A workaholic-turned Buddhist priest is using his sense of humor to support the aged, according to Buddhist teachings that call on believers to help reduce suffering caused by the four immutable facts of human life — birth, aging, illness and death.

“I’ll get Buddha to call me while I am asleep, and then you’ll pray for me, won’t you?” a woman in her 90s recently said to Norio Miura, a 49-year-old priest who belongs to one of the True Pure Land sects of Buddhism.

“I’m glad and have no regrets about my life,” the woman said.

Miura nodded, then replied: “But if you live to 150 years old, you must ask a younger priest to do so,” eliciting laughter from surrounding residents at the nursing-care home in Osaka’s Hirano Ward, operated by nonprofit organization Vihara 21.

Vihara is a Sanskrit word that means “temple” or “place of rest.” It has often been used in association with the care provided by Buddhists to people nearing the end of their lives.

Miura, now a vihara priest and director general at Vihara 21, used to be a workaholic salaryman.

Born into a poor family in Kaizuka, Osaka Prefecture, Miura had believed from childhood that he needed to find a way to accumulate wealth. He enrolled in university in 1985, just as Japan’s economic bubble was beginning to inflate.

As a student, Miura worked a string of part-time jobs and eventually dropped out of university to earn more.

He landed a full-time job at a construction company and quickly rose through the ranks to become the president’s personal assistant, attending not only business functions but also wedding and funeral services on the president’s behalf.

Miura later gained a seat on the board but quit the company in 1997 following the president’s death. He went on to became a successful business consultant.

When a well-known department store in Osaka launched its own funeral-related advisory services, Miura was keen to get involved, in part due to regrets over the unsatisfactory service he felt he had given his father in 1995.

After studying funeral services, Miura began work as a counselor, giving advice to top officials at the department store. In 2001, they asked him to take charge, and Miura accepted.

He was surprised to find that in his new role people often came to see him not for advice on funeral services, but to pour out their thoughts about loved ones they had lost. Each time this happened, Miura tried to listen carefully and for long enough that they were able to feel relief.

He vividly remembers a time when he arranged a Buddhist altar for a mother who had just lost a toddler. On seeing the altar, the mother called out the name of her child and said “We have a house for you and we will be with you forever.”

Miura said this experience was a profound reminder that death is unavoidable. It was at that point he realized money isn’t everything and there’s more to life.

While his work began to draw attention, Miura wondered what Buddhist priests were doing to ease other peoples’ grief and suffering.

When Miura asked customers, they often said they would not talk to priests about their sorrow. After visiting many temples to ask priests about their roles, one of them suggested he become a model priest to help ease peoples’ suffering.

Miura took the advice and became a priest. At Vihara 21, he provides all kinds of support for residents in its care facilities to help them live at ease. When residents come close to the end of life, he gently holds their hands or rubs their bodies. He also performs funeral services if asked. And when residents pass away, Miura talks about them at their wake.

On a recent occasion, one man asked him “What will you say about me when I die?”

“I’ll think of it then,” Miura quipped. “If I say something wrong, you can haunt me during the wake.”

Residents at their deathbed are often surprisingly lighthearted and show signs of gratitude to the staff members at care facilities, Miura said.

He also expressed his wish that “the presence of Buddhist priests in nursing-care services” will one day become the norm in Japan.

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