Among the numerous Buddhist reformers and teachers of the last 150 years, Kiyozawa Manshi (1863–1903) stands out for his commitment and creativity in meeting head-on the great challenges of the modern world. A controversial Jodo Shinshu Buddhist and Higashi Honganji priest, Kiyozawa’s life provides a testament to the delicate balance between worldly engagement and spiritual introspection. Shaped by the cultural and political upheaval of Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), his transformative journey—from the disintegration of his family’s samurai class to his rise up Japan’s most esteemed educational institutions, from a life of secular comforts to one of complete ascetic rejection—paints a poignant picture of a Buddhist practitioner in a relentless search for meaning. His struggle to reconcile science, philosophy, and Buddhism continues to encourage those seeking purpose and liberation.

In this conversation with Reverend Ken Yamada, a Higashi Honganji minister and editor at Shinshu Center of America, we explore the life and teachings of this figure relatively unknown outside of Japan. Our team at Tricycle learned about Kiyozawa’s importance in contemporary Japanese Pure Land thought through Rev. Yamada’s newsletter series. With a keen understanding of Kiyozawa and a relatable, down-to-earth sensibility, Rev. Yamada takes us on a journey of self-exploration, impermanence, suffering, and faith, bringing Kiyozawa’s raw, imperfect humaneness to life.

Beyond the cultural, political, and historical forces acting on his world, Kiyozawa’s trials could have broken anyone: impoverishment, the loss of loved ones, social condemnation, and a long battle with a now-treatable infectious disease. Amidst this adversity, Kiyozawa had a vision—seishinshugi, or “spirituality first”—a radical departure from his contemporaneous Pure Land Buddhist tradition that focused on ritual and the salvific cosmic powers of Amida Buddha, instead placing life experience at the center of a path through samsara. This shift toward self-reflection and personal cultivation was a hallmark of the Buddhist Modernism sweeping across Asia and a defining character of the Buddhism Westerners inherited.

Exploring Kiyozawa’s life and teachings left me spent, questioning what lies at the heart of my emotions and motivations. I encountered a man who challenged, provoked, and inspired: a rebel, a philosopher, a relentless reformer, and, in the end, a man of deep faith. Schooled in Western philosophy, early Buddhist discourses, and the mind-bending profundities of the Mahayana sutras, Kiyozawa offers a mirror, reflecting our profound ignorance and possibilities for salvation. Calling us to confront and transform ourselves, Rev. Yamada reminds us that the path is not about understanding doctrine, following traditions, or even profound awakening—“it’s about living your life.”

What is seishinshugi, and why was it essential to Kiyozawa? It’s been translated as “spirituality,” “cultivating spirituality,” “religious conviction,” or even “spiritual activism,” but it means prioritizing spirituality over secular or worldly concerns and bringing it to the forefront of your life. People will say they are spiritual, Buddhist, Christian, or whatever, but it’s one of many concerns in their lives. It’s not number one.

Worldly concerns and benefits are secondary—they don’t lead to true happiness—and for Kiyozawa, spirituality is everything. Once you experience spiritual awakening, everything else falls into place, and you can engage the world calmly and clearly. The path to this awakening lies in deep and serious questioning and examining of one’s life, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions.

Through Western empirical thinking, Kiyozawa looked closely at his transient and unreliable subjective feelings and emotions and found that we cannot separate them from our thoughts and experiences. They are intrinsic to our human nature and life. So spiritual practice must be subjective, individual, and personal. The goal is liberation from the self, not from external circumstances. Seishinshugi is the pragmatic intersection where our relative existence meets the absolute, and we discover our ignorance, inability, and mediocrity in the face of the infinite, realizing all we have left is faith. And from this faith emerges genuine, egoless compassion and a desire to help others.

Kiyozawa was super practical. He examined what was going on in his own mind and life, and he came to a conclusion through direct observation. He received guidance from the Buddhist teachings, but ultimately, he came to this understanding through personal experience, which was the same path taken by Shakyamuni Buddha.

We often take for granted that personal cultivation would be at the forefront of practice, but Kiyozawa’s emphasis on it implies a departure from something. What was he moving away from? He was born in 1863, just before Japan transformed from a feudal state into a modern society. And he grew up during the modernizing efforts of the Meiji era. Social mores and people’s thinking were changing. And the government started changing as these new influences shaped society. This new way of thinking about personal spirituality differed from how Buddhism evolved in Japan.

Buddhism had been in Japan for over 1,000 years and had become institutionalized based on tradition and unquestioned dogmatic belief. The previous Tokugawa period (1603–1867) had an authoritarian government that wanted an orderly society. They used Buddhist temples as administrative offices and tasked them with citizen registration and keeping track of births and deaths, which was used for taxation and control.

Because of this, the temples developed traditions around significant life events like funerals, which provided income. This created institutional stability for temples, but they discouraged and even suppressed innovation in ritual, thinking, and philosophy. Buddhism became a tradition-bound, stale, and lifeless religion that people followed out of obligation.

The more Kiyozawa studied, the more he realized that people were not practicing true Buddhism. They practiced an outward form of Buddhism, not the actual spiritual part. The world was changing, and Kiyozawa wanted to reform the Buddhist tradition and denomination he was part of. He tried to separate life’s secular, political, and mundane parts from the spiritual and bring spirituality to the fore.

Was he trying to separate church and state? More than that, he realized that spirituality does not even translate into worldly action. In other words, it doesn’t translate into politics. And it doesn’t translate into materialism and capitalism, which Japanese society was moving toward as a modern state. If you look at the implications, it’s profound.

In many Buddhist countries, priests and temples prayed for the good of the nation or the health of its leaders. Buddhism had always been tied to wealth and power. You had religious authority figures in government positions who considered themselves more qualified to make decisions on implementing laws because of their religious training.

But for Kiyozawa, everyone is operating in a state of ignorance because of our selfishness, passions, greed, anger—our human nature! All our actions are tainted by ego. So, first and foremost, we need to undergo a spiritual transformation and understand our true nature, which will then transform how we engage with the world. That’s why seishinshugi became the banner he wanted people to follow to get to the heart of our motivations and what it means to be a human.

Kiyozawa saw the root of the problem and rejected the rigid ritualism and dogmatic thinking that had taken control of his Buddhist faith through its mixing with the secular world. The spiritual and secular are two different worlds. And for Kiyozawa, you can’t mix the two. You have to clearly know that there are two separate worlds. But people mix them up all the time.

Saying that everyone is entirely ignorant seems like a direct challenge to authority. It still causes problems today. It’s very controversial. Even personally, I have a hard time dealing with it. There is serious debate when I discuss Kiyozawa’s teachings with others. People get worked up about it. People who sincerely follow Kiyozawa feel that our struggle to understand ourselves is most important. So they aren’t out protesting war, advocating for people experiencing homelessness or hunger, or rallying against oppression. All that sounds good, right? Let’s go out and help people! But, if you think like Kiyozawa, those actions are motivated by our ego and selfishness. We must be careful about that. But others will say we can’t wait until we’re enlightened, which may never happen. People need help, and we must act now! So there’s a lot of controversy in the way Kiyozawa thinks.

Is this a departure from how people understood Pure Land teachings? Definitely. The literal interpretation of traditional terms and stories was part of Buddhism’s stagnation. To understand the meaning behind Mahayana Buddhist mythology, supernatural stories, and fantastical beings, the meaning must be dissected and analyzed in terms of symbolism. But the Tokugawa period discouraged exploring new interpretations of Buddhist teachings. Much of the doctrine and sutras were taken literally.

Kiyozawa questioned traditional interpretations and analyzed teachings through Western thought and reasoning, using modern words and concepts. He went beyond traditional Jodo Shinshu ideas of the Pure Land and Amida Buddha and tried to figure out the meaning behind the symbolism. This was the beginning of cracking the code of Mahayana Buddhist teachings.

It’s like the story in the Nirvana Sutra when Ananda cries because the Buddha is about to pass away. The Buddha asks why he is crying, and Ananda says, “Because our teacher, our guide, is leaving us. And once the teacher leaves us, what will we do? We will be lost.” Then Shakyamuni gives a sermon and says to look at the teachings, not the teacher; look at the meaning behind the words, not the words themselves. It’s like a person who points to the moon to show you the moon, but all you do is look at the finger.

Kiyozawa wanted to completely overturn how people view doctrine, ritual, and the organization. This could have collapsed the whole denomination, so there was strong resistance against him. Even today, some Jodo Shinshu Buddhists and other Pure Land followers think Kiyozawa was off base. They view the Pure Land as a place where you go when you die. People donate to the temples and pay for nice funerals to go there with their loved ones. They take everything literally. Kiyozawa felt spiritual awakening and understanding come in this life, not in a metaphysical pure land.

The contemporary emphasis on the “present moment” often gives the impression of needing to “let go” of the past. This isn’t the case with Kiyozawa, who exists in the present with his past. His life experiences seem to have profoundly impacted his awakening and teachings. One of the significant changes during Japan’s transition to a modern society was the removal of the class system and the samurai. Kiyozawa’s father was a low-ranking samurai who held an administrative position. That all changed, and he lost his social rank and status. This was a hard time for many, and his family became very poor. His father ended up selling tea that he carried on his back door-to-door. His mother was a devout Jodo Shinshu follower, so Kiyozawa was exposed to Pure Land Buddhism early on.

As a young student, he already showed flashes of brilliance and intelligence. When he was a teenager, someone told him that the Higashi Honganji organization of Shin Buddhism offered scholarships for education. So, at 15, he was ordained and later received a scholarship. His motivation to become ordained was to get an education, not because he was religious.

He eventually attended Tokyo University, the top university in Japan, and studied under the first professor of Western philosophy in Japan, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853–1908). After graduating, he was obligated to Higashi Honganji, and they assigned him to an administrative position in a high school run by the order. For a short time, he enjoyed a worldly life. He lived in a big house, wore Western clothing, grew a little mustache, smoked Western cigarettes, and even rode to work in a rickshaw.

Sounds like he was living a good life. He was! But everything changed. While teaching and learning more about Buddhism, he realized he was going about it all wrong. That’s when he entered the “minimum possible” period of his life.

He became serious about Buddhism, switching to wearing simple robes, wooden clogs (geta), and shaving his head. A year later, his mother passed away, and he became even more serious, staying away from his family and eating the barest of diets, something like pine needles and resin. His health declined after five years of ascetic practice, and he contracted tuberculosis, which eventually killed him.

He felt his Buddhist denomination had lost its way, and he continued to call for reforms in Higashi Honganji, wanting the order to focus on spirituality and less on secular concerns such as raising money, worldly success, and empty rituals. Ultimately, though, his reform efforts failed. At one point, he was branded a heretic and excommunicated, although later, he was reinstated and given another post. In 1901, he even helped found Shinshu University (now Otani University) in Tokyo but had to resign when students opposed his emphasis on spirituality.

His health continued to decline, which fueled his religious search—his life had a new sense of urgency. As his health worsened, he returned to his wife’s temple to serve as a minister. But members complained that his dharma talks were hard to understand and requested someone else conduct their memorial services. He looked unkempt and diseased, talked about complex issues they couldn’t understand, and rejected their traditional ideas about the Pure Land. Again, he was a failure. He couldn’t reform his order, and he couldn’t even minister to the people.

The year before his short life ended, at age 39, his wife died from tuberculosis, and two sons died. During this period, he wrote, “This year, all things have broken to pieces. The school has broken to pieces. My wife and son have broken to pieces. If I were to break to pieces, it would put the finishing touches on everything.” His awakening comes from directly observing his life, thoughts, and emotions.

Just before he died, he wrote his now-famous essay “Waga Shinnen” (My religious conviction), expressing a profound spiritual resolution to his life journey.

In his writings, Kiyozawa reflects deeply on the Buddhist understanding of ignorance and the importance of faith in practice. How are these connected? Kiyozawa differentiated between religion, morality, and ethics. All are important, but morals and ethics have serious shortcomings. They are created and enforced by inherently flawed humans who act through a lens of ignorance, judging others who are also intrinsically flawed and ignorant and thus incapable of perfectly following moralistic rules.

In the Agamas, the older discourses of the Buddha that had a significant impact on Kiyozawa, you cultivate virtue, avoid evil, and suppress desires. You deepen your understanding of life, gain wisdom and knowledge, and then climb that hill to reach enlightenment, your destination on the religious path.

But Kiyozawa was saying self-efforts are useless. I can’t climb that hill. If you’re asking me to be good, I don’t even know what good is. In fact, I’m evil because of my dark thoughts, selfishness, and passions. I realized that I’m an ignorant person and that I don’t know anything. I can’t rely on my thinking, efforts, or practice to make me a good person.

He realized that awakening leads to recognizing that life relies on “other power.” Kiyozawa defines other power as a power beyond the self—the universe’s dynamic nature or oneness. He called that Tathagata, a term often used by the Buddha when referring to himself and the infinite knowledge of past Buddhas. Kiyozawa had lost everything and failed in his life. With this, he is saying all his self-efforts are useless, and all that can be relied on is his faith in Tathagata.

I can see how Kiyozawa would be easily misunderstood. His realization of the complete ignorance shaping the human experience is profoundly humbling and frighteningly honest. Is living an ethical or moral life attainable? In Kiyozawa’s view, this is impossible. Kiyozawa strongly differentiated the religious or spiritual world from the secular, ethical, and moralistic world. All human experience must pass through human nature, which is inherently egocentric, self-centered, greedy, and flawed. Most people would fail if salvation were based on leading a morally upright and ethical life. As such, he felt it impossible to lead a morally perfect life. Religions establish rules for behavior and morality; if followed, one can ascend to heaven. Kiyozawa rejected this.

Kiyozawa was like a left-wing radical who wanted to overturn the current system and create a new one but whose calls for change were brushed aside.

Through sincere spiritual practice, you see your imperfections, shortcomings, and ignorance. The problem is that religious and secular life are seen as working together; religious beliefs and practices are believed to lead to material and worldly success, moral uprightness, and an ethical life. But who decides those ethical and moral standards?

Fusing the religious and the secular weakens both. Spirituality exists separate from the world created by man. People-mandated standards can’t judge it. Kiyozawa did not renounce the world or reject morality but promoted living and participating in the world with a calm mind and a clear understanding of one’s limitations. You get there through a spiritual awakening, so Kiyozawa prioritizes that over everything else.

This reflects his Mahayanist view of two truths—worldly truth and absolute truth. For Kiyozawa, worldly truth was secular and manipulated by authority. There is always a danger of over-rationalizing the irrational. Shinran (1173–1263), the founder of Jodo Shinshu, whose teachings greatly affected Kiyozawa, said both good and evil people attain birth in the Pure Land. Moreover, evil people have a greater potential because they recognize their failings. This turns morality on its head. During Kiyozawa’s life, the Meiji government promoted authoritarianism, nationalism, and materialism through capitalism, and religious institutions were bending over backward to comply. You can see the implications for our world today. Leading an ethical life was unattainable.

Kiyozawa was like a left-wing radical who wanted to overturn the current system and create a new one but whose calls for change were brushed aside.

From his students’ stories, Kiyozawa sounded rough on people. But I sense admiration from you. Akegarasu Haya (1877–1954), one of his closest students, talked about how Kiyozawa would crush him and not allow him to hold on to any thought, concept, or understanding. Every time he had an idea, Kiyozawa would call him an idiot, saying he didn’t get it at all. Constantly! But the point was not to let students feel like they developed some understanding or philosophy. Because seishinshugi is not about having a philosophy—it’s about living your life. There shouldn’t be any conceptual barriers between living your life and understanding your actions.

His reform movement failed, but Higashi Honganji generally follows his approach to Buddhism. As a Higashi Honganji minister, I am thankful for Kiyozawa, because many Jodo Shinshu Buddhists still take a literal approach to the Pure Land. Kiyozawa provides us with a very experiential approach in which we should place our life experience at the forefront. That’s what he’s saying with seishinshugi. Spirituality is not about putting doctrine or tradition at the forefront. This is what the spiritual path is genuinely about and the path followed by Shakyamuni Buddha.

What do you hope people learn from the life and teachings of Kiyozawa? Kiyozawa’s story tells us how even a person of brilliant intellect and tremendous willpower can be blinded by belief in their own power. His efforts to find fulfillment in a career failed. His efforts to find spiritual salvation through extreme discipline failed. Only when his belief in himself was crushed by illness, job loss, and the deaths of loved ones did he discover life’s true meaning.

The great truth is that life—one’s existence and happiness—isn’t the result of self-centered efforts to fulfill one’s desires.

The great truth is that life—one’s existence and happiness—isn’t the result of self-centered efforts to fulfill one’s desires.This is revealed when life strips a person of their self-power. And this was the lesson learned by Kiyozawa. Our life is given by a power beyond self, an inconceivable coming together of causes and conditions. This is the meaning of Tathagata.

Kiyozawa’s experience allows us to see that we can be freed from constantly judging life as good or bad—we can accept life without worry, fear, or anxiety. This is the meaning of spiritual liberation and freedom. This is the world of Amida Buddha.

Spiritual Awareness 

By Kiyozawa Manshi

It is important to establish our lives upon perfectly firm ground. Without a firm basis, all our efforts will be in vain. It is like doing acrobatics atop a cloud—an impossible feat. The performers are sure to fall.

How can one attain that perfectly firm ground? In my opinion, we arrive at it only through an encounter with the Infinite or the Absolute. It is unnecessary to speculate whether the Infinite is within or without. Because the Infinite is where the seeker finds it, we cannot define the Infinite as internal or external. We cannot stand on firm ground except by encountering the Infinite. This is what we call spiritual awareness: the process of inner development through which we gain that perfectly firm ground.

Spiritual awareness refers to finding contentment wholly within the realm of the spirit. A person with spiritual awareness does not become a victim of distress or frustration caused by his pursuit of things or people. Although he may pursue external objectives, he does not do so out of a sense of lack. How could a spiritually awakened person feel discontent? He finds contentment in the Infinite, not in the finite, limited realm of things and people.

It would be a mistake, however, to say that having spiritual awareness renders us indifferent to the world around us. On the contrary, as we deepen our spiritual awareness, not only can we deal with people without frustration and distress, but also we can transform such activities into a meaningful part of our lives. The following passage aptly describes how we deal with external phenomena on the basis of spiritual awareness.

As one’s mind grows purer,
The Buddha land grows purer.
(Vimalakirti Sutra)

Because we emphasize seeking contentment solely within the realm of spiritual awareness, critics may suspect that we are indifferent to others. Yet, spiritual awareness implies neither an overriding self-concern nor an indifference toward others. It simply recognizes that we cannot help others establish a firm religious footing unless we first establish it for ourselves. Realizing that it can be shared with others only after it has been established for ourselves, we must first seek to establish it for ourselves. That is the order in which we develop spiritual awareness.

Thus, spiritual awareness never rejects but rather welcomes our involvement with people, which can increase both their happiness and ours. Therefore, spiritual awareness is never the creed of hermits or passivists. Rather, it encourages and promotes the welfare of the people and the nation through peaceful cooperation.

Spiritual awareness refers to a way of life that includes absolute freedom. Any obstructions we face are self-inflicted and cannot be attributed to the acts of people around us. We have absolute freedom, as do others, without conflict between their freedom and ours. That is the ideal human relationship for spiritual awareness.

Why, then, in the course of everyday life, are conflicts between our freedom and the freedom of others inevitable? Conflicts exist simply because ours is not absolute freedom, compatible even with absolute submission. The absolute freedom of spiritual awareness lets us freely modify our attitude in any given situation to harmonize with the freedom of others. In so doing, our freedom never conflicts with that of others.

In connection with submissiveness, however, there is one extremely important matter to consider: the existence of frustration and distress in our lives. Spiritual awareness maintains one unvarying principle: All sufferings must be regarded as illusions arising from false ideas. In spiritual awareness, others are no more the cause of my suffering than I am the cause of theirs. Although there may be times when I seem to suffer at the hands of others, I see through spiritual awareness that all my suffering is due to the false view I hold. As we deepen our spiritual awareness, our suffering, which is a mere illusion caused by false views, will diminish and vanish altogether. We will stand on firm ground.

In conclusion, spiritual awareness should be implemented in every phase of our lives. Its most fundamental principle is the firm belief that contentment lies wholly within the bounds of inner life. In its manifested form, spiritual awareness eliminates suffering caused by the pursuit of things and people. It increases the happiness of one and all through peaceful cooperation. Perfect freedom and perfect submission are not antagonistic. They are harmonious and without conflict. By enjoying such freedom, we can eliminate all the suffering that arises between others and ourselves.

kiyozawa spirituality first 2
Photo Courtesy Michael Conway | Kiyozawa Manshi

From December Fan: The Buddhist Essays of Manshi Kiyozawa, translated by Nobuo Haneda.