Welcome to the Buddhist temple in Japan where you can flush your marriage, or bad habits, down the toilet

Japanese Zen Divorce ToiletThis comes from a story from 2010, but was revived recently in a list of strange divorce customs around the world at the Huffington Post. According to HuffPo:

One Japanese temple lets visitors flush a failed marriage down the toilet… literally. At the Mantokuji Temple, located in Gunma Prefecture in central Japan, visitors rid themselves of bad relationship karma by writing their breakup wishes on a piece of paper and flushing them down the toilet, according to Reuters.

The temple was historically a refuge for women looking to escape unhappy marriages, the temple museum’s director, Tadashi Takagi, told The Telegraph in March 2010.

The temple is one in the Soto Zen tradition which has branches in the United States. This was also the subject of a scholarly article:

Severing the Karmic Ties that Bind. The “Divorce Temple” Mantokuji

Diana E. Wright
Monumenta Nipponica
Vol. 52, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 357-380 (JSTOR link)
According to Wright’s article, the temple (or convent/nunnery) was once a reputable ancestral temple but is today (as of 1997) largely unknown. The history of the temple, too, is murky. Documents in the temple claim to date from the 13th century, but other documents suggest that it may have been affiliated with another Buddhist school until the 14th or 15th centuries and had to be officially “reactivated” in 1894 after falling into obscurity. The origin of the practice of granting divorces at the temples seems to be in the Tokugawa Shogunate period (1600-1868), but:

Just why Mantokuji and Tokeiji [the other "divorce temple" in Japan] modified their original convent activities to include divorce procedures remains in dispute. The traditional interpretation has been that changes were altruistic responses to the feudal nature of Tokugawa society having become particularly oppressive for women, with their position vis-a-vis men being dramatically weakened. Re-evaluation of Tokugawa social history, however, indicates that Tokugawa women were not without socio-economic influence, suggesting the need to reconsider the nature of the role of the convents as “divorce temples.” (Wright)

Marriage: secular or religious?
As in many Buddhist countries, marriage was seen as a civil procedure in Japan. However, women could not initiate divorces, which might have helped lead to the establishment of this tradition. Its also notable that the divorce decree often had ‘the characteristic phrasing: “Our karmic ties have weakened, and so should you someday remarry, I will not utter a single word in protest.”‘ So religious wording was used despite the acknowledgement that the procedure was civil in nature.
Don’t try it twice though

Wright states that, “Mantokuji did not accept petitions for a second temple-negotiated divorce. The reasoning behind such a stance was that only an “evil” wife would seek refuge with the temple twice. By doing so, she was held to be taking advantage of the Buddha’s infinite compassion…”

Finances

Mantokuji apparently only charged reasonable ‘maintenance’ costs covering food and other essentials for the period when the woman was staying at the temple. However, Tokeiji extracted large one-time ‘donations’ from women seeking asylum and divorce services.

‘Engaged’ Buddhism (oh, bad pun)

In concluding her paper, Wright notes that “it becomes clear that these convents were not merely religious retreats; they were, in fact, important social institutions intimately involved with secular society around them.” We see this creative involvement today as well, with the introduction of the toilet (it’s not mentioned in Wright’s paper) as a symbol for breaking the karmic binds of the bad relationship – or whatever else you’d like symbolically to flush away…

You can read more about engaged Japanese Buddhism here with an interview I did with the head of Shinnyo-en earlier this year.


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