The Edmond Sun

April 5, 2013

HEY HINK: More to Buddhist enthusiasm than meets the eye

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — This week, I got a call from a friend of mine — let’s call him Artie — who developed a sudden interest in becoming a Buddhist. I’m taken off guard because I’ve known Artie for a long time and in the years we’ve been friends, he’s shown no interest, whatsoever, in any religion.

Evidently, Artie’s newfound fervor is prompted by an item that appeared in the Reuters News Service last week. More about this in a minute.

The first thing Artie wants to do is convince me his conversion is 100 percent bona fide. He’s clearly done his homework. With undisguised enthusiasm, he tells me that Buddhism is older than Christianity — centuries older. In fact, Artie announces with pride, Buddhism was the first world religion. Up to the first half of the 20th century, there were more Buddhists than any other religion; about 520 million of them in 1951. Even today, in spite of the gains made by Christianity and Islam, Buddhism is one of the world’s largest religions.

Artie is convinced his conversion is meant to be. How else can you explain the timing? His interest is roused last week and he discovers that next week, on April 8, his Japanese friends are celebrating “Hana Matsuri,” Buddha’s birthday. He’s convinced this is no coincidence. The news item that aroused his zeal for Buddhism had to do with the practices of a Buddhist monk in Tokyo. I promise I’ll get to the news item in a minute.

Artie is determined to go to Japan next week and join in the celebration of Buddha’s birth. “It’ll be great. Everywhere you look, there’ll be flowers and everybody will be chanting and meditating and stuff. It’ll be like Woodstock without the music.”

Now if you know Artie, you’d suspect there was more to this sudden enthusiasm for Eastern religion than meets the eye. There is.

Artie wants me to answer a number of legal questions: “If I become a Buddhist and build a temple, will the costs be deductible? If I attract a bunch of people to join my Buddhist congregation would their contributions to the Temple be deductible for them and would I have to pay tax on the contributions? If I provide beverages for the congregation, would there be any tax liability for anybody? If I run the Temple, could I draw salary from the contributions without jeopardizing the tax status?”

Here’s where the Reuters News item comes in. On March 29, journalist Hyun Oh reports from Tokyo that Yoshinobu Fujioka, a Buddhist monk, practices his religion at a bar called “Vowz” which, according to the story, is a play on the Japanese word for “monk.” Fujioka is not only the presiding Buddhist priest, he also owns the bar.

The bartenders, all with the shaved heads traditionally associated with Buddhist priests, evidently provide sermons and homilies along with the drinks they serve. Instead of karaoke music, patrons at Vowz are treated to a chorus of Buddhist chants.

Even the drinks are concoctions designed to promote deeper meditation on Buddhist principles. For example, the “Perfect Bliss” cocktail is a mixture of vodka and cognac. “Infinite Hell” is a combination of vodka, raspberry liqueur, cranberry juice and a splash of tonic water (don’t I know it?). The story doesn’t disclose the ingredients, but the house specialty is called “Enslavery To Love and Lust.” (Surely this drink is limited one to a customer.)

There’s something about the whole deal that strikes us as odd on lots of levels. I mean, after all, the headline reads “Tokyo Bar Offers Cocktail of Booze and Buddhism.” But, in Fujioka’s words, “People would gather in a Buddhist temple and drink together. We’ve just updated the tradition to fit our times.”

This brings us back to Artie. No doubt he’s shopping for a legal opinion to hide behind when “Artie’s Buddhist Temple and Cocktail Lounge” gets audited. Unfortunately for Artie, I’m retired and rarely give legal advice these days. Even if I was still practicing, I wouldn’t undertake to offer advice on tax matters. Even if I were to offer advice on tax matters, I would tell him to confine his gambles to Las Vegas.

I am, however, willing to advise Artie to this extent. Go to Japan next week. Join in the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Enjoy the flowers, chants and meditation. While you’re there, drop into Vowz, have a cocktail and introduce yourself to Fujioka. See if he’s interested in taking on an American convert as a partner in the business. If the answer is “no,” order an “Infinite Hell” cocktail and try to get over it. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.