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Zen Buddhism in steep decline in Japan

Zen Buddhism in steep decline in Japan

The Guardian reports that Zen Buddhism in Japan is facing an existential crisis, as the faith dwindles and temples are forced to close.

Part of the problem seems to lie in the exorbitant cost of the Zen funeral, which many families can no longer afford in the modern Japanese economy. One Buddhist priest, Bunkei Shibata, told the Guardian that Zen Buddhism has outdated practices around appointing priests, and hasn’t kept pace with societal changes, noting that it was focused more on death and burial than daily realities. Shibata, 80 years old, actively recruits other retirees for the priesthood, noting that they have time and life experience to share.

From the article:

Of the 47 people, including a small number of women, who have completed his course for retirees, 23 have gone on to train as priests, and seven are now running their own temples.

“Society is changing at a rapid rate, but the Buddhist world has missed out on that because its connection with ordinary people is focused on funerals and memorials for the dead,” Shibata said.

Funerals aside, the modern priest, he insists, must act as a mentor and counselor and, crucially, to spread Buddhist teachings to a skeptical public.

A very different Zen Buddhism has exploded in popularity in America, rising to over 4 million participants since it became a cultural watchword in the ’60s; one major demographic difference is the relatively high number of women Buddhist priests in America. This follows a similar trend in the Episcopal Church and some other Christian denominations in America where growth in new priests is largely being driven by women.

Do you think there are lessons for American Christians in the decline of Zen Buddhism? Do you think it speaks to a broader phenomenon, or is it a singular decline which can only be understood through an understanding of Japan and Japanese culture?

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Paul Woodrum

Maybe its just a human craving for novelty, but it is curious that as Zen Buddhism declines in the East it grows in the West and as Christianity declines in the West it grows in Africa while, for quite different reasons, Islam is moving north into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

Once again we are seeing tremendous shifts in population and belief systems for which, from the present American political debates, we seem barely cognizant, much less prepared. The present American reaction seems to be security and prosperity for ourselves by looking at the past through very rose colored glasses indeed and ignoring the ground shaking beneath our feet.

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