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Japan: Buddhism meets Shintoism in Japan

"Japan: Buddhism meets Shintoism in Japan" Continued...

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

The monk Kukai founded Shingon Buddhism in 816, only 28 years after the founding of Tendai temples on Mt. Hiei, but Shingon monks generally stayed out of politics. (They located their temples on mountaintops not to cow government officials but to remain independent of them.) Today, Shingon Buddhists pride themselves on having had their doctrine embraced by the imperial family until 1868, and they talk of the amazing things their founder, Kukai, purportedly did. (Believers say he did not die but remains in a meditative trance, able and willing to return to the world when needed.)

Today, Shingon jushoku (chief abbot) Koyu Hosokawa is intensely proud of his "physically severe exercises in cold water, or firewalking [on coals]. Like Tendai, we have exercises for the best." He is proud of helping Yamamoto Maya travel from "the so-called real world in which she was living" to "the truly real world on the temple mountain." He is proud of the training that young men like Takagi Kinho go through, even describing with slapstick glee how trainees whose legs had gone to sleep during four hours of lotus-position chanting had fallen down the lacquered stairs.

Shingon practitioners, like most other Buddhists, do a lot of chanting. "Shingon means 'true word'; we have lots of true words," the jushoku explained, and one Shingon practice is to recite a favorite sutra "20,000 times each day for 50 days." Such effort is not a new idea; Elijah on Mount Carmel taunted the prophets of Baal for chanting for their god hour after hour. But the jushoku, fingering his rosary, insisted that chanting is not in vain for those with the "special power to reach enlightenment ... a special voice that opens us up to the whole universe is speaking, but only those who have the ability to hear will hear it. It takes practice to develop that ability."

Some who were disappointed with Japan's condition but did not want to try extreme and severe ascetic practice headed to zazen (meditation), developed in the 12th and 13th centuries by teachers who had studied in India and China. Zen Buddhists taught that the faithful should pay no attention to rational thought processes. They came up with famous Zen questions-"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"-designed to force thinkers to conclude that rational thought is inadequate and should be abandoned. (The most famous Christian medieval question-"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"-was designed to produce the opposite of mysticism: Students were expected to think through the problem and conclude that an infinite number could, since angels are incorporeal spirits.)

The Zen emphasis on paradox applied even to its own methods: Teachers spoke of "sudden enlightenment" that could be gained by long periods of practice in meditation. Zen became hot among the elite, such as among samurai warriors who believed they could enter a Zen zone while swordfighting or shooting arrows. Today, Thomas Kirchner, an American who has lived in Japan for three decades and is now the caretaker of a Zen temple in Kyoto, says other Buddhist ideas are "dumbing down," but he doesn't hold that against them: "Differing abilities are best addressed by differing paths. Some people are more contemplatively inclined, others more devotionally inclined, others more intellectually inclined."

Mr. Kirchner grew up Roman Catholic in New Haven but became "a doubter enthralled by a doubt-based religion, Zen Buddhism." An undergraduate at Duke in the late '60s, he questioned everything until a visiting Zen Buddhist gave a lecture; Mr. Kirchner thought, "I don't know what there is about that guy, but what he has I want." Mr. Kirchner soon went to Japan and adhered to Zen because it struck him as the anti-faith faith: "Zen says, 'You doubt? Great. You haven't doubted enough.'" He still participates in orthodox Buddhist activities like monastic retreats, but he noted when we spoke in Kyoto that often the "last thing you want to do is meditate." He also criticized university life where he "saw people utterly distorting Buddhist spirituality so they could get tenure." But he still carries on university work alongside his temple duties, and emphasizes points of contact between the Buddhist and Christian traditions.

During the 13th-century time of troubles, another tough sect grew out of Tendai and began emphasizing the importance of anger and political involvement. This sect's founder, Nichiren (1222Ð1282), a learned monk, attacked unmercifully "evil" forms of Buddhism, including Shingon and Zen, and developed a political solution based on theology. He thought that Gautama Buddha as he aged had gradually revealed more and more of the true way to live. He argued that the Buddha's final opus, the Lotus Sutra, was the Buddha's only true, inerrant revelation. Therefore, according to Nichiren, Buddhists should all day long repeat the mystic phrase "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo," which means "Hail to the Lotus Sutra." If people all over Japan would only do that, Nichiren proclaimed, Japan would become a wonderful land in which people could more readily ascend spiritually.

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