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The Death Knell of “Funeral Buddhism” in Japan

by Evelyn Cash

I came across this story yesterday from the Buddhist Channel
reporting that as the religion dies in Japan, Buddhist priests are
resorting to desperate measures to try and regain followers.  The priests are
trying everything from anime DVDs to monk and nun runway hip-hop
performances but nothing seems to be working.  I found this
particularly interesting in light of the fact that Buddhism seems to be
gaining in popularity in the West.

I do wonder: would the
priests in Japan be able to get more people back into the temples if they
stressed the practical aspects of Buddhist meditation and teachings,
rather than the more devotional religious aspects?  That approach
certainly worked here in the West, as noted in this 2006 story from the
Christian Science Monitor


To quote Lama Surya Das from the CSM piece: “People are looking for experiential practices, not just a new belief
system or a new set of ethical rules which we already have, and are
much the same in all religions… It’s the
transformative practices like meditation which people are really
attracted to.”  Perhaps the Japanese people would also respond more positively to practical meditation instructions than “Buddhist” anime DVDs.

As many of the other traditions and customs are fading in Japan, Buddhism may need to undergo a reinvention to survive.

Comments read comments(17)
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posted October 4, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Interesting article Evelyn. Most Japanese are Pure Land Buddhists, so moving from the religious/devotional to a mediation focus would be practically a conversion to a new religion, in some ways. I tend to think if that is the problem, there would be a proportional increase in interest in Zen, but it doesnt seem like that is happening either.
The professor quoted in the article suggests that it is not the religion that is the problem, its the fact that it isn’t woven into everyday life the way it is in Southeast Asia.
I think it is hard to say if anything would make a difference.

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Rev. Ryusho Jeffus

posted October 4, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Earlier this summer I attended our annual overseas minister’s meeting for Nichiren Shu priests. During this conference members of a young priests group reported that they felt a major problem was that many priests do not involve themselves in social issues and frequently don’t know how to discuss issues such as abortion, war/peace, homelessness, or even economic difficulties in terms of Buddhist belief or practice. Their recommendation and their action was to be more public and more learned in addressing these and other issues.
Buddhists practicing here in the US don’t feel the same reservation about talking and engaging in these types of things. Perhaps because Buddhists here have kept Buddhism in the front and related the practice and belief in terms that are socially engaged Buddhism is not as marginalized. And in Japan, the younger generation is not as shy about confronting and discussing these issues as their elders once were. They perhaps feel that there is no relevancy to their daily lives in Buddhism. I don’t believe that ‘gimmicks’ will go far in solving the problem.
Evelyn, thank you for posting this.
With Gassho,
Rev. Ryusho

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Lim Soon Heng

posted October 5, 2009 at 7:08 am

Funeral rites in any particular form is not prescribed in the teachings of Buddha. It derives from the local culture and is not uniquely “Buddhist”. In Tibet the bodies of the dead are chopped up and offered to the birds. Often referred to as “sky burial” this is is indeed a very environmental friendly of getting rid of the the “shell” of human existence. It is also a practice among Hindus. In Singapore, where I live, many Buddhists cremate their dead, for practical reasons (there is much land left). The ashes are kept in urns at home or tossed into the sea. Cremation is a practice among Taoists.
Buddha teaches that there is no such a thing a “soul” and that the body is nothing but a “shell”. There is no heaven nor hell. Life just moves on from one form to another, its path determined by karma the law of cause and effect.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 9:27 am

You bring up some very good points, Greg. I was thinking that if the religion is no longer woven into daily life then maybe it’ll have to undergo some sort of transformation in order to survive. That is to say, there must be some reason that people have abandoned it. Religions thrive when they offer something to the population. Once the traditions and beliefs start to become obsolete, people naturally step away from the religion. It actually reminds me of Christianity in Europe, which has also seen a steady decline in recent times.
You’re right, Zen would be the natural alternative so I am curious about how the Japanese would react to the types of lay sitting groups we have here in the States. My guess is (and this is based purely on second-hand information because I’ve never been to Japan myself) that Zen itself probably has quite a bit of cultural baggage in Japan that deters the younger generation. The Zen we have here has largely been stripped of much of the cultural trappings. As a result, it’s much more accessible to Western lay people. I was wondering if the same sort of thing would be required in order for Buddhism to survive in Japan.
And, to Lim Soon Heng, “Funeral Buddhism” is a reference to how Buddhism is often perceived in Japan where it is most often associated to the funeral business rather than a “living” practice. Thank you for your interesting comment describing Buddhist funeral rites in context with the Buddha’s teachings and local cultures.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Yes, desperate measures, where some of them have resorted to visiting taverns, sharing a beer with the locals while teaching the Dharma… there’s even a few senior monks who own such establishments, apparently casting aside the precept of not trafficing in intoxicants.

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 5, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Well, you know, even though the article claims that interest in Buddhism is waning, I take pretty much everything from the media with a grain of salt. I don’t know if this is really an accurate representation of a true trend, or someone trying to write an interesting story…or a little of both.
In journalism, it used to be that people would quote sources. So, the article might say, “a recent opinion poll found that 37% of Buddhist Japanese households report not going to temple more than once a year.” Without that kind of research and specificity, I don’t think it is easy to assess what is going on.
The general populace rarely has interests that express the highest. What percentage of people like opera? Opera, as an art form, isn’t going away. Just because Buddhism has a long history in Japan, doesn’t mean the vast majority of the Japanese were ever spiritual…any more than any other country. Just like anywhere else, the vast majority of folks focus on worldly and material things and don’t devote themselves to spirituality. That is the way it has always been. So, unless there is some real evidence contrary to that basic trend, I wouldn’t worry about Buddhism going anywhere, anytime soon.

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Alberto F

posted October 5, 2009 at 2:52 pm

What qualifications does the author of this post have? This is one of the most facile pieces to appear on this blog. Disappointedly yours, Alberto.

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Your Name

posted October 5, 2009 at 3:18 pm

@Alberto: That’s one of the jerkier comments to appear on this blog.
I like and appreciate your posts Evelyn. Pay no attention to jerky jerks.
Pam in Portland

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posted October 5, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Thanks for the encouragement Pam, I’m glad that my posts have been of some small benefit to folks out there. I try to write from my own experience and thoughts, not pretending to be anything I’m not.
The purpose of this post was to share an interesting story I came across that seemed to confirm some anecdotal stories I’ve heard from friends and family who have been to Japan. I was hoping it would start up some conversation and I’m glad to see people sharing their thoughts both about the validity of the article itself and its content.

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Ethan Nichtern

posted October 5, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Yes, really not sure why people comment that way sometimes.
Nothing facile about this post to me. Short posts are great!

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posted October 7, 2009 at 9:17 am

The Buddhism in Japan is going down probably because all the best teachers came to the west to teach. I wondered if they could have saved Buddhism in Japan if they had stayed in Japan. I wondered how they felt when they saw Buddhism in their own culture dying while they couldn’t help. Buddhism has no country.

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shak El

posted October 10, 2009 at 10:34 am

Buddhism is a family business in Japan. Temples are passed down in families and are considered a families’ property. Alot of people see no need to support those structures. Buddhist movements which are not traditional temple based like the Soka Gakkai are doing well. Meditation is not for everyone, which is why Buddhism has a practice for all types of people.
namah amida buddha

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posted October 10, 2009 at 10:46 am

There is too much formism in Japanise Buddishism. A more relaxed mode may work well. dave

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posted October 10, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Maybe what you don’t see is that Japan is ahead of the world in this respect. With 72% of the country athiest, Japan is a country open to reason and science in ways I only with the west was. Of course it is important to preserve what is in effect Japan’s cultural roots, Shinto, etc…, but in order for humanity to advance we must evolve out of our infancy on this plant and shed the religious comfort blanket that has kept us in diapers for thousands of years. Real progress is on the horizon and the dawn of a new era of humankind is now approaching. Japan may very well be the birth place of the first reasonable and scientific society in human history.

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Lanka SIlva

posted October 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm

There is no way that buddhism will disappear- may be those who practice various rituals give up those rotuals or going to temples etc. None of that is can be called buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy and those who follow the principles do it for themselves. However, no one is following rituals does not mean that the buddhism is disappring anywhere. It has no country (it may be the rituals have cultural connotations related to a land locations like Japan). Some giving up ritual does mean disappring of the rituals and that has no relationship to the buddhist principles and philosophy. It may harm only those who make a business out of rituals. There is nothing that one has to do to popularise buddhism or to make it relevant to the everyday life. It is already about the person and the community and its peaceful existence-there is nothing that does not relate to the life in Buddhism. What you are talking about disappring rituals only.Perhaps you do not know what buddhism is and you are using the term “Buddhism” for the cultural traditions of japanese buddhist community (and not even all of them). Look deep into the meaning of what you talk about. You can only talk about something to the extent that you know of it. That does not mean that deeper meaning and understanding does not exist. So waht you talk about only relate to the bit you know-whai is not real buddhist philosophy and principles but rituals. Japanese people have drifted away from the rituals that do not make sense = a good outcome for them. What thye need is pure buddhist advice that lead them to understand that all miseries people are experincing are created by the the people who have unwholesome minds and acts. Therefore they need to focus on doing wholesome acts that does not harm anyone and bring loving kindness to oneself and all others.

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posted October 14, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Perhaps the question we really should be asking is not whether Buddhism itself will survive in Japan but rather how the universal core of Buddhist teaching–which is the realization of true happiness through positive thinking–can be impressed upon the modern youth.
When the young see that it is in their own best interest to live a life of harmlessness and that true courage comes from the strength of love and wisdom, then they will find ways of keeping the true spirit of Buddhism alive in this techno world we live in.

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Your Name

posted October 20, 2009 at 9:41 am

Modern Buddhism in order to be relevant, must be related to enhancing life and living, in other words living Buddhism.
If they are pursuing towards “Funeral Buddhism”, younger set of
believers would not be interested.

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