"Nature and meditation" by Toryo Ito

Interviewer: Max Mackee (Kammui Founder)


Toryo Ito is a Zen Buddhist monk residing at Ryosokuin, a small temple in the pagoda of Kenninji in Kyoto, Japan and offers meditation in the beautiful garden and surrounding.

Max: To start, please could you tell us a little of your background and history of Ryosokuin?

Toryo Ito (Toryo): Ryosokuin was founded in 1357, and it is one of the small temples in the pagoda of Kenninji, the head temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, in Kyoto.

I was born and raised here in Ryosokuin. I went to the local elementary school, so I used to play in the garden here with my classmates.

Max: What were your earliest memories of Ryosokuin?

Toryo: My earliest memories were of playing tag here. My parents were monks but they gave me a lot of freedom. I was born and raised in this temple, but I didn't participate in many temple activities initially. I think that I lived in a relatively similar way to an ordinary family. I was actually aiming to become a schoolteacher initially, a profession I respect greatly.

Max: So how was it you returned to the path of becoming a monk?

Toryo: I was considering for a while to become a school teacher. But even when i was young, and Ryosokuin was just a playground for me, I saw the senior monks working very hard here. So there was some admiration for the monks which was instilled in me as a child. When I graduated from university, I decided that I actually wanted to become a monk. For the next three years, I lived in a Shugendo dojo. After 3 years, I came back to Ryokokuin, in 2005. So it has been around 17 or 18 years here now.

Max: Ryosokuin has an incredible Japanese garden. Could you tell us a little about it?

Toryo: The garden of Ryosokuin has a total area of around 300 square meters. Japanese gardens are an artificial arrangement of plants and stones. It is very different from a real untouched nature but it has its own charm.

Max: Yes, Japanese gardens have a very particular minimal aesthetic. How do you actually go about creating this?

Toryo: When I tend to the garden, i think a little about what will happen when the plants and branches grow. I think one characteristic of Japanese gardens is that they leave a lot of space for future changes and growth. And, as you know, you cannot control nature, so the way a Japanese garden develops cannot be fully controlled.

I guess I still have some expectations and hopes that the branches will grow in a certain way. In that sense, they betray me quite a bit! So, if you consider this, in the long run, you can really see the beauty of nature in that there is an element that cannot be controlled.

Max: I agree, the fact that nature is uncontrollable is actually an important part of its beauty and something which we can learn from. Please could you tell me a little about zazen meditation?

Toryo: Firstly, I think that the important part of zazen is that it ultimately restores your sensitivity to the fact that human beings are a part of nature. When you live in a town, you tend to become detached from nature and concentrate on your own individual self. But I think that, wherever we are, we need to gradually connect with the environment around us. And then, ultimately, to all the bodies around us.

Max: You mean to other conscious beings around us?

Toryo: Yes. Then I believe you will be able to observe that your body is not just a separate entity, but connected to many different things around us. That the environment is inseparable from the people around you and yourself. When you can experience this, I believe you will regain the sense that nature and human beings are not separate from each other, but are all part of one thing, nature.

Max: Is there something unique in the way you conduct meditation here?

Toryo: My style of teaching zazen is a little bit different from the traditional style. I value “flow” a lot. The reason for this is, for a long time, I would explain zazen and ask people to sit for an extended period. But I think this makes people think too hard, and their bodies tend to tense up.

It is important to focus on sensations. It is difficult for the senses to suddenly blossom and connect, so I believe it is necessary to do this gradually. In that sense, I try to guide people to focus on the external first before turning attention to the body. Then, to focus on sensations while moving our bodies together.

This is the point of zazen. By doing zazen, I can become more aware of the range of things that I am usually conscious of. I can be more aware of this side, I can listen to the sound more, and I can recognize that there are parts of my mind that are not usually illuminated. From a Buddhist teaching perspective, it is very important to recover this sense of wholeness.

Max: Moving on, you seem to be involved in many different projects combining meditation with technology. Could you tell us a little about how this came about?

Toryo: I mentioned earlier that Buddhism is really about finding the wholeness of a human being. I believe that people's lifestyles are changing rapidly, even compared to 3 years ago. And as a result, the expression, the technology and tools used have changed tremendously in short period of time.

In that sense, I think Buddhist philosophy is an element that will never change. The part where people can feel or experience this philosophy should change with the times. In that sense, I am involved in many different projects, and would like to keep challenging myself to create new expressions of this philosophy while maintaining the same ideas.

Max: And you also find time to combine elements of art with Buddhism.

Toryo: Yes, I am involved in many art related projects. Originally, temples were at the center of cutting-edge art in that the latest art pieces were showcased here. However, this has faded with time. However, I believe that temples can still have an important place for artists and their art.

There are many unique perspectives that only an artist can have. I also realize that each artist is very different. This often makes me realize that the scope of what I was looking at is really quite narrow. In terms of broadening my perspective, I hope to continue collaborating with many more artists in the future.

Max: Where do you find your inspiration?

Toryo: What kind of places do you get your inspiration from? First of all, it's the town I live in, Kyoto. When I am sitting here in this temple, I can hear it. The sounds of each season and the wind are a great source of inspiration for me.

When I think my mind is stuck in one place, I will take a walk along the Kamo River. Just by doing that, my perspective changes. I often find that it changes the flow of my life. I am also grateful that Kyoto is a town where many international people visit. So I get to sit down with a lot of different people and am very inspired by the conversations I have.

Max: Is there anything else you are looking to communicate with the people who come to meditate here?

Toryo: I think we are facing a variety of problems today, and everyone’s worries are becoming more and more diverse. What we can learn from meditation is to remind ourselves that we can solve our own problems.

When I meditate, I get a stronger sense of my own “axis” or what I really want to do. I am also able to calmly realize that everything I worry about is something that I have created myself. What you realize is that problems are ultimately caused by yourself. I believe that meditation will help allow people to trust themselves to change as necessary.
I think that trusting people is also very important. That is why each person must trust himself/herself first. I hope that the world will become a place where each person can trust themselves and then trust others.


Kammui Guide

Toryo Ito

Born in 1980. Vice-abbot of Ryozokuin Temple, Kenninji School of Rinzai Zen Buddhism Monk, Representative Director of InTrip Inc. After training at a specialized dojo of the Kenninji school, he has been in charge of zazen meditation at Ryosokuin for 15 years. He continues to attempt to connect modernity and tradition, transcending the boundaries between disciplines, with a focus on art. His international activities include holding Zen seminars at Facebook headquarters in the U.S. and teaching Zen in France, Germany, and Denmark. In April 2020, he released "Unze," a global meditation community, and in July 2020, "InTrip," an application for incorporating Zen into daily life. He has been a "Well being Mentor" for an overseas company and an executive coaching for several domestic companies. He has also supervised numerous hotel space designs, apparel brands, and mobility. Author of "Monday Meditation: A New Habit at the Beginning of the Week to Lighten Your Head and Heart.
Instagram: @toryo.ito

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