The religion of a country shapes its traditions and culture. Japanese religions have shaped Japan’s culture so drastically that some see the Japanese way of life as mysterious and strange. Indeed, many put all of the Japanese religions in one category in their minds. The truth is, however, that they are different in many ways and thus have separate yet important roles in the shaping of modern Japan. Japan’s two main religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, are the two most well known and most easily confused. Each one of these religions, however, has had its turn at the wheel to shape the clay, so to speak, and form what Japan is today.
The history of these religions are main factors in their roles in Japan’s history and culture. Buddhism had always encouraged missions but during the Ashoka Magua’s reign in India during the third century, missions flourished more than ever before. Ashoka, during his campaign to spread India’s borders on the east coast gained many converts to Buddhism. Buddhism then was spread North of India to central Asia and was adopted by the Chinese and then later the Koreans. During the sixth century it finally made its way to Japan, by way of Korean and Chinese influence. The recorded year of Japan’s first introduction to Buddhism by the Korean ruler, Baekju, was in 538 AD.
The Emperor of Japan at the time, Kimmei, immediately began debates on whether Japan should adopt the foreign religion, the orthodox Mononobe and Nakatomi Clans opposed Buddhism saying that Japan already had a religion, Shinto. The Soge clan, however, having an open mind, suggested that Buddhism could offer Japan the cultural refinement needed in the society. The Emperor agreed with the Soge Clan and Buddhism was brought into the country as a legal religion. The introduction of Buddhism had a varied reaction in the society. One key change was the growth of schools in Japan. One school founded by one of the sects of Buddhism was founded by a monk named Nichiren, who found a new center for the Buddhist movement, the Lotus Sutra and wrote many religious pieces of Literature, some of which are still recited today. The most well known of his writings is the “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” (Clive, 24)
It was not until forty years later when Prince Regent Shotoku became emperor that Buddhism was made an official religion of Japan along with Shinto. The process was long, Shotoku had to issue a seventeen-article constitution which stressed Buddhism and Confucian principles. He specifically stressed the “Fervent respect of the three Treasures” (Japan Buddhist Federation, 1) which were Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He also ordered a mass building of many Buddhist temples. Out of these structures, the Hodu-ji temple is the most well know today.
Buddhism offered the early Japanese nation the moral and intellectual benefits that Shinto could not offer. At first, Buddhism was used only among members of the court and royal families for educational purposes, yet it soon made its way down the social ladder. In contrast to Shintoism Buddhism encouraged increasing Japan’s literacy in the form of literary works, art, and architecture, evolving their society to a whole new level. Buddhism also provided an organized religion and priesthood Shinto lacked, that would help the society in many ways, including guidance intellectually and religiously. It was a new look at the world that the Japanese had never experienced which increased their exploration of ideas and philosophies, encouraging a yearning for learning and deep thought. In addition, because of Buddhism’s encouragement of literature, Japan’s history was being recorded more and more as time went on. Schools were established which helped the new generations of the Japanese society advance in the world, opening the way for new inventions and ideas.
Even though Buddhism had many benefits in Japanese culture, none of it could have been possible but for Shinto. Shinto established the society and culture which was the groundwork, the base on which Buddhism was built. Shinto gave the Japanese early traditions and beliefs that are still embedded in the culture today. Shinto also brought about a love a respect for nature which encouraged an exploration of nature and their natural surroundings.
Unlike Buddhism, Shinto originated in Japan. It was not introduced by another country. Even though it is said that the idea of Shinto came from Chinese writings, the religion itself still formed in Japan. Because the early peoples could not explain their world scientifically, they came up with the idea of a spirit within nature, a sacred deity. They were the “kami” or gods which dwelt within the natural world and influenced everyday life. This was very similar to the Greeks formation of the Greek gods and goddesses in order to explain the world and its functions. From this idea of the Kami, the Japanese started many rituals that turned into religious traditions to get the kami’s attention and gain their goodwill, much as the Greeks would offer sacrifices to the gods to gain their favor. Korean ideas and literature also helped to build on the Shinto religion that was beginning to form.
Shinto was the only religion in Japan until Buddhism’s arrival in the sixth century. At some point the Emperor tried to combine the two religions, hoping for unification, causing a mixing of Buddhist and Shinto practices today in modern Japanese culture. Today most people do not associate with either religion, and are usually atheists, yet their everyday life is filled with religious aspects from both sides because of Japan’s history of the mixing of the two religions’ traditions and practices.
The Buddhist belief can be expressed in one sentence as the search for enlightenment to reach Nirvana through meditation, relinquishing or desire, and a moral life. It specifically stresses the putting off of things in this world and the desires of the flesh to gain enlightenment and focus on the moral and intellectual. Buddhist used several ways to reach enlightenment, one being meditation, which takes focus of the mind and relaxation of the body. Buddha is not a name but a title meaning “lord” and “awakened one” (Keown, 23). This term can also be used in reference to to anyone who has attained enlightenment and reached Nirvana.
Some say Buddha lived from 566-486 BC and belonged to the Kshatriyas clan in India. As the legend goes, Buddha’s mother, Maya, dreamed of a baby white elephant coming into her belly, meaning her child would be an important or royal man. She traveled to her high-status relatives to give birth to the child and the earth shook and she gave birth, the gods anointing Buddha with holy showers. It is said that when he came out of his mother, he immediately stood up and declared this life would be his last time to be reborn (for buddha was supposed to have lived many lives). He was named Siddhartha Gautama, meaning “one who has achieved his aim” (Keown, 29) At age 29 Buddha left his wife adn a son to go and search for religionua knowledge and truth. He claimed to have attained enlightenment at age 35 and spent the rest of his life, instead of reaching Nirvana, teaching others the path to enlightenment, until age 80 when he died. The story is that he went through several layers of meditative trance before entering final Nirvana as he died.
Buddha’s search for religious knowledge is a base for much of what the Buddhist believe. Buddha, who had lived as a rich man most of his early life was exposed to the tragedies and suffering of the world and os he therefore went off and searched for a solution to the problems of the world. He went and learned from a teacher names Uddaka Ramaputta, who told him of a practice that allowed a person to enter “the sphere of neither perception nor non perception.” (Keown, 33) a state in which consciousness seemed to disappear; enlightenment. One night while meditating Buddha finally found the complete state of awakening he had sought. He found a power to see rebirths and deaths of all being according to their good and bad deeds. He also remembered his past life and attained the knowledge that his spiritual defilements were gone.
In Buddhist belief there are Six Realms of Rebirth Descending as the list goes on: Gods, Humans, Titans, Ghosts, Animals, and Hell. Hell is ultimate torture and Animal state is very close, yet being reborn as a human is very hard to obtain and very desirable for those near death. The Realm of the gods, however, is the hardest to obtain. This realm is set apart for the pure, those who have achieved enlightenment. This realm is Nirvana, which is above the layer of the gods, which contain lower and higher gods, is the realm of Formlessness.
To reach Nirvana, one must find enlightenment, not only by having good intentions, but also by good works. These works are weighed in merit, which is connected to the Karma of the universe, playing a significant part in a person’s rebirth. In addition there are Four Truths of Existence in the Buddhist religion. First, the truth of Suffering says that suffering is an intrinsic part of life, like a human condition of disease. Second, the Truth of Arising tells that human desire and craving fuels suffering. The next truth, that of Cessation, explains that when craving is removed, suffering ceases and Nirvana, literally meaning “quenching” (Keown, 78) is attained. The fourth and final truth is the Truth of the Path. This truth explains the transition to Nirvana. This “Middle Path” (Keown, 81) is the Eightfold Path which contains these eight paths: 1. Right Understanding. 2. Right Resolve, 3. Right Speech, 4. Right Action, 5. Right Livelihood, 6. Right Effort, 7. Right Mindfulness, 8. Right Meditation.
There are Many Sects of Buddhism. One of the most well known is the Mahayana Buddhist Sect. This Sect sees Buddha as a divine savior who should be worshiped for his gracious act of staying on earth to lead the lost to the light instead of obtaining Nirvana. This contrasts strongly with the Orthodox Buddhists who see Buddha as a mere man who attained Nirvana and who is a teacher to be followed in order to reach enlightenment. Even more sects focus on other ideas such as Nationalism and Meditation.
Buddhism, in a sense, puts off the things of this world, including a desire for nature, seeing these desires of the flesh as a hindrance from finding the true reality; Nirvana. This is very similar to the Platonist view that this world is a mere shadow of the true reality. Shinto on the other hand embraces a love for nature, even to the point of near obsession with nature’s beauty, as the only pure thing in life and the path to find peace of mind and the truth to all life. They use the idea of gods to explain the world around them which is their true and pure reality, much like Aristotle, who saw the physical as the only truth. The Shintoists goal is to gain our full state as human beings, to reach our full potential, by acquiring the aspects of the kami. To do this we must connect to the spiritual realm of the kami through nature and religious practices. Shinto is also known as ancestor worship. Along with the belief in the existence of spirits with nature and ritual cleanliness, Shinto glorifies that ancestors of the royal family and clan hero figures connected to one’s family line.
Shinto has a caring sense for nature. They see it the duty of humankind to protect the environment, to live within nature rather than use it and destroy for our own desires. This fed the Japanese love for gardens and other formal and naturalistic art such as bonsai trees. These gardens, especially surround the shrines, are an offering to the kami, a pure sacrifice to gain their favor and a way to contact them. In Shinto, trees are seen as a way to contact the gods, the portal to the spiritual world. This, in one sense, started the Japanese practice of Origami, making beautiful paper figures from the bark of the trees that were felled, in order to receive forgiveness from the spirit of the tree and the kami.
Shinto also finds it necessary to not only find purification of the mind through nature but purification of the body, performing a ritual similar to baptism to become pure in mind and body. Water, in Shinto, is seen as source of life without which all life could not be sustained. Many Shrines will have sources of water with ladles to purify the devoted before entering the house of the kami or the “Jinja” (Yamakage, 28). Other ways of purifications include using a material called haraimono for a ritual of purification, the breaking with unclean spirits, the and keeping of one’s thoughts clean.
There is a sense of superstition tied to Shinto as well. The contacting of the gods can help one’s luck in the future. The gods not only have to be contacted but one must gain their attention through different ways. Many Shinto shrines have a coffer in which you place a 5 yen coin (less than a penny in our currency) which draws the attention of the kami. After purification, the Shinto believer must take part in Harai, the “restoring of balance” (Yamakage, 108) which is paying for one’s past actions. To do this one must receive spiritual light from the kami which is called celestial cleansing. there is also purifying by words, called “oharai no kotoba” (Yamakage, 112). There are many more ways to perform Harai, including, earth and salt , sound and using objects shaped as human beings. Shinto also holds that people are born good and therefore can restore that goodness using purification over not only this life but through the afterlife as well.
Shinto teaches of Four Great Spirits of the Universe: Kushimitama, the Spirit of creativity and birth, Sakimitama, the work of harmonizing the universe, Nigimitama, the work of controlling the arrangement of the universe, and finally Aramitama, the spirit of demonstrating the individual organism’s role. In addition Shinto has a unique view of the afterlife. Just as the human train for purification in life,when they go to a holier world after death, their soul continues training towards that purification until it reaches the state of the kami.
When people visit Japan today, although the practices of Buddhism and Shinto have been mixed together in Japanese modern life, the differences between Shinto and Buddhism can still be distinguished. Shinto and Buddhist priests can be told apart by their apparel. Shinto Priests wear a white Hakama, a pair of flowing pants with a loose shirt or robe. In addition, they are known for their black Joe, tall black hats. A Shinto priestess wears red Hakama pants and a white shirt. On the other hand, a Buddhist priest’s garb is called Kesa in Japan. In many countries, Kesa were made from discarded materials. In China, they were usually red or orange, but in Japan they were made from old costumes used in the Noh theatre and therefore looked quite different from the robes in other countries, taking on various shades and colors.
Shinto shrines are noted for their reddish orange color that stands out from the background. The role of the shrine in modern Japanese life is eminent in the less crucial areas of life. For example, people will go to the shrines for festivals and ritualistic prayers. Many wedding ceremonies are held at shrines or following the Shinto way of marriage. During New Years Day, Japanese people usually visit a Shinto shrine, even if it is the only time of the year they will do so. Several events happen during this occasion, such as fortune telling for the new year, food, and the dressing up in kimonos. In contrast, Buddhist temples and less flamboyant and are usually of natural colors such as brown, and can also be visited on New Years Day. Buddhist traditions are usually used in the ceremony of death and burial, in contrast with Shinto’s marriage ceremony.
The Buddhist and Shinto influence is embedded in many aspects of Japanese culture. Therefore, Buddhism and Shinto are vital subjects to learn in order to understand the ways of Japan and some of its crucial historical points. Indeed, Buddhism and Shinto should be studied, even if not in depth, for as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (Santayana, 284) These two religions should not be seen as ancient traditions outdated in modern times, for they are an important chapter of Japanese history which continue to influence the culture.