Near Tokyo’s newest landmark, Tokyo Sky Tree, in Mukojima, Sumida Ward stands Tendai sect temple Chomeiji. Head priest is Shogen Kobayashi (73), who embarked on this unique career after studying Japanese literature at Chuo University before entering graduate school at Taisho University in order to become a priest. Although he says he took a roundabout route to inherit his home of Chomeiji, Kobayashi says his many life experiences came in useful in his Buddhist training. After piling up much strict training, in June last year he was appointed to the highest rank in the Tendai sect of High Priest.
Turning his back on a Buddhist junior high school
Wearing a priest’s stole and chanting a sutra leaves absolutely no image of CHUO. Even some supporters of his temple don’t know he is a Chuo graduate.
He was born in Chomeiji, the famous temple in Mukojima, Tokyo. Nearby is Sumida Youth’s Baseball Ground, said to be the place where Sadaharu Oh (former Giants player, current Fukuoka Softbank Hawks president), who established a record of 868 home runs in professional baseball, started out baseball. It is also Tokyo’s downtown well known for local specialty such as Kototoi dumplings and Sakura mochi.
Kobayashi, the eldest son of the temple, entered a private junior high school and high school, which was said to be a Buddhist school, in 1952 at the insistence of his father.
Mr. Oh won the Koshien Spring Invitational Championship in 1957 as top starring pitcher for Waseda Jitsugyo High School. To many current Chuo students who were born in the Heisei era (1988～), this was the area of sepia photographs.
“Being a son from Chomeiji, it was expected of me to get high grades, and the teachers saw me as a top student. The junior high school I went to was tough to be in.”
Winning the national title in mixed chorus
He decided to change schools. In his second year of junior high school, Kobayshi transferred to a public school. He joined the mixed chorus and out of the blue won the national title in the NHK National Radio Singing Contest.
“It was like my field of vision expanded in a flash, I was elated. I remember it well.”
He also went to a public high school. When continuing on to university, he chose the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University because “I liked Japanese literature.”
The stone tablet at his home of Chomeiji has Basho Matsuo’s famous haiku, Izasaraba (Farewell) inscribed on it.
Isasaraha Yukimi ni Korofu Tokoro made (Farewell Falling on the snow-scene To that place)
According to data gathered by Sumida Ward, of the 1500 Basho inscribed stone tablets said to be around the country, this inscribed tablet, carved in the kamaboko style (a method where the centre appears three dimensional due to an arching curve in the shape of kamaboko), is said to be an excellent piece of work in terms of stone tablets. The vicinity of Kobayashi’s house is blessed with numerous cultural assets such as the remains of Ogai Mori’s residence and the graves of Japanese classics scholars Moribe Tachibana and Fuyuteru Tachibana.
While he was engrossed in literature, his classmates were changing faculties from their second year. They moved on to the Faculty of Law and Faculty of Commerce to aim for qualifications such as the National Bar Examination and certified public accountancy.
“My future (in the temple) was decided so I just read books, which I loved. Books were my treasure. I earnestly attended classes and even answered the roll for my friends in class. I was considerably relied upon before exams. There were even times when my friends who couldn’t obtain credits asked me to go to the professor together with them.”
He aimed to excel in both study and sport and set a goal of combining both Japanese literature and martial arts.
“That was the time when Senator Robert Kennedy visited Japan…”
In 1962, President Kennedy’s younger brother visited a gymnasium in Shinjuku Ward wanting to “see Japanese culture.” Kobayashi, a member of the Chuo University aikido club, was also at the gymnasium.
He could do as he pleased and led a fulfilling student life. For his graduation thesis topic he chose Masuji Ibuse, known for the novels Sanshouo (Salamander) and Kuroi Ame (Black Rain). He was given personal guidance by a University of Tokyo professor who he had become acquainted with through literature. His talent was recognized and Kobayashi was advised to study Japanese classics thoroughly at graduate school, but he returned to the path of priesthood. His entry into priesthood was 10 years later than normal.
Three years of study was waiting
He entered Taisho University Graduate School in Sugamo, Tokyo. He took lectures on the assumption he would graduate from the Buddhism studies faculty. Kobayashi, who entered graduate school late, had to deal with three years of study at once with third and fourth year faculty students and first year graduate school students.
He took Introductory Tendai Studies, Advanced Tendai History, Advanced Religion and Philosophy and Advanced History of Religious Thought (psychology, folklore, ethnology, sociology). Generally, Buddhism history and basic ideology, regardless of sect, is studied in the first and second years, and in the third and fourth years there is a deeper focus on specialist fields such as the ideology of each sect. He also had lessons for writing Sanskrit characters on stupas.
“It usually takes two years to complete the master’s course, but I also had to write a thesis so it took me three years.”
Teaching aikido at kindergarten
After graduation he went to Chomeiji. He took over as superintendent of the kindergarten from his father.
“I took a roundabout route, but I think I studied wider society.”
Even now Kobayashi is teaching aikido to the oldest children at the attached kindergarten, Kototoi Kindergarten. “I do it once a week. They only copy what I do, but being able to do greetings alone is wonderful.” Before the children graduate, students from the Chuo aikido club are invited to give a performance in front of parents.
“I want them to see an energetic style, and I am sure they think it is good. They understand well when they actually see it.”
As well as aikido, “I am teaching table manners, posture, how to hold chopsticks and greetings for before and after meals.” “When I go to the entrance ceremony of the nearby primary school (as a guest), I am pleased to see children from my kindergarten give proper greetings and sit in a well-mannered position.”
Eldest son taking the same path
Kobayashi’s eldest son is walking down the same path. He has gone from a public high school to Chuo University to graduate school at Taisho University. “Those born in a temple will eventually work at a temple, but I also want them to embrace the path of their choosing.”
Their future job and role in the neighborhood is decided from birth. The word destiny cannot describe it in full. In an age where the environment and values are changing at a dizzying rate, is it right for only Buddhism to continue as it has in the past? Head Priest Kobayashi, who has chanted sutras near the temple since his childhood, has piled up experiences of living with other people and come across many different ways of life, knows the distance between society and Buddhism.
His long years in Buddhism have been recognized, and in June last year at Hieizan-Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, he was appointed the highest rank in the Tendai sect of High Priest by the top priest in the Tendai sect, Ozashu-sama. A large number of supporters, exceeding Chuo University participants, gathered for the High Priest Appointment Celebration Banquet held at Tokyo Kaikan in Marunouchi, Tokyo.