Japanese Buddhism in the Community

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.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shu, Politics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Japanese Buddhism in the Community

  1. johnl says:

    I don’t think obosan can be considered a lay priest. Yes, you are right that they don’t follow the vinaya, but they are not exactly laic either. I think they have a certain set of bodhisattva vows that is less strict than the traditional vinaya. Maybe this needs to be discussed?? My impression is that most would-be clerics train while living as monastics. Then, they return to a non-monastic lifestyle. As for the history, there are two important factors–Shinran, the founder of Josho Shinshu, felt that priests should have families so they would be closer to their parishioners. That would be around the 13th century, I think. Then, in the Meiji era, 19th century, there was some fear that temples had too much power. So, the government decided that ‘allowing’ priests to marry would weaken their power (and it was more of a command than a choice). Personally, I have no problem with married priests, drinkers, whatever. The key point is how they help people; actual teaching/sermons, conducting funerals and other ceremonies, and encouraging appropriate community activities. Also, I would say that in general, Japanese priests get along well with monastics in other traditions. Anyone who has corrections or more details, please chime in!

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Johnl,

    Sorry for the late reply.

    I definitely see what you are saying. Most of my experience is with Jodo Shinshu priests who are definitely lay priests (they do not take any precepts per se), while other traditions such as Tendai and Shingon do take the Bodhisattva Precepts.

    Traditionally though, in Japanese monastic tradition, they did take the original 250 or so vows, with the Bodhisattva Precepts as a supplement. Tendai turned this around and made the Bodhisattva Precepts the sole source of monastic discipline. This is explained in the link provided above under “history”.

    But in any case, you have a great point: while training, they definitely live a monastic life, in keeping with Buddhist tradition. It’s the life-style afterwards (owning land, being married, etc) that in my opinion makes them lay followers more than monastics.

    In non-Japanese traditions, if a monk/nun leaves the monastic training, they become a lay follower, so it seems to me that this same logic would hold true with the Japanese tradition. While they have training and provide a valuable service to the community, once they re-enter lay-life, they are lay priests.

    I guess it’s an issue with semantics though. In Japanese, both monastics and lay priests are considered “obosan” so I guess the issue is with English (how do you express the same concept in English). :p

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