National Geographic : 2005 Dec
Most Japanese are "funeral Buddhists," he says, meaning they partake in Buddhist rituals only when someone dies. With the fast pace and com petitiveness of Japanese society, young people in particular find little emotional support or sense of community in the ancient rituals of tra ditional Buddhism. "It's ironic," Tomatsu says. "As much as Japan has looked to the West for its cultural cues, it has not embraced the engaged Buddhism that has become so important among Buddhists in the West." Ironic indeed: Many Westerners first heard of Buddhism through Zen, the Japanese derivative of China's Chan Buddhism. Zen was popular ized by the American Beat Generation of the 1950s: novelist Jack Kerouac, author and radio host Alan Watts, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, among others. Soon you could take adult education classes in Zen art forms like calligraphy and ikebana (flower arranging) or rituals such as tea ceremony or archery. Once Madison Avenue discovered Buddhism's selling power, Zen became synonymous with cool, giving birth to dozens of products named Zen, from a skin-care line to an MP3 player. Tomatsu offers to show me signs that the heart of Japanese Buddhism is at least still beating. One is an organization he helped establish in 1993. Called Ayus, meaning "life," it channels about $300,000 a year to national and interna tional groups working for peace and human rights. Two-thirds of the 300 contributing mem bers are Buddhist priests. There's also the sect called Rissho Kosei-kai, founded in 1938 and now boasting 1.8 million households. While firmly planted in the Bud dha's teachings, this organization is different. It's a lay group-and it emphasizes service to oth ers. Members forgo two meals a month, donat ing the money to the sect's peace fund. Rissho Kosei-kai has given about 60 million dollars to UNICEF in the past 25 years. At the sect's world headquarters in Tokyo, the imposing central meditation hall has a ceiling-high pipe organ and stained-glass win dows-more like a Christian church than a Bud dhist temple. Tomatsu and I sit in on a hoza, or dharma session, focusing on the social problems that beset Japan but remain conversational taboos: divorce, drug addiction, depression, sui cide. In a large, brightly lit multipurpose room, 108 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2005 casually dressed participants, mostly women, sit in metal folding chairs in a loose circle around a facilitator, sharing personal dilemmas such as marital problems, disrespectful kids, and aging parents. After each story, the group issues a supportive round of applause. It's a reminder that the new Buddhism doesn't always have to address global issues; the kitchen table can be a war zone too. Tomatsu also introduces me to Rev. Takeda Takao, a Buddhist priest whom I'd seen leading a protest in front of Japan's parliament building in the heart of Tokyo. Hundreds of demonstra tors had gathered to oppose the national Self Defense Forces' involvement in Iraq. Amid the chaos, Takao, in a monk's vest, stood at curbside with several other priests carrying bullhorns, drums, and a banner. Takao belongs to Nipponzan Myohoji, an international Buddhist organization founded in 1918 whose monks and nuns conduct long peace marches, chanting and beating their drums all the way. "Peaceful protest is the only way to make a peaceful planet," he says. It's a conclusion he came to after participating in demonstrations against the construction of Tokyo's Narita Airport. In the 1970s several policemen and protesters were killed, and thousands injured, defending the rights of vegetable farmers whose land had been taken by the government for the runway. As a monument to the tragedy, the Nip ponzan Myohoji Order erected a peace pagoda in 2001 just outside the airport fences. Later that afternoon, as my plane takes off from Narita, I catch a glimpse of the tiny white pagoda. It stands out against the gray indus trial sprawl, a bright memorial to the Buddha's timeless message. Indeed, from Tokyo to San Francisco, from the prison class to the privileged class, a world wide community of socially engaged Buddhists assures that the tradition remains a powerful force. Back in San Francisco, someone else now occupies the hospice bed that was once Carl Tay lor's. And beside that person is another Buddhist volunteer, just sitting. O BUDDHIST RENAISSANCE See the West embracing Buddhism ina multimedia show narrated by Steve McCurry. Then find out why Perry Garfinkel calls the Buddha the "world's first baby boomer" in a video interview at ngm.com/0512.