The chief priest of a 500-year-old Buddhist temple allegedly burnt down his own temple to fraudulently collect millions of dollars in insurance and so pay off huge debts incurred in the course of a lavish lifestyle, which saw him frequenting hostess bars and driving about town in a BMW.
The 53-year-old chief priest headed an obscure rural Saitama temple, Seiganji / 聖岩寺, adhering to the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, having followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather in running the establishment.
Rather than live the ascetic life of a monk, he instead enjoyed the best worldly pleasures on offer in the nearby town of Ogawa, buying an apartment to supplement his clerical accommodations and then leasing a BMW with which to drive to and fro from the temple, all whilst enjoying the company of hostesses at expensive snack bars.
Reportedly he amassed debts amounting to ¥36,000,000 from these expenditures.
Realising that he had no chance of repaying this, he instead took out a ¥250,000,000 fire insurance policy on the temple, and then doused it with fuel and set it alight, burning the structure to the ground.
After the fire the chief priest quit his post, presumably intending to appropriate the insurance payout to pay off his debt and fund further dissolution, and apparently thinking nothing of local police.
The fire destroyed the 500-year-old temple completely – 460 square metres of temple over 4 buildings was reduced to ashes, along with the priest’s BMW.
Police swiftly turned the fire into an arson investigation after a witness reported seeing each the temple burst into flames in several places at once.
Oil based fuel was detected at the temple and in the chief priest’s bedroom, and police suspicions were damningly confirmed when they discovered the priest had taken out the insurance policy only the day before.
Of course, no insurance money was paid out.
The priest was soon arrested on charges of arson; police are continuing to investigate the case.
Police raided the dwellings of relatives of the suspect and discovered centuries old historic documents bearing the personal seal of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun, thought lost in the fire.
They also found that the priest had contracted a removal company only the day before the blaze and removed his personal possessions and various temple goods and records from the site of the fire.
The temple itself was no stranger to fire – it was partially rebuilt 200 years previously after a fire, and in 2006 part of the temple caught fire under mysterious circumstances police are now investigating. ¥50,000,000 was paid out in insurance as a result of this fire, but the priest denies any knowledge.
In 2009, the same chief priest was charged with assault after he dragged a 64-year-old out of a snack bar one night and beat him after the man had the temerity to tell the priest he “had pretty eyes.”
The priest excused his actions by saying “I thought he was making fun of me.”
It appears this fine example of Buddhist forbearance did not affect his duties at the temple, although reportedly by this time parishioners were greatly concerned about their sinful priest’s increasingly depraved antics, concerns which were evidently extremely well founded.