Ancient History & Civilisation


Religion in Japan—The transformation of Buddhism—The priests—Sceptics

That same devotion which speaks in patriotism and love, in affection for parents, children, mate and fatherland, inevitably sought in the universe as a whole some central power to which it might attach itself in loyalty, and through which it might derive some value and significance larger than one person, and more lasting than one life. The Japanese are only a moderately religious people—not profoundly and overwhelmingly religious like the Hindus, nor passionately and fanatically religious like the tortured saints of medieval Catholicism or the warring saints of the Reformation; and yet they are distinctly more given to piety and prayer, and a happy-ending philosophy, than their sceptical cousins across the Yellow Sea.

Buddhism came from its founder a cloud of pessimistic exhortation, inviting men to death; but under the skies of Japan it was soon transformed into a cult of protecting deities, pleasant ceremonies, joyful festivals, Rousseauian pilgrimages, and a consoling paradise. It is true that there were hells too in Japanese Buddhism—indeed, one hundred and twenty-eight of them, designed for every purpose and enemy. There was a world of demons as well as of saints, and a personal Devil (Oni) with horns, flat nose, claws and fangs; he lived in some dark, northeastern realm, to which he would, now and then, lure women to give him pleasure, or men to provide him with proteins.92 But on the other hand there were Bodhisattwas ready to transfer to human beings a portion of the grace they had accumulated by many incarnations of virtuous living; and there were gracious deities, like Our Lady Kwannon and the Christlike Jizo, who were the very essence of divine tenderness. Worship was only partly by prayer at the household altars and the temple shrines; a large part of it consisted of merry processions in which religion was subordinated to gayety, and piety took the form of feminine fashion-displays and masculine revelry. The more serious devotee might cleanse his spirit by praying for a quarter of an hour under a waterfall in the depth of winter; or he might go on pilgrimages from shrine to shrine of his sect, meanwhile feasting his soul on the beauty of his native land. For the Japanese could choose among many varieties of Buddhism: he might seek self-realization and bliss through the quiet practices of Zen (“meditation”); he might follow the fiery Nichiren into the Lotus Sect, and find salvation through learning the “Lotus Law”; he might join the Spirit Sect, and fast and pray until Buddha appeared to him in the flesh; he might be comforted by the Sect of the Pure Land, and be saved by faith alone; or he might find his way in patient pilgrimage to the monastery of Koyasan, and attain paradise by being buried in ground made holy by the bones of Kobo Daishi, the great scholar, saint and artist who, in the ninth century, had founded Shingon, the Sect of the True Word.

All in all, Japanese Buddhism was one of the pleasantest of man’s myths. It conquered Japan peacefully, and complaisantly found room, within its theology and its pantheon, for the doctrines and deities of Shinto: Buddha was amalgamated with Amaterasu, and a modest place was set apart, in Buddhist temples, for a Shinto shrine. The Buddhist priests of the earlier centuries were men of devotion, learning and kindliness, who profoundly influenced and advanced Japanese letters and arts; some of them were great painters or sculptors, and some were scholars whose painstaking translation of Buddhist and Chinese literature proved a fertile stimulus to the cultural development of Japan. Success, however, ruined the later priests; many became lazy and greedy (note the jolly caricatures so often made of them by Japanese carvers in ivory or wood); and some traveled so far from Buddha as to organize their own armies for the establishment or maintenance of political power.93 Since they were providing the first necessity of life—a consolatory hope—their industry flourished even when others decayed; their wealth grew from century to century, while the poverty of the people remained.94 The priests assured the faithful that a man of forty could purchase another decade of life by paying forty temples to say masses in his name; at fifty he could buy ten years more by engaging fifty temples; at sixty years sixty temples—and so till, through insufficient piety, he died.*95 Under the Tokugawa regime the monks drank bibulously, kept mistresses candidly, practised pederasty, and sold the cozier places in the hierarchy to the highest bidders.96

During the eighteenth century Buddhism seems to have lost its hold upon the nation; the shoguns went over to Confucianism, Mabuchi and Moto-ori led a movement for the restoration of Shinto, and scholars like Ichikawa and Arai Hakuseki attempted a rationalist critique of religious belief. Ichikawa argued boldly that verbal tradition could never be quite as trustworthy as written record; that writing had not come to Japan until almost a thousand years after the supposed origin of the islands and their inhabitants from the spear-drops and loins of the gods; that the claim of the imperial family to divine origin was merely a political device; and that if the ancestors of men were not human beings they were much more likely to have been animals than gods.99 The civilization of the old Japan, like so many others, had begun with religion and was ending with philosophy.

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