It’s 7:30 a.m. in Kyoto and already the city feels trapped in heat. But within the centuries-old walls of Taizo-in, a sub temple on the grounds of the famed Myoshin-ji Temple, calm and coolness reign. The doors open quietly and Daiko Matsuyama, the deputy chief priest of Taizo-in, enters the room. Matsuyama is one of the few Buddhist priests in Kyoto whose command of English enables him to travel abroad, give lectures in English and welcome foreign disciples.
“The number of foreigners interested in Zen Buddhism grows by the year,” says Matsuyama. “So knowing the English language is important, but often, the teachings of Zen need no words.”
Matsuyama always knew he would inherit his father’s temple, but he still wanted to get a view of the world outside Zen Buddhism. In junior high school, he was on the volleyball team and “lived and breathed the sport.” But when his team lost a regional tournament in his third year, he took stock of where his life was going.
“I had trained so hard there was nothing else in my life. I had to see the outside world or my teenage years would pass me by,” he said.
So Matsuyama packed a few belongings and took off on a 10-day solo trip to Alaska. Why Alaska?
“I had just seen a nature documentary and was struck by the beauty of the landscape,” he says, but this trip provided Matsuyama with a lifetime of memories and a strong incentive to study English.
“Being entirely on my own, I had to communicate and find my way around,” he says. “And for the first time I realized how important it was to talk to people, both in life and in Buddhism.”
Back in Japan, Matsuyama studied like a demon and was accepted at one of Kyoto’s most prestigious high schools. From there, he went on to Tokyo University.
“I was living like a monk in the big city,” he laughs. “I was boarding in a temple, and it was my job to clean and polish the premises, do the yard work and strike the bell.”
Matsuyama, a hard rock fan who “still loves” Aerosmith and Deep Purple, says those student years were instrumental in shaping his character and deepening his understanding of Zen.
“Abroad, I get asked all the time what Zen Buddhism means,” he says. “And there’s no answer, really. I can only point to certain components that make up Zen philosophy. Some people will get it and others may not, but it’s important to be able to have the conversation, and in English.”
At the time of the interview, Matsuyama had returned from a trip to Seattle, where he had given a lecture at Microsoft.
“I never read from a written speech, and I try to be as spontaneous as possible,” he said. “I find that having a prepared speech makes the whole lecture experience a lot less interesting, both for my audience and myself.”
During these lectures, Matsuyama doesn’t falter, hesitate or make mistakes — a rarity even for native speakers.
“It’s been a long time since I actually hit the books and studied the English language,” he said. “But I find that once you study very deeply, it comes back to you. Like riding a bicycle.”
Matsuyama said that an encounter with a mentor in high school was the clincher in what had been a growing desire to master English.
“Actually he was our English teacher and the first Japanese to attend Yale University,” said Matsuyama. “So he had a unique teaching method — we were told to read novels and watch movies. He would point to a passage in a Sidney Sheldon novel and say: ‘This sentence is so beautiful, so you should memorize it.’ ”
Not everyone in the class was enthralled, but Matsuyama was fascinated.
“It’s because of this teacher that I learned to say ‘spring is right around the corner,’ rather than the bland, textbook version of ‘spring is approaching.’ Back then and now, my feelings about English can be boiled down to two things. One is that I had better learn it. The other is — I’ll survive, with or without English. It sounds contradictory, but I hope you see what I mean.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words I tell myself
松山大耕 (まつやま だいこう)
1978年京都市生まれ。2003年東京大学大学院農学生命科学研究科修了。2007年より退蔵院副住職。2009年政府観光庁 Visit Japan 大使に任命。2011年京都市「京都観光おもてなし大使」に任命。国内外で禅の理解を深める活動を行なっている。