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Buddhist monk Shinsui Kobayashi recently learned the hard way that what’s good for one’s soul during a pandemic may not necessarily be good for one’s body.

Upon hearing in early January that a fellow monk had tested positive for COVID-19, the head priest of Kokunji temple in Fukuoka immediately closed the temple grounds and notified his parishioners, many of whom are elderly and at higher risk of severe illness. He released a statement on Kokunji’s website, contacted the local public health center and hired a cleaning specialist to disinfect the premises. He had also been exposed, however, having chanted sutras alongside his infected colleague several days before.

Shinsui Kobayashi, head priest of Kokunji temple in Fukuoka | COURTESY OF SHINSUI KOBAYASHI
Shinsui Kobayashi, head priest of Kokunji temple in Fukuoka | COURTESY OF SHINSUI KOBAYASHI

In total, Kobayashi and six others affiliated with the temple contracted the novel coronavirus. Kobayashi’s symptoms were mild, but a monk in his 70s was hospitalized for nearly three weeks after developing pneumonia. The temple cautiously reopened in February.

“I’ve strived to be transparent about everything, since I heard there were temples that were reluctant to disclose infections,” says Kobayashi, who has posted videos on Facebook in which he describes his ordeal. He says Kokunji has adhered to strict antivirus measures over the past year, limiting temple visits and asking worshippers to follow stringent health guidelines while livestreaming sermons on YouTube for home viewing.

“However, the fact is that anyone can still catch the virus,” Kobayashi says. “And that’s why we need to have a business continuity plan in place to adapt to the new reality and deal with similar crisis situations.”

The pathogen has exposed the vulnerability of many fundamental aspects of religious life. Lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing measures have seen large gatherings banned or limited in many countries, forcing congregations to adapt to empty auditoriums by embracing technology and focusing on individualized experiences.

In Japan, where there are more temples and shrines than convenience stores, the situation is financially straining Buddhist and Shinto institutions that rely on donations from parishioners. Already burdened by a shrinking and aging population, the pandemic has prompted a reckoning among monks and priests about how to survive in a future where mass infections are a real threat.

“The virus is having a major impact on religious institutions in Japan, with ceremonies being curtailed and funeral rituals being simplified,” says Hidenori Ukai, a journalist and chief priest at Shogakuji temple in Kyoto. Ukai estimates that total revenue for Japan’s temples fell to around ¥270 billion in 2020 compared to ¥530 billion in 2015. If the pandemic continues, he says, the figure could decline further to ¥230 billion this year.

“At the same time, religion offers solace during uncertain times. Once the situation stabilizes, I think we will see worshippers return en masse,” he says. “In the meanwhile, there are new, unique initiatives being rolled out that are changing the way people worship.”

Hidenori Ukai, a journalist and chief priest at Shogakuji temple in Kyoto | COURTESY OF HIDENORI UKAI
Hidenori Ukai, a journalist and chief priest at Shogakuji temple in Kyoto | COURTESY OF HIDENORI UKAI

New opportunities

Soo Iwayama, the abbot of Ganshuji temple in Kanagawa Prefecture, launched an online meditation service called Flying Monk in January 2020, just when the nation confirmed its first case of COVID-19.

Having been introduced to the meditative discipline of zazen by his German father, Iwayama — whose mother is Japanese — decided to become a Zen priest after graduating from Tokyo’s Waseda University. After six years of grueling training, he was dispatched to a small temple in the coastal city of Odawara.

Temples have historically relied on the danka system, through which parishioners provide financial support to family temples in exchange for various religious services. But many of the approximately 77,000 temples in Japan don’t have enough local patrons to maintain their activities or upkeep. Such was the case with Ganshuji.

“Typically, around 150 danka are necessary to keep a temple open and to feed the priest and his family. At Ganshuji, we have four danka,” says Iwayama, who is married with two children.

According to a 2014 survey by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha Research Institute, 45% of temples belonging to the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism reported an annual income of less than ¥3 million. Under such circumstances, it’s not uncommon for priests to seek secondary sources of revenue.

Zen priest Soo Iwayama hosts a meditation session. | COURTESY OF SOO IWAYAMA
Zen priest Soo Iwayama hosts a meditation session. | COURTESY OF SOO IWAYAMA

Together with young, like-minded Zen priests, Iwayama began offering zazen sessions at temples, corporate offices and via online video platforms to relieve stress and enhance concentration. For ¥1,000, for example, a user can join a 30-minute group zazen session on Zoom. The concept quickly caught on, and clients have so far included major firms such as Google Japan and Toppan Printing Co.

The new service also coincided with the onset of the pandemic.

“That means most of our clients have opted for online sessions, including those living overseas,” Iwayama says. Meanwhile, he began selling small, affordable burial plots in a herb garden on the premises of his temple aimed at the growing number of secular-minded Japanese looking for cheaper and simpler options.

Ninety percent of funerals in Japan are Buddhist ceremonies, and Buddhist temples and priests have traditionally played a central role in caring for the dead. But graves can be expensive, especially in crowded cities such as Tokyo.

Iwayama’s graves can be purchased without the owner becoming a danka of his temple, and do not require any maintenance fees.

“The idea is that you can buy the grave but you don’t have to do all the Buddhist rituals,” he says. Around 80 plots have so far been sold, all over the past year or so.

“Luckily I’ve been able to cultivate new opportunities during the pandemic,” he says. “It’s during these difficult times that I feel religion is truly being tested.”

Online offerings

The slump in tourism and the rise of stay-at-home requests have also hit the coffers of the nation’s approximately 81,000 Shinto shrines that primarily rely on cash offering from visitors and ceremonial fees as sources of income. It has also prompted worshippers to seek out alternative means to pay their respect to institutions.

At Kashima Shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, priests have revived an ancient tradition for the first time in 90 years after parishioners asked the shrine to devise a way for them to offer prayers remotely.

Starting this year, a representative known as an oshi has been chosen to visit the shrine on the first of every month to pray on behalf of worshippers.

“The ritual is recorded on video and uploaded to a streaming platform for participants to watch,” says Tomonori Niikura, a spokesperson for the shrine. Those wishing to take part in the service can submit an application with monetary offerings starting at ¥7,000.

Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture revived an old tradition for the first time in 90 years in which a representative known as oshi deliver prayers to the shrine on behalf of worshippers. | COURTESY OF KASHIMA SHRINE
Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture revived an old tradition for the first time in 90 years in which a representative known as oshi deliver prayers to the shrine on behalf of worshippers. | COURTESY OF KASHIMA SHRINE

Tadashi Matsunobu, a director of the local tourism association whose ancestors were oshi, was selected to assume the role.

“My grandfather used to be an oshi until the early Showa Era (1926-89), when the practice disappeared,” he says. Oshi were essentially missionaries for the shrine that traveled to spread faith and deliver ofuda paper talismans to households.

“I gladly accepted the offer and have been trying my best to convey the wishes of parishioners to the gods,” he says.

Yumiko Waguri, chief editor of Wagense, a Buddhist quarterly magazine | HIROYUKI TAKAURA
Yumiko Waguri, chief editor of Wagense, a Buddhist quarterly magazine | HIROYUKI TAKAURA

With communal gatherings frowned upon, many shrines and temples have been devising ways to appeal to worshippers spending more time at their homes.

Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, for example, accepts online applications for prayers and sells protective amulets and other goods — including face masks and even confectionery — on its website. Enzoji temple in Saitama began airing YouTube clips of comic rakugo raconteur performances and yoga lessons filmed at the temple.

Yumiko Waguri, the chief editor of “Wagense,” a Buddhist quarterly magazine, says the pandemic has seen temples and shrines finding new ways to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of people in the confines of their dwellings.

Her magazine has been featuring stories on how to appreciate Buddhist teachings at home while incorporating some of its practices in daily routines.

“Sales of our magazine grew since we focused on the concept of ouchi (home),” she says.

An organization called Terakoya Buddha, for example, hosts online Zoom meetings everyday at 7 a.m. in which monks lead viewers through a 20-minute session involving meditation and mindfulness.

“Those who want to discuss specific issues can chat with the priests to seek advice,” Waguri says.

Meanwhile, temples in graying, rural communities are trying to help older, digitally unsure parishioners who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, she says.

“I know a temple in Shimane Prefecture that lends tablets to older households and offers to set them up so that people can join online services to avoid crowds,” she says.

And while technological innovations are bridging the social distance in an era of self-isolation, Waguri says traditional rituals associated with death are also being forced to change.

Tomonobu Narita, head priest of Zenryoji temple in Yokohama | HIROYUKI TAKAURA
Tomonobu Narita, head priest of Zenryoji temple in Yokohama | HIROYUKI TAKAURA

New revenue streams

A typical Buddhist funeral involves a wake for the deceased by the immediate family, followed by a funeral the following day. During these ceremonies, guests customarily offer money to the bereaved and burn incense at temples and other venues as hired monks chant sutras before an altar.

The encoffined body of the deceased is then carried in an ornate hearse to a crematorium. Following the cremation, family and close friends collect bone fragments for a cinerary urn, and the event wraps up with a reception. The entire process typically takes two to three days, and can cost anywhere from ¥1 million to ¥2 million.

But as practicing good hygiene and social distancing became the norm, funeral attendance has declined, and memorial services are being shortened, postponed or even canceled.

Tomonobu Narita, the head priest of Zenryoji temple in Yokohama, says he offered one-day funerals to his parishioners during the first state of emergency issued last spring.

“Financially, it’s damaging for the temple, but that’s just one aspect,” Narita says, adding that many of the temple’s devotees would rather go ahead with the full ritual but feel they should scale down considering the circumstances.

While the younger generation may feel inclined to opt for toned-down funerals, that may not always be the case with the growing ranks of older residents who prefer traditional rites practiced by their ancestors, he says.

Kamakura Shinsho, a publisher and internet company focusing on funeral services, said in a 2017 report that the average number of mourners at a funeral is 64. Meanwhile, those aged 65 or older accounted for a record-high 28.7% of the nation’s total population last year.

“Still, it’s undeniable that the pandemic is accelerating the trend toward smaller, simpler funerals” amid a growing number of older, single-person households, Narita says. “Religious organizations need to consider ways to adapt to the new landscape and cooperate with each other while cultivating new revenue streams.”

And in a graying nation where deaths outpace births, temples may have the potential to offer more comprehensive care for the aging population.

Zenryoji, which runs its own YouTube channel on which Narita delivers daily sermons, also operates an adult day care facility. The service was temporarily suspended during last year’s state of emergency, but soon reopened following strong requests from family members.

Japan suffers from a shortage of care facilities for the elderly despite growing demand.

“Temples running such facilities are still a rarity,” Narita says. “But there are more than 70,000 temples in Japan — what if more of them ventured into this field?”

Support network

Soon after the COVID-19 cluster forced Kokunji to temporarily close its temple gates, a group of parishioners including an infectious disease specialist, nurse and manager of a nursing care facility gathered to formulate a detailed manual outlining infection prevention measures.

Meanwhile, the temple began offering older worshippers in need of assistance rides to supermarkets and hospitals.

A cleaning specialist disinfects the premises of Kokunji, a temple in Fukuoka Prefecture that was the site of a COVID-19 cluster. | COURTESY OF KOKUNJI
A cleaning specialist disinfects the premises of Kokunji, a temple in Fukuoka Prefecture that was the site of a COVID-19 cluster. | COURTESY OF KOKUNJI

“I’ve learned first hand the importance of being prepared, and those most in need of a helping hand are the elderly often confined to their homes,” says Kobayashi, the head priest of the temple. “It’s important that we take action to create a support network.”

Kobayashi says he is currently in talks with a consultant to design a business continuity plan in preparation for future calamities. From funerals and memorial services to sermons and managing graves, there are numerous tasks temples are responsible for undertaking. As pillars of communities, temples need to be able to serve their congregations at all times, he says.

“You never know what can happen. When disaster strikes, I’d like for us to be there for those in need,” Kobayashi says. “I think the pandemic was a catalyst that reminded us of our vulnerability and need to be vigilant.

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