Look at a few headlines from one Japanese tabloid for one recent day: "Woman hurt after hit by man taking death leap. Plastic-bag encased body dumped on construction site. Wanted bank robber nabbed on Kumamoto highway. Cop sacked for stealing pricey camera. Woman kills newborn with mouthful of toilet paper. 75-year-old man tries to throttle centenarian mother. Health food company defrauds 3,000 investors."
Even keeping in mind press hype, that list is an indication of the variety of problems that are pushing more Japanese to think anew on their purpose in life. Many-Shinto priests, national greatness advocates, socialists, and a cast of thousands-offer advice. But I see three main possibilities.
1 Some will say, give me that old-time Buddhism, it's good enough for me. Polls show most Japanese having little regular contact with any religion, but in one sense Buddhism still is basic in Japan and even the Japanese language. Some say that the Japanese word for "thank you," arigato, is a splicing of aru (your existence) and katai (very difficult). Buddhism teaches that we are condemned to a material existence and enslaved by attachments, so arigato means, "I am thankful for this which allow me to exist in such a difficult situation." (Others say that arigato is derived from the Portuguese obrigado, thanks, but that would also be culturally significant: For centuries Japanese had no word for "thank you," since whatever one did was seen to be his duty.)
The difference between intellectual and popular understandings of what allows us to exist amid difficulty is immense. Zen theologians may refer to the sound of one hand clapping, but near the Kongobun-ji Temple on Mount Koya-san Japanese visitors use their hands to pick up pine needles and stick them in their wallet, superstitiously hoping that wealth will come. Others at a nearby cemetery pick up big rocks, which will purportedly lead to wishes being granted by some cosmic force. Others meditate before a container that houses a lock of hair from each emperor over the centuries: Do that, some say, and the visitor will walk away with a bit of the emperors' godstuff.
Not far from the sanctified hair stand some statues of Buddhist heroes. Adults and children use ladles to splash water on the faces of the statues, and explain in three different ways why they are doing so. Some simply say it's fun to do. Others say that if they give the hero a drink he will use his power to help a person buried nearby. Others say that the loved person who has died is now in some way suffering with a dry throat, and tossing some water on the statues gives the dead a drink. This is considered a particularly effective tactic if the mourner has written on a paper the deceased's name and made a donation to the Buddhist temple nearby.
It's hard to say how any of this makes sense in terms of either transmigration or the lack of a personal God in Buddhism. Nevertheless, at the cemetery temple mourners can pay the equivalent of about $42 to priests so they will recite a prayer for the dead person of your choice. If a mourner pays the equivalent of $420 and brings the Adam's apple bone (which almost always survives cremation) of the recently deceased, the priests will keep it for a year and pray over it. A person without much money can buy a prayer stick made of wood and burn it, supposedly to purify his heart; bad things will stay away from those with pure hearts. Coins clink and priests go to work. Outside, corporate statues-including one for Nissan and another for a large coffee company-dot the cemetery.
Overall on Mount Koya-san, 1,000 monks in 120 temples hold up the Shingon flag. The jushoku sadly said that the mountain used to boast of 5,000 priests in 1,000 temples, sparking a "big allotment of rice in feudal times." Today's priests keep up appearances, beginning with a 6 a.m. sutra chanting in a dark temple filled with hypnotic intensity and the smell of incense. Then they walk in their running shoes six miles to a work project in the mountains. The jushoku says that when he was young they walked there and back, and in geta (wood sandals).
Some things haven't changed, the chief priest said. Tatami mats at the training center still have marks made by the 80 priest apprentices, like Takagi Kinho, who regularly prostrate themselves. The cemetery includes some priests who died from fasting. They are highly honored, and their kugyo certainly showed some courage. And yet, God asks repeatedly in the Bible, why spend your time worshipping blocks of wood or stone, things that cannot speak or hear? We could say similarly, why honor the spending of time on worthless things? The good kugyo is giving children a bath when you're tired, not feeling mystical by giving yourself a bath in freezing water. The good kugyo is binding up a patient's wounds, or providing a product that a family can enjoy. Otherwise, religion becomes the opiate of the monks.
2 A second contender in Japan is Jodo Shinshu. Honda Yoshinari did not hesitate to acknowledge that, from his study, the sect originated after Buddhist monks had discussions with Christians: "The monk Ryuju said there is no self, no real existence. Christians said there is existence.... So did Seshin, who took the existence side and said the Pure Land exists." Today, the child's version of what the Pure Land is sounds much like what Christian children say about heaven. Honda's daughter Aya, asked what the Pure Land is like, said, "Lots of beautiful flowers, birds. Everyone is happy, the animals are happy. There are all kinds of occasions to see Buddha, to learn from him. There is no suffering."
More conventional Buddhists also acknowledge the connection but find it annoying. Zen Buddhist Thomas Kirchner spoke of the "connections between Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist cultures" but took exception to the Jodo distinction between jiriki (self-power) and tariki (other-power): "This concept never existed in Buddhism. As long as you think in terms of self and other, you're nowhere. Shinran had gone to the limits of self-power, so he despaired. But Zen says, 'There is no self. Our selves are nothing but a set of habits.'"
The Jodo concept is very real to Junko Blockson, who said that her Jodo Shinshu background helped in her conversion to Christianity, "because I understood that when Jesus says to come just as you are, He will give you the power. I was trained to know I couldn't get there myself, but until I became a Christian I was looking the wrong way for help." A century ago Japanese Christians such as Kanzo Uchimura thought the Jodo Shinshu-to-Christianity route would be a broad highway: "Thirteen million of my countrymen who profess the Jodo form of Buddhism are my brothers and sisters in faith. They take the same attitude toward their Amida Buddha that I take toward my Jesus the Christ. Change the object of faith, and they are like me, and I am like them."
That's not how it turned out. The object of faith in Jodo Shinshu is a bodhisattva, not God. The sacrifice is a putting off of nirvana, not death on the cross, and it's essentially the waving of a magic wand rather than a reconciling of a holy God and sinful man. Movement from Jodo Shinshu to Christianity proved a small step for a few people but a leap too large for millions who did not yet understand the importance of worshipping a Savior who truly lived on earth in space and time.
One big problem with faith in Amida and the Pure Land is that it has no substance. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, was frank: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that He raised Christ.... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." How much more so are Jodo Shinshu Buddhists to be pitied when they put their trust in someone who never existed.
3 Japanese men and women, like others, need to go past Buddhism, past Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and all the way to a third way that begins with Genesis 1: "And God said, 'Let there be light, and there was light.' And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness." Buddhist temples are often very dark. Jodo Shinshu temples tend to have more light, and Jodo Shinshu's emphasis on faith can be satisfying to some of the people for some of the time. But because Buddhism has no Genesis 1, showing a God outside of and above creation, it has no true answers to the discontinuities and disappointments of life, and no variety of Buddhism can satisfy forever or save adherents from sins.
Let's compare and contrast Christ and Buddha. Christianity has historical accounts written by eyewitnesses to Christ's teaching. Buddhist materials are from 250 or so years later. When Christ encountered death, He wept. When a mourning woman asked Buddha about death, he led her to realize that everyone suffered, so get used to it. Christianity teaches resurrection. Buddha's body was deposited in a grave at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains. Christianity emphasizes God's holiness. Buddhism is essentially agnostic. Christianity asks us to attach ourselves to what is good and true. Buddhism demands detachment from everything.