Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation

By Rowe, Mark | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation


Rowe, Mark, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Stephen G. Covell, Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, 256 pp. $25.00 paperback, ISBN 978-0-8248-2967-4.

THE DEATH of Japanese Buddhism is well attested. A list of causes usually includes one or more of the following: the temple certification (terauke seido ...) of the Tokugawa period; the widespread attacks on Buddhist temples (haibutsu kishaku ...) in the early Meiji period; the attempts, both internal and external, to purge Buddhism of its supposed superstitious trappings at the turn of the last century; and the popular view of contemporary Buddhism encapsulated in pejorative expressions such as "funerary Buddhism" (soshiki Bukkyo ...) and "profiteering monks" (marumoke bozu ...). Indeed, Buddhism in Japan has been continually bound up in a modernist narrative of decline that has persisted to the current day and has, along with other factors such as the post-war successes of Japanese New Religions, meant an almost complete lack of attention paid to contemporary forms. While dominant memes such as "new Kamakura Buddhism" have received extended critical review, twentieth-century Japanese Buddhism has been almost entirely neglected by scholars, both in Japan and the West.

Enter Stephen Covell's excellent study of post-war Japanese Tendai-to my knowledge, the first full-length treatment of a contemporary Japanese Buddhist sect in either English or Japanese. As the subtitle suggests, a central theory of the book is that contemporary Tendai is caught up in a bind between the "traditional" image of themselves as world-renouncing monks-as seen, for example, in the use of mountain ascetic (kaihogyo ...) imagery in sectarian promotion-and the daily activities of temples promoting this-worldly benefits and conducting funerals. We are presented, then, not with a dead tradition but rather one very much alive and trying to maintain its doctrinal ideals while remaining relevant to the secular lives of parishioners, and, as Covell makes clear, temple priests. The main narrative thread of Temple Buddhism is not decay, but tension-a tension that provides a fascinating variety of materials with which to think not only about Japanese Buddhism, but also about questions in the study of religion more generally.

By eschewing the premise that contemporary Buddhism in Japan is not "really Buddhist," Covell is able to fruitfully explore a number of significant issues confronting not only Tendai but all of the Buddhist sects. These issues include the economic effects of land reform measures after World War Two, urbanization, shifting demographics, shrinking families, institutional structures imposed by the Religious Corporations Law (shukyo hojinho ...), changes in community organization, the rise of the funeral industry, and new patterns of religious affiliation and expression. As such, we are provided with a number of subjects not commonly covered in the study of Buddhism, including questions of taxation, formalization of fees for religious services, issues surrounding temple families, concerns over priestly training and succession, and attempts to redefine temple affiliation.

Space does not permit a detailed summary of all the chapters, but I would like to touch on a couple of topics in the book that add new dimensions to our understanding of contemporary Tendai. In Chapter Three, Covell details Tendai's "Light Up Your Corner Movement" (ichigu o terasu undo ...), a movement initially founded by priests in Tokyo to spread Tendai teachings but was later adopted by sect leaders to promote Tendai identity, strengthen parishioner involvement, and combat what were seen as the social ills of modernization. Similar to popularizing activities started by all the major sects in the 1960s and 1970s, such movements were mobilized in part to combat what was seen as the threat posed by the New Religions and to respond to the needs of an increasingly industrialized and commercialized society.

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