I received my copy of Stephen Covell’s “Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation” today. While the book primarily focuses on temple Buddhism in Japan, looking through it, I can see items of relevance to American Buddhists and Buddhist organizations.
Many American practitioners and groups are trying to define the role for both themselves as well as their organizations in American society. In Asia, traditionally, support mechanisms, both socially and financially, for Buddhism have been radically different than they are for American religion in general. Western culture does not have a tradition of support for monastics and monastic organizations, which makes it quite hard for those that try to embrace the monastic lifestyle taught by the Buddha as an ideal. My own teacher encountered this during the period that he was a monk and I have had friends that have encountered this otherwise. Monks are not supposed to handle money or live as householders but American society has no option for this sort of existence (unless “street homeless” counts as an option). Most people that I know gave back their monastic vows and, depending on the tradition, took vows as householders which allowed them to work. A number of them work part-time or, more often, full-time but on contracts or temporary jobs. They then spend the rest of their time going on retreats or working in other countries with teachers. For an American, this is a difficult lifestyle. Leaving aside the stress it causes and the possibility of winding up on the street, it does not leave room for such simple things as health insurance (or the option to pay out of pocket for health) and can be very alienating from community. This is ironic, in a way, because community, in the form of the sangha, is one of the three jewels of Buddhism and the expectation is that monastics or even practitioners are associated strongly with a community of the same. Where all of this leaves dedicated practitioners is quite up in the air.
In Japan, which is the topic of the book, these issues have arrived partially due to the cultural changes that have occurred with the abandonment of families of many generations residing together (the embrace of the Western nuclear family) and the dislocation caused by people relocating themselves to the cities for work, schooling, etc. Buddhism and daily practice, once a part of large families and passed from older generations to the younger, have been replaced with visiting of the temples for funerals and memorial services but little else. This, in turn, affects how the temples operate. In combination with this, many temples are passed through immediate family because priests in Japan are allowed to marry, so you have a situation where many priests are members of family lineages serving a public that is largely disinterested and with large financial holdings in the form of the temples and properties they sit upon. Then there are those who become Buddhist priests who aren’t from these families or who want to make Buddhism more relevant to the current generations, who are only vaguely educated in their own religion. It seems to be quite a problem.
In any case, I expect that the book will be a thoughtful read.