ASK MANY AMERICANS ABOUT Buddhism and the response, if there is any at all, is likely to be either abstract ("an Asian religion") or celebrity-driven ("Dalai Lama? Richard Gere?"). But when I traveled to Japan last year, Buddhism changed for me from a strange religion with perhaps 360 million adherents to one interwoven with the lives of particular faces in the crowd such as Yamamoto Maya, Takagi Kinho, Honda Yoshinari, and Junko Blockson.
Yamamoto Maya (I am following Japanese style by placing family names first) is a Japanese woman in her 40s with a mottled, taut face and some bruising under one eye. She smiles but seems sad, and when she talks she is intense, as befits a person who has had a hard life. Her parents divorced when she was young, and neither wanted to take care of her. She was the fifth and youngest child, with grown-up brothers and sisters who also abandoned her. She was sent around to the homes of various relatives as half maid, half slave.
As Maya grew older she tried to have herself committed to an orphanage, but those who mistreated her would not allow an action that would bring public shame to the family that was acting shamefully. Finally she married, only to find that her husband beat her, broke her bones and teeth, and put her in the hospital. She and her husband had one child, but that did not improve their marriage. A decade ago, with her son a toddler, she began coming to a Shingon Buddhist temple on Mount Koya-san, a two-hour drive south from the crowded streets of Osaka.
I saw some of what Mrs. Yamamoto did at the temple last year to find relief from her pain. At 10:20 on a cool Saturday evening she waited on steps leading down to a cold river, her hands clasped before her. It was dark, with incense burning so that for those more than 10 yards away smell had to replace sight. She wore a white robe, indicating purity, and threw handfuls of salt into the water, as another purifying gesture. She began chanting the names of Buddha, very fast, very loud, without seemingly stopping for breath. She let out an animal-sounding scream ("VEE-AYE"), entered the water, and knelt chanting for 10 minutes. She later said that during that time she felt Buddha enter her body.
Takagi Kinho, 22, comes from a family of Shingon priests and wants to carry on the tradition. To do so he must serve an apprenticeship: Last year he was finishing his third year of serving on Mount Kyosan by getting up each morning at 5 a.m., often after only three hours of sleep, and going through kugyo ("hard practice")-which consists of ascetic austerities such as sitting with his legs tucked under himself for three to four hours, or holding a book of sutras at arm's length for three to four hours. The only food he received during his initial year of training was rice and a little tofu, so he had lost 20 pounds; a beefy fellow trainee lost 88 pounds and "looked like an African refugee at the end."
Mr. Takagi reported that he did not drop out as many did, but "at the end of the first year, I couldn't stop crying." He was resigned to the practice-"To become a priest, you have to do it"-and he laughingly reported some of the humorous highlights: Students have to shave their heads every two days, and "when I first did it blood came out all over." He was skeptical, though, about the spiritual benefits he had derived from kugyo: "I don't buy the idea that I will reach satori (a state of illumination). The belief is that you call on a Buddha so many times that you change places with him. I've called many times and it hasn't happened. But something shimpi-spiritually mysterious-is going on here."
Honda Yoshinari has turned his back on part of that mystery. Born in Hiroshima in 1943, at age 2 he had to help dispose of atom-bomb-blasted bodies, and he is now the priest at a small Jodo Shinshu temple that sits amid the hubbub of Yao, an Osaka exurb that is one of Japan's fastest-growing cities. Wearing a black robe and white socks, he pads around on a short red carpet during the traditional sutra-chanting service every morning at 6 or 7 a.m., but he keeps a blackboard and folding chairs to use during "evangelizing" services that include piano and congregational singing. He ministers along with his wife and four children, whose names represent what he believes is important: Aya (art/beauty), Makoto (philosophy), Hijiri (religion), and Takumi (morality).
As Mr. Honda fingers his japaa-mala (prayer-ring), he notes that jahpa (a different word with the same pronunciation in Sanskrit) means "rose," which led to the word rosary; early Christians came to India, saw japaa-mala, and brought the idea back to Europe. More important, though, is the echo of Christianity in the Jodo Shinshu denomination. Priests like Mr. Honda say, contrary to other kinds of Buddhism, that salvation comes not through meditation and strenuous exercises but only through faith in the power of a Buddha manifestation who (in an echo of Christianity) sacrifices himself for others.
Junko Blockson grew up in a small Buddhist temple run by her family-both of her grandfathers were Buddhist priests-but then came to believe in Christ and joined the church at age 20. Why? Now in her late 30s and married to a professor at Kyoto International University, a Christian school, she recalls that "I knew all the do's and don'ts, but not how and why to lead a good life. Out of curiosity I started coming to a chapel; I heard a sermon and believed."
That change was dramatic, and so were the consequences. When Junko said Christianity is the only way and stopped bowing before the family altar, her father said she was breaking wa (harmony). Her father shaved off his hair and apologized to all his relatives for not having raised his daughter rightly. And yet her father, who along with performing his priestly duties works in a government social welfare department, has told her that Christians do best at helping handicapped children, because they see meaning in the existence of those children.
Why are Yamamoto Maya and Takagi Kinho living in the different world of the mountain, Honda Yoshinari in the ordinary world of the city, and Junko Blockson in a different spiritual universe? In this special report we'll learn about the beliefs and concerns that animate them, and much else. Our goal is to explore Buddhism not in the abstract but to see how belief and practice change societies and lives. We'll look at early Buddhist beliefs and the innovation that renewed Buddhism soon after Christ's disciples first came to India. Then, so that we can see the practical effects of Buddhist beliefs and the difference between theory and practice, we'll focus on the way Buddhism developed in Japan.
We'll also examine one popular form, Jodo Shinshu, that reflects some aspects of Christianity in the way that a lake reflects the light of the moon, which is a reflection of light from the sun. We'll look at the persecution of Christians in Japan, the development of a Japanese Buddhist equivalent of the Protestant ethic, and the effect of that worldview on recent political and economic developments. We'll end with an examination of three alternatives for Japan.