Japan: Buddhism meets Shintoism in Japan


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

In the sixth century A.D., Mahayana Buddhism began to dominate Japan alongside an earlier animistic religion, Shinto ("the way of gods"). Shinto apparently began with worship of the environment and of spirits seen as related to mountains, rivers, and other forces of nature. Buddhism, more universal in scope, coexisted with Shinto and along with Shinto became Japan's established doctrine under the powerful leader Shotoku (574Ð622).

Mahayana Buddhists in Japan were aware of another faith that emphasized the work of a savior. Christian missionaries, obeying Christ's command to take the gospel to every nation, may have reached China as early as a.d. 61. There they proclaimed a faith soon known as Keikyo, the "Shining Religion." A few believers set up Keikyo temples in Chinese provinces and hopped the sea as well, perhaps arriving in Japan as early as a.d. 200. Their early base was Kyoto: Old writing found in that city's Uzumasa area contains the same Chinese characters used in China to refer to the Keikyo church there.

According to the late Dr. Yoshiroh Saeki, a professor at Waseda University, a Keikyo priest paid an official visit to Japan's emperor around a.d. 475. Soon after more than 2,000 Keikyo believers, members of the Hata clan, came to Japan. As the Christian concept of a suffering savior apparently influenced Mahayana Buddhism, so the story of Christ's birth may have pushed Japanese legend-making. Current missionary Mark Dominey has translated the birth account of Prince Shotoku: According to the story, while Shotoku's mother was a virgin the Buddha appeared to her and said he wanted to borrow her womb.

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Kyoto Christians built a church in a.d. 622, according to a thesis by Mario Marega. Keikyo priests and physicians visited Emperor Shomu in 737, according to the Imperial Chronicles, and talked with family members about Christ. The empress apparently became a believer and put her faith into practice by establishing a hospital and orphanage. But early Christianity never attained anything more than the slightest of footholds. One reason may be that then as now, Christians emphasized Christ's teaching that He is the way, the truth, and the life; they refused to syncretize their beliefs with those of others. Mahayana Buddhists, however, found a place in their religion for Shinto and even Confucian ideas, and became Japan's dominant religious power.

It soon became apparent that Buddhists would misuse power just as others did. Buddhists were not the pacifists most are today. Buddhists of the Mahayana sect known as Tendai believed that they could only take advantage of what bodhisattvas offered by becoming spiritually and physically tough. They made an armed camp of their center of power on Mt. Hiei, which overlooks Kyoto, Japan's capital from 794 until the move to Tokyo in 1868. Enryaku-ji, the mountain's first temple, went up in 788, and Buddhists built 3,000 more temples over the next 700 years. Buddhists in the late 10th century began basing there an army of many thousands that became known for overthrowing emperors at will. Emperor Shirakawa (1056Ð1129) listed as the "three things which I cannot bring under obedience" dice, the waters of a rushing river, and the priests on Mt. Hiei.

The Enryaku-ji Buddhists also burned down temples of competing sects, and even destroyed one temple, Mi-dera, nine times over a 250-year period. One historian of Kyoto, Gouverneur Mosher, noted that "Buddhism did not retard war but rather promoted it." The Tendai were Buddhism's Delta Force, and on Mount Hiei today some Tendai monks do kugyo (in two side-by-side, linked temples) similar to what their predecessors did a millennium ago. One monk at a time spends nine days in the Jogyo-Do (constant walking) and Hokke-Do (sitting meditation) temples: There he fasts, drinks only a little water, and tries hard not to fall asleep.

One monk explained the goal: "If we can remove the desire for food or sleep, we can get closer to the goal of leaving behind all desire." Those who fall asleep are supposed to start all over again, but "it's for the individual to tell what happened to him." Another Mt. Hiei temple, Shyaka-do, is the base for elite monks who are supposed to walk for at least 18 miles a day for 100 days up and down the mountain's steep slopes. Others, wearing straw sandals, try to do 1,000 days of walking 50 miles a day. (The monks I asked were vague on how often this was done over the centuries or how often it's done now.)

Regardless of such impressive goals and fanatical records, many Japanese were unhappy being dominated by Mt. Hiei's Buddhists. They asked why a religion preaching nonattachment was yielding such attachment to power. Reform movements spread through Buddhism, each preaching different ways of fixing the evident problems. Three alternatives to the Tendai attempted to gain adherents.


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