Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: December 2011

Kyoto Day 2

Monday’s rather relaxed pace eased me into a frenetic Tuesday of resource gathering and very technical Japanese conversation. It’s quite a relief to discover that my language study is paying off, and I can just about, if rather painfully, maintain a decent academic conversation about Buddhism, thanks to Professor Bowring’s Classical Japanese lectures and my three months last year at Nihon University.

Today, I went to Ōtani University (大谷大学), affiliated to the Higashi Honganji (東本願寺) school of True Pure Land Buddhism (浄土真宗), to meet Dr Kaku and the Rev’d Professor Michael Pye. Dr Kaku very kindly allowed me to use the excellent university library and Eastern Buddhist Society office to obtain copies of some much needed articles. Kisa, a young American graduate working as a volunteer, spent hours turning these into .pdfs for me, for which I am most grateful.
Michael Pye is retired professor of Buddhism at Marburg University, but I use the term ‘retired’ advisedly, given that he is now active as an Anglican priest in Kyoto Diocese and as a researcher at Ōtani. Over and after some very good soba noodles, for which Kyoto is rightly famed, we chatted about things Anglican, Buddhist and Japanese. One of my research questions is the extent to which one can make ontological statements about Shin Buddhism, and if I understood correctly, he was very much of the opinion that ontology is really not a matter of much concern in Buddhist teaching. Dr Kaku, on the other hand, influenced to some extent by the philosophers of the Kyoto School, maintained in our later conversation that one could usefully derive ontological conclusions from Shinran’s work. Perhaps I should feel some relief that there is as much diversity of opinion among Buddhist scholars as there is among Christian ones.

After a light and very reasonably priced meal of Galician octopus and white rice with a glass of wine, I plunged into a nearby onsen for a couple of hours and headed home, to write and then to sleep.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Kyoto day 1


What a privilege is it to spend a week in perhaps the finest of Japan’s four ancient capitals, Kyoto; and a greater privilege still to spend it in the Zen guest temple of Shinkoin, home to ancient Christian treasures (about which, more on Wednesday after I’ve been on the tour) and frequent haunt of the great Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki. Its priest, Taka, is the fifth generation of his family to serve there. He has studied extensively in the US and is married to an American, and so greeted me warmly in English. The rooms are far cosier than the austerity I had imagined, and with the air-con turned up, as warm as the welcome. The reasonable price of Y4000 per night includes zazen meditation practice and free us of bicycles, a must for getting around the fen-like flatness of this city.

I woke to the deep resonance of the temple bell feeling remarkably fresh, given jetlag and a well spent evening before chatting to locals in an excellent little bar-restaurant around the corner called Raku-raku Kitchen. There, the chef and owner Akira cooks fresh ingredients, including seasonal vegetables, right in front of you however you like. He is also the author of some fascinating documentaries about his skateboarding pink flamingo, Tomomi.

The first two hours of the morning I passed shivering through the extravagant liturgy of Myoshinji Temple’s annual devotions. Some fifty or so Zen priests were assembled in a rainbow of costumes and hats that would put a Tibetan lama to shame. They made the Canterbury cap look like sportswear. In refreshing contrast to much Christian liturgy, for the first forty-five minutes not a word was spoken. Instead, great gongs sounded alternately from either side of the worship hall, and eventually two bamboo shakuhachi flutes started up a discordant melody. All this while, the Abbot continued to make ritual prostrations to the statue, presumably of the founder of the temple, while a series of priests made elaborate offerings at the altar. After this, a group of lower-ranking priests in the corner, dressed in sombre black, began to intone sutras. The higher ranking clergy, more flamboyantly capped and clad, then rose and processed around the hall in a complex mandala – all this for some 35 minutes. There was then a series of solo recitations from a presumably ancient scroll, concluding with a magnificent chant by the Abbot. The gongs resounded as the priests processed out, and a group of women oblates began chanting and ringing light handbells as the lay followers, chattering, departed. 
Nihon Kirisuto Kyokai
After a fast-food lunch of gyūdon, beef on rice, I cycled with brakes squealing towards the Imperial Palace, near which I knew I would find the Anglican clergy training college, Williams Theological Seminary. En route I popped into a very attractive Nihon Kirisuto Kyōkai church. This denomination is uniquely Japanese, but seems to be a kind of broadly High Church Protestantism. A couple of hours in a café afforded me some time on my dissertation, after which I headed to the Seminary. 
Williams Theological College

Masao, whom readers from Little Saint Mary’s will remember, spent six months a couple of years ago in Cambridge learning English. A former URC minister, he is now a final year ordinand at Williams: so happily, we will (deo volente) be ordained Deacon in the same year. He kindly showed me around and introduced me to fellow ordinands. Married or not, ordinands live in college as single men, sharing bedrooms between two. They work very much as a community, sharing out tasks such as laundry, shopping and cleaning between them. After ordination, they go pretty much immediately to take charge of a church of their own, as there are not enough clergy in Japan to allow for assistant curates. Although there are only twelve ordinands in training at present, some are women and a good third are probably below the age of thirty. This is quite a change for the Japanese Church.

We said Evening Prayer together, naturally using the Japanese order, which my Prayer Book Society comrades will be pleased to hear closely resembles that of our 1662. It was said with solemnity and reverence, the leader, a female ordinand, quite properly dressed in Sarum cassock and surplice. The Japanese as a whole are blessedly resistant to liturgical and musical innovation, so even Low Churchmen are of the more traditional Anglican mould: Deo gratias. 
The Principal, Fr John, is head of Japan’s liturgical committee. We had a good chat about the various Scottish, American and English influences on their Prayer Book, and he was pleased when I gave him my PBS badge. I wonder whether he might join?

After this, Masao and I repaired to a local fish restaurant for an excellent repast and perhaps a few too many beers. He and his wife are well, and he is looking forward to getting stuck into ministry. If you pray, dear reader, then please remember to do so for him and his fellow ordinands at Williams Theological Seminary. 

Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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