How A Monk Uses Science to Get People Interested in Faith

A monk in Tokyo is using astronomy as a way to encourage interest in Buddhism.

From the outside, Shoganji Temple located in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward looks like an ordinary Buddhist shrine. But ones you step inside the temple grounds, you will instantly notice things that are not conventionally found in places of worship. There’s a statue of a dinosaur, a lion, two of the seven dwarfs, a mural of whales and a space shuttle fixed in a wall. The major attraction for visitors would be the fully functioning planetarium called “Gingaza” or the Planetarium Theater Galaxy. But the planetarium is not meant solely to provide added entertainment for visitors. It’s actually a tool for the temple’s head priest to teach spirituality and Buddhism.

How A Monk Uses Science to Get People Interested in Faith[/tweetthis]

Ryo Kasuga inherited from his father the right to become the head monk of the temple. But as a young boy, he never wanted to become a Buddhist monk and instead was interested in astronomy. He eventually pursued a musical career which he practiced in Italy and Germany. After his father died, he accepted the task of becoming a priest with the condition that he could “revolutionize” the way Japanese Buddhism was taught.

For Kasuga, Japanese Buddhism is dead. Unlike during Buddha’s day when there was only dharma, no ceremonies neither statues, Buddhism today is just plain ceremonial. As he cites in an interview “All they know about it is the ceremonies and services for dead people. When I speak about Buddhism, they say, ‘I see, I see.’ But they don’t hear, they don’t listen to me.” He added that people today even Buddhist priests and monks are more focused on making money. And that is one of the things he wanted to change “Teaching Buddhism is my main job, but I’m not focused on earning money from believers.”

In another interview, Kasuga expressed his views on the future of Buddhism in Japan “The Japanese public have little interest in Buddhism. I don’t think that will improve in the next ten years either. People just don’t come to temples anymore.”

Being passionate on astronomy, he thought that a planetarium could be a perfect tool to teach and create that interest towards Buddhism. In 1989, the astronomical observatory was built and through donations, he was able to complete his temple’s planetarium in 1996. He compares his methods to a magic trick which is about misdirection. In a magic trick, the actual gimmick happening on the right hand is covered up by focusing the audience’s attention on the movements of the left hand.

For Kasuga, the planetarium is the left hand which primarily captures the attention of his guests or students. And while his audience is marveled by the images of the universe, he injects his spiritual and Buddhist teachings through stories “People are relaxed, observing nature. Then I start to talk about Buddhism indirectly. I might say: ‘If there is no suffering in your heart and you are very happy, Buddhism is useless. Forget it, please. There’s no need to come to temple. However, if you feel some suffering, worry, or trouble in your heart, maybe Buddhism can help you find the reason for it.”

Kasuga thought that the best way to teach religion and spirituality today is by tapping on technology and other things that the young ones are interested in most. As he explains “I wanted to make it easier for people to understand what Buddhism is about. That’s why I built a planetarium. I thought that if people became impressed with the stars, and enjoyed the experience, they’d be more likely to listen to me.” A few other temples followed Kasuga’s example. There are even monks (also his friends) who opened a cocktail bar just to introduce and discuss Buddhism to young people.

The planetarium which can cater more than twenty guests has presentations once or twice a month and because of the limited slots, can only be experienced through a reservation.


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