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Bringing transparency to Buddhist funerals

October 21, 2008

From Asahi.com

When novelist Saburo Shiroyama died in spring last year, fellow novelist Hiroyuki Itsuki wrote a eulogy in The Asahi Shimbun.

“Mr. Shiroyama once told me how impressed he was when the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist monk officiating at his wife’s funeral not only asked for a fee that was quite reasonable, but even gave him a receipt,” he wrote.

Itsuki went on to note that he could never forget the incredulous expression on Shiroyama’s face as he recounted this episode. I recall reading this and thinking, “How like Shiroyama,” who detested anything that offended reason.

I am sure many people have worried uneasily that they were being ripped off when making an ofuse (cash offering) to a priest at a funeral or memorial service. The appropriate amount is in the hundreds of thousands of yen, if not more–and you don’t get a receipt.

In this day and age, such a transaction is a no-no even in the world of politics. There is no objective way to tell if the tacitly approved “going rate” really is appropriate.

Concerned that this sort of murkiness might have led to public distrust in the institution of Buddhism, about 20 young Buddhist monks in Tokyo recently formed an organization called Tera-netto Sangha (Temple network of followers of the Buddha) in Tokyo. One of its stated purposes is to try to restore faith in institutional Buddhism by explaining everything people need to know about the donations they make and where the money goes.

Daiki Nakashita, the group’s 33-year-old leader, said that some funeral business operators have been “referring” Buddhist monks to their customers and pocketing kickbacks from the monks. The kickbacks, Nakashita explained, came out of offerings the monks had received.

In Buddhism, the deceased receives a kaimyo (posthumous name), and what kind of kaimyo the deceased receives usually depends on how much the bereaved family is willing to pay. Obviously, not all Buddhist temples are guilty of capitalizing on bereavement. But for a long time now, Buddhism in Japan has been viewed cynically as “the religion of funerals.”

“Religion is not only for mourning the dead. It is also supposed to save the souls of the living,” said Nakashita, who has been at the deathbeds of many patients in hospices.

Nakashita and his fellow monks intend to donate some of the offerings they receive to various charitable causes. I truly hope they will be like a fresh breeze to blow through and shake up the old order.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2008 5:53 pm

    I had heard how Buddhism in Japan has negatively been referred to as funeral Buddhism. I have actually attended a couple of Buddhist funeral services in Japan and they were very comforting. I feel if they allow family and friends to feel more spiritual, even if only at that moment, or if it allows them to feel a spiritual connection to their deceased loved one, then I think it is a good thing. I think there is nothing wrong with Buddhist funeral practice in Japan.

    Thank you for the article, it was informative.

  2. October 22, 2008 1:34 am

    This was very interesting to read, especially the idea of trying to “restore faith to institutional Buddhism”. It reminds me of the issues within “institutional” Catholicism when there was such a problem with the selling of indulgences and things of that nature–those things, as well as these abuses of funeral rites, do go a long way for destroying faith in a religion. Even the idea of an “institutional” Buddhism is fascinating and problematic in many ways–food for thought.

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