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Donning the robe

YOKOHAMA (TR) – As incense emanates from a few ceramic pots, Buddhist priest Gakushin Tsujimoto settles back on the tatami mat of Renkeiji, the temple over which he presides.

The temple is built into the residence he shares with his wife, son and daughter. It is a modest home tucked within a residential neighborhood above Yokohama Bay. Nearby is the cemetery that Tsujimoto uses to provide any of his deceased followers a proper Buddhist sendoff to the afterlife.

With a buzz haircut, the stereotypical standard in his line of work, and a gold sash over his gray robe, he points at a series of posters hanging on the back wall above a stack of purple pillows. There are a half-dozen in total, each with black Chinese characters running down along the white pages. One reads: “To change a person’s mind you have to take action.”

The always-smiling 62-year-old explains: “These have been made so people can get hints inside my theories.”

They work as sort of an icebreaker, an introduction to Tsujimoto’s feelings and way of thinking. This is necessary in his occupation; after all, many of his daily duties deal with some rather intangible ideas.

“It is always hard to get people to understand what I am trying to say,” he says. “I try to let people understand happiness but they cannot understand easily. Mentally and spiritually, I have to take care of people who need help or guidance.”

In summary, the 350 families under Tsujimoto’s watch are expecting him to provide a balm for the soul. It has been this way for priests in Japan for hundreds of years.

But recent times have seen an added wrinkle in the average priest’s robe. Accusations that the priesthood is increasingly becoming a shroud for a lucrative business are common. For Tsujimoto, he is old school; his priority rests with the well being of his followers.

His daily routine always begins with a bang — or more accurately, with the striking of a small cylindrical gong — to signify the start of a prayer session. The gong sits next to a large kneeling pillow slightly offset from a butsudan, or small Buddhist memorial.

A statue of Nichiren, the 13th century priest who taught that all people — regardless of race — could attain enlightenment, is perched at the top of the tiered wooden structure. Sake bottles, flowers, scrolls, and various other decorative pieces occupy the lower shelves.

Once the prayer session of bowing, hand gestures, and uttering of appropriate phrases is complete, Tsujimoto then begins tending to his flock. He either receives them at the temple or heads off to their residences.

Tsujimoto wants to get inside the minds of his followers and help them with any troubling issues. Common concerns are relationships, finance, and work.

Oftentimes his most difficult task is getting them to turn off any preconceptions they may have of him and simply listen to what he has to say. “New followers can be rude; they think they are superior,” he explains. “So communication can be difficult. But after they start to understand basic concepts on what it means to live, what religion is, they start to learn how to listen to my thinking. In the beginning is the hardest part.”

The periods of ohigan, which literally means “other shore” but implies transcendence to enlightenment, in March and September and obon – the time in July and August when the spirits of ancestors are said to drift back to this world – are some of his busiest times. During these periods, family members pay their respects to their ancestors’ graves, offering flowers or incense. “I pray for the person’s spirit in order to heal the spirit,” Tsujimoto says of his role.

Perhaps Tsujimoto’s biggest task is the administration of funerals, which tend to be controversial undertakings in Japan due to their extraordinary cost.

When all is said and done a typical Japanese funeral goes for a lofty 3 million yen – roughly four times that of the United States. The industry is worth 1.5 trillion yen annually.

The point of contention is that the emphasis has turned to money. The business is so competitive that the practice of florists, funeral companies, and priests providing kickbacks to hospital staff for information on fresh corpses.

“Regrettably I have to admit the business aspect is more important for funerals and religious occasions,” says Tsujimoto, who presides over around 20 funerals a year. “In Japan, funeral companies take the lead and not the priest so in this regard it is difficult to insist that religion should come first. It is a sad thing for me.”

The funeral is a three-step process for the priest. On the first night of the deceased’s passing, Tsujimoto will find himself praying next to the person’s sleeping pillow. In days past the next day would entail a prayer session that would run “all through the night” but recent times have seen that prayer period revised down to one or two hours. The last step is the cremation.

“After the burning of the body, the bones are picked up (by members of the family),” says Tsujimoto of the remains that will eventually find their way to the family’s cemetery plot. “Then I pray again. That is the last prayer.”

The element that likely raises the greatest ire during the procedure is the preparation of kaimyo, a black rectangular plaque with six to twelve characters. The characters make up the person’s posthumous Buddhist name.

Before the Edo Period (1603-1867), kaimyo was reserved for priests when they were ordained. Since then they are used to represent the achievements laymen after death. The formula is simple: the higher the number of characters, the greater the prestige…and the greater the charge. A recent survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government found the average kaimyo fee to be 400,000 yen.

Public outrage over such exorbitant fees four years ago caused the Japan Buddhist Federation to issue the following statement: “Kaimyo is not a commodity to be traded for money. Any money or gift you give to your priest or temple is strictly a donation you offer voluntarily.”

But the reality is usually quite different. Relatives of a deceased person with the task of paying for kaimyo usually experience something akin to looking over items on a restaurant menu, with each character having a price attached to it. Tsujimoto, who guesses that his typical kaimyo charge is about 300,000 yen, is adamant that he chooses the characters and merit is the determining factor.

“I receive an amount that the family can afford,” he says. “I do not give a specific price. The main point is that the money is a donation. It is given to express appreciation; it is a cleansing gesture, a symbol of my work but also an appreciation for the dead person.”

Renkeiji began from scratch four decades ago. The area was not heavily developed but a few residents wanted to establish a new temple. This was soon after Tsujimoto, who entered the priesthood because he was not physically intimidating as a child and just wanted a healthy life, had completed his priest schooling.

“I was in a normal family, not a religious family,” he remembers. “In Buddhist schools, there are two types of people: Those whose family is connected to a temple already and those who are not.”

Today, things are still rather humble. The temple, which from the outside could be easily mistaken for a regular residence were it not for the small sign near the entrance, relies on donations from the followers for survival.

Though Tsujimoto has managed to boost the number of followers at his temple steadily over the years, he is worried about the state of Buddhism in Japan as a whole. Modern society might be leaving it behind.

“People’s sense of values have changed,” he says. “People are putting less emphasis on Buddhism. Instead of religion, concrete matters are more important. Something you can see has become more important than something that is invisible.”

Tsujimoto thinks that individualism imported from the West following World War II has had an impact.

“Many people are moving from the suburbs to the big cities,” he says. “By moving to the city they are losing their connection to their family, and the family size gets smaller.”

Though by far the majority of priests inherit their temple from their family, it is not uncommon to hear of downsized office workers donning robes in recent years. Tsujimoto says that such a transition is difficult given the lack of experience the new priests possess.

As for the future of Renkeiji, Tsujimoto expects his son to eventually take over his role. “But I am not certain what he will do,” Tsujimotos says. “He has his own thinking.”

Note: This article originally appeared in February 2005 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.