Part 1. Searching in life: Turning from an artist to a Buddhist
Xianqing: I’m very glad you can come and see us here. I have prepared so many questions, because I want to know more about yourself, and Zen River Temple, which is very special to me. When I first met you, I didn’t find too many differences from others. I remember you were just one of those in the audience who came to the seminar. You gave me an impression of being very humble, and quite easy to communicate with. And later when I had the chance to visit Zen River for the first time, and a second time followed that, I was very much impressed, and began to learn more about the temple and also from you. That’s why I suggested and urged our delegation last year to visit and experience this wonderful place. And it’s a pity we only have the fond memory left, and no pictures and videos were taken back then. We want to show and share with people about the tradition, this wonderful place, the people, and the community. I see something very special in this community. I also see now hope of Buddhism in the Western countries, the Western world. But I don’t know exactly what the reason is behind. I hope we can talk more about it, so here is the first question. I learned that you studied art?
Tenkei: Yes, yes.
Xianqing: Your major. And later, you were a teacher of art for more than 15 years, right?
Tenkei: That’s right.
Xianqing: What is the reason for you to turn to Buddhism?
Tenkei: Good question. Because in a way I wondered myself. I think from childhood on, I have always wondered about what to do. Just when we were driving here in the car, I told Zen'etsu that when I was a kid I wanted to become a sailor. And then later on I wanted to become a doctor, and later on I wanted to be an artist. I was always trying to find out what it is that I need to do? Because from very young on, I had a feeling that there is something to do, but I just didn’t know what, what I could possibly do. So I've always been searching, because I felt there was a calling, but I didn't know who was calling, and at some point in my career as an artist, there was still some dissatisfaction about my life, and I still felt that I wasn't quite hearing my calling clearly enough. It was difficult because I didn't know anything else. I didn't know Buddhism. Buddhism wasn't very popular at that time yet. And the only thing I thought that I had something to do with turned out to be that I didn't know yet. So I was thinking, thinking what it was that I didn't try yet. I tried many things, but then I started reading books on yoga and meditation, and also Buddhism at some point. And I thought, oh, maybe there is something in there that I need to research on, but it was not easy, because there was no Buddhism, not much in my country and even in Europe. Oh yeah, there was one thing that I did know, that whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t at home. So I had to go abroad. I started to look for yoga schools in Belgium and then by chance I ended up in a Tibetan monastery in the south of France. Then I went to England, and I met different Tibetan masters. Yeah, first in France and then England. I had read books by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who is very famous, and I’d heard that he had a center in Scotland, so I went there. But he had already left, and his dharma brother was still there. So I talked to his dharma brother Akong Rinpoche who later, not too long ago actually, died in China.
Xianqing: Oh, sorry.
Tenkei: And I talked to him, and I said, “I didn't know what to do because I wasn't into Tibetan Buddhism, but I’ve heard about Zen. What is the difference?”
Xianqing: Oh, yeah.
Tenkei: And Akong Rinpoche told me, “Well, Tibetan Buddhism is step by step, and Zen is like a rocket.” So I decided to study Zen, (laughing) because I am an impatient person. Then it was not so easy to find Zen. So I was in England at different places, and I had a teacher in England for some time, but then I was still not satisfied. And I realized that if I wanted to take this Zen really seriously, I had to go to Japan because I was in the Japanese tradition, or maybe go to the US and find a Japanese master there. I heard about Maezumi Roshi, and he had set up a center in Los Angeles, and he was there. So I just went there; I just left for Los Angeles and I lived there for some time. And then I became his student, later I became his student of one of his successors, Genpo Roshi.
Tenkei: That’s right. During that time I was still maintaining my job and everything, because as an...
Tenkei: Yeah. Because I didn't know, “Do I know monasteries really?” There were only retreats alike to be done, so forth, and I had to be on my own. I didn't know what to do. At some point my teacher decided to set up a temple in the US. Then I quit my job and went there, but still it was not so easy because I had to work there too to pay for my training. So I painted many houses in the US, not as an artist, but as a house painter. And yeah, it’s a long story in a way, but it all had to do, I think, with my feeling that I had to do something and I had to find out what it is. And now I find it very strange because now I live in the north of Holland, and I spent some time in the small hut as you have seen there for private interviews with students. I often wonder how did I end up here. But somehow it is exactly what I felt like I need to do, but it took me a long time to go, because there was no Buddhist tradition yet in Holland, and it’s still very young of course. It’s almost like we have to build it up from ground level. But I really enjoy that too, because I love to experiment, and I love to create, so now I feel like the whole monastery is my painting, and my life becomes my painting. In a way, I see the whole world as a big painting.
Tenkei: Of course we have a world, but what do we make of this world, how do we live in this world? We have to create ourselves. So I feel like painting was maybe too small for me. I need the whole world as a painting. So that’s my first answer.