Sunday, February 20, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 3. The Temples

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

Now, there are many things worth seeing in Buddhist temples, and if you go to Japan without going into at least a few, you are missing out on part of the art and culture of an ancient culture, well worthy of study. That said, I must say the temples could very much be improved. Grace and I went to only two which did not demand an entrance fee of at least 500 yen (about $7.50 at current conversion), sometimes as much as 1000 yen - per person.
Now, I don't mind tourist attractions all so much, and I recognize that temples and churches alike in the old places of the world have become as much art galleries as they have places of worship - but this is precisely what dismays me about the Buddhist approach. In the west, churches have opened their doors, they demand no money, they merely say if you wish to come in, come in - even if it is only to get out of the rain. We ask only that you are respectful, and don't disturb anyone else in their reason for coming in. This attitude is both hospitable and, I believe, encourages the worshipers, who do believe that the places are sacred.
In raising their fees on admitting any, the temples, in my opinion, discourage the worshipers, and encourage the tourists, fully giving themselves over to their tourist and capitalistic ends. Not to say that there were not worshipers - but they were all so clearly from out of town. They all carried cameras and maps - even if they were Japanese. It bewildered me how they gave money at the gate and at the offering plate (actually a box, but we won't quibble), but they did.
My favorite temple of all those we saw was the Buddha at Yudanaka - a figure very nearly unknown, but some seventy feet tall, of a standing Buddha. There is a similar figure in Kagaonsen, which I did not have as much time to pause and see. there were more impressive figures, it is true, and the great Buddha of Kamakura is more than worth the price of admittance, as are the golden and silver pavilions of Kyoto, and all the more so the long hall - but these figures, which stand above Yudanaka and Kagaonsen are not hid (as are the others) by walls and trees, are not closed up at 4:00 each winter evening. They are there for all to see, all to walk up to. They cannot be hidden, and they have a religious meaning, whether one agrees with it or not. They are like a bit of true bold talk in a land of averted speech, and like some glimpse of the actual religion which all this time has been hiding behind the money.


  1. hmm...

    I can't help but think that maybe they are just being more honest about their financial agendas than westerners are. I have yet to discover an American church that won't pass the offering plate at every opportunity they get. Imagine what they would do if hundreds of tourists suddenly began to come through their doors every day. I have a feeling the end result wouldn't be much different.

    That having been said, I think we would both agree that the mere presence of money almost necessarily cheapens and pollutes any religious experience. Essentially, every religion is concerned with the promotion of spiritual truth over material truth, and the pragmatic necessity that money represents is probably one of the most effective at disturbing our immersion in spiritual contemplation.

  2. You know, I had to give this a fair bit of thought before responding. At first, I wanted to agree with you off hand, and I will agree with you to this extent - all religions I have encountered tend to be far too focused on money. That is as true of unorganized as of organized religion.

    That said, I have nothing wrong with money being a part of religion - the use of money for worship in religious ways is, I think, quite entirely proper. But that is exactly what it should be - as worship, not as a tax on admittance.

    Interestingly, I think both the Shrines of Japan and western churches are examples of this done properly - in both, you can give money, and both are examples of religious art (I speak of Western churches in the sense of Chartres, Santa Maria Novella, St. Vitas, etc - not the unsanctifying cardboard blocks of false humility displayed so often by certain other organized or unorganized religious orders.

    Now that's not to say that there are not sometimes entrance fees lifted in western cathedrals- I just visited Venice, which is very strong in that regard. My favorite church in Venice (and this is not why it's my favorite, I think it is also the most beautiful) has a sign above the door, very pointedly saying "This is a house of God. No one may charge you for entrance."

    I think that is the very point of a work of religious art - it is anti-capitalistic. The point of it is worship, and if its worship is not supported by donation, it looses its power. In fact, if I may make a note, certain types of religious music would do very well to actually be paid for beforehand, and then be put online for free. Why not? It would not cost a tremendous amount to pay for an album to be produced, even to pay a band for a year. Religious art should be free, because the point of it is to display the glory of something to a world that is believed to need that glory, or mercy, or beauty. To charge admittance is to eliminate a better part of the world.

    That's what I'm thinking now.


  3. Oh, and for your amusement, a couple of quotes:

    He passed a cottage with a double coach-house,
    A cottage of gentility;
    And he owned with a grin
    That his favorite sin
    Is pride that apes humility.
    1. St. 8. Compare: "And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin / Is pride that apes humility", Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Devil's Thoughts. (1835?)

    and from Marlowe's play, the Jew of Malta, just because I thought the pure villainy would amuse, if only you:

    1. FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
    2. BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead.

  4. A sidenote: Anathallo (a Christian group that doesn't actually suck) produced an album of hymns that they released for free. I know it was free initially, and I think it's still free online. It's only 7 or 8 hymns, but I like it.