Thursday, 6 October 2011

New notes from Japan (4): Pure Land, Green Shinto

The Nishi Hongan-ji is one of the most influential and wealthy Buddhist temples in the country. It is a large temple complex, located near Kyoto Central Station. It is the head temple of the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) school of Buddhism. Founded in the thirteenth century by Shinran (1173-1263) as a popular religious mass movement, it has grown to become the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan, and has also spread to a number of other countries. However, with its focus on salvation through devotion to Amida Buddha - who will allow the righteous to be reborn in his paradise - it is profoundly different from the individualistic, non-theistic type of Buddhism commonly advocated and practised in Europe and the US. 

These days, Nishi Hongan-ji anticipates a number of events to celebrate the legendary founder's 750th death anniversary, which will be attended by thousands of people. Next to the main gate is a large portrait of him, completely made of plastic pet bottle caps collected by school children all over the country. The temple precincts are full of chairs, hundreds if not thousands. They are empty, for the time being, but they are clearly awaiting some great event. All of them are wet, today.

In the main hall, a few young priests recite prayers to Amida Buddha. Afterwards, one of them gives a short sermon to the twenty-or-so people attending the meeting. "What is the best thing of travelling?" he asks rhetorically. "Is it the food, is it the sightseeing, or perhaps the hot springs? No, the best thing is that, after your journey, you have a home where you can return to. If you don't have a home, I doubt whether you can really enjoy travelling." Our lives, he continues, are like journeys. Amida's Pure Land is the home where we will one day return to. It is a short sermon, only ten minutes. The monk is too young to know much about life yet, and he has a strange accent. Nevertheless, I really like it, having had similar thoughts myself. I am not sure whether 'home' corresponds fully to notions of Amida's paradise, though.

The stereotypical Japanese layperson is remarkably eclectic in her ritual practices - she visits shrines on a number of occasions as a baby and a young child, prays to the deities of education in order to pass her exams and the deities of love to find a suitable partner, gets married in a Christian church, reads esoteric spirituality books every now and then, prays at shrines and temples for good fortune yet would not call this behaviour 'religious', is not quite sure if God/gods exist(s), offers incense and fruit to deceased ancestors at the family altar and rice to the kitchen deities, is cremated and guided in the right direction by Buddhist monks after she dies, yet may in the following years occasionally communicate with her living children through a shaman. And does not experience any of this as inconsistent.

The stereotypical Japanese layperson does not exist, however, that is why we call her stereotypical. Moreover, many Japanese people may be practically eclectic, but that does not mean such behaviour is approved of by religious institutions. Historically, Pure Land Buddhist monks and Shinto shrine priests have not always been good friends, to put it mildly. Whereas most other Buddhist denominations have incorporated a variety of practices based on the worship of local deities, and some temples even merged with shrines, Pure Land Buddhism has remained fairly exclusivistic - at least to Japanese standards. Unlike some other branches of Buddhism, it is primarily a salvation religion, whose raison d'être lies in the uniqueness of its truth claims. As such, it is more reminiscent of Christianity or Islam than of, say, Shinto or Taoism.

This is not, therefore, the first place where one would expect to find a scholar studying Shinto. Yet this is where I am, today, for I am visiting a professor working at Ryūkoku University. Founded in 1639 as a school for Buddhist monks, it became a private university in the late nineteenth century, and its main campus is located right next to Nishi Hongan-ji. The professor I am meeting today is not affiliated with Pure Land Buddhism, however. He teaches English literature, and has written a couple of books on Japanese cultural history, but the reason I am meeting him is because of his personal interest in Shinto. He has started an English-language weblog, Green Shinto, on which he posts accounts of shrine visits, reviews of books on Shinto and interviews with international Shinto priests. Thus, he hopes to contribute to the spread of Shinto abroad as a universal environmentalist religion based on nature worship and a celebration of life. 
If you are interested, please have a look at his weblog. Do bear in mind, though, that while it represents a particular current in Shinto (internationally and ecologically oriented) that seems to be growing in influence, these ideas are not necessarily shared by the Japanese mainstream, which remains fairly conservative. Nevertheless, he is an interesting man who writes passionately about Shinto and environmental issues, and his weblog is well worth a look.

Today, we have a very nice conversation, which we will hopefully continue in the future. Kyoto is a city full of interesting people and places, and I am looking forward to more such inspiring encounters.

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