Oct 28, 2020

An Interview with Shoukei Matsumoto, author of ''A Monk's Guide to a Clean House and Mind''

Shoukei Matsumoto


Tony McNicol

An Interview with Shoukei Matsumoto: Author of “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind”

“Basically, everyone’s life includes some cleaning. If you can see that as a path to Buddhahood, that is very powerful, isn’t it?” Shoukei Matsumoto.

Shin-Buddhist monk Shoukei Matsumoto is the author of “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind,” translated from his best-selling Japanese original and published by Penguin Books in 2018.

Matsumoto graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo, received an MBA from the India School of Business and also studied at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has written several books in Japanese and launched a number of initiatives that introduce Buddhism to young people. These include the “Temple Café Project” and an online “virtual temple,” “Higanji”. Born in 1979, he has been selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Matsumoto spoke to The Zen Gateway at Komyoji temple in Tokyo over a cup of green team, following a Saturday morning volunteer temple-cleaning session.

(The following is a translated and edited version of an interview conducted in Japanese and English.)

ZG: How did you become a Buddhist monk?

M. Most monks come from temple families, but I do not. I was born in Hokkaido and lived there until I was in my third year of high school. Then I went to Tokyo and studied philosophy at the University of Tokyo. At first, I thought about getting a job, an ordinary one in business, but I was interested in Buddhism, and also in temples. I started to think about how I could become a priest. Of course, I was interested in Buddhism, but I also felt that there was potential for temples to be a social asset.

How many books have you written so far?

There are eight books and the topics are quite varied. The blog-diary that I wrote after becoming a priest has been published. There was a book on how to order one’s heart and thoughts. How to manage temples is my personal theme, and there is also a book on that. My most recent book is the one on cleaning.

Why do you think cleaning is an effective way to introduce Buddhism?

Right now, everyone is interested in mindfulness. And as part of that, they are interested in Zen, and in particular Zen meditation. But the Zen practice is not just meditation; the whole of daily life is Zen. Depending on the monastery it is different, but as far as I know, they say that there are one to two hours sitting meditation, but three to four hours of cleaning or samu (daily tasks)-… cooking, or chopping firewood or, weeding. People think only about meditation but it’s not just that.

Basically, everyone’s life includes some cleaning. If you can see that as a path to Buddhahood, that is very powerful, isn’t it? If you can change your mindset so that cleaning goes from being simply housework to being a [Buddhist] practice, that is a big change. That’s why I focused on cleaning.

How about you? Do you enjoy cleaning?

Compared to most people, I like cleaning. Yet, when it’s a nuisance, it’s a nuisance. One point is that cleaning is a practice. Another important point is that it is a continuous practice... a habit. One can call it the power of routine. Cleaning isn’t something that you do every now and then; it is something that you do regularly.

By cleaning mindfully, can we change our attitude to the things around us?

Your attitude won’t change immediately just by doing a little cleaning, but I think it will change gradually. In particular, when you clean at a temple, it is somewhere you don’t normally clean. Through this cleaning, you can create a relationship with things and a place that is not connected to you. If it is your own home, you develop a connection with the things in your home.

Japanese tidying up guru Marie Kondo’s Netflix series is a huge hit right now, and many people are interested in cleaning as a tool for self-help. Do Japanese people have a special attitude to cleaning?

It’s not that different [to that in the West]. But in Japan, it is more natural for people to do cleaning themselves. We all do cleaning ourselves at elementary school. We don’t outsource it very much. People who have money may outsource it, but most people clean by themselves. [In schools,] we think it is important to learn how to look after one’s daily life: to keep one’s own space clean. [Marie Kondo’s ideas are] not directly related to Buddhism, but there is a strong influence from Buddhism on the Japanese culture itself in which Marie Kondo grew up. It is not unconnected.

So, should we get rid of our vacuum cleaners?

No. You can use your Dyson or your Roomba ([a robot vacuum cleaner)]. I am not against those. What I want to say is that cleaning is a practice, like zazen meditation. You can’t outsource it. But if someone lives in a very big house and is busy bringing up children... and there’s no time at all left over after work and child-rearing to clean... if they feel oppressed by an obligation to clean, that is a practice of pain. A painful practice is not practice. It upsets your heart, not settles it. It is not good to feel a pressure to clean. If you are going to feel pressured, it is better to use a cleaning robot. You should do it yourself to the extent that it is possible for you to do it enjoyably. I am not ruling out using robots or cleaning equipment.

Must people be Buddhists to benefit from cleaning?

Not at all. I had a very impressive experience in London. I stopped by the London Buddhist Centre [and] a lady there told me that she is very interested in Buddhism, but that she doesn’t want to become a Buddhist because for her Buddhism is not a religion.

I often talk about “post-religion." I meet people from a lot of countries. Everyone says to me, "I’m not religious at all, but I appreciate spirituality. So, I am interested in Buddhism.” I think that this feeling is very much spreading across the world. When religion is seen as an institution or dogmatic, everyone dislikes and avoids it. But people feel that they are suffering and worrying. They are looking for a way of life, values and daily practice.

Cleaning is not something you do because you are a Buddhist. You order your heart. By ordering your environment, your heart can become more healthy and sound. There’s no need to convert to anything. If it is useful for your life, that is fine.

Do you want Japanese people to be more interested in Buddhism?

No, I don’t. You could describe the aim of Buddhism as “jita no bakuyouraku.” [1] "Jita" means oneself and others. "Bakuyouraku" means getting rid of suffering and spreading happiness. That is the aim of Buddhism. The aim is not to increase the number of believers. As you know, the original intention of the Shakyamuni Buddha was not to get more followers. But as long as people live healthier and better, that is fine. Cleaning could be an approach for beginners.

Where should people turn their attention after cleaning?

Continue with cleaning... without being too busy or rushing. Modern people look for an immediate answer, try to get immediate results. Little by little. That[It is] the power of routine. It takes time to really feel the power of routine, right?

I understand that you are writing another book on cleaning. How will that book be different?

The new book has more content about Buddhism. I interviewed various Buddhist teachers about how they view and think about cleaning.

For example, people today are worried about perfectionism. They want to be perfect at every moment... perhaps to the extent that they become paranoid. What we can learn from cleaning is not perfectionism, but “imperfectionism.” There is no perfect and no end. You can get used to that, and it is a practice.

[1] A teaching derived from The Great Discourse on Prajñāpāramitā.


Text and images copyright to Tony McNichol

You can find previous interviews on The Zen Gateway here.

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