“OTEN-IN: a Buddhist Temple without Funeral Ceremonies” (Akita Mitsuhiko)
The major earthquakes in Northeastern Japan resulted in a strong surge of volunteers from all over the country. What contributions can religions make?
A Buddhist monk went to the disaster areas looking for opportunities to do volunteer work. He visited a shelter and offered to serve the evacuees by listening to their worries but he was refused, because he was told that as soon as the people saw him they would recall the many people who had died. Moreover, he was told it was imprudent to do religious proselytism at this moment. In Japan the image of a Buddhist monk is usually linked to funerals. So what contribution can Buddhism make for the living? This question challenged Rev. Akita Mitsuhiko when the Oten-in Temple had to be rebuilt in 1997. He decided to run the Temple as an NPO open for use to everyone.
What motivated Rev. Akita to build an “open temple” was quite complex. First of all, the Aum Shinrikyo had started to gain power in the 1990s. Rev Akita, worrying about the reasons why young people felt attracted to cult religions like Aum Shinrikyo, talked about it with others. When a faithful parishioner remarked, “You monks stay idling around without doing anything,” he woke up in surprise. While temples remain static with their concern for funerals and tombs, cult religions seek out young people in trouble and attract them by answering their needs.
The second motivation was the Great Hanshin Earthquake. At that time Rev. Akita opened a consultation desk in a shelter, but nobody came to it. A monk is supposed to be an expert on human suffering, but he was looked upon as a person concerned for people only during funerals.
Then he came across Buddhists actively involved in social problems. They were Buddhist monks from Thailand and Vietnam engaged in social and developmental issues. As a result, Rev. Akita came to realize that the significance of a Buddhist temple was to provide people with a place to learn and to interact with others. Thus, he transformed the Oten-in into such a community center.
Actually Rev. Akita was not the only one to realize this. There is a publication called “REPORT: Buddhism Challenges Suicides and Poverty,” which depicts the activities of Buddhist monks regarding poverty and suicides in Japan.
“REPORT: Buddhism Challenges Suicides and Poverty” (Isomura Kentaro)
This book reports a number of activities and places where Buddhist monks are working. For instance, there are monks distributing food in Asakusa and Shinjuku, Buddhist temples converted into shelters in Miyagi Prefecture, a food bank opened by a monk in Shiga Prefecture, shower rooms built by a monk for the homeless in Osaka, a monk working as a social worker in Kamagasaki, a residence run for the homeless by a Buddhist nun in Sumida Ward (Tokyo), etc. All over the country Buddhist monks have opened consultation booths for people in danger of committing suicide, using at the same time telephone and internet lines. We can often observe the presence of monks at the side of suffering people and listening to their cries.
According to national statistics, there are about 40,000 convenience stores, 78,000 Buddhist temples and about 80,000 Shinto Shrines in Japan. Formerly, temples and shrines were popular places. The American professor of business administration, P.F. Drucker, pointed out that shrines and temples gave birth to NPOs. According to Rev. Akita, the public function of temples is “learning,” “healing,” and “enjoying.” As for “learning,” the “terakoya” functioned as private schools. “Healing” corresponds to the role of hospitals and pharmacies, as well as of welfare services. On the other hand, entertainment shows organized to build new temples provide “enjoyment.” In this way, temples have served as private agents with the function of “public institutions.”
We can replace “church” for “temple” in what has been said. Catholic churches have also acted as community centers. Confronted with the destruction of community life after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, people were vociferous in demanding that the Church should be open to society, and the Catholic Church in Kobe played an important role in the local community.