Enku – The Way of the Artist with Daizan Roshi

I wanted to interview Daizan Roshi as he's just released “In Heaven’s River”, a book of poetry by the Buddhist monk and artist Enku (1632-1695),  who vowed to make 120,000 Buddha statues in his lifetime.

Portrait by Richard Munn

RM: Daizan, thank-you for your time today. I'd like to start by asking who was Enku?

DR: Enku was a monk from a tradition that made the wild lands of the mountains its training ground. This mountain practice found expression in his artistic creativity. Scholars estimate  that Enku made about 10 statues a day. Because of this incredible productivity, many of his statues are simplified to express the essentials. The message in Enku's work is carried in the smile, the bliss of realizing one's True Nature. This is what fuelled Enku on his path, and what he wanted to share with others.

This wish to share also found form in the epic journeys Enku walked at a time when travel in Japan was largely prohibited by the government. 

RM: Was Enku unique, or is there an established tradion in Japan of craftsmanship imbued with spirituality?

DZ: Enku was and is unique. And there are many traditions of spiritual craftsmanship. For example in modern times there was a shoemaker called Saichi (1850-1932) who wrote spiritual poems on the wood shavings that surrounded him. Here is an example:

Nothing is left to Saichi,
Except a joyful heart nothing is left to him.
Neither good nor bad has he, all is taken away from him;
Nothing is left to him!
To have nothing - how completely satisfying!
Everything has been carried away by the "Namu-amida-butsu".
He is thoroughly at home with himself:
This is indeed the "Namu-amida-butsu"!

Enku would recognize this kind of spirit. When people get out of their own way, an overwhelming  sense of gratitude and service can naturally express itself.  Not long before I arrived at my home temple in Japan, the old carpenter who practiced there had a huge awakening. When I met him he was absolutely overflowing with love. Wherever you went in the temple, there he was! On the roof fixing the tiles, in the kitchen preparing vegetables or maintaining the shrine room, constantly giving his time and attention.

RM: How can we move towards this in our own lives?

DZ: In Zen we have a principle that Dogen Zenji summarised as "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things." (2)  If we can start to truly face ourselves we become more permeable to life.

At the beginning of Zen training I recommend people to focus on the question "who am I?"  When this question is pursued deeply it shifts our relationship not only with ourselves but with the universe. Gratitude, love and happiness begin to flow.

Portrait by Richard Munn

RM: I imagine this takes some time?

DZ: This is a life-long work.  I like to help people get things going over a specially designed 3-day retreat -  about 60% of people get a clear insight in that time. But that’s just a beginning.  Then you have to work in a way that you can become more permeable to your realization. People need to find a Way, a living, that is suited to them and  aligned with their insight.

My teacher, Shinzan Roshi, is a master of the brush, and he's more happy with what he's producing at 80 than the work he produced at 70. It's beautiful to see his work continuing to develop and deepen and simultaneously become more innocent and free.

RM: Daizan, thank-you very much for your time. I'd like to let people know that if they wish to see the book they can on Amazon here


1 From Suzuku, D.T.; Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist;  The Buddhist Society, London, 2002 p.178

2 Dogen Zenji; Translated by Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi, revised at San Francisco Zen Center; http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Dogen_Teachings/GenjoKoan_Aitken.htm