Monks come off the mountain to bring Buddhism to Tokyo

July 25, 2013

By LOUIS TEMPLADO/ AJW Staff Writer

In today's busy world, not every worshipper has the time to make the age-old pilgrimage to Mount Hieizan, the historic seat of the Tendai Buddhist sect.

So the monks of the peak, overlooking Kyoto, have brought their monastery to Tokyo to offer a chance to meditate in one of the capital's busiest commercial spots.

From July 12-17, monks from Enryakuji temple, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, set up a darkened studio for visitors to try shakyo--a form of meditation based on tracing Buddhist sutras written in Chinese characters with brushes and ink--inside Tokyo Skytree.

Buddhists are looking for a way to reach the ears of the younger generation, whose only image of the religion might come from the monk paid to chant at family funerals.

Filled with shops and restaurants, the 634-meter Skytree tower in Sumida Ward ranks as the world’s tallest and is constantly crammed with tourists and shoppers. Yet it’s exactly the sort of environment, said Koshi Takebayashi of Enryakuji, where the monks want to deliver their message.

“There are few chances now for young people to try their hand at shakyo unless we bring it to them,” said the 42-year-old monk, noting that the calligraphy practice was how Buddhism was initially spread throughout Japan. “We also have to make an effort to explain what the text actually says so it’s not just a blind copying exercise.”

To that end, the monks have replaced the most difficult kanji characters with phonetic hiragana script.

“I tried shakyo before at a Kyoto temple as part of a tour, and I had no idea what I was tracing,” said one 35-year-old participant at the Skytree event. “I didn’t get instant enlightenment this time either, but I do feel as if I’ve actually gotten to learn something.”

The event was jointly organized by the temple and railway companies, which want to promote historic temples on their lines to draw tourists. Japan’s two-decade economic stall has dampened the mood of her generation, said 26-year-old Maruko Tsuyuno, a female monk who has come down from Mount Hieizan with a message.

“Young people need to feel that there’s more open to them than just shopping and spending money,” said Tsuyuno, who started studying Buddhism at age 18.

She has found a novel way to reach her demographic. When not chanting in the temple, she performs as a traditional "rakugo" comedian in restaurants, small stages and on the radio, mostly in the Kansai region.

Tokyo area temples are also reaching out: Kourinin temple in the Hiroo neighborhood of Shibuya Ward, for example, offers daily early morning shakyo and zen meditation classes, meant to attract busy workers.

At Enyuji temple in Meguro Ward, morning and evening zen meditation events are offered for those interested on the last Wednesday of every month.

From Aug. 30 to Sept. 8, monks from Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, which is the headquarters of the Shingon sect, will operate Koyasan Cafe, a meditative restaurant in the Shin-Marunouchi Building, directly across from Tokyo Station, offering some of the sights, scents and cuisine from that holy mountain.

By LOUIS TEMPLADO/ AJW Staff Writer
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Koshi Takebayashi, center, a monk from Tendai monastery Enryakuji in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, oversees participants at a sutra-tracing event in Tokyo Skytree on July 15. (Louis Templado)

Koshi Takebayashi, center, a monk from Tendai monastery Enryakuji in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, oversees participants at a sutra-tracing event in Tokyo Skytree on July 15. (Louis Templado)

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  • Koshi Takebayashi, center, a monk from Tendai monastery Enryakuji in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, oversees participants at a sutra-tracing event in Tokyo Skytree on July 15. (Louis Templado)
  • Maruko Tsuyuno, a monk of the Tendai sect who also performs as a traditional "rakugo" comedian, gives a show on July 15. (Louis Templado)

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