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Issue No. 1 of COURAGE & STRATEGY
An interview with Victory Kaishin Matsui, Director of Ancestral Heart Zen Temple
Welcome to COURAGE & STRATEGY, a new section of my newsletter that aims to bring renewal and a vibrant, sustainable future to Asian American Buddhism.
As a subscriber on Substack, you will continue to receive CMOON—where I reflect on how Zen can help us cultivate the sensitivity and spiritual strength to stay calm amidst chaos. Paid subscribers also receive my advice column, DEAR ZEN, and access to group chats and online events. And Founding Members receive all of this plus a piece of my ceramics in the mail :-)
And now, everyone will also receive COURAGE & STRATEGY fortnightly!
This inaugural installment is an interview with Victory Kaishin Matsui, the Director of Sōshinji—Ancestral Heart Zen Temple, a residential Soto Zen temple in upstate New York founded by the Brooklyn Zen Center. She first reached out to me last year with a cold email, subject line, "Hello from a Zen cousin!"—read to the end of the interview for more of that story!
After getting to know one another and lean on one another, it feels like we're beginning to live up to that email's subject line and feel like family. My heart is brimming after talking to Victory. I hope you also enjoy our conversation.
COURAGE & STRATEGY: Victory Kaishin Matsui
I think I'm cribbing off of the On Being podcast but I am curious and we've never talked about it: What was your childhood experience or early life experience of spirituality?
Well, even though I wouldn't have characterized this as spiritual until recently, I feel that growing up in a large, mixed-race Japanese American family was my formative spiritual experience in that I was loved and I was part of something bigger than myself.
Growing up in a large, mixed-race Japanese American family was my formative spiritual experience in that I was loved and I was part of something bigger than myself.
My dad is third-generation Japanese American, and when I was growing up, we would all gather at my grandparents' house four times a year: eight aunties and uncles, and my seven cousins, filling their two-story house in Virginia. On my mother’s side, which is Scottish-English-Canadian, I also experienced unconditional love.
The way I understand sangha (spiritual community) now is the way I understand my family, which is that you are completely accepted the way that you are. It doesn't matter whether we like each other, we are devoted to each other. We show up and we return over and over again.
It sounds like it was also a setting in which you were pretty validated as a young person. What you described about being loved and accepted, and just always coming back.
Yes, yes. Let me frame this a little bit. My grandparents grew up in California, but then were taken to the concentration camps in Arkansas when they were young, which is where their families met. And then they later got married.
My grandfather and my grandmother later devoted themselves to their family’s freedom. For them, that meant material security.
Our family get-togethers, even now, can feel like training camps. Last time, we had a workshop on financial management and well-being. My aunts and uncles all gathered in a circle and told us their financial mistakes and successes, what they would have done differently. And they had us ask questions. It was like a seminar.
At the same time, there isn’t an expectation that we become rich or conventionally successful. It's not like we're all doctors and lawyers, you know. I'm a Zen priest! But the message is clear: you are responsible for your life, and you are responsible for your freedom. And here are all the tools you need.
Have they said anything about your decision to live at a temple and be a priest?
My parents just visited the other day, and it was so sweet. It's hard to explain why I have chosen this path, and what it means to live this way, but when they are here, I can see that they feel it. And I think they can also feel my happiness and my sense of purpose.
Was that happiness and sense of purpose the sort of thing where it was always there when you discovered Zen?
I loved it immediately. I loved Zen immediately.
How did you find it? How did you come to Zen?
I came to Zen the year that Black Lives Matter started. That movement, and that kind of collective awakening that the country was going through was very impactful for me. I was working in publishing and I had the realization: I don't know what I'm doing with my life. If my life is not addressing the pain and violence of this country, then I don't know why I would be doing this, honestly. It just felt like the most important thing was not being addressed in my day to day life.
I was working in publishing and I had the realization: I don't know what I'm doing with my life. If my life is not addressing the pain and violence of this country, then I don't know why I would be doing this.
At that time, I somehow saw that the Brooklyn Zen Center was holding a sesshin (intensive Zen training) that was being led by Reverend Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. It was called "Awakening Through Race, Gender, and Sexuality". And I was like, that's exactly what I want to know about!
I thought it was going to be a workshop—that there would be talks and discussions and, you know, group work. I had never done zazen (seated meditation) or gone to a silent retreat.
So I showed up and I saw the schedule was just zazen and kinhin (walking meditation) all day, with one Dharma talk in the middle. I was so curious. Why would we sit so much? Like, what's the point of that? How does awakening through race, gender, and sexuality show up through just sitting silently and looking at a wall?
So I sat. And then Zenju Osho gave a Dharma talk. I had never seen a Zen teacher before. I had never seen someone with the kind of presence and fluidity and honesty and integrity that Zenju Osho had, just sitting completely in her seat. I learned something beyond words.
I kept going back to the Brooklyn Zen Center after that because I still just didn't understand. I had never experienced something like this before. And it somehow seemed to answer my question: "Is there a way to do the most important thing in everyday life? And then what is it?"
Zen somehow seemed to answer my question: "Is there a way to do the most important thing in everyday life? And then what is it?"
How did you arrive at defining what that most important thing is and and then how has that been met by what you're doing now?
To me, the most important thing is being in upright relationship to every being, in each moment.
After that first sesshin, I emailed Zenju Osho to ask if she would be my teacher. She said I should find a teacher at the Brooklyn Zen Center, since she was just visiting. That advice changed my life, because I found my teacher, Kosen Gregory Snyder, who has loved and encouraged me and made my path possible.
A few years later, BZC received a grant to found Ancestral Heart, and so I moved up here right away, in August of 2019, with the head teachers—Kosen, and Laura O’Loughlin—and two other students. My intention was to train in not harming. I've been here for almost four years now and I'm still learning. How is it that there is actually an opportunity for freedom, love, and intimacy in every single moment? Like, whether you're sweeping or doing dishes, or giving a talk, or crying with someone, or sitting? Eating?
That's what Zen answered for me. That these things that we care so much about, like justice, freedom, and happiness, are not separate from our daily life. They are not concepts that live in some other realm, something we can only talk about. That integration of ideals and everyday living is what Zen has given me.
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So what were some of the big realizations or surprises, the things that you didn't anticipate or know you were getting into, coming to live at Ancestral Heart?
I did not know that I was signing up for a rigorous process of examining all of my conditioning! All of the things: all of my ideas about myself, my attachment to being a good person, not being a bad person.
A lot of my practice has been relational, just seeing my inclination to want people to like me, to want to appease people, to want to collude with someone's karma. I would compulsively smile all the time. It was a smile that said, "Don't worry, I'm not threatening," and "I am your friend and I like you like no matter what you do, and I agree with you, no matter what you say."
I actually thought that smile was kindness and compassion. I didn’t realize it was a survival strategy, based in fear and an attempt to protect myself and control life. I actually thought that kind of emotional manipulation was compassion.
I've learned that compassion is so much stiller. And dropping that smile is what actually allows me to be a compassionate and kind person that's not faking it all the time. But that's a really painful process. There have been so many times I don't want to. Like, "I don't want to put this down. This is my survival strategy. I can't live without this." That process has been very painful and liberating and scary.
There have been so many times I don't want to. Like, "I don't want to put this down. This is my survival strategy. I can't live without this." That process has been very painful and liberating and scary.
I know you describe it in very personal terms, but that seems universal when you're on a deep spiritual path and particularly in a monastic environment. Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton talked about it in his last talk before he died. He actually quoted the Dalai Lama saying, "From this point forward, we all stand on our own two feet." And he said that's the perfect definition of monasticism. You're always on your own two feet.
In my Zen lineage, we would describe it as immovability, Fudoshin, the Immovable Mind. And the immovable mind is immovable because it can move in any direction.
With empathy and compassion, it does mean to be there with people in whatever it is they're experiencing. But if you don't have the stability and the strength to still be on your own two feet in that situation, then you take on the drama and the emotion and then you can't provide support anymore because you need support.
Exactly. You're actually asking the other person to take care of you, and you've made it about yourself.
Your comment on what was spiritual in your upbringing being your family says something about how Buddhism was embedded in many Asian cultures. Growing up for me, there were many things my grandparents did that I thought were just Korean but it turns out they're Buddhist.
I'm at the very, very beginning of understanding that for my family. My grandmother was Buddhist and her funeral was a Buddhist funeral but other than that, I didn't hear any Buddhist teachings or understand in any way that they were Buddhist.
The Brooklyn Zen Center is part of the San Francisco Zen Center lineage, which has historically been a white dominant, convert Buddhist lineage. So, part of my coming into Zen is longing to heal this break between heritage and convert communities, and restore some ancestral practices and rituals that I feel very distant from for many historical and personal reasons. It feels like this immense mystery that I'm just starting to take steps on.
Was your grandmother affiliated with any particular sect of Zen?
Pure Land (Jodo Shin Buddhism).
Some Jodo Shin Buddhists I've met have a hard time articulating what about their life is Buddhist. Sometimes they describe it as, "I can't define it but it's a feeling." You're approaching life and other people in a particular way. Similar to what you said about being in an upright relationship to other beings. But it can be really hard to articulate and just put your finger on.
That makes a lot of sense. I feel a resonance with how my grandmother was in hearing you describe that. Maybe not articulating it is part of it. Maybe understanding it isn't about speaking about it, but about embodying it and living it and not putting a frame or concept on it.
Someone left a great comment on a recent newsletter of mine from St. Francis: "Preach always, and when necessary, use words."
I love that! That's so true.
Ok, last question. What do you wish for Asian American Buddhists and maybe American Buddhism at large?
The May We Gather ceremony [a national Buddhist memorial for Asian American ancestors, held on the 49th day after the Atlanta-area shootings] was such a master class in what American Buddhism can be and what Asian American Buddhism can offer, which is fearless, looking directly at the history of violence in this country and actually coming together to heal that.
I thought the gathering was very skillful in tying together anti-Asian violence with anti-Black violence and anti-Indigenous violence. So to see all of us as deeply interconnected and deeply in relationship to each other and that the healing can come from that.
And for Asian American Buddhists, I would just want for us to know that we exist. I would love for other people to know that we exist, but I would love for us to know we exist.
The reason you and I are even friends is that seeing that ceremony, and seeing you stand up there, was the first time I even saw an Asian American woman priest. And that gave me permission to become a priest myself. That really matters, to see each other in the world and to know that we exist. And that the invisibility and not knowing is not our fault. There are a lot of historical reasons that we might be invisible to one another, so stepping forward and knowing each other is so deeply important.
For Asian American Buddhists, I would just want for us to know that we exist. I would love for other people to know that we exist, but I would love for us to know we exist...There are a lot of historical reasons that we might be invisible to one another, so stepping forward and knowing each other is so deeply important.
Our friendship is a huge part of that, for me. Looking back on that first email I sent you, I want to share this line, which speaks to that: “I was deeply moved by what I witnessed, which felt like an answer to my question of what a Zen priest can offer. It's funny, until that day, I had always felt a deep fear that my life would end with my murder. But after the ceremony, that fear was gone. I had received that gift you described a Zen priest as offering: fearlessness.”
Sōshinji, Ancestral Heart Zen Temple, offers Soto Zen monastic training with a focus on examining social conditioning and cultivating just relationship with our ancestors, the earth, and all beings. For more information about practicing at Sōshinji, Ancestral Heart Zen Temple, you can reach out to Victory at email@example.com.