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Amid the current national craze over anything that might boost brainpower — or at least help its legions of elderly to retain their mental functions — a relatively low-key, centuries-old Buddhist practice has lately been attracting a lot of attention.

In fact, shakyo — copying Buddhist sutras by hand — has been shown to be effective in preventing dementia, according to a recent study by Tohoku University Professor Ryuta Kawashima and the major publishing house Gakken Co.

Kawashima, who is Japan’s top brain expert, measured the cerebral activity of a sample of senior citizens in Sendai by fitting groups of them with sensors on their heads to monitor changes in their brain’s blood vessels. In some 1,000 tests of participants, the study found that when the subjects were writing out sutras by hand, their brains became more active in certain areas than when they were performing any of 160 other tasks, including rolling walnuts in their palms, doing cat’s cradle or sticking pieces of colored paper onto pictures.

Hands-on Buddhism

For Shudo Miura, head priest of the Tokyo-based Buddhist temple Honjuin, that hardly came as a surprise. Explaining that shakyo is the most hands-on way to practice Buddhism, he said, “Many people today feel the need to fill their spiritual void, and shakyo is the easiest way to understand Buddhism, even if the person does not know the sutra.”

Shakyo’s history dates back to the eighth century, when Emperor Shomu had temples built throughout Japan and demand for copies of sutras suddenly mushroomed. Because there were, of course, no printers back then, the copies had to be transcribed by hand, Miura said.

The scripture most often used for shakyo, Miura pointed out, is the 276-character “Hannya Shinkyo,” known as “The Doctrine of Emptiness.” That text, which contains the essence of Mahayana Buddhism, is popular because it is short enough to be transcribed in about an hour, he said.

Traditionally, it was the work of respected monks and bureaucrats to transcribe shakyo, and many specialized in just that. But then, around the 11th century, samurai clans started copying them to pray for their prosperity, according to Miura. From then on, the practice slowly spread to commoners, and nowadays many people engage in shakyo in pursuit of particular aims, such as getting into schools of their choice or praying for the souls of ancestors or mizuko (aborted or miscarried babies).

Because of its religious nature, Miura stressed that shakyo should not be treated as calligraphy. In shakyo, he said, it is the sincerity — not the quality — of your writing that matters.

“You should observe the characters with your eyes, and write each one as neatly as possible, as if you were taking Buddha into your mind,” he said. “That way, you will realize that you are in fact synonymous with Buddha.”

Miura opens his temple — which is in a modern concrete building on the busy Loop 7 road in Tokyo’s Ota Ward — daily for anyone to drop by and engage in shakyo between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Free of thoughts

During a recent visit there, I found a group of people in the main hall quietly copying a sutra from top to bottom, right to left on traditional Japanese washi paper using fude pens whose bodies are filled with ink, and whose “nibs” are stiff, but slightly flexible, brushes.

“I find it very calming, and when I’m writing it, my mind is free of thoughts,” said a 70-year-old woman who lives nearby after her session. Another in her 60s said that young people, too, can benefit from shakyo — not so much for religious training, but just to “keep their mind in comfort.”

Asked if he had any tips for first-timers, Miura thought a moment and replied: “Try to focus your mind, and don’t be interrupted by phone calls or other distractions until at least you finish one line, which is made up of 17 characters. I also recommend that, before you start, you clean up your room and burn incense, instead of rushing to scribble the text on your bed or something. And try to keep your mind in order; it should be a time for mental training.”

Besides Miura’s Honjuin temple, there are a number of temples of various Buddhist sects in Japan that offer shakyo for visitors. For those who prefer to do it at home, shakyo stationery sets, including brush, ink and paper, are available at stationery stores, or via the Internet from around 6,000 yen.

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