Covell, Stephen G. 1965-

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Covell, Stephen G. 1965-


Born August 14, 1965. Education: Princeton University, Ph.D., 2001; also attended Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Yokohama, Japan.


Office—Michitoshi Soga Japan Center, Western Michigan University, 1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5245 E-mail—[email protected].


Academic. Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Department of Comparative Religion, Mary Meader Professor of Comparative Religion. Research associate, Taisho University, and International Christian University. Has also lectured, taught English, and worked as a translator in Japan.


Received Japan Foundation fellowship, Harold W. Dodds Honorific Fellowship, Center for the Study of Religion Fellowship, among others.


Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation, University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu, HI), 2005.

Also editor, with Mark Rowe, of Traditional Buddhism in Contemporary Japan, special edition of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2004.


In Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation, comparative religion scholar Stephen G. Covell looks at the contemporary state of Tendai Buddhism in Japan. He discovers that Japanese Buddhism—one of the leading religions in the country—is in fact extremely conflicted. "The Buddhist clergy of these denominations," stated Richard M. Jaffe in H-Net Review, "find themselves hammered by [a] variety of forces that include pressures from their parishioners (danka), demands of their sectarian leaders for reforms of various types, and the contradictions inherent in being almost universally house-holding clerics in denominations that continue to idealize world renunciation and monastic practice." In other words, the mainstream Buddhist clergy in Japan functions, not like the traditional (Western) view of Buddhism (dedicated monks meditating in monastic seclusion), but much more like ordinary (again, Western) clergy: everyday people who live ordinary lives, but who also serve the religious and spiritual needs of worshipers. It is, according to Jim Pym in the Middle Way, "a way of life in which the participants struggled deeply with their own spiritual search while rendering a dedicated service to the needs of the local community."

Covell's study helps explain the decline of the status of Buddhism in modern Japan. The religion was once one of the most important and influential belief systems in the nation, but recently membership in mainstream Buddhism has been outstripped by newer religions. "Temple Buddhism [is] largely viewed by the general public as degenerate, corrupt and out of touch with the spiritual needs of the populace," explained Nancy Stalker in Pacific Affairs. "In Covell's view, the key reason for this public perception is the gap between idealized views of priests and Buddhism and their contemporary reality. Priestly ideals dictate that individuals be ‘world-renouncers,’ scholarly and celibate ascetics who live simply and devote their lives to compassionate practice. Yet the reality is that over ninety-five percent of the priesthood is married, does not honour precepts against meat or alcohol and treats the temple as an inheritable private family business." Even during special religious festivals, priests on breaks can be found watching television, drinking, or discussing very worldly topics outside the view of their parishioners. Furthermore, Tendai gives the laypeople who come to worship in the temple very little in the way of roles they can play in the administration and business of the institution—thus both contributing to the temple's (potentially undeserved) reputation for otherworldliness and at the same time keeping worshipers divorced from the temple's basic needs.

For many parishioners in modern Japan, the main function of the Buddhist temple is to provide appropriate traditional death rites for the family. "The association of Buddhism in Japan [is] with death in all its aspects, and although this may change, it will not disappear," Pym declared. Further, Pym stated, "It is fairly clear to any impartial observer that many, or even most, temples could not survive if it were not for the income generated by funerals, memorial services and other trappings of death." As a result, many Japanese from Tendai priestly families choose to renounce their family heritage for another, more lucrative, position. "Due to the limited opportunities for lay engagement," Jaffe wrote, "those with strong religious aspirations turn, more often than not, to new religious organizations that appear more able to accommodate them. Even many young Japanese with an interest in serious religious practice and monastic life, as Covell points out, find that organizations like Tendai, with a growing emphasis on family ties as one of the main conduits for upward mobility in the organization, are less appealing than groups like Aum Shinrikyo, that go out of their way to recruit renunciants while offering them supposedly speedy routes to awakening."



Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, March, 2006, A.L. Miller, review of Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation, p. 1242.

Eastern Buddhist, spring, 2007, Ugo Dessi, review of Japan Temple Buddhism, p. 220.

Journal of Asian Studies, August, 2006, Judith Snodgrass, review of Japanese Temple Buddhism, p. 624.

Middle Way, May, 2007, Jim Pym, review of Japanese Temple Buddhism, p. 55.

Pacific Affairs, spring, 2006, Nancy Stalker, review of Japanese Temple Buddhism, p. 132.

Reference & Research Book News, February, 2006, review of Japanese Temple Buddhism.


H-Net Review, (March 25, 2008), Richard M. Jaffe, review of Japanese Temple Buddhism.

Western Michigan University Web site, (March 25, 2008), author profile.

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