TOKYO (AP) – Buddhism suffers from a bleak image in Japan. It is so closely related to death – funerals, graves and memorial rituals in which priests chant sutras based on Chinese rendering of Sanskrit texts that no one else understands – that people call it “funeral Buddhism.”
The powerful forces of secularization and population decline have resulted in a steady decline of religion in Japanese society, with a disinterest in Buddhism – and the faith in general – particularly pronounced among young people.
Buddhist leaders say a third of the country’s 75,000 temples are barely functioning, with the rural exodus undermining the traditional âdankaâ system of financial support for parish households, as some temples across the country have closed and priests occupy a second job.
Meanwhile, increased competition from discount funeral businesses and non-religious cemeteries has reduced income from death rituals and burial plots.
But a young generation of priests are working to reverse the downward spiral of faith, innovating to try to make Buddhism more attractive and relevant to everyday life and the modern world.
âWe need more priests to be aware of the needs of the people around them and how to maintain the temple not as a business but on the basis of Buddhist teachings,â said Yoshiharu Tomatsu, secretary general of the Japan Buddhist Federation, an umbrella group overseeing the country’s 58 sects. âOtherwise, we have no reason to exist in this society. “
Buddha in a bar
Since most people don’t have much opportunity to interact with Buddhist priests, Yoshinobu Fujioka, 43, spends evenings in downtown Tokyo in his Vowz Bar, a play on âbouzuâ, which means monk in Japanese.
The waterhole typically sees 100 customers crammed into two small rooms on the second floor on weekend nights – or at least until the coronavirus pandemic strikes. A Buddhist altar sits in the corner while jazz music plays in the background.
Unlike Buddhist priests elsewhere, those in Japan can get married, drink alcohol and eat meat, thanks to an imperial edict of 1872. Sharing cocktails in a warm atmosphere encourages people to open up to their feelings. struggles, said Fujioka.
Twice a night, he spends 15 minutes guiding clients by chanting sutras, followed by a short speech or story. One evening in March, in the midst of the growing pandemic, he spoke about non-financial ways to give handouts, such as looking at people, smiling and paying attention to those in need.
âA lot of young people come to listen attentively,â said Fujioka, who also performs with a band in live clubs. âBuddhism gives wisdom to live. Everyone is hungry for the truth. Hearts are dry. â¦ If we offer this to the people, they will absorb it.
Haruka Umeyama, a 30-year-old tour guide, described herself as “a typically religiously confused Japanese woman” who didn’t know much about Buddhism but felt at home in Vowz.
âI came here and it’s great,â she said. âThey make Buddha’s words easy to understand. And for some reason, even though I wasn’t raised in religion at all, some of the things they say here make sense.
Adjusting the Sutras on the Guitar
Kanho Yakushiji, a 41-year-old Zen Buddhist priest from the southern island of Shikoku, grew up loving music and formed a band in his twenties because he did not want to inherit his father’s temple, as is typical in Japan. âMusic was kind of an escape for me,â he said.
But he gradually began to explore his Zen roots, which emphasize meditation and discipline, and realized he had to face his fears of becoming a priest. At 30, he completed a two-year training program at a Kyoto temple that included grueling cross-legged meditation sessions for hours.
Yakushiji appeared convinced that he wanted to incorporate music into his ministry. Today he has recorded three solo albums and has toured Japan, China and Taiwan, playing his guitar in his priestly garments, with a shaved head.
His first songs were pop or folk tunes about family, friends and his hometown. Most did not contain explicit references to the faith but were more subtle: âTo cherish the important things in life and the Buddhist teachings are truly one and the same,â he said.
Lately, Yakushiji has been experimenting with a different and distinctly Buddhist sound: harmonized sutras sung over dreamlike guitar chords. Her recent arrangement, “Heart Sutra,” garnered 2.8 million views on YouTube.
âBuddhism hasn’t done much to spread,â Yakushiji said. “But now the young priests are reaching out in different ways, so I think things are changing.”
A practical roadmap
Like the other priests interviewed for this story, Naoyuki Ogi, 37, from Yamaguchi Southern Prefecture, said he spreads the Buddhist teachings as they offer practical help in daily life and ultimately a roadmap to nirvana, or enlightenment.
Among these core principles are the importance of self-reflection and self-improvement, as well as the awareness that all living things are connected. Another is the idea that his ancestors protect and help the living and can be prayed to or even worshiped.
Ogi participates in television shows to promote these and other teachings, and also works at the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, which distributes copies of “The Teaching of the Buddha” in hotel rooms.
âMy main goal is not to convert people to Buddhism or to expand my temple membership,â said Ogi, whose danka temple grew to 110 families from 150 around 20 years ago. âMy main goal is how to present Buddhist teachings to people? Because they are so useful.
Unlike Christianity and Islam, traditional Buddhist groups in Japan generally do not seek converts, although some ramifications are zealous for proselytizing.
Religion is a flexible concept for most Japanese anyway, who often mix Buddhism with Shintoism, the indigenous cult of spirits in nature, or even Christianity. Many people dedicate their children to the local Shinto shrine, get married at Christian weddings, and hold Buddhist funerals, ignoring all of this contradictory.
This makes it difficult to identify religious affiliation. Government data based on temple and sanctuary counts shows that Japan is roughly divided between followers of Buddhism and Shintoism, with some people counted in both camps. But when Japanese people were asked to choose a religion they believed in, in a 2018 International Social Survey Program survey, 31% of respondents said Buddhism, 3% Shintoism, 1% Christianity – and 62% no religion at all.
For Ogi, belief doesn’t matter when it comes to his ministry.
âEven if you are a Christian and love the Buddhist teachings, please use them,â he said. “No problem.”
Ministry through storytelling
Tsuyuno Maruko, a 33-year-old priest from the Tendai sect, has found her place in the often humorous storytelling tradition called “rakugo”. In one story, she compares various Buddhist âhotokeâ or divine figures to traders on a street, noting that each has a store serving different needs.
Maruko is among those who abandon the danka system. She is building a new temple in southwest Hyogo Prefecture modeled on a Christian church and supported by contributions from visitors and her own storytelling performances.
âI think a lot of Japanese people consider religion to be something suspicious or a little dangerous,â she said. âWe need to communicate that faith is part of everyday life, just like eating our meals. “
Maruko, whose husband is a Christian, said many priests are either complacent or too focused on the survival of their temples.
âThis kind of concern for one’s own livelihood seems to have lost sight of the essence of religion,â she said.
This was to be the gist of his message to fellow priests at an April seminar on dealing with the “crisis” facing Buddhism, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. She always plans to make it clear that “you should not work for yourself but for others”.
Ittetsu Nemoto, 48, had no interest in religion in his youth. According to his own testimony, he partied, danced the night away and “was kind of a delinquent.”
But he practiced Buddhist meditation as part of his karate training, believing that it helped him discern the movements of his opponents. After a motorcycle accident sent him to the hospital, Nemoto began to question his life, felt empty, and decided to become a Zen priest.
Around this time, about 15 years ago, Japan saw a wave of suicidal people meeting online and then committing suicide in small groups, often through carbon monoxide poisoning in sealed vehicles. Nemoto, who had lost an uncle and two former classmates to suicide, began searching the internet for them and talking to them.
âAfter sharing their stories, they would become friends and give up their suicide plans,â he said. He created an online support group to stay in touch with them.
By the time Nemoto became the chief priest of a small temple in central Gifu prefecture, he had a reputation as a suicide counselor. Over the next several years, he advised thousands of people by phone, in person and in small groups.
He developed a workshop, described in the 2017 documentary “The Departure,” with mock funerals that force participants to face their own deaths. In an activity, people are asked to write down things that are dear to them, helping them see what they would give up.
Nemoto cultivates to help support his family. And while he doesn’t want his 700-year-old temple to shut down, he is a firm believer in reorienting the ministry, perhaps around technology rather than the temple.
âExternal needs are increasing and the needs of temples are decreasing,â Nemoto said. âWith your smartphone you can do almost anything. Buddhism needs to think about how it will function in this world.
In a troubling time of pandemic, loneliness and natural disasters, Nemoto sees a growing spiritual hunger and believes Buddhism can help.
âBuddhism saved me from a messy youth and helped me see things clearly,â he said. âIf it cannot be used to save people from death, it has no value. “
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.