Monks venture into bars, and rap

TOKYO — Once a month this tiny music club in downtown Tokyo sidelines its usual bossa nova or jazz musicians and hosts performers from a more enlightened realm — Buddhist monks.

Dressed in their burgundy and black robes, accompanied by brass bells, the monks intersperse chants of sutras with quick lectures on Buddhist music and teachings. A few devout grandmothers hold their palms together in reverence while the monks chant. But others just nurse their beers and Johnny Walkers, talking throughout the show.

The performance illustrates the surprising efforts Japanese Buddhist monks are now taking — one monk has taken to setting Buddhist sutras to rap music — to fill their empty worship halls and secure a future for themselves in an increasingly disinterested Japan.

The religious preferences of the Japanese have always been a bit complicated — and to a western eye — conflicted. Most people here have both Buddhist and Shinto shrines in their homes. They typically attend Buddhist temples for funerals and at year’s end, Shinto temples to welcome the new year, and Christian churches to tie the knot in organ-accompanied ceremonies — all without a thought to the contradictions.

But with the rise in funeral parlors in Japan cutting into what had been a Buddhist monopoly, coupled with decreasing interest in Buddhism in general, Buddhist monks are worried about their future. Each year, lack of financial support shutters about 1,000 of Japan’s 80,000 Buddhist temples, some of them with vibrant histories stretching back centuries.

To counter this trend, Buddhist monks have taken to the airwaves, the stage and even to the club scene in an advertising effort that is as cutting-edge as it is astonishing.

Buddhist monk Hogen Natori, a jazz fan and longtime patron of the Sound Music Bar Chippy (the music club), first asked the club’s owner if she would give him and a few fellow monks the mic one night six years ago. The first few performances prompted a number of bewildered customers to leave. But they also created a monthly tradition that has developed a following.

Natori has grandmotherly groupies like 66-year-old Sachiko Tomisawa. The bespectacled retiree with orange-tinted hair said she comes every month, barring health problems. She has convinced her children and grandchildren to come with her for next month’s performance.

“We can feel their love,” said an excited Tomisawa. “It is so great.”

Natori signs autographs before and after the performance and answers questions about his recently published book.

His inspiration, he said, is his performance 25 years ago at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. He performed there with 80 other monks from Japan as part of a celebration of Japanese Buddhism.

“The New York Times said we were ‘splendid,’” Natori said with a wink. “People can feel the power of the music, even if they don’t understand the words ... Nowadays everybody in Japan loves karaoke. They understand the power of that music. I can use the power of Buddhist music to reach people... to expose them to the idea that there is a another way in life. A loving, smiling way.”

Across town, fellow evangelical Buddhist monk Kansho Tagai, also known as Mr. Happiness, might nod to that and add one word: happy.

The 49-year-old monk writes a blog, runs a dial-a-monk help line, a Buddhist radio program a la Billy Graham, and — most recently — has set Buddhist sutras to rap music and performed — backed by young and hip professional musicians — in his 420-year-old Tokyo temple.

“At first many monks criticized me, playing this sort of music in the main hall of this historic temple,” said the affable Tagai, whose personal taste in music leans more towards mellow Carly Simon and Pat Metheny tunes. “But Buddhism has a long tradition of incorporating music in its ceremonies. In the old days, the famous Shiten Nouji Temple in Osaka held ceremonies with traditional Japanese music. That was 2,000 years ago. All I am doing is updating the music.”

Watching Tagai in his brown and tan robes rapping, surrounded by Buddha statues and other religious accoutrements in his temple’s main hall, it is clear he’s not going to take the Billboard charts by storm. Kanye West can rest easy.

Still, his performances seem to be having the desired effect — lending Buddhism a hip luster and a bit of publicity. Membership in his temple has increased from 200 to 300 families.

“Many ordinary people come here for the first time for one of the concerts and then later come for a day-long Buddhist retreat and then learn more about the religion,” Tagai said.

Other Tokyo-area monks from the Shingon sect of Buddhism have taken up surprising second jobs for the same cause. They have opened a chain of bars, called Vows, where the monks behind the bar offer not only stiff cocktails, but also advice on spiritual matters. The bars, which have a confessional air to them — they're cozy, quiet, and decorated to evoke a sense of otherworldly peace — feature occasional guest lectures. But don’t expect anything resembling a Sunday morning sermon here. This month, one of the bars hosted a discussion with a former Yakuza member (Japanese mafia) turned monk about his spiritual awakening.

Monks at Tokyo’s Komyoji Temple, meanwhile, have set up cafe tables in their compound.

Tokyo’s Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple hosted a fashion show which featured monks and nuns strutting the catwalk in hip clothes. The temple has also installed an organ to attract more weddings.

The challenge of retaining and expanding the flock of the faithful is not foreign to U.S. religious leaders either, and has in recent years prompted an Orthodox rabbi to host a TV talk show and a Baltimore Catholic priest to host cooking shows.

So why not a rapping or cocktail-shaking monk?

“In the modern world,"  Natori said, “we need to deliver. If people won’t come to my temple because it still feels like a foreign place, I must take Buddhism to the people. I am a delivery man.”

Eiko Aoyagi and Yukiko Abe contributed to this story.

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