A German Zen Master

Appeals of Japan explained by a German Zen monk

In a fresh-green mountainous area in northern Hyogo prefecture, I enter a mountain trail that leads to Antaiji temple. From a bus stop where only a few buses stop each day, a narrow trail into the mountain continues. I finally reach the end of the trail and find the temple. Surrounded by pristine nature, the main shrine, the dwellings of the monks, and the fields they use to provide for themselves are located in such a beautiful place.

As I walk around the temple premises, I hear a voice say “hello”. When I look back, I am met by the smile of the Zen master, Noelke Muho. He takes us inside, where we finish introducing ourselves, and we are about to start the interview. At that moment, however, I was surprised as he suddenly grows taller; he has straightened up his back to sit in a zazen (sitting meditation) position. He is already tall, and when he straightens his back he is even taller. His gray eyes are so deep that they are both gentle and melancholy at the same time. I think I might have met a Buddha.

Zen master Noelke immediately says, “The appeal of Japan lies in ‘wa (harmony)’”. He continues, “The Japanese people often try to communicate their feelings by exchanging words such as, ‘it’s hot today, isn’t it?’ or ‘it’s cold today, isn’t it?’. It is as if they are digging a deep well to find a water vein that they can share with each other in their interpersonal relationships. “Wa” is this very act of “sharing of the water vein”. Japanese animation or comics are popular worldwide, and it is very important to express messages using not only words, but pictures as well. In Zen, messages that cannot be conveyed through words alone are expressed by making gardens or drawing pictures. Although I am German, I think that Western-style communication is as if “I” and “you” shout at each other while standing on top of different mountains that are far apart; we will not be accepted unless we assert ourselves. I love Japan. Rather than things like the abundant nature or delicious rice in Japan, I love the Japanese people and the Japanese style of interpersonal relationships more than anything else.”

What will change by practicing Zen?

Currently, 16 monks practice in Antaiji temple, 10 of whom are foreigners and 6 of whom are Japanese. Antaiji temple is self sufficient and everyday work such as farm work for cultivating rice or vegetables, cooking, laundry, and cleaning are also an important part of training, in addition to zazen. Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, also placed importance on everyday work as practice. When I asked if it can be difficult work to instruct his students as a leader, he gave me a unique illustration.

“Among my students, there are cucumber-types, tomato-types, and squash-types. The cucumber-type grows smoothly unattended, without straying off. The tomato-type cannot grow without support. The squash-type grows in whatever way they want (laughs). There is a Japanese proverb that goes, “even the coldest rock will get warm if sat on for three years”, which means that you need to work at something for at least three years to see results. Normally, if a student continues zazen for three years, they will become capable of taking care of their juniors. I welcome anybody who is ready to practice for three years, regardless of nationality.”

What would change if a person practices Zen? Master Noelke says, “Zazen changes a lukewarm way of life. The first thing you can do is simply practice zazen, which does not seem to serve any purpose. Think of our day-to-day lives as wheels, and suppose that these wheels are supporting various aspects of our lives, such as family life, social life, work and friendships. To make these wheels rotate smoothly, the most important part is actually a static “axle”. When only considering “moving around”, the axle seems to serve no purpose. However, it is only because of that unwavering axle that the wheels can rotate smoothly. The axle of my life is zazen; I sit facing a wall for 1800 hours a year. Depending on how you look at it, you could say it is a ridiculous waste of time. However, when I practice zazen, not only the time I practice but time I am not practicing becomes more brilliant. This is the wonder of zazen.”

The “spirit of Zen”, which is alive throughout the world

“The spirit of Zen is still alive throughout the world,” I said to Master Noelke. “Yes, it is. Stay hungry. Stay foolish!” he immediately replied. “To stay hungry and stay foolish – it is said that this was the motto of life of the late Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he said these words to graduating students in a speech at Stanford University; ‘Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.’”

This reminded Master Noelke of the words found in a Zen text, which says “do not get distracted and stubbornly move forward. Do not waste your time”. “It is not a coincidence that the spirits of Jobs and Zen are very similar. Jobs was a pupil of Master Kobun Otogawa, a Japanese Zen monk who preached in the United States. Although this fact is starting to attract attention in Japan, it is not uncommon that a frontrunner in the West is involved in Zen. I think you can say that the spirit is Zen is alive throughout the world today.”

In Antaiji temple, Buddhism is still alive. If Japanese Zen is an appeal of Japan and a traditional culture, Master Noelke, who came from Germany, is nurturing a new Japanese Buddhism and students from all over the world in Antaiji temple. My heart had been touched as I descended the mountain.

Jens Olaf Christian Nölke / Noelke Muho

A monk of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, born in Germany on March 1, 1968. He is the abbot of Antaiji temple, a Japanese Soto Zen temple.

Antaiji Temple

Address:62, Kutoyama, Shinonsen-cho, Mikata-gun, Hyogo

Temples where you can experience zasen

Hosen-ji Temple
You can stay for any length of time, from one night onward, to experience zazen practice.
Address:52 Nakajo Yamamoto Shino-cho. Kameoka-shi, Kyoto
How to apply for a “Zen practice experience”: Send an e-mail to kokugonayk3gm8@icloud.com with the subject “Zen practice experience application”, stating the following information: 1. desired date for Zen practice experience, 2. name, 3. age, 4. gender, 5. address, 6. phone number, and 7. motive for application.

Fudaraku-san Chokokuji Temple
Zazen practice is held for the public every Monday from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Address:2-21-34 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
How to apply:Call 03-3400-5232

Representative temples where you can experience Zen culture