Funeral Buddhism as Engaged Buddhism:
Problems and Challenges in Redefining the Role of the Buddhist Priest in
Most popular discussion of Buddhism today in Japan focus on criticism of what is called “Funeral Buddhism” (soshiki bukkyo). This paper attempts to redefine “Funeral Buddhism” as “Life Stage Buddhism” (sosai bukkyo) in order to tap into the potential within the present system for renewing Japanese Buddhism’s relevance to modern society. Not just Japanese Buddhism, but also Japanese modern medical care is in crisis due to formalization and mechanization. The Nenbutsu-ko is one form of “Life Stage Buddhism” which can be used to bring doctors, priests and the elderly together to heal the split between physical and spiritual health care in modern Japan. Finally, Jodo Shu’s particular interpretation of the Pure Land as an existential place offers another important means for working with the sick and dying in Buddhist pastoral care.
Problems and Potentials in Funeral Buddhism
Today in Japan, we often encounter articles in newspapers or programs on TV about Buddhism. However, they often do not concern the teachings and practices of the tradition, but rather focus on criticisms of the present temple system. Particularly, these criticisms focus on the fees for funerals, especially for the posthumous names (kaimyo) given the deceased. In this way, contemporary Japanese Buddhism has often been dubbed "Funeral Buddhism" (soshiki bukkyo). This term is a pejorative one which means that Japanese Buddhism's essential function has become confined to the performance of funerals and memorial services.
The two basic reasons for this negative connotation are that Buddhism seems to have been taken over by business concerns rather than spiritual ones and has become overly formalized. Concerning this formalization, a concrete image of the afterlife, whether it be the Pure Land or not, is seen to be declining among modern Japanese, who have become fully immersed in modern, secular and scientific outlooks. This conspicuously includes Buddhist priests of all walks, including scholars. Because of this lack of spiritual consciousness, by both priests and followers, the funeral ceremonies increasingly appear as simply “going through the motions.”
However, despite this situation, people continue to come to temples and enlist priests in funeral rites. For myself, I see that the solution is not in destroying the form, that is funeral Buddhism itself, but rather transforming the form and using this continual opportunity of death and funeral rites to make something meaningful in Japanese Buddhism.
As I’ve mentioned, the idea of “Funeral Buddhism” (soshiki bukkyo) refers to the central focus on funerals, rites and activities after a person has died. However, I would like to use a very similar but different term, known in Japanese as so-sai bukkyo. The character for so means “funeral” and is the same character as in soshiki bukkyo. The character for sai generally is used to mean “festival”. In this way, I translate so-sai bukkyo as “Life Stage Buddhism”. This refers to the way Buddhism traditionally has been involved throughout a person’s life. For example, there are seasonal festivals associated with Buddhism, such as visiting the temple at New Year’s (joya-no-kane), setsubun, Buddha’s birthday (hanamatsuri), the spring and autumnal equinoxes (higan), obon, and segaki. There are of course the various funeral and memorial rites. Further, although many Japanese do these ceremonies in a Shinto fashion, some Japanese continue to do various life stage ceremonies in a Buddhist way, such as prayers for a new born’s wellbeing (omiyamairi), prayers for a young child’s wellbeing (shichi-go-san), weddings, new home groundbreaking ceremony (jichinsai), taking refuge in the Triple Gem (jukai), and various community associations (ko) including those for the elderly.
In this way, Buddhism has traditionally offered numerous ways for people to create spiritual meaning in their daily lives. However, in contemporary Japan, as the ceremonies are on the wane, it is not surprised to see a decrease of spiritual meaning in people’s daily lives. However, as I mentioned before, I would not see the problem as located in the Buddhist rituals themselves, with the conclusion that they should be eliminating altogether as part of embracing modern scientific culture. Rather, I want to look at the reasons for the rituals having become formalized and meaningless, and in turn focus efforts on how to transform them and take advantage of their numerous potentialities.
“Funeral Buddhism” as Socially Engaged Buddhism
In this way, I would like to propose a very counter intuitive concept, which is “Funeral Buddhism” as socially engaged Buddhism. First of all, when we speak of socially engaged Buddhism, especially in Japan, we speak of various kinds of relief work, especially in the developing world, human rights activism, peace activism and environmental activism. I do not want to be overly critical of these forms of socially engaged Buddhism in Japan, as many of my closest friends are involved in them. However, most of these socially engaged Buddhist priests undertake these activities in a way that is largely unconnected with their work as a priest in the temple, both as soshiki bukkyo and as sosai bukkyo. As such, I feel this kind of socially engaged Buddhism will have a limited impact on Japanese Buddhism itself and not really be able to transforms or address the key problems facing Japanese Buddhism today.
For myself, I think it is essential to base social engagement upon the sosai bukkyo activities of each temple. I have been trying to transform my own temple from a place of soshiki bukkyo to a place of sosai bukkyo. Further, in terms of this sosai bukkyo, I am specificity concerned with the needs of lay followers before their death. Through my own activities as a priest and then the critical experience of dealing with my terminally ill father four years ago, I have become increasingly interested in the problem of both the medical and spiritual care of modern Japanese. Since April of this year, I have joined the Keio University School of Medicine as a lecturer where I will continue to develop my ideas and study on this issue. Thus I have developed a keen interest in pastoral care.
At present, general health care in Japan has become very professionalized and compartmentalized. For example, the doctor takes care of only physical problems, the psychiatrists or counselor takes care of only mental problems, and the social worker takes care of the patient’s reintegration into society. There is an ironic parallel here between modern doctors and Buddhist priests. Both have become like machines: doctors mechanically repairing bodies and priest mechanically chanting to repair souls.
The key issue now is that more and more people are passing away in the hospital and not a home. In the past, when people passed away at home, a Buddhist priest or spiritual leader could be close at hand at the time of death. However, in the modern era with its unwritten restrictions on religious persons in public hospitals, priests and religious persons are less available. In this way, the doctor himself has taken on increasing expectations as not just a physical healer but also a spiritual healer. However, the way doctors are educated and trained in modern Japan makes them almost totally incapable of serving the spiritual needs of the sick. Although, the professionalized health care system tries to separate a patient’s needs and serve them with different experts, the reality is that most patients lean heavily on their doctors for emotional and spiritual counsel as well as physical counsel. In this way, there is a need for doctors to be more spiritually and emotionally adept in their work. This is a situation that the doctors recognize themselves based on my conversations with the Dean of the Keio University School of Medicine.
The problem with the mechanization of both doctors and priests lies in the common crisis of their respective cultivation systems. While we can see that many doctors are trained simply in the mechanics of physical healthcare, it has also been my direct experience as a professor in the Divinity School at Taisho University that the cultivation of young priests in Japan is seriously lacking. Serious consideration to changing the cultivation system of both doctors and priests is greatly needed. While I am involved with this on a minor level at Taisho University, I have become more centrally involved with this work for doctors the Keio University School of Medicine. However, institutional change always is slow and laborious, so I also have developed a vision for social engagement on this issue in the setting of the local temple.
Reviving the Nenbutsu-ko
Earlier in my paper, I spoke of the traditional role of Buddhism serving the life stage needs of the Japanese people, which I called sosai bukkyo or “Life Stage Buddhism”. One of the traditionally important Buddhist functions in Japanese society was the community association (ko). In Japan, the nenbutsu-ko has always been an important community association for the elderly, which has transcended sectarian affiliations. In this way, the nenbutsu-ko has served as a traditional Buddhist support system for elderly people and the concerns they develop about their health and eventual death. Of course, in modern urban Japan, these nenbutsu-ko are not numerous or strong. However, I see their regeneration as an important piece to this puzzle of the crisis of health care in Japan.
For example, ten years ago, the core members of my temple here in Tokyo asked to start doing the special practice of one million nenbutsu (hyakuman-ben nenbutsu) every month. This group also wanted to learn a more formal level of sutra chanting. This group consists of mostly retired businessmen and widowed women all over the age of 60. In this way, we have recreated a nenbutsu-ko here in downtown Tokyo.
At these events, we spend a short time chanting and then the real core of the meeting begins with teatime, chatting and good food. At these events, we always have two lead speakers who rotate with each session. In their talks, they raise topics and concerns from their own experiences, and then we form a discussion. As can be expected from this age group, their main topics are about health, sickness and critical family experiences which often include death. From these conversations, I could see that they didn’t want to talk just about spirituality but also wanted to talk about the specific aspects of physical health care. In fact, it was impossible to divide the two topics – the physical and spiritual aspects of health - as the professionalized medical system has worked so hard to do.
In this way, I have begun to invite to my temple doctors and other medical professionals to speak not only to this nenbutsu-ko but also to my general congregation. This past May during the annual segaki, I invited a prominent aging specialist from the Keio University School of Medicine. The event drew almost double what usual events at my temple do, and I could see the members’ keenness in their attentiveness, note taking and actual recording of the session.
Holistic Pastoral Care
Thus far, I have commented much on the problematic split between physical and spiritual care. However, there is another problematic split which mirrors this previous one. It is the division between doctors as caretakers of the living and priests as caretakers of the dead. In the traditional notion of pastoral care, the priest remains confined by these two splits. S/he offers only spiritual guidance, and this guidance is largely for people who are terminally ill and are facing death. However, in my view, authentic pastoral care in Buddhism must transcend these splits. Firstly, as I mentioned in my own temple’s experience, we can incorporate the learning of physical health care into the setting of learning spiritual health care in the temple.
Secondly, through the reinvigoration of such nenbutsu-ko in the temple, we can begin to work on spiritual health care now while we are healthy and vigorous. The problem with most pastoral care is that when priests enter the hospital to comfort and work with patients, the patients are usually too weak and ill to meet the challenges of authentic spiritual practice. The pastoral care has arrived too late for them. All it can do at this point is offer some mild comfort in their last stages of life. However, if we begin such pastoral work in the temple before they become sick and are hospitalized, they can more fully develop not only their spiritual capacities but also their understanding of physical matters. In this way, when their time comes to die in the hospital and the priest arrives, there can be a much deeper and more authentic spiritual encounter for the dying. This reminds me of some of Honen’s own instructions on nenbutsu practice and facing death:
Some say that even though one has been saying the nenbutsu, if when one draws near the end of life, one is unable to converse with their religious teacher, it would be hard for them to attain ojo. And again when one is very sick and one’s mind disturbed, it would be similarly hard. But according to Shan-tao, when a person who has made up their mind to go to the Pure Land repeats the nenbutsu, whether many times or few, comes to die, Amida Buddha with his retinue does come forth to meet him. So in the case of one who makes this their daily practice, even if there is no religious teacher near when s/he is on their deathbed, the Buddha will welcome them to the Pure Land. The attaining of ojo through the help of one's religious adviser, according to the Meditation Sutra (Kanmuryojo-kyo), refers to those who attain to one of the three grades of the lowest class in the Pure Land. Those belonging to the lowest grade of the lowest class did not practice the nenbutsu daily, nor did they have any special intention of attaining ojo, but were sinners of the deepest dye, who on their death-bed conferred with a religious teacher for the first time, and reached ojo by some ten repetitions of the nenbutsu. But those who have made up their minds to go to the Pure Land by daily putting their trust in the power of Amida’s Original Vow, and calling upon that sacred name, which after long ages of contemplation he determined to make efficacious for all, will be welcomed to the Pure Land by the Buddha himself, even though they do not have the advantage of a religious adviser. (Honen Shonin Gyojoezu [Shijihachikan-den], Ch. 23, section 8)
With this type of “training” in the temple, they will also be less of a burden to the doctors and be able to function almost as partners in their healing, or dying, process. Beyond this, doctors and priests will also benefit greatly from participation in such temple groups. Doctors can deepen their understanding of spiritual matters, and priests can become more engaged in the daily lives of their lay people before they die, thereby reviving the practice of sosai bukkyo. When doctors, priests and patients practice together in this way, each becomes more learned and together they become more empowered to make many difficult moral and ethical decisions that occur during old age, sickness and death.
One final issue I would like to raise goes back to the problem of faith and religiosity among both priests and lay. At the beginning of this paper, I noted how both priests and lay people in modern Japan have an increasingly hard time believing in a concrete afterlife. While we may see this as a positive sign as moderns replace superstition with science, it has been my deep experience as a priest that people, both the dying and the bereaved family, very much need a concrete sense of the afterlife to make their minds at peace in the face of death. Buddhism with its emphasis on anatman and sunnata has generally shunned reliance on realms of the afterlife. However, Jodo Shu and our understanding of Honen clearly puts emphasis on the real existence of the Pure Land in West where one goes to reunite with loved ones after death. I have found this understanding of the Pure Land very important in my pastoral work. However, more deeply, I find that it is not enough for it to be just an idea or an expedient means (hoben) for caring for followers. Rather, I feel that for myself and for other priests, that in order to really offer spiritual guidance, this belief in an existential Pure Land is essential to pastoral care. I know that Jodo Shin Shu maintains a more orthodox Buddhist sense of the Pure Land as an experience of the mind which can take place anytime, anywhere. However, I reminded of the numerous great Tendai, Shingon and Zen masters, most recently in D.T. Suzuki, who turned their attention to Pure Land practice and the achievement of ojo in their final days. Amidst the materialism and nihilism of modern Japan, I find this to be an extremely important issue to confront in our spirituality and in our social engagement.
1996-2006 Jodo Shu Research Institute
Copyright(c) by 1996-2006 Jodo Shu Research Institute