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Thread: Buddhist Funeral Business in Japan

  1. #1

    Buddhist Funeral Business in Japan

    An article showed up in my Facebook feed recently. It's about a seminar that was held recently, and the formation of a study panel meant to address concerns about the cost, purpose, and future of Buddhist funerals in Japan. Apparently, services are crazy expensive, and a lot of people are skipping them altogether:

    The seminar led to the establishment of a study panel on Buddhist funerals, which held its first meeting in mid-November in Tokyo. Some 30 priests participated.

    Member priests of the panel are increasingly concerned about weakening ties between temples and people, which used to be much tighter, mainly through funeral services. As relationships in extended families have weakened and family-based traditions have faded in modern Japan, people are tending to shy away from funerals and instead bring the bodies of their family members directly to crematoriums.

    And yet many people reaffirmed the importance of funeral services following the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 that ravaged the Tohoku region.

    Members of the panel therefore will take up such issues as how best to provide solace to grieving people in order to become “pioneers of new Buddhism,” one of the participants said.

    Wajo Ogurosawa, 29, deputy head priest at Shoganji, a temple in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, belonging to the Soto sect, says he wants to know how funeral services should be conducted as he heard that his temple was founded in the early 17th century to console the spirits of miners killed in a cave-in. Some 120 supporters of the temple died in the 2011 quake and tsunami.

    The disaster “helped me reconfirm the importance of funerals and of our role in administering them,” Ogurosawa said. “Funerals are the origin of our temple and we will strive to have people feel good after holding or attending funerals.”

    Such services came under scrutiny in 2009 when retail giant Aeon Co. entered the funeral business and posted standards for monetary offerings to priests on its website. It shocked many temples and invited strong protests from some of them.

    There's more--if anyone wants to read it, the whole article is here.

    I find it . . . interesting that a corporation can dictate monetary offerings. (And I'm glad to see priests pushing back and trying to improve the situation.)

    Jundo . . Taigu . . . anyone have any comments/insight on all this?



  2. #2
    Interesting...I'm sure Shokai will have some thoughts on this!


  3. #3

    Thank you, Jen.

    Fascinating article. Sad, but hopeful comment: "to criticize Buddhist monks’ inability to help the living." If it's constructive criticism it may be a good and proper impetus for adaptation.(?)

    I know nothing.^^

    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  4. #4
    Hi Jen,

    Over many centuries, the role of local temples became primarily the performance of funerals and memorial services for the family and ancestors of temple Parishioners. This also became the principle source of donations and support for the temples. In fact, most Japanese do not particularly look to their Buddhist temples for spiritual guidance or inspiration, to sit Zazen (most other non-Zen Buddhist groups like the Pure Land folks never sat Zazen anyway), or much else besides funerals (not even weddings, which are usually performed at Shinto Shrines or faux-Christian wedding halls).

    As people move into the cities, leaving their hometowns (and as young folks become less interested in religion in general), local temples with fewer and fewer parishioners are really struggling to make ends meet. Also, some priests came to think of their temple, now inherited from the father-priest to his biological son-priest in most cases, as family property. Some began to charge a lot for funerals and for the bestowal of a "special" Kaimyo Buddhist name (like the names people receive at Jukai, but bestowed on the deceased at death). Many temples became pretty much just funeral businesses.

    In the last few decades, with folks moving into the cities and without having any connection to a local temple, corporations and professional funeral halls stepped in. They have priests from temples on contract and others "on call" (called "apartment priests", because they are not associated sometimes with a temple, and just come from home when called by a funeral company).

    One of the reasons I have trouble to get Japanese people to our Zazenkai on Saturday here in Tsukuba Japan is because of this culture: If one calls something "Buddhist" in Japan, the Japanese tend to think of funerals and sadness and little else. If I called our group a "spiritual relaxation 'clear your mind' yoga" group or something, I probably would attract many more Japanese folks! Seriously.

    My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, was a great critic of this whole culture of "funeral buddhism", and refused to perform any funerals for money. I am the same. I have performed a few funerals, but only for friends when requested and not asking for money for doing so. (Do you know that most of the priests coming out of the Soto-shu and Rinzai monasteries are simply the sons of temple fathers who need to be there for basic training to inherit the family temple? Most are not at the monastery by any particular spiritual calling beyond that. That is one reason that statistics show that the vast majority of Zen priests in Japan ... about 80% ... stop sitting Zazen when they leave the temple, merely devoting themselves to funerals).

    Nishijima was Ordained by his teacher, Niwa Zenji, who was the head of Eihei-ji Head Monastery, the de facto ”Pope” of Soto-shu, in part because he knew that Nishijima was a critic of the whole system and wanted to help reform it.

    After the Tsunami, the temples performed a great spiritual service in performing funerals for the thousands who died. This was so important for the families who lost fathers and husbands and wives and children, and the importance of that cannot be overestimated. However, I do not think that most (not all) Japanese folks would turn to their temples for spiritual solace or teachings beyond that.

    That being said, there are also so many people here in Japan who are serious students of Buddhism, who sit Zazen and the like. In fact, given the population size now compared to past centuries, the level of education, the amount of Buddhist resources now available ... one could also argue that more people in Japan, and more priests, practice Buddhism and sit Zazen then ever before in history by sheer numbers! So, the situation is not all so bleak.

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS - Here is a short, but more scholarly article on the phenomenon if anyone is interested.
    Last edited by Jundo; 12-10-2013 at 03:26 AM.

  5. #5
    Let me add this ...

    Somewhere between and passing right through the "post card" images of Shangri-la ...

    ... and the realities of "Buddhism as it is actually lived" in most places in Asia ... is a Reality (big "R") that transcends all that. If people come to Buddhism with idealistic and romantic images of a utopia, they may be a bit disappointed sometimes. Like all of life in this world, there is good and bad and in between sometimes.

    Much more Precious is the Treasure (big "T") we encounter through this Practice which fully Transcends this "good and bad" and "idealistic".

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 12-10-2013 at 03:05 AM.

  6. #6
    Yeap, we have got fukudenkai gathering people sewing the okesa, zazenkai, one nor two days retreats organized by enthusiastic young priests, big temples opening Zendo to lay people...
    So it is not all about business, money and superstitions.



  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Taigu View Post
    Yeap, we have got fukudenkai gathering people sewing the okesa, zazenkai, one nor two days retreats organized by enthusiastic young priests, big temples opening Zendo to lay people...
    So it is not all about business, money and superstitions.


    Ah, yes. There are hundreds of dedicated and sincere priests, taking Practice seriously and looking beyond funerals alone. There are many good things going on here in the Buddhist world, and it is doing quite well in many quarters. I don't mean to give the impression otherwise.

    And many of the young priest sons, while in the monasteries, do become quite inspired by the Practice and leave with a great love of the Practice. Many good temple priests scattered about.

    Here is one charitable body, associated with Soto-shu, that has been quite active in good works ...

    Gassho, J

  8. #8
    Thanks for those answers! I knew Nishijima Roshi was critical of the "funeral director's guild," as I believe he called the Soto-Shu. I also read, a long time ago, that when the Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg visited Japan, she learned that most people "only think about Zen when they're dying." It is interesting to see the differences between what Westerners tend to learn about Japanese Zen, and what is happening in Japan. Not to mention all the curious ways Japanese priests are trying to get people interested in Buddhism:

    I have another question about Buddhism and death. So, we're all beyond birth and death, but we are going to die someday. What should be done with our rakusu/robes? Is it okay to be buried or cremated in them?


    Morbid Jen

  9. #9
    Hi Nenka,

    I have some question about the motivation of the priests who are running that bar (which I have visited, by the way). The Precept on Intoxicants is actually literally "not to sell alcohol", which is what they are doing, and this may just be an excuse to run a profitable bar. On the other hand, since they are Pure Land Priests (not Zen Priests), they have a bit of a unique relationship to the Precepts that is a bit technical to explain and not worth going into here. Let's just say that most Japanese priests I know would frown on this as going too far.

    On the other hand, Japanese priests are free to drink alcohol, although it should be in moderation. In fact, I went to several Soto-shu "end of the year" and other parties with very high monks (such as the Abbot) from Sojiji Head Temple where we all filled each others' beer and sake glasses repeatedly and sang Karaoke right in the temple! Of course, that was not selling alcohol technically!

    As to burial, the Japanese Buddhist funeral for most Sects, Zen included, is actually a post-mortem monk's Ordination. So, everyone becomes a Buddhist priest when they die. Yes, it is the idea that if one is made a Priest at death, that will help ensure a good rebirth or more specifically (since typical Japanese do not actually believe in rebirth back to Earth for their ancestors) transition into the next realm, whatever that is. (I know, the logic of it all is a little weird). Since the dead person cannot actually accept the Precepts (the content of the ceremony is actually very close to Jukai), the officiating priest does it on his/her behalf. (I do not believe in such funerals, by the way, and have not Ordained the deceased at the few I performed).

    Page 41-42 here:

    So, in other words, it is fine ... and very common ... to be buried or burned up in one's Kesa/Rakusu. (Almost all Japanese are cremated, not buried).

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 12-10-2013 at 07:04 PM.

  10. #10
    Hey! Wait a minute.... I really want to go to Japan, speak some English and am looking for a job! With some modifications, I think I could play the part for 20 minutes without messing up? Where do I sign up for a gig like that? Sounds profitable too!



  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Enkyo View Post
    Hey! Wait a minute.... I really want to go to Japan, speak some English and am looking for a job! With some modifications, I think I could play the part for 20 minutes without messing up? Where do I sign up for a gig like that? Sounds profitable too!


    Hi Enkyo,

    I have a couple of friends who are doing so, and are quite sincere and good hearted about it. Even though they realize that the young couple is there because the "little church, Cross and stained glass" is just a trendy image, my friends really want to make it a special and beautiful day for the couple and their family. On the other hand ... well ... the actual Christian folks here are not too happy about all these fake Christian weddings that are just a business and miss the whole message (one of my friends, a Christian himself, actually tries to bring some authentic feeling into his little sermon during the fake wedding).

    I do not think it a very clean business. Maybe we could find a better job for you? (Since you are a pilot, how about teaching 'pilot English' to pilots? Seriously.)

    I once joked with my friend that he should talk with his boss, see if the wedding company wanted to market "funny and fun filled funerals with a Gaijin/foreigner monk" (me ... and I could also do a Jewish Rabbi). I never heard back from the boss.

    There is actually a little problem here with fake Buddhist priests who engage in Takuhatsu in front of train stations, simply to make money. They are just day laborers who are supplied with robes, sometimes by the mafia!

    That is one reason that Taigu gets hassled by the police sometimes when he practice Takuhatsu as a foreign faced monk.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 12-11-2013 at 02:39 AM.

  12. #12
    Hi Jundo,

    Well, it seems fake or real always is difficult in these matters. I mean, two out of three marriages fails within two years nowadays and a "real" ( who says?) ceremony does not seem to guarantee anything or influence the odds there. Don't know what to say about a "fake" ceremony, led by someone playing the part at the start of a marriage that then turns out to actually last a lifetime? Fake? Real? What is real and what is not? A koan really?

    "If you merry someone and the priest is a fake and the ceremony is not real,
    where does the wedding ring go?
    Answer me! NOW"

    ......or something like that

    Jundo you are joking right? If pilots over there do not speak English, it sure is time for me to pack and go there in a hurry! I will go by train and ship though, not boarding a plane that goes where no one in aviation speaks English. Air traffic controllers always do and it's nice if messages gets across on short final approach at Narita, during rush hour ( just kidding, although there is this funny story.....). But still, teaching English eh? Hmmmmm, interesting.



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