John K. Nelson

Experimental Buddhism

Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan

University of Hawaii Press 2013

New Books in Buddhist StudiesNew Books in East Asian StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network May 7, 2015 Luke Thompson

In his recent book, Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), John K. Nelson delves into the historical...

In his recent book, Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), John K. Nelson delves into the historical circumstances that have led to the declining fortunes of Japanese Buddhism and explores recent and ongoing attempts by Japanese Buddhist clerics to render Buddhism relevant to Japanese society once again. Based on extensive fieldwork, interviews, and the author’s own participation in some of the innovative programs featured in the book, Experimental Buddhism features forty-five temples and some of the experiments that they are undertaking. Shingon monks chanting in a jazz club in Tokyo, a female cabaret dance troupe performing in front of the massive seated Buddha of the twelve-and-a-half-century-old Tōdaiji, a priest-run counseling center located in a covered shopping arcade, and a suicide prevention group run by priests are but a few of the fascinating examples that Nelson identifies as a part of a new trend within Japanese Buddhism, albeit a minor one as of yet.

Rather than simply being another transformation within Japanese Buddhism that has developed over time, the experimental Buddhism at the center of Nelson’s work arises from individual agency, a type of personal freedom that was absent in previous eras, and new communication technologies. From priest-run bars where monks-cum-bartenders serve cocktails with Buddhist names and look for chances to chat with patrons about the middle way (or about the patrons’ personal woes), to a Nichiren temple in Tokyo where sutras were transformed into rap lyrics set to a beat, the experiments described here are carefully thought-out attempts made by clerics who recognize that in the modern period Buddhist institutions and teachings have largely failed to address the problems that most concern the Japanese laity.

Before presenting us with specific case studies, Nelson spends the first third of the book clarifying the larger social context in which experimental Buddhism should be understood. Central here is the rapid modernization that Japan experienced beginning in the 1950s and the heightened importance and freedom of the individual in Japanese society. As Japanese felt increasingly free to choose their religious beliefs, practices, and affiliations, many terminated the relationship between family and temple that had been a central feature of Japanese Buddhism since 1635. Besides this gradual loss of parishioners, other factors directly impacting Buddhism include the 1946 land reforms whereby temples lost most of their leasable lands and were thus driven to even greater economic reliance on funerals and memorial services, the negative public image of the Buddhist priest in Japanese society, and a refusal by a large percentage of Buddhist clerics to recognize the deteriorating relationship between Buddhist institutions and Japanese society.

In asking how Japanese Buddhism might make itself relevant once again, Nelson points out that the sectarianism common in Japanese Buddhism means that each institution is structured to focus on perpetuating itself rather than asking about the health of Japanese Buddhism more broadly. Because of this, ecumenical collaboration and a willingness to introspect and ask difficult questions are vital if Japanese Buddhism is to survive as more than cultural and architectural heritage. Concerning this point, Nelson discusses two groups that are attempting such a feat, and here, as throughout the book, his research is lent an extra dimension by his own participation in the program in question.

The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the current state of Japanese Buddhism and Japanese religion more broadly. However, while readers will be skillfully led through Japan’s own complicated web of historical contingencies that led to the current state of affairs, the book addresses dynamics and quandaries that religions have faced the world over during the past two centuries, a fact which Nelson duly notes. The book will therefore be useful to anyone interested in how a religion copes with modern social, economic, political, and institutional changes, and Japan is a particularly illuminating case study because of the speed with which these changes have occurred there.

Experimental Buddhism shared the 2014 Toshihide Numata Book Prize for “outstanding book in Buddhist Studies,” a prize administered by the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. John Nelson is Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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