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Experimental Buddhism

Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan

John K. Nelson

Publication Year: 2013

Experimental Buddhism highlights the complex and often wrenching interactions between long-established religious traditions and rapid social, cultural, and economic change. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and archival research, it is one of the first studies to give readers a sense of what is happening on the front lines as a growing number of Buddhist priests try to reboot their roles and traditions to gain greater significance in Japanese society.

The book profiles innovative as well as controversial responses to the challenges facing Buddhist priests. From traditional activities (conducting memorial rituals; supporting residences for the elderly and infirm; providing relief for victims of natural disasters) to more creative ones (collaborating in suicide prevention efforts; holding symposia and concerts on temple precincts; speaking out against nuclear power following Japan’s 2011 earthquake; opening cafés, storefront temples, and pubs; even staging fashion shows with priests on the runway), more progressive members of Japan’s Buddhist clergy are trying to navigate a path leading towards renewed relevance in society. An additional challenge is to avoid alienating older patrons while trying to attract younger ones vital to the future of their temples.

The work’s central theme of “experimental Buddhism”provides a fresh perspective to understand how priests and other individuals employ Buddhist traditions in selective and pragmatic ways. Using these inventive approaches during a time of crisis and transition for Japanese temple Buddhism, priests and practitioners from all denominations seek solutions that not only can revitalize their religious traditions but also influence society and their fellow citizens in positive ways.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

Series Editor's Preface

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I would like to express my sincere appreciation to some of the key people who have helped in the process of completing this study. First and foremost, I want to thank the individual priests who shared their stories and experiences with me, whether in lengthy interviews or in brief encounters. Without their cooperation and understanding, this book would not exist. In particular, Rev. Akita Mitsuhiko...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xxiv

It is reasonable to ask why anyone should care about the state and fate of Buddhism in contemporary Japan. An obvious response is to point out that like Daoism in China, Christianity in Europe, or Islam in North Africa, understanding the influences of diverse Buddhist traditions upon Japanese culture and society helps us read an entire civilization. From beliefs about causality to the spiritual ...

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Chapter 1 Experimental Buddhism: Contexts and Trajectories

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pp. 1-27

It was hours before dawn when the smell of smoke roused the Buddhist priest from his sleep. As he jumped out of bed and raced from his sleeping quarters down a long corridor, a persistent fear that his family's 400-year-old temple and its treasures would suffer damage by fire snapped into a panicked reality. The smoke thickened as he approached the main hall of the temple, and he heard ...

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Chapter 2 Japanese Versions of Buddhism

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pp. 28-69

This chapter’s brief survey of the histories, practices, attitudes, and reputations of Buddhist priests in Japan may be somewhat subversive to idealized expectations of these individuals and their traditions. Readers who cherish personal memories of a tranquil temple garden, an encounter with a kindly priest, the awesome spectacle of a Buddhist ritual or festival in full swing—or who have found certain ...

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Chapter 3 Social Welfare and Buddhist-Inspired Activism

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pp. 70-111

For people living in a fast-paced and information-saturated age, it is not surprising that desires for tranquility, emotional control, and spiritual awakening are projected onto the traditions of Buddhism. Buddhist monks and priests are thought to embody these qualities, with the Internet, television, self-help literature, advertising, Hollywood, and self-promotion encouraging the association. ...

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Chapter 4 Four Prototypes of Experimental Buddhism

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pp. 112-140

What causes a person to awake to the suffering of others and then engage in efforts to make society more humane? If education, upbringing, or intelligence were key factors, then Japan’s Buddhist priests should be world-renowned as guides and activists of compassion. After all, many of today’s priests have been raised in spacious, aesthetically pleasing settings (the temple) premised upon the ...

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Chapter 5 Alternatives and Innovations in Buddhist Religious Practice

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pp. 141-187

In the span of a few short years, the digital revolution has enabled individuals from all social and economic classes to position themselves within expansive networks that are quite unlike anything the world has seen. Just as individuals and businesses can extend their digital reach, so too can churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, or other religious organizations muster technological resources ...

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Chapter 6 The Future of Buddhism in Japan

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pp. 188-216

When thinking about where Japanese Buddhism will be twenty or more years from now, it is important to recall that in what ever context it is found, “Buddhism” is anything but a singular institution, religion, or philosophical system. We can, of course, find evidence within Japan’s Buddhist denominations for a basic set of religious ideas about spiritual awakening, salvation, and causality (to...


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pp. 217-218


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pp. 219-260

Works Cited

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pp. 261-276


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pp. 277-292

About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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pp. 293-297

E-ISBN-13: 9780824838348
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838331

Publication Year: 2013