Visit of Senior Japanese Buddhist Priest to the Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Posted on 7th September 2015

On September 8th 2015 the University was visited by His Eminence the Supreme Primate, Ōtani Koken, 26th Successor of Higashi Honganji-ha and Temple Master of Tokyo Higashi Honganji.

Visit of His Eminence the Supreme Primate to the Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Higashi Honganji-ha, which means 'the Eastern branch of the Temple of the Original Vow School', is one of the two main branches of Jōdo Shinshū, the dominant form of Buddhism in Japan.  Despite Zen being better known in the West, Jōdo Shinshū is more significant numerically in Japan. Jōdo Shinshū is a form of Pure Land Buddhism. Adherents believe that humans are too prone to spiritual pride to progress to enlightenment through their own efforts, so they rely on the 'grace' of the compassionate Buddha, Amida, to bring them to enlightenment in a 'realm of purification' - usually understood to be a post-mortem realm. Whilst there is some evidence of Pure Land adherence in India before Buddhism died out there, it is primarily a Chinese form of Buddhism which spread to Japan in the sixth Century. It became the dominant form of Buddhism in Japan during the Kamakura (medieval) period, when the wandering teacher Shinran (1173-1262) popularised it by preaching in the vernacular, and by making it available to lay people rather than monastic élites.

 

Institutionally, Jōdo Shinshū functions patrilineally. ‘Temple-mastership’ passes from father to son. The Primate, Ōtani Koken (surname Ōtani, first name Koken) is the 26th generation descendant of Shinran himself.  The Ōtani family is amongst the most aristocratic families of the Japanese nobility. The Primate’s father was a cousin of the Emperor of Japan.

 

His Eminence was accompanied on the visit by priests from Tokyo Higashi Honganji Temple and from a British branch temple in London, called the Three Wheels Temple. As well as providing an opportunity for colleagues to learn about aspects of Japanese Buddhism, the visit to TRS afforded an opportunity for His Eminence to discuss current areas of research amongst TRS academics, and to forward his personal interest in interfaith dialogue. It also provided an opportunity to renew an old friendship with Dr Wendy Dossett, who had undertaken her PhD fieldwork at Tokyo Higashi Honganji some twenty years previously. The possibility of fruitful co-operation and exchange was discussed over a lunch in Senate House hosted by Pro-Vice Chancellor and University Secretary Adrian Lee, and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Rob Warner. Buddhist priests are interested in the critical and academic study of religion such as is offered in TRS, and TRS undergraduates are interested in the religious life of Buddhists in Britain and Japan, and the prospect of a deepening relationship between TRS and temples in Tokyo, London and Fukuoka was explored. Lunch was followed by a tour of the Cathedral conducted by Canon Professor Elaine Graham and the Revd Canon Jane Brooke.