Between the ultra-modern skyscrapers of the Shinjuku district, a maze of alleys with traditional wooden houses seems out of time. A barely noticeable sign reads 'Vowz Bar'. It is here, on the 2nd floor of a small house with narrow and steep stairs, that this very special place is located, opened in 2000 by Yoshinobu Fujioka, monk of Jodo-shinshu (or True Pure Land School), a liberal current founded by Shinran and widespread in Japan.
As soon as you enter, you are struck by the atypical and warm atmosphere of the place. A room of barely 40m2 with subdued lighting, carpeting, low wooden tables, a counter with its neatly aligned sake bottles; on the walls, statuettes and paintings of Buddhist deities and, in the background, the altar.
In a traditional thick blue cotton uniform, Li Chan welcomes us with a smile that exudes serenity. At 22, this Chinese moved to Japan to study Buddhism at the University of Tokyo, and works here four days a week. “I practice Zen Buddhism and I love singing! “, he launches, specifying that in his childhood, he lived near a temple from where he heard the voices escaping. "Here, I teach Buddhism, I take care of the singing sessions and I meet people," he rejoices, adding that "many come to talk about their love life and their stress at work. In Japan, it is not too much to confide in, and even less with a monk, ”continues the one who also loves to read manga and devotes two hours a day to it in transport.
Talk freely with monks
Indeed, the primary vocation of the Vowz is to allow people to exchange freely with monks and to make Buddhism better known. As the boss Fujioka explains in his beautiful black outfit adorned with traditional fabric, “the majority of my customers come to ask for advice on how to live better, all subjects can be discussed: family, marriage and work. Today's monks live in a world apart, apart from the ordinary people whom we meet only for funeral ceremonies, when we must remain close to them. “The day before, this monk, also the father of a little girl and rock guitarist, spoke with a young girl wanting to separate from her spouse. “It was a ball of nerves and anger! I told her that she had the choice between ruminating on negative thoughts and leaving her ego aside to feed positive thoughts towards the loved one. I showed her a meditation and we talked for over an hour. Respectfully, he interrupts the conversation to welcome two university students from the city of Osaka. “We heard about this bar from a Buddhist friend. Even if it is the culture in Japan, we do not practice and we would like to know more. The monks look so happy and peaceful that it makes you want to,” laughs one of them while sipping her beer. Within minutes, past 20 p.m., the bar fills up quickly. Isao Akibue, an employee of a construction company, has been a regular for more than ten years. For him, who is interested in Buddhism, this bar is “ideal for obtaining information on religion and better understanding human relationships. »
The “okyos” ritual
The clock is ticking and Li Chan rings the bell: 21 p.m. is the time to sing the "okyos", the sutras. As he distributes the text and its pronunciation in the Roman alphabet to patrons, Fujioka lights candles and kneels before the altar. Then sings a solemn chant in a strong baritone voice, inviting the others to accompany him. Everyone lends itself to the game. The voices gain confidence, blend into each other, the sound becomes more harmonious, stronger, until the end of the piece. The bell rings, the monk lets the silence hover for a moment… before the murmur of conversations resumes in the room. Customers resume their conversation, glass in hand, others sit down at the counter.
“Today's monks live in a world apart, apart from the ordinary people whom we meet only for funeral ceremonies, when we must remain close to them. » Fujioka, owner of the Vowz Bar
Fujioka, who was singing a few moments ago, pours cold sake with his usual beaming smile. Alcohol in a Buddhist bar? If a dozen monks-servers of the Vowz Bar come from different currents, one thing unites them: their rather liberal understanding of the doctrine. “The Jodo-shinshu current to which I belong does not impose a strict ban. Monks can eat meat or drink alcohol. You can even get married if you want,” explains the boss.
“Young people no longer go to the temple”
But since the creation of the Vowz, its purpose has remained the same: to make young people aware of Buddhism. "Nowadays, young people no longer go to temples," he laments. “Distributing the teachings of Buddhism to the people is the primary reason for the existence of this bar. " Here, the monks also offer other activities, such as sessions of reading Buddhist texts and meditation courses, "to go further than conversations at the counter", underlines Fujioka, regretting that the Japanese do not feel concerned with Buddhism only for certain rites such as funerals (their main religion being Shintoism). This disinterest worries even the monastic society which sees the networks of faithful crumble every day a little more. “We want people to understand that Buddhism is not just about burials. Buddhism teaches us how to live well and how to have an easier life.” Considering the number of customers who choose to spend their Saturday evening with prayers in the background, the method seems to be paying off. This charismatic monk in his forties, founder of the Vowz, hopes that original initiatives like his will be able to break this vicious circle. " There altruistic philosophy of Buddhism can really improve society. It's a pity that it remains so unknown.