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Kyoto monk on a mission opens his doors to diversity

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Takafumi Kawakami is a monk on a mission, or more like several missions. While the 37-year-old deputy abbot at Shunko-in, a historic Zen Buddhist temple in the northwest of Kyoto, certainly looks monkish with his shaved head and cherub-like youthfulness, he thinks and talks like an entrepreneur.

In his meditation classes, which he holds almost daily, he is as likely to expound on the business tactics of Silicon Valley executives and articles from the Harvard Business Review as he is about oneness, focus and breathing. He dresses in traditional garb but sees little point in holding on to tradition for the sake of it.

“Update” is a word Kawakami uses often. For example, mindfulness is an update of the Zen meditation classes he has been teaching for nearly a decade. Updating is also a mind-set for Kawakami. Since 2007 he has set about upgrading the 500-year-old sub-temple. The physical structures have hardly changed, but he’s almost singlehandedly pulled the temple into the 21st century.

One of his most noteworthy updates: Couples of any faith and sexuality are welcome to be married in the serene environment of the temple. Since 2011 he’s officiated at 13 same-sex marriage ceremonies. The majority of these have been for foreign couples, but he’s also married two Japanese couples, which were extra-special occasions, he admits. The marriage ceremonies are held in rooms bordered by ornate gold screens that open out on to the Garden of Boulders, a postcard-perfect garden modeled on the islands of Ise Bay in Mie Prefecture.

The same-sex ceremonies, however, have no legal standing. Kawakami considers his temple’s symbolic gesture a small step, but one he acknowledges has had a big effect in the media and online. CNN and The Huffington Post have both featured Kawakami, and Japanese media have also taken note of his pro-diversity stance. Actor Ellen Page dropped by the temple to film a segment with Kawakami for her new documentary series “Gaycation,” which explores LGBT issues around the world. Kawakumi presided over a “friendship marriage” for Page and her co-presenter, Ian Daniel.

“People think I’m focused on LGBT issues, but I’m just treating them as people who want to get married,” Kawakami tells The Japan Times. “I just want to celebrate them.”

In Japan there is a tendency to ignore the minority, Kawakami says. “The thinking goes something like, ‘I am in the majority, I’m safe, I’m fine,’ ” he explains. “We need to think about the entire community’s happiness. If you can’t improve those who are suffering, you suffer eventually.”

Kawakami is married to an American woman, with whom he has a young daughter, and being in an multiracial marriage has also informed his decision to marry lesbian, gay and transgender couples. He noted that for a long and difficult time, interracial marriages were taboo in the U.S., having only been legalized in 1967. “Now people don’t talk about it: Marriage is marriage. And I hope the same thing happens for LGBT marriages — that’s what I hope for in Japan.”

While Kawakami’s initiative — taken along with a handful of local government decrees to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples — are significant, it’s questionable whether these piecemeal changes will be enough to force nationwide legal reform, says Yuki Arai, an academic who studies same-sex marriage in Japan.

“I am skeptical about Japanese society smoothly opening up the legal institution of marriage for same-sex couples who have never been included in that institution. This change will require a lot of thinking, not only at the society level but also in the Diet,” Arai says.

A pro-diversity approach makes good business sense, which Kawakami admits has led to censure. Critics have accused him of taking a practical approach to LGBT, by which they mean a willingness to make money. However, given the small number of same-sex marriages — typically there’s only about 30 marriages a year at the temple, of which only a small portion are same-sex — it’s an unfair and small-minded criticism. What’s more, when you consider the financial plight of many temples, it’s a wonder that more of them don’t offer LGBT marriage ceremonies.

Kawakami, an only child, grew up in Shunko-in. The temple is one of 46 sub-temples within the Myoshin-ji Hanazono complex, which occupies a couple of city blocks. As a child in this temple theme park, he was given a great deal of freedom; he never felt pressured to follow in his father (and grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather’s) steps and become a priest.

Instead, when he finished high school he opted to move to America, where he first studied English in Houston, and then went on to study economics and psychology at Arizona State University. He was resolute in his determination to be apart from the Japanese-speaking community, in an effort to know thyself — and learn English.

He stayed put for eight years, switching from economics to religious studies after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On the suggestion of a mentor, he forsook grad school, opting to return to Japan, become ordained and follow in his father’s footsteps after all. But also, he vowed to set out on his own path.

In Kawakami’s reckoning, he has stumbled along that path. I’m not convinced; this might be a Zen tactic of deflating the ego or a display of Japanese modesty. Either way, in 2007, not long ordained, a friend suggested he start holding Zen meditation classes for foreign visitors. In the succeeding years these meditation/mindfulness classes have been a mainstay; they are open to the public and are followed by a tour of the temple and capped with green tea and Japanese sweets.

In 2012 Kawakami opened up the temple even further by turning one of the buildings into a budget guesthouse. It’s location alone is a sure draw. The Hanazono complex feels at times like being on a film set for its exactitude, but this is no replica solely to be admired: There’s a kindergarten within one of the sub-temples and locals criss-cross the grounds on quotidian trips throughout the day.

Perhaps Kawakami’s most important mission is an existential one: to save the temple. While Shunko-in is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the prefectural government, the cost of restoration work on the temple roof is estimated at over ¥200 million ($2 million).

Kawakami believes many Buddhist institutions are doing themselves no favors by simply relying on dues and donations from a membership that is declining.

“Many priests don’t know how to run a business,” he says, and this is compounded by their training, which doesn’t focus on the financial side of managing a temple. “Right now is a time of serious struggle for historical Buddhist institutions,” Kawakami says, which is why temples like Shunko-in have opted to try new things.

“You can’t judge me right now,” says Kawakami, the only time in our interview he broke from his poise of equanimity. “People can judge me 50 or 100 years later if I have done right or wrong. The results come much later.”

His diverse business approach includes public and corporate mindfulness classes and overseeing the guesthouse; he recently launched a mindfulness app and is putting the finishing touches to his first book, which will be published in Japanese later this month. The temple employs 14 people, including gardeners and cleaners. No meals are served at the guesthouse; instead, Kawakami encourages visitors to get out, explore and enjoy the area, thereby supporting local restaurants and shops.

“The best way to save the temple is to serve other people,” he says.

Prior to our interview, I joined a meditation on a chilly morning just after breakfast. There were about nine of us, and most of the participants were staying at the guesthouse. We waited in a tatami room, sitting cross-legged on cushions.

At precisely 9 o’clock Kawakami turned up and started by telling us that the position we had all adopted, the half-lotus — well, that it wasn’t really Zen at all. Rather, it was a Western invention, or update, and a stereotype that has persisted around what we think Zen meditation is.

Like every other guru and teacher, Kawakami is guilty of explaining mindfulness in jargon. Mindfulness is about being present, about being in the moment; that’s hard to argue against, and to understand. However, one simple thing that I learned during Kawakami’s meditation class was that in a quiet space, away from our phones and all the contraptions of our tech-heavy life, but not necessarily our thoughts, the elemental and essential act of breathing does take on significance.

Sitting in silence, concentrating on my breathing, I sneaked a peek at Kawakami, in a perfect full lotus position, swaying ever so slightly. He looked like an updated version of the Buddha incarnate.

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  • zer0_0zor0

    Isn’t his wife an intelligence officer? From Canada, was it? Or the USA?

  • Ken Foye

    Interracial couples (once banned from marrying in certain U.S. states) never tried to change the fundamental man-woman nature of marriage. Thus, comparing and equating interracial marriage with “gay marriage” is ridiculous.

    I’m a white man married to a Japanese woman — hence, it’s an interracial marriage. That is not at all comparable to two men or two women “marrying” each other. It’s absurd to equate the two in an attempt to justify “gay marriage.”