Open Buddha

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Buddhism in Crisis in Japan

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There is an article in The New York Times today on whether or not Buddhism is dying out in Japan. Buddhism has, especially in recent decades, become strongly associated with the funeral industry in Japan, something that may seem very foreign to Western converts to Buddhism.

As the article states:

When it comes to funerals, though, the Japanese have traditionally been inflexibly Buddhist — so much so that Buddhism in Japan is often called "funeral Buddhism," a reference to the religion's former near-monopoly on the elaborate, and lucrative, ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services. But that expression also describes a religion that, by appearing to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living, is losing its standing in Japanese society. "That's the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn't meet people's spiritual needs," said Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple here in northern Japan. "In Islam or Christianity, they hold sermons on spiritual matters. But in Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests do that." Mr. Mori, 48, the 21st head priest of the temple, was unsure whether it would survive into the tenure of a 22nd. "If Japanese Buddhism doesn't act now, it will die out," he said. "We can't afford to wait. We have to do something."

I have known or know a few people who have been or are Buddhist priests in Japan and this commentary echoes what they have said. Buddhism is focused around the temples for the priests there and in maintaining these temples. Since they are handed down from generation to generation for many of them, they are often a family business. Since the business end of these temples makes its money from doing funerals, over time, the temples have optimized to this. This business is now dying out as Japanese have more private funerals, funerals in funeral homes, or no funerals at all (just cremating their relatives). This business aspect has been to the detriment of teaching Buddhism, in general, to the populace. Maybe the temples have just taken it for granted but I recall the comment from Suzuki Roshi’s autobiograhy where he and a local Jodo Shinshu priest were discussing how, when they came to America, they were being asked questions (and forced to come up with answers) that never came up during 30 years of being a priest in Japan. It seems that Buddhism, as part of the basic culture historically, has not focused on the teachings and propagating them.

According to the article, part of the issue with the funeral business dying is to do with issues around deriving from World War II, as well:

He said Japanese Buddhism had been sapped of its spiritual side in great part because it had compromised itself during World War II through its close ties with Japan's military. After Buddhist priests had glorified fallen soldiers and given them special posthumous Buddhist names, talk of pacifism sounded hollow. Mr. Mori, the priest here, said that after the war there was a desire for increasingly lavish funerals with prestigious Buddhist names. These names — with the highest ranks traditionally given to those who have led honorable lives — are routinely purchased now, regardless of a dead person's conduct in life.

For me, this whole thing is incredibly saddening. Along with the Tibetans and, for some people, the Thai, the Japanese are one of the nations that come to mind when people think of Buddhism in the last few hundred years. To hear that Buddhism is not doing well there is distressing but I’ve been hearing of it for a while. Stephen Covell’s Japanese Temple Buddhism is focused on much of the business of Buddhism in Japan and its effects.

I wonder what the effects of this will be within the United States. Here, Japanese Buddhism is well established in the form of the Pure Land schools through such groups as the Buddhist Churches of America and through the transplanted Zen sects. I know from my visit to a Shingon temple in Sacramento and the lack of established Tendai temples, for example, that other sects are less well established. There is still the division between the community of Buddhists who are ethnically Japanese and that of converts. The former supports some of the larger established bodies but I believe that they are shrinking over time as children leave their family faiths or otherwise fall away. The Zen groups here are largely composed of converts and come out of the Baby Boom. Up until recently, funerals have been less of a concern and I doubt if contemporary Zen masters are going to transplant Japanese funeral customs here.

I do note that when I go to Buddhist events, at least within the convert community, that Buddhism is graying heavily and that groups that there composed of 20-somethings 30 years ago are now largely composed of 50-somethings. I once asked a Tibetan group that I was with in Seattle, in one of the most vibrant areas of town, why none of the people that were outside our door (20-somethings) ever came to anything at the center and did not find Buddhism interesting or appealing. I found it disconcerting to be over 30 and to, very often, be the youngest person in the room by more than a decade.

We seem to have the dual problems of Buddhism suffering a crisis of relevance in Japan and a crisis of how to continue past its initial surge in the United States. What is the future of Buddhism in both nations? I seriously doubt if it will die out but I can easily see it becoming much less common in places if people don’t address these trends. I don’t think that Buddhism needs to grow or be oriented on growth to survive but it does need to be sustainable.