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Is Japan's Buddhism Dying Out?

First Posted: 07/22/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 11/17/11 09:02 AM ET

Monk

OGA, Japan -- The Japanese have long taken an easygoing, buffetlike approach to religion, ringing out the old year at Buddhist temples and welcoming the new year, several hours later, at Shinto shrines. Weddings hew to Shinto rituals or, just as easily, to Christian ones.

When it comes to funerals, though, the Japanese have traditionally been inflexibly Buddhist -- so much so that Buddhism in Japan is often called "funeral Buddhism," a reference to the religion's former near-monopoly on the elaborate, and lucrative, ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services.

But that expression also describes a religion that, by appearing to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living, is losing its standing in Japanese society.

"That's the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn't meet people's spiritual needs," said Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple here in northern Japan. "In Islam or Christianity, they hold sermons on spiritual matters. But in Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests do that."

Mr. Mori, 48, the 21st head priest of the temple, was unsure whether it would survive into the tenure of a 22nd.

"If Japanese Buddhism doesn't act now, it will die out," he said. "We can't afford to wait. We have to do something."

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Filed by Verena von Pfetten  |