Sunday, 29 April 2012

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu


I'm back now from my wanderings in the Netherlands and Belgium and thanks to Tom and Gaab for inviting me to their wonderful wedding. Tom is someone who creeps up from time to time in the articles on this site as 'The Lowlander'.

More Japanese Musings this week, this time on the confusing topic of Japanese religion. The article posted today was originally written for and included in the magazine The TRAM, a Toyama-ken magazine for English teachers. Therefore, it assumes that the reader is in Japan which, I appreciate, most of you are not. However, after reading it, who knows? Maybe you'll feel like you are...?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shukyo

What does the title of this piece mean?
It means that this is all about Japanese religions.
Oh, aren’t the Japanese religions Shintō and Buddhism?
Yes, that’s right, or at least, it is for most Japanese. Approximately one per cent are Christian though.
Am I the only one who doesn’t get what’s going on with Buddhism and all the other eastern faiths?
No, you’re not the only one. That’s why we’ve included this ace article in the TRAM.
Right, so what’s the difference between Buddhism and Shintō?
There are lots of differences; they’re completely different faiths actually.
So which is more popular then?
Both. Most Japanese are Shintō and Buddhist.
How can that be right? I can’t be Christian and Jewish at the same time for example.
That’s true but the Eastern Religions are different from the Abrahamic – or Western – ones. It’s common all over the Orient to follow several faiths at the same time. In China and Vietnam for example, lots of people pray in temples that are Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist at the same time.
That’s weird! It’s like pic ‘n’ mix worship.
That’s exactly what it’s like and it’s possible because many Eastern philosophies are just that; philosophies and not religions in the Western sense of the word.
Oh right, but are the Japanese really religious?
No, not really, in fact they’re pretty secular as a rule. But the philosophies and values that not only Buddhism and Shintō, but also Confucianism preach affect their daily lives greatly.
Ok, so tell me about Buddhism. It was founded by Buddha, the jolly fat guy, right?
Well, yes and no. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama who is generally referred to as ‘Buddha’ but he isn’t the fat guy. The fat guy is Ho Tei who was a monk in China and is now a lesser god or Bodhisattva.
Left: Buddha. Right: Ho Tei
A god! But how can a man become a god?
If you're Christian that shouldn't be a difficult one to answer. However, with these 'gods' it's a bit different. Part of it is in the translation which can be misleading. What we think of as a god – and omnipotent, perfect being – is not what the Japanese think of. Their word kami is perhaps better translated as ‘spirit’. Often their kami – and there are many – are far from perfect or omnipotent. In fact, they usually display human characteristics.
So why was the Buddha then?
He was an Indian prince who wanted to find enlightenment. He tried various religions but none really suited him. He also tried starving himself and various other extreme measures but nothing worked. Then one day he sat under a tree and boom, it happened, he was enlightened!
A bit like Sir Isaac Newton then?
Well yes, except that the Buddha didn’t have an apple land on his head.
What is this ‘enlightenment’ then? It sounds like a load of weird hippy crap to me!
Well, I don’t know exactly because I’m not enlightened, but you know born-again Christians who tell you the amazing tale of how they saw the light? Well seeing the light, that’s like Buddhist enlightenment.
Oh right, and what’s this Zen stuff then?
Zen is a sect of Buddhism, the predominant one in Japan. Buddhism has many sects. Tibetan Lamaism is another.
So the Dalai Lama has nothing to do with Buddhism in Japan?
Nothing whatsoever.
What makes Zen different from the other sects?
Zen is more about achieving personal enlightenment than worshipping deities. What’s more, Zen followers believe that, like it was with the Buddha, their enlightenment can be triggered off by a small incident, not a long, gradual process of learning as some of the other sects advocate.
What sort of incident?
That we don’t know; it’s different for everyone. Different schools of Zen recommend different ways, such as meditation or riddles.
What sort of riddles?
Ok, here’s a famous one: What’s the sound of one hand clapping?
I don’t know? What is it?
You must think about it yourself. By thinking about it you may achieve enlightenment.
You mentioned meditation. Is that all that Hare Krishna stuff that George Harrison got into?
Actually Hare Krishna is Hindu, but the two religions have a lot in common as Buddhism is based on Hindusim. Both meditate, that is sitting, often in the lotus position, and trying to clear your mind of all thoughts. Both also believe in reincarnation and karma.
Karma: is that like if you are bad you get born again in another life as an ant or something?
Something like that. Reincarnation is being born again and karma is like a goodness counter. Basically, if you are good in this life, then you get good karma in the next. And if you are bad in this life then it’s the opposite.
That sounds like the ultimate clean slate to me. I can be a complete bastard to everyone and next life I suffer when I don’t even know that it was me before.
Well yes, and I’m not too sure on it myself, but Buddhists reckon that if you are good then self isn’t important anyway so it doesn’t matter.
That sounds confusing.
It is.
You mentioned earlier that there are different schools of Zen.
Yes, there are many and in Japan there are seven important ones. The biggest is Sōtō and their HQ is Eihei-ji in Fukui-ken. Most of the others are based in Kyoto.
What’s the symbol of Buddhism?
Buddhism has many symbols but the main one’s the wheel.
Why’s that?
The wheel represents life. No beginning and no end, but living, dying, then being reborn and it all starts again for all eternity.
Is there anyway to change that, to stop being reborn and go to Heaven or something?
Yes, if you achieve buddhahood, i.e. enlightenment. Then you are not reborn and become a god.
It’s all very complicated but I think I get Buddhism now. What’s this whole Shintō thing though?
Shintō, as I said before, is a completely separate religion. In fact, it’s Japan’s native, home-grown religion.
Isn’t Buddhism Japanese?
No, as I said before, it was started by the Buddha and he was Indian. Buddhism came to Japan in the 8th century via China and Korea.
So Shintō was around before Buddhism then?
Indeed it was, a long time before. No one knows when Shintō first started, but it was before recorded history.
So who’s the main man of Shintō, like the Buddha of Buddhism or Christ of Christianity?
Main man, there isn’t one. There’s no holy book either.
No book and no guy! So what do they worship then?
Shintō followers worship kami, the gods or spirits of Japan. It’s a bit like the Pagan faiths of Europe before the Christians came along. They worship the divine in mountains, trees and rivers, that sort of thing.
Oh right. So what are the temples for?
Temples are Buddhist; the Shintō ones are called shrines. They are built in the places where they reckon the kami live. A shrine is like a home for a kami.
Are all the kami like rivers and trees and stuff?
No, there are the more usual gods as well, plus mysterious creatures like the tengu.
Tengu? Isn’t that a restaurant where one can find great food at reasonable prices?
Well yes, Tengu is a restaurant, but the word actually means ‘Heaven Dog’. A tengu is a goblin-type creature with a big nose. You can see one on the restaurant sign. Also gods from other religions are accepted as kami in Shintō, such as the Buddha and other Buddhist deities.
Which is how Japanese people can follow both religions at the same time?
Precisely. They often have the same gods or kami in the temples.
Like who?
Well, there’s the Buddha and Ho Tei, the jolly fat guy. There’s also Kanon-sama; she’s the woman goddess who sometimes holds a baby and sometimes a small vase. Then there’s Yebisu, the protector of fishermen and small businessmen.
Yebisu? Isn’t that a brand of lager.
Yes indeed. You can see Yebisu himself on the front of the cans. He holds a fishing net.

Ok, so I have another question. How can I tell the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Shintō shrine?
There are several things to look for. Firstly, there are the two guardian animals at the entrance, usually lions. Then there is a big gate (torii in Japanese) which is usually red though it can often be grey as well. Thirdly, there are bits of paper that look like lightning flashes and big tassles hanging from the gate. If the place has all of those then it’s Shintō and not Buddhist.

Oh right, that’s helpful. But what do I do inside the place? I’ve noticed Japanese people clapping and bowing and stuff but I don’t want to look stupid. What do I do and where do I do it?
Ok, well each temple or shrine is different but as a general rule at a Shintō shrine one should go up to the altar or outside the main door if it’s shut, (they usually are), and standing, clap twice and then bow twice. Plus you should remember to wash your hands first in the trough provided outside. That’s very important as it symbolises purifying yourself. For the Buddhist temples there’s no clapping, just stand in front of the altar, put your hands together like you do in school when you say “Itadakimasu!” and bow for a couple of seconds. Then you could perhaps light three sticks of incense (leave a donation) and then stick them in the big pot provided and waft the air all over you.
What’s the point of all that may I ask?
It’s meant to bring you good luck and drive evil spirits away.
Oh, I see, very good. And what’s the point of the gates, tassles and lightning paper that you mentioned earlier?
The gates and paper mark the boundaries of a holy ground, the domain of the kami. Bad spirits and evil people can’t pass through them.
That sounds like a load of crap! After all, I’ve never been struck down dead by them and I’m hardly as pure as the driven snow.
Erm, can’t answer that one. Perhaps they don’t always work?
Obviously not. However, what if I wanted to convert to Shintō or Buddhism?
Well, it’s not really a case of converting since they are cool with you following them as well as your own religion – pic ‘n’ mix as you said before – but if you really want to then Buddhism in particular is accessible in the West. There are quite a few famous Buddhists actually, like Richard Gere for example.
Hardly the best advertisement for the faith is it?
Well, no, not really I suppose. But if you wanted to introduce Buddhist elements into your life you could perhaps start by meditating, being nice to other people and popping down to the temple now and again.
What day is the service?
Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there is no set holy day and so no one mandatory weekly service.
Ok, so whenever you want but don’t expect a priest and hymns?
Something like that.
Where can I find some nice shrines and temples then?
Well they’re everywhere and everyone has different tastes. I personally find the small ones in the mountains to be the nicest but there are shrines and temples in every town and village in Japan. Most of the famous Buddhist temples are in Kyoto, although Eihei-ji in Fukui is famous and beautiful too. The most famous Shintō shrine is Ise though there are a load of important ones on Shikoku as well.
What about in Toyama-ken? Any good ones here?
Yes, check out the Buddhist temples in Inami and Takaoka; they’re famous. There’s also the Takaoka Daibutsu that’s worth a visit as well.
Daibutsu? What’s that?
Japanese for ‘Big Buddha’ and that’s what it is; a huge, copper Buddha sat in the middle of Takaoka.

Cool! Ok well, thanks for that, I really know about Japanese religion now! Just one last question though…

What’s that?

What’s the sound of one hand clapping…?

Written January, 2001, Ōsawano-machi, Japan
Revised April 2012, Smallthorne, UK

Next musing: The Sporting Life

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