When he first came to public notice thanks to a viral BuzzFeed article earlier this year, Kodo Nishimura became hailed as a “monk who happens to be a makeup artist in his spare time” by various online platforms. His personal Instagram feed reads like a 2017 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: by day, a fresh-faced, robed Buddhist monk with closely buzzed hair, and by night, a glamourous, wig-wearing, party-going makeup artist surrounded by celebrities.
The truth, it turns out, is less sensational – but more inspiring than the clickbait.
I reached out to Nishimura out of natural curiosity at first (after all, it’s the first time anyone’s heard of a monk who can do a mean smoky eye). How is it possible to be a monk and still have a career as a makeup artist on the side? Typically, once ordained a monk, the old identity previously held is shed. One becomes simply a monk, and performs only the duties of a monk, and lives an ascetic life according to the precepts taught by the Buddha.
It turns out that in Japan, being a Buddhist monk is a completely different religious identity than the monks of most monastic orders around the world. Monks there are not required to take vows of celibacy, and are allowed to marry and have families. Being a monk in Japan is akin to having a job or a vocation, similar to an Anglican priest.
“You can be married and a drunk and maybe even think Buddhism is stupid and still be a priest,” writes Gesshin Greenwood, a 31-year-old American-born Soto Zen nun, on her blog That’s So Zen, referring to Japanese monks as priests. “That doesn’t mean you’re a particularly good or useful priest, but you’re still a priest. Because being a priest can mean showing up on time in your robes with your shaved head and doing the ceremony or job you’re supposed to be doing. And then going home.”
Nishimura grew up in a temple, and is the son of a Buddhist monk himself. However, he recalls an unconventional childhood even by lay Japanese standards, where he was allowed to play ‘girly’ games like pretend-cooking for his stuffed toys using origami paper vegetables. “My parents are very wise and free-spirited,” says Nishimura. “When I was young, they would let me dress up like a mermaid or a princess, with a scarf wrapped around my head.” Without pressuring their son to follow in their footsteps in Buddhism, Nishimura’s parents instead encouraged him to forge his own path and follow his passion.
Describing himself as loving everything artistic and creative, from drawing to singing and dancing, Nishimura studied ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, for eight years starting from when he was just eight years old. Inspired by the encouragement of his ikebana master to pursue a career in the arts, Nishimura moved to New York when he was 18, right after graduating from high school.
“I wanted to study in the US because I felt that my uniqueness can be even more appreciated there,” Nishimura explains. He cited “The Princess Diaries”, the 2001 Anne Hathaway teen flick, as one of the key factors behind his decision. “After watching the movie, I felt that differing opinions are more valued in the US, whereas in Japan, people tend to have monotonic views.”
Life in the Big Apple was, in his words, “challenging in a great way”. Studying fine arts at Parsons School of Design, Nishimura came into his own. “I was able to learn about myself, get a sense of art and beauty, and the universality of humankind. I learned that to be best friends with someone, factors such as race, culture, religion and gender do not matter at all. One of my closest friends for over a decade is from Spain, and we share the same values — plus I can now speak Spanish thanks to him. If I get along (with someone), then I get along!”
It also led to his own self-discovery. Having struggled with his gender and sexual identity for a long time, it was while he was living in the United States that he realised that none of the usual labels accurately described him. Today, he identifies himself as “Kodo, a gifted gender endowed with capability and possibility”.
His foray into makeup was accidental, but not unexpected. Apart from playing with his mother’s eyeshadow palette, it wasn’t until living in New York that he bought his first cosmetics: drugstore mascara and eyeliner. “In the US, buying makeup was so comfortable because at the shops, some of the sellers were fierce queens,” says Nishimura. “I used to feel intimidated [when I] shop for makeup in Japan, so it was so welcoming and liberating for me to shop there [in the States].”
For Kodo Nishimura, religion and passion live side by side in total harmony within himself.
A chance drop-out at a fashion shoot led to the fine arts student’s first makeup job. Taking an elective course for fashion photography, he was assisting a senior student photographer when her makeup artist “ditched” her. In a lucky twist of fate, Nishimura had his makeup kit with him and stepped up to the task, lead- ing to more and more calls for his services thereafter. At 22, he started working as a makeup artist, and since then, has had his works featured in “Nylon” and “Life & Style” magazines, as well as the various televised beauty pageants, most recently the Miss Universe contest in Manila.
It wasn’t until returning to Japan after graduation that he decided to enter monk training. Having lived in the States for seven years, he wanted to rediscover his roots and deepen his understanding of Japanese Buddhism. “I was inspired by my upbringing and I wanted to find out how it is to be a monk and see if it was suitable for me,” he says. “I also wanted to find the answers to the ‘ultimate’ questions. Why do we have to behave well? Why do we live?”
A world away from the glitzy world of beauty contests, makeup and photo shoots, Nishimura spent the next two years immersed in training, which included five, three-week temple stays in remote, isolated locations without any technology, following a strict vegetarian diet and stringent lessons in Buddhist doctrines, ceremonies and history. He described his experience as “tough”.
Fully ordained in 2015, Nishimura now splits his time equally between his secular and clerical duties. A typical day might involve a makeup job for a client in the morning, then changing into monk robes to participate in a funeral later in the afternoon. Yet, even if he has to constantly and mindfully switch between the different mindsets of his vocations, he adopts the same approach with both vocations: encouraging others to feel happiness in harmony.
He credits the unending support of his family, peers and fellow monks for his success in both fields. “At first, I was not sure if these professions can contradict, but I have the support from the Buddhist scholars and monks,” he admits. “Now I can do what I am doing proudly, thanks to these experienced mentors. I don’t face any judgment at all.”
“Being a makeup artist might conflict with some teachings, but as the lives of monks have evolved to coexist with the changing times, so have the rules,” Nishimura says. “The most important thing for me is to be happy and share my happiness. As long as I am doing what feels right to me, with the knowledge of my mentors and myself, I think I meet the original core teachings of Buddhism: to live happily in harmony with others.”
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