Elise Cooper Nishi Honganji

When I was first deciding on my CIP (community involvement project), I originally jumped between a variety of ideas, but I mostly wanted to get involved with something related to my major, anthropology, such as potentially becoming a participant in a Japanese anthropology class. This led me down some really interesting paths and some interesting opportunities, but since the class I started to take wasn’t always in Japanese, it was decided that I couldn’t use it as my CIP. However, around the same time I was struggling to find something new to do, we happened to go to a Jodo Shinshuu (Pure Land Buddhist) temple called Nishi Honganji during a religious class, and I ended up becoming really interested in the services they held there. They had them three times a day for an hour each, so it was really easy to find time each week to go to the “dharma talks,” as they were called, which involved reading and discussing the dharma and then listening to a lecture from a priest there.

The people at the temple were always really kind to me, and I had the opportunity to really get out of the study abroad bubble and meet a great deal of different people. Particularly, talking to the Buddhist priests and getting to know them more personally was interesting because I had the stereotype that they would be very difficult to approach and highly reserved in all situations, but in actuality they often joked around and would talk freely at length about various topics. Perhaps the most surprising, indeed, was learning that not only does the Jodo Shinshuu school allows its monks to get married, but that the monks openly talk about their children and daily things like watching TV in services, which I assumed would be much more formal and ritualized than they actually were.

Indeed, in the West, particularly in terms of Christian monks, there is an expectation that if one is living at a monastery for religious purposes then they will be celibate and highly serious in their religious practices, but while it is likely that the monks at Nishi Honganji took their religious practices very seriously, celibacy in people living in temples in both Jodo Shinshuu and supposedly other sects as well was generally not practiced. One of the funniest, and most surprising experiences I had while attending the service, actually, was related to this idea because while most of the lectures and discussions had been focused around rather standard religious fare- treat others well, try to live your life as best as possible-, one of the recent lecturers repeatingly bemoaned his lack of wife as he was turning 45, something that, from my expectations of Christian monks, or even pastors, who would rarely discussed romantic relationships if they had them, I found fairly interesting, as well as funny as it was intended to be.

Therefore, though when people hear of my CIP they tend to think that it sounds daunting and that engaging with any aspect of Buddhist practices would be too difficult because of its formality and rigid practices, Nishi Honganji is not really like that at all. People there are very willing to engage with anyone who comes, and if one knows Japanese fairly well, the discussions themselves can be really interesting and funny, and can really serve to dismantle stereotypes about both Buddhism and about the monks themselves. If you have any interest in Buddhism, or even about Japanese religion in general, I would highly recommend Nishi Honganji services; I think that compared to some of the sects, Jodo Shinshuu is easier to get into without having much prior knowledge about the religion, and the people there are really nice and helpful.

4 thoughts on “Elise Cooper Nishi Honganji

  1. Oh man, that sounds like fun! I remember really wanting to go to their services as well, but unfortunately it was too out of the way from my morning and evening commute. You said you got to learn a lot about the priests there but were you able to talk to any women priests as well? And what was one of the most fun things you talked about with (any of) the priests?

    • I really wanted to talk to some of the female priests for sure, but didn’t get a chance to unfortunately since all the major leaders were men. Apparently there are some local temples run by women though so visiting one of those would be super cool I think! The most fun conversation I had was this monk who kept talking about how he was in his forties and was worried that he’d wouldn’t be able to find a wife- he was really funny, and it was interesting to hear a monk talk about such a common worry. I definitely recommend going to at least one service!

  2. That sounds like a really rewarding experience– how was it at fist when you starting going to Nishi Honganji services? Were there regulars there with whom your relationship grew as time went on?

    • It was a little scary at first because the talks were about some pretty difficult topics where I had sometimes not learned much vocab about, but I did get to know some of the priests there in particular throughout the weeks I went.