‘Becoming Like the Sky’: an Encounter with a Street Monk in Ginza

In Tokyo, Buddhist priests chanting sutras in the streets, with their traditional robes and straw hats, have become an exotic sight not only to foreign tourists, but to Tokyoites too. Mr. Mochizuki has been practicing ‘takuhatsu’ (religious mendicancy and sutra chanting) in the streets of Ginza for nine years.
I had the opportunity to interview him (in Japanese) and ask him about his path in life and the reasons that have led him to chant sutras in the middle of one of Tokyo’s busiest districts. Here is the English version of our talk.

A foreword about Buddhism in Japan today

It is often said that Japanese people are born Shinto and die Buddhists. As a matter of fact, most Japanese people are not observant of one religion specifically, but will make an occasional visit to the local shrine or temple, or take part in celebrations of Japan’s two main religions independently. In the community, Buddhist priests used to be people you could talk to in order to seek advice. However, with time, Buddhism in Japan has been more and more associated with funerals, leading people to forget that, as VOWZ Bar’ manager Fujioka-san once told us, Buddhism is actually a religion of life. Some priests and temples are actually struggling.

In this context, Buddhist priests engaging in meditation or chanting sutras in the streets have become a rare sight in the big cities

Please note that real Buddhist monks in the streets of Japan carry an offering bowl but will never ask people to put anything in it; if during your travels you encounter someone in the street pretending to be a monk and verbally asking you for donations or trying to sell you amulets, he is most likely a scam artist.

This practice of meditating in the streets remained an enigma to me for years. But when a friend told me she knew a Buddhist monk who chants sutras in the middle of the bustling district of Ginza, I decided it was time to solve this mystery.

A presence in the streets giving birth to questions

“It doesn’t matter if people are from Europe, or America or Japan—they all have the same questions. I used to have them too. “

So, Mochizuki-san … are you a real monk?

Mochizuki-san: Yes, I am! I am linked to Jimyoin Temple on  Mount Koya [the most sacred place for Shingon Buddhism]. I’ve been through the regular training there and I have received what you could call an official ID. There’s a kind of   that monks usually wear, but mine is written with traditional ink and it has faded over time because of the sun. The real paper proving I went through training is big and very precious, so I have made a plastic-covered copy of it that I wear around my neck to prove that I am not a fake monk.

Mochizuki-san chanting and wearing a copy of his ‘monk ID’

When I did research for this article, I found several pictures of monks engaging in mendicancy  in Ginza, posted by foreign travelers. Most of them post the pictures with comments such as ‘Is he a real monk?’ ‘What is he doing?’ ‘What is the money for?’

M: I think we are 3 or 4 four monks practicing takuhatsu in Ginza. One of them has been there for quite a long time and I think he’s become famous. Other people have put pictures of him online. It seems some people have put pictures of me online too. Sometimes people try to take pictures of me discreetly without asking, thinking I don’t notice, but I do! (He laughs.) However most people are being very polite and ask me if it’s okay to take my picture. I don’t mind at all. Sometimes people from South America, who are very relaxed, suddenly come to take selfies with me, putting their hand on my shoulder! (He laughs again.)

It doesn’t matter if people are from Europe, or America or Japan—they all have the same questions. I used to have them too.

‘Why is he doing this?’ ‘Why is he in Ginza?’ ‘What is it about?’ ‘What is this money for?’ I didn’t have the answers to these questions either when I started doing this. Even if I asked Kukai [the founder of Shingon Buddhism], he wouldn’t answer. All I know is that I’m supposed to stand there.

A life story with a sudden turning point

“After 20 years, I realized I had lived my life as I wanted to, but somewhere in my heart there was still a hole that needed to be filled.”

Why did you decide to become a monk?

M: For me, Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha is someone extraordinary, someone I admire the most. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have an easy childhood, but since I was a child, I have always been interested in how the mind of the human being works. Knowing that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, really existed and developed his own teachings 2500 years ago made me want to know what his legacy was, what he wanted to tell us.

Tibetan depiction of the historical Buddha carrying an alms bowl.
Source: Manjushri Dharma Center

How I ended up wishing to become a monk is a very long story.

In 1976, I was in my third year of university (I was 19 at the time) and I decided to quit my studies to go to the USA. At the time, most of my friends were moving to the West Coast for a life of freedom. I really loved surfing and all that too, but for some reason I was the only one to go to New York. I guess I wanted to challenge myself and overcome my own fears and insecurities. What I learnt there, no school or company could have ever taught me; today, I still consider it as my most important experience.

I went to the USA for 6 years, then came back to Japan, then went again for five years, then came back to Japan again. I did this back-and-forth for about 20 years until 1996. I wasn’t a student, I wasn’t a businessman. I was looking for something else. I didn’t like being tied to something. When you’re a student you’re tied to your school. When you work, you’re tied to  your company (he mimes putting on a necktie). That didn’t suit me.

After 20 years, I realized I had lived my life as I had wanted to, but somewhere in my heart there was still a hole that needed to be filled. My character has not changed much since then. I’ve always got along well with my friends, and as you can hear I talk a lot. I had always wanted to do something for other people, but somehow, I wasn’t satisfied. I had a green card, and I could have extended my stay; I could have stayed for ten more years. But I felt it wasn’t right. Then I realized what I needed to do was not ‘going back’ to Japan, but ‘going’ to Japan. I was Looking for a different Japan. I felt very positive and decided to use my experience of 20 years in New York to find something new. Make a new start. There is a famous British naturalist called C.W Nicol, now based in Nagano, who built a school about nature. Nowadays, we are facing huge environmental problems, but in Japan, there are very few people who work actively to protect the environment, especially when compared with other countries. So his idea was to form students who would learn to care about rivers, forests and mountains, and he created a school with the Ministry of Environment. I studied there for three years.

“In 2001 I met my master.  I was living in Yakushima at the time. I met him for the first time in Osaka… By the time I was back in Yakushima, everything had changed in me. I was a different man.”

A Shingon Buddhism Monk in Mount Koya
Source: Jwongyboy on Travellerspoint

And then I had an encounter that changed my life. Before meeting this man, I had never even thought about Buddhism and today, this person is my master. I have two masters: the one from Jimyoin Temple whose name is on my official monk papers, and this other master who is always offering me advice. Both are very important to me.

In 2001 I met my first master. I was living in Yakushima at the time. I met him for the first time in Osaka, and at first, I just talked to him casually, but he said things that stuck with me. By the time I came back to Yakushima, everything had changed in me. I was a different man. I came home and it was like I didn’t know what I was supposed to do anymore.

After that, I went to Osaka once every two weeks, taking the night bus because I didn’t have much money. During the next two years, I would join a gathering of about ten other students to listen to his teachings. Then, one day, he asked me:

  • – Mochizuki-san, you’ve been coming here for two years, without giving up. Do you know why?
  • – I have no idea.
  • – Something is guiding you.

I would have never become a monk if I had not met him, and I would probably have led a very different life, far from Tokyo. I also think that where I am today, and the fact that this encounter changed my life, are probably linked to my previous lives. You know, I used to have doubts about these kinds of things, but now I consider previous lives as something normal. I had most probably already met my master before, somewhere else. It was probably all planned for me beforehand: everything just unfolded very naturally. It’s important to go with the flow of things in your life; it’s when you don’t that a lot of problems happen.

The crossing of Ginza where Mochizuki-san usually stands
Source: JNTO

If you ask gold medalists from the Olympic Games, many will tell you it was their dream since they were little children. For me, being a monk had not even crossed my mind. But now that I think about it, I had a friend in primary school who was the son of a Buddhist priest. I once asked him to chant sutras, and he did, and I thought ‘this is so cool!’ Also, when you’re a child, you’re afraid of many things, and I had always found the presence of an adult standing in the street, be it a teacher, a policeman or a monk, very reassuring. Also, one of the reasons I loved New York was not because it was one of the most important cities in the world, or the business, or Wall Street: it was the street culture. I can’t say why, but I loved the street culture.

And now you’re in the street every day.

M: In the street you can find everything: the real things, the fake things. You can see everything about the society you live in. So, when I’m standing in the streets of Tokyo, I feel I have access to the city of Tokyo as it is. I’m just standing there, chanting sutras, but I feel like I’m doing what’s right for me.

Living as a monk

“If you enter, you cannot leave. You have to stay in the temple all the time. And if you leave, there is no second chance.”

How do you become a monk? What kind of training are you supposed to do? 

M: To become a Mount Koya monk, there are three ways. The first one is to go to  Mount Koya university for a four-year course. The first two years are for general studies and the last two years, you do monk training. You automatically become a monk when you graduate.

Then, there’s a school called Senshu-Gakuin. It’s a two-year course during which you learn how to be a monk, and you become a monk when you graduate.

Finally, there’s the option I chose. I think I chose it because it was the fastest way: I entered a temple and went into training for about half a year. The main difference is that if you enter, you cannot leave. You have to stay in the temple all the time. And if you leave, there is no second chance. When you study at the university or Senshu-Gakuin, you can go to school from your own apartment. That was not possible for me, I had to live on the temple grounds. That’s why it takes less time.

These are the different ways to become a monk at Mount Koya, but to tell the truth, at this point you’re just a monk on paper. The real monk training comes after you become one.

Which is why, after I officially became a monk, I became depressed. I didn’t really want to enter a temple. My guiding light was that I wanted to know more about Buddhism, to feel what Buddhism was about, but I had no desire to become the head priest of a temple.

Shingon Buddhist monks on Mount Koya
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“I used to think ‘Well, that’s very easy for you to say that!’ But now I believe this too.”

 You practice Shingon Buddhism. Why did you choose this specific branch?

 M: The reason I entered Shingon Buddhism is that the monk who changed my life was from Shingon Buddhism. It’s the only reason. Before that, I had even no idea that there were so many different kinds of Buddhism. As to what Shingon is about, for me it’s very simple: it’s becoming like the sky. (He pauses then laughs). It’s what my master taught me: ‘Transform you heart into the sky’. At the time, I used to think ‘Well, that’s very easy for you to say that!’ But now I believe this too. What it means is, the sky is everywhere. It is also shared by everybody. If you get too attached to the idea of ‘I’m a Zen Buddhist’, ‘I’m a Christian’, ‘I’m a Shingon Buddhist’ and everything revolves around this idea, it’s not good. That’s how you end up with religious wars. That’s what Kukai taught me. So I’m doing my best not being too attached to this. What matters is to have something to believe in. The concept of belief is something you can share with everybody, and look up to, like the moon in the sky. That’s my ideal.

Are the donations your only means to make a living?

M: I live mainly from the donations, and sometimes my acquaintances call me to perform funerals or chant sutras at memorial services.

When you’re working in a temple it’s different. I worked  at a temple on Mount Koya for four years, and it’s like living at the office of your company. You’re at work 24/7. Most of the time, people came to our temple for memorial services.

The Buddha taught us that even if you don’t have money, you can still give people gifts : it can be giving a gentle look, smiling, saying gentle words, giving up your seat, offering space to people, doing volunteer work, or just asking people if they need your help.

Mochizuki-san stands chanting sutras in Ginza for several hours, rain or shine

“If you live a life without any troubles, then you don’t learn anything.”

Why did you choose to practice takuhatsu in Ginza?

M: The first time I did takuhatsu here, I was on my way to a place like Hibiya Park and I walked through Ginza. And before I realized it, I was standing there.

Being a monk and engaging in mendicancy is a concept that the historical Buddha Shakyamuni passed on to us as one of his teachings, and it’s something that has a meaning too deep for me to express with words. I think I could give a different answer to this question every day. 

I have been doing this for 9 years, and the answer I can give you now is only the answer obtained after 9 years of practice. I had no idea why I was doing it before I actually started; if I already had the answer at the time, then practicing takuhatsu would not have been necessary.

What I can say today is that in Ginza, there are many people who are very different, and I must stand there, to meet people who need me to be there. I stand there, people come to me, and something new is born from the encounter. There is something that encourages me to do it. If that something wasn’t there, I would have quit a long time ago, because it’s hard. Of course, I can live thanks to the donations people put in my alms bowl, but that’s not the reason.

When I do takuhatsu, my legs hurt, and sometimes I am being bothered by people with bad intentions. There can be many problems. But if you live a life without any trouble, then you don’t learn anything. But when you overcome your difficulties, you get stronger. The stress, the problems, these things are there to make you grow.

Connecting to your other self

I kind of pictured Buddhist monks as peaceful people who have figured out how to not worry anymore!

M: We all have troubles, and they “shake” our hearts. The important thing is that our hearts have a stable, central place to go back to after being shaken. In the morning, before I go to Ginza, I sing sutras, and after I come back, I sing sutras again. I also sing sutras while I stand there for about 4 hours. What I personally get from it is this “solid base”, in the middle of my heart. Just like you get better balance when the muscles in your trunk get stronger, I believe there is a ‘trunk’ of the heart.

That’s where faith plays a role. It can be faith in Christ or anything else. I believe faith can give you a solid base in your heart.

Today, I thought I was giving seeds to people. When people come to me and ask for a blessing, it’s like I give them a small seed of light. If it makes them feel better, then they come to me again. And again. And then maybe they develop their own “solid base” in their hearts.

If you view your heart as the sky as my master taught me, you realize that there are days that are cloudy, there are days when it rains, there are days when the wind blows, but the blue sky is always on top of it. There are days when I feel worried, or depressed and I cry, but I don’t forget that the blue sky is still up there. Then, I can worry with enthusiasm! (He laughs)

‘The first time my master asked me ‘Mochizuki-san, have you ever heard about your other self?’ I thought ‘What? There is only one me: me!’’

Worrying with enthusiasm’… It sounds like a very difficult thing to achieve!

M: No, it’s very easy! Anyone can do it. If you don’t, you’ll be thrown about in all directions by your negative feelings, like if you were trapped in a washing machine. That’s what happens to most of us: people have problems at work, in school, with their partners… The trick is to get out of the washing machine to have a different point of view of things. If you don’t, you worry from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed, and you just get more and more exhausted. For me, chanting sutras is my way to reconnect with my blue sky. It makes my sky even bluer.

And in this blue sky, is where ‘the other self’ resides. In the West, people sometimes talk about a ‘higher self’. It’s like a better version of yourself that is showing you the right path for you in life and allowing you to pay attention to messages that are meant for you. The first time my master asked me ‘Mochizuki-san, have you ever heard about your other self?’ I thought, ‘What? There is only one me: me!’ That’s how strong my ego was. The first time I met my master, twenty years ago, he told me about many things, but the ‘blue sky’ and the ‘other self’ are concepts that still stick with me today.    

The most important concept that the historical Buddha has left is that everything is impermanent. All things change or will change. We can’t deny it.’

A: What is the sutra you are chanting? What does it mean?

M: The sutra I chant is called ‘Hannya Shingyo’, [‘The Heart Sutra’ in English]. It is the most famous and commonly used sutra in Japan in all schools of Buddhism.

In it, there is a very famous expression: ‘Shiki soku ze ku’. It’s a bit complicated, but it means that things we perceive as having a form are always changing and consequently, empty.

The most important concept that the historical Buddha has left us is that everything is impermanent. All things change or will change. We can’t deny it. So, if you’re too attached to an idea, you’re doing something that is not natural.

The Sutra of the Heart, Hannya Shingyo
Source: Zenkan

A: If one of our readers see you in Ginza and would like you to chant for them, what should they do?

M: If you want me to chant a sutra [‘O-Kyo’ in Japanese] for you, please realise that it takes about 2 minutes. If it is too long for you, I can also give a quick blessing. Your religious background doesn’t matter. Also, it really doesn’t matter if you donate 1000 yen, 100 yen or 5 yen.

In Ginza, I meet a lot of foreigners who have an interest in Zen or Buddhism. But some of them who come to me just want to give it a try. They come to me and naturally do a prayer gesture. Maybe it’s like when Japanese people will try to pray in a church overseas, because nobody knows them there and they know they won’t be judged.

A: Do you have a final message for our readers?

M: There are many things I’d like to say, but the most important thing is the ‘other self’ I talked about earlier. Buddhism is not about gaining a kind of superpower. We already have this superpower inside us when we are born. Buddhism is like being a smartphone and going back to your initial setting. Get rid of all the useless apps, and then you’ll meet your ‘other self’. That’s what is meant by ‘all people have Buddha’s nature in them’.

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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.