I was inspired by a couple stories from the Japan Times about Buddhist priests in Japan from a few weeks ago. But first a brief explanation of Buddhist clergy in Japan.
Usually, the term “monk” in Buddhism or bhikkhu implies a full renunciant: someone who has willingly taken the ancient monastic vows and lives among the among the monastic community, or Vinaya. When you take these vows, you’re a monk or nun (bhikkuni). When you disrobe and return to lay-life you are a lay follower. Pretty simple.
For a variety of complex, historical reasons, the monastic community in Japan largely became hereditary and lay-followers, not monastic. Monasteries exist for training but most monks in the community are married, have kids and maintain a family temple.1 So the Japanese term obōsan (お坊さん) can mean a lay priest and a monastic one.
Anyway, I mention this for linguistic/cultural reasons only; Buddhism encourages the strength of both monastic and lay followers. Anyone, regardless of background, who cultivates and embodies positive Buddhist virtues is a noble disciple.
So anyway, I was inspired by two recent articles. The first article is about a priest in Kyoto who has opened up his temple more and more to community, while getting involved in activism. It’s an interesting look at how priest inherit their roles, but also how Buddhism in Japan participates in the community. By holding concerts on the temple grounds, holding nature walks and guest lectures, it provides a wholesome, Buddhist environment without hitting people over the head with religion.
The second article shows how monks in Japan are taking an active role in counseling people after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Prior to modern psychology, religion didn’t just serve the community, it was therapeutic to people all over the world.2 So it’s nice to see Buddhism in Japan returning to its traditional role of helping the community as well as healing people.
I like how the monks in the second article often just listen to people’s concerns. Sometimes there are no real solutions to a problem, but just expressing one’s fears is helpful enough.
1 It’s not that Japanese monks were somehow more lazy than their mainland compatriots, just that isolation from the mainland, complex politics and history, especially in the 19th century, pretty much ended the monastic tradition.
2 When religion and politics mixed though, then there were problems. Then again, modern politics can behave like a religion too. The two should be as far apart as possible, in my opinion.