For a long time, Buddhism was too much associated with “funeral Buddhism” in the minds of most Japanese to pay attention to other, new forms of “engaged Buddhism,” said Ranjana Mukhopadhyaya (University of Delhi) at a session of the Japanese Religions Group at the Montreal conference of the American Academy of Religion.
But a number of books have now been devoted to this topic since the 1990s, and an accompanying decline in temple attendance has pushed some Buddhists to find new ways to reach a wider Japanese population, according to other scholars. According to those publications, as summarized by Mukhopadhyaya, one can observe developments such as networking beyond sectarian boundaries (Buddhist federations), involvement in welfare activities (partly as a reaction to Christian charities, but also prompted by new social and economic environments), the formation of Buddhist NGOs, transnational engagement in voluntary and relief activities, and peace movements (assistance to Cambodian refugees has provided a major impetus for relief activities by Japanese Buddhists).
However, according to Inaba Keishin (Kobe University), only 35 percent of Japanese are aware of social work conducted by religious groups. Japanese people are no longer necessarily looking at religious institutions for direction today, according to John Nelson (University of San Francisco). Greater personal agency leads to weaker relationships to temples, leading to a decline in their financial resources. Moreover, people have become more suspicious toward religion, and this is not only a consequence of the Aum Shinrikyo case in 1995.
It is not sufficient that Buddhist priests engage new technologies to counter this trend, however—many priests write blogs, but few of them get comments from visitors. As a response, a number of attempts have been launched seeking to promote “experimental Buddhism.” For instance, Nelson presented the cases of a storefront outreach (with a Buddhist priest available for people who want to speak), which attempts to help people in their daily lives—with Buddhist traditions being seen here as resources for action rather than blueprints for beliefs.
One can also mention efforts by Pure Land Buddhism to restore vitality to this organization; some priests are thus developing relationships based on social concerns rather than religious traditions, making temples into community centers.