Japanese monk Seigaku lives a Zen life with as little money as possible in Berlin. The desire for popularity led Seitaro Higuchi from Tottori on the Sea of Japan to Germany’s capital, transforming himself along the way. He had sought to become an actor — and instead became a monk. How did this come about?
“I wanted to be popular with girls,” Seigaku says over the phone, laughing. He is speaking from Kyoto, where he is shooting a movie over two months in summer.
As fate would have it, the 36-year-old monk is now also an actor, playing the role of a monk who was a student of poet Matsuo Basho in a fictional documentary by Swiss filmmaker Richard Dindo.
The documentary traces the life and times of the famous poet, who has since become famous for his haiku verses. Dindo wanted to use real monks in his production and so chose Seigaku to play the role of the student and another higher-ranking monk from a temple in Kyoto to play Basho.
Seigaku, who spends most of the year in Berlin since moving there in 2011, has quite a story to tell.
Born Seitaro Higuchi, he became a Zen monk at the age of 23 after graduating from Keio University with a degree in politics.
“I couldn’t find a reason to work for capitalism,” he recalls, thinking back to his final years at university. Instead, he was looking for something he felt would be more fulfilling.
There was also the desire for popularity. He wanted to be liked and decided to imitate someone who was already popular.
Noting that a popular senior student in his ice hockey team was also an actor, Higuchi seized his chance when a friend invited him to take part in a theater production produced by Yoko Narahashi.
The internationally renowned casting director and film producer also headed an English drama theater group for students at universities in and around Tokyo. Higuchi realized this offered him a great opportunity.
However, Higuchi’s enthusiasm was soon brought down to earth by Narahashi, who told him not to do anything in front of the camera. Narahashi told him he was “doing too much and trying too hard,” advising him to “undo” what he was doing. Such advice tore Higuchi apart.
“Up to this point, I thought that we have a purpose in life, and that we have to find this purpose by doing the very best that we can,” Higuchi recalls. “It was difficult for me to change my mind-set.”
At the time, Narahashi was working on “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise. Higuchi wondered why such a popular actor was into samurai warriors. He realized that the Japanese kanji for samurai (侍) contains two parts: “human” (人) and “temple” (寺). This connection between a samurai and Buddhist ways of thinking led him to develop an interest in Buddhism and Zen.
A cousin of Higuchi’s father was serving as a monk in a Zen temple and so he asked how best to practice Zen.
His distant relative told him the best way to practice is to become a monk. And so he did.
Higuchi decided to practice as a monk for one year at Eiheiji, one of two main temples of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Eiheiji is located in Fukui Prefecture.
He enjoyed living at Eiheiji very much, although life in the mountains was pretty ordinary. A typical day would consist of waking up, eating, cleaning, sitting and meditating (zazen), and sleeping. All these activities — especially the cleaning routine (called samu) — would be carried out with mindfulness as a part of Zen. One year at the temple turned into three years before he even knew it.
Higuchi, who had by now adopted the name Seigaku, went back to his former life in Tokyo only to realize that he needed money. He tried to earn the minimum amount needed to survive, working in an izakaya pub as a bartender and chef.
“Once I earned the minimum amount, the amount I saved grew larger,” he recalls. “At the temple I hadn’t used electric appliances like TVs, laptops, mobile phones and so on. Once I saved a little bit of money, I thought I should get a phone so that my friends would be able to communicate with me. The more I earned, the more I started living like I used to before I lived in the temple.”
Eventually, he worked less and only practiced Zen. He shared an apartment with friends, where they would sit and meditate together.
His next goal would be to attempt living this kind of lifestyle in other parts of the world.
“By living like this, I could prove that this way of life is OK,” he says. “The Zen way of life could therefore become an alternative way of life to capitalism.”
Seigaku had planned to move to New York in April 2011, using a scholarship for monks from the Yokohama Zenkoji Scholarship Foundation for International Buddhist Study that would grant him ¥1 million for one year.
But then the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Fukushima occurred and he changed his destination. Seigaku had just married and his wife was expecting their first child.
“Nobody knew what would happen next. The situation was changing a lot,” he recalls. “When Germany decided to phase out its nuclear power plants, we chose to move to Berlin instead.”
He arrived in Germany with his pregnant wife in May 2011. The scholarship helped them get their first apartment in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and his wife gave birth.
“I like the relaxed atmosphere in Berlin a lot,” Seigaku says. “It feels like people don’t seem to depend too much on capitalism and on the economy.”
In Berlin, Seigaku has been meditating every day. He first did it in his apartment. Then, friends started to join him in his home. One day an attendant invited him to do it in his cafe, and the word started to spread.
For nearly two years, Seigaku has been holding zazen classes in a yoga studio, owned by another attendant, where students give donations. He also holds zazen workshops in a salon space called Ryoko that is run by Ryoko Hori and her partner, Daniel Kula. Likewise, participants don’t pay a fee for the service but instead offer a donation.
“Berlin has changed me,” Seigaku says. “I’m healthier today. I have met many different people and become confident that the Zen way of living could be a real alternative for the next generation. That said, it’s always difficult and never stable.”
Sometimes he goes to a square dressed in his black robes. He just sits there and places a bowl in front of him. Occasionally, people put food or money in his bowl.
“I want to stay in Berlin because more and more people seem to be interested in my way of living,” Seigaku says.
It does indeed seem that a life with less can be so much more.
Name: Seigaku (Seitaro Higuchi)
Profession: Zen monk
Born in: Singapore (My father was working as a teacher at a Japanese school at the time)
Grew up in: Tottori, Poland, U.K.
Key moments in career:
2001 — Meets Yoko Narahashi
2007 — Begins training as a monk in Eiheiji
2011 — Marries and moves to Berlin
Things I miss about Japan: The clouds and the water
● 星覚 (樋口星太郎)