Features

Japan: Three choices

International

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

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.)

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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.

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