Shaved heads, liquor and ... sutras?

By Ryann Connell, Mainichi Daily News, September 24, 2007

Buddhist priest beat combo gig in Tokyo tavern

Tokyo, Japan -- For most Japanese nowadays, Buddhist priests are the people they meet at funerals, but a group of bonzes are trying to change that image through live performances of rock sutras, according to teen magazine Cyzo (October).

The priests do a live reading of Buddhist prayers on stage at a tiny, 20-seat pub called Chippy in the Tokyo suburb of Shinkoiwa.

"All our chants are in Sanskrit, so there's no need to try and understand what we're saying. People can just enjoy the sounds. Our chants are where folk songs and enka (maudlin Japanese ballads) come from," Hogen Natori, head priest of the Shingon sect temple Mitsuzo-in in Tokyo's Edogawa-ku, tells Cyzo. "We don't just do sutras that you'd hear at funerals, we also do a lot of livelier stuff as well."

When he was young, Natori gave plenty of sutra chanting performances overseas, including a show at New York's Carnegie Hall, but in Japan the only place he had been able to chant was in homes during funerals. He was a regular at Chippy and started to put on chanting shows there. He has enlisted the aid of fellow Buddhist priests Shunko Masuda and Gojun Ichihashi, and they put on their gig once every four weeks dressed in their priestly garments.

"A lot of people in the Buddhist community moan about us getting up on stage to perform in our robes. But we want people who have no interest in Buddhism to know what it's like to hang out with a Buddhist priest as someone they can feel close to," Natori says. "Buddhism in the 21st century can't just stay cooped up in temples."

The three priests do three sets a night and try to drink with customers as much as they can.

Buddhist temples once played a central role in Japanese society, often functioning as the core of the community. But now, most Japanese only come in touch with temples when they attend a funeral or memorial service.

"Many temples nowadays are run by third-generation priests who have inherited their places," Natori tells Cyzo. "But, with about 80,000 nationwide, there are still more Buddhist temples in Japan than there are convenience stores. And there are also about 170,000 Buddhist priests, which is more people than there are enlisted in the Self-Defense Forces. If that many temples and priests got more in line with what's going on nowadays, Japanese society would be a lot more fun. That's probably a bit too difficult a goal to try and bring about, but we're just doing our own little bit."