Zen Road
Zen Road
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Kojun Kishigami Osho

“Master Deshimaru received the last monk ordination given by Kodo Sawaki before he died. I am the last to have received Kodo Sawaki’s shiho. In a way, we are the last ones to whom he transmitted his mind. Twenty-four years after Deshimaru’s death, I find myself in France. Seeing you all, I have the impression that I’ve found Deshimaru again.”
— Japanese Zen monk Kojun Kishigami, Paris Zen Dojo, November 1st, 2006
[Japanese Zen monk Kojun Kishigami Osho, head shaved, wearing his monk’s robes and smiling]

Toshihidei Kishigami was born on the island of Shikoku one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the eldest son in a family of farmers. Around the age of nine, he became keenly aware of the injustice in the world, and as a young boy was filled with the desire to become a politician in order to help change society and put an end to its inequaliti. But with time, I realized that any change of this sort would be limited. Only a change in the human heart would be likely to produce a solution. And for this, instead of speeches, it would be better to start by changing myself. And so I became a kind of seeker. This is how I entered the Way.”

As a teenager he took to reading the Bible, Confucius, Lao Tsu, Heraclitus and other spiritual and philosophical works. But the teacher who made the strongest impression on the young Kishigami was Nature herself.

“I had the good fortune to grow up with nature, which allowed me to develop a certain affinity to it,” says Kishigami of his childhood. “And so, instead of spoken and written messages, I prefer those that nature sends to me after contemplating the moon or the autumn dusk. The constant changes in nature imbued me with the feeling of impermanence. I learned it instinctively and physically, through my contact with the natural world.”

One evening when he was thirteen, he felt he had become one with the setting sun. He identified this with the Zen satori he had read about, but was not particularly impressed.

“I told myself it was no big deal, and could even be dangerous.”

Around the same time, he learned about about Dogen’s Zen and the Soto school, which recommend the practice of zazen without any goal. This, for Kishigami, was something pure, something he could explore. He eagerly began reading Dogen and other Zen masters. He was particularly impressed by Eisai, a Rinzai master who said that the world supports and sustains human beings, and not the other way around. One day, while sweeping the schoolyard, he felt something caress his cheek. The feeling returned repeatedly over the next three days, and the young man again learned through nature what others were saying in books.

“It was a feeling of eternity,” he recalls, “of how the universe makes us alive and carries us along, beyond our own will.”

He began to look for an authentic master and learned of the existence of Kodo Sawaki. The fifteen-year-old Kishigami wrote to the seventy-five-year old Sawaki:

“Dear Master, I can imagine that nothing can surpass satori, but allow me to tell you that personally I have no intention of attaining this famous satori, even if it makes me the worst student in the class.”

Sawaki replied with a post card: “I received your letter. I agree with you completely.”

[Japanese zen monk Kojun Kishigami wearing glasses and looking at an album of old black-and-white photos of his master]

Sawaki encouraged Kishigami to come and continue his studies at a secondary school near his temple, Antai-ji, in Kyoto. But the boy’s father would not allow it, and Kishigami acquiesced.

“I told myself that I shouldn’t make him suffer. I realized that one shouldn’t sacrifice others while seeking the Way.”

Undaunted, Kishigami went to Antai-ji on weekends and holidays to attend Sawaki’s teisho and sesshin. On his very first visit, he found himself in the master’s room.

“His first words while taking off his traveling rakusu were, ‘Ah, you took the trouble to come all the way here? Welcome!’ I was sitting on my heels and I said, ‘Yes!’ That’s all it took. Before I saw him, I thought I would ask all sorts of questions, but when it happened, that was enough. Out of the ten years I spent with my master, that first three-minute encounter impressed me the most. Kanno doko: the current passed between us.”

[Faded color photo of four Japanese zen monks standing with shaved heads, black robes and traditional rakusus worn over the chest]

Although he requested the monk ordination at this time, it was not until five years later, in 1962, that Kishigami was ordained by Sawaki. He received the shiho from him in 1965, one month after Deshimaru received his monk ordination. Kodo Sawaki died in December of that year; a few years later, Deshimaru left for France. Kishigami went on to practice in various temples and stayed at Eihei-ji several times. On one of those occasions, in the spring of 1970, he reconnected with Deshimaru, who had returned to Eihei-ji to receive his missionary certificate.

After several years, finding no one with whom he could develop a relationship of deep trust such as he had experienced with Sawaki, Kishigami decided to let zazen become his master, and to return to his first teacher, nature. Not yet 40 years old, he went off into the mountains, where he would remain for 26 years until his visit to Europe.

No road leads to Jinko-an. It is accessible by foot: a vigorous ten-minute walk through the forest of Mie Prefecture on a path that crosses over streams and logs, sometimes offering enormous gnarled tree roots as stairs. Due to the occasional intrusion by curiosity-seekers or village teenagers, there is a wooden sign at the entrance that says, roughly:

“This is a place for serious seekers of the Buddha-Way. If zazen doesn’t interest you — Keep Out.”

[Two monks, one Japanese and one American, sitting side-by-side after dinner in a Zen temple. The Japanese monk is drying his bowl]

The small compound consists of a two-room building with a dojo and a cooking/reception area; a tiny separate sleeping pavilion crammed floor-to-ceiling with books and photos of Kodo Sawaki; an outhouse/bathhouse; and a large vegetable garden.

For his first 13 years at Jinko-an, Kishigami fetched his water from a nearby river and read by the light of candles and oil lamps. With the help of a disciple, a well was eventually dug and electricity installed.

From the beginning, he organized a five-day sesshin and a zazen day every month with a small group of participants, and of course continued doing zazen on his own.

“I learned things from zazen. But in order to keep it from becoming too subjective and deviating from the Way, I studied Buddhist texts and Indian philosophy. And I had an exchange with nature to authenticate and certify my understanding. These three pillars have been my masters these past 30 years: zazen, the wisdom of ancient masters, and nature.”

Although he lives alone, Kishigami often receives visitors in his hermitage, including his disciple of 15 years, a woman named Jisho, who lives 90 minutes away. He has also made friends with the wild boars, monkeys, bats and land turtles who come and go. He is often invited to lead zazen or teach kesa-sewing to nearby groups, and two or three times a month he makes the six-hour trip to visit his elderly mother, who still lives on the island of Shikoku.

[Kishigami in blue samui jacket and pants, white towel tied around his head, walking on the bamboo-lined path to his hermitage]

“There are monks who criticize me, saying that instead of shutting myself away in the mountains, I should go into society, spread Buddhism, take charge of a temple. Twice I’ve been asked to direct a large dojo, but I refused because I felt my zazen was not yet mature enough. So I stayed in nature.”

Despite his reservations, it would seem that the decision to visit Europe in 2006 has widened the path to and from Kishigami’s hermitage.

In November 2007, Philippe Coupey, Jurg Augstburger and Elaine Konopka of the Sangha Sans Demeure were guests at Jinko-an. Their visit followed a sesshin at Tenryu-ji in Fukui Prefecture, and Coupey’s successful completion of the hossenshiki (shuso) ceremony, which Kishigami helped arrange. (This trip will be the subject of a future Zen Road article.) And Osho will come down the mountain once again this summer, with an extended visit to Germany in August 2008.

“My actions are based on my own personality,” he says. “But I draw my strength from my master’s teaching. Even if times have changed, the spirit of Sawaki is still here. I have the feeling that it was this energy that brought me to Europe.”

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