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Japanese Religion and the Influence on Culture
Throughout the world, religion is perceived as a governing idea within many different cultures. Religion has a way of representing a certain way of life, providing a basis for faith to live by, and brings a sense of belonging to many cultures in our world. For different cultures and within many countries religion varies according to demographics. The key concepts of religion within the Japanese culture are natural and superstitious based. The leading religion in Japan remains Shinto, while other religions have come and go, interweaving themselves among the Japanese society.
For any Japanese person who may practice Shinto, another religion that may dually be practiced is Buddhism. Are these religions common to one another in theory? Do they serve the same purposes? And what other religions claim a popular following in Japan? While Buddhism was brought over to Japan via China and Korea in the 6th century, Shinto seems to have always resided in Japan (Japan-Guide.com, 2007).
The religion of Shinto is still today very mysterious because “in some areas there is still no certain knowledge in the course of the centuries many Japanese have written extensively on Shinto but these are largely expressions of their individual points of view. Except for the relatively short three-quarters of a century of regimentation after the Meiji Restoration when there was an artificial, government-created authoritative interpretation of Shinto, there has not been any large body of interpretation that is generally accepted” (Ono, Sokyo ix).
Buddhism was founded by the teachings of Guatama Siddhartha who was born around 6th century B.C. in Nepal. The spread of Buddhism took many centuries, and didn’t reach Japan until 6th century A.C. (Buddhanet). Although there are many sects of Buddhism, the main teachings are universal in The Four Noble Truths. These teachings from Siddhartha himself lay the foundation of Buddhism itself.
The first Nobel truth; Life means suffering.
“To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death. (The Big View).
The second Noble Truth;the origin of suffering is attachment to worldly desires.
“The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof… The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursue of wealth, prestige, striving for fame and popularity” (The Big View).
The third Nobel Truth is the cessation of suffering is attainable.
“Extinguishing all forms of clinging and attachment… Suffering can be overcome through human activity simply by removing the cause of suffering” (The Big View).
The Fourth Noble Truth is to follow the Eightfold Path.
“A gradual self-improvement by following the way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence and excessive self-mortification”(The Big View).
Although the Four Nobel Truths are great concepts of Buddhism there are many other aspects that make up Buddhism. Daily practice of meditation helps develop one’s sense of awareness, to grow, and develops compassion and loving kindness (Buddhanet). Following the laws of Karma and following right speech are also integral to Buddhism.
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In the religion of Shinto, which was founded as Japan’s state religion in the Meiji Period, there is no absolute right or wrong and humans are seen as fundamentally good (buddhanet). The purpose of rituals in the Shinto religion are to cast away evil spirits by means of purification, prayers and offerings.
“The Way of the Gods” or “Kami” is the literal translation of Shinto. “Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, Shinto has neither a founder, such as Guatama the Enlightened One, Jesus the Messiah or Mohammed the Prophet; nor does it have sacred scriptures, such as the sutras of Buddhism, the Bible or the Koran” (Ono Sokyo 3). Shinto appears very little in history, as there is no significant teachings or information surrounding the ideas. Shinto is more than just a religious faith; it is a collection of ideas, attitudes on ways of doing things and through history has become an “integral part of the way of the Japanese people” (Ono, Sokyo, 3).
“The kami-concept today includes the idea of justice, order, and divine favor (blessing), and implies the basic principle that the kami function harmoniously in cooperation with one another and rejoice in the evidence of harmony and cooperation in this world” (Ono Sokyo, 7). This concept is basically the same as it was in ancient Japan, only few things have changed in regards to theory on Shinto.
The kami of the Shinto religion serve different purposes for the Japanese. Their culture revolves around kami who protect different things such as places, processes and natural orders. The Shinto gods can take many different forms, such as mountains, trees, rocks, wind, and rain. When a human dies they become ancestral kami and are worshipped as such (Japan-Guide). This idea of kami is very different in contrast to Buddhism , where they do not believe in kami, but in a force that which is made up of all living things and holds the universe together (leaderu).
This difference between Buddhism and Shinto may be the key to why they are so easily practiced together. There is no fundamental conflict between each religions kami, and there is no need to favor one over the other. The practice of Buddhism is earthly compassion while the practice of Shinto is otherworldly compassion.
There are different types of Shinto, just as in Buddhism, that the Japanese follow. There is popular Shinto practice in everyday life of kami-worship, and Domestic Shinto referring to home practice, and shrine Shinto is the oldest and most prevalent type (Ono, Sokyo, 12). Shinto does no appear to have branches or sects of difference among its worshippers, and the ideas across Japan are fundamentally the same.
In Buddhism each branch may have many different sects of practice. Theravada Buddhism, which teaches the psychological understanding of human nature and emphasis a meditative approach on transformation of consciousness (Buddhanet). The Mahayana, another sect of Buddhism, teaches a variety of practices such as yoga. This sect of Buddhism branches out into many different lineages such as Pure Land, Avatamska and T’ien T’ai.
Elements of Worpship for Shinto are performed at srhines, and involve four different elements. “It is a distinctive feature of Shinto that kami-worship is expressed not only from the depth of one’s heat but in a concrete act of religious ritual” (Ono, Sokyo, 51). The four elements of Shinto worship include purification, offerings, prayer and a symbolic feast.
Purification is very essential to Shinto and the idea of pollution is vitally important. Removing pollution from oneself helps rid evil and unrighteousness, which could thwart one’s communication with kami. Rinsing the mouth and fingers with clear water will purify a worshiper. Offerings are necessary to keep the kami happy daily. In shrines of great importance offerings may be very elaborate, while simple ones may be of salt, rice or water (Ono Sokyo, 53).
Prayers are typically read or recited at shrines in classical Japanese. These prayers are opened with words of praise for kami, making reference to the kami in which they are praying to. These prayers are ended with final words of respect and awe to the kami (Ono, sokyo, 54). The sacred feast is held at the end of any Shinto ceremony in which you eat together with the kami.
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While Shinto and Buddhism seem blatantly different in their day-to-day functions, operating together they appear to make perfect sense. Japans idea of dually practiced religion is called syncretism. While Shinto is the main religion practiced for any wedding ceremony, Buddhist rituals are practiced at funerals because death in Shitno religion is considered pollution. These two dominant religions in Japan are clearly the oldest forms of religion, however there are “new religions” that are also claiming a popular following.
These “new religions” often cited as Folk Religion “have never faced the kind of dilemma of secularization which has been experienced by Buddhism or Christianity. Folk Religion always preserves the strong enduring power which perseveres in he lower structure of society and religious institutions” ( Hori, Ichiro, 18) Folk religion therefore has a strong social significance.
The idea and concept of religion rose out of the cyclical concept of agriculture, in which everything has a natural order of germination, growth and maturity (Hori, Ichiro, 20). Farm and agricultural work is regarded as sacred in itself to the Japanese people and rituals are often observed before seeding and after harvesting. These among other rituals done for protection and security make folk religion a part of Japanese culture.
There are two distinct types of folk religion in Japan. The first is considered as the guardian shrine systems, known as the uji-gami. This was based on a particular family or clan system in which each family has it’s own shrine as a central symbol of harmony, devoted to ancestral spirit who was enshrined and worshiped. The main function of uji-gami is to assimilate all the family members into a patriarchal hierarchy in which the family’s respectable name is preserved for generations to come.
The second type of system in folk religion is known as the man-god system, also called “hito-gami”. This system is based on a close relationship of an individual god with a shaman. Older Japanese cultures or villages were once ruled by an individual shaman or medicine man (Hori, Ichiro, 31) This type of system gave the leader the power to transmit ideas to their kami thus making the leader a utility of divine power. Beliefs and superstitions are present at the core of each folk religion.
There are five types of superstitious groups; beliefs and magic concerning omens, beliefs in divination, fragmentary customs concerning taboo, black magic, and prayers with magical elements. Although these topics may be viewed as superstitious, it is not from an objective point of view as many religions around the world practice what one might call superstitions. These rituals or acts of “superstition” do enter the daily life of the Japanese and may even “regulate the conduct of a great number of persons” (Hori, Ichiro, 46).
Although the religions of Shinto, Buddhism and “new religions” seem different in many aspects, there are common themes and theories among them. This being said, it is also observed that many different religions around the world share a number of commonalities. Shinto and Buddhism define a lot of cultural morals and values that the Japanese use in conduct everyday. “New Religions” also are seen to permeate into the daily lives of Japanese. These religions practiced together make Japan the diverse but unified country that it is today.
“Buddhism.” 2007. japan-Guide.com. 09 Apr. 2007 .
“Buddhanet.” Buddhanet. 2007. 09 Apr. 2007 .
Hori, Ichiro. Folk Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1968.
Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: the Kami Way. Ruthland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc, 1969.
“The Four Noble Truths.” The Big View. 13 Dec. 2006. 09 Mar. 2007 www.thebigview.com
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