He drinks. He goes clubbing. He's got a girlfriend. He runs a website. Meet Matsumoto: hipper than your average monk...


Early mornings, meditation, chanting, incense, vegetarianism, and willing, calm abstinence - just some of the rituals you’d expect from a Buddhist monk. Of a higher spiritual order than the rest of us, they embrace a life of discipline and minimalism, unhindered by the desires that trouble us ordinary mortals, untempted by worldly indulgences. Right?


Wrong. Cut to Tokyo: land of karaoke, bright lights and vending machines which sell everything from women’s used underwear to alcohol and batteries. Tokyo boasts an array of gadgets and gimmicks to entice enthusiastic shoppers and an efficient train system that promises to deliver you anywhere on time, provided you can navigate your own way through crowds of people to reach your destiny. But amid all this fast-paced neon city living, there are pockets of serenity.


There are numerous shrines and temples (sometimes with cemeteries attached) that symbolise another aspect of Tokyo – contemplative, spiritual. It’s not unusual to see an impressive temple positioned near a burgeoning department store, or a woman dressed in traditional kimono speaking on her mobile phone. It’s this collision - or perhaps, symbiotic relationship - that characterises Tokyo just as much as the manic neon madness.


It is here, in a temple situated in the heart of Tokyo, that one can meet a young Buddhist monk named Matsumoto. He has a shaved head and wears traditional robes, lives in the temple grounds and seems quietly calm and reflective as he sits near the alter inside the temple or overlooks the accompanying cemetery. However, after speaking to Matsumoto for some time, it becomes apparent that he does not entirely prescribe to the popular perception of an average Buddhist monk.


Instead, he freely enjoys the lifestyle Tokyo has to offer. He goes to parties and nightclubs, he drinks (used to smoke) and is not vegetarian. He plans to get married in the future and hopefully continue his monk lineage through his children (though he himself did not come from a family of Buddhist monks). He enjoys techno, rock and ambient music and has his own website. He has a girlfriend and although he has no formal day off, his schedule and lifestyle is flexible. He can see his friends when he pleases and appears to retain a large degree of independence and individuality.



The temple and grounds he lives on has only two permanent monks. Buddhist monks used to enjoy high status in Japan, but in more recent years this has dwindled so that they are now largely considered average individuals who have simply chosen a different path in life.

Japanese people are not ‘religious’ people (in fact consumerism could be mistaken at times to be the national religion in Tokyo) and they rely more on the customs associated with Buddhism or Shinto for relevance in their own life. If they visit a shrine or temple, it is on New Years Day to welcome in the New Year and bid farewell to bad spirits.

Funerals are another occasion that warrants a visit to a temple. It is this event that provides temples and monks with large monetary sums, acquired for performing the necessary funeral ritual and providing a headstone. After obligatory payments and donations, several monks in Japan are considered to be very wealthy, especially considering they live tax free.



Matsumoto is in many ways the quintessential modern monk. A graduate of the prestigious Tokyo University where he studied philosophy, he appears genuinely interested in making Buddhism and temples more accessible to the general public. He wants to create an interactive atmosphere in which there is an exchange of ideas. He doesn’t believe in tradition for tradition’s sake. Thus, he seems the perfect monk to tackle the modernity and differing values of Tokyo.


One of his innovations is a quasi café set up at the temple on a platform above the small cemetery where nearby office workers can come for a drink and snack before heading back to their office, not pricing any items but leaving it up to the ‘customers’ to decide upon an appropriate ‘donation’. It seems like a great idea and the locals appear to enjoy the novelty.

Matsumoto appears very content with his lifestyle and position within consumerist Tokyo society. He may receive a relatively low salary, particularly compared to his Tokyo University counterparts; however he also does not have to participate in the ‘salary man’ convention. He is free to pursue his philosophical interests and exist according to his own pace.

The image of a young, good-looking, modern and intelligent monk is perhaps fitting of this city. Within the rushed and chaotic landscape of Tokyo, he can retreat to the tranquility of the temple yet still retain strong, everyday contact with the outside world. The notion of tradition versus modernity is a contradiction inherent in Tokyo and Japan. Where a young and contemporary monk is concerned, it appears that harmony and innovation are the key words.

© Elizabeth Wright 2005

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