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Reviewed by:
  • Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation
  • Mark Blum
Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation. By CovellStephen G.. University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 330 pages. Hardcover $45.00.

Japanese Temple Buddhism is essentially a critical assessment in the context of contemporary Japanese society of the "corruption theory" of Japanese institutional Buddhism argued forcefully by the historian Tsuji Zennosuke (1877–1955) in his ten-volume Nihon bukkyōshi (History of Japanese Buddhism), published between 1944 and 1955. Tsuji felt that during the Edo period Buddhism substantially degenerated as a by-product of the creation of the danka, or parish-membership, system that required all families to publicly affiliate themselves with specific temples and sects. This policy officially ended 150 years ago, and as Stephen Covell's concern is with [End Page 174] the state of religious affairs in Japan at the present time, he does not look into the social and political conditions associated with its history. Indeed, among the range of policies implemented by the Tokugawa bakufu that fundamentally changed the structure and culture of Buddhist institutions, some became irrelevant in the Meiji period—such as restrictions on new temple construction and on the making and selling of images. But others still impact Japanese Buddhism today, including the valorization of doctrinal studies and the prevalence of the danka system under discussion here. Conservative bakufu policy encouraged the sacrifice of Buddhism's iconoclastic and creative side in service of creating a conservative social force directly invested in the status quo. As in so many other aspects of Japanese society and culture shaped by the Edo period, in this way the imprint of the bakufu also pervades Japanese Buddhism today.

At the heart of Tsuji's critique was his view of temples and monks as pandering to the "this-worldly benefits" (genze riyaku) typically sought by their lay parishioners in Buddhist ritual. He seems to have viewed Japanese Buddhism against an imagined ideal of Indian Buddhism, where world-renunciation was at the heart of what made the monastic community (Sangha) meaningful for society. There is little question that monasticism in the sense of renunciation has had a problematic history in Japan, but these days scholars take a more nuanced view of what monasticism and renunciation have truly meant for the functioning of the religion in all Buddhist cultures. In addition to the growing consensus that there have been major problems maintaining standards of renunciation throughout the history of Indian Buddhism, evident not only in commentarial and Vinaya literature but in many sutras themselves, substantial numbers of scholars view the prevalence of "this-worldly benefits" as part of the natural panoply of religious concerns in any tradition. At the very least, we need to recognize that expecting benefits from Buddhism in this life arguably has been at the heart of Buddhist culture in Japan from the time of its arrival, particularly from the lay perspective. Not only is this circumstance unrelated to the problem of monasticism, this reviewer has never seen significant evidence showing that its prevalence in the early modern and modern periods represents any significant change from earlier eras.

Although Stephen Covell is aware of this tension in contemporary scholarship, rather than offering an analysis of the larger issue of how or why "this-worldly benefits" within Japanese Buddhist history may have changed over time,1 he focuses primarily on how the expectations and actions of priests and lay Buddhists function in the context of competing religious traditions today. For people interested in learning precisely how Buddhist priests today see their various roles regarding matters such as satisfying the spiritual needs of their parishioners, deepening their own personal spiritual development, promoting Buddhism in society as a whole, or in knowing how lay Buddhists look upon their temples of affiliation, Japanese Temple Buddhism offers what may be the first attempt to get up close and discern what is going on. This work provides both a general overview of social trends and individual interviews with priests and lay believers, together with a number of observations about what is working and what is not, what temples have to fear from the New Religions, and so forth...


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