The Japanese religions, including Shintosim and Buddhism, are rich and complex, and it contains many condradictory trends which may puzzle a Westerner. In the center of the tradition is Shinto, the “natural” religion of Japan. Also in the center is Buddhism, the Indian religion that was brought to Japan in the sixth century from Korea and China. Throughout the history of Japan, it has been these two religions that have contributed most to the Japanese understanding of themselves and their surroundings, and also to many important events.
Shinto, meaning “the way of the gods”, is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people. It began around 2,500-3,000 years ago. It has thirteen sects, each with a different founder. It has many scriptures, including Kokiji (The Record of Ancient Things), Nikong (Chronicles of Japan), Yengishiki (Institutes of the Yengi Period), and the Collections of 10,000 Leaves. It has about 30 million adherents, but most are also Buddhists. But, none of the scriptures are sacred, as are the Sutras or the Bible. The kami are the objects of worship in Shinto. They are sacred spirits, and they can take various forms such as natural elements like the sun, mountains, trees, rocks, and the wind, or abstract things like fertility, but also anscestors, national heroes, and protectors of family clans. The Japanese adherence to Shinto is not surprising, because various physical forces are often at work on the archipelago. This shows the people’s early connection to nature. There are many typhoons, tsunami, volcanoes, and earthquakes that the Japanese worship as the unseen forces of nature that rule their lives. Originally, Shintoists would only worship the Kami in nature, but, now the Kami are worshipped in shrines. Shintoists got the idea to use the shrines from the Buddhists. These shrines are usually simple buildings surrounded by trees. Here is an example of one:
Before they would arrive at the shrines, the Shintoists would “purify” themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouth. They will bow twice deeply, clap their hands twice, bow once more and then, they would offer gifts, such as food, to the Kami. Then, they say a short prayer. The prayer usually urges the Kami to withhold bad weather. The people did not want bad weather, because it would destroy their crop. Shintoists also pray for good fortune and to avoid evil spirits, especially before a special event, such as the opening of a business, a test or exam in school, or something else that is important. They will then offer the Kami a choice offering if the crop is spared. But the Japanese do not fear the Kami.
The Buddhist rituals are performed by Shinto priests, private people who can marry and have children. There are even female priests. The priests are supported by the Miko, young ladies in white kimonos. They must be unmarried, and are often the preist’s daughters. Also, in contrast to the Western religions, there are no absolutes, although there is a goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun goddess. An absolute is an object of worship that is always present, such as a God. But, a certain kind of weather is not an absolute, because the weather can change at any moment.
Shinto is a very optimistic faith. It is thought by it’s followers that all humans are fundamentally good, and that all evil is caused by evil spirits. The purpose of the rituals is to avoid evil spirits by purification, offerings and prayers. However, death is considered evil in Shinto, and most tasks concerning it such as funerals, are done using Buddhist rituals.
Shintoism had a major effect on the national affairs of Japan also. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, the Meijing rulers made Shinto their state religion and used the myths of Japan’s creation to show a direct link between Shinto’s beliefs and the Sun goddess and the Emperor family. This justified the emperor’s absolute power. Shinto priests became state officials and shrines were funded by the government. After WWII, Shinto became completely seperated from the state, and became classified as a “normal” religion. Today, most shrines belong to the Association of Shinto Shrines.
When Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century, a few conflicts occurred between the two religions. But, after a few changes, they were able to co-exist. Many Buddhists argued that the Kami are manifestations of the Buddha. But, all this was worked out.
Buddhism, the 2,500 year old Indian religion, entered Japan around the sixth century. It has over 300 million adherents, almost as many as Shinto has. But, many Japanese are members of both religions. Neither Shinto or Buddhism is so strict that a person must adopt one’s ideas and practices, and exclude everything else. Buddhism was founded by Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha, often referred to as “The Enlightened One”. He found that enlightenment is found through a life of indulgence and self-denial. According to Buddhism, a person is only a temporary combination of aggrigates that include the material body, feelings, perception, predispositions, and conciousness. The enlightened state, or nirvana, is a place where greed, hatred and ignorance are eliminated. The ethics that lead to this involves kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equality. It prohibits killing, stealing, harmful language, sexual misbehavior, and use of drugs or alcohol. The major scriptures are: the Triptaka, Anguttara-Nikaya, Dhammapada, Sutta-Nippadha, Samyutta-Nikaya, and many others. There are also many sects. Buddhism today is divided into three main sects: Theravada, or Hinayana (located in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia), Mahayana (located in China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea), and Vajrayana (lovated in Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan).
Buddhism formed in India about a thousand years before it was introduced to Japan. After that, though, it was a faith only accepted by the upper class, because they appreciated the colorful Buddhist ceremonies and the works of Buddhist artists. The life goal of Buddhism is Nirvana. Toward that end, Buddhism’s teachings are summed up in the Four Noble Truths. The first is the Truth of suffering. It states that suffering, or duhkha, is the central fact of life. Being born is painful, growing old is painful, sickness is painful, and death is painful. The second is the Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudaya). It states that the cause of suffering is the desire, or the iccha; craving, or the tanha; or thirst, tishna; for sensual pleasures or material possesions and power. This craving is what makes you also desire rebirth, or samsara. The third Truth is the truth of Cessation of Suffering, or nirodha. It states that suffering can be brought to an end only by the complete cessation of desires, or the forsaking, relinquishing, and detaching oneself from desire and craving. The fourth, and last Truth is the Truth of the Path to Ending Suffering, or marga. It states that the means to the end of suffering is the Nobel Eightfold Path, or the arya ashtanga marga. The Nobel Eightfold Path are eight ways to end suffering. These are: right belief, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
According to Buddhism, these are the ways to get to Nirvana, the life goal. The Pure Land sect of Buddhism is a very different kind of Buddhism. In this sect, you attain salvation just by having faith in Buddha. This belief had been accepted by many Buddhists, not only in Japan, but also in China and India. The true land priests, unlike normal Buddhists priests were allowed to marry, and becuase of this, becoming a preist became very popular.
Another important part of this religion are the temples. They are very beautiful and intricate, unlike the modest Shinto temples. They looked something like this:
Buddhism has had an effect on Japanese history in many ways. It helped plant the
seeds of nationalism in Japan. By insisting that the settlement of the imminent peril was
able to be prevented by the Japanese, Buddhism showed a patriotic ferver that had never
before been seen in Japan. Buddhism also very much helped, if not caused the Bakufu’s
loss of support among the warlords. Many warriors had gone through great troubles for
the Hojo Regency, some giving up nearly all they owned. The warriors became very
dissapointed when they did not get the land grants for their help. They entirely lost
confidence in the government when they saw the Buddhist monasteries recieve rich
rewards for prayers during invasions, while they had recieved nothing. After this, Japan
was at a point where it was time to change the governmental system. Because of this, it is
apparent that Buddhism had a major effect on Japan’s history. Also,
Shintoism and Buddhism, as well as several other less major religions, including Confusionism and Christianity, have had a major effect on the history of Japan. Not only have they changed the people’s lives, but they have actually disintegrated an entire government, as shown through the Kamakura Bakufu. Throughout the history of Japan, it has been these two religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, that have contributed most to the Japanese understanding of themselves and their surroundings, and to many important events.