Buddhism, Buddhist Teachers, Zen Buddhism, Zen Masters

Interview With Lay Zen Master Miyazaki Sensei

Miyazaki-san is not a famous Zen master. He hasn’t written any books; he doesn’t have any disciples. In fact, doesn’t have a dojo or even teaches Zen.

This incredible man is an old friend of my wife’s dad (my wife is Japanese). Father to five and grandfather to eighteen, Miyazaki-sensei (like I call him) was introduced to me in 2009. In 2010, I had the chance to conduct this interview with him, at his home in Takayama (Gifu), Japan.

There is something very special about him; he has a powerful yet calming presence, and a strong charisma. His long white hair and beard gives him the look of someone of another age.

In winter of 2010, we got to his house in Takayama (Gifu) Japan. He opened the door and there he was, smiling, all lit up like a Christmas tree.

After talking for a little while, we started the interview in front of a hot yuzu tea. My wife is translating for me as my Japanese is not good with enough to have a philosophical discussion.

– Me (Fuyu): “Sensei, I’m really happy to see you again, you look healthy…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Thank you, me too. Glad you could come.”

– Me: “Sensei, let’s begin this interview by telling us your age and what you do for a living.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “I’m 86, I’m an artist, a sculptor.”

– Me: “How did you get in contact with Zen?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “My grandfather taught me Zen as well as martial arts.”

– Me: “What martial arts did he teach you?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Martial art.”

– Me: “I understand, but what martial art specifically did he teach you? Judo, karate, kendo?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Human martial arts. No need to make separations with names. I learned to use my body: two arms and two legs. No weapons. That’s human martial arts. (laughing)”

– Me: “I see. Do you still practice?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Of course! I’m teaching some of my grandchildren, don’t ask me names! (laughing)”

You can tell Miyazaki-sensei still practices; he looks strong as an ox for his age.

– Me: “(laughing) I see, they are lucky. So what school of Zen do you belong to? Soto? Rinzai? Obaku?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “No school, just human Zen” (smiling).

– Me: (laughing) “Universal Zen!”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “That’s right, you understand now! (laughing)”

– Me: “No attachment to styles, labels, just practice…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes, Zazen only. I don’t even read sutras. I’ve never read Dogen’s books either! I prefer reading the newspaper! (laughing)”

– Me: (laughing) “Do you still practice Zazen every day and if so for how long?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes, every day, 30 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night.”

– Me: “I went to Eiheiji last year, and they practice morning and night as well, but they do two hours of Zazen followed by 15 minutes of kinhin (standing zen meditation) and another two hours of zazen! I could barely keep up!”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “When water reaches boiling temperature, is it going to become “more boiled” if you keep it on the fire longer?”

– Me: “No it won’t.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing)

– Me: “How has Zen helped you regarding your craft, sculpture?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Zazen helps me be fully present for an extended period of time. When I work, there is no ‘me’ anymore; I completely burn up. Only the carved wood remains. ‘No more me’, that pretty much the secret of Zen isn’t so? (laughing)”

– Me: “It is…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Sometimes, I forget to eat, so my daughters gets mad at me! (laughing)”

– Me: (laughing) “Oh, by the way, on a more serious note, I learned about your wife’s passing. My condolences, Sensei.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Thank you. Nothing lasts forever; everything is impermanent. Buddha-sama was right. I’ll leave too; I don’t have fifty years ahead of me! (laughing)”

– Me: “Are you scared of death?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “There is nothing to be scared of. That’s the natural order of things. We all have an appointment on the other side, you too! (laughing)”

– Me: “You used the word ‘other side’, do you believe there is something after death?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “I think there is, but I don’t have the Truth! (laughing). I believe we are here on earth for a reason. The Universe is so precise, almost like if it is fine-tuned for… (pause) consciousness. We’ll see that soon enough! (laughing). If I’m right, maybe I’ll come back and tell you an afterlife joke that I would have learned on the other side! (laughing)”

– Me: (laughing) “Health is the most important. How do you stay so fit at your age? When you shook my hand when I arrived, I was astonished by your powerful grip…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “I eat well, not too much meat. I practice the eating philosophy of ‘hara hachi bun me’ (eat until 80% full). I breathe well. I practice martial arts. I walk a lot, a lot of walking, yes. I drink beer, I think it also helps! I laugh a lot also (laughing). I practice kiko exercises, do you know kiko?”

-Me: “Yes, it’s energy circulation exercises right? Similar to qigong exercises practiced in China in parks…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes yes yes. Contact with nature is also important. I am lucky to be surrounded by gorgeous nature here in Takayama…”

– Me: “Takayama is such a gorgeous place. What is your favorite food?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “I love gyoza! I also love ramen, sushi, miso soup. Oh, I love kimuchi… and fries once in a while!” (laughing)

– Me: (laughing) “I very much love gyoza and kimuchi also! Tell me sensei, why do you think Zen is becoming more and more popular in the West?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “A lot of people have lost their direction in life. In ancient times, people were more ‘connected’ to the Universe, to the natural cycles of life, but today, not so much, if at all. People are connected to their  cellphones! (laughing) That’s not only in the West, people from Tokyo and big cities also (laughing). I think one of the reasons is that the nature of modern jobs, like office work for instance, where you are considered no more than a number, has a huge impact on our sense of accomplishment and ultimately on how we feel. Before, we could see directly the impact of our work, we could see results, we felt more accomplished, we felt that our job mattered. Today, the world is getting so globalized that you cannot see the accomplishment of what you do. Your work becomes invisible.”

– Me: “That’s very true… hmmm. Yes. And the less people feel accomplished, the more they need to change how they feel…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes yes… then starts the search for the ultimate thing that will finally make them feel happy: bigger car, bigger house, more money, more recognition. Feeling happy and being happy are two very different things. Some people are willing to lose their honor for ‘more’ of “something.”

– Me: “True again. What is the ultimate solution to this problem? Zazen?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “It doesn’t have to be Zazen. In fact, it’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. (laughing) Zazen do help, but it can be painting, gardening, sculpting, martial art or ice hockey like you have in Canada, it doesn’t matter. (laughing) Do something wholeheartedly, burn yourself up in the process. Devote yourself to something bigger than you. It will bring your mind back to the present moment and help you appreciate the simplicity of this instant. You will find peace. Inner peace. But, try to be in love with what you do.”

– Me: “Miyazaki-sensei, what do you think of money?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing) “That’s a very Westerner’s question!”

– Me: “I know! A lot of people in the West, especially in America, have difficulty reconciling spirituality and money…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “There is no problem with money, there is only a problem with you! Not YOU Martin-san (laughing), but with the people that are dealing with money. Don’t blame money! (laughing) Money is neutral, like… a hammer. If someone kills another human being with a hammer, can we blame the hammer? Can we bring the hammer in front of a judge and say ‘This hammer killed a man!’ No! It would not be logical. How can someone blame money for their own fault then? Money is a tool, nothing more, nothing less.”

– Me: “I love your example…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (pause) “In Japan, we don’t have spiritual issues with money. We understand the need for money, and it’s rightful place. Having a lot of money won’t turn you into an Oni (an ogre in Japanese folklore), as long as you don’t become its slave! (laughing) You can own all the riches in the world, have a huge bank account without any problem if you are not attached to money.”

– Me: “Non-attachment, that’s the key…”

– Me: “So I guess your view about desires is pretty much the same…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes. It is normal to have desires; even the Buddha had some desires (laughing). It is impossible to cut everything away. The thing is, you don’t have to. (laughing) Without desires, we would still live in caves and be covered with bear hides, sitting around a campfire. (laughing) Desires and ambitions make us want to do things; the problem is that, once again, we should not cling, we should not get attached to our desires (laughing) That’s the key. (laughing) Life is meant to be lived, experienced.”

– Me: “But for some people, it’s not easy not to cling…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Indeed. But when your mind is living in the ‘now’, fully aware of the present, there is a profound sense of satisfaction that comes out of it. Your desires decrease dramatically. (laughing) You are not looking anymore for something to make you feel alive or happy, for something to fill that inner void, you are fully alive here and now, truly happy, free.”

– Me: “That’s right, the present moment is so precious. Sensei, I’m a martial artist myself, please tell me, based on your experience, the differences or similarities between martial arts and Zen.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Budo (martial arts in Japanese) and Zen have essentially the same nature: touching the mind, harmonizing the mind with the whole Universe, letting go of the ego, forgetting the self, coming back to the present moment. I’m not talking about sport martial arts, but about real martial arts. Some Zen people have a very ‘small’ mind and think that these qualities belong to Zen only (laughing). 

– Me: “True…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “You see, you can awaken through any practice, any art, but what is distinct with martial arts is the relationship a practitioner has with death. The practice of combat, even in a controlled environment, is a powerful tool for self-discovery and self-confrontation. (Sensei punched quickly in the air, in front of him, then laughed) When Budo is practiced whole-heartedly, this confrontation with death is constantly present – attack, defense, counterattack – and it has a significant impact on our mind and ultimately on our day-to-day life. How? Because the practitioner is getting more and more aware of the possibilities of death, of dying. That has an enormous impact on one’s life. (laughing) It makes us want to live the best life we can; it makes us want to be the best husband or wife, the best father or mother, the best brother or sister, the best friend, the best co-worker, the best member of society, the best human being we can…”

– Me: “Yes… you put it into words wonderfully.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “That’s the spirit of Budo. Zazen can and should also be practiced with that spirit. Do Zazen like it’s your last Zazen, don’t be too attached to yourself, don’t try to preserve or protect yourself. People are suffering because they are attached to themselves. As I said before, burn yourself up in Zazen, in Budo, in anything you do.”

– Me: “People reading this interview cannot feel it, but you are amazingly calm and serene…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing) “Why wouldn’t I be? (laughing) There is nothing to be afraid of… (laughing)”

– Me: “Yet so many people live in fear…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Fear means lack of wisdom. (laughing) People create so many fears for themselves; their fears are not even real! (laughing) What if this happens, what if that happens, what if I fail, what if they don’t like me, what if, what if, what if! You cannot live like that. Life is an amazing adventure, laugh, play, sing, dance, enjoy your life, don’t hold on to those miserable thoughts. Don’t hold on too much to yourself. Let go.”

– Me: “The mind is creating all those fears and dissatisfactions…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes! But you have a choice: to listen to it, or not. The choice is yours. It’s not the environment or the circumstances or your parents that make you happy or miserable; it’s YOU. Everything is a big illusion, a dream, so why worry? (laughing) You know what?”

– Me: “What…?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “No matter what happens, there is always another tomorrow! (laughing)”

– Me: “Exactly! (laughing) Have you always been this wise, this ‘detached’?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing) “Oh no, far from it! (laughing) When I was younger, around 21-22 years old, I wanted to become a famous artist! (laughing) And I wanted success so much that I was constantly worried, afraid of what people would think of my artworks, of my creations. I was in the “what if!” phase. (laughing)

– Me: (laughing)

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Back then, I thought that even at my young age I was a great sculptor, that I had great talent! (laughing) One day, my girlfriend at the time, the woman that would later become my wife, told me that the reason I was an average sculptor – oh that was tough- (laughing) was because I was worrying too much about the results when instead I should simply did it wholeheartedly without thoughts. My wife was a real Zen master! (laughing)”

– Me: “Those words must have hurt you?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “They did, but they also opened my eyes. I realized that I was not practicing Zen when I was creating. I was attached to a result, not free. As soon as I realized this, my mindset changed instantly. I started to sculpt in a whole different way because my mind was pure, free, not attached to results anymore. With time, my art jumped to another level, more and more people started to enjoy my creations because I was forgetting myself, burning myself up in the process.”

– Me: “You became a master sculptor…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “No, the Universe became a master sculptor through me.”

– Me: “Well said Sensei.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing)

– Me: “You didn’t worry about the results and then success came.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes. I think that somehow, the universe recognizes selfless acts and fills you up when you empty yourself from… hum yourself! From your ego, your mind (laughing). I stopped wanting to have rewards for my work; I was just happy that every swing from the knife was an opportunity to polish my mind.”

Do Zazen like it’s your last Zazen, don’t be too attached to yourself, don’t try to preserve or protect yourself.

– Me: “You are a Zen master, a Buddhist, yet you never sculpted a single Buddha…”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing) “I’m not a Master nor a Buddhist! (laughing) I just empty myself and follow the Universe. To answer your question, no, I have never sculpted a Buddha!” (laughing)

– Me: “May I ask why?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “You may, you may! (laughing) Buddha is long gone, dead. (laughing) I like to sculpt scenes based on the living… trees, fish, birds, cranes, turtles, rabbits, cats, etc.”

– Me: “Once again, not too attached, are you?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: (laughing) The Universe is so vast, why attach yourself to something when there are plenty of things to see, experience, to discover? Attachments, even healthy ones, just limit your life, making it very small. You see Buddha here, Buddha there, and soon you forget to see life. It’s like keeping your face so close to a tree, that you miss the whole forest behind it! (laughing) When you are free, you are non-attached, your vision is wide, penetrating and you see the whole forest, even with closed eyes, you have the universe at your feet. You become the forest.”

– Me: “Can you talk to us about the ‘middle way’”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “The Middle Way goes beyond Buddhism, it’s a law of nature. (laughing) The Middle Way integrates contradictions between subject and object, beyond duality. We would need hours to discuss this! On a very practical, easy to understand level, it means finding a balance between materialistic life and spiritual life. Living only for the body brings suffering, disbalance. Living only for the mind also brings suffering and disbalance. (laughing)”

– Me: “And the balance between opposites is also present in martial arts.”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “It’s present in nature, therefore it has to be present in Zen and martial arts as well. In martial arts, you should not be too tight nor too relaxed, too high nor too low, too wide nor too narrow. (laughing) You have to find balance between extremes. Same thing with Zazen. ”

– Me: “True. You were telling me last time we met about the importance of silence, can you please elaborate on that?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Constant noise, constant talking is not the natural human way. (laughing) We need silence, silence from others and silence from ourselves to come back within ourselves and reconnect with our mind and body – mind/body unity. If we are constantly ‘entertained’ by noise or people or radio or tv, we can’t look within. I’m not saying you should cut off from the world and go live alone on your mountain! (laughing) If you do so, you will reach a state of Enlightenment very quickly! (laughing) It’s easy to awake when there is nobody to challenge you! (laughing) What I mean is that it is important to take a moment, each day, to experience solitude and silence. ”

– Me: “That reminds me, last time we met you suggested to me a great silence/mindfulness exercise. Can you please remind my readers about it?”

– Miyazaki-Sensei: “Yes of course. If you live with people, try to wake-up before everybody or find a moment during the day when you can be alone. While doing this exercise, it is important that you do something, not just lay down on the couch without moving. (laughing) Try to do whatever you have to do or choose to do, but in total silence. I mean total silence. I don’t mean not talking, I mean that you should not make a single noise. Period. Do every action very slowly: walking, closing the window, reaching for the spoon, eating, whatever you do. Even breathing. (laughing) Do it your whole being like your life depends on it but with making any noise. (laughing) Take an hour or so just to go experience slowness and silence. This will bring your mind to the present moment.”

– Me: Miyazaki-sensei, Otosan (my wife’s father) told me the story of a robbery that happened in China. Can you tell me more about it?

– Miyazaki: Yes, of course. From 1986 to 1991, I was teaching sculpture in a prestigious art school in China. So my wife and I moved there for a little less than 5 years. We rented a two story house in a nice quiet village. One night, after less than a month being in China, I got woken up by noises in the kitchen. I went down opened the light, and I saw a man robbing us, trying to find money or valuable goods. He was holding a very long kitchen knife and as soon as he say me, he was menacing me with it. So as I am speaking Chinese, I asked him if he wanted to drink tea. He replied by asking me where the money was. I asked again if he wanted to drink warm tea and I went to the stove to heat up the teapot. (Laughing) He screamed at me and told me that he was going to kill me. I replied to him with a dead serious face that, one, he would get seriously injured if he tried anything violent, and that two, he was not a killer, but just a hopeless man. Then, I served him tea.

– Me: Were you scared, on your guard?

– Miyazaki: I was on my guard, but at the same time, I felt no immediate danger. I could feel that the man had no intention to hurt me. So he sat at the table and started to cry for at least 10 minutes non stop. My wife came downstairs to comfort him and made japanese noodles for him. We learned that this man, a father of 3 had lost his job almost a year before and he could not find a new one. With all his savings gone, he was so desperate, he had to feed his kids, that he decided to rob houses. I gave him some money and asked him if he wanted to work for us. I gave him money in exchange for him to take care of the land, and help us with various things. That night was his first and his last robbery. He worked for us for about 3 years, and finally got a job.

– Me: Wow, that’s amazing. You supported him until he could get back on his feet.

– Miyazaki: Yes. He and his family became very close friends of ours and they visit us regularly, every 2 years or here in Japan.

– Me: That’s very inspirational…

– Miyazaki: Good people can sometimes do bad things when depressed or when experiencing financial difficulties. People laugh when I say that money is spiritual: when you lack money, all you can think about is surviving, it is very difficult to pay attention to your inner growth. All you want to do is eat and pay the bills, pay the rent – you don’t really care about the spiritual side of life.

– Me: Exactly, that’s what I believe too. 

– Me: Sensei, let me ask you about sexuality. Many people struggle with sexuality: they either see it as bad or are obsessed with it.

– Miyazaki: Sexuality is a part of life, isn’t it? (laughing) Denying sexuality is denying humanity. Sexuality is fine, no problem with it, just don’t be too attached to it. (laughing) But please enjoy it! (laughing) Keep it honorable and respectful. Please avoid sex with strangers or with too many different partners. But experience it fully, be present. Keep it private. Don’t be like rabbits, take your time! (laughing) Sexuality can also be a source of satori. (laughing) If you are obsessed with it, you are too attached to it. It will not bring you happiness, neither will drugs, alcohol, food or shopping. Searching for happiness outside of yourself is a hopeless task. It won’t happen. (laughing)

– Me: And some people see sexuality as bad…

– Miyazaki: Good or bad do not exist. (laughing) There are no moral judgments or categorizations in Zen, in life. Good and bad are subjective, they change from person to person. It is wiser, in my opinion, to see, or to be able to perceive actions that produce happiness and actions that produce suffering.

– Me: Thank you Sensei for your time and your wisdom, I’m happy to have met you again this year. Please take care of yourself.

– Miyazaki: Thank you! (laughing)

PS: It’s with great sadness that I learned that Miyazaki-Sensei passed away peacefully in his sleep right before Holidays, on December 24th 2022. He was 98 years young.