11/10/2015, 00.00
JAPAN
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Sun sets on Zen Buddhism in Land of Rising Sun

Data reveals that over the next 25 years about 27 thousand temples out of a total 77 thousand will be closed. Number of the faithful plummets hand in hand with offerings. Religion "increasingly associated only with traditional funerals. But there's more, for those who want to discover it". PIME missionary in Japan: "Secularization advances, but it has been doing so for centuries. And government figures are likely to be misleading. The religious sense survives".

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Fewer faithful, fewer monks, fewer offerings. And the Japanese Zen Buddhism, religious tradition born in the sixth century AD, is facing extinction within the next century. This is according to figures published in recent days by the National Statistics Bureau, according to which within the next 25 years about 27 thousand temples of Zen Buddhism out of a total of 77 thousand are likely to be closed. It is, experts say, the most serious "existential crisis" the religion has faced to date since it was introduced from Korea.

Out of 128 million people, nearly 28 million say they are Buddhist. But there are many and diverse schools of Buddhism in Japan, so it is not possible to give a true estimate of how many are adherents to Zen. What is certain, according to Zen monks, is that increasingly the temple enters people's lives only to organize a traditional funeral. Instead, Head monk Bunkei Shibata, "there is much more than the funeral rites. The problem is that people do not want to study”.

However, it is also a problem of economics. The popular image of Buddhist priests as wealthy might still be true in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but it's not the case elsewhere," said Ukai. "At my temple, we have about 120 local patrons, but you need at least 200 to make a living".

This connects to other data from the National Statistics Bureau, which show that an exodus of the faithful from the temples connected so closely to the general exodus of the population from the countryside to the cities. The places of worship, once a gathering of small villages, now find themselves in a mirror image of the communities that once surrounded them. This is why they longer receive state subsidies and are progressively being closed down.

However according to Fr. Andrea Lembo, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Japan, the figures are misleading,: "The impression - he told AsiaNews - is that certainly there is a progressive secularization of Japan. But this is a phenomenon that unfortunately has gone on for centuries. So the term extinction is a little exaggerated, because in fact there is a revival of historical and religious pilgrimages in the country underway".

There is also the issue of the management of these temples, "Many are categorized as works of art and placed in the national treasury. So the numbers of those who visit them fall into a sector other than religious. If my church becomes a national treasure, whoever enters it for statistics is a tourist: no account is taken of his or her religious feelings”.

Whoever goes to the historic centers of Japanese religiosity, says Fr. Lembo, "which will have many visitors. The problem is that being also 'historical' places they no longer fall into the category  for which they were built".

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