begging monk
Although many Buddhist monks in Japan have shaved heads, wear traditional robes, eat vegetarian food and chant sutras like Buddhist monks elsewhere in Asia, others don't fit the image that most of us have of monks. They smoke and drink, drive around in BMWs or high-powered motorcycles, are married with children, and earn six figure dollar incomes by taking for themselves up to 90 percent of the fees charged for a blessing ($100 to $1,000) or for a funeral (about $1,500). [Source: Quentin Hardy, the Wall Street Journal]

Japanese Buddhist monks don’t have to be celibate. Both Buddhist and Shinto priests marry, and sons often inherit responsibility for their father's congregation when he dies. Wives sometimes receive some training and participate in the running of a temple.

Some Buddhist groups even serve as matchmakers for their monks, In June 2009, the Koysan Shingon Buddhist sect said it was going to help monks and priests and single women affiliated with its temples to find spouses as part of an effort tp make sure the sect stays alive as it is having an increasingly hard time finding priest to manage its temples.

A monk in an "unassuming temple behind a gas station in the outskirts of Osaka" that talked to the Wall Street Journal in the late 1990s earned an annual salary of $72,000, plus about $19,500 for funerals and other ritual blessing. He had a wife, daughter and a mortgage he was "still paying off" on a comfortable apartment with marble floors and a large screen TV topped by a statue of Fudomiyo, the deity of business prosperity.

Japanese Buddhism

Monk Rituals in Japan

Monks burn wood and lead prayers for the safe births, successful exams and other important occasions; perform Buddhist wedding ceremonies; and act as proxies for people who can not make it to their ancestors graves at designate times of the year.

The tokuda ceremony is an initiation rite for the Buddhist priesthood. Performed on children as young as one at certain Buddhist temples, it establishes the participant’s status as monk. Participants have their head shaved and don white robes for the ceremony.

In September of 2009, a 34-year-old Buddhist monk named Endo Mitsunaga finished walking 40,0000 kilometers and doing other training over seven years to complete the Sennichi-kaiho, one of the most difficult displays of asceticism. He is the 50th monk to complete the regime since 1585. He finished the task by praying at Enryakuji Temple on Mt Hiei near Kyoto.

Japanese Monk Completes Nine-Day Ritual without Eating or Sleeping

In 2015, a Buddhist monk in Japan completed a gruelling nine-day ritual, apparently without eating, drinking or sleeping. the BBC reported:“During the endurance test known as "doiri", meaning "entrance to the hall", Kogen Kamahori of the Tendai sect chanted the mantra of the Buddhist deity Acala 100,000 times while denying himself food and drink, or even lying down, the Mainichi Daily News reports. The sect believes that carrying out the doiri makes you the living incarnation of Acala, a powerful warrior "wisdom king" who protects the faithful, sometimes with a flaming sword. [Source: BBC, October 22, 2015]

“Some 600 people gathered to greet the 41-year-old as he emerged wearing a white robe at a training facility on Mount Hiei, a holy mountain in the south of Japan’s main island. He’s the first person to complete the test in eight years, and only the 13th since 1945, the paper says.

“The doiri forms a part of a seven-year training programme known as the 1,000-day walk, in which a monk must circumnavigate the mountain on foot on 1,000 non-consecutive days in order to achieve enlightenment, Kyodo News Service says. Mr Kamahori, who started the programme in 2011 and is chief monk at a temple in the Japanese city of Otsu, still has another two years of his 40,000 kilometer (24,800 miles) trek to complete.

Part-Time Buddhist Priest

Describing the life of a part-time Buddhist priest in Kyoto, Christal Whelan wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Yasuo Sakakibara took over his family's Jodoshu temple in the Nishijin district of Kyoto after his father's death 38 years ago. Although Sakakibara was a full-time professor of economics at Christian-run Doshisha University at the time, he felt his duty as a son required that he not abandon the temple's congregation of 100 families. [Source: Christal Whelan, Daily Yomiuri, October 9, 2011]

Over time, many of the temple's followers had moved away, some to the suburbs of Kyoto and some as far away as Osaka and Tokyo. The temple had become a place where a person could not possibly make a living solely as a priest. His father had survived as a jack-of-all-trades--cleaner, gardener, repairman and priest--but Sakakibara had to hire different people for each of these roles, continuing only the spiritual duties himself. He also kept teaching at the university.

In the summer, he would visit all the homes of the danka to pray at the ancestral tablets of their Buddhist altars, and he would conduct six to eight funerals a year. "What happened was a cross-subsidization between religions," he said. "I worked at a Christian university to get money to support a Buddhist temple." After working two full-time jobs for 25 years, Sakakibara was exhausted, but he had no sons and his daughters had no interest in the temple nor in marrying temple priests. Eventually, Sakakibara sought a successor from outside his family, trained him, and retired from the temple.

Househusband Japanese Monk with Three Kids

Reporting from Yamagata prefecture in Japan, Chihiro Fukai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Along with his job as the 33rd chief priest of the Toshoji temple of the Soto Buddhism sect in Nagai, Yamagata Prefecture, Takuya Ono takes care of his three children aged 12, 8 and 5 as a full-time househusband. “His wife, who works as a researcher in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, lives separately from her family. [Source: Chihiro Fukai, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 16, 2014].

As Ono, 41, does all the housework, including cooking, he became well known as the “ikumen” chief priest from about a year ago. Ikumen is a recently coined Japanese word for fathers who actively take part in raising children. When he is invited as a lecturer to local meetings of parents and guardians or on other occasions, the priest of the temple established in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) talks about his feelings and the joy of raising children.

“Since he was married 13 years ago, Ono has been actively participating in housework. At that time, the family lived in Tsukuba, near his wife’s office, so Ono needed to travel about 230 kilometers to Nagai every time he had a Buddhist memorial service. “I was an unreliable househusband who needed to rush to a funeral whenever there was one,” Ono recalled.Shortly before his eldest daughter entered primary school, he decided to move to Nagai to live with his children at his mother’s house.

“At a lecture he holds almost every month, he tells people that child raising is a kind of ascetic training. He has been through some hard times, he says, such as when his baby’s nighttime crying often woke him up. “But none of my children wear a diaper any more. When you get used to it, it becomes fun. It is like Buddhist training,” Ono said with a laugh. “I want even fathers who have barely any free time to spend with their children to start with something they can do in a short time. I’m sure children can sense fathers’ feelings.”

Greedy Japanese Buddhist Monks

In many ways, Japanese monks have transformed Buddhism into a business. Monks are organized like corporate staff and some seem to know more about accounting and making home pages than mediation and nirvana. Temples have been charged with tax fraud, and head monks have made fortunes by franchising the name of their temples to new temples and developing money-making schemes such as selling $10,000 tombs that register the names of the dead in perpetuity.

Some monks have been accused of greed and taking advantage of vulnerable relatives by charging exorbitant fees for afterlife names, written on plates and hung at Buddhist temples. The highest rank, called ingo, often sell for $10,000 or more . Skimping on costs on a name is regarded as dishonorable and stingy.

One American who studied Buddhism in Japan told the Wall Street Journal that the chief monk at the temple where he studied told him that "people don't respect you unless you are successful. You've got to have a good car to show you've reached a state of holiness."

Troublesome Monks and Famous Nuns in Japan

In 1995, a 43-year-old monk named Wakyo Godo was fired from Kita-ku Kokubunji temple in Osaka and was punched in the head by the temple's chief monk after Goda complained about doing janitorial work in the temple. To get even with the priest and the temple, Goda organized a Buddhist labor union, the Kokubunji Seven, the world's first religious trade union, and staged several strikes and sick outs.

In April 2010, a 31-year-old monk at Chusonji, a renowned Buddhist Temple in Iwate Prefecture on suspicion of engaging in lewd acts with a 16-year-old girl.

Arguably the best-known Buddhist in Japan is Jakucho Setouchi, an 80-something nun with a shaveD head who is known for her novels and frequently appears on televison. She became a nun in 1973 and founded her own temple in 1979. Before that she was known for frank — in the view of some — pornographic novels such “Joshidaise Qu Aling” (“University Student Qu Ailing,”1956) and “Natsu no Owari” (“End of Summer,” 1963) and won a major literary awards. She married when she in university and then fell in love with one of her husband’s students. Setouchi has been suggested as board member for the troubled Japan Sumo Association.

A Buddhist monk, with a long career as a prison chaplain, who spoke with death row inmates before their execution, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Our job is to face people who will be executed under law and make them aware of their own sins. So we must not voice doubt about capital punishment.”

Rishu the Levitating Monk of Mt Horaiji

It is said that 1,300 years ago, on the peaks of Mt Horai in Aichi prefecture lived an ascetic Buddhist monk and hermit called Rishu. According to temple tradition, Rishu founded the Horaiji Temple in 703.[Source:Japanese Mythology & Folklore japanesemythology.wordpress.com <^>]

Rishu according to some accounts, was at the time already residing in the mountains when the 42nd Emperor of Japan whom we know to be Emperor Mommu and who was very ill at the time.. Trained in the Buddhist arts of healing, Rishu was called upon to find a cure for the Emperor and supernaturally carried away by a phoenix to the royal palace. At the palace, the monk

Japanese Mythology & Folklore: As a reward for his work, the monk was allowed to establish the Horaiji Temple (which means ‘Phoenix Come Temple’) in the mountains above the Yuya hotsprings. Now, dwelling on the peak of Mt Horai didn’t make it particularly convenient for Rishu to visit the hotsprings that he so favored. So he levitated his way down the mountain.

“Swooping powerfully down from the peaks of 684-meter-high Mt. Horaiji like a kyarobinga, and yet gracefully poised like an apsara with his robes gracefully flapping around him and all the while playing his flute, was how Rishu would visit the hot spring waters near the Ure River. This unusual method of travel and the holy monk’s frequent dips made such an impression on the locals, that they thought it opportune to open bathhouses there, in the belief that these would be waters with magical healing powers.

“Modern pilgrims today still visit the mysterious mountain maybe supposing the place to be still infused of magic and the supernatural … locals say the local birds (Japanese scops owls) chant paeans to Buddhism in the late spring and summer: “Bu!” (Buddha), “Po!” (sutra), and “So!” (priest). And tourists and pilgrims still visit as well the hotsprings in Yuya Valley for its medicinal waters that are reputed to cure everything from rashes to cancer. Buddhist steles that guide and protect travelers on their pilgrims up the mountain

Image Sources: Ray Kinnane Visualizing Culture, MIT Education, JNTO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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