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Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation
272pp. June 2006
Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation
Author: Covell, Stephen G.;
There have been many studies that focus on aspects of the history of Japanese Buddhism. Until now, none have addressed important questions of organization and practice in contemporary Buddhism, questions such as how Japanese Buddhism came to be seen as a religion of funeral practices; how Buddhist institutions envision the role of the laity; and how a married clergy has affected life at temples and the image of priests. This volume is the first to address fully contemporary Buddhist life and institutions—topics often overlooked in the conflict between the rhetoric of renunciation and the practices of clerical marriage and householding that characterize much of Buddhism in today’s Japan. Informed by years of field research and his own experiences training to be a Tendai priest, Stephen Covell skillfully refutes this "corruption paradigm" while revealing the many (often contradictory) facets of contemporary institutional Buddhism, or as Covell terms it, Temple Buddhism.

Covell significantly broadens the scope of inquiry to include how Buddhism is approached by both laity and clerics when he takes into account temple families, community involvement, and the commodification of practice. He considers law and tax issues, temple strikes, and the politics of temple boards of directors to shed light on how temples are run and viewed by their inhabitants, supporters, and society in general. In doing so he uncovers the economic realities that shape ritual practices and shows how mundane factors such as taxes influence the debate over temple Buddhism’s role in contemporary Japanese society. In addition, through interviews and analyses of sectarian literature and recent scholarship on gender and Buddhism, he provides a detailed look at priests’ wives, who have become indispensable in the management of temple affairs.

Topics in Contemporary Buddhism Series
"Excellent. . . . By avoiding any normative stance on what constitutes ‘true’ Buddhism in Japan and instead providing a nuanced examination of a sect struggling to adjust to drastic social, economic, and demographic change, Covell’s work engages with the broader methodological trend in Religious Studies to approach religion not as something separate from everyday life but as something most fruitfully explored as enmeshed in the everyday." —Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (34:2, 2007)

"Covell’s excellent study is essential reading not only in the field of contemporary Japanese religions, but also for comparativists interested in the changing role of institutionalized religion in the modern world." —Religious Studies Review (33:1, January 2007)

"In what will no doubt be a landmark volume in the fields of Buddhist studies and Japanese religious studies, Covell examines with great sensitivity the manner in which theclerics of Temple Buddhism, particularly those in the Tendai denomination, attempt to preserve their practice and way of life in the face of growing indifference, if not hostility, in Japanese society today." —H-Net Reviews (H-Buddhism) (June 2007)

"I recommend [this book] to everyone interested in Japanese history and culture, and particularly to students of Buddhism. It is engagingly written. Covell’s fieldwork is well-grounded in both Japanese- and English-language scholarship. While the book has much to offer scholars in the field, it is readily accessible to nonspecialists. It provides all the statistical data and historical background required for undergraduate teaching. I have already introduced it into my classes." —Journal of Asian Studies 65:3 (2006)

"A clear, accessible contribution to the study of contemporary Buddhism in Japan, a topic markedly understudied. . . . Provides a much-needed overall perspective into the deep dilemmas faced by Japanese Temple Buddhism today." —Pacific Affairs, Spring 2006

"Scholarly investigations of modern Japanese religion have neglected the traditional schools of Buddhism. Covell’s book admirably fills this gap by focusing on a tradition with a venerable history but one that has been ignored in accounts of contemporary Buddhism. Covell cogently examines how priests in the Tendai tradition have striven to adapt to the demands of modernization and reconcile a monastic tradition with the demands of secular life and have searched for teachings that would resonate with their parishioners. His treatment of the wives of priests and modern temple economics address topics that many scholars have recognized as keys to a full understanding of Japanese Buddhism, but few have examined. This is an excellent study that belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in Japanese Buddhism or how Buddhist traditions have responded to the demands of modernity." —Paul S. Groner, University of Virginia

"Stephen Covell provides a welcome antidote to the widely purveyed images of Buddhism in Japan as decadent, concerned only with funerals, money, and business, and of Buddhist priests as little more than businessmen with no understanding of the inner meanings of their faith. In this wide-ranging book, Covell examines the reality of contemporary Buddhism’s dilemmas in dealing with a rapidly changing society and ministering to the changing consumer needs of clients while seeking to maintain the underpinnings of their Buddhist tradition, and provides an in-depth study of how priests in one particular Buddhist sect are wrestling, not always successfully, with the problems—from declining support levels and the perceived indifference of a formerly captive membership to the constant economic pressures incurred in maintaining religious institutions and buildings—that organised religions face in the 21st century. This is the first book-length study of a contemporary Japanese Buddhist sect in English and it is to be commended for its clarity in assessing the challenges Buddhism faces in Japan, and for tackling head-on many of the most difficult issues, from the anomalous status of temple wives to the economics of funerals and posthumous names, that surround the tradition in modern Japan." —Ian Reader, Lancaster University

"Both a dedicated participant and academic observer, Covell provides a fascinating and richly informative overview of contemporary temple Buddhism in Japan. Deftly handling the tensions and contradictions between the world-renouncing ideal and ordinary family realities of modern Buddhist temple life, he puts to rest the simplistic ‘corruption’ paradigm for understanding the role and place of Buddhism in contemporary Japanese society. One gets a clear picture of ordinary people struggling to maintain important traditions while trying to make sense of them in an ultramodern and rapidly changing society. This book is an important addition to studies on the role of religion in contemporary Japan." —Paul L. Swanson, Director, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

Author: Covell, Stephen G.;
Stephen G. Covell is assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University.
Read the introduction (PDF).
Series Editor’s Preface
Reign Periods

Introduction: Snapshots of Buddhism in Today’s Japan
1 Temple Buddhism Today: Scholarly and Popular Images of Corruption
2 Laity and the Temple: Past and Present
3 Trying to Have It Both Ways: The Laity in a World-Renouncer Organization
4 The Contemporary Priesthood: Images of Identity Crisis
5 New Priests for New Times?
6 Coming to Terms: Temple Wives and World-Renouncers
7 Money and the Temple: Law, Taxes, and the Image of Buddhism
8 The Price of Naming the Dead: Funerals, Posthumous Precept Names, and Changing Views of the Afterlife
Epilogue: The World of Householding World-Renouncers

Sources Cited