Art

Pure Land Buddhism and the art of photography

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Follow the Sumida River southwest from Asakusa and you’ll soon reach Kuramae, an old working-class neighborhood filled with small factories, wholesale shops and temples. The area is changing, though, with single origin coffee roasters and stores selling imported pottery sprouting up next to mom-and-pop stores selling tofu and sake.

Head away from the river, down a side street and you’ll come across Chohouin Temple. On first glance, it doesn’t stand out much from the other temples in the area. However, Chohouin is different. The head priest there is 58-year-old Akiyoshi Taniguchi, a monk who also runs a small gallery on the premises called Kurenboh.

A photography enthusiast, Taniguchi combines his love of the art with his role as head priest at Chohouin, his family’s Pure Land Buddhist (jōdoshū) temple where he was “born into and grew up in.” Together with his wife, Mayumi, the couple care for the many members of their temple through prayer and rituals of course, but also through more mundane and worldly ways like phone calls and one-to-one chats. According to Mayumi, “Someone must remain at the temple at all times during the day, in case one of our members need us.”

Taniguchi wasn’t always so firmly committed to temple life, however. Originally he didn’t want to take over the family business and says he spent many years “running away.”

“I used to take images of the ocean,” he recalls. “I wanted to cross that ocean and to go beyond the rigid and cramped space I had in Japan.”

He was a self-described shashin shōnen (photo boy) who “listened to Miles Davis and photographed” scenes on the Shonan beaches, hoping to escape. He went to New York in 1979, at 18 years old, to immerse himself in photography and jazz.

“I didn’t have the need for or interest in the kind of stability that a job could offer upon graduating from college,” Taniguchi says. “I grew up in a temple so to become a salaryman was not even a possibility in my mind.

“Money was not really in my mind either, because I grew up in the temple and didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about realistic possibilities — I wanted excitement.”

In New York, Taniguchi studied with newly emerging vanguards of color photography and lived in an apartment building where “sometimes there were jam sessions going on between musicians on different floors.”

New York was worlds apart from Tokyo — even further from Kuramae — but that was what Taniguchi thought he wanted. His teacher, photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien — who Taniguchi is still friends with — has written that his young pupil’s photographs from that time “show some of (New York’s) messiness and a little of the remoteness of the strangers he saw there, but his strongest American photographs were made mostly in the rooms of his friends, many of them expatriates or sojourners from Japan like himself. His companions seem not to have saturated with the roaring city, even if they thought they did, but to have made themselves a warm and comforting hideout within it.”

Though Taniguchi didn’t know it at the time, perhaps there was a part of him that knew his time in New York was temporary, and that he would ultimately return to Kuramae and Chohouin. Every time he returned for a visit, he felt the temple to be a safe haven.

“I always felt the scent of calmness of my own family’s temple,” he says.

After a while, Taniguchi moved to Los Angeles to work at a Pure Land Buddhist temple there. The move wasn’t indicative of a young man succumbing to his ancestral destiny, however.

“I had heard that it was easy to get a green card as a religious leader. So, I decided to become a priest,” he says.

Taniguchi’s time in LA was filled with disappointments, however. For one, he says he began drift away from photography due to the demands of his work.

“The weather was so good and it was frustrating to not be able to photograph,” he recalls. At the same time, Taniguchi began to question whether he could even “discuss Buddhism in English,” a language that he says had too many Christian undertones embedded into it.

Discontented and unsure, he headed back to Japan and returned to Kuramae. He married, had a child and began to run the family temple, first alongside his father and then later by himself. Amid all the upheaval, he says he was still firmly committed to photography deep down in his heart. He bought prints and books, and kept in touch with his photographer friends, though he himself only took family snapshots.

Some years later, Taniguchi built himself a small, white and round “meditation chamber” and called it Kurenboh. At first it was meant to be private, but so many people wanted to see it that he decided to make it a public gallery where guests could reserve one-hour appointments and look deeply at — even meditate on — the art on display.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the monk donated his entire collection — by this time some 700 to 800 prints — to the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They had been “textbooks and study materials” that benefitted him, but the earthquake gave him a new purpose in life and now he wanted to share his love of photography and Buddhism with others. In addition to his temple duties, Taniguchi holds art shows and has published two photobooks: “Photo Boy 1973-1979: The Blue Period” and “Photo Boy 1979-1988: My Rose Period in America.”

As someone who once wanted to escape his life, the monk is now at total peace within it. Sitting in Chohouin’s main hall, he says: “There’s a moment that I can’t forget, it happened right here. I was maybe in third grade and helping my grandfather, who liked to take and process his own photographs. He had set up a black processing tent right here. When we had put the last print in the fixer, he said to me, ‘OK Akiyoshi-kun, you can open the window now.’ The sunlight streamed in and that gold Buddhist statue (in the center of the altar in the main hall) lit up. At the same moment, the image on the print began to appear. That strange world and the lit-up Buddha. I feel now as if this experience confirmed my life’s path. In some ways, it is the basis for all my experiences.”

To reserve a space at Kurenboh in Taito Ward, Tokyo, visit www.kurenboh.com. To see more of Akiyoshi Taniguchi’s photographs or to purchase his book, visit bit.ly/2I4fayn.