Too much Buddhism

There is a misconception among Western atheists, I think, that there is something in the East called “Buddhism” and that this thing is somehow more amenable to the atheist’s point of view than other religions. Of course, I think even most of those people realize that Buddhism is no more one thing than is Christianity. And what passes as Buddhism here in Japan most of the time, it seems, reads sort of like a parody of folk Catholicism. It has its own trinity, with Amida (Sanskrit Amitābha), Shaka (Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha) and Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) playing roughly the role of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and a complicated iconography of other saints. Kannon, the embodiment of mercy, is especially revered, and this sometimes takes ridiculous forms: at Hasedera you could pay 1000 yen (roughly 10 dollars) to touch the foot of an 8m gilded wooden image of 11-headed Kannon. (This is not as monstrous a figure as you might think; he has one main head, and from it grow rows of six, three, and one small ones in the manner of a crown.)

All this makes for interesting art, of course.  Today, in Chūgūji, I saw a beautiful Kannon: she (originally male but associated with mercy, Kannon can sometimes be female) sits in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker, but instead of being heavy and overbearing, her thoughts are light and untroubled as befits a deity.  The smile on her face reveals everything.  Or, for example, there are the fearsome niō (Two Kings) who guard the gate of every temple (occasionally also creeping into Shintō shrines, such as at Nikkō) from evil.  One of them is red, attacks, and, his mouth open, says “a,” the first letter of both Devanāgarī and the Japanese syllabaries.  The other, blue, defends; his mouth is closed, he is saying Japanese “n” or Sanskrit “ṃ,” the last letter at least in Japanese.  They are the yang and the yin, the alpha and the omega simultaneously.  They are also often very artistically impressive.

Spiritually, though, I find Shintō much more understandable.  While Buddhist temples in Japan try to blend in with nature, Shintō shrines are nature.  In Ise, I visited Naikū, the home of the sun goddess Amaterasu and one of the holiest, if not the holiest, places in Japan.  I passed over a bridge, through several torii.  (Literally bird perches, these are gates consisting, at the simplest, of two poles topped with a bar which stretches wider, with a second bar, stretching only between the poles, slightly below.  Those at Ise are of this simple shape and in plain, unpainted wood.  The structure is so ubiquitous that it’s used as the map symbol for a shrine.  The map symbol for a temple is a swastika; I’m glad that there are still parts of the world where this attractive pattern remains relatively unpolluted.)  I walked past ancient cedars to the singing of cicadas: not the usual cicadas which sing alternately “ish-ish-ish-ish” or “wishwishwishwish” or “fishfishfishfish” or “dishdishdishdish,” but a special, chattery kind, past buildings with gold-tipped, decorated roofs, past gift shops, to a staircase ending in a simple, if massive wooden fence.  Past the fence was another fence, and before it a place of worship.  While people were worshipping, I didn’t feel entitled to go in there, so I just imbibed the scene.  The shade, the sunset, the ancient trees and the stately wooden structure which blends so well with its surroundings put me in a sort of trance.

Worshipping, in turns, were a group of three youngish women.  The last one of them turned around to leave, and as she passed me, she held out her hand and said, in English, “Very nice to meet you.”  I sort of automatically shook the hand and mumbled, “Nice to meet you too,” although I had anything but met her, then turned around myself.  The sheer weirdness of that interaction had spoiled the moment.

Naturally, Shintō has its own silly moments.  In Hakodate, before I got used to the concept, I got much mirth out of photographing a wall on which good luck was sold for 500 yen, as well as a particular tablet on which someone had wished for luck in getting a scholarship.  But for the past couple days I’ve essentially been temple-crawling, and since I’m spending tomorrow in Nara and the following days in Kyōto, I’m not done.  And, I must confess, I’m seeing a little too much Buddhism.

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3 Responses to “Too much Buddhism”

  1. sylvia Says:

    Feddy! I have a question about Shinto. I haven’t read very much about it, but what I have read talked a lot about ‘kami.’ I think it’s kind of like a spirit that connects both the living and nonliving.. but I’m not sure. Do you know what that term means?
    -S

    • fmanin Says:

      ‘Kami’ just translates as ‘god’ or ‘spirit,’ so for example the Christian God is called ‘Kami-sama,’ ‘sama’ being an honorific. But kami can also be very minor, like ancient Greek nymphs: a grove, a tree, a river can have its own kami, and a shrine, if it’s not dedicated to a major god with lots of shrines, will generally have its own. I guess in some sense it’s a personification (living connection?) of a nonliving thing… but that sounds like it only obfuscates the matter.

  2. Gary Armstead Says:

    i always believe that buddhism is sort of the religion of peace compared to other religions. buddhism speaks of peace all the time…

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