TEMPLE OF THE HOLY MICROCHIP

THE BROADER PICTURE

WHEN Shugaku Arakawa's 18-times great-grandfather founded Kogyo- ji temple in 1406, the Jodo Shin sect, of which it is a branch, boasted 32 million followers. Four hundred and eighty-nine years later, Japan's population has increased four-fold - and Jodo followers have dwindled in almost the same proportion. Like other organised religions all over the world, Japanese Buddhism, at least in its classical forms, is in long- term decline - a victim of affluence, indifference and the growing number of bizarre new religions which have sprung up since the end of the Second World War.

But for Kogyo-ji, at least, the future looks bright. Eight years ago, Arakawa - the priest in charge - transformed the fortunes of his obscure rural temple by commissioning and building a unique shrine. Before its construction, the temple had fewer than 15 visitors a week. These days, 500 people each month make the journey to this remote corner of the hilly Fukui Prefecture in cars and coaches to see the Treasure House of Beauty - the first computer installation in a Japanese Buddhist temple.

The Treasure House of Beauty was designed and built by Satoshi Mori, an Osaka designer with a burning belief in the evangelical powers of the micro-chip. His brief was not immediately promising: to construct a new document storage archive to house the temple's records, but to do it in a way which would attract outside visitors, and especially children. Mori did not hesitate. "More and more, computers are becoming part of our everyday lives," he says. "It is the new path and medium to bring us together as humans. It is my opinion that there is now only one way to spread the word about Buddhism to the Japanese people, and that is through computer graphics."

After reading up on Kogyo-ji's history, Mori hired a team of graphic designers to bring his vision into being. Their work is displayed on 11 35in colour screens, arranged in a crescent on the second floor of a purpose-built gallery. The 13-minute programme mixes live action with artificial images, over a sound-track of specially composed synthesiser music. The programme is divided into three parts: the History of Buddhism, the History of the Universe, and an abstract imaginative work of swirling shapes and colours by the graphic artist Y Kawaguchi.

Reactions to the work vary. "Visitors under 40 are unconditionally impressed by Kawaguchi-san's work," says Mr Mori. "The ones who come on organised coach tours seem to react as a group, either liking it or disliking it collectively. Older people seem to look for meaning in his images, and there are none. They are pure graphics, and many visitors just cannot respond to his work. But that isn't the case with children, and it is them who we want to engage."

So far, no one has been known to convert to Buddhism on the strength of the images - but visitor numbers are up eight-fold. Priest Arakawa, 57, is convinced of its value. "Finally, we are getting young people here - young couples have been arriving at our temple on motorbikes. My family have been priests here for 21 generations, since before Col-umbus left for America. All of them were men who worked hard to spread religion, and even in changed times my purpose remains the same as theirs. All of them, I think, would appreciate what I'm doing." !

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