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STRAIGHT FROM THE TOP with: Shoukei Matsumoto

Updated: Jun 21, 2019

Shoukei Matsumoto on the gig economy, clean living, and walking like a rhinoceros

Shoukei Matsumoto is a Monk at the Komyoji Temple in Tokyo. Born in 1979, he graduated with B.A. in Literature from the University of Tokyo, and holds an MBA from the Indian School of Business. He has established various initiatives aimed at revitalizing the role of Buddhism in modern Japanese society, and restoring the relevance of Buddhist temples into everyday community life. His social projects include the “Temple Café Project”, the “Virtual Temple” – a digital platform that connects Buddhists across Japan, and “Mirai no Jushoku-Juku” – a business management program for Buddhist priests and monks.

Shoukei was nominated as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2013, and

has written and published several books. One of his recent works, “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind”, was published in English by Penguin Books, in which he shares some friendly tips for living simply and mindfully in each moment.

Twice a month, Shoukei sends out a Twitter message inviting anyone interested to take part in group cleaning, sweeping, and polishing at the Komyoji Temple from 7:30am, followed by a quick chat and a cup of tea.

How would you summarise yourself in a sentence or two?

A few hundred years ago there was a group of monks who lived their lives travelling around Japan, wondering from place to place. This was different to the usual custom, for monks to settle in one temple – usually the one where they had been born – and spend their lives there. These monks were called “hijiri”, or “travelling monks”. I don't come from a temple family, and I don’t want to limit myself to being in one place. Maybe I'm a sign of the times – part of the emerging “sharing” or “gig” economy.

What's the most exciting thing happening in your life right now?

I’ve experimented with many initiatives during my life’s journey so far. These include Mirai No Jushokujuju (a management school for Buddhist monks), which I began seven years ago with friends, and which now has over 600 alumni. This community became an opportunity for monks to come together regardless of their denomination – something that rarely happens in Japan. This was possible because the focus of our program was on the common theme of management, rather than on religious teachings or Buddhist dogma.

Since then, I also started searching for a practice that could bring together all people, regardless of denomination, their religious beliefs background, or gender. And recently, I finally found one! Osoji (“cleaning”) is something all monks spend a lot of their time doing, regardless of their denomination. In fact, temple monks probably spend 4 or 5 times the amount of time they do cleaning their temple than they do meditating in it. Osoji is also, of course, an normal daily routine and part of ordinary life for most other people as well – whether you are monk or not. Even if you aren’t able to find time for formal meditation every day, whether you realize it or not, you already have a gateway practice to meditation in the very act of cleaning.

For the past year, twice a month, I have been inviting people to join me in early morning osoji at the Komyoji Temple. All sorts of people have come along, from housewives to senior company executives. It has been a nice way of gathering people from all walks of life, and to remind ourselves that we are all connected, and that we can find enlightenment in our daily lives anywhere, and at any time.

Which figures (historic or present, public or private) have played the most important influence in your life so far?

There are many historic figures who have been influences for me, but if I were to pick someone contemporary, it would be an old friend from Tokyo University called Ryunosuke Koike. Koike-san was born into a temple family, decided to become a monk, and became very serious about pursuing the Buddha’s path. He has written many books on topics related to Buddhism. Having grown up and studied Buddhism in Japan, he went overseas to continue his learning in Asia. He is now further along his journey towards enlightenment. I last heard from him when he announced on his Website that he had decided to pursue ultimate enlightenment and would return in 2 to 7 years’ time, asking his friends not to come searching for him until then.

Out of all the 300,000 Buddhist monks in Japan, he is the most devoted person I have met. His dedication, and his commitment to doing his absolute best in what he does, has always amazed and inspired me. I do not want the follow the same path as him, and I could not do what he does. At the same time, he reminds me of why I decided to become a monk in the first place. We sometimes forget our initial motivation or intention with the passage of time.

What's been the biggest failure or mistake you've experienced in life or work so far? What did you learn?

One reason I decided to become a monk was to change the world of Buddhism and temples in Japan. Initially, I thought I could make the most impact by joining a large and influential organization with many people, plentiful resources, and money to invest. So I became a member of Jodo Shinshu, one of the largest organizations in traditional Buddhism. I worked at one of their head temples, the Tsukiji Honganji in Tokyo, for about 2 years. However, I really struggled in their hierarchical culture. Monks have no retirement age, and the older generations hold all the power. Younger monks are basically regarded as “ants”! The seniors prioritize stability over change – not exactly the best environment for revolution or innovation. They have people and money, but don’t put them into effect. They just don’t want to change. And so, I finally decided to leave the organization to start my own initiative.

My learning was that I shouldn’t expect anything from others. If something is so important to me, I should find a way to take a first step, and not be afraid of doing so. Even if I don’t have the necessary resources to achieve my goal, I will somehow find a way to get things done.

Looking back, what key piece of advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?

Just be as you are. Don’t pretend to be something else. When I reflect on my education and journey from youth into society, I feel that all along I was being set up with the goal of achieving something, or being tamed to fit into a certain mould. We become so familiar with this way of thinking. Even after becoming a monk, I found myself trying hard to become a “good monk”! But Buddhism helps you see that you don’t need to become someone else. Just be yourself, and be as you are, without any fear or concern.

This is particularly helpful when it comes to strengthening our ability as leaders, because we don’t need to spend our time and energy pretending to be something we are not – we can just be as we are. What happens then, is that other people open up their ears to our voices, and see that they, too, can be comfortable just being themselves.

What key values do you live by?

My key value is authenticity. For me, being authentic means constantly being mindful of my thoughts, my actions, and what’s in my heart.

What keeps you up at night?

One aspect of the world I find my attention drawn to right now is that of loneliness. Intrinsically, humans need to be connected with each other. But there are so many lonely and isolated people in society these days. We are losing our human connectivity, which in turn perpetuates many other problems and social issues. But we haven’t really seemed to notice this, or addressed this meaningfully, as a society. This is one reason why I established the temple cleaning community – to try to create connections between people, and to bring people together.

What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?

I take a walk somewhere I can feel surrounded by nature. Doing so reminds me of where we all originally come from; our ancient memories and instincts as animals. People today spend too much time thinking. We get stuck inside our heads, and forget about our physical side. Walking and appreciating nature helps me to rebalance my body and mind.

What are your morning rituals for getting a great day going?

I like to start my day with 20 minutes of osoji to refresh my mind. My favourite osoji ritual is sweeping outside. I enjoy the sounds echoing off the buildings nearby, the feeling of the brushes moving across ground, the smell of the wind. It’s also a nice way to interact with the constant changing of the seasons. After that, I like to read some okyo (Buddhist chants), and then eat a simple breakfast of rice, miso soup, natto, and tofu.

Where and when do you have your most "A-ha" moments?

While I am walking. I prefer meditation in motion to static meditation – partly because I easily fall asleep during static meditation! I've heard that many people have lightbulb moments when they’re doing something in a “half-mind”. Take driving, for instance. When you first get your driver's licence, you'll probably find yourself focusing 90% of your attention on driving. But you gradually get used to it, and after a while your concentration is probably at around 30% or 40%. It’s that “half-awareness” state of mind that allows ideas to come to the surface. That’s how I feel about walking.

How do you energize outside of your work?

I enjoy catching up with friends over dinner and drinks. Like many people, perhaps, I sometimes feel lonely, sad, or afraid. But when I’m in the company of friends, and hearing about the different journeys they are going through, somehow I feel energized and inspired, and comfortable just being who I am.

What's your biggest vice?

Compared to many people, I think I have a short memory. I spend my time living in the present, and tend not to dwell on past memories. As a result, I sometimes feel people must find me quite boring!

What are the most interesting books you've read lately?

“Baka to Tsukiau-na” (“Don’t Hang Around with Stupid”), by Takafumi Horie and Akihiro Nishino. The key message of this book is similar to what the Buddha also advocates – although he communicated it a bit more gently! Essentially, to surround yourself with good people who’ll have a positive influence on how you grow and develop in life.

Top movie of all time?

The Matrix (original version). I think it reflects how Buddhists see the universe.

Favourite cartoon character growing up?

The TV anime series Ikkyu-san – the story of a smart little Buddhist monk who relies on his tonchi (wit) to solve all sorts of problems.

What's on heavy rotation at home right now?

Recently I find myself appreciating silence, so I haven’t been listening to music all that much. But in general, I like electronica, techno, or ambient music such as Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. I find music to be one important element of any environment we are in.

Favourite travel destination?

I enjoy visiting sacred religious sites such as temples, shrines, and churches. The places are so steeped in history. Generations of people have come to pray and pay their respects. I feel as though I am joining them in prayer, and experience this wonderful sense of tranquillity and exchange of energy when I’m there.

Top bucket list travel destinations?

One day I’d like to travel the Camino de Santiago (Pilgrimage of Compostela), which leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compoestela in Galicia, in north-western Spain. I find myself drawn to pilgrimage routes because it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. The process of just walking, having different experiences, and meeting different people along the way. My favourite pilgrimage route in Japan is the Ohenro San in Shikoku.

What will you be doing post-retirement?

There’s no retirement for monks! The older you get, the more experienced you become, and the wiser you are expected to be. With monks, the older the better!

And to close with, your favourite quote?

“Walk alone like a rhinoceros”, from the Khaggavisana Sutta. Buddhism emphasizes interdependence. Everything is connected, and no one exists without connecting to others. At the same time though, it is important to stay independent, to live and appreciate your life standing on your own two feet, while avoiding dependence on other people. In other words, balancing your independence with interdependence.


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