Present Vision (2017)
Over the last ten years, Buddhists in Japan have become increasingly engaged in a wide variety of pressing social issues, from trauma care and suicide prevention to working with the homeless, elderly, and disaster victims to activism against nuclear energy and militarism and finally working to build and revive the spiritual and ecological culture of Japan. These activities and movements are a far cry from the negative image of “funeral Buddhism” that was prevalent in Japan at the end of the 20th century. The next step in this challenge for Japanese Buddhism to re-invent and revive itself is to connect with Buddhists and other religious groups active in like-minded social activities outside of Japan. There are numerous international Buddhist associations and interactions these days, but many of them are confined to a rather top-down exchange in which wealthy East Asian Buddhists provide aid and material support to “poor” Buddhists in South and Southeast Asia. The goal and vision of the International Buddhist Exchange Center @ Kodosan is to develop more horizontal relationships with Buddhists in other countries, creating collaborative actions in a wide variety of fields. IBEC, with its domestic and international linkages, is well placed to realize these goals.
IBEC was formed in 1966 by the 1st president of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, Rev. Shodo Okano. Its general goals were to develop modern, international perspectives on Buddhism through study and research, to create opportunities for those interested in Buddhism to learn and study further through lectures and events, and to cooperate with Buddhists inside and outside Japan on various social issues. Indeed, IBEC has always had a strong focus on social issues and the well-being of society since its earliest programs to the creation of the Maitri Movement to bring compassion into practice in the world in 1986. Another 20 years onward in 2006, IBEC formed the Engaged Buddhist Project under the guidance of the 3rd president of Kodosan, Rev. Shojun Okano by bringing in Jonathan Watts, a long term staff and executive board member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), to help him develop the research plan.
Rev. Okano and Watts have unique international and domestic networking competencies that enable them to bring in a wide range of perspectives in IBEC work. Watts began working with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in 1990 as the foreign coordinator in the main office in Bangkok. In 1996, he helped form the INEB Think Sangha, an activist oriented engaged Buddhist think tank to develop Buddhist perspectives on contemporary social issues. In 1999, he became a member of INEB’s Executive Committee and in 2009 began lecturing at Keio University on contemporary engaged Buddhism in Japan and Asia. Living in Japan since 1993, Watts has worked with a wide variety of engaged Buddhists in Japan and together with Rev. Okano, who is an Advisory Board member of INEB, has developed engaged Buddhist networks in Japan on suicide prevention, disaster relief and Buddhist chaplaincy, and anti-nuclear and sustainable energy temple activism.
The core focus of the project has been to investigate deeply the activities of Japanese Buddhists, especially from traditional denominations, on social issues and problems; that is the engaged Buddhist activities of Japanese Buddhists. The deeper emphasis of the research has been on grassroots activities focused on critical Japanese social issues, like suicide, poverty, problem youth, etc, rather than on some of the more high profile social welfare activities by Buddhists denominations, especially overseas material aid. From its inception, the Engaged Buddhist Project focused on practical networking that transcends sectarian divisions, and so created links with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) based in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2009, IBEC was the leading force in the creation of an INEB chapter in Japan called the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB), which continues to provide an important non-sectarian platform for Buddhists and civil society groups to create cooperative activities. In 2012, IBEC and JNEB hosted the annual INEB Executive Committee meeting and conducted a study tour of Fukushima and a special workshop on suicide prevention.
Highlights of the Work since 2006
1) the suicide prevention priests’ movement
- in November 2007 Kodosan hosted a public symposium attended by over 150 people on the problem of suicide featuring 4 priests from our research.
- Reconstructing Priestly Identity and Roles in Contemporary Japan and the Development of Socially Engaged Buddhism published in the Handbook for Contemporary Japanese Religions (Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012)
- providing logistical support and translation for foreign media documentation of this movement
- LAST CALL: A Buddhist monk confronts Japan’s suicide culture (Profile of Rev. Jotetsu Nemoto in The New Yorker Magazine June 24, 2013)
- The Departure (a full length documentary on Rev. Jotetsu Nemoto and other priest by Lana Wilson, 2017)
- Re-Awakening to Our Inter-connected World: 1st International Conference on Buddhism, Suicide Prevention, and Psycho-Spiritual Counseling hosted by IBEC & the Jodo Shin Hongan-ji Denomination Research Institute, November 6-10, 2017
2) tsunami relief and promoting a post-nuclear, sustainable society
- In March 2012, publication of This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan
- In November 2012, conducting an international study tour of Fukushima with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, which led to –>
- In November 2013, publication of Lotus in the Nuclear Sea: Fukushima and the Promise of Buddhism in the Nuclear Age
- In April 2015, conducting a second international study tour of Fukushima and working with JNEB partners on an International Project on Energy
- In May 2015, launching the Eco-temple Community Development Project with JNEB partners and the new Inter-Religious Climate and Ecology Network sponsored by INEB
- In January 2016, holding the first Eco-temple Community Development Project meeting with ongoing projects
3) alternative development and responses to globalization
- in February 2011, supporting the Japanese launch of documentary The Economic of Happiness by Helena Norberg-Hodge of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, which first debuted at the 2008 World Fellowship of Buddhists international conference in Tokyo.
- in 2008, hosting at Kodosan’s special practice center in Hayama a 3 day workshop for Japanese and foreign participants on the global environmental crisis and developing personal activism to it with environmentalist and Buddhist activist Joanna Macy.
- in 2016, revival of the Engaged Buddhist Study Group and expansion to wider international themese and collaboration as the New International Engaged Buddhism Study Group
4) international Buddhist solidarity on social issues
- In 2009, Rev. Okano accepted a position on the INEB Advisory Board and attended their general conference in Thailand in November 2009. These activities led to Kodosan hosting, along with a group of fellow Japanese engaged Buddhists, the 1st INEB East Asian Forum in April 2010 with participants from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The 2nd INEB East Asian Forum was held in South Korea in June 2013.
- In November 2012, IBEC and Kodosan hosted the two-day INEB Executive and Advisory Board meetings as well as arranging 3 study tours on the future of Japanese Buddhism, suicide prevention, and the situation in Fukushima. Kodosan also hosted a major public symposium on the last day on The Wisdom of Interbeing and the Art of Happiness.
For more information, contact:
Jonathan Watts – Research Fellow
International Buddhist Exchange Center @ Kodosan
38 Torigoe, Kanagawa-ku
Yokohama 221-0064, JAPAN