Homeless Kodo on Religion

by Bob Schwartz

Kodo Sawaki

A short while ago I wrote about a new book, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. I thought it was the last I would say about it.

It is a book best read in bites. I’ve had to resist the temptation after each bite to say, “you’ve gotta taste this” and “you’ve gotta taste this.” This isn’t a blog about Zen (or about anything else in particular, for that matter). And by the time I got through pointing to all the chapters worthy of attention, I would have quoted practically the whole book.

I’ve written before about how religion is both essential in some form and so badly misused and abused. Others have said it much better. Here, Kodo Sawaki, in literary “conversation” with his student Kosho Uchiyama and with Uchiyama’s student Shohaku Okumura, talks about the value of religion, properly defined and understood.


Religion Is Life


How we live our everyday lives has to be the main concern of religion.


On television, it’s permissible to show scenes of explicit sex and crimes, including murder. Big posters of nude women can be posted on the street. Although kids see these TV shows and posters, not many people worry about this. At the same time, it’s illegal to teach religion in public school. To me this is one of the mysteries of twentieth-century Japan.

Maybe people think that “religion” means established sects, superstition, or fanaticism. It’s certainly true that if an innocent child is influenced by one-sided, fixed doctrines, this will lead to great problems. So one might say it’s understandable that the government bans religious education in public schools. On the other hand, if religion means teachings about the most important matter of our lives—how we should live—then we should worry about the next generation, growing up in a society without any religious education, yet constantly confronted with images of sex and violence. If things continue like this, we’ll find young people becoming more and more destructive.

I hope the time will come for religion to be taught in school without indoctrination, but as a lesson about the most important question of life: how to live.


“Religion” is to live out the ever fresh self, which is not deceived by anything.

Religion must not be a system of dogma. Religion is life. Religion has to function as life. Worshiping sutras is not enough. Religion must manifest itself freely and inexhaustibly in all activities of life, everywhere and always.


When the government supported religious institutions and forced people to adopt them, this caused terrible problems. An example is the State Shinto from the Meiji era to the end of World War II. When political power and religious authority are combined, there can be no freedom. I don’t think that’s what Uchiyama Roshi is recommending.

As I mentioned in chapter 2, the Japanese equivalent of the word “religion” is shukyo. This word originally referred to Buddhism: the teaching, or kyo, about fundamental reality, or shu. Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi used the word “religion” to mean awakening to reality, rather than a system of belief and worship within a particular tradition.

Uchiyama Roshi thought the most important questions of our life should be taught in schools as the subject “Human Life.” He even wrote a textbook as an example. In that book he remarked:

When the time comes to teach “Human Life” in schools, I think the word “religion” should be eliminated. When we use the word in its traditional meaning . . . a strange atmosphere is created. This is because traditional religions always set up some authority beyond our understanding and force people to believe certain myths and doctrines. And yet in our life as the self that is born and dies naked, fundamentally no such authority and belief are necessary. We just need to straightforwardly see the reality of life as the self and teach how to live based on that reality.

Uchiyama Roshi’s searching, studying, and practicing were ways to study the “self.” He wasn’t interested in becoming a believer of a traditional religion. In his search for truth, he found some people in the Buddhist tradition who had the same attitude. One was the Buddha, who said, “The self is the only foundation of the self.” Another was Dogen, who said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” Sawaki Roshi emphasized zazen practice as “the self selfing the self.” Throughout his life, Uchiyama Roshi continued to read the Bible as one of the ways to study the self. In his final days, he said, “I am neither a Buddhist nor a Christian. I am just who I am.

The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo
Wisdom Publications