Amid a marked decline in interest in Buddhism among the younger generation in Japan, a number of monks are seeking to spread the teachings in less traditional ways, hoping to engage youngsters on their own terms. Buddhism in Japan is in something of a crisis—although about 75 per cent of Japan’s 127 million people identify as Buddhist, most seldom see the inside of a temple outside of traditional ceremonies to mark the new year and traditional funeral rites for deceased family members.
At the temple Yugasan Rendai-ji in Okayama, American Buddhist monk Gomyo has founded the “Hoodie Monks” movement, incorporating hip-hop into Buddhist teachings. Now aged 45, Gomyo, whose lay name is Kevin Seperic, was born in Michigan, and started rapping in the early 1990s. He moved to Japan in 1994, where he was introduced to Buddhism, and in 2004 received full monastic ordination in the Shingon tradition, a major school of esoteric Buddhism in Japan and one of the few surviving Vajrayana lineages in East Asia.
“By expressing Buddhism through hip-hop culture, we hope to do two things,” Gomyo said. “Introduce people to Buddhist thought who might not otherwise be exposed to it, and offer an alternative to mainstream hip-hop, which is often preoccupied with materialism.” He observed that while young people in Japan were already exposed to Buddhism, he aimed to spread the Dharma in a more meaningful way by communicating that Buddhism could play more than a traditional ceremonial role in their lives, offering practical teachings for dealing with and understanding daily life. (The Japan Times)
Hip-hop as a musical genre evolved as part of hip-hop cultural movement during the 1970s in New York City. It is defined by four distinct stylistic elements: MCing/rapping, DJing/turntablism, breaking/dancing, and graffiti art. Other musical elements include sampling and beatboxing. These four basic elements, Gomyo explained, have parallels in Buddhism: “The MC rapping is represented in Buddhism by chanting. The DJ . . . keeps the beat going; in Buddhism we use taiko drums or wooden blocks to keep the beat when chanting in a group.” (The Japan Times)
“In Buddhism in general, and Shingon in particular, visual teachings are an important component of practice,” Gomyo added, drawing a parallel with the visual role that street art plays in hip-hop. “It is said that the two mandalas we use in Shingon—the Kongokai and the Taizokai—contain all the teachings, represented symbolically. I like to paint Buddhist-themed murals when I do painting events, to share the images in a style that young people can appreciate.” He also noted that the B-boy dancing element, known as breaking in hip-hop, might be compared with Buddhist dance, such as Bon Odori, while movement and action are also represented in Shingon by mudras, or sacred hand gestures. However, Gomyo conceded that he had yet to explore incorporating this physical aspect in Hoodie Monks. (The Japan Times)
Japanese monk Kansho Tagai is also known as MC Happiness. From boeddhistischdagblad.nl
At the 400-year-old temple Kyoou-ji in central Tokyo, Japanese monk Kansho Tagai—also known as MC Happiness—has been employing a similar strategy to reach a younger audience since 2006. The 49-year-old monk hosts a variety of youth-oriented events at Kyoou-ji, occasionally replacing the soft chanting and gentle wind chimes of daily temple life by rapping Buddhist sutras and teachings in modern Japanese, accompanied by hip-hop beats.
“When I listened to rap music for the first time, it was in English so I couldn’t understand a word,” Tagai said. “I realized that the same can be said for Buddhist sutras because most people can’t understand a word. And the thing is, listening to rap music makes you feel good even though it may be incomprehensible.”
“With our new approach to the younger generation, I really hope that they’ll see the fun side of Buddhism and actually be interested in the religion,” he added. (The Telegraph)