1st International Conference on Buddhism, Suicide Prevention, and Psycho-Spiritual Counseling

Re-Awakening to Our Inter-connected World

Hosted by the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) @ Kodosan
the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB)

Yokohama, Japan November 6-8, 2017

The Jodo Shin Hongan-ji Denomination Research Institute
Ryukoku University Research Center for Buddhist Cultures in Asia (BARC)

Kyoto, Japan November 9-10, 2017 

Suicide in Japan and Buddhist Responses over the last decade

As much as concerns about health and well-being persist in the lesser developed parts of the globe, we have been witnessing in the last few decades declining levels of well-being in the so-called highly developed countries of the world. Japan is a principle example of this when its suicide rate skyrocketed in the late 1990s as a still ongoing economic recession started to take root in society. Suicide and a wide variety of forms of mental illness are not only plaguing Japan today (#17, 18.5/100,000), but have taken hold in South Korea (#2, 28.9) and other East Asian societies, where the drive for success coupled with self-sacrifice is so strong. The pressures of modern industrial society are also trickling into the so called lesser developed countries of Asia that have become rife with suicide, such as Sri Lanka (#3, 28.8), Nepal (#7, 24.9) and India (#11, 21.1).

Japan has been known for its unique culture of condoning or accepting suicide, such as the noble samurai taking his life to accept blame for failed duties. Zen Buddhism has at times appeared to be part of this culture, offering the warrior or the stoic the power of mind to accept death. While Buddhism has a unique tradition of contemplating and engaging with death directly and fearlessly, it’s foundational ethic is one of non-violence and non-harming, seeking to avoid death. With this complex and unique culture, a movement of Japanese Buddhist priests from a wide variety of traditions has emerged in the last decade to proactively engage in the chronic suicide problem in Japan. Their practices range from emergency telephone and internet counseling to group counseling, healing ritual, and community building. From November 6-8, 2017, the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) located at the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship in Yokohama hosted a groundbreaking international conference on Buddhism, suicide prevention, and psycho-spiritual counseling. This was the first half of a combined conference held in conjunction with the Jodo Shin Hongan-ji Denomination Research Institute 浄土真宗本願寺派総合研究所 and the Ryukoku University Research Center for Buddhist Cultures in Asia (BARC) 龍谷大学アジア仏教文化研究センター, who hosted the second half of the conference in Kyoto from November 9-10.

This conference was the culmination of a decade of research and activism on this issue by IBEC and its Engaged Buddhism Project. When Research Fellow Jonathan Watts joined IBEC in 2005, he and Kodo Kyodan President, Rev. Shojun Okano, spent more than a year researching the pressing social issues and sources of suffering amongst contemporary Japanese. They then examined what Buddhists, especially Buddhist priests, were doing to address these issues. At this time, the suicide rate in Japan was in the midst of a 14-year run of suicides exceeding 30,000 per year. Meanwhile, traditional Buddhist priests had developed a largely negative public image for being engaged in nothing but funeral rituals, dubbed Funeral Buddhism (soshiki bukkyo). IBEC, however, was able to identify a number of priests who out of genuine compassion had begun to individually take on this issue, through activities such as telephone counseling, open temple counseling, and working in public suicide prevention centers.

In 2007, IBEC held the first nationwide public symposium on the issue from a Buddhist perspective at Kodosan, where many of these priests gathered for the first time in one place to share their views and work. At the same time, a small group of priests in the Tokyo area began working together across denominational lines creating the Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem, later renamed as the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Self-death and Suicide 自死・自殺に向き合う僧侶の会—the use of the term “self-death” (jishi) reflecting a greater awareness and sensitivity to the complexities of suicide and the problems of social taboos surrounding it. The group has focused on counseling at a distance through letter writing with the suicidal as well as face-to-face, monthly group counseling for bereaved family members. They also hold a major, private memorial service for these families at large, prestigious temples in Tokyo once a year with a large number of priests in attendance. The success of these initiatives has spawned numerous other regional groupings of priests in the Nagoya, Osaka-Kyoto, and Hiroshima areas. Another impressive step in the movement was the partnership formed in 2014 with the Kyoto City government by the Jodo Shin Hongan-ji denomination to support an independent, government funded suicide prevention group staffed by Buddhist priests named Sotto  京都自殺・自死相談センター.

On the international level, IBEC’s documentation of this movement led to a major feature article in 2013 of one suicide prevention priest, Rev. Jotetsu Nemoto, in the United States’ premier cultural magazine, The New Yorker, and a subsequent critically acclaimed documentary on his work and life called The Departure (2017). IBEC’s association with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) through the local Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB) also attracted increasing interest abroad in this exceptional work by Buddhist priests in Japan.

Opening session at Kodosan on November 6, 2017

Conference Details

In this way, in January of 2017, Rev. Okano invited key persons from the movement to form an organizing team to develop this international conference. Priests from the aforementioned Jodo Shin Hongan-ji Denomination Research Institute, the Ryukoku University BARC, the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Self-death and Suicide (Tokyo region), and the Soto Zen Denomination Research Center 曹洞宗総合研究センター made an exceptional interfaith team for developing and managing the conference. A final key member of the organizing team was Tom Eskildsen and his team of simultaneous translators, whose exceptional skills in covering topics from the Buddhist philosophical tradition to modern psychology and public health were essential for a fluid interaction between Japanese and foreign participants. From the domestic side, we invited as conference speakers old partners from the beginning of this work, such as Rev. Nemoto (Rinzai Zen), Rev. Shunei Hakamata (Soto Zen), Rev. Yukan Ogawa (Jodo), Rev. Jin Hitoshi (Rinbutsuken Institute for Socially Engaged Buddhism), as well as new guests, such as Mr. Tadashi Takeshima, Director of the Kawasaki City Center for the Preservation of Mental Health. From the international side, a wide variety of Buddhists and even non-Buddhists active in mental health and counseling were invited to join. As suicide is not necessarily the core mental health issue in other countries, we assembled participants from fields like psychiatry and psychotherapy, substance abuse, youth counseling, elderly care, hospice care, and Buddhist chaplaincy training coming from the United States, Sweden, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Bhutan.

The overall goals for the meeting were: 1) to bring together Japanese Buddhists with significant experience in the field of suicide prevention to share perspectives and skills with international Buddhists, who either have similar such expertise or who are seeking to develop such expertise; 2) to share experiences on the nature of suicide in the various regions of the participants; 3) to develop deeper perspectives and common models on the structural and cultural causes of suicide, especially from a Buddhist perspective; 4) to share skills in counseling of the suicidal and their families and loved ones as well as bereavement care for families and loved ones who have lost persons to suicide, especially from a Buddhist perspective; 4) to share activities and models for addressing the deeper structural and cultural causes of suicide and for community building, especially from a Buddhist base

The first two days of the conference featured an extensive series of presentations open to the public by 7 Japanese and 7 foreign speakers with space for questions and discussion afterwards. On the evening of the second day, Kodosan hosted the Japan premier of The Departure after which a discussion session with Rev. Nemoto was held. On the third day, before departing for Kyoto in the afternoon, the core group of participants held an all morning discussion session on the variety of themes that had emerged. The first day of the meeting in Kyoto was held at the Jodo Shin Honganji denomination’s Dendo-in Temple and featured a number of presentations on the work of Buddhists and health professionals in the Osaka-Kyoto area. Our host and co-organizer, Rev. Ryogo Takemoto of Sotto, also demonstrated a role play of how they train priests in counseling. The second day featured a major public symposium held at the Avanti Kyoto Hall of our other host in Kyoto, Ryukoku University. President Okano presided over this symposium, which reviewed the contents of our four previous days together and included a keynote speech on the textual stance towards suicide by Prof. Shizuka Sasaki of Hanazano University of the Rinzai Zen denomination. In the morning before the symposium, the core group met for a final time to discuss numerous ideas for follow up work, especially in the area of cross training and exchange amongst our groups. While these plans are still being formed and finalized, we feel quite satisfied at this groundbreaking attempt to bring a variety of Buddhist perspectives together to confront the issue of mental health which is such a critical issue in so many of our heavily modernized societies.

concluding public symposium at the Avanti Kyoto Hall hosted by Ryukoku University

Essential Themes and Outcomes

As an introduction to the synopses of all the conference presentations, the following is a review of essential themes that emerged from the five days of presentations and were further consolidated during the final group discussions in Yokohama and Kyoto. In general, suicidal tendencies arise out of a cluster of major life events or traumas that lead to unbearable stress and suffering. From these core causes, a lack of support from others and one’s environment and/or a lack of personal resources or access to resources push the person in suffering into even more desperate avenues of coping. In this way, suicide becomes a perceived solution to ending the suffering. The Buddhist monk/chaplain/caregiver’s role in this situation is two-fold: 1) as a spiritual counselor, perhaps better expressed as a “spiritual friend” (Skt. kalyanamitra 善知識) to journey together with the suffering person as a confidant rather than a preacher offering solutions; 2) as a social worker or “gatekeeper”, who has numerous community and social connections and an understanding of the kinds of resources that can help each particular individual.

IMG-0735 (1)While there was a certain amount of debate on how much Buddhist monks/chaplains/caregivers can or should get involved in social issues, there was certainly a fundamental agreement on how social problems—like economic downturn, community breakdown, relationships mediated by technology, various forms of discrimination, etc.—traumatize the individual. Many of the presenters focused on the psychological and social problems of young people from East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, and the West. The breakdown of the family and the replacement of spiritual and cultural values with those of hyper-competition and achievement are seen as common social causes of depression and suicide in the young generations. A few speakers spent significant parts of their presentation outlining the structural and cultural systems that have led to psychological trauma in their communities, such as the caste system in India and the destruction of rural community in Japan. In this way, a social-ecological model of suicide prevention was suggested in which the micro level of personal care is harmonized with the macro level of “systems care” and advocacy for systems change, as presently found in public chaplaincy in the United States. Finally, some presenters pointed out the poor understanding of both religious and health professionals of the structural and cultural causes of mental illness. While health professionals may tend to rely on psychological and bio-medical explanations of mental illness, a number of presentations highlighted how Buddhist religious professionals may rely on erroneous understandings of karma to explain suicide that cause great harm to bereaved families as well as further psychological damage to those struggling with thoughts of suicide.

In this way, there was also extensive discussion on the work of training Buddhist monks/chaplains/caregivers to properly engage with the mentally ill and suicidal. The first step in most traditional Buddhist contexts is reforming the outdated monastic training system in which monks are usually trained as ritualists and preachers. As seen above, there is the need to modify or even correct interpretations of ancient teachings in light of modern contexts as well as providing new forms of education on social issues and systems to empower monks to regain their status as community and civil society leaders. The training process is obviously essential as the rote memorization of texts and the study of ritual minutiae is replaced by experiential learning and relational exercises to develop the caregiver as a listener and communicator. The Buddha himself provides a perennial model in his style of teaching which was never to provide answers but to assign tasks or exercises through which students came to their own realization. Indeed, the very notion of each individual possessing their own buddha-nature is congruent to modern forms of professional interfaith chaplaincy, where the client or patient is empowered to find their own solutions; that is, to realize their own unique form of enlightenment. A training process along these lines develops the monk/chaplain/caregiver from preacher to “spiritual comrade” (Skt. kalyanamitra 善知識), who walks the path of suffering together and provides a safe space for exploring inner traumas through intimacy and presence. As the individual in suffering begins to discover what they need on their own terms, they may also call on the monk/chaplain/caregiver to provide meaningful rituals, such as those special memorial services provided by the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Self-death and Suicide.

Go to Presentations from Japan

Go to Presentations from Other Countries


Cooperating Groups (Yokohama/Tokyo Area):

Cooperating Groups (Kyoto/Osaka):

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