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American Buddhist priest, sociologist working for regional revitalization in Japan

Soen Shunryu Colin Garvey at Keigaku-ji temple in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, on June 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Honoka Uchida)

NIIGATA -- Over a decade ago, American Colin Garvey came to Japan as a fresh graduate and school teacher. Now, Soen Shunryu Colin Garvey is a Zen Buddhist priest and tech-oriented sociologist in Japan's Niigata Prefecture, and striving to contribute to society from both perspectives.

    Garvey, 36, from the U.S. state of Indiana, had long been interested in Zen -- a school of meditation to empty the mind and give one's attention to only one thing -- when he became a priest in Japan. But he is also a social scientist researching artificial intelligence (AI). He is engrossed in ideas of the mind that can help others emotionally, and also in advanced research into technology, and believes it is his job to contribute to society from both fields

    Garvey's childhood dream was to become a scientist. For much of his life he resisted taking up a religion, as he was uncomfortable with believing in something whose existence was unconfirmed. Visiting Japan when he was 23 changed all that.

    Garvey majored in Japanese at Vassar College in New York State, and after graduating came to Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at elementary and junior high schools in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture. Two years into his ALT stint, he started to think, "Why am I living in Japan away from my family and friends?" Then, he found a "zazen" Zen meditation event held by Doushun Sato, 52, the chief priest at Saimyo-ji Temple, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple in the city.

    Sato's assertion that "meditation is not a religious act but training" resonated with Garvey, and he started practicing zazen to out himself into a transcendent state before going to work. And he found that the meditation made his worries fade away.

    When Garvey was 27, he decided to become Sato's disciple. Another tipping point was how impressed he was with his master when accompanying him on visits to parishioners.

    "My master was thankful to his ancestors for his life and cherished his bonds with others," said Garvey. "I realized that I wanted to contribute to society not only by supporting people emotionally, but from various fields."

    In 2012, he returned to the U.S. and started to build his career as a sociologist. He majored in sociology of science and technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and graduated with a Ph.D. after seven years. He took time out of his graduate research to revisited Japan and train at Daiei-ji temple, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple in the city of Niigata. In autumn 2020, he came back to Japan again and became a Buddhist priest. His Buddhist name takes one Chinese kanji character from his master's name.

    Now, he aims to become the chief priest at Keigaku-ji temple, founded deep in the mountains in the prefectural city of Nagaoka with more than 300 years of history. The temple was recognized as a zazen dojo in March 2021. He hopes to revitalize the region using zazen.

    "I had never imagined living in Niigata Prefecture because I was born in Indiana. This is not destiny, but an inevitability," he said. And he smiled as he looked down toward the mountains from the temple's main building.


    Soen Shunryu Colin Garvey

    Born in the U.S. state of Indiana in 1984. In 2008, he came to Japan and became a pupil of Doushun Sato at Saimyo-ji temple. After becoming a Buddhist priest, he now aims to become the chief priest of Keigaku-ji temple in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture. He is also a sociologist at Stanford University.

    (Japanese original by Honoka Uchida, Niigata Bureau)

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