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JapanThursday, September 13

Japanese Monk's Music a Hit in China

A Japanese musician has become an internet sensation in China -- but he's not a pop singer or idol. He's a monk.
By combining ancient Buddhist scripture with modern music and technology, he's been able to strike the right chord with a growing audience.

It's a new take on an old tradition: a Buddhist monk with a guitar. Kanho Yakushiji chants a centuries-old Sutra to modern music. A monk at a Chinese music festival might be an unusual sight. But Yakushiji wins over his audience.

"I like it very much. He's very handsome too." "At this festival, his style is quite distinct," the people in the audience say.

Yakushiji's home is a Zen temple in western Japan. His father is also a monk, and as a child, Yakushiji was expected to assume his father's role. But he rebelled. "I didn't want to be a monk. I was struggling to find something else, and found music," he says.

He became a musician and even released albums with a major label. But he says the quest for fame made him unhappy. So he gave up his guitar and began a 2-year training program to become a full-fledged monk.

In that process, the Heart Sutra took on a special meaning for him. It's said to contain Buddha's words of wisdom. As a monk, Yakushiji often chants it with people who are grieving -- an act that he says provides solace. "To me, the Heart Sutra represents human connection. We exist because other people are connected to us. I always want to be aware of that," he says.

But the Sutra's text is hard for ordinary people to understand. So Yakushiji experimented by adding music to make it more accessible. He wasn't sure how it would go over with more conservative people, but the response was mostly positive.

"His music makes people curious about what it means. For a start, I think it's great," says Daiko Shoji at the Ryutokuji Temple. An even bigger response came from China. A fan posted Yakushiji's music video online. It got nearly 20 million hits and enthusiastic comments flooded in.

That led to his invite to the festival. It's not just the modern version of the Sutra that's captivating the young audience. Some Chinese critics say the fact that a guitar-strumming Buddhist monk sings his original songs in front of a large crowd is bold and unique.

"The audience created a very warm atmosphere. I just sang in it. I enjoyed it very much," says Yakushiji. And that warm atmosphere could keep growing. Yakushiji is set to return to China for a solo concert tour later this year.

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