enough” even for things we need to tackle more sincerely. No matter what you do, your work or your hobby, we tend to compromise, but the attitude described here is “to go all the way without compromising.”

At the end of Shogunate era, swordplay had become fashionable. There were many dojos, meaning swordplay practice halls, and a lot of people practiced there. However, as a result of Haitorei (Sword Abolishment Edict) issued in Meij Era, swordplay dojos naturally went under one after another.

Even those who had been called “masters” ended up working in show-booths to make a living. Amid such a difficult time, Tesshu founded a dojo for swordplay. He must have realized that regardless of changes in time, swordsmanship is not for killing but for the discipline of your own mind.

Relation between Bushido and Zen

S: I think that Master Tesshu’s “foolishness,” the very characteristics that makes him an outstanding figure, is, in a way, related to Bushido (the spirit of samurai). Are there things in common between the principle of Bushido and spirit of Zen?

H: Actually, there had never been a notion of Bushido until Inazo Nitobe defined it in his book. When he went abroad, he was asked what are the ethics and codes of conduct for the Japanese as opposed to Christianity and religions in the West. This triggered him to write the book “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”. He reflected on his own life and the life of his parents to define the ethics for the Japanese.

Most Japanese do not receive religious education; however, that does not mean they have no religious connections. Actually, religion is rather a part of their lives. In a nut shell, Bushido is traditional Japanese philosophy. It has developed into such form while the concept of Buddhism and Confucianism adopted from abroad were merged with the indigenous culture of Japan.

On the other hand, Zen does not emerge in physical form; it is the root beneath all things. Swordsmanship, roughly speaking, is an art of killing people with swords. For that purpose, foul play may be possible, and unless you win, there is no meaning to it.

However, many Samurais believed that “swordsmanship is not just an art of killing”. The Art of swordsmanship rests on the mind of the sword user. Zen is for the training of the person’s mind. That’s where the idea 'Ken Zen Ichinyo' (swordsmanship and Zen are one and the same) derived from.

The same is true to Chado (art of tea) and Kado (Ikebana: art of flowers). Next year, an event called “Japonism” is planned in Paris, France. It is an event to globally disseminate Japanese culture such as paintings, plays, animations, and movies from Paris.

I am going to participate in the event. When I contemplated over what lies beneath the traditional Japanese culture, I came to realize that arts of tea, flowers and Noh all derived from the spirit of Zen.
I thought, deep down in our idea of “Japanese culture,” there lies the spirit of Zen. Zen itself does not have any physical form.

However, if it takes a form of swordplay, it would become “Kendo, the art of sword,” if in the form of tea, it would emerge as “Chado, art of tea;” and if in the form of flowers, “Kado, the art of flower.” By learning these arts, whether it is art of tea or flowers, you will learn the spirit that lies deep beneath these arts.

To discipline your mind is to break free from your own fixation.

S: How can we discipline our mind with Zen?

H: I do not think that our mind is to be disciplined. We, humans, laugh when we are happy, and cry when we are sad; our feelings change freely.

To describe our feelings, we often use an analogy of water. “Our mind is like water. When the container is square-shaped, the water fits in square form; if round-shaped, it fits in round form.” Our feelings can be like water. Our feelings set into a mold of being “happy”, “sad”, “suffering” and then sets into a self-made mold of ourselves, saying “This is me. That’s who I am.”

That’s the biggest problem. We tend to be fixated on our self-made image. “I am like this; I am this kind of person. Because I have this kind of personality, etc.” What comes next after fixation on our self-image is, “It can’t be helped.” We often say, “Discipline our mind,” but what we need to do is “to break free from or dissolve our fixation on who we are.”

S: In modern society, many executives / business owners and salaried workers live with anxiety. Even successful managers say they “always feel anxious.” How can we deal with our feeling of anxiety?

H: Whatever era you live in, all humans, from children to adults, live with stress or anxiety. Stress and anxiety are always there, so you just learn to live with them. It would be best if you could accept them. It would be just right if you could think as if you were holding hand with stress and anxiety.

We mostly worry about things that have yet to happen; therefore, there is no solution. If we still feel anxious, we just need to consider measures or solutions to prevent things from happening.

Presently, I serve as a visiting professor at a university’s department of risk management. Risk management is exactly the study to prepare for things that may happen. Various manuals or training are prepared in case of an earthquake or disaster.

Such an earthquake or a disaster may not happen; but when it happens, it always happens suddenly. No one can tell us what day an earthquake will occur. It is important to be prepared; however, it is also important to think somewhere in your mind “there is nothing that can be done.”

Prime Minister Abe made a fresh start with Zazen

S: Former Prime Minister Nakasone and Prime Minister Abe visited this temple for Zazen. Is there any particular reason for such top leaders to come here?

H: Mr. Nakasone worked from Monday through Saturday and came here Saturday evening through Sunday. There were many issues he needed to tend to in his minute-by-minute tight schedule. He probably had a lot on his mind. By performing Zazen, he seemed to have emptied his mind.

Prime Minister Abe had to resign rather regretfully when he first took over the regime. His health was in poor condition too. He collapsed for the first time in his life, and the sense of failure was too much to bear for him. He was probably pondering what to do down the road.

S: I myself participated in Zazen the other day too, but it is rather difficult to empty our mind.

H: There is a word “Mushin” (translated as “no-mindedness”). But it does not mean “think nothing.” “Mushin” refers to the state where our body and mind are together over the thing we are doing now. It can be referred to as “Isshin,” which is written in Japanese as “one heart.”

Even while you are sitting for mediation, many thoughts are always coming into your head. You just need to remove such thoughts whenever they come up.

S: Lastly, would you please give a message to business executives / owners and salaried workers.

H: Whatever we do, whether it is work or a private matter, it always starts with our mind day and night. Whenever we think or feel something, we put such thoughts into action. That’s why we need to condition our mind. We need to examine the nature of human heart and the state of our own heart.

When things go wrong, we, humans, tend to be preoccupied with its appearance. However, I hope people would take more time to reflect upon their own mind. It does not have to be in the form of Zazen. It would be nice if people spent even a short time to look at themselves.

Shoshu Hirai: The seventh head priest of Zenshoan Temple.
He was born in 1967 in Tokyo. After graduating from Gakushuin University, Hirai entered into training at a special dojo at Ryutakuji Temple in Shizuoka prefecture. He took the current position in 2002. Hirai is the author of several books including “Hana no yoni ikiru : Utsukushiku saki kaori minoru tame no zen no oshie” (Live like flowers: Teaching of Zen for blossoming and fruitful life) and “Kokoro ga mirumiru hareru Zazen no susume” (Lift your heart with Zazen Practice). He teaches the principle of Bushido and spirits of Zen in an easily understood manner in many government offices and training courses at companies. He also instructs Zazen workshops.

Address: 5-4-7 Yanaka, Daito-ku, Tokyo
Religious Sect: Kokutai-ji sect of Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Its Sango (honorific mountain name prefixed to a temple’s name) is Fumonsan.
The chief object of worship: Aoi Sho Kanzeon Bosatsu (Guardian diety of Edo Castle)