By Shyamal Sinha
Seeking to broaden the appeal of Buddhism among Japan’s younger generation, a Buddhist priest at Shō-on-ji (照恩寺), a Pure Land temple in Fukui City, central Japan, has begun offering an alternative experience to the traditional memorial ceremony, adding the pulsing energy of techno music and hypnotic, kaleidoscopic light visuals to the Buddhist experience.
A former DJ, 49-year-old monk Gyōsen Asakura has already brought his unorthodox approach, which he has dubbed the “Show-On-G Memorial Service,” to two such ceremonies—one in May and another in October last year. The events combine traditional Buddhist chants with intelligent dance music (IDM) and breakbeat tracks of his own composition, accompanied by psychedelic lightshows and Buddhism-inspire CG imagery intended to express the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in a more contemporary manner.
“Originally, golden decorations in the temple are expressions of paradise light,” said Asakura. “However, the light of a traditional temple has not changed its form from 1,000 years ago to use candlelight, even after electricity was invented. I felt doubtful about that, and then I thought about expressing paradise with the latest stage lighting such as 3D mapping. We also hope to revive the Japanese faith with these ceremonies.” (Thump)
While Asakura’s unconventional approach may give his memorial services at Shō-on-ji the atmosphere of a warehouse rave, the priest is confident that it is fulfilling his objective of attracting more visitors to the temple and raising awareness and encouraging greater interest in Buddhism—especially among Japan’s youth.
There have been recent warnings that Buddhism may be approaching something of a crisis point in Japan, with 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 Buddhist temples forecast to close over the next 25 years, reflecting shrinking populations in small rural communities and a loss of faith in organized religion among the country’s population as a whole. A survey carried out in 2015 by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicated that 12,065 Buddhist temples in Japan were without resident monks, representing 16 per cent of temples affiliated with the 10 most popular schools of Buddhism in the country. The survey also found that 434 temples from nine major denominations had closed completely in the past decade.*
While the sight of a Buddhist priest clad in traditional robes stood before a DJ station and wearing a pair of large headphones might seem eccentric in a temple setting, and a radical departure from the traditional religious experience, Asakura believes that attendees—both young and old—have responded very positively to his vision. Even his father, Shō-on-ji’s former head priest, has voiced support for the project.
“Buddhism says ‘The Pure Land is a world of light,’” Asakura explained. “It is said people used to use the most advanced technologies available to them at the time in order to ornament temples with gold leaf and thus recreate this ‘world of light.’ What I want to do with this project is use lighting and contemporary technology . . . to make it possible for people to get a more accurate image of what Lord Buddha’s world looks like.” (Japankyo)
Due to the scale of the events, and his aspiration to acquire better equipment for future services, Asakura has turned to crowdfunding to seek donations from supporters. Asakura’s next techno-themed memorial ceremony is scheduled for 3 May.
His goal was to raise roughly $2684 (300,000 yen), but he’s already exceeded that and raised about $3121 (350,000 yen) from 35 supporters, with s16 days still left to go.
“Originally, golden decorations in the temple are expressions of paradise light,” Asakura said to THUMP over Facebook. “However, the light of a traditional temple has not changed its form from 1000 years ago to use candlelight, even after electricity was invented. I felt doubtful about that, and then I thought about expressing paradise with the latest stage lighting such as 3D mapping. We also hope to revive the Japanese faith with these ceremonies.”