Not many Americans know about him, but Nishida Tenko was an outstanding man who deserves to be known and appreciated more widely. He died 45 years ago this week (on 2/29/68) at the age of 96. Even though I never had the privilege of meeting him personally, I have very fond memories of the days I spent at Itto-en, the Christian/Zen commune he started on the eastern edge of Kyoto City, Japan.
As a young man (in 1904) Tenko-san had a deep religious experience, partly from reading Leo Tolstoy’s “Confession” (sometimes published under the title My Religion). Through Tolstoy, he was greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Partially because of that influence, later in the year of his “conversion” Tenko-san started Itto-en (“Garden of One Light”), which was finally able to acquire its first building in 1913.
Perhaps Tenko-san lived by literal teachings of the Sermon on the Mount more than anyone after Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. And for more than a century now, the community life and activities of Itto-en have demonstrated a fascinating blend of Jesus’ teachings and Zen Buddhist spirituality.
The best source for learning about Tenko-san and Itto-en in English is the book A New Road to Ancient Truth, first published in 1969. Mostly a collection of sayings by Tenko-san, the book’s entire “Author's Foreword” are words expressing one of his most profound insights: “In having nothing lies inexhaustible wealth.”
(There is also a website with information about Itto-en at this link.)
In the 1970s, just a few years after Tenko-san’s passing, I traveled to Itto-en with a few of my students for a week’s training session. It was a very memorable experience, one that I still treasure. There were lectures explaining Tenko-san’s teachings, and then we participants engaged in some of the same activities that those who lived at Itto-en did regularly.
Cleaning toilets (bathrooms) has been considered (especially in the past) a very disagreeable activity in Japan. As a means of fostering a spirit of humble service, Itto-en members (and participants in training sessions there) have systematically gone throughout the Kyoto area, knocking on doors and asking for the “privilege” of entering their house in order to clean their toilet. That was, truly, an interesting experience. (Imagine the surprise of a Kyoto housewife opening her door to find a foreigner with a reddish beard, me, offering to clean her toilet!)
The next day we were taken to a nearby area where, with absolutely no money, we were told to offer our time in service, helping other people. If we were offered something to eat or drink, we could accept it. But we were not supposed to beg. I was fortunate to find a woman working in her rather large vegetable garden. She allowed me to use her hoe while she rested and gave me instructions on what to do. Then she graciously offered to fix me lunch, which I was more than happy to accept. (As we were eating her delicious meal, she told how her husband’s family had lived on this same property for more than 400 years!)
Trusting in God to provide for one’s needs, living in community and helping one another, humbly serving others with a heart of compassion: these are principles that Tenko-san learned from the Sermon on the Mount and put into practice at Itto-en. Even though he died 45 years ago, Itto-en remains and still seeks to practice those principles. And there are people who still learn from, and many like me who fondly remember, the teachings and example of Tenko-san.