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What is Funeral Buddhism?

The term "funeral Buddhism" can be seen as a critique of Buddhism in Japan.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2014
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Buddhism in Japan is sometimes described as funeral Buddhism, both because of the monopoly over the funeral industry held by Buddhists in Japan, and because some people perceive Japanese Buddhism as being overly focused on death and dying. As Buddhism loses popularity in Japan, some commentators have suggested the funeral Buddhism may be responsible, by not meeting the spiritual needs of modern Japanese. Some attempts have been made to reform the practice of the Buddhist faith in Japan in response to this.

Death and dying are extremely important in the Buddhist tradition, especially in Japan. People must follow a set of precisely prescribed rituals in the days leading up to the funeral and in the months and years beyond. Historically, Buddhist temples have dominated the funeral business in Japan, because of the complete assortment of services they offer; they care for the body, handle the rituals associated with the funeral, provide officiants, and guide families through the complex process of a traditional Japanese Buddhist funeral.

However, some critics have suggested that Buddhism in Japan is overly focused on funerals, failing to provide for the living. This has led to the slang term “funeral Buddhism” in reference to the practice of Buddhism in Japan, emphasizing the stress on holding proper funerals.

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As Japanese culture has shifted, so have religious values. Many young Japanese have turned to funeral homes and secular providers, and as a result some Buddhist temples have closed, with many more struggling to survive. Surviving on the trade provided by older Japanese and traditional families may not be possible, leading some Buddhists to fear that traditional Japanese Buddhism could die out, or at the very least become drastically reduced.

Changing perceptions about funeral Buddhism may take time, and not everyone is convinced that this is possible. It would require a shift in thinking for many Buddhist temples, with attempts to more actively engage with the community, emphasizing the fact that Buddhism is not just for funerals. Japan, like some other societies, is also becoming increasingly secular, and the society may reach a tipping point beyond which there is no return.

The focus on the process of death and dying involved in Japanese Buddhism is backed by centuries of tradition. It is perhaps not surprising that people refer to the Japanese practice of Buddhism as funeral Buddhism because of the focus on funerals and ceremonies for the dead, but by the same token, it would be a pity for these traditions to be lost forever.

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Discuss this Article

anon243670
Post 6

I am an ex-Catholic who converted to the buddhism of nichiriin daishoninn 10 years ago. Some of you may have seen Tina Turner's film "What's love got to do with it?" We chant "Nam myoho renge kyo" and it does not focus too much on death.

Being a Japanese Buddhist in the west, which is perhaps why it's grown I still pray catholic prayers and occasionally attend mass and church, even if it isn't encouraged by nichirin, but it is a part of my heritage. My father died last year and we had a Catholic ceremony but he was cremated in the Buddhist way like many other people in the west.

Most religions focus on death. Look at the muslims who blow themselves and other innocent people up so they can go to paradise and may be given a martyr's funeral.-- james

everetra
Post 5

@hamje32 - Strangely enough, I think that Buddhism has a better chance of surviving in the West than it does in the East. That’s because here there is kind of a secularized form of the religion if you will.

Buddhist books emphasize the importance of the karma, meditation and transcendental healing. A lot of people have latched onto these teachings and made them prominent.

It’s not uncommon to find Hollywood celebrities claim that they practice Buddhism as a way for them to find their spiritual side. You will not find them talking too much about the afterlife, however, or the belief in many gods that seems to be common to Buddhist beliefs. I think you have a lot of flexibility with Buddhism as to what you want to believe or not believe.

hamje32
Post 4

My wife is Asian so I am a little familiar with Buddhist traditions. Actually she was raised Catholic and her parents were Buddhist. In Indonesia, where she is from, it’s not uncommon to have a mix of religious traditions within the family, so Buddhism and Christianity can coexist side by side as strange as that may seem.

I remember once we visited a graveyard to pay homage to a deceased relative. Everyone stood around the tombstone and bowed and did all sorts of other things out of respect for the dead. They even hold feasts when someone dies; I’ve never understood that – maybe it’s a way of celebrating their passage to the afterlife.

Regardless, Buddhism is definitely tied to dying, that’s for sure, and I think this is owing to some of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. There is a strong emphasis on reincarnation for example, so that would make sense.

ddljohn
Post 3

Just because people don't go to Buddhist temples as often as they used to doesn't mean that Buddhism is dying out in Japan in my opinion.

I don't go to Church every Sunday but this doesn't mean that I'm not religious or I'm not a Christian any longer.

It may just be that Japan is going through a change now and Buddhism worship is being affected along with everything else. I wouldn't refer to Buddhism as "Funeral Buddhism" for that reason.

burcinc
Post 2

@feruze-- It's not surprising to me that a Buddhist temple would close down without any funerals. I've been to a Buddhist funeral before and it truly is a grand affair that costs a lot, for the family as well as the temple.

The temple has many nuns, security guards and other personnel who are a part of of the funeral process. So that's a cost that a temple needs to maintain somehow.

It's hard to understand because funerals in the US are not as elaborate as Buddhist funerals. Buddhist funerals require a large hall to be decorated and prepared, equipment for a funeral procession (including cars/motors) and a band to play the funeral music. The function takes place in the temple or hall and then the procession with the music band start walking the streets.

So you can see that this is no cheap affair. A Buddhist temple needs to have access to all of these equipment and personnel even if there isn't a funeral every day. It's not easy to keep up with this. The only way this issue can be resolved I think is for Buddhists to look at Buddhism's origin and see if they can simplify these traditions in a way that it would be more affordable for everybody.

bear78
Post 1

If Buddhist temples in Japan have started closing because they are not getting enough funerals, then this is definitely a sign that Buddhism does not offer enough to Buddhists.

I absolutely agree that a religious or spiritual belief should be able to offer much more to people than comfort and service during death. I actually do think that Buddhism offers more than this, but perhaps it has not been emphasized enough as the article said.

I cannot imagine a church or mosque closing because there are no funerals for example. People who belong to a religious belief tend to spend time at these religious institutions and will often donate to keep them running without expecting any more than what they already offer.

If a Buddhist temple also had other Buddhism rituals and services in addition to funeral services, they would not be at risk of closing down at all, would they?

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