|

Unique two-year Buddhism course eases strict ascetic practices so seniors can join priesthood

Temple in Gifu seeks elderly disciples

Chunichi Shimbun

Shogen Junior College, a Buddhist institution in Minokamo, Gifu Prefecture, launched a unique course this month that trains elderly students to become Buddhist priests.

The curriculum targets people in their 50s and 60s, even though they may find some of Buddhism’s strict ascetic practices physically challenging. Five men have enrolled in the two-year program.

The college is operated by the Rinzai sect’s Shogenji Temple, widely known as the place where former Yomiuri Giants baseball legend Tetsuharu Kawakami completed his ascetic training in the 1950s.

The idea to start the course was proposed by Sogen Yamakawa, 63, the head priest and chief of Shogen Junior College, which is next to the temple.

Usually, students must learn about the basics of Buddhism and Zen at the college and begin ascetic training at the end of July before they can be accepted into the temple.

Following a tradition that dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), trainees spend their days meditating, chanting sutras, cleaning up and carrying out other chores at the temple from 4 a.m. until after midnight. They wear a light-indigo garment and walk barefoot regardless of the season.

Most spend a year living this way, but the five students on the new course will be granted a two-year training period, with two- or three-week lectures on tea ceremony and ceramics inserted in between their regular duties. They are being housed in a dormitory equipped with air conditioning and a heater.

Students over the age of 50 have signed up for the regular training course in the past, but most had to quit after several months for health reasons, Yamakawa said.

“Being in my 60s myself, I understand what they’re going through. If elderly people try to go through with the training, they may end up losing their lives” because of the harsh conditions, he said.

The five fresh students on the course are 58 to 66 years old. Three hail from Tokyo and the other two from Tochigi and Fukuoka prefectures.

They come from impressively diverse backgrounds, ranging from a successful architect to a government official, an owner of a footwear store, a veterinarian and even an official of the Supreme Court.

Takashi Nagahama, 58, was a veterinarian working in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. He has put down many animals in the course of his work and decided to join the college so he can pray for the lost lives.

“I’ve taken the lives of more than 5,000 animals,” he said.

Before starting his practice, Nagahama spent 10 years as a student at what is now Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University.

Nagahama then moved on and began to research new medicines, conducting experiments on animals including dogs and rats. It was not uncommon to put down several dozen of the test subjects at a time.

Afterward, he started a veterinary practice specializing in horses. While he has experienced joy in his work as a surgeon, including helping to treat the famous Japanese thoroughbred Oguri Cap, Nagahama also had to euthanize close to 50 racehorses that suffered broken legs.

“I heard that training to become a priest is physically demanding, so I gave up on that idea. But I’m now looking forward to how I can change my life with this new opportunity that has been given to me,” he said before resuming a calm chant of the Heart Sutra.

Once the students have completed the course, they can take a qualification exam to become the chief priest of a temple near their respective residences.

“Those who have longer life experiences show stronger resolve than younger people,” said Yamakawa, the college head. “I will train their spirit firmly and help them to become suitable chief priests.”

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 11.