February 17, 2017 7:00 pm JST

Japan's thoroughly modern MBA monk

MBA-bearing Buddhist gives business advice to rejuvenate Japan's temples

PALLAVI AIYAR, Contributing writer

Shoukei on the second floor cafe of Komyoji temple in Tokyo (Photo by Pallavi Aiyar)

TOKYO -- Japan's striking combination of the ancient and modern may be an obvious cliche to old hands. But, to the visitor, its essential truth is undeniable. As one walks around Tokyo, the two most ubiquitous structures are convenience stores and shrines. In the shade of Edo-era temples are 7-Eleven convenience stores, while FamilyMarts are framed by the torii, or ceremonial entrances, of Shinto altars.

The border between the secular and spiritual is startlingly porous. Komyoji temple is an unassuming two-story structure only about 300 meters away from the teeming entrance of Kamiyacho metro station, a bustling Tokyo neighborhood. Yet inside, it feels 300 years distant.

The main altar is located on the second floor. A gilt-painted, wooden statue of the Amitabha Buddha is surrounded by lacquered altar tables, candles, incense jars and copies of sutras. A door leads onto an open balcony with views of the temple's cemetery. The mild, sweet scent of fresh flowers laid before many of the 600 gravestones lingers. In the background, the iconic Tokyo Tower rears up into the sky.

It is to this temple that a 37-year-old monk known as Shoukei belongs.There is little in his appearance -- shaved head, navy blue tunic, baggy trousers -- that indicates anything out of the ordinary, but Shoukei is far from typical. Nominated as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in 2013, and a graduate of the Indian School of Business, this Buddhist with an MBA is leading the charge to rescue Japanese temples from their moribund present and make them relevant to Japan's stressed-out, overworked and aging population.

The Japanese tend to have an ambiguous relationship with religion. Although a clear majority identify as atheists in social surveys, most are nonetheless comfortable joining religious rituals such as visiting shrines during festivals. These rituals are not dependent on religious belief as much as on the nature of the occasion. It is standard for someone to be welcomed as a baby with Shinto rites, get married in a Christian ceremony and be buried with Buddhist rituals.

Living better

Funerary rituals are therefore the Japanese Buddhist monk's stock in trade. "When people think of Buddhism they think of death, but what about life?" Shoukei asks. He believes religion should be about helping people to understand their purpose; to live a better life. It was these concerns that first led the monk himself towards Buddhism. A philosophy graduate of the University of Tokyo, Shoukei became ordained in the Jodo Shinshu school of Mahayana Buddhism in 2003 when he was only 23 years old.

However, he found a temple community primarily concerned with ceremonies, rather than philosophical pursuits. "Temples should be a repository of our history and culture, passing the baton of our civilizational foundations to future generations," he says. But even as social conditions have rapidly changed, temples are failing to adapt.

Traditionally, temples in Japan have been tended to by one priestly family, based on the principle of primogeniture. The cremated remains of neighborhood families are buried in its grounds. These families contribute regular donations for the temple's upkeep, which, along with the cost of graveyard plots and maintenance fees, are what have kept the temples financially afloat.

But in modern Japan an exodus from the countryside to the cities, coupled with the growth in childless couples, and people opting for secular funerals, have meant that tens of thousands of temples are in danger of closing down within the next decade or so. Primogeniture adds to the crisis, since it is unclear what happens to a temple when the priestly family in charge has no son to take over.

Unusually, Shoukei does not come from a temple family. He grew up in Hokkaido where his father ran a company that manufactured machine parts for robots. The head priest at Tokyo's Komyoji temple, which Shoukei eventually joined, did not have any male children, which probably explains why he was accepted as an outsider into the temple.

It also might explain Shoukei's own, open outlook. The young man was quickly convinced that a temple based entirely on revenue from graves and funerals was unviable. "With so much social fragmentation we needed to change our focus from families to individuals and we could not take anyone's loyalty for granted," he explains.

Cafe society

His first venture was to start a cafe on Komyoji's second floor balcony. Kamiyacho is a bustling business district, and the balcony overlooks the grassy graveyard, making it a pleasant green patch in what is otherwise a concrete jungle. About 30 to 40 office workers from nearby buildings have now made it a habit to bring lunch boxes over to the temple balcony during their work break. Shoukei says opening up the space to people in the locality, regardless of their religious inclinations, has helped restore the temple as a social center of the neighborhood. It has created a third space for workers in the area, one that is neither office nor home.

By 2010, Shoukei had spent seven years at Komyoji. It became increasingly clear to him that he needed more business skills if he was to truly help Japan's temples prosper. He decided to apply for an MBA from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. He chose India because it was the birthplace of many spiritual gurus and Shoukei felt a deep "soul connection" to the country. "I knew I probably had only one chance to live abroad, and so I wanted it to be somewhere that mattered to me," he says.

Shoukei was both the first Japanese and the first monk to study at ISB, but he found the experience thought-provoking. In India religion infused meaning to the daily lives of people in a way it no longer did in Japan. And on campus, classes in marketing, strategy and finance proved useful.

After returning to Japan Shoukei began to conduct temple management seminars across Japan. He usually holds six every year and over 400 priests have attended so far. A business school method is employed, using different temples as case studies. Students must present a temple renewal plan to graduate. The ideas generated include ways to raise revenue and relevance by instituting meditation courses, temple stays, supporting volunteer activities and hosting music and theater productions.

High-tech graveyards, where urns are stored in lockers and made available on conveyor belts to relatives wielding smart tags, have also started to combat the space crunch in traditional cemeteries.

Shoukei is not complacent. Comparing the success of Vipassana, a globally popular form of meditation retreat originating in Myanmar, to Japanese Buddhism, he likens the former as a mobile phone app that can be accessed immediately, while the latter is more like an invisible operating system. While he strongly believes that Japanese Buddhism remains in need of an "update," the young monk is optimistic.

He says materialism cannot be a lasting end in itself. "Why are people working themselves to death?" he asks, referring to karoshi, the Japanese term for "death by overwork." Shoukei flashes a tranquil smile. "It is only at the temple that people will be able to rediscover the experience of living."

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