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Feature: IV With A Japanese Buddhist Monk

Doesn’t sound quite as cool as “Interview with a Vampire” does it? However, unlike vampires, this interview definitely doesn’t suck. If you’ve ever wondered why Buddhist monks are bald or what Buddhist monk actually does, read on. By Mo Abbas.

The monk looked at the tape recorder like it was a time bomb.

“O.K, I’m going to start the tape,” I said. He looked like he wasn’t breathing. “So when did you decide to become a monk?”

“From 6th grade elementary,” he replied solemnly.

I tried to deflate the tension, “Question number one over!” We both laughed.

Mr. Shimizu is a Japanese Buddhist monk. He lives in the rustic coastal town of Yamada, way up north in rural Iwate prefecture. Shaven headed, swathed in orangey brown robes and sporting horn rimmed glasses, he’s sitting opposite me with his legs under a heated table (a kotatsu). We’re in a cluttered little room directly adjoining a pristine Buddhist altar. The altar room smells of incense and is festooned with antique carvings. The room I’m in smells of cigarettes. All around, evidence of a long and interesting life bursts from partially shut drawers and crowds every available space on the shelves; trophies, certificates, photos, letters, huge leather bound books and numerous statuettes. I had to move a bottle of sake in order to sit down. In front of me is a bowl of fruit, two large ash trays and a pack of cigarettes.

“So, how and why did you become a monk?”

The monk smiled. “Now that’s an interesting story. My father was a farmer. His friend told me ‘Your legs are bad. It will be very hard for you to become a farmer. Why don’t you become a monk? You can eat delicious food in the temple! You’ll have the chance to go to university if you pass the entrance examination.’ So I thought ‘That’s a great idea! I’ll do it!’ [laughs]It really was that simple.”

“So it was more a lifestyle choice than a religious one?”

“That’s right. It was because of delicious food,” he grinned cheekily. Although 60, the monk has a very boyish grin which contrasts sharply with his gruff 40 a day voice.

“However, I truly decided to become a monk at the age of 20. Before that, I didn’t really study. I didn’t have any money, but I really enjoyed school life.”

“Did you live with your family before the age of 20?” I asked. I thought he may have been cruelly spirited away to some remote monastery as a boy to be an apprentice.

“I lived with my mother until I left to become a novice monk at the age of 12. I wasn’t lonely. It was fun.” He pauses. “My father died in the war soon after I was born. I never knew him at all. When I went to university I was lodger in a Tokyo temple. I was there from the age of 18 to when I graduated.”

Buddhist monks in training study Buddhism at university funnily enough, although holy men in the West seem to graduate in any discipline. Mr. Shimizu tells me that amongst other things, he had to study the life of Buddha, the history of Buddhism and meditation.

So how does a monk-to-be finance his way through university?

“I didn’t pay any rent. I studied whilst helping and working at the temple. I did everything and anything. Cleaning, babysitting, laundry…….I earned a little pocket money doing this. This was my monthly allowance,” he explains.

Hmm….On my list of my imagined monastic duties, babysitting didn’t figure very highly.

“Was everyday life difficult?” I asked hopefully.

“Because I hardly had any money, life was hard. Other students had money and had fun but I went and studied in the library,” he laughs.

Mr. Shimizu speaks in a clear, quiet voice but his laugh is loud and contagious. His explanation of the hardships of monastic training is very similar to my situation at university. Maybe I could have been a monk? I wonder what time you have to get up in the morning?

“5am everyday,” he says matter of factly. I don’t think I could have made it as a monk.

As a child who watched too many kung fu movies and always picked the Shaolin monk when playing the video game “Mortal Kombat”, I couldn’t resist the following question.

“In the West, there is an image of Buddhist monks being good at martial arts. Is this true?”

The monk was caught off guard. He paused, looked at me with a puzzled expression, then decided that he’d humour me. “In Japan we aren’t. In China there were many robbers, so the monks learned to fight to protect their temple. They became very good at martial arts. We monks had the same problem in Oda Nobunaga’s time [a warlord who lived about 500 years ago] but not now.”

Slightly disappointed that he wasn’t going to somersault through the air and demonstrate a flying kick on a hapless statuette, I continued with my next question.

“What are your daily duties?”

“I am a community counselor,” he answers. I ask him to elaborate. “Family feuds are the most common; parents and children, children and other children......divorce. [laughs] I sometimes conduct wedding ceremonies and funerals. I supervise at the local nursery everyday. I also bang the temple gong at 6:00 pm every evening. Some temples do this at 6:00am. I like to mark the ending of the day. Ringing the gong is also a kind of religious training.”

So is this how he earns a living?

“I receive money for conducting funerals, and like a salary man, I have a salary from the temple to which my parishioners donate money. I also receive money for conducting memorial services.”

“Are the prices for these services fixed?” I ask, keen to find out the going rate for a Japanese Buddhist funeral.

“No, I don’t decide the price. It’s up to the parishioner.”

Whilst it’s true that the prices for the monk’s services aren’t actually fixed by the monk, a little asking around town and trawling the net revealed that there are tacitly agreed prices people expect to pay. Around 120000 yen to 200000 yen (2047 – 3411 NZD) upwards for a funeral and between 5000 yen and 10000 yen (85 – 170 NZD) upwards for a memorial service. After a Buddhist dies in Japan, their name can be changed by the monk to a holy one fit for heaven (or so I understand. It’s a bit confusing). This can cost from around 30000 yen (519 NZD) for a short name to 3000000 yen (51970 NZD) for a very long one.

I look down at my question sheet and fire off another question.

“Do you have a boss?”

“I’m my own boss,” he answers quickly. “If I’m hard on myself and make the effort, the temple improves. If I take it easy, this will not be good for the temple. A lot depends on me.”

Buddhism, simply speaking, is recognising that all suffering comes from attachment to desires. To practice Buddhism is to seek detachment through following the Noble Eight Fold Path laid down by Buddha. Treading the path involves practicing Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Contemplation.

That’s a general overview of the religion. The reality of numerous sects and branches of Buddhism make things a bit more complicated.

I ask Mr. Shimizu about his Buddhist sect, and how it differs with others practiced in Japan today.

“My sect is Zen. There are many others….the Joudou sect, Joudoushin sect, Nichiren sect…. I’m Zen. In the Nichiren sect, you repeat the mantra “Nam yo horen gekkyou”, in the Joudou sect you say “Nam amida butsu”. When practicing Zen, you say nothing, and think as hard as you can of nothing but Zen.” “But,” Mr. Shimizu adds later “there aren’t really any differences.”

Zen, Mr. Shimizu tells me, is finding out about yourself through meditation.

I tried to find out about myself online at, a website hosted by a Zen temple in Kyoto. I urge you to try it – if not enlightening, it’s very entertaining. Tip – don’t swat the fly on the monk’s head.

It’s important to remember that Buddhism in Japan differs in some respects with Buddhism abroad. If you’re going to be a monk, I’d suggest you move to Japan.

“Foreign Buddhism does not allow monks to marry. You can in Japan,” says Mr. Shimizu. Indeed, Mr. Shimizu is married with two grown up daughters.

“Can foreign Buddhist monks drink alcohol and eat meat?” I ask.

“No they can’t, but you can in Japan. It’s very difficult to be a monk in Thailand. You can’t eat meat or drink alcohol. In China some monks eat meat and drink alcohol on rare important occasions.”

Perhaps these differences can be explained by the influence of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion.

“Shinto and Buddhism influence each other, but that has no connection with the issue of Japanese monks drinking, eating meat or getting married. In truth, Buddhism does not allow these things. There are many reasons why it’s allowed in Japan.”

According to Mr. Shimizu, one reason monks are allowed to marry is to produce an heir. He then began to laugh nervously, and when prompted for other reasons repeated the mantra “There are many, many reasons.”

With a keen sense of other people’s discomfort, I pursued this line of questioning on my own and have come up with another possible reason.

Apparently, homosexual relations between monks and novices were very common in ye – olde Japan, much to the chagrin of early Christian missionaries. Then about 135 years ago, Emperor Meiji came along and changed Japan from a feudal society into a modern Western style one, inheriting a lot of the West’s prudishness and hang ups to boot. It was at this time that monastic rules were relaxed and the era of booze, beef and betrothal ushered in.

Perhaps the presence of a wife was intended to put an end to the monks’ love of musicals and Barbra Streisand? That still doesn’t explain the meat and alcohol question. Anybody’s guess I suppose.

Far fewer than monks, there are also Buddhist nuns in Japan. If you’re going to be a nun, I’d suggest you definitely don’t come to Japan.

“The duties are the same, but nuns can’t marry,” says Mr. Shimizu.

Like Mr. Shimizu, they can be the custodian of their own huge (by Japanese housing standards) 300 year old temple, but there’s a catch.

“I think maybe they practice Buddhism much more strictly than monks. I’ve never met one. There are not many places that train women to be nuns. They are unbelievably strict.”

The interview so far has been jovial and light hearted. The next two questions upset the harmony somewhat.

“A big religious issue in the West is abortion. Is this allowed according to Japanese Buddhism?”

Although I use the Japanese word for abortion, it takes Mr. Shimizu a while before he comprehends my question. His mood visibly darkens.

“No, never. Abortion is murder.”

Abortion is legal in Japan however. Euthanasia isn’t.

“Recently, a terminally ill woman in U.K fought for her right to die. Does Japanese Buddhism allow this?”

“This is not allowed. It is more important to try to live than trying to die. Even though she has many problems, she should try her hardest to live.”

“Wasn’t ‘Hara Kiri’ [ritual suicide by slitting one’s own stomach] very common in Japan?” I counter.

“This is not a Buddhist tradition. It is a Samurai tradition. In the past the Samurai classes were much more powerful than the Buddhist monks. The monks could not openly object to this practice.”

Mr. Shimizu’s answers to the last two questions were uncompromising. However, his laughter, his smiles and his openness are a far cry from the austere and mystical monks depicted in the media. More Yogi Bear than Yoda, this drinking, smoking, married monk is no doubt better qualified to counsel his drinking, smoking, married parishioners than some cave dwelling ascetic.

I’m at the end of my list of questions and I’m not keen to end the interview on the subject of ritual suicide.

“Why are monks bald?”

Mr. Shimizu runs a hand over his bald pate and smiles.

“There are many reasons. I think maybe it stops you from doing bad things.” Mr. Shimizu looks up a word on his electronic dictionary.

“To lose worldly passions,” reads the L.C.D screen.

“But I still smoke,” grins Mr. Shimizu.

We both laugh, cigarettes in hand.


© Scoop Media

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