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Mokugen and a picture showing what was considered to be the ideal physique of the monk.
A New Direction
for Zen Buddhism

Buddhist Priest Mokugen
(Jose da Costa Sobrinho)

Text and photos by Everett Kennedy Brown
Brazilian-born Jose da Costa Sobrinho has accomplished what few international students of Zen have been able to. After 10 years of arduous practice he has passed the difficult examination to become a chief priest in the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism. This qualifies him to be able to take official charge of his own Zen temple.

Mokugen, as he is known by his Buddhist name, now stands at the crossroads of a new direction in Zen Buddhism. Aichi Voice visited him at his temple, Daisho-in, to hear his story. Daisho-in is a 600-year-old temple in Chita, a suburb of Nagoya and a city with a rich cultural past. In the garden of the temple we found the 47-year-old Brazilian monk tending to a plot of green vegetables he had recently planted.

Since receiving his new qualifications, Mokugen has been caring for this temple while embarking on a three-year course of studies in Buddhist history and doctrine. Every Tuesday and Wednesday he attends classes at Komazawa University, a center for Buddhist learning located in Tokyo. This means he spends two nights a week on the nearly eight-hour overnight bus going back and forth between Nagoya and Tokyo. "It's a hard schedule, but an important opportunity to deepen my understanding of Zen Buddhism," Mokugen explains.

For Mokugen, this routine is perhaps the least of the ordeals he has undergone during his time in Japan. Nothing was more arduous than the training he undertook at Eihei-ji, the main temple for Soto Zen monks, located in Fukui Prefecture. Mokugen was the first Brazilian to enter Eihei-ji and one of only a handful of international students to endure the one-year training. At Eihei-ji, a typical day begins at 3:30 a.m., followed by a full day of zazen sitting meditation and sutra recitation. Meals are simple and discipline by senior monks can be harsh. Few students can put up with the rigors and system of teaching at Eihei-ji and most students from abroad leave within a few months.

Visitors who came to copy sutras view an example of Mokugen's calligraphy.
But as Mokugen's teacher Doyu points out, "From the start Mokugen showed a special determination and understanding. The day he arrived at my temple in Nagoya from Brazil he bowed and prayed very reverentially before entering the front gate. That was the first time I had seen a student do that. "Mokugen, which means "original silence," is the name given to him after entering the monkshood. "Silence is important if you want to experience true understanding. Having the name Mokugen is a good reminder for him," Doyu observes.

Before coming to Japan, Mokugen was a dentist in his hometown of Bella Horizonte. Becoming dissatisfied with his life in his mid-thirties, he began questioning the deeper meaning of his existence and started experimenting with meditation. There was a Japanese monk, named Ryotan Tokuda, who had been teaching Zen in Brazil for more than 20 years. A friend of Mokugen's invited him to join a three-day meditation retreat at Tokuda's temple. The experience was to change his life forever.

"It was from that first time of doing Zen meditation that I realized that this path is my destiny. Zen enabled me to find the answer to all my questions," Mokugen says.

Over the next two years, while continuing his dental practice, he attended monthly meditation retreats at Tokuda's temple, a journey of 700 kilometers by bus. At the end of this time he came to realize his dream to go to Japan and undergo training as a Buddhist monk.

Since his arrival in Japan in 1991 there have indeed been times of doubt and despair. When asked if he ever thought of giving up, he responded, "Yes, there were times when I cried and the thought of quitting crossed my mind. I remember being beaten by a senior monk at Eihei-ji as punishment for dozing off during a ceremony. But at times like that I told myself that if I let my feelings get the upper hand, I would be defeating myself and my purpose for living."

There is a growing interest in Buddhism in Brazil. Zen meditation centers thrive in major towns along the Atlantic coast, and plans are underway to build a large Zen temple near Brazilia, the nation's capital. After two more years of study at Komazawa University it is Mokugen's plan to return to his home country and "maybe build my own little temple," he says with a smile. When asked about his student's future, Doyu commented, "Mokugen is now solid in his understanding of Zen. The time is coming for a Brazilian style of Zen to be taught, and Mokugen is the person to do this. The fruits of his efforts may become evident three hundred years in the future."