From Mail & Guardian – Dressed in dark cotton robes, a bracelet of prayer beads hanging from his wrist, Gugan Taguchi certainly looks the part. But, as he kneels to chant a sutra before an altar in the corner of the room, the people around him continue to chat and his rhythmic prayers can only just be heard above a Blue Note jazz track.
Minutes later Taguchi is back in his seat, glass in hand. A bottle of rum sits on the bar in front of him, next to a half-filled ashtray, as his tobacco smoke mingles with the aroma of incense.
Amid a dramatic decline of interest in Buddhism among young Japanese, Taguchi is prepared to go almost anywhere to reach out to the sceptics, including to the Bozu [monks] bar in Tokyo.
“I can understand why younger people aren’t attracted to Buddhism,” says Taguchi (46), a former office worker from Hokkaido, who turned to the priesthood after his sight became impaired in his late 20s. “Most priests are getting on and I’m not sure young people want their advice. I’m happy to come here and listen to people talk about anything they like. It’s up to them if they decide to heed my advice.”
In the days ahead millions of Japanese will visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to mark the arrival of the Year of the Rat. For many this will be the only contact they have with their spiritual roots for the entire year.
More than 1 200 years after its arrival in Japan from mainland Asia, Buddhism is in crisis. About 75% of Japan’s 127-million people describe themselves as Buddhists, but many see the inside of a temple only when a local head priest is asked to arrange a traditional funeral for a dead relative.
Public donations are drying up and many of the country’s 75 000 temples are in financial trouble. Applications to Buddhist universities fell so dramatically that several schools dropped the religious association from their titles.
Bozu’s owner, Yoshinobu Fujioka, a Buddhist priest who can also mix a decent cocktail for those in search of a quicker path to nirvana, says that Japan’s mainstream sects must shed their conservative image to broaden their appeal.
Being served sake by a priest is just one of the novel ways in which sceptical Japanese are being encouraged to get in touch with their spiritual roots.
Baijozan Komyoji temple in Tokyo opened an outdoor café in front of its main hall and in Kyoto Zendoji temple operates a beauty salon. At Club Chippie, a jazz lounge in Tokyo, the saxophone makes way for Sanskrit once a month as three shaven-headed monks wearing robes chant sutras and encourage bemused customers to join in.
Dozens of Buddhist monks and nuns took to the catwalk in colourful silk robes as part of a public relations exercise at Tsukiji Honganji temple in Tokyo. The event opened with the recital of a Buddhist prayer to a hip-hop beat and ended in a blur of confetti shaped like lotus petals.
“Many priests share the sense of crisis and the need to do something to reach out to people,” says Kosuke Kikkawa, a 37-year-old priest who helped organise the event. “We won’t change Buddha’s teachings, but perhaps we need to present things differently so that they touch the feelings of people today.”