Buddhist priests in Japan have always dealt closely with death. They are the officiants at funerals for the majority of the population, counselors to the grieving, and partners through the long series of memorial services that follow a death. Yet few priests have made it their business to confront suicide, which last year claimed close to 28,000 lives in Japan. Ittetsu Nemoto is an exception. “If one path leads toward suicide, I want to do anything I can to lead people in the opposite direction,” says Nemoto, who serves as chief priest at Daizenji, a small temple nestled between rice fields and forested hills in rural Gifu Prefecture.

The 41-year-old Tokyo native grew up with no particular connection to Buddhism. A wild child who loved to ride motorcycles, dance late into the night at discos, and pick fights, Nemoto studied Western philosophy in high school and college, then drifted from job to job. By his mid-twenties he was questioning his path in life. When by chance his mother pointed out a newspaper ad for entry-level work as a monk (it read, literally, “Buddhist monks wanted”), Nemoto—who had been intrigued by zazen on a karate retreat—applied. Several years later, wanting to engage more deeply with Buddhism, he entered a secluded Rinzai Zen monastery in the hills of Gifu. The training there was ascetic in the extreme: monks begged their meager diet of rice and vegetables, worked and meditated for long hours, and related to one another within a strictly hierarchical framework. Pushed far beyond what he had experienced in the outside world, Nemoto came to understand the workings of his mind and heart with a new clarity. He left the monastery in 2004, after four and a half years of training, and the next fall became priest of Daizenji.

The relentless energy that once fueled all-night dance sessions now allowed him to counsel thousands of deeply troubled people, organize gatherings for the family members of those who have killed themselves, and hold countless retreats, pilgrimages, and meditation sessions. The work drew media attention (last summer he was profiled in The New Yorker), and more requests for help flooded in. Between all of this he performed the ordinary duties of a country priest and grew organic rice in a field beside his temple. Even for Nemoto, it was too much: by 2009 he had developed severe heart problems, and he spent the next few years in and out of the hospital.

Today Nemoto continues his work at an only slightly slower pace. Yet on an autumn morning in the quiet, clean temple he and his wife watch over, he seemed to have all the time in the world to talk, and a hundred stories to tell.

Winifred Bird

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