Friday, January 22, 2010

Alcohol, Japanese Monks, and Young Adults in Buddhism

For those out there who have made comments about how "stale" and "overly traditional" Buddhism is in Asia, and how the "real" innovation is happening in North America and Europe, here's an interesting story out of Japan about a monk running a bar to spread the word about Buddha's teachings to younger folks. The story itself doesn't represent the many changes and innovations that are underway in Asian Buddhist communities, but it does point to the fact that wildly unconventional approaches to the dharma can spring up anywhere.

In a similar way as Ethan Nictern and others have taken here in the U.S., the story reported above is one that mixes popular culture and Buddhist teachings. The monk in question, Zenshin Fujioka, is concerned about the concentration of grey and white-haired folks at Buddhist temples, and has chosen to break out of the box, and maybe break the precepts in the process, in order to get his message to the younger generations. His "Monk Bar," serves Buddhist teachings with a glass of booze, in modern language, with a side of hip hop. It's enough of a departure to probably make the minds of most Buddhist practitioners spin, but I wonder if there isn't something to this whole thing.

There's always a danger with any spiritual innovation that the changes made will take people away from the core teachings, and create too heavy a focus on superficial elements that might flash and catch attention, but ultimately don't lead one to have a deeper, more connected life.

I honestly wish the reporting in the story weren't so choppy and sloppy because I don't get enough of a picture to understand the full motives of Zenshin Fujioka, or what actually happens in the bar. Is he just catering to the vices of his patrons, and giving them spiritual excuses to live unexamined lives? Or is his bar an entry point for people who may have otherwise never bothered to examine their lives any deeper?

Nate over at Precious Metal takes up this story, and examines the Fifth precept primarily from a focus on whether or not it points to a prohibition of alcohol. I wrote about the 5th Precept over the summer during a wave of blog posts in the Buddhoblogosphere about said subject, so I'll let you all take a look at that post if you're interested.

But I think that these dramatic in appearance approaches, happening in at least two continents now - Asia and North America - require more than a simple "Yea" or "Nay." It's too easy to say "cool! I want in" and it's also way too easy to say "they're screwing with the dharma and should be condemned."

What do you think?


Raf said...

Ummm... I'm not sure what to think. Should I even form an opinion without visiting the place?

Anyway, if other Buddhists don't like this guy's method, they can just come up with their own way. Like, they can take that idea, and instead of a bar they can put up a cafe that serves non-alcoholic beverages.

Besides, from what I've gathered in my visits to Japan:

a. Buddhism has become something only old people do.

b. It's also only for funerals.

c. There is no effort at all to reach out to young people. In fact this is the first time I've seen any effort to reach out to young people. Heck, I've only been a Buddhist very recently and I know more about Buddhism than my Japanese wife!

No wonder this monk is doing something different. He must be getting desperate!

Algernon said...

I'll put it this way: I'm skeptical. The hip-hop sutra approach might arouse some curiosity. That seems like a creative approach. I wonder how effective it is to prosyletize while bartending - preaching is preaching, and if someone just wants to drink, they have the usual options.

In the experiment, I hope the benefits outweigh the potential harm done by nurturing alcohol use and even abuse.

That said, I'm not a "strict constructionist" with respect to the fifth precept. My school translates it as "I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness."

David said...

It's worked really well for Catholics- "Theology on Tap" get togethers hosted by eminent priests and even bishops in local bars around the country have been a great way to reach out to young adults. But, then again, Catholics do not have a moral prohibition on alcohol consumption, even if it is basically ignored in Japan.

Also, Taisen Deshimaru Roshi beat him with his "Buddha Bar" in Paris.