Features

Japan: Beyond symbols

International

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

Symbols of Christianity are once again popular in Japan, as they briefly were a little over four centuries ago. Some women wear crosses as a necklace; some of the crosses are bare, and some have "that guy" on them. Some homes have Christmas trees, and many Japanese celebrate Christmas as a time for gift-giving. But those items pack all the theological punch of the "romantic garden" display area in a Yao City department store. On a warm afternoon consumers looking for love in the wrong places eyed the ruffles on kimonos, slippers, bracelets, and stuffed animals, all with cherry or strawberry logos, as a slow version of Joni Mitchell's "Clouds" played over a loudspeaker.

Many religions are romantic gardens, but there's more to life than escape. The literal meaning of buddha is "enlightened one" or "one who wakes up" and is enlightened. Christians know that those who do not know Christ are spiritually asleep and should be enlightened, by God's grace. Some liberal theologians today suggest that East is East and West is West, and American Christians should not concern themselves with Japanese Buddhists. But while it's wise to let sleeping dogs lie, people are not animals. It is cruel to let those who are sleeping away the day waste their lives. It is compassionate to wake them up.

Yamamoto Maya's sad history of suffering provides exactly the type of background that would lead a person to believe that life is suffering, and to search for an escape, any escape. Seeking nirvana means seeking the elimination of individuality, but it also means attainment of a state where there will be no more pain, an appealing prospect to Mrs. Tanamoto. She has not been taught to pray to a personal God, but she has absorbed the chief priest's teaching that the Law of Buddhahood is the law of an impersonal universe. Like it or not, that's the way it is, and just as Newton discovered the law of gravity, so Buddha discovered the way it is. But wouldn't it be wonderful if, instead of groping merely to avoid pain, she could wake up and comprehend Christianity's promise of eternal life as a joyful individual entity.

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Takagi Kinho, the Shingon apprentice priest, is already yearning to learn more. He plans to leave Mount Koya-san and learn about life in the cities. Students of Buddhism note that the Buddha died at age 80, lying down, and that his horizontal position contrasts to Christ's painful verticality. Christ is most often depicted in His suffering on the cross, while statues of the Buddha most commonly show him sitting in tranquil meditation. But tranquility is not what Takagi in his early 20s is looking for: He is used to sacrifice. Can he get used to nonattachment, or should he be shown a way to attach himself to the battle for truth, not nonattachment?

Honda Yoshinari, the Jodo Shinshu priest, knows that he cannot progress based on his own wisdom. He wants the merits of Amida Buddha applied to him. Despite the centuries separating them, Honda speaks passionately of Shinran's breakthrough, where instead of saying, "I believe in God," he said, "God gave me the power." That understanding of man's inability has appeal in Japan. Over 200 people sat on sweet-smelling tatami mats at a 6 a.m. service at the world headquarters (honzan) Jodo Shinshu temple, Nishi-Hongwanji in Kyoto. Hundreds more come to weekend conferences on how to prompt Buddhist revival. But will Mr. Honda come to see that God revives hearts in ways that no conference can teach?

Junko Blockson, in converting to Christ, seized the opportunity to go beyond Jodo Shinshu. She knows that man's basic problem is disobedience, not just ignorance. She perceives the huge gap between God's holiness and man's sinfulness, and she knows that Jodo Shinshu has no idea of atonement. She knows that Amida Buddha is not the Alpha and Omega but may be an echo of early Christian teaching, just like the Pure Land is an echo of heaven. Echoes fade, but the God of the Bible remains.

Missionary Mark Dominey reports that Japanese typically say, "I'm not religious," but nevertheless observe Buddhist rites when death comes into their households. At one large Japanese funeral, attendees dressed in black entered a funeral hall, signed in, and handed over condolence money. The priests burned incense but said little, since they did not know the deceased or his family. The funeral director listed the deceased's accomplishments. Flowers were in abundance, with 60 of 61 arrangements sent by the deceased's company, its suppliers, and its customers, and a comparable preponderance of business associates among the guests. Family members, searching for comfort, placed in the coffin items for the deceased's next life: a walking stick, a ceremonial sword, two cartons of cigarettes, and a computer game that he enjoyed.

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