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“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki: From Brothel Worker to Buddhist Monk

It’s strange to me that people are respected because they have money.

Unfortunately, by the 20th century, Zen Buddhism in Japan had become highly stagnant revolving primarily around the repetition of rote,  lifeless rituals. The majority of Buddhist monks were not teaching Buddhism and very few were engaged in meditation. Their time was almost exclusively devoted to the raising of money for their temples by chanting of rituals at funerals. This sad situation had existed for centuries in Japan with only a few notable exceptions. One of those was a 20th century Buddhist who re-introduced meditation and Buddhist teachings to the Japanese. He was fiercely critical of Buddhism as it existed saying that “a religion (Buddhism) that has nothing to do with our fundamental attitude toward our lives is nonsense” and then reminding the Japanese people that they had, at their disposal, Buddhism “a religion that teaches us how to return to a true way of life.”

Kodo Sawaki. From

The man who re-introduced Buddhist teachings and Buddhist meditation practice to Japan was born on 16 June 1880. His name was Kodo Sawaki. By the time he was eight years of age, he was orphaned as his mother died when he was five and his father three years later. An uncle brought him into his home but, tragically, the uncle also died. Sawaki was given a place to live by a man who was a professional gambler and his wife, a former prostitute who supervised brothels. They made him work guarding gambling dens and  cleaning up the brothels. Aware that his childhood was less than ideal, unhappy by what he was experiencing and feeling there had to be more to life, he began to secretly spend time at a nearby Zen temple. There, the abbott took an interest in the young boy advising him to consider studying and practicing Zen.  

Following up on that advice, Sawaki was 16 when he ran away from home to join a monastery becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1899.  Shortly after, he was drafted by the Japanese Imperial Army to serve in combat during the Russo-Japanese war (1904–05). The experience of war combined with the improved weapon technology made him skeptical of scientific and technological advances. Speaking out against wars, armies and evolving weapon technologies, he noted: “Today the newspaper writes about the extermination of the enemy or how we clean them away with machine gun fire. That almost sounds like everyday household cleaning. They fire with machine guns and call it ‘cleaning away the remains of the enemy’.  Compared with today the former war was old fashioned. We shot only one bullet at a time.” For the remainder of his life, Sawaki cautioned that scientific and technological advances did not lead to human transformation.

When his military service was over, Sawaki resumed his life and work as a Zen Buddhist monk becoming a teacher of meditation.  In the early 20th century, meditation (called zazen) was not commonly taught nor practiced in Japan. Sawaki made it his personal life mission to revitalize meditation restoring it as a central practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism. To do this he traveled extensively throughout the country teaching Zen meditation.  

Sawaki taught people to “just sit” describing Zen as “wonderfully useless” and discouraged any notions of seeking after special experiences or gaining deeper states of consciousness. He often used the phrase “nothing special” to describe the practice of meditation. Aware that his approach brought him critics, he said: “My sermons are criticized by certain audiences. They say that my sermons are hollow, not holy. I agree with them because I myself am not holy. The Buddha’s teaching guides people to the place where there is nothing special. . . People often misunderstand faith as kind of ecstasy of intoxication. . . True faith is sobering up from such intoxication.”


Though he could have assumed the traditional role as an abbot of a Zen center, he chose to remain on the move. As a result, he came to be known as “Homeless” Kodo. Asked how he felt about this nickname, Sawaki responded: “People call me ‘Homeless’ Kodo, but I don’t take it as an insult. They call me that because I have never had a temple or a house. Everyone is homeless. It is a mistake if you think that you have a fixed home.”

Not one to soften teachings, Sawaki expressed himself directly and bluntly. He was critical of institutional religion saying: “When religious groups attract crowds and build elaborate structures, many people begin to believe these institutions are true religions. The genuineness of a religion does not depend on how many believers it has. Large numbers are not significant; more people are deluded than aren’t.” Observing that so many people live aimlessly, he said: “Because they’re bored, people kill time by agonizing, falling in love, drinking, reading novels and watching sports; they do things halfheartedly and incompletely, alienated from their lives, rather than living with determination in a decisive direction.” 

Commenting on human tendency toward hypocrisy, he pointed out: “If you steal other people’s things, you become a thief. Some people think that you become a thief only after you have been arrested by a policeman, questioned by a public prosecutor, had a judgment passed on you, and gone to jail. A corrupt politician considers himself a man of virtue and resource if he can avoid scandal and escape responsibility for his actions. People are so idiotic!” And, to those caught up in self-importance, he warned: “Most people don’t live by their own strength. They merely feed off the power of organizations. Those who make a living  by their titles or status are wimps.”

By the time of his death on 21 December, 1965, many considered him the most important twentieth century Zen master in Japan. At his request, his body was donated to science and his books to a university library. While alive he used his veteran’s pension to publish his writings which he gave away to practitioners. He literally left nothing behind when he died.

Words of Wisdom from Kodo Sawaki 

After all our efforts, racking our brains as intensely as possible, we have come to a deadlock. Human beings are idiots. We set ourselves up as wise and then do foolish things.

We should not forget that modern scientific culture has developed on the basis of our lowest consciousness.

Advancement is the talk of the world, but in what direction are we advancing?  

 It’s strange to me that people are respected because they have money.

Doing good can be bad. Some people do good to make themselves look good.

Each and every one of us has to live out his own life. Don’t waste time thinking about who is most talented.

Religion means living your own life, completely fresh and new, without being taken in by anyone.

People believe that living in the lap of luxury is something great. It’s strange to me that people are respected because they have money.

Just walk straightforwardly without getting caught in entanglements.

Each of us has to start from the beginning.  We can’t start from the point our teachers reached.

To study originally meant to find out about one’s own life.  Today study just gets you a license that gets you a job.

The world in which we give and receive is a serene and beautiful world.  It differs from the world of scrambling for things. It’s vast and boundless.

To practice the Buddha way is not let our minds wander but to become one with what we’re doing.

Unless you see the “human” from the Buddha’s point of view, you’ll never understand the truth.

We must all reflect on our motivations with eyes wide open.  Somehow before we know it, we’re playing to the gallery, anxious about our popularity like an entertainer.  

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