Contemporary Buddhism in Japan: The Psyche as Software

Contemporary Buddhism in Japan: The Psyche as Software

           Thanks to Bridget Newsham for the art!

            In the midst of a mid-morning panic attack, I conceived of myself as the start-up screen of my grandma’s old Mac: if I waited just a little while longer, the progress bar would finish its creep across the screen and effectively sort out all the fear and awe I felt at what amounted to a dislocation of self. It worked. A few minutes later, I was biking down a hill, my ego stabilized, and pondering the importance of metaphor in framing experience. At that time, the metaphor of the computer was the most profoundly comforting thing I could have imagined: the linear direction of the bar was order, growth, and peace, all rolled into one.

            What interests me is the way that this same sense of metaphor is being invoked concomitantly across the world in a milieu that is often idealized, if not fetishized, in America: the Buddhist religious-scape of Japan. There, Amazon has recently opened up a delivery service for monks— when you buy your next pair of shoes, you will also be able to hire a monk to perform Grammy’s funeral service— all with one-click ordering enabled. In Japan, online temples are emerging as legitimate platforms to nurture one’s spirituality, and monks are using Twitter, Skype and Facebook as much as the next person. What is surprising about this? Nothing, but for the fact that it presents a challenge to the hierarchy of spirituality and technology: we so often would like to view technology as representing some profane aspect of ourselves, and contrast it with something “pure” (e.g., most pertinently, religion, but also face-to-face relations, sex or gardening on a sunny day with a light breeze brushing your cheeks) to reassure ourselves that it couldn’t possibly extend into the deepest recesses of our beings. 

            The language of the monks I will examine in this article challenges this assumption, however, and shows that digital technology will either enhance or hinder (depending on the eye of the beholder), but necessarily change, our religious understanding of what constitutes the “sacred.” These four monks seek to revitalize their religion, either directly or figuratively, with the vital potential for communication that digital mediums provide.  Their efforts reflect their milieu, and, I suspect, the reader’s as well. Our most innate drive may be to make metaphors, and the metaphors that move us increasingly derive from the language of the digital technologies that permeate our lives.

            Ryunosuke Koike is a gregarious and prolific monk who runs the Shin Shogenji temple in Yamaguchi prefecture as well as the website “A Space for Runaways” ( He is dedicated to training, having penned many books with titles like “Beginner’s Guide to Purifying the Self with Zazen” and “Tips for Resetting Kleshas”, and combating the generally poor reputation of monks in Japan, i.e., that they lazily depend on funeral services to get by and fail to embody the austere ideals of Buddhism. With his characteristic exhortation to incorporate practice in everyday life, it comes as no surprise that Koike uses the internet to make his teachings accessible, and to appeal to a younger generation with a sophisticated knowledge of technology and a need for something slightly more digestible than scripture, but more substantial than the myriad self-help books explicating or garbling said scripture.

             We see our first vivid example of the integration of metaphors of technology into the highest realms of spirituality in a 2016 five part interview series published by the internet temple Higanji, entitled “Living in the Ease of Now”, which Koike conducted with Yoko Koide. This series focuses on Koike’s understanding of Satori, or enlightenment, a state much pined for by both revivalist Beatnik writers furiously assaulting their bargain bin typewriters, and techies meditating in line while waiting for their matcha lattes, and the processes that thwart this state. I will quote it at length:

“The brain has many complicated and overlapping layers of software installed to prevent it from breaking away from its basic program. Even if, for a second, it does manage to break away, the software senses a threat and immediately restarts.

There are countless steps in the software, but, first, a program activates that calls for the self to feel that there exists an “I” who has had “this” or “that” experience: a program that reestablishes the existence of a self. Anyway, set in these steps is a series of countless overlapping traps.”

            Taking my personal dissasociative experience into consideration in this sense, it is no surprise that I didn’t dissolve into Satori or some other state of bliss—a kind of emergency response program activated and jumpstarted “me.”  There are few more familiar images for a modern reader than that of a “reset” or “restart”: Your computer is slow, or unresponsive, and so you, aggravated, with beads of sweat dripping down your neck, either force close everything and reset it in the proper fashion or just jam the power button and wait a few seconds before pressing it again to be placated by the familiar logo of your startup screen. If anything, the concept of a reset seems to represent an unflinchingly positive “return” to normalcy in daily experience. Your computer, phone, or console begins to work and you go right along your merry way doing what you were doing before. But here, the return to normalcy implied in a reset takes on a hellish cyclical meaning— the constant reinvoking of a “self”, a jumbled ball of unfulfilled desire, lust, and confusion, with a bit of vaingloriousness thrown in for kicks. This description of the psyche as a collection of overlapping layers of software, with the ability to restart if threatened, is crucial to Koike’s explanation of the psyche’s resistance to Satori.

            It should be noted, however, that for all the ways his writing is permeated by technology and the internet, Koike is also wary of its influence and the way that its misuse can increase human misery. In his book “A Life Not to Lead” (Gentosha, 2014), the first chapter, entitled “Not Over-Connecting, focuses on the ways that the human need for affirmation is amplified to a harmful extent by online participation. About the ultimate motive for participation in internet communities, he says the following: “Hidden in the underbelly of the desire people have to connect with others through the internet is the desire to be understood, which inflames the mind.”  He dissects the proliferation of horrible anonymous threats, online diaries, and people’s Facebook posts about their poodle’s surgeries as screaming pleas in the dark for reciprocation in a locale that will offer none: “The vast domain of cyberspace, which appears to completely cover modern society, is overflowing with words that can be translated into the loneliness of trying to be understood.” The Klesha, worldly passions that torment humans, must be updated with the online lexicon, and this is the task Koike takes it upon himself to execute.

            The challenge presented by the internet is how to cope with the amount of information thrust on the user— information that begs for action. Despite these dangers, Koike, far from calling for a Luddite approach to the internet, deftly employs it to further his vision of Buddhism.

            Shokei Matsumoto, a classmate of  Ryunosuke Koike at Tokyo University, offers another perspective on the integration of technology into Buddhism and the consequences of such integration. While Koike focused on training and developing a strict regiment for Buddhist practice upon graduation, Matsumoto has spent the bulk of his energy on business strategies for keeping temples economically viable in the future and for reimbuing them with some of Japanese Buddhism’s lost luster. He runs the online temple, Higanji (, and writes prolifically about issues concerning contemporary Buddhism. In response to Amazon’s entry into the lucrative funeral business in Japan, Matsumoto published the article “The Real Meaning of Amazon’s Monk Delivery Service” on Higanji last December.

            Japan is currently one of the most expensive places to die in the world, and Buddhism has come to be characterized by the epithet “Soushiki-Bukkyou”, which translates to “Funeral Buddhism”, in reference to monks’ highly ritualized funeral services (many people’s only direct interaction with the religion), as well as the purchasing of Kaimyo— Buddhist names granted after death. In response to this trend, the influential scholar Hiromi Shimada has penned several bestselling books criticizing these services as holdovers from an older time and calling for their end, drawing upon Ito Shigeki’s book When People Die, They Become Trash.  Amazon, however, has found these services to be a highly commoditized market with a low barrier to entry— a perfect place to do business. When I talk about this development with friends, the typical response I receive is one of disgust at the sullying of a more or less “pure” domain by a commercial one, and of course, this is largely due to a lack of knowledge about the brisk business done around funerals in Japan, but Matsumoto writes directly in response to this idea that religion and business, or religion and digital media, must be neatly divided to preserve each domain’s integrity.  

            He begins his argument with the statement that the “proliferation of smart phones and wearable devices, has permeated not just our daily lives, but our very values, and it continues to do so at a faster and faster rate.” The whole article is premised on a rupture that has already occurred the internet— and a sense of escalation and dizzying speed: the speed of “progress”. Matsumoto is primarily interested with “the realm of imagination” and the inability of monks to buck trends that are currently changing the religious-scape in Japan. Instead, they must instead look to the future and “try to imagine, and be excited for, the next change and the change after the next change.” Later in the article, the threat of automation is discussed: “If it’s only a matter of performing rituals and reciting scripture flawlessly, robots will be much more reliable than humans for the task.” What strikes the reader is the placidity with which Matsumoto predicts that the near future will hold dire technological revelations, ones that force us to re-examine what defines the human and the sacred, and which will cause massive religious rifts. He accepts these technological changes, ones that could portend the end of many industries and signal the wane of human dominance, in stride.

            Technological language enters into his account of such a future, as he mentions the possibility that robots might, “after having thoroughly emulated humans, be able to realize the optimal ‘specs’ that make up the human frame” or even that “the progress of AI robots will overtake human monks’ ‘specs’.” The use of the concept of “specs” here once again takes into account the fact that humans, in the abstract, are being rendered in digital metrics, measurements that can be categorized and compared against other forms of data and software. Matsumoto, perhaps optimistically, sees salvation in the fact that humans alone can transcend their “frames” to become Buddha, and he proclaims “that if monks’ work is placed in relation to developing this non-human, superhuman potential (Buddha Nature), then it’s unlikely that they will lose out to robots.” Whether or not the reader agrees that robots would be unable to achieve Buddhahood, it is clear that Buddhism here is invoked to draw perhaps the last line in the sand between the human and the technological.


            The final two individuals I will profile are Yamashita Ryodo and Fujita Issho: iconoclastic monks who trained together at the Zen temple Antaiji in the mid-eighties and then proceeded to take very different courses. Yamashita developed a unique, syncretistic blend of Buddhism called “Blue Sky Meditation” through his training in temples across North America, Europe and Burma, as well as Japan, while Fujita Issho ran a temple in Massachusetts for nearly two decades and currently serves as the chair of Soto Zen International, located in San Francisco. This duo, in their book length dialogue, “Self-Updating Buddhism” (Gentosha, 2013) has co-developed a unique theory to describe the development of Buddhism in Japan and its future potential using language derived from software patches.

             The central concept behind the book is that there are three categories which can be said to make up the blueprint of Japanese Buddhism: Buddhism 1.0, Buddhism 2.0 and Buddhism 3.0. Fujita summarizes the first two stages in the progression as such: “Buddhism 1.0 refers to Japan’s much maligned current Buddhism; Buddhism 2.0 refers to a form of foreign Buddhism that has established itself in Japan in the last few decades (we primarily consider it to be Theravada).”  Yamashita more explicitly invokes the metaphor of the internet in describing this development as a sort of corollary to technological changes:

            In the last few years, the phrase “Web 2.0” has become very popular. This phrase refers to the drastic change in the internet environment in the 21st century: The speed at which messages are sent has increased drastically and the number of users has exploded. As a result, the old paradigm of a one way flow of information from the sender to the receiver has been replaced by the simple fact that anyone can use the web to disseminate information… Precisely because the older dimension’s conception and common sense no longer hold currency, we must acknowledge and respond with something new… In light of all this, how about referring to these two fundamentally different versions of Buddhism as Buddhism 1.0 and Buddhism 2.0?  

             The book length dialogue ultimately deals with the explicit and implicit limitations of each “version” of Buddhism and posits a modern-day middle way by which to reconcile these. In response to Buddhism 1.0 and 2.0, the two create the concept of Buddhism 3.0, a return to “Buddhism’s original form”, and the form that, in their opinion, Dogen later touched with his founding of Soto Zen.  In Fujita’s own words, “precisely because Buddhism 1.0 and 2.0 have corrupted, we must dare to revive Buddhism in an updated form.” Words like “version-up” and “update” abound in the book and Yamashita and Fujita are intent on laying their view of the future for Japanese Buddhism as a logical chain of upgrades that parallels the improvement of software.  The question looming above all else is whether these more traditional forms of Buddhism are enough for the modern Buddhist: it is not a coincidence that the narrative of software upgrades is invoked to paint a supercessional narrative of these different schools of thought in terms of their technological, and thus spiritual, efficacy in alleviating human suffering. Much like Matsumoto, there is a marked receptivity to the idea of “progress,” and the hope that monks will be able to continue to work out Buddhism’s bugs through active experimentation. Monks, in this sense, take on the role of programmers recoding their religion.  

            In this article, I have presented only the tip of the iceberg of how Japanese monks are using the language of technology to describe their visions of contemporary Buddhism, the psyche and a path towards salvation. We live in exciting, dangerous times in terms of the technologies that surround and permeate us. It is only natural that we would see these times, with all their attendant joys and fears, reflected in the vanguard of Japanese Buddhism. Koike, Matsumoto, Yamashita and Fujita, each in his own way, have crafted a vision of the future of Buddhism using the language of technology.  To adopt Matsumoto’s cool demeanor and words: this represents a “change that lies far within the realm of imagination, and nothing to worry about at that.” The only question left to debate seems to be whether or not a robot could achieve Satori. I suspect so.  

Japanese Source Text

Koike Translations



しない生活 Shinai Seikatsu

インターネットを通じて「人と繋がりたい」という気持ちの裏にも、「自分を分かって」という煩悩は紛れ込みます。Pg. 28

かくして現代社会を覆いつくすかに見える、超巨大な電脳空間は「自分のことを分かって」という孤独へと翻訳できる文字たちに満ち満ちております。Pg. 28

Fujita/Yamashita Translations

アップデートする仏教Appudeto Suru Bukkyo

仏教1.0は現在いろいろと批判にされている日本の仏教を指す。仏教2.0はここ十数年の間に日本に定着してきた外来の仏教 (われわれは主にテーラワーダ仏教を念頭に置いている)を指す。Pg. 4

「それが仏教1.02.0に頽落している現実があるから敢えて仏教3。0としてアップデートした形で蘇らせなければならないのである。Pg. 5

例えばインターネットの世界で、「ウエブ2.0」というような表現が数年前に流行りましたね。その意味するところは、二十一世紀になってインターネットの環境がこれまではまったく変わってしまった。通信速度が飛躍的に向上し、利用者の数が爆発的に増えた結果、これまでの固定化した情報の送り手と受け手の間の一方通行の情報の流れではなく、誰もがウエブを通して情報を発信できるようになった。。。今までの旧次元の発想、常識が一切通用しないのだから、その覚悟をしよう。。。それと同じようなアイデアで根本的にバージョンの違う仏教を区別して、ここでは仮に「仏教1.0」、「仏教2.0」といってみるのはどうですかね。Pg. 168-169





Art and Secularization Debates in Contemporary Japan

Art and Secularization Debates in Contemporary Japan