Shinzo Abe resigned as prime minister in 2007, a once-promising politician shackled by low support ratings, embarrassed by gaffes and scandals of his Cabinet members and hobbled by an intractable illness.
Seven months later, the largely forgotten Abe tried his hand at “zazen” sitting meditation at Zenshoan, a zen Buddhist temple in Tokyo’s Yanaka district.
Many believe zazen meditation was the source of Abe’s recovery, resurgence and reclaiming of the prime minister’s post in 2012. But the temple’s head priest, Shoshu Hirai, is not taking the full credit.
“I don’t think zazen was the only factor that changed everything,” Hirai, 46, said. “But if it opened up the prime minister’s comeback, I would be happy.”
Since word spread about Abe’s visits to the temple, every zazen class for the general public has been full with 80 participants in the main hall. A temple official says Zenshoan is “Japan’s hardest zazen session to get a reservation.”
A beginner usually has to wait two months for a reservation.
“Many people seem to come just to experience zazen, rather than out of serious anxiety,” said Hirai, whose “Zazen no Susume” (Recommending zazen) has sold more than 40,000 copies.
Under the basic principle that “those who come are welcome; those who leave are not regretted,” the temple has accepted people from various walks of life, including young right-wingers in the prewar days and key figures in politics and the bureaucracy, who seek to find their inner selves.
Zenshoan initially became widely known as regular meditation place for former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
Abe was first invited to join a zazen session in spring 2008 by Yuji Yamamoto, then minister in charge of financial affairs.
Yamamoto told Abe, “(Zenshoan) is the temple where Nakasone used to practice zazen.”
In the beginning, Abe, who had just left a hospital, had a hard time even sitting straight, Yamamoto recalled. But he made rapid progress.
“Now, he has a presence just like a large garden rock,” Yamamoto said.
The temple was founded in 1883 by Tesshu Yamaoka, a samurai who played a significant role in the Meiji Restoration, to pray for those who died in the movement. Young followers of Yamaoka gathered at the temple.
After World War II, Myoshinji temple abbot Genpo Yamamoto made Zenshoan a Tokyo base of the Rinzai zen temple in Kyoto.
Frequent visitors to Zenshoan included Yoshitaka Yotsumoto, a member of a prewar organization called the Blood Alliance that plotted the assassinations of liberal politicians. His disciples and followers still hold study meetings at the temple.
“I heard that many bureaucrats, as well as Diet members from both ruling and opposition parties, are practicing zazen there,” Yamamoto said. “There is a reason that Zenshoan drew many people. The temple must have been an oasis, playing a role of filling the gaps of politics.”