Exchanging business cards and checking out what’s written on them is a good way to start a conversation, but Ryo Kasuga has so many different job descriptions that you’d hardly know where to start. Not only is he a Buddhist priest, but he’s an opera singer and an astronomer who runs a planetarium as well. Oh, and he’s also a magician.
“It’s like I have different drawers for each of them,” says Kasuga, 54, the 17th chief priest of the Shoganji Temple in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward. A day never goes by without him chanting a sutra, training his voice and practicing his tricks, he says.
As for the planetarium, Kasuga uses it as a tool to teach Buddhism. On weekends at Shoganji, he first reads a sutra at the main temple, then shepherds his flock to the adjoining planetarium to show them a short animated program on sutra that ends with a stellar show. He’s been running his unique devotional sessions that way since 1996, nearly a decade after he succeeded his father as chief priest.
Totally different environment
“To get people to really understand what I’m talking about, I thought I should put them in a totally different environment from the temple, make them relax and then let them open their hearts,” he said.
Away from his temple and telescopes, Kasuga is a tenor vocalist who sings professionally in concerts both in Japan and foreign countries, such as Romania and Italy. “I like singing in Europe better because I’m more inspired by the orchestras and the other singers who perform better than the Japanese,” he says.
Not content with wearing those three hats, though, Kasuga has now developed magic — his hobby since age 9 — into a semiprofessional act he performs at parties and other events, while also attending international conventions to keep abreast of the latest trends and officiating as a Japan Professional Magician’s Association councilor.
“Doing different activities helps release your stress, and it’s also interesting to see how the same people react differently when I’m preaching and when I’m doing my magic,” Kasuga says.
Among all his activities, Kasuga confesses that developing his singing voice has been his priority over the past decade. “It’s as if I am a gymnastics athlete going to the Olympics. I have to continue training and be fit for the day — but I’m nervous until that moment if I can do it right,” he explains.
To reduce the strain on his throat, Kasuga recites sutras in a lower, baritone voice.
But Kasuga is very serious about teaching Buddhism, too. Unlike many of his peers, he boldly challenges the conventional system, which he criticizes as being too focused on rituals. “Buddhism is about releasing your stress and relaxing. It’s a teaching for the living, and not the dead,” the priest says. “But monks have not made the effort to study what’s really written.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — growing up being more exposed to Buddhism than most, Kasuga says his childhood dream was to become an astronomer. Nearly 50 years ago, when Mars made one of the close approaches to Earth that it does every 15 years, Kasuga, then 5, saw the planet through a telescope at a nearby elementary school and was totally fascinated.
Since then, he has habitually visited a planetarium in Shibuya and has read many books on astronomy, and in fact says he was preparing to study the subject at university until his father had ordered him to go to a Buddhist college.
When he was in his teens, Kasuga was critical of the way his father, as well as most priests, received offerings from followers for merely conducting rituals. It was thus with great reluctance that he followed his father’s order and went to the college — only to quit a month later when he realized that many of the students, of whom many were priests’ sons, had no higher aspirations than to trot out such lucrative rituals.
Leap into the dark
After that disillusionment, Kasuga entered another university and majored in Indian Buddhism, in order to understand the religion thoroughly. In the process, he says he became “enlightened.” This only made things worse between him and his father, Kasuga says, and at age 26 he left the temple believing he would never return.
Kasuga’s leap into the dark from there followed his naive decision to become a classical singer, being blessed with a fine voice and a love of singing as he is. “Because I didn’t know about the industry at all, I had the energy to dive into it,” he says.
Kasuga began serious professional training, while performing in choirs and at restaurants. Eventually, he flew to Europe to improve his skills, and continued to receive training in Germany and Italy. Just when he was about to leave for France, however, Kasuga was forced to return to Japan because his father was dying. He passed away three weeks after Kasuga arrived.
Being an only son, Kasuga said he had no choice but to look after the temple. But he decided to do so on two conditions: that he would reform the way things were done, and he would continue to pursue his singing career.
Since he has been based back in Japan, Kasuga regrets that his trips to Europe are now less frequent than he would like — but ironically, he rejoices, it was because of his return to the temple that he could resume his astronomical studies. In no time, he founded an observatory, and then soon afterward decided to establish a planetarium in the temple grounds. Utilizing the cosmic tools he loves so much, Kasuga feels that his temple-goers are gradually appreciating the real meaning of the Buddhist teaching.
While Kasuga knows he might be seen as an eccentric, he doesn’t seek attention. “At heart, I’m a person full of curiosity,” he said, “and I tend to want to be the person doing the action rather than being in the audience.”