Stereotype-defying Buddhist monk and makeup artist Kodo Nishimura makes it easy to be left with a sense of endless possibility and hope.
His mission is one of self-love and acceptance. His book This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are is both memoir and introduction to Buddhism, and Kodo hopes it will help others see there’s true beauty in being unique. To give them the tools to be confident in a world that can make it difficult for those who don’t fit certain standards. For his relentless exploration of the self, for breaking with gender stereotypes and inspiring many others along the way, we honor Kodo Nishimura with the 2022 Hall of Fame.
Self-acceptance is something that Kodo himself struggled with on his way to becoming a Buddhist monk and makeup artist. In his own words, he is both ancient and the trendy. He grew up in his family’s temple in Tokyo, where he felt like life as a Buddhist monk couldn’t be attuned with the “fairy godmother spirit” that made it exciting to help friends become Disney princesses. It wasn’t until later, as a student at Parsons School of Design in New York City, that he was able to accept a side of himself he hid throughout school in Japan out of fear of being bullied.
At 24, Kodo decided to embrace the Buddhist roots he’d felt at odds with and returned to Japan to begin monk training. Still, he wondered if he could be a Buddhist monk while remaining true to himself and the self-expression he found in makeup and fashion. Happily, his master gave him the encouragement he needed to see the beauty and strength in his individuality. He still lives and works at his family’s temple in Tokyo, travels the world as a celebrity makeup artist, and is fiercely dedicated to his work as an LGBTQ+ advocate.
Meet Stereotype-Defying Buddhist Monk and Makeup Artist Kodo Nishimura
RED SHOE MOVEMENT – Your book This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are was just released globally, can you tell us about it?
KODO NISHIMURA – This book is for people who feel that they are different from others. It is a challenge to live as your authentic self when society expects you to conform to a certain image. I used to struggle because I am homosexual and was expected to follow a traditional image of a Buddhist monk. However, during the monk training, I learned that being unique is beautiful, and expressing myself is nothing wrong. By sharing my personal experiences and learnings, I want to encourage people to be confident being who they are.
Both Buddhism and makeup help people to feel hopeful, and like they can be more than they used to believe they could be.
RSM – Have you found parallels between what you do as a Buddhist monk and your work as a makeup artist? How have you reconciled the lavishness of one life and the simplicity of the other?
KN– Initially I felt that being a Buddhist monk wouldn’t allow me to wear makeup and heels, until my master told me that there is no problem. Helping people, by telling them that we can all be liberated equally, is the fundamental task of a monk. He said that I could help more people by being myself.
Buddhism is not about eliminating desire. This is something people often misunderstand. Buddhism proposes eliminating desire as a solution to get over addiction and attachment, but I am not suffering by utilizing beauty to help people. If I am making others and myself happy, I am successful as a Buddhist monk, too.
RSM –What has surprised you the most about the platform you’ve created by embracing your authentic self? How has the world reacted to a stereotype-defying style that breaks traditional gender roles?
KN– I am grateful that many people find my message liberating. A girl decided to become a makeup artist despite what her parents said, and a homosexual man told me he finally felt seen and decided to be proud of his sexuality. At the same time, there have been countless criticisms. There are people who’re not familiar with the diverse forms of Buddhism. They only know limited versions of Buddhism. So, I would like to inspire them with the idea that Buddhism is alive, and it is evolving, just like people evolve.
Kodo Nishimura: Lessons About Self-Love and Individuality
RSM – What has your own journey taught you about cherishing individuality and practicing self-love?
KN– It can be difficult to love oneself, especially when you look different from a certain shape and color you consider to be beautiful. I used to believe that I had to be tall and have big eyes to feel beautiful. Therefore, I was not able to love myself at all! However, working with the Miss Universe pageant has taught me that I don’t have to be a particular shape to feel beautiful. Beauty is a matter of personal perspective, so why wouldn’t I choose to find beauty in myself? Why don’t I love myself and praise my uniqueness? When I was able to broaden my standards of beauty, I was able to love my slim eyes and chubby cheeks. That is when magic started happening and I felt that my existence started to shine. Once I believed in my own unique beauty, I was able to make other people feel beautiful themselves, too.
RSM – Do you think the pandemic made people more open to explore new ways of self-care and self-expression? How did it affect you and your mission as a “fairy godmother”?
KN– I feel that the pandemic allowed us to think out of the box. We learned that we must adapt and evolve in order to survive. We don’t have to follow what has been done for years just because it has always been done that way, we can create our own future. It is more than okay to change. Just because people believe certain things, it doesn’t mean we have to always follow them. As a fairy godmother myself, I would encourage people to visualize new and original balls they would like to attend. Put on the heels and start paving the way. The world is more malleable now.
Kodo Nishimura and the Buddhist Message of Equality
RSM – The Japanese version of your book was published much earlier, how is it different from the English version? What important conversations are you hoping to inspire in your own country?
KN– Relatively speaking, Japanese people are not so bound by religious values. However, since it is a homogeneous country, people are expected to act uniformly because we look similar and have a similar background. So, I encourage people to understand that, even if we speak the same language and look alike, it doesn’t mean we should live as others do.
On the other hand, I feel that people who speak English have stronger religious values, and this is often a reason why people feel limited. Especially when religious values hold back LGBTQ+ people. So, in the English book, I talk about Buddhism more. Because Buddhism is supportive of diversity. I elaborate on what Buddhism is and its message of equality. I customize my message depending on what language my readers speak and how they might feel.
RSM – Do you feel like we’re seeing the beginning of new, more diverse ways of celebrating beauty? How does it feel to be part of the change?
KN– Yes, I do! I feel so proud and thrilled to be part of multiple LGBTQ+ empowerment movements, and I would like to invite people to enjoy the liberation. We live in an era when everybody can feel beautiful and worthy regardless of any differences. It is a victory for everybody; all of us can join the fun parade of liberation.
RSM – If you could suggest one action that organizations can take to speed up their commitment to represent women at the top, what would it be?
KN– I think it is important to provide supplemental resources for anybody who needs extra support. For example, mothers might benefit from having better access to childcare; LGBTQ+ people might benefit from having gender-free restrooms and changing rooms as an option. I think providing as many considerations as possible for each group will help them feel seen. This sentiment will help not only women but all people to believe in their value more, which will result in success.
RSM – If you could suggest one action women could take to accelerate their career growth, what would it be?
KN– I would encourage women to connect with others who are going through similar situations. Oftentimes, we think that we are the only ones suffering with specific problems. But by opening your concerns to like-minded people, you can combat the problems with multiple brains. For example, to break barriers, it was crucial for me to connect with other homosexual friends who understood my situation well. Together we are stronger.
Follow Kodo Nishimura on Instagram.