Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Death or transformation for Japanese Buddhism?

An article in the New York Times this past summer was titled "In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out". If you are familiar at all with the history of Japan or of Buddhism, you can imagine the influence Buddhism has had in the development of Japanese culture. According to the article this decline is happening at least in part because Buddhism has become more of a business than a path to spiritual awakening, and business is bad as it faces competitors offering fewer hassles and cheaper prices.

But does that really spell the end of Japanese Buddhism, or is it the end of a particular incarnation of Buddhism on that island nation and an opportunity for a new role for Buddhism to emerge?

From the article:

Across Japan, Buddhism faces a confluence of problems, some familiar to religions in other wealthy nations, others unique to the faith here.

The lack of successors to chief priests is jeopardizing family-run temples nationwide.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion’s rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birthrates remaining low.

Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

Over the next generation, many temples in the countryside are expected to close, taking centuries of local history with them and adding to the demographic upheaval under way in rural Japan.

The article notes that many Buddhist temples in Japan have been able to maintain and sustain themselves from funeral fees. But what about spiritual guidance and direction? The Times piece cites a Japanese anthropologist who studies Buddhism, Noriyuki Ueda, who suggests that Buddhism in his nation had lost credibility because of the role many priests took in aligning themselves with the military agenda during the Second World War.

Is that it? Is that all Japanese Buddhism has to offer it's own society? Will it continue to be displaced by foreign faiths and the "new" religions that sprang up after the War? And how does the popularity of many forms of Japanese Buddhism among Western converts play into all of this?

I don't have concrete answers to all of these questions, but ask yourself this: What happened to Buddhism in its native country of India? It all but vanished, even as it was flourishing and spreading like wildfire across East Asia. What about Christianity? In Western Europe, where it matured and blossomed, Christianity has been in consistent decline for many decades, even as Christian evangelism thrives in Africa, South America, and some parts of Asia. And as mentioned, even while for many Japanese Buddhism is a "funeral religion", enthusiasts in the West are flocking to the Zen and Shin and Nichiren traditions. I don't know if Buddhism will make a revival in Japan, but the rumors of the death of Japanese-born Buddhism may be a bit premature.


  1. The Buddha commented that even the Dharma as it was originally articulated was not immune to impermanence....

    I suspect transformation, but my viewpoint is of course highly limited. ^-^

    As always, your blog is such a delight to read, though it's a bit like a finely crafted chocolate bar - one has to make space and time for it to be able to properly relish it! XD

  2. Whose viewpoint isn't highly limited? The more people think they know, the less they can really see :)

    I think that's one of the sweetest things anyone has said about this blog.


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