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Women Turn to Ascetic Training for Relaxation (June 24, 2003)

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A woman copies Buddhist sutras in a temple. (Kofukuji)
More and more people are turning to ascetic pursuits to relieve the stresses of modern life. Two such activities are sutra copying, which involves copying out Buddhist sutras with an ink brush, and Zen meditation, in which people sit in a temple clearing their minds of worldly thoughts. Groups engaged in these pursuits have seen a conspicuous jump in the numbers of working women in their twenties and thirties joining their ranks. As modern society becomes more hurried and less forgiving, people long to relax their minds and free themselves from stress. Another factor behind this trend is the recent renewed interest in Japanese traditions like the tea ceremony and incense burning. It also seems that women with a strong will to work are seeking relaxation that enhances their abilities and are turning to sutra copying, meditation, and other ascetic training for inspiration.

Sutras Even Available Online
A row of people kneel before writing tables in a vast temple hall. They trace the exact strokes of each kanji of a sutra, following the model that is visible from under their writing paper. The faint scent of incense wafts through the hall, and not a sound can be heard. After an hour a bell is rung, the tension lifts, and the people stretch their legs and look refreshed.

This is the scene at the monthly sutra-copying session held at Sensoji temple in Tokyo. These sessions are held seven times a year from April to October, with applications to take part accepted every March. It apparently takes less than an hour for the 400 available places to fill up. There have always been plenty of seniors taking part, but lately there has been a marked rise in the number of participants in their twenties and thirties. A woman who works for a trading company in Tokyo says, "I feel refreshed when I finish writing. The urge to copy sutras hits me especially hard when I'm stressed out with work. . . . Copying sutras has enabled me to look at myself in a different light and to have more room to relax in my mind."

Yakushiji temple in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward, which holds daily sutra-copying sessions, reports that the number of young women participating has increased noticeably in the last two or three years. About one in five participants in weekend sessions are women in their twenties and thirties, and many of those are company workers. A representative of the temple explains, "I think that with people engulfed by a flood of information, they are turning to sutra copying as a way of getting back in touch with their real selves."

People practice Zen meditation. (Kofukuji)

Temples are not the only places attracting more young women. A store selling Buddhist objects in Shibuya, Tokyo, has been holding monthly sutra-copying sessions since September 2002 and reports that while seniors and homemakers make up 80% of the participants on weekdays, on weekends it is noticeable how many young women come along. More and more local culture centers are also organizing sutra copying and attracting plenty of participants. There are now even "online sutras" enabling people to copy sutras via the Internet.

Similar trends are visible in the field of meditation. Soun'in temple in Tokyo's Taito Ward, which holds meditation sessions three times a week, reports that the number of women taking part has risen recently. One of the participants, a twenty-something woman who works in a department store in central Tokyo, says that while she used to study the tea ceremony, "The tea ceremony has a set way of doing things, so it is very conventional. Meditation is all about emptying your mind in total silence."

Meditation Improves Concentration
The environment for working women, like that for men, is changing. Japanese businesses are shifting away from lifetime employment and seniority-based wages and introducing performance-based pay schemes in an effort to improve efficiency. This means that workers need to keep themselves sharp to move up the career ladder. According to a 2000 survey on health and welfare trends by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, 57.7% of women reported feeling either a great deal or some degree of stress. Stress was especially prominent among women in the prime of their working lives - 66.7% of those aged 25 to 34 and 68.4% of those aged 35 to 44 reported suffering from stress, far more than in other age groups.

There are any number of ways to beat stress - by playing sports, traveling, or talking with friends, for example - so what is it that spurs people to take up Buddhist ascetic pursuits like sutra copying and meditation?

Participants in sutra-copying sessions have given a variety of answers. One said, "I am always short of time, but when copying sutras I use my time carefully, and this gives me a sense of fulfillment and makes me more confident." Another commented, "Copying sutras improves my concentration, which is a big advantage when doing my job."

Over the past decade workers have become more and more keen to enhance their skills and advance their careers. This may be why they are choosing activities that improve their skills, rather than simple relaxation, to defeat stress. In the midst of a general boom in traditional Japanese things, this is one explanation for the popularity of sutra copying and meditation.

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Related Web Sites
"Zen meditation" in The Virtual Museum of Japanese Arts
the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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