Reiyūkai Kyōdan

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REIYŪKAI KYŌDAN . A Japanese Buddhist lay organization, Reiyūkai Kyōdan was founded between 1919 and 1925 in Tokyo by Kubo Kakutarō (18901944) and his sister-in-law Kotani Kimi (19011971). As of 1982 it had roughly three million members in Japan, with branches in seventeen foreign countries. Deriving from the tradition of Nichiren, the thirteenth-century religious reformer, Reiyūkai created lay rites of ancestor worship based on daily recitation of an abridgement of the Lotus Sutra. Personal salvation is believed to follow upon salvation of one's ancestors, which in turn is brought about through lay rites in the home without priestly mediation. Reiyukai represents a rare example in the history of religions of ancestor worship as the center of a voluntary association that transcends kinship boundaries. In daily life, Reiyūkai emphasizes traditionalist ethics in marriage and the family, linking these ideals to salvation of oneself and one's ancestors.

An employee of the Imperial Household Ministry, Kubo regarded himself as the Nichiren of the Taishō era (19121926), and like the medieval saint he set out to alert the world to the catastrophe he believed imminent. In Kubo's day, Japan was undergoing a radical social transformation, even as it had begun to gain place in international politics. Kubo saw in the massive changes about him a threat to traditional values and a need for religious response. He received religious instruction from exponents of Nichirenshugi, a nationalistic political interpretation of Nichiren's thought, but Kubo sought an understanding of contemporary events that would suggest an appropriate course of religious action for the laity. Since he regarded the Buddhist clergy as utterly incapable of providing suitable moral leadership, he set out to found a lay religious society in order to implement his understanding of Nichiren Buddhism.

Kubo believed that the world was beset with war and disaster because modern society had entrusted the rites of ancestor worship to the Buddhist clergy. He believed that social and political upheavals are actually signs of ancestral distress, reflected to the human world to inform the living that their ancestors are in need of ritual care. When descendants fail to worship them directly, ancestors in the spirit world are unable to achieve Buddhahood. Priests claim to be able to transfer merit to them through esoteric ritual, but actually, in Kubo's view, clerics have no karmic bonds with parishioners' ancestors. These are the ties of blood, filiation, and morality, which exist only among persons actually descended from common ancestors, or between spouses. A priest cannot mediate this relationship. Therefore, Kubo concluded, the ancestors' plight will continue to manifest itself as disasters in the human world until lay people perform the rites that will transfer merit effectively and until they implement in their daily lives an ethic that will "satisfy" the ancestors. The terrible earthquake of 1923 increased tremendously Kubo's sense of urgency in propagating this message.

Kubo's ideas might never have gone beyond a small circle of followers had he not been aided by Kotani Kimi. While Kubo elaborated doctrine and refined ritual, it was Kotani who gathered a core of followers. She proselytized in the poor sections of Tokyo, and by sharing the poverty of her converts, nursing them, and performing faith healing, she established herself as a pillar of the organization. Even after her death, Kotani continues to be widely regarded as a "living Buddha." In activities held at the group's mountain training center, Mirokusan, Kotani has been identified with the Buddha of the future, Maitreya.

Among the present membership, 70 percent reside in urban areas and 30 percent in rural areas. Reiyukai is organized into a number of branches formed by the links of proselytization. A person rises in rank by converting others, and conversion forms a pyramid in which all those proselytized by the same person are considered his or her "spiritual children," and the original proselytizer the "spiritual parent." Those at the foot of this pyramid look to an original "parent" as their leader, and that person is placed in charge of a branch headquartered in a certain area. The Eighth Branch, for example, has its headquarters in Osaka, claims roughly six hundred thousand members, and on a daily basis operates independently of the Tokyo headquarters of Reiyūkai.

Reiyūkai ritual consists chiefly of daily recitation morning and evening of the Blue Sūtra, an abridgement of the Lotus Sūtra. The ritual is structured so as to mobilize the power of the Lotus Sūtra for the salvation of the ancestors by simultaneously transferring merit and eliminating negative karman through repentence. It is assumed that men and women share equally the responsibilities of ritual, and it is considered most desirable that families unite in these observances. It is also assumed that men and women share equally in the fruits of correct ritual: a happy home, filial descendants, and personal salvation. Adherence to a prescribed ethic in marriage is the counterpart to ritual and is regarded as no less essential to salvation.

In the traditionalist family ethic advocated by Reiyūkai, the ideal of the family follows the prewar form (the ie ). That is, members idealize a situation in which three generations live together, worship together, and if possible engage in a common economic enterprise. The idea of filial piety is central, as is respect for elders. A hierarchical principle exists between men and women, with men in the dominant position. This idea receives religious formulation in the notion that women have worse karman than men and therefore have a greater need for religion. A corollary of this notion holds that if women can overcome their karman they can achieve spiritual feats impossible for men, an ideal expressed ritually in shamanistic practices resembling spirit possession, from which men are barred.

Reiyūkai continues to engage in political activity in support of various conservative causes, such as advocating state support for the Yasukuni Shrine, formerly the official shrine of the war dead. It also supports revision of the Constitution, particularly Article 9, which renounces the use of war. It is allied with other right-wing religious groups in this and other causes and supports conservative candidates for election. The extent to which this activity accurately mirrors the sentiments of the general membership is unclear, but it seems certain that this large, well-organized group may, along with other religious groups, wield an important political influence in Japan's future.

See Also

New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan.


For a comprehensive introduction to the organization, see my Lay Buddhism in Contemporary Japan: Reiyūkai Kyōdan (Princeton, 1984).

Helen Hardacre (1987)