A live concert featuring sutra chanting and jazz was held at the Jozaiji temple in Kawatana, Nagasaki Prefecture. (Kentaro Yamano)

KAWATANA, Nagasaki Prefecture--Maybe Jozaiji temple here should rename itself Jazz Agey.

The monks of the Nichiren school of Buddhism there have released an album featuring sutra-chanting intertwined with jazz.

A double album titled “Seitan” (Holy birth) includes new songs created by a jazz-musician priest and a professional pianist.

“Originally, sutras were music. I want everybody to feel more familiar with them,” said Taitsu Aikawa, 47, the vice chief priest at Kawatana's Jozaiji temple.

A live concert celebrating the release of “Seitan” was held at Jozaiji in November. More than 200 guests, including parishioners and local residents, gathered at the temple’s main hall, listening to the performance of the new song “Kuon Sansho.”

As monks dressed in “kesa” robes began chanting “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,” “Jiga Tokubutsu Rai” and other texts from a sutra, the solemn but soft sounds of the piano, saxophone, double bass and drums joined the melody.

The wooden fish player also beat out a steady rhythm.

Some guests were seen putting their hands together in prayer and reciting the sutra in time with the band.

“Seitan” was produced by Jozaiji to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the birth of Nichiren Shonin, the founder of the Buddhist school. Nagasaki-based composer and pianist Motoca Oguni, 54, wrote music for the sutra “Jigage” to make “Kuon Sansho.”

Meanwhile, “Hokke Kankyo,” a song in which sutra verses are put on a jazzy chord progression, was created by Aikawa. He took phrases, each of which is in quadruple meter, from various sutras and put them together in a way to fit the jazz beat.

“I wanted to make something in which performers can exchange calls and responses with each other through Western music and sutra recitation, instead of having a band play an accompaniment,” Aikawa said.

At the concert, priests who have gained training as “shomyo-shi,” or chant-singing monks, melodically recited the sutra and swung the beat in a groovy manner with the jazz band.

Aikawa’s father, Tenshin, 75, is the 26th-generation chief priest of Jozaiji, which was founded in 1659. The temple has incorporated music into its routines since the days of his predecessor, who was also a music teacher.

“Music originated from religions in ancient times. It can also be said that music was originally played for gods and Buddhist deities,” Tenshin said.

“There are lots of musical instruments at temples,” Aikawa said, referring to the wooden fish, bells and other items.

Jozaiji hosts an annual charity music festival in support of reconstruction efforts since 2012, a year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Aikawa approached Oguni, who has been performing at the festival, to create music.

“As I played along with Taitsu’s wooden fish, I felt as if we were playing free jazz,” Oguni said.

“Music is prayer itself,” Oguni, who plays hymns on a pipe organ at a church, continued. “You’d feel peaceful in your heart after reciting a sutra, too. I think that hymns, jazz, and sutra are all saying the same thing.”

“We’d like everyone to listen to the sutra music and feel comfortable in the course of their daily lives,” Tenshin said. “Sutras are present not only in funerals but also in our daily lives, and so is Buddha.”

The album is 3,000 yen ($27.30), including tax. “Seitan” is available for purchase at Jozaiji and also through Amazon. Footage from the concert featuring the album’s songs can be viewed at the temple’s official YouTube channel at (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCljvloVxgzOTS5kK8DRTJtQ).