Ryo Kasuga is no ordinary Buddhist priest. Head of Shoganji temple in Tokyo’s Katsushika ward, he wears blue jeans and red sweaters, regularly reads the latest in astronomy news, has trained as an opera singer in Italy and Germany, and has a knack for magic tricks. He is also the founder of the world’s first temple-cum-planetarium.

Twenty years ago, Kasuga took up the mantle of leadership at the 400-year-old Buddhist temple formerly run by his father under one condition: that he could revolutionize the way that Buddhism was taught there. Penniless but passionate, Kasuga requested donations from planetariums that were updating their equipment and built an observatory of his own on the temple’s grounds. The 25-seat Planetarium Theatre Galaxy is open twice a month for visitors and uses the cosmological sphere as a way to open people into a state of awe and wonder, priming them for the discussion of buddhadharma to come. Two other Japanese temples have followed suit, while dozens of others have begun using computers and projectors to recreate the cosmically educational experience.

Tricycle spoke with Kasuga to talk about the mixed methodology he uses to get to the heart of the dharma.

Tell me about the planetarium. You could have used anything else to teach Buddhism—why the stars and planets?
Do you know the word misdirection? Not Miss USA, not Miss Japan, not Miss Universe, but misdirection. I’m a magician, and misdirection is a kind of magic technique. It’s a deception in which the audience is focused on one thing in order to disrupt its attention from another. If I have a gimmick in my right hand, it is very important not to show it to the audience. I move my left hand elegantly so the audience looks there while my right hand is out of sight. Now I can vanish a coin or cards. This is the same technique I use in the planetarium. The planetarium is like my left hand. While the audience thinks: Oh, the sunset. The night sky, the stars . . . it opens their mind, and in the right hand is my gimmick, which is also my aim and my hope: Buddhism.

When people come to the planetarium for a presentation on the stars, how do you connect it to Buddhist teachings? How do you reveal your “right hand”?
I wanted to become astronomer; I’m a very scientific man. But astronomy is one thing and Buddhism is another thing. I don’t dare say, “Oh, the mysteries of space and the mystery enlightenment are the same thing.” Instead, I use the atmosphere of the planetarium as a teaching tool. Inside, while the sun sets and the stars rise during the first three minutes, we listen to classical music and I don’t dare speak. I’ll wait and while they’re concentrating, I speak gently and softly: “2,500 years ago, a man existed in India . . .” and I begin my story. Other times, I start by introducing the constellations: Orion, the Big Dipper, Canis Minor, Canis Major. People are relaxed, observing nature. Then I start to talk about Buddhism indirectly. I might say: “If there is no suffering in your heart and you are very happy, Buddhism is useless. Forget it, please. There’s no need to come to temple. However, if you feel some suffering, worry, or trouble in your heart, maybe Buddhism can help you find the reason for it.”

Ryo KasgaBuddhism is very useful, especially for young people. When you’re older, the soul becomes hard and it is difficult to learn new things. Buddhism is how to think about life. It’s not for dead people. It’s for me, for us, for living human beings. If I experience a shock in my life, like the earthquake in Japan, the earthquake itself only lasts one minute, two minutes, and then it’s over. The shock is a thousand times stronger when we repeat it in our head. When we quarrel with someone, the disaster is not so bad, but even after we say goodbye we repeat the conversation many times, emphasizing and amplifying our suffering. The dharma helps us stop this process. Buddhism is something like a psychology to solve the mind’s problems. Buddhism is not for worshiping idols. In the Buddha’s day, there were no statues, no ceremonies, only dharma. Today, Japanese Buddhism is dead.

What do you mean?
There are two reasons. After World War II, religion was prohibited in Japanese public schools for 70 years. Because of this, Japanese people have no interest in and no education about religion. All they know about it is the ceremonies and services for dead people. When I speak about Buddhism, they say, “I see, I see.” But they don’t hear, they don’t listen to me. So I built a planetarium.

Second, in Japan people are focused on earning money to feed their families. For Japanese priests and monks, Buddhism is about how to make money. It’s very sad. Me, I can live off of the money I make from my magic and singing. Teaching Buddhism is my main job, but I’m not focused on earning money from believers.

Have other temples altered how they teach Buddhism so people will be curious about it?
I’ve counted throughout my life, and very few have changed the way they teach. I’ve met about 2,000 priests and only 20 of them studied hard. In Japan, there is a heritage system, so if a father runs a temple, then the son continues to run the temple. This is not good. Me, for example: I was born in a temple; my father was chief priest. I [initially] didn’t want to run it after he died because of this system within Japanese Buddhism. Here, monks concentrate on earning money! When I say this, people become very angry, but it’s a fact. Many monks don’t preach or teach; they only do ceremonies.

After the American financial crisis, the effects came to Japan. Salaries were down. Ceremonies became smaller and people arranged funerals for intimate friends only. The same thing applied for marriages. People began to change their lifestyle because of economic reasons, but the temple system itself hasn’t changed. Because of this, it might be “bye-bye temples” soon! 

What do you hope will happen over the next five or ten years for Japanese Buddhism? What would you like to see change?
I want younger monks and priests to enter the Buddhist world and not just those who are born into the temple system. Regular people should become Buddhist priests. Over the next decade they will change the atmosphere of Buddhism in Japan. For example, one of my friends is running a monks’ cocktail bar!

Do the monks drink?
They don’t drink, but they make the cocktails. They make drinks until two in the morning and preach every hour. The talks are short and sweet, only five or ten minutes, but it’s very good because the customers are young and curious about Buddhism. It’s called Vowz Bar and it’s a small place with 25 chairs, but still, it’s always full. There’s a demand among young people. Four or five times a year, I collaborate with Vowz Bar and we hold a special “Monks’ Bar” in the planetarium. Viewers drink two cocktails, watch the stars, and ask questions.

Do you think creative initiatives like this might revolutionize the way that Buddhism is taught in Japan?
I hope so—but not only with astronomy! We should not be so fixed [about thinking that] the temple is the temple and the priest is the priest. People say to me, “Mr. Kasuga, you’re a Buddhist monk, but you always wear jeans and a red shirt—why?” Well, I like red! And my shirts are cheap and easy to wear; they’re comfortable! Why I should be in necktie and jacket? It’s the inside that’s important. Many people care only about the outside. Necktie, no necktie; jacket, no jacket—this is not Buddhism’s concern.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
I recently had a dream about two enlightened people I met when I was young. When I met them, I thought, “Ah, this is an enlightened person.” On the outside, they were normal: old men in their 60s and 70s. But when they spoke their stories contained—how do you say it—I felt a vibration of heart. It wasn’t charisma, like Michael Jackson or anything like that. But there was something eccentric—eccentric in the positive sense—about them. “Oh!” I thought. This is Buddhism in his mind. This is Buddhism working in his body.

I was shocked enlightenment existed. I am not as good as them, but I absorbed something from them. It’s an energy to continue Buddhism.

Were either of these men your teacher?
Yes, when I was 26 years old I met Mr. Wada Shigeshi, who was my teacher. He was already 64 years old. After 20 years, he died, but I went to him many times to ask questions. I asked and he answered, not just one question, but many. We would go round and round, like tennis, ping! Right hand, left, right, left, until I felt I understood deeply. This is why I think questions are very, very important. When I teach, I want you to go home, and call me if you think of something. It’s free to call. I don’t want money from you, only to speak with you. I want to speak for Buddhism. I want to answer with Buddhism. And I want to be questioned.

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