Things Japanese/Buddhism

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Buddhism. Many writers, from St. Francis Xavier downwards, have drawn attention to the superficial resemblances between the Buddhistic and the Roman Catholic ceremonial,—the flowers on the altar, the candles, the incense, the shaven heads of the priests, the rosaries, the images, the processions. In point of dogma, a whole world of thought separates Buddhism from every form of Christianity. Knowledge, enlightenment, is the condition of Buddhistic grace, not faith. Self-perfectionment is the means of salvation, not the vicarious sufferings of a Redeemer. Not eternal life is the end, and active participation in unceasing praise and thanksgiving, but absorption into Nirvana (Jap. Nehan), practical annihilation. For Buddhism teaches that existence is itself an evil, springing from the double root of ignorance and the passions. In logical conformity with this tenet, it ignores the existence of a supreme God and Creator of worlds. There are, it is true, gods in the cosmogony which Buddhism inherited from Brahminism; but they are less important than the Hotoke, or Buddhas—men, that is, who have toiled upward through successive stages of existence to the calm of perfect holiness. In fact, philosophically speaking, two systems could hardly stand in more glaring contrast, though it is true that in the lives of quiet, pious folk not given to speculation or to the logical following out of the faith that is in them, the practical result of both may often coincide.

These few remarks are designed merely to point the reader along the true path of enquiry. It does not, of course, fall within the scope of a manual devoted to things Japanese to analyse the doctrines and practices of the great and complicated Indian religion, which, commencing with the birth of the Buddha Shaka Muni in the year B.C. 1027 (so say the Chinese and Japanese Buddhists, but European scholars prefer the date B.C. 653), gradually became the main factor in the religious life of all Eastern Asia.

Japan received Buddhism from Korea, whither it had spread from China. The account which the native history books give of the introduction of Buddhism into Japan is that a golden image of Buddha and some scrolls of the sutras were presented to the Mikado Kimmei by the King of Hyakusai, one of the Korean states, in A.D. 552. The Mikado inclined to the acceptance of the new religion; but the majority of his council, conservative Shintoists, persuaded him to reject the image from his Court. The golden Buddha was accordingly conferred upon one Soga-no-Iname, who turned his country-house into the first Buddhist temple existing on the soil of Japan. A pestilence, which shortly broke out, was attributed by the partisans of the old religion to this foreign innovation. The temple was razed to the ground; but such dire calamities followed on this act of sacrilege that it was soon allowed to be rebuilt. Buddhist monks and nuns then flocked over from Korea in ever-increasing numbers. Shōtoku Taishi, who was prince regent under the Empress Suiko from A.D. 593 to 621, himself attained almost to the rank of Buddhist saintship; and from that time forward the new religion became established as the chief religion of the land, though Shintō was never entirely suppressed. All education was for centuries in Buddhist hands, as was the care of the poor and sick; Buddhism introduced art, introduced medicine, moulded the folk-lore of the country, created its dramatic poetry, deeply influenced politics and every sphere of social and intellectual activity. In a word, Buddhism was the teacher under whose instruction the Japanese nation grew up. As a nation, they are now grossly forgetful of this fact. Ask an educated Japanese a question about Buddhism, and ten to one he will smile in your face,—a hundred to one that he knows nothing about the subject, and glories in his nescience.

Chinese and Korean Buddhism was already broken up into numerous sects and sub-sects when it reached Japan,—sects, too, all of which had come to differ very widely in their teaching from that of the purer, simpler Southern Buddhism of Ceylon and Siam. Japanese Buddhism follows what is termed the "Greater Vehicle" (Sanskrit Mahâyâna, Jap. Daijō), which contains many unwarranted accretions to the original teaching of the Buddha.[1] The most powerful sects now existing in japan are the Tendai, Shingon, Jōdo, and Zen, which are of Chinese origin, the Shin (also called Ikkō or Monto), and the Nichiren or Hokke, both native Japanese sects dating from the thirteenth century. The Nichiren sect is the most bigoted, the Shingon the most superstitious. The Monto has been compared to Protestantism, because it allows its priests to marry, and teaches the doctrine of justification by faith in Amida[2] alone. The Zen is the most interesting of all to the student of Japanese sociology, on account of its close connection with the cultivation of poetry and the arts.

The complicated metaphysics of Buddhism have awakened little interest in the Japanese nation. Another fact, curious but true, is that these people have never been at the trouble to translate the Buddhist canon into their own language. The priests use a Chinese version, the laity no version at all nowadays, though—to judge from allusions scattered up and down Japanese literature—they would seem to have been more given to searching the scriptures a few hundred years ago. The Buddhist religion was disestablished and disendowed during the years 1871-4, a step taken in consequence of the temporary ascendency of Shintō. More recently a faint struggle has been carried on by the Buddhist priesthood against rivals in comparison with whom Shintō is insignificant: we mean the two great streams of European thought, Christianity and physical science. A few a very few men trained in European methods fight for the Buddhist cause. They do so, not as orthodox believers in any existing sect, but because they are convinced that the philosophical contents of Buddhism in general are supported by the doctrine of evolution, and that this religion needs therefore only to be regenerated on modern lines in order to find universal acceptance.

Books recommended. Developments of Japanese Buddhism, by Rev. A. Lloyd in the "Asiatic Transactions," Vol. XXII. Part III.—Buddhism, by Rhys Davids, though published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is quite free from Christian prejudice.—A brief outline of Japanese Buddhism is given in recent editions of Murray's Handbook for Japan, together with a descriptive list of the most popular gods and goddesses. Students should consult Eitel's invaluable Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionary, also entitled Handbook for Students of Chinese Buddhism. The tenets and the devotional literature of the Shin sect have been treated of by James Troup in Vols. XIV. and XVII. of the "Asiatic Transactions" (the paper in the latter being entitled The Gobunshō). This sect curiously illustrates the fact that a religion may, with the lapse of time and by passing from nation to nation, end by becoming almost the exact contrary of what it was at starting. At first sight, one would imagine the Shin sect to be a travesty of Christianity rather than a development of Buddhism.—See also the "Asiatic Transactions," Vol. XXX. Part II. p. 291, and an article by Dr. L. Busse in Part 50 of the "German Asiatic Transactions."

  1. This view of Southern Buddhism as the purer has the support of most European investigators. It is, however, not endorsed by Mr. Lloyd, quoted below as the first authority on Japanese Buddhism, who not unnaturally follows the lead of his Japanese instructors.
  2. A deity dwelling in a lovely paradise to the west. Originally he was an abstraction, the ideal of boundless light.