From Richard Tames' "A Traveller's History of Japan", pp 221-4
The history of Buddhism is even longer than that of Christianity and every bit as complicated in terms of its doctrinal disputes and sectarian sub-divisions. Like Christianity it has exerted a profound influence on the culture and customs of its adherents. Without some understanding of Buddhism it is difficult to comprehent much of Japan's artistic heritage in the general fields of sculpture and temple architecture, as well as peculiarly Japanese achievements in flower-arranging, garden-design, tea-ceremony, Noh drama and the martial arts - not to mention contemporary politics and social attitudes (eg preference for cremation).
Buddhism originated in India in the sixth century BC and came to Japan over a thousand years later and via China. Japan encountered Buddhism, in other words, as a religion with a millennium of history behind it, established traditions of artistic expression and a huge body of learned commentary upon its fundamental teachings and scriptures. All this had to be appreciated largely through the medium of a foreign language, Chinese, or via the even more linguistically-remote sacred tongues of Pali and Sanskrit. Buddhist belief, behaviour and iconography then had to be accommodated to the existing religious traditions of Shinto and the ethical framework of Confucianism - an immediate enterprise which absorbed some of the greatest intellects and aesthetic talents Japan has ever produced. The success attending these efforts was undoubtedly assisted by the close association of Buddhism with the advent of literacy and other major cultural advances in the arts and crafts.
In the course of this long and intensely complicated process Japan evolved forms of Buddhism which are now thought of as peculiarly Japanese, such as Nichiren and, to a lesser extend perhaps, Zen.
Is Buddhism a Religion?
Any effort to come to grips with Buddhism involves encountering a number of obstacles - apart from the aforementioned complexity - not least its extensive technical terminology. But the first, and in some ways most persistent, barrier that Westerners are likely to encounter is the fact that, coming from a Judaeo-Christian background, they impose upon it the perspectives and categories which provide the norms of their habitual thinking about religion, whether they are particularly 'religious' or not. It takes some time and reflection to come to terms with the style of a religion which, in some senses, dispenses with the notion of God altogether, conceives salvation as extinction rather than redemption and is, in many of its forms, indifferent to whether or not its followers adhere to another faith at the same time.
The term 'Buddha' is not a name but denotes the state of being of one who has a true knowledge of reality.
Buddhism originated in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the scion of a house of warrior-rulers of a small state on the border of what is now India and Nepal. The details of his biography are overlaid with twenty-five centuries of often fanciful embellishment but its main outlines are clear enough. At the age of twenty-nine he renounced a life of pleasure and luxury and deserted his wife and child to seek a spiritual enlightenment which would give him insight into the nature of ultimate reality (his renunciation is often symbolised in sculptures of the Buddha by extended ear-lobes, empty of their once elaborate ear-rings).
Accepting instruction in yogic practices and other mystical techniques from two eminent masters, he soon surpassed them and entered a six-year period of severe self-denial, accompanied by five other ascetics. These extremities brought him to the verge of death and a realisation that such behaviour was both self-destructive and self-deluding. Rejecting mortification he rebuilt his strength - at the cost of losing his disillusioned companions.
Gautama, honed by his ordeal to an acute self-awareness, turned to deep and extended solitary meditation and it was this that brought him to a state of enlightenment. Weeks of reflection enabled him to elaborate his fundamental insights into a coherent doctrine and practicable programme for living. An awareness that most of his fellow-creatures were blessed with but limited and varying abilities to comprehend his message induced him to hesitate before committing himself to a life of teaching. But eventually he rejoined his five former companions and induced them by his sincerity to listen to his first sermon, 'Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth.'
The core fo the Buddha's teaching is summarised in the Four Noble Truths:
- suffering and conflict are inseperable from human existance;
- they arise from egotism and its expression in desire, ambition etc.;
- liberation from endless reincarnation into non-existence is attainable;
- the means of attainment lies in the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path, a 'middle way' between asceticism and hedonism, requires its follower to pursue:
right view (ie of the Cosmos and the place of humans in it)
right purpose (ie the essential moral energy to aspire to truth)
right speech (ie avoiding false or defamatory speech)
right bodily action (ie avoiding excessive sensuality, theft or aggression)
right livelihood (ie occupations harmless to other living things)
right effort (ie constant endeavour to cultivate virtue and avoid vice)
right sensitivity (ie constant self-awareness)
right concentration (ie meditating to focus one's consciousness)
The congregation for the first sermon became the first five Buddhist monks, the core of the sangha (community) committed to living out and communicating his truth (in Sanskrit, dharma).
The Buddha devoted the rest of his life to teaching and died at eighty (more strictly speaking he is regarded as having been finally released into nirvana from the round of rebirth). After his cremation his relics were shared among the states and cities which had built monasteries to shelter members of the sangha.
Early Buddhism avoided representing the Buddha in human form, perhaps to avoid the implication of compromising his transcendence. Instead it focused his devotions on such devices as the stupa (monument built over a holy relic), the bodhi tree (under which Gautama received his enlightenment), the parasol (denoting kingly status and hence power) and the wheel (denoting the endless cycle of reincarnation through a multitude of existences). The conventions of Buddha imagery were probably established in second-century India and incorporate the thirty-two charachteristics by which it was held a Buddha could be recognised - a mark on the forehead, a proturberant top-knot of hair, a sharply-curved nose, distinctive creases in the flesh of the throat etc. Buddha images are usually depicted making formalised hand-gestures (mudras) which symbolise events in his life or aspects of his nature.
The oldest Japanese of Buddha is dated at 606. Buddha has been worshipped in Japan in various manifestations, depending on sectarian interpretations of the scriptures. Among the most common are:
Amida - Buddha of the Pure Land or Western Paradise
Yakushi - Amida's eastern, earthly counterpart, a healer
Miroku - Maitreya, the 'friendly one,' Buddha of the Future
Dainichi Nyorai (Sanskrit Vairocana) - Great Illuminator Buddha
Kannon (Chinese Guan Yin) - a bodhisattva of Amida, can take various forms (eg eleven-headed, thousand-armed) and in modern times has become feminised as a 'Goddess of Mercy'
Jizo - another bodhisattva, in the form of a shaven-headed monk; often represented as a group of six, representing the six levels of creation (angels, demons, humans, animals etc). A patron saint of those in need of comfort - children, travellers and pregnant women.
Recognising the varying abilities of human beings to grasp the truth of its teachings Buddhism makes different demands on its followers, requiring more of monks, for example, than of lay followers. Laymen are normally expected to maintain an upright personal charachter (giving alms and avoiding viciousness, violence and mind-clouding stimulants), observe holy days and festivals and fulfil their obligations to society as a student, parent, worker, neighbour and friend. Monks were traditionally lrequired to live by begging, wearing clothes made from discarded cloth and observing celibacy. Modern Japanese monks are often sophisticated men with sophisticated tastes.