War and conflict cause suffering for millions of people around the world on a daily basis. Divisions of race, creed, politics, and religion form barriers that separate us. War may not be present in our immediate daily lives, but at any time somewhere in the world someone is suffering, families are being torn apart, and lives are being lost. We might feel helpless and unsure of what to do about the seemingly unchanging human tendency towards violence, but there are small steps that each of us can take to try to bring peace to the world. One Zen Buddhist monk in Kagoshima has dedicated his life to this pursuit, and is hoping in his own way to break down the barriers that separate religion to work towards a common goal of world peace.
Growing Up in Kagoshima
Kamata Koshi was born in Kagoshima Prefecture and grew up in a small house on a mountain in the countryside. His father was a civil servant, and despite a strict upbringing was a shy and retiring child, often distracted at school.
As Kamata got older he felt he needed to take control of his life and decided to travel abroad. Seeing the need for an education to make the most of his overseas voyage, Kamata decided to study hard. He eventually won a position at Komazawa Univeristy studying Economics, but soon found his true calling elsewhere. He recalls, “Komazawa University is actually a Buddhist University. I had no idea at the time, but the Buddhist school there had been around since the Edo period.”
Following in the Footsteps of Shakyamuni
With Buddhism Kamata had found his calling. Inspired by the story of Siddhartha Gautama becoming the Buddha he stopped studying Economics and joined the Buddhist school. He says, “I changed courses and studied Buddhism very hard. I’d always hated studying as a child, but this was different. I studied without sleeping from morning to night.”
A friend saw Kamata’s passion for the Zen Buddhist teachings and offered to introduce him to a monk he knew. He suggested living at the temple while studying at university. Kamata took his friends suggestion and moved in. He didn’t feel ready to shave his head and become a monk, and his rebellious streak showed through.
Kamata says, “I told the Zen monk at the temple when we would speak face to face that instead of becoming a monk I would follow the way of Shakyamuni Buddha as a layperson with long hair and jeans. He told me ‘I understand that, but if you truly want to walk the path of Shakyamuni, shave your head like he did, wear the Buddhist robes as he did. Live your life as he did and you will be closer to Shakyamuni.'”
Becoming a Zen Monk
Kamata finally decided to shave his head and become a full Buddhist monk. He smiles and says, “I made a call to my father back in Kagoshima telling him I had decided to become a Buddhist monk. He said he didn’t understand why I wanted to become a monk. I’ll never forget what he said to me on the phone that day. He said ‘Do as you like – it’s better than being a Yakuza!’ So my dad thought shaving your head was something like being a Yakuza for some reason.”
Kamata trained at Eihei-ji, the main temple of Soto Zen Buddhism, before spending some time at different temples around Japan. He eventually decided to move back to Kagoshima and establish his own temple.
Zen Practice: Takuhatsu – Collecting Alms
To make ends meet Kamata decided to follow Shakyamuni and collect alms from passers by in order to help fund the construction of his temple. He says, “This practice originally comes from the Buddha who lived in India 2,500 years ago and begged for alms as a way to survive. He would receive food and share it with all of his disciples allowing them to live and continue their ascetic practice.”
“Rather than being a hardship, collecting alms is actually an amazing opportunity to meet all kinds of people and is a joyous experience. When you go out to town and collect alms you quickly learn that there are all kinds of people in this world.”
An Unusual Encounter
One day while collecting alms, a strange man approached Kamata. Kamata recalls, “He was a labourer or something with a small white towel wrapped around his neck. Someone who likes to pick fights with people. Anyway he takes this fighting stance and comes right at me!”
“Of course, I’m dressed in my robes and I’m wondering who this person is coming at me. So he comes right at me trying to grab me and I’m saying ‘Wait! What are you doing?’ but he keeps coming. So I quickly put my alms bowl and bell aside and end up grappling with this man. I’m totally surprised and without thinking like the old Sugata Sanshiro action movies somehow threw him to the ground. I end up straddling him on the ground holding him down and saying ‘What are you doing?’ I asked a bystander to call the police and until the police came I was holding him down.”
The police eventually turned up and managed to defuse the situation. The man was drunk and for some reason had decided to pick a fight. Kamata says, “The police eventually turned up and did an investigation into what happened. About a week after that I was in the same place again and the same man came up to me this time not in a fighting stance, but instead putting money in my bowl. He gave me one yen and apologized. I felt happy for him and thought this man also has Buddha-nature.”
The True Meaning of Justice
As a young child Kamata was a fan of the movies, and in particular loved Western from America. He says, “At that time, the Indians were often bad guys and when the white cowboys were attacked the cavalry would charge in to help. I always thought it was great that the heroic cavalry had come to save the day, but having learned about Zen Buddhism and looking back on those movies we see there is no true justice here. The Indians are simply protecting their land and their livelihoods when threatened. This made me think about what true justice is.”
Thinking deeply about the stories he saw as a child and the teachings of Buddhism, Kamata realised that compassion is the only true way to achieve justice in this world. He says, “True justice is not found in power – think about the world today. Leave the world only to power and in Myanmar the army shoots and kills people without weapons. Again in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Afghanistan, subduing people with power is not justice – it is baseless violence. It is oppression. And when oppressed, instead of taking up weapons as Ghandi did use the way of non-violence and think of the true meaning of humanity. Find kindness within yourself and rethink the true meaning of justice.”
The Zen of Building Bridges
Kamata saw religion as one of the problems leading to the divisions in society. He chose to reach out to other religious leaders and hold discussions on what can be done to improve the world together. He says, “Since becoming a Zen Buddhist monk I have had the chance to meet Christian pastors, Shinto priests, Islamic clerics, various people. We have become friends and think together about what we have to do now. We think about how religion should be and how we can do something for the world together.”
Breaking Down the Walls of Religion
Kamata organized a fundraising event for the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami asking leaders from each denomination of religion to gather in downtown Kagoshima. Kamata says, “Everyone worked together to raise money. It got me thinking – that was one important way to collaborate but I wondered if it would be possible to do a Pilgrimage of Peace. The idea was that each of the various religions thinks that their own view of religion is the best, that their god is the best. Religious people think ‘my God is best’ or ‘my Buddha is best’. Overcoming the way of thinking that only your own religion is the best and instead taking on the wider problems of the Earth and world peace.”
Praying for Peace Together
Kamata made his vision a reality by asking religious leaders to gather any pray for world peace at several different locations in Kagoshima City. He explains, “About 5 years ago, we started going to religious institutions for example the Catholic St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and gather with religious leaders. Various people from different religions each dressed in their formal religious clothing. I chant the Buddhist Heart Sutra, the Shinto priest prays, the Islamic cleric does the same, praying in the main hall of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral for world peace, the global environment, and recognising the importance of human life. When the prayer is over, we go next to the Buddhist Nishi Hongwanji Temple. We all go on a pilgrimage, walk to the temple, and the same prayer is made under Amida Buddha. And when that was over, we all walked again next to Terukuni Shrine a place of Shinto prayer. At the main shrine we pray again. By doing this we hope to break the boundaries between religious denominations so that all of the people living on the Earth can pray for the lives of the world and all people together.”