Throughout history and across the globe, alcohol has enjoyed a special relationship with organized religion. Whether utilized for sacrament, celebratory festivals, or means of income (hats off to those Trappist monks), the world’s favorite inebriant has always found a way to stay in the picture and its role in the shaping of modern civilization is incalculable.
Not all religions approve of booze, of course. One of the five core precepts Buddhists are asked to live by is “to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.” Aware of this stricture, I was shocked to discover, during a recent trip to Japan, a bar that is owned and operated entirely by Buddhist monks.
Nestled in Tokyo’s Yotsuya neighborhood, VOWZ has been serving local and tourist customers alike for close to two decades, offering food, cocktails with names like “Never-Ending Suffering in Hell,” and spiritual guidance for those willing to hear it.
I visited the bar, sheepishly taking a seat so as not to disturb the other patrons participating in the ceremony one of the monks is conducting. He chants in monotone, the crowd responds, following along with the provided pamphlets, and the leader strikes a bell, allowing the clang to hum and fade into nothing before repeating the process. It’s a novel nightlife experience if I’ve ever had one.
Once the somber ceremony had finished and the patrons resumed using volume levels one might typically associate with bars, I began to chat with Brother Yoshinobu Fujioka, the proprietor of the establishment about how this curious little bar fits within the bigger philosophical picture.
Special thanks to Nori Nakamura for both helping with translation during this interview and also making one of the tastiest cocktails I had on my entire trip.
Why open a bar? I thought Buddhists can’t drink.
Do you know that Japanese Buddhism has been divided into 13 major sects? It’s not just one. There are many sects, denominations, and Japanese Buddhism has been divided into 13. I belong to one of the major ones called Jōdo Shinshū. Jōdo Shinshū is not restrictive about alcohol, so we can drink. That’s one reason to open the bar. But I also want people to know the basic Buddhist theories.
How does your denomination of Buddhism feel about gossip? I know that’s forbidden in some sects of Buddhism, and bars are traditionally places of gossip.
Jōdo Shinshū doesn’t have a negative feeling about bars and what happens in them. But some people have a kind of bad feeling about bars, and their image of the Buddhist monk does not fit in that.
I saw a drink on the menu that uses snake liqueur. Does making that involve harming the snake? If so, doesn’t that go against a precept?
We are normally eating the meat and the fish so it’s all the same thing. We are strongly restricted about killing animals. When we kill a pig, we realize that it is not good to be killing animals, but if we don’t kill the animals, we cannot live. It’s necessary.
Are most of the patrons Buddhist themselves?
Japanese people and foreign tourists both come into the bars. But Japanese people do not have strong beliefs about Buddhism. They are curious, though, about Buddhism itself.
What is the most enlightened thing that has happened in this bar?
Whether you are drinking alcohol in this bar, or reciting a Buddhist sutra, if you have a strong enough mind and belief, any action can be close to Buddha.
How has opening the bar affected your own journey toward enlightenment?
It has been 20 years since I opened this bar. I have met people from all over the world, more than 10,000 people. Being here for 20 years made me realize I have to rethink my life. But if I’d stayed in the temple for 20 years, I would not have met this many people, and that has been one of the best parts of my life. A lot of people living in modern society, they have need for Buddhism, and by being here in this bar, I can catch those needs and help. Through helping them, I can find the way.
Do you ever feel that alcohol brings others away from The Middle Way? Do you grapple with this when serving people drinks?
It’s not about alcohol itself. It’s about the person drinking it. For some people, alcohol will be harmful to them. Drinking too much alcohol is not good, of course. For others, it can be relaxing and beneficial. The average of these is the middle way.
For the people coming into this bar, my main wish is for them to drink and relax and hear about Buddhism. If they can do that, I am happy.