Buddhism struggles to keep authority in Japan


KYOTO, Japan -- In this ancient capital and cradle of Japan's religious heritage, the Buddhist priest faithfully chants his sutras. He honors the spirits of ancestors and presides over funerals. He maintains the temple grounds and attends to his flock's spiritual needs, just as every priest did before him in the Daiouji Temple's 300-year history.

But Yasuo Sakakibara has a confession to make.

"I'm much more comfortable talking about economics than Buddhism," he says.

In fact, to combat Japan's spiraling cost of living, the priest spends more of his time teaching economics at Doshisha University to make ends meet. And so even if he falters in explaining Buddhist doctrine or eschews meditation, he's a crackerjack at statistical analysis.

And at least he has followed his father's priestly footsteps -- a duty his two children have firmly rejected.

His temple's future? Unclear.

As Daiouji goes, so goes Japan. Modern life is rocking this country's 1,440-year-old practice of Buddhism, a religion professed by 78 percent of Japanese. Population shifts are robbing rural temples of followers and priests, forcing their closure. Robust economic growth has boosted living standards and the costs of meeting them, compelling more priests to take outside jobs.

Changing social attitudes have made the priesthood less attractive -- making it tougher to find successors in a country where temples have come to be handed down not so much from master to disciple, but from parent to child.

And as one way to attract new followers and revitalize what in Japan has become a religion preoccupied with death and ancestors, some younger priests are turning to social activism and modern ideologies of feminism, environmentalism and anti-discrimination.

Buddhism in Japan has survived far greater threats than modernity. Introduced via China and Korea in A.D. 552, the religion took on a distinct character here. Among other things, Japanese Buddhism has been marked by its close ties to the state and its strong link not to individuals but to households, traditionally the basic social unit here.

As a result of the household link, Buddhism's chief duty was transformed from the original Indian ideal of promoting individual enlightenment to holding funerals, requiems and other rituals of ancestor worship aimed at honoring a clan's lineage.

And its ties to the state have meant that the religion's fortunes have depended on government whim. When the Tokugawa regime wanted to suppress Christianity in the 17th century, it made Buddhism the de facto state religion and created the unique Japanese "danka" system, under which every household was forced to register with a temple.

But when Meiji reformists seized power in 1868 and reasserted the emperor and the indigenous Shinto religion, the ensuing persecution of Buddhists destroyed countless temples and reduced the ranks of priests and nuns from 500,000 to 77,000. The state also decreed that priests could marry and take on other secular trappings in a move aimed at weakening Buddhism, said Ryusho Soeda, an official with the Shingon branch at Mount Koya.

Since those turbulent times, Buddhism has recovered and now benefits from freedom of religion in modern Japan, where religions not only peacefully coexist but also almost intermingle.

But challenges are mounting for the nation's 96.2 million Buddhists scattered throughout 80,000 temples in 28 branches and sects.

The irreplaceable role that temples once played as a community's spiritual core -- acting as schools, medical clinics, nursing homes, administrative offices and recreational centers -- has diminished. Now, although some aspects of the faith are thriving, mainstream Japanese Buddhism is struggling to maintain its economic foundation and its moral and spiritual authority.

Ideals are forgotten

"Its dogmas have become unintelligible to the public, and few people show an active interest in the religion," Hajime Nakamura, one of the nation's foremost Buddhist scholars, said in an analysis for the Encyclopedia of Japan. "The Buddhist ideals of human life have been forgotten."

In a wind-swept area of Shimane prefecture, a remote area facing the Sea of Japan, the Joenji Temple offers a glimpse of one of Buddhism's current challenges: Like a growing number of rural areas, it has no priest.

Its last cleric, Shonen Nishihara, left in 1958, and demographics tell why. His Shimane temple had only 15 families. Although many Japanese fled to rural areas during World War II to escape bombing, they surged back to the cities in search of jobs. As their sheep fled, the shepherds followed.

As his new base, Mr. Nishihara chose Matsudo city, whose population has grown from 40,000 to 450,000 in the past 40 years. There, in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo, he presides over 400 families. With a larger congregation, he was able to build the $2.6 million Tenshinji Temple in 1972.

Unlike Christian clergy, Japanese Buddhist priests do not receive a salary. And because they now marry and rear children, officials say it takes a congregation of 200 families to sustain a temple family comfortably.

Those numbers are increasingly scarce in Japan's rural pockets. In one survey, only 10 percent of the 239 temples in a three-county area of Shimane prefecture had such a large congregation. Overall, 48 temples were without priests.

"When we have a temple, we tend to stay away and take it for granted. But once we lose it, it's lonesome," said one village elder in the town of Kawamoto after her Myozenji Temple lost its chief priest and closed in a merger with a neighboring temple in 1988. "I'm sorry, Buddha," she said. "I'm sorry, ancestors."

But big-city temples are facing problems as well.

At Daiouji Temple in Kyoto, Yasuo Sakakibara has plenty of followers, but spiraling labor costs have put him in the red -- and in the unusual position of working at a Christian university to maintain his Buddhist temple.

He's hardly alone. The Shingon branch estimates that 22 percent of its chief priests, or those in 800 of its 3,600 temples, moonlight.

The Shinshu Otani sect reports a 37 percent figure, while the Soto branch found 28.5 percent of 11,586 chief priests worked on the side.

Although priests have always performed other functions -- from warriors to teachers to doctors -- the work was done as part of temple duties and not to secure extra cash.

Mr. Sakakibara, an articulate, witty man who taught economics for two years at a U.S. college, wanted to make use of his considerable talents. But he could hardly survive otherwise, he says, as he obligingly rattles off his temple's balance sheets:

Expenses: $97,405 annually for insurance, cleaning service, gardener, flowers, incense and other temple accouterments.

Income: $42,560 annually from donations for four major festivals, Sunday service and funeral fees.

Priests push social action

Worried that negative images of the priesthood will drive the religion into irrelevance, a generation of younger priests is aiming to breathe life into Buddhism with programs of social action.

Rengetsu Fujitani -- a 39-year-old priest at the Kakuryoji Temple, in the Osaka suburb of Moriguchi -- is one of them. She wears a spiky hairdo and black leather pants. She rushes from English class to jazz dance, lectures on Japan's colonization of Asia, gives shelter to anti-nuclear groups and upbraids male parishioners for the political incorrectness of making women serve tea.

She believes that social justice for the living is as important as salvation for the dead. And so she has unilaterally cut down on the traditional Buddhist duties, such as home visits to pray for the dead.

"Even old people should face present-day problems rather than worship ancestors," she declared.

But her radical style has run into trouble in Moriguchi. Temple members voted her down as chief priest last fall, although she was entitled to succeed her father and would have been her sect's first female head priest in 400 years. The issue remains up in the air.

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