How I Accidentally (but Officially) Converted to Japanese Buddhism
October 10, 2017
There was a lot riding on this trip, my friends. Japan has been my top destination for longer than I care to remember, and we had to cancel our tickets there in 2015 due to being, well, unable to walk or move. Fittingly, the trip got off to a fairly ridiculous start.
"Where is your girlfriend?"
"My girlfriend?" I asked, staring at the Japanese gentleman at the AirAsia ticket counter in the Bali airport. "I'm traveling alone." "Yes, I see that sir. But where is she?" "What? At home. In Ubud."
"Ah, yes, of course. Have a nice trip!"
And so began my 11 days in Japan. It was a perfect intro, frankly, to what would become one of my most curious, weird and hilarious trips yet. I've found that when you head into a trip with a completely open mind, the place just opens up for you. I'm not talking about a red carpet—I mean that when you say 'yes' to the opportunities that unfold while traveling, when you spot the universe winking at you instead of sticking to the set script you planned from home, you never know what'll happen. And those winks always make for the best stories. My trip in Japan felt like one wink after another, and I met some wild folks, saw some incredible things, and—of course—ate the best food of my whole life (sorry, Italy and Thailand and India...)
I Couchsurfed my way through Japan, meaning 3 amazing and completely dissimilar people (2 Japanese, 1 foreign) welcomed me to stay in their homes, for free, simply in return for some good times, conversation and basic cultural exchange. Tal and I also hosted some Couchsurfers in Tel Aviv, as is the great karmic way of the whole Couchsurfing universe. Couchsurfing hasn't always been the best option—in fact sometimes it's been downright terrible (ask me about Nairobi sometime!)—but in Japan it was sublime, making for perfect drinking buddies, fantastic talks, and some super weird sushi experiences.
For example, this is Takanori Umezaki! We drank a lot of beer and talked about the Foo Fighters in Tokyo, and he let me sleep on the floor of his guest room for a few days.
Riding high on the energy of that killer pic, here's a story that shows where saying Yes will get you while on the road:
How I Accidentally (But Officially) Converted to Japanese Buddhism
*Note, the pics below are mostly not from this encounter, but you can't expect people to read an unending block of text in 2017.
**Second Note: I'm sure I fucked up on most religious details here. I'm happy to have my ass handed to me by any Nichiren Buddhists who care to chime in.
As a rule, I love religious buildings and ceremonies. Gothic cathedrals in Europe, cavernous Hindu temples in India, gigantic Buddha statues in Thailand—I love 'em all. And if you throw in a religious rite I've never seen, especially one with singing, I'm in heaven.
So as I walked, on my second day in Tokyo, from the massive Sensoji shrine complex in Asakusa towards the unbelievably tall Tokyo Skytree, it wasn't even a question when I saw a sign, in English, that read "Buddhist Temple." I turned right in—but what greeted me looked like an old community center, with brochures and carpeting. As I turned to leave, unenthused and disappointed, a young woman got up from her seat outside the doorway and stopped me: "Wait! I will show you the way!"
She gently but purposefully grabbed my arm, led me back through the entrance and immediately up to the second floor. Her name was Tamami, and she looked like she was 15. At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by three rows of chairs, a few filled with people chanting, all facing a sparkling, golden shrine.
"I will teach you now about Nichiren Buddhism," Tamami said, her voice now hushed. We walked quietly past a few people, holding prayer beads in front of their chests, their heads bowed, and sat in a vacant row in front of the shrine.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"America," I said simply, foregoing the usual caveats.
"Yes, many Buddhists in America. In Nichiren Buddhism, we chant No-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo to show we are devoted to Shakyamuni, who became the Buddha two thousand and five hundred years ago. We read Lotus Sutra. This is Shakyamuni teaching, Lotus Sutra. We are chanting Lotus Sutra and we are chanting every day," she said, rapid-fire. Her English was rough, but practiced—I could tell right away this was not her first 'rangle a foreigner' rodeo.
She handed me a set of prayer beads that seemed to come out of thin air, and gently placed them around both hands, crossing them in the middle.
"Now we chant together: No," she said, waiting. I didn't say anything.
"No," she repeated, then tilted her chin down at me, expectantly.
"No," I said.
"Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo. Now together."
And so we began to chant together; me mimicking her high-voiced monotone.
After our sixth or seventh go-around, I began to look around the room. Was I being sucked into a neverending vortex of Buddhist chanting? I mean, there are worse ways to spend eternity, but I'm not usually one for praying in words I certainly do not understand.
Above: Block Party in Ikebukuro, Tokyo
"You know, I'm actually a Jew," I said, slipping it in between repetitions.
Her eyes opened. "A... Jew?" she asked—but not out of recognition. She opened up a translation App on her phone, and I typed "J-E-W."
The App thought for a moment, and displayed: "ユダヤ人"
"Ah, yes," she said, then furrowed her brow a bit. "So much money. All of the money."
I held myself from laughing—even in the land of black-suited Japanese businessmen, a Jew is still a Jew. And here I was a lowly backpacker avoiding luggage fees and sleeping on couches. Did I miss the memo?
She began to speak, then hesitated a moment. "You... want to now accept the Buddha?"
"Sure, I definitely appreciate Buddhism. I actually studied it in university..." I said, trailing off, realizing she'd already moved on.
"We do short ceremony now?"
"Um, alright. Yeah, why not?"
And with that, the mood changed infinitely. She started waving across the hall to an older woman, who, in a flash, was sitting by my side as well, and began to rehash the same few sentences about Shakyamuni and Nichiren Buddhism. Tamami and the woman who could've well been her mother seemed so impossibly excited that I was into Buddhism, and soon we were all chanting together "No-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo," but more excited this time.
And then the older woman pulled out a clipboard, seemingly from thin air as well, and handed me a pen.
"You become Buddhist now," she directed.
Forms? Signatures? This was getting too real too quickly. I scanned through my possible courses of action in about two seconds.
I could flat-out say, 'Nah, not my thing,' and chalk it all up to miscommunication. I could ask them to slow down and explain what exactly this conversion would entail. Or I could just say, 'Yeah, sure, I'll join your sect of Buddhism,' and never look back, because religion is made up by humans anyway and when we die we're dead and no one cares what we believed in.
Guess which I chose?
I took the pen from her hand and began to fill out the form, which was completely in Japanese with no translation. The older woman guided my hand: "Address. Name. Email."
"Now, we are chanting," she said, and handed me a paper booklet. I scanned through quickly—every page was filled with Japanese characters and their English transliteration below.
"We start five No-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo's," she said. And that's when a large man in a white robe entered the hall, lit incense in each corner of the shrine, sat directly in front of me and stared into my eyes. My two ladies looked at me expectantly, as if I knew who this dude was or what I should be doing. I didn't know either. So they tugged at my shoulders to move closer to him, then gently pushed my head down into a bow. And then the robed gentleman, who I understood now was a priest of some sort, looked at the two women to my right and left, and nodded.
"Now chant this..." she flipped through the entirety of the booklet and smiled. "You follow, you see English."
My two conversion guides and the big priest dove right in, each single syllable pronounced with the very same intonation, making for a hushed, droning effect. And I did my best to keep up, but every time I'd stop to take a breath I was lost. Each time, without skipping a single beat, Tamami would point and I could reclaim my place in the chant.
"Ni. Ji. Se. Son. Ju. San. Mal. An. Jo. Ni. Ki. Go. Sha. Ri. Hot. Su. Sho. But. Chi. Ee. Jin. Jin. Mu. Ryo. Go. Chi. Ee. Mon..." and on, and on, and on.
I was instantly reminded of my childhood in synagogue—those long, Hebrew prayers, often 20 pages long, where every kid in the hall was lost and bored and every parent was annoyed but patient because they wanted their children to be good Jewish boys and girls and not the asshole kid who left halfway through the Amidah. I thought of my dad flipping my prayer book to the right page without looking up from his, where I'd attempt to re-begin praying in a language to which I could only sound out the words, without any true level of understanding. I might as well have been chanting to Buddha in Japanese then, too, I thought.
And much like the prayers of my childhood, this chant went on for fucking ever.
Boat for hire in Arashiyama, Kyoto
Twelve or 15 minutes later, we wrapped up with another five No-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo's, and I figured the deed was done. The priest held a white scroll, tied in a roll with a red ribbon, above his shoulder, then lowered it onto my head, knighting me as a Nichiren Buddhist, I guess.
There was a brief pause, and everyone in the room was seemingly holding their breath.
The older woman broke it with an elated cry, both arms raised: "You are Nichiren Buddhist!"
And then everyone smiled and a few people clapped and I shook hands with everyone in the room. It felt like my Japanese Bar Mitzvah. I had become a man! With better karma this time!
The older woman gently took my prayer beads and folded them in a circle, then placed them, as well as my chanting booklet, into a leather pouch, which she handed to me reverently.
"Chanting three times every day," she said warmly, but sternly. She smiled again, and we all walked downstairs, where she handed me a few more brochures and pamphlets, then took out some photos of the Nichiren temple in Indonesia, which she made me promise I would visit, even though it is in Jakarta and is roughly 1,180 kilometers away from my house. But I'd already come so far off of a miscommunication that I wasn't going to pump the breaks now.
Tamami, in the meantime, had gathered a few of her friends, who were now sitting in the lobby waiting for me to join them, and they plied me with the first usual backpacker questions of the afternoon: How long was I in Japan? Did I love it here? What did I like about Tokyo? And I answered dutifully, my head still spinning a bit from the entire experience.
One friend—the woman farthest right in the picture below—leaned in to me.
"I become Nichiren Buddhist this year," she said. "It is very difficult. Chanting every day. I wish you luck." And I thanked her, sincerely.
And then I said goodbye—I had to meet someone, I lied—and we exchanged information and promised to be in touch and to chant every day for good karma.
The Justin Jacobs Conversion Squad 2017
I walked out of the temple, after some enthusiastic goodbyes and selfies, and turned onto the street, continuing on towards the Skytree—almost as if nothing had happened at all. The group of girls stood on the street waving for half a block.
A few minutes later, I was on the 33rd story of the Skytree looking out over the absolutely endless sprawl of Tokyo. As the sun went down, buildings began to light up, and the light spread on to the horizon in every direction. I knew I was completely full of shit, but that was nothing new. Was it wrong to let them convert me? I think not. This band of Buddhists felt like they'd done something wonderful that day—they brought someone new to their faith, they'd done a great deed. And what I do with my newly adopted faith, frankly, is no one's business but mine. And I can live with that. Or at least that's how I justified it to myself, as Tokyo began glowing before me.